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“And I still think that you would be a great SLYTHERIN!”

The Sorting Hat said that when it fell onto Harry’s head in the Chamber. Harry didn’t pay it much attention at the time. He was rather busy trying not to die.

But now, in Dumbledore’s office, with Ginny still alive and safe, and Tom Riddle defeated, and the Sword of Gryffindor returned to its proper place, the Sorting Hat is speaking to Dumbledore and Snape, and it’s, it keeps insisting that what it said is right.

“I should never have let him argue with me in the first place,” says the Sorting Hat gruffly, twisting around on the shelf where Dumbledore has placed it so its mouth is pointing at Harry. “I thought about it for the last two years. I almost never let other children who argue with me go into different Houses. Why should I let him? And now I know that he’ll make a good one.”

“No,” Harry says. He doesn’t care that he aches all over and there’s still some blood on the hem of his robe where his basilisk wound bled. “No, Headmaster. Please, I can’t be a Slytherin.” He refuses to look at Snape, who leans against the doorway like a monster’s shadow. “I can’t go there.”

“So above my House, Potter?”

“I think we should at least listen to Harry’s reasons, Severus.”

It fills Harry with an enormous, crushing relief, to hear those words. He stares right into Dumbledore’s eyes and says fiercely, “Slytherin is full of people who hate me. What am I going to have to do, watch my back every minute of every day? They’ll play pranks on me and steal my things. They hated me even before a lot of people thought I was the Heir of Slytherin. Now they’ll hate me more because I destroyed Slytherin’s basilisk. So I need to stay out of there.”

“It is a compelling argument,” Dumbledore agrees, smoothing a hand down his beard. Harry sags in his chair. “Where a student’s personal safety is concerned—”

“I think you’ll find that you have no say, Albus,” the Sorting Hat interrupts, and it sounds smug. “Haven’t you noticed the way the crest on Mr. Potter’s robes has changed? And his trunk and other belongings are in the dungeons. And so is an extra bed.”

Harry is tired and at the end of his rope, and it’s the only reason he can think of for what he screams at the Hat next. “So you don’t care if I die? Or at least get bullied? You just think it’ll be, what, good for me? You’re as bad as Aunt Petunia! Except I stopped believing her when she said things were for my own good when I was six, and you—and you—”

Harry sinks back into his chair and puts his hands over his face. His shoulders are shaking. He shivers. He feels as though the basilisk’s cold poison is still pumping through him, but this time, he’s scared because he won’t die.

Into the silence, both Snape and the Sorting Hat try to speak at the same time. Snape falls silent first, though. Harry feels so dull that he can’t even smile about that right now. “Of course not, Harry. Please let me assure you that I would never have done this if I thought you would be seriously in danger.” It hesitates for a second, and then continues, “I am linked to the ancient magic of the school. I can feel shifts in belief among the student body. It’s one reason that some years a few Muggleborns go into Slytherin and other years none do. I can feel whether it would be too dangerous for them that year, or not.”

Harry hesitates. He wants to argue, but he did notice that last year no Muggleborns went into Slytherin and this year a few did. He drops his hands and stares resentfully at the Hat. “And what, they don’t hate me for defeating Voldemort anymore?”

“I would say that some of them still dislike you for that,” says the Sorting Hat. “But they don’t hate you, no. And it started when you revealed that you were a Parselmouth.”

“But I made Malfoy look bad. And he’s important in Slytherin.”

“Most of them don’t consider that you did that on purpose. It only happened at all because he was the one to summon the snake.” The Sorting Hat twists around a little and winks a fold of itself at Harry. “And a Parselmouth belongs in Slytherin.”

“Yeah, that’s what the rest of the school thinks, too.” Harry brushes his hand over the bloody snake crest on the front of his robes. “They’re going to think they were right. The Hufflepuffs. The Slytherins. That I’m evil.”

“Slytherins are not evil,” says Snape in the kind of snide voice he’s always using on Neville.

“We will make it clear that the basilisk is dead and there are going to be no more petrifying incidents,” says Dumbledore. He’s leaning one hand on his desk and stretching the other out to Harry. His eyes are so kind. Harry wishes he could believe it would be all right. “Your friends are being woken up as we speak, Harry. The school will accept you again.”

Harry says nothing. He wants to think that, but the Hat could be mistaken about at least some people. What if it’s only right about, say, sixty percent of Slytherin? That leaves the other forty percent to make Harry’s life miserable.

“I did not mean that a Parselmouth belongs in Slytherin because it’s a Dark Art,” says the Sorting Hat. “I mean that the Slytherins think a Parselmouth belongs there. They’ve always thought so, but it’s been mostly a passive opinion for years, because there were none for so long. Now there’s you. You will have a welcome place there, Harry Potter. They can be proud of you.”

Harry turns his head without meaning to to look at Snape. No matter how much the other Slytherins come to accept him, there are two who never will: Snape and Malfoy.

Snape only tilts his head as if he was imitating Harry. He has his arms folded, but his face is neutral. Harry sighs. He wishes he could think that meant something good for him, but Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia sometimes look the same way when they’re ordering him to his cupboard.

He thought Hogwarts was going to be an escape from the Dursleys. Now he realizes how much is similar.

“You will survive there.”

“That’s not the same as having fun or really enjoying myself,” Harry says dully, and stands up. He reckons that they’re going to the Slytherin common room, and Snape is going to introduce him to his new “Housemates.” Harry probably won’t even get to see Hermione this evening. Or Ginny, who’s already been bustled off to the hospital wing.

“You will do that, too.”

Harry gives the Sorting Hat a doubtful glance he can’t help as he follows Snape out. He reminds himself to call the man Professor Snape now, and not just because Dumbledore wants him to. He’ll probably be absolutely merciless to any Slytherin who doesn’t.

Slytherin. Slimy Slytherin. I can’t believe that’s me, now.

Harry thinks some more about it as he and Snape ride the moving staircase down from Dumbledore’s office. He supposes that Snape won’t take any more points from Harry in Potions, now, because he never does from his own House, but that doesn’t mean he won’t assign detentions. He sometimes does that even to Slytherins.

And he’ll be harder on me. He’ll find some excuse. He’ll think that the Sorting Hat’s lying, or he’ll be angry because I wasn’t jumping for joy about being Sorted there.

“Why did you try to avoid Slytherin when the Hat first wanted to place you there?”

Harry starts. To his surprise, they’re not going towards the dungeons. Snape has turned towards the infirmary instead. Harry wonders if he wants to pick up some potions from Madam Pomfrey.

“Mr. Potter. I am waiting for an answer.”

Snape’s eyes are still neutral, but not his voice. Oh, so it’s starting already. Harry answers as carefully as he could. “I’d met Malfoy on the train. The first thing he did was insult Ron and tell me I needed to know the right sort of people. And I knew he wanted to be in Slytherin, and I knew Hagrid told me Voldemort—”

Snape’s hand shoots out and fastens on Harry’s shoulder. Harry doesn’t flinch. He got over that years ago when Uncle Vernon used to grab him there. Snape stares down at him piercingly.

“You will find that it is not a wise move to address the Dark Lord by his name.”

Well, Harry’s going to be damned if he calls Voldemort the bloody Dark Lord. He takes another breath and tries, “Hagrid told me that You-Know-Who came from there. Why would I want to be in the same House as someone who killed my parents? Sir.”

Snape studies him, and then lets Harry’s shoulder go and continues walking towards the hospital wing. “How long did you know Mr. Weasley before Mr. Malfoy insulted him?”

Harry thinks back. It’s hard to be sure. “Ten minutes, maybe.”

“And you immediately leaped to the conclusion of where you wanted to spend seven years based on a ten-minute acquaintance?”

“Ron is the first friend I ever had.”

Snape recoils from him. It’s probably that friendship is poison to great bloody gits, Harry thinks. It’s satisfying. He doesn’t expect to get much satisfaction in the next five years, so he’ll take what he can get.

“You—that is not true.”

“My relatives weren’t my friends. My cousin kept any other kids away from me in school, and my relatives told everyone that I was a horrible person who made trouble all the time and was going to attend a school for criminal boys. What was I supposed to do?”

Snape only stares at him some more, and then turns around again. Harry follows with a faint sigh. Snape probably doesn’t believe him. No one ever does when he tells them about the Dursleys.

“That will change,” Snape says over his shoulder.

“I won’t stop being friends with Ron just because I’m a Slytherin.”

“I did not mean—I meant that you will have more friends among your new House than you think.”

That doesn’t seem worth responding to, so Harry doesn’t. They don’t say anything else all the way to the hospital wing, in fact. When they come in, Snape lets a hand hover behind his back, and Harry moves away from it, which means he moves in the direction of a bed instead of the small crowd around Ginny and Hermione.

“Another student to check over, Madam Pomfrey,” Snape says in the kind of cool voice Harry hates the most, as if nothing matters more than whatever he’s saying.

Madam Pomfrey starts to turn towards him, and Harry immediately shakes his head and pulls up his sleeve so that she can see the clean scar on his arm. “I’m fine. Fawkes came, and his tears healed the wound.”

“But you were wounded.” Madam Pomfrey comes over and bends over the scar like a bird over a worm. “What happened?”

“The basilisk bit me, and then I would have died of the venom, except that Fawkes came along and cried on me,” Harry explains. He wishes the adults would stop staring at him like he’s Fluffy and has three heads. After last year, when he literally burned Quirrell to death with the touch of his hands, why is this any more unbelievable?

“Get on that bed right now, young man.” Madam Pomfrey sounds some strange mixture of frightened and frustrated as she bustles back to her office. Harry sighs and does it, but he can’t help looking hopefully over at Hermione and Ginny. Maybe one of them will need attention and distract Madam Pomfrey.

Then he sees the way Snape is leaning against the doorway of the hospital wing with his arms folded and his gaze focused on Harry. Harry stares at him. “Didn’t you come here to get some potions, sir?”

“Indeed, I did not. I came to escort you.”

Harry looks away and massages his forehead. He doesn’t understand. Yes, he’s been Sorted into Slytherin because the Hat said so and it can sod off, but that doesn’t stop Snape from hating him. Now he’s acting like Harry—

Oh. Of course. Not like he cares about Harry, but like he thinks Harry will run off before he can get him to the dungeons. Harry relaxes a little. That makes more sense.

“A Headache Draught as well, Poppy.”

“My head doesn’t hurt!” Harry snaps, and meets Snape glare for glare when he looks at Harry. “I’m rubbing my scar—”

“Because it hurts, Mr. Potter?”

Ron comes over from the crowd around Ginny’s bed before Harry can answer. His eyes are wide and he’s so grateful-looking that Harry flinches a little. He knows what’s going to happen when Ron catches a glimpse of his tie, and it—

Then Ron does, and stops like he’s being hit.

“What’s going on?” he whispers, not yelling like he usually would.

“The Hat Sorted me into Slytherin when it landed on my head in the Chamber,” Harry says, and can’t help reaching out a hand. Ron hasn’t rejected him yet, but he looks sickly, and Harry doesn’t think all of that comes from the thing with Ginny. “It wanted to put me there first year, but I chose Gryffindor. I chose it. And I don’t want to be Slytherin! I don’t, Ron.”

“That is immaterial, Mr. Potter. Slytherin is your House.”

“But our choices make us what we are,” Harry says, and turns to Snape, and he’s shaking a little. The last thing he wants is to have some kind of breakdown in front of Ron—especially since Ron is looking more and more alarmed. He’s been through enough, with Ginny. “So my choice makes me Gryffindor.”

“That’s right,” Ron says, and he’s glaring at Snape. Harry smiles at him in relief. At least, when Snape assigns them both detention, they’ll be together.

But Snape doesn’t snap the way Harry thought he would. He only watches Harry calmly, and makes him take the Headache Draught when Madam Pomfrey comes back with it, even though Harry doesn’t want to. Then he casts a few spells Harry doesn’t recognize, but which make his skin glow red. He wonders if Snape is planning to cook him.

“Malnourished,” Snape is murmuring, as if to himself. “On the edge of magical exhaustion. Stressed—that would be normal. Aftereffects of the poison.’

“But Fawkes healed the wound,” Harry objects, and flinches a little when Snape looks down his nose at him. He tells himself not to, though. This is more like the Snape he expected, and the more normally Snape behaves, the sooner things can go back to normal.

“A shock like basilisk venom being introduced into a body does not go away simply because the wound is healed,” Snape says. Already his voice is sliding back towards that neutral one that unnerves Harry so much. “You will have to be on a course of soothing potions for some time. As well as nutrition potions.”

Harry says nothing. For the first time in his life, he feels almost glad that he’ll go back to the Dursleys soon, if only to spite Snape. He’d like to see Snape persuade the Dursleys to let him take potions.

“I will brew the potions and bring them to you in the morning,” Snape says, and then begins to walk around the bed. Harry twists to keep him in sight, but it becomes obvious that Snape wants him to stand up and walk out. Harry does so, reluctantly. He doesn’t think anything will keep them from going to the dungeons now. “Say good-bye to your friends, Potter.”

Harry clenches his jaw. He’s not going to obey Snape, as much as he can help it. He’s a Gryffindor. “Good night,” he says to Ron. “See you tomorrow.” He glances at the commotion around Hermione’s and Ginny’s beds, but it’s still too frantic. “Tell Hermione I’ll see her as soon as I can. And say hi to Ginny for me.”

Ron grabs him a tight, one-armed hug. “Thanks for saving her, mate.”

“He should not have had to. Children should not have to save children in this school.”

“I’m glad I did,” Harry says, and hugs Ron back, and follows Snape down to the dungeons where he’s pretty sure half of Slytherin will beat him up.

*

They’ve arrived at the Slytherin common room door before Snape speaks again. And then he makes a whole speech while facing the blank stone wall, again sounding more as if he was talking to himself than as if he was talking to Harry.

“I realize that you are apprehensive about the way your new Housemates will treat you. Do not be. The Sorting Hat is right. There is reverence for Parselmouths here, and true understanding of the gift. That alone will protect you.” He takes no notice when Harry snorts. Gift, right. “There is even a certain faction of your yearmates who approached me after you revealed you were a Parselmouth in the Great Hall, wondering why you had not been Sorted here already. After hearing that the Hat had wanted to, now I understand.”

He turns around. Harry stares at him and tries to make his face as blank as possible. Not that it helps all that much against the unnerving feeling that Snape can read his mind.

“I bet Malfoy wasn’t one of the ones who came and talked to you,” Harry says, since Snape seems to want him to respond.

A faint glimmer of a smile touches the corner of Snape’s mouth. “You would be correct.” Then Snape leans forwards, and his expression is so intent that Harry wonders if he imagined the smile.

Well, of course he did. As if Snape would ever smile at him.

“But even Mr. Malfoy’s attitude will change, now,” Snape says quietly. “You opened the Chamber of Secrets. You are a Parselmouth. You stopped a monster that even some of my students were frightened of. You have a much—greater recklessness than you should have, but in this case, you saved not only Gryffindor students.”

Harry raises his head higher. “Malfoy was delighted that people were being Petrified. He said he wished he knew who the Heir of Slytherin was so he could help them rid the school of Mudbloods. Sir.”

“And Mr. Malfoy was appropriately disciplined for saying that word.”

“By who? He said it to Hermione, and—”

“The Head of Slytherin House sometimes handles matters in private, Mr. Potter. You will find that out now that you are one of us.”

Harry stiffens. “If you intend to beat me, sir—”

“Such a method is too vulgar for me,” Snape says, and Harry’s honestly not sure if he means that or not. “You will find out that certain things look different now that you have a snake on your crest, Mr. Potter.”

“I’m not going to give up my friends.”

“But they may give you up.”

Harry winces and says nothing. He doesn’t think it’s going to happen with Ron; at least, he hopes not. And he doesn’t think Hermione or the twins would ever care. But what is the rest of his House going to think now that he’s not playing with their Quidditch team anymore? And Neville gets so frightened of Slytherins sometimes. What will he think now that Harry’s one?

That’s another thing, actually, a thing Harry can use to drive away the fear. “I’m not playing for the Slytherin team next year.”

“Neither will you be playing for the Gryffindor one,” Snape says, and pauses and studies him again. Harry still tries to stand tall under it. “I will tell you this, Potter. I would question the wisdom of the Hat’s decision, but you are a Parselmouth. You share our Founder’s gift. There is a degree of reverence for that that you will find nowhere else. Give it a chance. No one here will hurt you.”

Harry is so incredulous he just stares at Snape with his mouth open. Snape doesn’t even act like he notices. He turns around and says, “Ad astra.”

The door slides open the way it did when Ron and Harry were here Polyjuiced as Crabbe and Goyle, and Harry steps in. The whole of Slytherin House, or what looks like it, is in the middle of the common room, staring at him. Malfoy’s off to one side, arms folded and looking stuffy. Snape must have told them about this before he got here, Harry thinks faintly, although he doesn’t know how.

Snape steps up behind him. He doesn’t touch Harry—which is good, or Harry would have to run screaming—but he does loom there. “Mr. Potter is your Housemate now,” he says. “You know what he is. You will treat him with the respect he merits.”

He says that like it’s simple fact, and one of the Slytherin boys nods and moves forwards, holding his hand out. Harry looks at him hard. He has dark skin and dark hair and eyes, and at least he’s not one of Malfoy’s cronies. “Blaise Zabini,” he introduces himself. Harry remembers the name just before he says it.

Harry hesitates a long time. Accepting being Slytherin still feels like a betrayal of Ron.

Zabini just goes on looking at him, and Malfoy huffs a little. It’s the thought of proving Malfoy right—he probably told them all that Harry wouldn’t take anyone’s hand because he refused that git’s—which finally makes Harry shake Zabini’s hand. Zabini nods, and shifts out of the way, and two Slytherin girls Harry barely knows comes up.

They introduce themselves as Tracey Davis and Daphne Greengrass, and then there’s Theodore Nott, who Harry sort of knows, and a few Slytherin first-years, and Marcus Flint comes over and grunts something and half-crushes Harry’s hand, and at least Harry knows him. There aren’t as many others who are that forward, but at least they don’t sound or look like they’re about to beat him up.

And Malfoy is scowling, which has to be a good thing.

“I shall leave your new Housemate in your capable hands,” Snape speaks up, and nods to them all before he departs. Harry swallows and lifts his chin.

They’re staring at him. They might respect him, enough not to immediately attack, but Harry has the feeling that he’s going to have to earn whatever other respect they have.

“Where am I sleeping?” he asks, and decides to keep all his questions blunt and simple, like that. Less chance for someone to taunt him or twist his words around.

“Fancy not knowing that.”

“Shut up, Malfoy,” Zabini says, with the air of someone who says that every day, and almost startles a smile out of Harry. Zabini grins at him as if he saw it, and then waves Harry towards a silver spiral staircase that twists up one side of the room. “Second-year boys at the second floor from the top.”

Harry nods gravely and follows him. He can feel the stares do the same, and swallows a little. This is going to take some getting used to, and not even seeing his chest and Hedwig’s cage at the end of a Slytherin bed really prepares him for it.

“Hey, Potter.”

Harry glances over his shoulder. Zabini is the only one who’s come into the bedroom with him—no surprise, the bedroom is heavy on green and silver—and he lingers near the door of what looks like a brightly-polished bathroom.

“You’re welcome here,” Zabini says, and does this weird little bow thing that makes Harry feel more uncomfortable than not. “I mean it. Any Parselmouth would be, and I—I know what you did tonight and what it means.”

Does everyone know? Probably. Harry gives a smile he hopes is sincere. “Fine. But—please don’t bow. I don’t like it.”

Zabini stares at him, hard. Harry thinks he’s going to get scolded for lack of manners or something, but instead, Zabini arches his eyebrows up a little and looks even more impressed. “Okay. I can see that. Want to use the loo?”

Harry nods, and gathers up his toothbrush and pyjamas, and goes in. He studies his face in the bathroom mirror as he brushes his teeth. He’s not the same person as he was, but from this angle, he can’t see the Slytherin tie.

By the time he comes out and gets into bed, Crabbe, Goyle, and Malfoy are there. They give him hostile glances, but Nott moves in between Harry’s bed and theirs like it’s an accident, and Harry pulls the green curtains shut.

Harry lies there, and thinks about being at the bottom of the lake, and how the Hat didn’t listen to anything he said, and how it wasn’t his own choice that put him here, and maybe that means Dumbledore is wrong.

But he also thinks about Ron, and the determined look on his face when he said Harry was still his friend. And he thinks about Hermione, who is awake, and Ginny, who is alive.

Being in Slytherin won’t change who I am, he thinks, and closes his eyes. I won’t let it.

And maybe that means this won’t be so bad after all.

The End.

Chapter Text

Harry opens his eyes. Well, really, they spring open. He feels the way he did when he was in the cupboard under the stairs and Dudley was tromping down them above him.

He has green curtains around him.

Harry sits up quietly and reaches for his glasses. He can hear snorting, which isn’t really a surprise when he now shares a room with Crabbe and Goyle. He can also hear a soft rustling that might be someone turning over in their sheets, or reaching for a book.

He doesn’t plan on staying long enough to find out. He has to see Hermione and Ginny. He has to be sure they’re all right. And he wants them to find out the truth from him—if Ron hasn’t told them already—not just see him walking into breakfast with a Slytherin crest on his robes.

Harry’s robes from last night are still lying beside the bed, and Harry quickly drags them inside the curtains and changes. He grimaces at the crest and tie, but he really can’t do much about it, so he flips the curtains back, intent on escaping Slytherin as soon as possible.

Malfoy is sitting up in his bed, curtains open, staring at him.

For a minute, Harry recoils, but it’s not like Malfoy can really stop him. Harry glances at him without interest, makes sure he has his wand in his pocket, and then walks across the room and towards the door. Everyone else is still snoring.

“You’ll never be a real Slytherin!” Malfoy calls after him.

“That’s what I’m counting on,” Harry mutters, and doesn’t care if Malfoy hears. He slips out the door and down through the Slytherin common room, grimacing at the snakes on the walls and the filtered green light coming through the windows that look out on the lake. Honestly, Salazar Slytherin had depressing taste.

Harry steps briskly out into the corridor, and jumps when he sees who is waiting for him.

“Mr. Potter,” says Snape, folding his arms so that he looks almost like a statue of a Buddhist monk Harry saw once on the telly. “Do you mind telling me where you are going?”

Yes, I do. But Harry still has to live with Snape as his Head of House for—God knows how long, and so he manages to blink and hold his tongue the way he sometimes does at the Dursleys’. “Just going to see my friends, Professor.”

“They are still in the hospital wing. Did you intend to walk all that way alone?”

“Well, yes,” Harry says, a little baffled. He thought Snape might get angry about Harry leaving so early, but not about him walking alone. What? “The basilisk’s been defeated, sir. I’m safe.”

“Did you not think that your former Housemates might treat you badly now that your allegiance has changed?” Snape pivots to walk alongside him as Harry starts up towards the hospital wing, tired of this conversation.

“No.”

“I think you may be underestimating how much Gryffindor enjoyed having you as part of their House.”

Harry manages not to flinch and glance sideways, but it’s a near thing. Snape almost sounded like he was complimenting Harry there. But, of course, it’s really an insult to Gryffindor. Once Harry thinks about it in that sense, then he can see the insult in it. He shrugs a little. “They’ll get over it, sir.”

“But not right away.”

There just seems nothing to be said in response to that, Harry thinks. It’s like trying to have a conversation with Uncle Vernon: he knows when to give up. He walks, and Snape drifts along beside him like a bad smell, except that he goes in front of Harry to enter the hospital wing. Harry shakes his head. He will never understand Snape.

The first thing Harry sees is Hermione sitting up in bed. He runs towards her and holds out his hands. She ignores that and hugs him as hard as she can, making Harry oof a bit. Falling rubble must have hit him or something.

Snape tries to say something, but it’s buried beneath Hermione’s squeal. “You’re in Slytherin?”

Harry only nods, and says, “Yeah. It’s—the way it is.” All the honest things he wants to say will have to wait for when Snape isn’t there. “You were brilliant, by the way. We never would have figured out it was a basilisk without you.”

Hermione blushes and then sighs. “Not careful enough, with the way I got taken off-guard like that.”

Harry grins. “I said you were brilliant, not careful!”

“Perhaps a problem for Gryffindors in general.”

Hermione pauses, but Harry won’t let Snape ruin the moment by being his un-understandable self. “Anyway,” he says. “How’s Ginny?” One glance was enough to tell him she was still asleep, and he thinks he knows why. She might not have got bitten by the basilisk, but she was drained so badly by Tom Riddle. It must be like being eaten.

“She woke up and ate a little last night,” Hermione says, giving Ginny’s bed a concerned glance, too. “And she apologized a lot to her mum and dad. They had to go home for the night, but I think they’ll come back soon.” She shakes her head, and Harry can see everything he feels in her eyes, too. “I can’t believe I didn’t notice.”

“No one did,” Harry says softly, and squeezes Hermione’s hand. “Her brothers, either. I mean, I think Percy thought she was homesick or something, but that’s a long way from knowing she was possessed by an evil diary.”

Hermione nods. “Is—Ron taking this okay?”

Harry wishes he could think she’s talking about Ginny, but the gesture she makes is towards his Slytherin crest. He sighs and nods. “Yeah. I mean, I think it probably helped that he knows it wasn’t my choice—”

“The Sorting Hat’s?”

“Yes. I wish I’d never let the bloody thing on my head!”

“Language, Mr. Potter.” Snape moves forwards and bows his head a little, as if he wants to use his beaky nose to stab Hermione. “I think you should come along to breakfast. You have gone quite long enough without eating, and Miss Granger needs her rest.”

Harry opens his mouth, but his stomach chooses that moment to remind him of its existence, and he grimaces. Right. He won’t get regular meals the minute he’s back at the Dursleys’ anyway. He supposes he should eat all he can.

“It’s all right, Harry,” Hermione says softly, and squeezes his hand again. “You can come back and visit later.”

Harry nods, hugs her one more time, and then turns and leaves the hospital wing. Snape paces along beside him, of course. It’s not too bad when Harry ignores him. He makes for the Great Hall, scowling when he thinks of how he’ll have to sit at the Slytherin table and the way that that will be the way most people learn of his House change. Well, he’ll do what he needs to.

“Mr. Potter.”

Harry halts and looks up. “Yes, sir?”

Snape stares him in the eye, and then shakes his head as if he sees something there that’s different from what everyone else sees. “You act as if it doesn’t affect you at all.”

Harry narrows his eyes a little. “Of course two of my friends almost dying affects me! Three,” he has to add after a second. Ron could easily have been crushed by that rockfall in the Chamber. It’s pure luck he wasn’t.

“I did not mean that,” Snape says, and then goes on staring at him.

Harry folds his arms. “Pardon me, but I don’t speak Slytherin. Why don’t you just say what you mean?”

That would have got him a detention yesterday. Harry almost hopes it does now. Then at least one thing won’t have changed. But Snape only shakes his head as though a little surprised at Harry’s words, and still stares him in the eye as he says, “I mean that you do not seem affected by almost dying, yourself.”

“That sort of thing happens too often.”

Harry starts to walk over towards the Slytherin table. A few students have walked past them already and given him and Snape curious glances. He supposes they might think that Snape is just bringing him from the hospital wing where he stayed overnight, but he wants to get this over as soon as possible.

Snape catches his shoulder. Harry hisses and controls the impulse to jerk away. He hates it when people grab him like that.

“You will explain the meaning of your statement,” Snape murmurs. His eyes turn to stare straight ahead, and he moves Harry with him into the Great Hall. Towards the Slytherin table, Harry notices, and listens to the buzzing voices with a sigh. Great. Couldn’t he just have one thing to deal with at once?

“I mean I almost died with Quirrell last year, and I almost died with the basilisk this time, and I almost died in Quidditch a couple of times,” Harry says, rolling his eyes. Before this, he thinks wistfully, Snape would just think he was joking or being arrogant or something. “It’s just—what would happen if I went around screaming every time someone threatened me? I wouldn’t get any homework done!”

There. That should get him either a detention or Snape distracted into a lecture about the importance of homework.

To Harry’s stunned surprise, it does neither. Snape only eyes him even more closely, as if he thinks that Harry might jump off a cliff to cap off his rant. Then he nods. “You will speak with me before you leave for the summer, Mr. Potter.”

“Like I have a choice,” Harry says, but he mutters it under his breath as Snape walks away.

That leaves him with the dreadful fact of having to walk into the Great Hall and face everyone staring at him. But at least he gets to do it in his own way, rather than Snape either hovering next to him or announcing he’s a Slytherin in some…underhanded way.

Can you announce something in an underhanded way? Harry wonders, and then walks into the Great Hall and over to the Slytherin table.

Halfway there, people have definitely noticed him, although maybe some of them are looking because Hermione and Ginny still aren’t there. Their voices go up to a murmur, then a shout, then a roar. Harry does his best to ignore it as he sits down and picks up a bowl. There’s porridge with honey and fruit, and he’s not about to miss it.

“Sleep well, Potter?”

It’s Zabini, who Harry reckons isn’t too bad. At least Malfoy is sitting five places away from him, and by his turned shoulder, doesn’t want to interact with Harry anyway. Harry nods and scoops up some porridge. “Yourself?” he adds, when Zabini doesn’t turn away and is clearly waiting for something.

Satisfaction, maybe, dances in Zabini’s eyes. “Yes, well,” he says, and faces his own bowl.

Harry eats with his head down. Most of the other Slytherins are deliberately ignoring him. Maybe that will be the way it is from now on, Harry thinks with some hope, and even after they come back from the summer. Then he can go and hang out with the Gryffindors who still like him, and other than when he has to go to the common room or the Great Hall, it will be like nothing’s changed.

“Potter. What?”

Harry blinks and looks up. Oliver Wood stands in front of him, his arms folded and his glare—well, it’s not even so much a glare, Harry has to admit. Honestly, Oliver looks like he’s going to cry.

“Er,” Harry says. “The Sorting Hat fell on my head and Sorted me into Slytherin.”

“But—tell me you can still play Seeker for Gryffindor!”

Harry opens his mouth, but Zabini breaks in, leaning over and speaking as though he was talking to Harry all along and Oliver is the one who’s interrupting an important conversation. “Of course not. Students can’t play for any House but their own. You ought to know that.”

“Gryffindor is Harry’s House.”

“That’s right,” and suddenly Fred and George are behind Oliver, nodding in support to Harry. Harry smiles, but he can feel the sharp spike of irritation in his chest. This is making him the center of attention all over again. He wishes there was some way of handling this in private. He wishes they could go away and leave him alone.

“Not anymore,” says Zabini. He’s smiling a little, his eyes sharp. Harry wonders why he’s there, but then takes one look at those sharp eyes and knows. He’s having a little fun baiting Gryffindors. Nothing to do with Harry, especially. “You ought to look at his crest and tie and know that as well as we do.”

“But this is a special Sorting,” Oliver says, and his arms tighten until Harry thinks he’s going to break his own ribs. “It’s never happened before. That ought to mean we can break the rules. What do you say, Harry?” He looks at Harry.

I say that I want you to go away and leave me alone. But it’s not going to happen, and that means Harry has to make a decision. He knows that. He just wishes it wasn’t so.

But wishes never changed anything with the Dursleys except when he was too little to realize what real danger was. So he leans forwards and says quietly, “You’ll have to talk to Professor McGonagall and Snape and see what they say.”

“I’m going to do that right now!” Oliver declares, and marches away. The Weasley twins linger behind, staring curiously at Harry.

“You can probably say the word and have this all over right now,” Fred murmurs. “You saved Gin from a basilisk. The school owes you. Dumbledore—”

“Owes you,” George confirms, nodding. “You think he would let you play for Gryffindor if you want to?”

Harry takes a deep breath. His face is tingling. God, he hates being stared at. He’ll hate giving up playing Quidditch, too, but right now he thinks he can do it, if it just means that everyone will go back to looking at their food.

“Would you say that you’re grateful I saved Ginny?”

“Of—”

“Course! Don’t know what we’d—”

“Do without you, Harrykins!”

Harry hears Malfoy snicker, and frowns, knowing Malfoy will probably use that nickname from now on. Well, nothing Harry can do about that. “Then please. Leave me alone. If Professor McGonagall and Snape say they can’t do anything, make Oliver leave me alone, too.”

The twins both stop laughing and look at him seriously. Then Fred nods. “If that’s what you want.”

“Please go tell him. I mean, if Professor McGonagall and Snape say that I can’t play for Gryffindor.”

“Right,” says George. “And you know what they’re going to say. Especially since McGonagall always insists on playing fair.”

“I know.” Harry smiles at them and wonders, dismally, if he’ll get more homework done next year because he won’t have Quidditch practice. Hermione should be thrilled. Ron, not so much. “Thanks, you lot.”

George and Fred both salute him and wander away from the Slytherin table. Harry sighs and starts eating again, but he only manages five bites before he turns around and says, “Zabini, stop looking at me.”

“You’re interesting, that’s all,” says Zabini, narrowing his eyes as if he wonders what the point of Harry’s complaining is. “I wonder whether you think Professor Snape will really let you sit out the Quidditch season and not join Slytherin.”

“First of all, Malfoy is Slytherin Seeker, and I wouldn’t dream of taking that away from him,” Harry says, and he must be doing something right, because both Zabini and Nott, sitting on his other side, grin. “And second, I wouldn’t dream of playing for Slytherin.”

“Why not?”

Harry stares back, long enough for Zabini to start shifting around uncomfortably. “Head of House that made my life hell for the last two years, Malfoy always trying to get me caught breaking the rules, people who were all happy to hear about the Heir of Slytherin and my friends getting petrified…why would I play for you?”

“Hey, I didn’t do that. I may not have defended you, Potter, but that would be suicide anyway.”

Nott nods vigorously behind him. Harry sighs and slumps back in his seat. “Maybe not you personally, but I’m not going to play Quidditch for Slytherin. Ever.”

“And being an actual member of Slytherin?” Zabini asks quietly, his eyes piercing again.

Harry begins eating his porridge, because he knows what he wants to say, and he knows what Zabini wants to hear, and they’re nothing alike. Although only Merlin knows why Zabini cares what Harry’s going to do.

And anyway, there’s something at the bottom of Harry’s soul, a core of stubbornness, that can resist anything. It resisted the Dursleys when they wanted him to stop being himself and stay quietly in his cupboard. It resisted the basilisk when it wanted him to die. It resisted Snape when he wanted Harry to blush and stammer and apologize for existing.

It’s going to resist the Slytherins if they really want him to be part of the House.

The best we can hope for, Harry thinks as he finishes his breakfast, is an armed truce, and the sooner everyone realizes that, the better off we’ll all be.

Chapter Text

Thank you again for all the reviews!

Chapter Three—Radical

Severus watches as Potter slips into the Potions classroom and reluctantly approaches him. His efforts to speak to the boy before this have been fruitless. Potter eats a ten-minute meal in the Great Hall each morning, afternoon, and evening, and stays out of the Slytherin common room until the edge of curfew. With the usual bustle of the end of the year, Severus hasn’t even managed to catch him in class.

So this special meeting. Perhaps Potter thinks of it as detention. For Severus, it’s simple necessity.

Potter stands beside the chair in front of Severus’s desk, ignoring it as if it’s been there all the time, and stares at him. Severus slips gently beneath the surface of his thoughts. There’s the same relentless blaze of a thought that has been there from his Sorting: that he isn’t a Slytherin, that he doesn’t belong, that the Hat is mistaken.

Severus has to admit he thought the same thing. But watching the boy’s behavior over the past few days has altered his opinion.

Severus has made a pact with himself not to lose his temper this time. He motions with his chin at the chair. “Sit down, please, Mr. Potter.”

The boy blinks at him and slowly sits, his hands clenching the sides of the chair as if he expects it to tip forwards underneath him. Was it the “please” or the invitation to sit that did it?

That is one of the many questions that Severus hopes to answer through observation of the boy in the near future. He inclines his head. “We are long overdue for a conversation that I usually have with my first-year Slytherins.”

“I’m not a first-year Slytherin. Sir.”

Another strange thing, or at least strange at first: Potter, for all his thoughts, has been more respectful towards him since being re-Sorted. Severus believes he understands now, though. For Potter, the respectful titles are a distancing mechanism, letting him believe things haven’t changed. He isn’t warming up to Severus or changing his mind. He’s using demanded respect as a shield.

Or a weapon.

“All the more necessary for us to have it, then. I believe you know that I do not usually take points from Slytherin or assign you detentions?”

Them, say Potter’s thoughts, but he only nods.

“I do, however, talk with you when your behavior is what I deem unacceptable, or when you lose points in another class, or another professor assigns detention.”

“Please tell me what’s unacceptable about my behavior, sir.”

Sword and shield, indeed. “I wanted to know,” says Severus, “why you decided to go after the basilisk on your own.”

“Hermione was Petrified. Ron’s little sister was down there. We did try to take Lockhart, but he Obliviated himself.”

They are facts, offered hard as jewels, but Severus is more interested in the settings for those stones. “I mean, why not come to a professor when you learned from Granger’s handwriting that the creature was a basilisk, and tell us?”

“Because we tried to tell professors about the Philosopher’s Stone last year, and they just dismissed us. They told us to go play outside.” Potter stares at him as he quotes Severus’s own words.

Severus raises a silent eyebrow. “I see. And from that incident, you decided that you could never trust adults again?”

“Not to do something quickly enough. I would have gone to Professor Dumbledore, but he was gone from the school. So was Hagrid.” Severus nearly laughs aloud at the thought that Potter trusted Hagrid to handle a situation like this, but then, he knows Dumbledore sent Hagrid to fetch Potter from the Muggles his first year. It is unsurprising that they have become friends. “And Professor McGonagall was one of the people we tried to tell last year.”

“So you decided Lockhart was…?”

“At that point, we still thought he’d done all the things in his books,” Potter says uncomfortably, slumping in his chair and turning his face away. “We thought he could battle and defeat a basilisk.”

“He did not.”

“No. I did.”

There is the same blazing pride again, and all thoughts of shame or respect are gone now. Potter does not have Occlumency shields or anything like them, but he looks at Severus as proudly as if he did, his eyes shining like alicorn.

“You know that I will not allow you to do anything like that again?” Severus says casually, when a minute has passed in silence.

Potter says nothing, but once again, his mind is more eloquent than his face. I wasn’t planning on asking permission.

“You cannot go on risking your life,” Severus states softly, leaning forwards. “I was as firm with some of my Slytherins who tried to enter the third-floor corridor last year. I expelled two prefects who were practicing deadly curses in front of third-years this autumn.” Potter blinks as if shocked, but at that age, Severus knows, he himself paid no attention to the affairs of the upper years unless they were prefects trying to restrict his Dark Arts studies. “I will restrain you for your own good.”

Potter says nothing.

“And I will not allow you to damage the reputation of your House with continual loss of points and detentions, either,” Severus adds. “That means that I will be talking with you on a regular basis, more than the others, to make sure that you are settling in with your peers and becoming more comfortable in an academic environment. I feel that I do not know what your work is like, with Miss Granger’s tutoring having supplemented it for the past several years—”

“And Slytherins ruining it, too,” says Potter, with a blistering smile. “Don’t forget that part, sir.”

Severus pauses. He did not think Potter would bring that up. “If you are referring to Mr. Malfoy throwing various ingredients into your potions—”

“I am, sir.”

“You will not speak disrespectfully to me, Mr. Potter,” Severus warns gently, and watches the way that it changes not a taut muscle on Potter’s face. “Well. That will not happen now. Mr. Malfoy will not imperil his own House’s points.”

It takes him a moment to realize what is happening in the chair in front of him, where Potter is rocking without sound in a way that makes Severus think for a moment he was the target of a curse. But then he realizes that Potter is simply laughing, muffling the sound against one ragged sleeve.

“Tell me what is so funny, Mr. Potter.” Severus leans forwards and makes sure to look interested. He wouldn’t, if not for that pact with himself not to lose his temper.

Still laughing, Potter yanks up his left sleeve. Severus stares blankly at the large purple-black bruise there. It looks more recent than it would if Potter had received it in the struggle against the basilisk.

“Malfoy did this to me this morning,” Potter explains, shaking his head. “He tripped me down the stairs with a jinx I didn’t even see. No, he hates me too much to stop throwing things in my cauldron, sir. And he hates me even more because he thinks I’m going to take away his Seeker position.” He sighs and lets his sleeve fall back into place. “So really, you might as well let me sit over on the other side of the classroom with the Gryffindors again. Maybe the Sorting Hat and some of the Slytherins are willing to pretend that things have changed, but the rest of us know they haven’t.” He stands up and starts making his way to the door of the office, even though Severus hasn’t dismissed him.

“Mr. Potter.” Severus speaks the words without moving. Instincts that he hasn’t used in years tell him it wouldn’t be a good idea right now.

Trust dealing with a Potter to be more like open battle than simply meeting with one of my Slytherins.

“Yes?” Potter does stop walking, but he doesn’t turn around.

“Why didn’t you immediately come to me and report it when Mr. Malfoy used the tripping jinx on you?”

Potter turns around this time, his face so incredulous that Severus feels as though someone has slapped him. “What, sir? Are you serious? Why would you have done anything about it? I know Malfoy’s been a Slytherin a lot longer than me and you’ve ignored what he’s done in Potions, and anyway, it’s just a squabble because he thinks I don’t belong in Slytherin. I agree with him. What good would telling you have done?”

Severus casts a nonverbal charm that will only show results to him. It makes Potter’s arm glow with where other bruises are. Up his arm, almost to his shoulder. He must have fallen on his shoulder as he turned.

And then…

There is the soft glow that means the spell is trying to show something else. Severus casts a slightly different variation, and Potter’s collarbone shines. There’s a slight fracture in it. Perhaps not the kind of thing Potter would notice.

No, not the kind of thing he would report, Severus acknowledges, while Potter’s eyes widen. He can see the glow of this particular spell.

“What are you doing?” Potter has already crouched as though he’s going to strike out, his eyes fixed on Severus.

Severus still does not stand, those same instincts warning him. He pitches his voice into a flat tone instead, neither comforting—which Potter would distrust—nor doubtful—which could lose him Potter forever. “Your collarbone is slightly broken. Mr. Malfoy shall be punished for this.”

“You never did before!”

“Before, he was not attacking a fellow Slytherin.”

Oddly enough, those words make Potter straighten with a snap and stare hard at him. Then he snorts. “Forgive me for not thinking it’s a great standard that you only care if it’s someone in your House, sir,” he says. “Which I’m not. Which I never will be.”

He walks out the door.

“Potter! You must go to Madam Pomfrey!”

“Make me,” Potter says lightly over his shoulder, obviously never thinking that Severus would do such a thing.

Severus stands up and crosses the distance between them, delicately laying a hand on Potter’s back. It wasn’t a place that glowed. “Then come, since you insist,” he says, and steers Potter towards the hospital wing, ignoring the way that the boy gapes at him. It is not flattering, what Potter said. Severus will need some time to deal with it. But in the meantime, he will deal with what he can deal with.

“You don’t—you don’t have to do this!” Potter twists and almost gets away from Severus’s guiding hand, but Severus merely readjusts his position, not touching his arm or shoulder. “Why are you doing this?”

“As you have reminded me, perhaps my standards are not the most welcoming, but I will not change them in this direction,” Severus murmurs, and ignores the curious glances of Gryffindors who seem surprised Potter isn’t walking with them, which he’s made a habit of doing. “You don’t want to go home for the summer in pain, do you? Give your relatives the worry of seeing you like that?”

“They won’t care!”

That confirms some suspicions Severus has had. He says nothing for right now, only makes sure not to jostle or otherwise hurt Potter as he gets him into Madam Pomfrey’s care.

As it turns out, the fracture is more severe than it seemed, and Potter is unable to move his shoulder without pain. That he never complained, that he seems used to the agony and only rolls his eyes at Madam Pomfrey when she uses her diagnostic charms, tells Severus even more than the boy’s earlier remark did.

After making sure that Madam Pomfrey will keep Potter in the hospital wing until his bone has mended and his bruises are gone, Severus leaves. He has another Slytherin to meet with, and limits of proper behavior to set.

*

“Can you believe Professor Snape punished me? That little bastard went whining to him, I know he did! He could have drawn his wand and cursed me, but noooo, he had to go sniveling and crying to someone else instead…”

Blaise sighs and let his eyes rove away from the Daily Prophet in his lap up to the ceiling. Right now, the Prophet has nothing new to say and is only repeating its week-old articles about Lockhart’s duplicity and Hagrid’s release from Azkaban and Potter’s Sorting into Slytherin anyway.

But he can’t risk showing too much lack of interest in Draco’s little speech. Draco will pounce on that as a sign of “disrespect” and lecture him on it for hours, and Draco’s lectures are even more horrifying than his whining.

Beside Blaise, Theo shifts. Blaise looks at him, and sees to his intense surprise how much Theo is leaning forwards, his eyes narrowed. Most of the time, Theo doesn’t take that much part in Slytherin politics, because his own position is unassailable: so knowledgeable that he can help anyone with homework, a formidable father with plenty of money who escaped prosecution as a Death Eater, a Slytherin who never gets in trouble and therefore enjoys the favor of both Professor Snape and their other teachers. He could do things if he wanted, but he doesn’t want to.

Draco only rules in Slytherin as much as he does because Theo holds back.

And amazingly, it looks as though Theo’s changing that. He speaks right in the middle of Draco’s speech, not even waiting for him to come to the end of a sentence. “The way I heard it, Draco, Potter didn’t go whining to Professor Snape. He had a meeting with him, and Professor Snape found out about your little prank. So now he’s punishing you. You got caught. That’s more than reasonable.”

Draco stares at Theo with his mouth open. Then he says, “Defending the brat who brought down our Lord, Theo? I’d never have expected that of you!”

Theo only arches his eyebrows. “Would our Lord want followers who get caught because they can’t help acting out their petty grudges?”

“It isn’t a petty grudge! Potter’s not a Slytherin!”

“The Sorting Hat says he is. Professor Snape says he is. That’s enough for me.”

Potter doesn’t think he is, either!” Draco says that like it makes some sort of unwinnable argument for his side.

Theo tilts his head to the side, and Blaise seizes the subtle invitation. “Potter doesn’t realize that some Slytherins will support him and welcome him to our House, because you keep pranking him and punishing him for something he’s already said he doesn’t want to do,” Blaise says, and manages to make himself sound calm and bored, exactly the way his mother always tells him to pursue politics. “He could be important and valuable to us, but all you think about is the Seeker position.”

“He’s said—”

“I don’t want it.”

This would be the moment Potter comes through the door into the common room, of course. He stands straight and glares impartially at all of them, even the few upper years in the room who have now abandoned their pretense of studying. He shakes his head.

“I don’t want to help Slytherin win games or points,” he says plainly, and looks at Draco with a wounding contempt that Blaise can’t help but admire. “That’s the way it is. I’m not a real Slytherin. We agree, Malfoy. So you can keep the Seeker position.” And he turns and walks away up the stairs to their bedroom. From experience, Blaise knows that he’ll get a book or his broom and go spend time with the Gryffindors.

Blaise waits until he hears the door shut before he turns to Draco and says, “So there. You’ve secured your precious Seeker position, and you’ve succeeded in making Potter not see how he can be an asset to us. Well done, Draco.”

Draco bristles. “You’ve heard him, he doesn’t think that it’s a privilege to be part of the greatest House at Hogwarts—”

“What has the face of that House been to him so far?” Blaise asks rhetorically, because for some reason Theo is letting him go ahead with this. “A bullying git who hurts him and messes up his potions and laughs at him because he refused said bullying git’s hand on the Hogwarts Express.”

Draco always flushes like a Weasley. “I didn’t—”

“You told us, last year.” Theo seems to be losing interest in the conversation, leaning back on the couch and yawning, but Blaise knows him better than that, and can see the gleam in his eyes as he watches Potter come down from the bedroom.

Draco pauses the conversation until Potter has left, so Blaise does, too. Then Draco wheedles, “What do you think Potter can give you that I can’t? Come on, tell me.”

Freedom from your lectures, if only because he’s not impressed with them. A better Seeker, if he ever agrees to play. A better reputation in the school. Maybe even more political choice in the future.

But that’s not something Blaise wants to express right now. He’d rather negotiate from a stronger position, and that means making Draco offer something, instead of specifying his interests. He lets his voice soften. “What did you have in mind?”

As the lecture goes on, Theo catches his eye, and nods a little. Blaise nods back. He knows what it means. For now, they’re allies in the matter of trying to curb Draco and get Potter more interested in his House, for the sake of what Potter might be able to give them.

Not much time left before the summer holidays, unfortunately. But I am going to at least try to show Potter not all Slytherins are the same.

That might mean an ambush in the library, tomorrow.

Chapter Text

“Are they being awful to you, Harry?”

“Do you want Fred and George to give you some things to sneak into Slytherin?” Ron asks eagerly. He pauses for a second. “What does it look like, anyway? Do they all carve ‘blood traitor’ into their headboards and ritually spit on them every night?”

Hermione gives Ron an annoyed glance and refocuses on Harry again. “I just want to know if they’re being awful to you,” she says earnestly. “If I can do anything to change that.”

“No, thank you.” Harry smiles at her and flips open the book he brought, which is one Hermione says he ought to read. Honestly, while it’s about the Animagus transformation, it looks a little boring. Harry’s bored a lot now, unless he’s actually talking with his friends. “Mostly, I just ignore them, you know? They don’t talk to me at meals now, and they all stop talking when I walk through the room.”

It’s sometimes lonely. Harry can admit that to himself. But he wouldn’t want to do what he knows he needs to do to fit in: act like he admires Malfoy and he’s so important, and snicker at people putting Muggleborns down, and brag about things that don’t matter to him.

Besides. None of the Slytherins live in the Muggle world. Harry’s absolutely certain of that. None of them could understand the things Hermione gets without even thinking about it, and none of them would try to understand like Ron does.

“Is this seat taken?”

Harry finds himself staring. Zabini is standing at the corner of the table nearest Harry, but still just across from Ron and Hermione, his smile bright and helpful. He holds a book that looks like History of Magic, although Harry’s not sure. He doesn’t spend enough time with his own History book to know for sure what the cover is.

Ron recovers first. “Yes, it is,” he says, and slides some books down the table so that they’re sitting in front of the chair. “Sorry, Zabini. Off you go.”

“It doesn’t look taken to me,” Zabini says. He’s still looking at Harry, and his face is open and friendly as Harry has seen any Slytherin’s be. “Can I sit here, Potter?”

Hermione is looking back and forth as if she doesn’t know what to do. Ron is scowling. Harry realizes, with a weird feeling in his stomach, that this is actually his decision to make.

“If you just want to sit and read, sure,” he says.

“That’s a shame,” Zabini murmurs, even as he pulls out the chair and sits down in it. “I was hoping to talk, too.”

Harry just shakes his head a little. He feels like Ron. He doesn’t hate Zabini the way he does Malfoy, but seriously? Ignore him for a week and then try this? Harry doesn’t understand.

“I suppose you can talk to yourself,” Harry says, and turns back to Hermione. “You didn’t explain why you want me to read about the Animagus transformation.”

“It’s obvious, isn’t it?” Hermione makes her hair bounce as she nods. “Professor McGonagall is going to start teaching us about this next year! And you can—you can get some work done on it now.” She drops her voice, which Harry is grateful for. It’s not like Zabini needs to know about some of the consequences, for him, of living in the Muggle world.

“She’s not going to start teaching us to be Animagi in our third year, Hermione. Or Fred and George would be ones by now.”

“I didn’t mean she would start teaching us the transformation! I just meant she would start teaching us about it.”

“Fred and George never mentioned that—Percy wouldn’t, anyway, because he thinks he should never talk about anything fun—but Fred and George would—”

Harry gratefully soaks up the familiar bickering, resolving to hold onto this now. He hopes Dobby won’t stop his post this summer. He has a few days more, and then—back to a house where everyone hates his existence.

Kind of like the one where you live now.

Harry grimaces. It does make being at Hogwarts a lot less pleasant than it used to be. He supposes the only good thing he can say about the difference is that Hogwarts is a lot bigger than Number Four Privet Drive.

And of course, there are his friends. Nothing can compare to them.

*

Blaise reads the parts of the History of Magic book that Binns will never teach them, keeping an eye on Potter. Oddly enough, he’s not part of the conversation either. He sits there looking almost nostalgic, the way Blaise’s mum does when she remembers some of her husbands.

Why would he look like that? He’s not old enough.

But it’s clear his plan to talk to Potter in the presence of his friends is a failure. Potter doesn’t want to talk, Weasley is too suspicious to start any conversation, and Granger seems to fear insults around every corner, if the way she keeps looking at Blaise after the others have forgotten him is any indication.

Blaise keeps the scowl off his face, and transfers it into the way his fingers grip his book’s pages. Trust Draco to have poisoned that well for them, too. He used the word “Mudblood,” and now Granger thinks every Slytherin will.

I have to get out from under Draco’s shadow. And I might not be able to wait another year, the way I planned on.

At last, the intense Gryffindor conversation breaks up. Granger and Weasley head for the door, still bickering. Potter gets up, and heads for the shelves to put away the book on the Animagus transformation.

He doesn’t intend to read it, then. Hmm. “Are you not interested in that branch of Transfiguration?” Blaise asks, deciding he can drop the pretense of Potter not existing.

Potter starts and turns around. “I’m not like you,” he says plainly. “I don’t read textbooks for fun.”

“So you would have talked to me if I’d brought a different book?” Blaise asks. He doubts that, actually.

From the way Potter flushes, so does he. But he only shakes his head and starts towards the door of the library. “I’m not allowed to take any library books home anyway, Zabini. So it doesn’t matter if I’m interested in it.”

Blaise blinks and stands to follow. It’s lucky there are no other Slytherins in the library, so they can’t see him scrambling after Potter like a puppy. “But you could buy a book on it if you were really interested in it. Then you wouldn’t have to rely on the library.”

Potter’s back has stiffened, but he says, “You caught me. I’m not really interested in that branch of Transfiguration. Hermione just thinks I am, and she gave it to me.”

There’s something more to this. Blaise is as sure of that as he is that Draco needs to be taken down a peg. “Why can’t you have books at home?” he asks quietly, and knows he’s right when Potter whirls around.

“Leave it alone, Zabini.”

This close, Potter looks the way he probably did when he killed the basilisk. Blaise swallows, but says, “It’s just a question.”

“Not your business.” Potter promptly starts walking again.

Blaise trots beside him, watching him out of the corner of one eye. “I knew you grew up in the Muggle world,” he finally ventures. “Where? With relatives on your mother’s side?” It’s the only thing that makes sense, because Blaise knows a bit of Potter family history and they never produced any Squibs or married Muggleborns before Lily Potter that he knows of. Still, he never really thought about it before, either.

The Boy-Who-Lived not growing up in the wizarding world seems so strange.

“Not your business.”

Blaise narrows his eyes. He knows this tactic of Potter’s by now. He’s trying to freeze Blaise out, the way he freezes out the other Slytherins who sometimes try to talk to him. Well, Blaise isn’t Draco, and Draco isn’t around to muck things up.

Subtly, Blaise flicks his wand at the corridor ahead of them. A shimmering barrier springs up, reaching from side to side. It’s soft right now, but it will turn harder than marble the instant someone pushes against it.

Potter whirls around with a curse. His eyes are so bright and burning that Blaise nearly dissipates the barrier. But he no longer thinks that Potter is going to kill him. If he’s right about him, Potter really only hurts people in self-defense.

“Easy, Potter. It’s just a question.”

“Why do you want to know?”

Maybe that’s the root of the problem. Potter’s face is stripped bare with exhaustion and old anger, and he can’t see any reason for Blaise to care about this. Or anything else about him. Blaise will just have to be

(shudder)

honest.

“I’m curious about you because you’ve changed the balance of power in Slytherin already,” Blaise says, and continues hastily when he sees the way Potter’s mouth is opening. “No, you have. The House was kind of settled, you know, as much as it can be at the end of the year. We know we’ll get new first-years in September, but they aren’t here yet. And our year was settled. Then you came in and changed the patterns.”

“How can I, when I’m not a Slytherin?”

They’re alone, and Blaise can’t stop himself from letting out a tired sigh. “You are. This pretense that you’re not is just silly, Potter. I think you know that as well as I do.”

“Just because the Hat said—”

“That’s the only way anyone knows what they are, because of what the Hat said.” Blaise leans forwards and tries to make a point that he doesn’t think Potter has considered. “You were only a Gryffindor because of what the Hat said, too. So why is this different?”

Potter freezes. He folds his arms and glares back at Blaise, but Blaise saw that moment. The first one, the one when the curse went home.

Blaise says softly, “What’s the harm in admitting it? I don’t think your friends are going to abandon you no matter what. And I’d like to be your friend, too, if you let me.”

“They’re my friends because I’m still acting like a Gryffindor. If I start acting like a Slytherin, then they won’t be.”

Blaise doubts that very much, but he isn’t being paid to dig into all Potter’s various insecurities, so he doesn’t. “What would acting like a Slytherin mean? Just talking to me instead of ignoring me when I sit at the same table?”

“No!” Potter makes a sharp gesture with his hand. “Being sneaky. And—and political. And insulting people like my friends, and all the rest of it.”

“Not all of us are Draco.”

Blaise thinks that sounds really good, but Potter surprises him by shaking his head sharply and laughing. “But don’t tell me that you go to bed each night thinking of Muggleborns and pure-bloods like Ron as your equals. I know you don’t.”

“Draco is a prick,” Blaise says calmly. “He doesn’t know how to act, and then he blames people for having natural reactions.”

“But you think the same way he does. What does it matter if you don’t say the word? You think it.”

Blaise blinks and finds he can’t respond. That’s only partially because of the words. Potter’s face is drawn up in this tight, skeptical knot that he never wears when he’s confronting Draco.

Blaise thought it was Draco who caused all the problems, who was the main reason Potter didn’t want to be a Slytherin. Clearly, he’s not.

“What can we do to make you welcome in the House and included in the changes?” Blaise finally asks. It’s not a question he planned on, but honesty works with Potter and maybe with this strange…reason that Blaise didn’t know about.

Potter just shrugs and says, “Nothing,” and turns his back. “Are you going to let the barrier down or not?”

Blaise thinks some more, but he can use honesty with himself, too, and he doesn’t think there’s anything to be gained by keeping Potter here against his will. He waves his wand, and the barrier turns into drifting swirls of smoke that blend into the walls.

“Thanks.” Potter keeps walking towards the Great Hall without looking at him.

Blaise lets himself drop behind. Of course that didn’t go the way he wanted, but he thinks he’s gained valuable information anyway. Potter doesn’t just hate Draco. He has some grudge against the whole of Slytherin, even the people like Blaise and Theo who kept out of Draco’s taunting. And he thinks that Slytherin is…what? Going to encourage the evil in people?

He thinks that there’s some bone-deep reason to be a Slytherin. More than just the Hat going on your head and saying that’s where you belong.

Well, Blaise knows lots of people think that. But he doesn’t know a lot of them who are convinced they’ll start being evil if they behave more like their current House.

It’s something to think about. And he does have a few days before the summer holidays come around.

*

Severus doesn’t slam any doors on his way down from the Headmaster’s office, but he does want to. When he arrives back in his quarters, he at least satisfies himself by conjuring a glass vial and hurling it across the room, breaking it open against the wall. It’s nice to hear the glass shatter and see the sparkling pieces leap about when he knows there’s absolutely no chance that fumes will turn his lungs to gargling froth.

Then he sits down on his chair and forces himself to cast his mind back to memories he hasn’t looked at in more than ten years.

Yes, Albus took the boy to Petunia’s house. And Hagrid was the one who brought the baby to him—but Severus knows better than to try talking to Hagrid. The man’s a sieve for secrets, but in this case, he doesn’t know anything, Severus is sure. He’ll repeat what Albus said not just out of loyalty but because he hasn’t exactly been in the Muggle world on a regular basis.

He does remember someone else being with Albus then, going into the Muggle world to scout the relatives’ home out…

Minerva.

So Severus turns to the Floo and casts in the powder, ignoring the fact that he normally Floos Minerva a total of two times a year, at the beginning and the end, to predict the number of children who will be in each of their Houses and to gloat about the Gryffindors he has in detention until the very last day. She’ll think it’s just the latter call, anyway.

Sure enough, Minerva shakes her head as the vision of the Floo embraces her, leaning back in a chair with her legs crossed and a glass of brandy in her hand. “Severus, Severus. Didn’t you know that Potter was still a Gryffindor when he earned those points, and therefore the House Cup belongs to us by rights?”

Of course she would think it was about that. Albus made the same determination Minerva did, and decided that meant the Gryffindors had won the House Cup. Severus husbands the resentment in his heart where he keeps all the others.

But he’s not interested in that particular one right now. “You went with Albus when he delivered Potter to the Muggles that raised him,” he says.

Minerva promptly scowls and uncrosses her legs. “Yes, and they are the worst sort of Muggles.”

“Why?”

“They distrust magic. They want everything to be normal. The woman spent two hours looking into a mirror and three hours gossiping with a neighbor, and looked perfectly pleased with herself. The husband walked around looking proud of himself for managing to get dressed. It was one of the worst places to leave a wizarding child. And I would have said that even if it wasn’t Harry I was talking about.”

But most other children would have had someone else to take them. Severus sees no profit in pursuing that line of argument, however. “Ah,” he says dryly instead, “I see that Petunia hasn’t changed.”

Minerva’s eyes widen. “I didn’t know you knew her.”

“I grew up in the same town as Lily. Of course I did.”

After a moment, Minerva nods, paying more tribute to his grief than most people would. “Of course,” she says quietly. “Well, Severus. That’s the way it is. I think that Harry has enjoyed himself at Hogwarts, but now he’s in the worst House for him, and he’ll go back to the worst one for him to grow up in. I feel sorry for him, I really do.”

“I notice you haven’t tried to do anything about it.”

“What can I say against the Sorting Hat’s decision? Not that I agree—”

Severus raises a hand, and Minerva falls silent, staring at him. “I meant about the house he’s growing up in.”

“Albus says there are blood magic protections on the house stronger than anything we could raise elsewhere.”

Severus looks straight into her eyes. “Do you believe that it matters if they don’t love the boy? Do you want to deal with another Dark Lord who wasn’t loved enough?”

It works because she is one of the few people who knows about Tom Riddle’s true past, and because of the stereotypes she has of Slytherins. But as long as it works, Severus doesn’t care about the source of her compliance. Her eyes ignite, and she surges up out of her chair. “Then we need to speak with Harry tomorrow. To learn if he has any real complaints, or if this is all an old woman’s mistaken impressions.”

She is cautious enough to retain that much qualification. “I think you’ll find,” Severus says sweetly, “that I can provide the proof. But let us speak to Potter, by all means.”

The Heads of both his Houses. He may keep secrets from me, but I don’t think he’ll manage it very well with both of us there.

Chapter Text

Harry stiffens when he sees Professor Snape coming towards him at breakfast. It’s not really the greasy git that makes him do that, though. It’s because Professor McGonagall is walking next to him and looking at Harry with sad eyes.

They’re going to do something I don’t like. Harry’s first guess is that they’re going to tell him he should play Quidditch for Slytherin after all. Oliver didn’t have any luck with asking them. They might have decided on their own, though. Professor McGonagall is all about fair, and Snape would keep talking at her to get her to agree.

Harry’s hand tightens on his fork.

“If you would come with me, please, Mr. Potter?” McGonagall asks it as if she’s really giving him the choice, looking him in the eyes with deep compassion. Harry hates it when she does that.

But he stands up. All his Housemates—his real ones and the Slytherins—are staring at him. They might find out what it’s about if they stay here.

“Yes, professor,” he mutters, and follows McGonagall out of the Great Hall. Snape falls into step behind him. Harry wants to snort. They can’t really make it clearer that I’m a prisoner, could they?

But he’s been like that all his life with the Dursleys, too. He got through it. Vernon could threaten Harry and lock him up in the cupboard, but he’s never been able to make him do what he wanted otherwise. Harry hoped Hogwarts would be different.

It’s not, that’s all.

Harry doesn’t lower his head like a prisoner the way they probably want him to. He keeps it up and looks all the students hurrying late to breakfast full in the face. They turn around and gape at him. It’s Snape who sends them running with some soft sneers and hard words.

He never changes. He thinks that I’ll believe him or something when he says he wants me to get healed in the hospital wing. Harry shakes his head as Professor McGonagall opens the door of her office. Now I know why he did that. He knows I won’t be as good a Seeker for him if I have a broken collarbone.

Doesn’t matter. They can’t force me to play Quidditch, either. Harry turns around and sits down in one of the chairs, the one that’s been his before when McGonagall talked to him for some reason. He looks her straight in the eyes and waits for what she’s going to say, and then what Snape is going to say. They’re both going to be horrible. Harry’s going to be hard.

That’s the way it is.

“I want to know what kind of home life you have with your relatives, Mr. Potter.” McGonagall’s the one who starts, while Snape stands by the door like a hinge with a bad attitude.

Harry starts, and stares at her. “Why do you care about that?” he blurts out. “I thought you were going to talk to me about Quidditch!”

He feels stupid immediately, but he really did think that, and they’re trading amused glances now. He folds his arms and decides he might as well say nothing. He’s going to end up saying nothing anyway. That’s the way it is.

*

He really does think there’s nothing he can say to change things.

Severus holds his irritated twitch inside. No surer way to alienate Potter than showing it now. He’s already wishing that he hadn’t smiled with Minerva. It probably made the boy feel they saw him as a child.

And that is true. But an abused child has to be handled, at least some of the time, in different ways. Severus nods to Minerva and waits, watching as she holds out a hand towards the boy.

Potter doesn’t move, only glaring at her as if he’s a rat watching the cat she can become. Minerva finally pulls her hand back and says neutrally, “Professor Snape was concerned about some of your injuries that he observed, Mr. Potter. Or rather, the way you reacted to those injuries.”

“It was Malfoy who injured me! Not my relatives!”

Severus is truly unsure how much of this is Potter being deliberately obtuse and how much is him misunderstanding the situation. He shakes his head, the motion drawing Potter’s eye to him. “We did not mean that. I meant that you were obviously used to pain, and even a broken bone did not hurt you enough.”

“Of course I don’t react to pain the right way, sir. The Slytherin way. I should have come whining to you right away, right?”

“No,” Severus says. He was waiting for Minerva to speak up, but she is leaving this to him. After her sympathy failed to win a reaction out of the boy, Severus supposes this is best, at least for right now. “I did not mean that. I mean that it indicated to me that you have often been in pain in your life.”

“Only ordinary pain.”

Severus meets Potter’s defiant gaze—always so defiant, and that was another clue, if Severus had only paid attention—and slips gently beneath the surface of the green eyes. He can see the dark shape of a low door under a staircase, and Potter emerging from it, adjusting his glasses and brushing dust and spiderwebs out of his hair.

“They kept you in a cupboard,” he says, and he can hear the shock in his own voice. Minerva glances at him sharply, knowing how he obtained that information.

Potter freezes for a long moment. Severus almost thinks the boy is going to bolt past them out the door, and shifts subtly so that he can grab him if that happens. Grab him gently. Now that he knows something about how Potter grew up, he understands how he might interpret sudden movements.

Then Potter lifts his head. “And? What are you going to do about it? The Dursleys are my legal guardians. You can’t do anything.”

*

Harry can feel his palms sweating, but he ignores the way he wants to bolt. Snape is standing in front of the door, anyway.

On purpose, the slimy git.

He can also feel his breathing speeding up, but he tries to calm down. He tells himself that if Snape starts spreading rumors around the school, well, Professor McGonagall is here, too. She’d be able to tell where the rumors came from, and she would probably insist that Snape stop.

Probably. Harry has to admit that it was disappointing last year when he tried to tell McGonagall about the Philosopher’s Stone and she told him it was none of his business.

“They keep you in a cupboard,” she says now, and leans forwards as if she thinks she’s going to make Harry run like a mouse. Harry glares at her, too. “They may be your legal guardians, but they are hardly fit ones.”

“Every time I try to complain about them, nothing happens,” Harry says bluntly, and watches as McGonagall’s face melts into shock. “Teachers at my other schools laughed at me and said they didn’t believe me. And I know there’s some special reason I have to stay with them. Some special protection my mother’s blood puts there. So you can’t change anything even if you want to.”

“Were you always this distrustful?” Snape sounds as if he’s thinking.

Harry only stares at him and says nothing. What does Snape think?

“We can certainly do something. Make them realize that it is ridiculous to treat a child like this—”

“They have to know that,” Harry says, and sinks back into his chair. He did feel a bit of hope for a moment there, he realizes when it dies. But everyone wants to be reasonable, and none of them understand that the Dursleys aren’t. “They’re obsessed with being normal. They have to know it’s not normal to treat me this way. But they keep on doing it anyway. They hate magic too much. They call me a freak. You can threaten them and they’d still never change. I can’t defend myself because then I’d be expelled. Is this over, can I go now?”

“I still have two days to give you detention,” Snape says. “Or make sure you have one for cheek when you come back at the beginning of next year.”

Harry laughs at him. It makes his face twist up, but so what? Like he says, there’s only two days. And then Harry will be back at the Dursleys, and Snape can’t do anything to him there.

“That is hardly the proper way to handle this, Severus!” McGonagall hisses at him, and turns to Harry, the expression on her face uncomfortable. “It’s true that you can’t use underage magic, but you shouldn’t have to. Your relatives should know they can’t treat you that way.”

“Like I said, they know.” Harry knows his voice is dull, but honestly, there’s a weight of lead in his chest. McGonagall is going the same route his primary school teachers did. She knows there’s something wrong, but she also thinks she can just talk to the Dursleys and that will be enough. “They won’t change. That’s the way it is. Can I go now?”

McGonagall and Snape look at each other again. Harry wonders what they’re thinking. It’s beyond him to guess. Ron and Hermione are really the only people who make sense to him most of the time, and sometimes the twins.

“It cannot be left at this,” says McGonagall, but Harry doesn’t know if she’s talking to him or Snape. He chooses not to answer if it’s him.

“I know,” Snape answers. “But he must be willing to speak in front of an authority.”

“What authority is going to do anything?” Harry demands. “The Ministry just cares about me not doing magic outside school. Dumbledore thinks I’m safe there. So who?”

“It will be a different matter if you are willing to speak of some of the details in front of a Ministry official from the Department of Children’s Services.” McGonagall’s voice is so hesitant that Harry snorts. Even she doesn’t think this will work. McGonagall blinks at him and shakes her head, her voice rising. “No, Harry, it will. I don’t think anyone has contacted them before. A lot of people didn’t know you were living in the Muggle world. And if both your former and your current Head of House indicate they have noticed concerning signs, then you’ll be granted an interview. But you still have to say something yourself.”

Harry squeezes his eyes shut. “And will people gossip about it?”

“Why would they?” McGonagall sounds astonished.

Harry can only look at her. “Because they gossiped about me being the Heir of Slytherin this year? I can only imagine how Malfoy would laugh and laugh if he found out that a cupboard used to be my bedroom.”

“If Mr. Malfoy does such things,” Snape says, “I will deal with him myself.”

*

The boy only glares at him. Severus controls a sigh. This will work better if he can remind himself that the boy’s lack of belief and trust in him is common to all adults. Perhaps Potter does hate him with an especially strong passion—Severus does not think he could have imagined all of that—but he doesn’t believe even Minerva will help him.

“Your situation would be kept confidential if we have the meeting in the Ministry offices,” Minerva interjects. “There are spells there to twist someone’s tongue or hands if they tried to speak or write about it outside the office. Not if we discussed it here or at your relatives’ home, no.”

Potter sets his jaw. His eyes are distant, and Severus realizes, with a jolt, that he recognizes their look of calculation. Can he trust the people who are trying to help him? Can he afford the investment of time and emotional energy, or will the disappointment when it all comes crashing down cost too much?

Severus knows that look because he used to do it himself.

Severus swallows. He is right, and that means they must make every effort to get Potter away from the Dursleys as soon as possible.

“I want it to be someone who doesn’t want an autograph,” the boy says unexpectedly. “And who isn’t going to take pictures.”

“These officials can collect memories,” Minerva says, still sounding a little stunned that Potter might agree. “They don’t need pictures.”

Potter looks as if he wants to ask how someone can collect memories—Pensieves are not a topic that would come up in any second-year classes, Severus thinks—but he just nods. “Then when can we meet with them?”

“We have a decision to make before we can do that,” Minerva says. “We can remove you from the Dursleys’, but not without having somewhere for you to go. Your father’s parents, alas, died while he was still young, and your mother never had any other relatives that I heard of. Where could you go?”

Potter immediately leans back and tries to put on a look of indifference. Severus won’t insult him by telling him how insufficient it looks. “Then we might as well not do it. I know that I don’t have a place to go, and I don’t want to beg for one.”

“You don’t want to get away from there?” Minerva looks genuinely shocked.

“What’s the point of starting the procedure if I’ll just be put right back there?” Potter speaks softly, as if he’s whispering confidences to himself in his bedroom in the dark of night—something else that strikes Severus in the face with the force of its familiarity. “There’s no point. So. Thanks, but no thanks.” He stands up and turns towards the doorway like he’s forgotten Severus is in front of it.

Well, I was letting Minerva do the talking, Severus thinks, and meets the boy’s gaze again. “There is an option you have not considered.”

“What’s that?”

Potter already sounds more sullen than he did with Minerva. Severus curbs his impulse to snap that the boy ought to remember who his Head of House is. Potter will not give his respect yet, and any attempt to cow him into it will end badly.

Severus does want that respect, the same that every member of his House gives him automatically. But here, he wants to earn it—because that is the only way.

“The Weasleys. I do not think they would turn you away because you are no longer of their House.”

Potter ignores that. “But I can’t do that to them. I mean, the Dursleys were always talking about how much I cost to feed, and I know the Weasleys—”

“There is money in your trust vault that can pay for that,” Minerva says. “For any food you eat, for your Hogwarts supplies, for clothes. Haven’t you been using it for that already?”

Potter blinks and seems to think about it. Severus has to control the sneer again. There are so many things the boy is ignorant of. And yet, it is not his fault.

Severus knows now that he has made a mistake equivalent to the one that left him thinking of Potter as a perfect Gryffindor. He somehow assumed his title would confer a sort of supernatural knowledge on him, that of course he would know all about the wizarding world even if he grew up with Muggles. Someone would have to visit him. He would use accidental magic and awaken memories. The boy’s aunt would tell him because she couldn’t help herself.

None of that happened. Potter, and they, must deal with the reality they have.

“Am I going to spend the summer with them, then?” Potter’s voice is soft, concealing his emotions, and maybe his knowledge. He keeps his green eyes away from Severus’s as if he has figured out that Severus can read his mind by looking into them. Of course, if he has, then he is the first student not tutored in Occlumency who has.

“You may have to spend a little of the summer with your relatives,” Minerva concedes. “We’ve left this late.” Her mouth tightens as if she remembers why, and she shakes her head. “But it can’t be helped. In the meantime, I’ll set up an appointment with a senior official in the Department of Children’s Services. The senior ones take oaths as well as having to obey the spells, because they handle so much confidential information.”

Potter nods, and then sits silently. Minerva seems to think the conversation is done, his agreement secured, and opens her mouth to dismiss him. But Severus intervenes. He can read that silence.

“Speak your objection.”

“Not an objection,” Potter snaps, his eyes swiveling up, so that Severus can see the brightness of the blaze of hope in them. “Just—a practicality. Dumbledore won’t want me to go there.”

Headmaster Dumbledore.”

Severus lets Minerva make the correction, necessary at this point, but also not something Severus wants to say. He simply gazes into the boy’s face and says, “He is not aware of the brutality of the situation.”

Potter only looks at him, and Severus knows he wants to keep his faith in the Headmaster. It may be true, completely, and not only half-true, a compound of knowledge and something else, like the slag left inside one of Longbottom’s cauldrons.

“Oh.” Potter drops his head.

He will not believe things are changing until he is walking through the Weasleys’ front door with his trunk and his owl, Severus realizes. He can push it no further right now. He nods to Minerva. “Set up the appointment. I will escort Mr. Potter to his first class.”

Potter doesn’t look up at him as they pass through the corridors. Severus studies him, and when his breath hitches a little, his hand rises to scrub hastily at his face, Severus pretends not to notice.

But he will remember.

Chapter Text

It doesn’t seem real.

That’s the only thing Harry can think, as he sits with Ron and Hermione at the Gryffindor table for lunch. Maybe he should be over with the Slytherins, but he can’t right now. He wants to talk about what Snape and McGonagall said, and the Slytherins would mock him.

Ron is beaming so hard that it looks as though the smile is sticking off the sides of his face. He keeps patting Harry on the shoulder and then looking around importantly. It makes Harry smile. At least being put in Slytherin really hasn’t affected his friendship with Ron the way Snape and Malfoy and a dark, worrying part of Harry himself thought it would.

“It’s going to be great. You’ll sleep in my bedroom, and we can keep Fred and George from playing pranks on us, and we’ll fly, and you’ll get to see what the ghoul looks like, and—”

“It’s not settled yet,” Hermione interrupts. “Harry still has to go and—talk to the Ministry person.” She lowers her voice. Harry told them not to mention the thing by name in front of other people, and at least Hermione is trying to be good about that. Most people will probably think Ron is talking about a visit, anyway.

“I know that. But Harry’ll do it, and then I’ll have a brother I actually want to have.”

“We heard that, Ronniekins,” George says, wandering behind Ron and making a quick gesture with his wand. Donkey ears sprout up behind Ron’s real ones, although Harry knows from the shimmer that they’re just an illusion.

“We hear everything,” says Fred, and leers, while Seamus and Dean burst into laughter at the sight of Ron’s ears.

“What the bloody—” Ron reaches up, but the ears aren’t solid and he can’t touch them. It’s Hermione who leans over to tell him what’s happened, and then Ron leaps up and spins around and runs after his brothers. George and Fred are telling him how wonderful he looks, and how much they’ve always wanted a pet donkey, and Harry can’t do anything but watch them and laugh.

“Harry? If I could talk to you, please?”

There’s a sinking sensation in his chest so swift that Harry sways for a second, dizzy, and Hermione puts a comforting arm around his shoulders. Harry turns around and stares sort of blankly at Dumbledore, who looks kindly back at him, over his glasses.

“It’s just for a moment,” Dumbledore adds. “I know that you’re busy packing to go home for the summer. This won’t take long.”

Home. He thinks I’m going—that must mean—

“Home with us, Headmaster Dumbledore,” says Ron stoutly, and ignores the twins for a second to thrust himself up beside Harry. Harry’s not even sure he notices when Fred cancels George’s spell. “And he doesn’t have to pack that much, you know? Mum’s just going to smother him with more food and clothes when he gets home.”

Harry feels that he’s the one with his face stretched by the smile, this time. God, he’s so glad Ron is his friend.

“There are a few things that need to be straightened out about that,” says Dumbledore agreeably. “If I could borrow Harry?”

Ron looks uncertain. Hermione taps Harry on the shoulder. “Go with him,” she hisses.

Harry nods slowly. He supposes Hermione’s right. Now that Dumbledore’s heard about this, they can’t try to hide it from him any longer.

But why did we have to hide it from him in the first place?

As he trails after Dumbledore out of the Great Hall, Harry thinks that that’s one question no one can answer.

*

Severus wipes crumbs off his face in an undignified manner as he strides from the Great Hall. The Headmaster caught him by surprise. He saw Albus listening to the intricate murmurs of Potter and his friends—at the wrong table—but he didn’t expect him to confront the boy in public.

He feels a faint annoyance at the lunch he won’t be getting, but that’s the way the world works, sometimes. He feels it would be more disastrous right now to leave Dumbledore alone with Potter.

Severus takes a secret passage all the professors know, counting on the fact that Albus probably won’t want to betray its existence to Potter, and comes out ahead of them. When they appear around the corner, Severus stands up and lets his mouth move in a faint memory of a smile.

“Severus? What are you doing here, dear boy?”

Severus notices Potter jolt, probably at the address. He wishes he could nod to the boy in sympathy. “It came to my attention that you wanted to speak with one of my students about his summer plans, Headmaster. Since I can’t help but feel it will take Potter some time to settle into Slytherin House, I am making sure I am present at all discussions concerning him.”

Albus sighs a little. “And were you the one who first told Harry he could find shelter beyond his relatives’ home for the summer?”

“I was,” Severus answers without a blink.

“This is a more complex situation than you realize.” Albus touches the gargoyle, and it springs aside. “We must discuss it in more privacy in my office.”

Severus turns around in time to see a light going out in the back of Potter’s eyes. He’s accepted, already, that he won’t get to do anything Severus and Minerva told him he would, because Albus has made his decision and opposed it.

And he will not even explain why he opposes it. Severus resolves, in that moment, to force him to explain.

“Then we will go to your office,” he says, and makes sure that Potter is standing next to him as they get on the moving staircase. He waits until the door closes behind them to add, “And you must tell Potter why he should return to people who abuse him and starve him and lock him in a cupboard.”

Potter’s head flies up. His eyes lock on Severus again, then they fall. He never thought I would fight for him.

Severus takes a breath that feels as if it has lead weights attached to it. No, he has not done a good job. He will pay for that again and again, but for now, he can only let remorse act as a spur, driving him to greater heights.

“There are things that are greater than physical comfort, Severus.”

“No,” Severus says, because he has heard this argument before, and he knows the counter to it now as he did not the first time someone tried it on him. “Did you know that is not true? Muggle psychologists have proved it. Someone has to have the perception of safety and secure food and water and shelter first, or they won’t care about anything else or achieve any other goals. I believe Professor Burbage regularly includes this insight in her Muggle Studies classes.”

“How the world changes, and how we do learn!” Albus marvels.

Which is not an answer. Severus ties his temper down and holds his tongue until they ascend into the office, and Albus invites them to sit. But Severus leans forwards during the attempt to offer them sweets, and says, “No, Albus. Tell me. What benefits could come from living in an abusive home?”

“He is physically safe from the Death Eaters there,” Albus says quietly, looking at Potter. The boy has his head bowed, denying them both access to his eyes and his inner thoughts. Severus cannot help but approve. “If his family is not ideal—Minerva once said something to the same effect. But I cannot think of another place that would be as physically safe from the Death Eaters, Severus.”

“Did you ever ask anyone else if they could?”

Albus’s jaw drops a little, and his eyes flicker. “What are you saying?”

“I am saying that someone else might have been able to think of an alternative.” Severus did not expect to score with this point, and so he smiles and arranges his hands in front of him. “I can think of at least three.”

“Go on.” Albus’s brow is furrowed.

“Hogwarts itself. That ridiculous safehouse you set up at the end of the war that had those protections on it so powerful it felt like drowning every time I had to force myself through them. And any house under the Fidelius.”

“But Harry could not live in any of those places with no one to care for him.”

“He has no one to care for him now!”

Potter is looking up from under his fringe, his own eyes flickering back and forth. Severus forces himself not to stare. Even a reassuring nod might get taken the wrong way right now.

“That is not true, Severus. I assure you that he has not been starved or beaten to death, because he is sitting here in front of us—”

“Do you mean that someone has cared for him as in keeping him alive?” Severus stares at Albus. He did not think it would come down to this, that Albus would believe so earnestly that he was doing the right thing and everyone else had to go along with it because it was the right thing to leave Potter with Petunia. He thought Albus didn’t know or hadn’t thought about it.

But this…

“Of course that is what I mean. Petunia may not like magic, but she took Harry in because he’s family. He has no one else alive in the world who can say the same thing.” Albus gives Potter what he probably imagines is a soft look—wasted because the boy has bowed his head again. “He will survive there. He wouldn’t in any other situation with no one to look after him.”

“How many people owe you favors?” Severus asks. “You could find someone to care for him if you wanted.”

Potter stirs for the first time. “I don’t want to go somewhere else where I’m not wanted and told over and over again that they’re only doing this as a favor, thanks.”

Severus quells that attitude with a look. It’s not helpful right now. They need to get past the initial hurdles of Albus’s concern before they can tackle something deeper. “You could get someone to care for him,” he says, and turns to Albus again.

“Alas, the only ones I would trust with Harry’s care are—members of the old crowd.” Albus glances at Potter. “And they are all busy doing important things, tasks they cannot be pulled away from.”

Potter only nods as if he expected that. Severus clenches his teeth down on his tongue. He thinks he can see what the boy will become if no one makes an effort to reach out, show him that some adults will care and do things for him out of something other than obligation. Lonely. Isolated. Clinging to a few select friends who might or might not talk him out of doing foolish things, or pull him along in their own recklessness. Scorned by the majority of the school, including Gryffindors.

In other words, Severus himself.

Potter will, admittedly, probably not follow the path of the Death Eater, if only because that would mean serving the man who killed his parents. But there are plenty of other ways for a young man to waste and ruin himself.

“There is nothing more important than this,” Severus says. “Find someone. If you will not approve of the Weasleys. And why not? They are loyal to you. Their son is one of Potter’s best friends. We can set up protections on their house.”

“But not blood protections.” Albus closes his hand on an inkwell. “Not the only absolute, surefire defense against Death Eaters taking or harming Harry.”

Severus leans his chin on his hand. “Are you telling me that you are resisting my ideas because there might be a one percent chance that someone could break through another kind of defense? This is only ninety-nine percent, the blood protections are one hundred?”

“It is not a percentage. It is a risk I refuse to take. Harry is safe with his mother’s family. He will not be safe if we move him.”

Potter tilts his head further, this time shielding his eyes so thickly that Severus could spend hours trying to guess what he feels and never get it right. Except he knows, he doesn’t have to guess. Stop talking about me like I’m not here.

“Mr. Potter.”

Potter jolts and looks up. Severus holds his gaze, but doesn’t dip below the surface with Legilimency, not here where Dumbledore can sense it if he reads the boy’s mind.

“You will go back to your relatives for exactly three days. That is the fastest we can arrange an audience with the Ministry. You should think about what you want to say, what you want others to know, and what will sound best.”

Potter’s back grows slim and straight. His eyes blaze so fiercely that Severus doesn’t need Legilimency to read them.

“Thank you, sir,” Potter says, and then stands and walks out of the office without looking back. Severus knows why, even as he chokes at the rudeness. Potter doesn’t want to hear Dumbledore take the decision back.

Albus is shaking his head even as Severus turns around.

“I know what you want to do. But you cannot do it, and not only because Harry’s aunt’s house is the safest place for him.”

“What is the other reason?”

“You only care because he is in Slytherin now. You cannot favor him like this, Severus. If you wished to help him, you should have done it while he was still in Gryffindor and it would not come across as favoritism.”

Severus gasps. It’s the same cold calculation that Potter forced onto him, the way he has to rethink things, the way—

And then he seizes control of himself, and notices what else is missing.

“Who is going to know about this, unless Potter talks?” he asks, narrowing his eyes. “The Ministry is sworn to secrecy. I don’t think you would chat about it casually. Neither will I. Why should I have to worry about what others will think, unless you plan to spread the tale?”

“I was only thinking of what the other professors—”

“They already accuse me of favoring Slytherins.” And sometimes they are right, and sometimes they are wrong. “I would rather think that I have changed my attitude towards Potter because of his House placement than leave him in this miserable situation out of fear of what they might think.”

Albus stands up behind his desk. His eyes are ancient. “Harry is safest with his family, Severus. I do know that some of what he has endured is harsh. But better he endure harsh treatment than die at the hands of Death Eaters.”

Severus stands in return, listening.

“It has not escaped my notice,” Albus continues, in a low voice. “But this is what must happen. If I could move him safely to the Weasleys’, I would. Perhaps later in the summer, he can visit them. But he cannot live with them permanently, and I find it irresponsible for you to encourage such foolish hopes.”

“What about the house under Fidelius? Or the safehouse that I mentioned?”

“Once again, who would live with him there and take care of him?”

“Ask Minerva. I know she still mourns having to let Potter go out of her care, and she is not teaching during the summer. By the time she needed to return to full-time duties, it would be time for the school year to begin, and Potter could simply come with her.”

“There is not enough protection,” says Albus. “Any attempt to move him out of his aunt’s house would immediately cause investigation. You may think you can trust the confidentiality of the Ministry’s departments, but I cannot and do not. There would be gossip, speculation, endless articles. Those are the last things Harry needs, after what he has suffered this year. I must ask you to leave the matter alone, Severus.”

Severus turns away without answering.

“Are you listening, Severus?”

“I am.” You knew about it. That entitles you to no mercy.

There is no sign of Potter on the moving staircase. Severus does not need one. He makes his way to his office, feeling strange. It is as if he walks on incandescent coals incapable of burning him.

He will change things.

Chapter Text

Harry is almost halfway back to Gryffindor Tower before he remembers that he doesn’t live there anymore and he has to go to Slytherin to pack.

Harry leans against the wall and closes his eyes. His breathing is harsh and heavy and sounds as though someone is scraping down the stones with one of Aunt Petunia’s nail files.

Snape tried. Harry will give him that. But he heard Dumbledore start speaking after he walked out the door, before the staircase could carry him down to the corridor again. He sounded sad and reasonable.

People who sound sad and reasonable win. Harry should know. That’s the way Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia sound every time someone questions them about Harry or even about the state of their garden. Then the people questioning them smile and go on their way. That means Harry isn’t only going to spend three days with the Dursleys, no matter what Snape said. He’s going to spend the whole summer.

Why do I keep allowing myself to hope? It only hurts more in the end when it turns out not to be true. This feels like all the times Harry used to hope his parents were alive when he was younger and they would come take him away with them someday.

It’s been a really long time since I hoped like that.

“Potter?”

Harry starts and looks up. This staircase isn’t used a lot, and he thought he would be alone for longer. More than that, the last person he expected to see standing in front of him was Zabini. Harry sighs and straightens and moves out of the way, since he assumes Zabini wants to get past him.

“No, Potter, I want to talk to you.”

“About what?” Harry thinks they’ve said all there is to say. The last time they talked, Zabini blocked his way and didn’t even deny thinking that Muggleborns were beneath him. He isn’t as unpleasant as Malfoy, but Harry doesn’t see why they can’t just ignore each other for the next five years.

Five years. Nausea swells to life in his stomach.

“About something I should have said the other day, and didn’t.” Zabini’s face is determined, his dark eyes fastened on Harry as if he’s the key to winning Slytherin the House Cup. “Listen. Can you come to the room with us? Theo’s there, and he wants to talk to you, too. Draco’s chasing a distraction we made up for him, and Greg and Vince are still eating.”

“Chasing a distraction you made up for him?” Harry isn’t about to walk into the same room as two Slytherins, and no one else, until he understands everything about what their words mean.

Zabini smiles. It makes him look like someone sharing a secret with a friend, and Harry smiles back before he can think about it. “I charmed a ball of paper to fly really fast. Theo knows a charm to make it shine like the Snitch. We told him that some Gryffindors wanted to bet him he couldn’t catch it, but he wasn’t around, so they just left the Snitch and the terms of the bet. He’s chasing it around the castle as we speak.”

Harry laughs, and then pauses in wonder. That makes his throat ache so hard he knows it’s been even longer since he laughed than since he hoped. “And you don’t think he’ll get suspicious any time soon? Or stop? I mean, he doesn’t need money.”

“Of course not, but this is about pride. He’s not going to stop because then someone might wonder about him not being fast enough in Quidditch games. And we told him Weasley was one of the people who bet him, so…”

Harry cocks his head. That honestly sounds like something the twins might do. Or Ron, in reality. “Okay. Why does Nott want to talk to me, though?” Zabini at least has made an effort before now. Nott just keeps silent and looks at everything down his nose.

“Because you change the power dynamics in Slytherin.” Zabini turns to walk alongside him as they make their way back down the stairs. “And Theo’s someone who could have been at the top if he wanted to. He’s eager to see what happens when you challenge Draco for the top position. Speaking together, we’ll reason it out better than if just one of us tries.”

“Zabini—”

“I wish you’d call me Blaise.”

“I don’t know if I can. You always call me Potter.”

Zabini stops walking and stares at him. Harry stares back, keeping his hand in his robe pocket, close to his wand. He’s not sure how fast Slytherin “friendship” can fade, but he’s ready if he has to use the Disarming Charm. It worked pretty well on Lockhart.

“So literally the only thing I had to do was ask, and you would have let me?” Zabini shakes his head. “How long did it take you and Weasley to start calling each other by your first names?”

“Right away. I mean, probably less than an hour,” Harry says, when Zabini looks at him like that isn’t enough. He shrugs. “He was nervous, I was nervous, we were both new at Hogwarts, he was nice to me, why wouldn’t we be friends when we met each other?”

*

Potter—probably he will be Harry now—is going to change the dynamics in Slytherin House in a way Blaise never expected.

He’s not naïve, not in the classic sense of the word. Look at the way he’s keeping his hand in his pocket, near his wand, right now. But he doesn’t see the political world the way a Slytherin does. For a second, Blaise wonders what in the world he’s doing in Slytherin. Did the Sorting Hat put him here just because of his Parseltongue?

Then he listens to the words that Harry said.

He was nice to me.

No, there’s a Slytherin mindset behind that after all. Harry might not have got on that train looking to greet old friends and allies of his family and establish powerful connections, the way Draco and Theo did, but he doesn’t welcome all and sundry, either. He wants to be friends with people who are nice to him. A simple and basic and selfish way to choose a friend.

“I should have known that, I suppose,” Blaise says. He doesn’t mind admitting he’s wrong if he doesn’t have an audience. “Since you weren’t raised in the wizarding world, then you wouldn’t know about the importance of last names.” That sounds nicer than saying “you were raised by Muggles.” Blaise congratulates himself. See, he can do nice.

But Harry only shakes his head and says, “I call you by your last name. I call Malfoy by his last name. I call Nott by his last name. I can list people I call by their last names all day. So you’d better explain that bit.”

“I want to, but I think Theo can do a better job than me. So will you come to Slytherin and listen to him do it?”

For a long moment, Harry pauses the way the birds did when Blaise started catching them to feed to one of his mother’s margay cats years ago. Then he nods. “You’re being awfully open and honest for a Slytherin. Blaise.”

We have to change his perception of us. Sure, a lot of Slytherins do lie, and Blaise will do it when it suits him, the way he did to Draco this afternoon. But that doesn’t mean Slytherin embodies evil, and he doesn’t want Harry to go on thinking it does.

“I want you as my friend. I want you to understand things. I don’t think I’m going to get that by lying. Do you?”

Harry has a strangely open smile he apparently gives people who are nice to him. He nods. “You’re not. Let’s go.”

*

Theo sits up when Blaise and Potter walk into the room. He can feel that sudden, strange urge to vomit from excitement, the way he did when his father first showed him his old Death Eater robes and mask and made Theo swear never to tell anyone.

It’s easy to smooth down, though, easier than he thought it would be. Theo knows he can’t vomit, or Potter will get the wrong impression. He smiles, instead, and casts the charm at the doors that will warn them if anyone is coming back. “Hello, Potter.”

“We’ve agreed on first names, Theo,” Blaise says quietly.

Well, that’s sudden, but it’s also something to be expected of a Gryffindor, so Theo’s not really surprised. He nods. “Then I’m Theo. I don’t like my full name.” He doesn’t know if Harry would use it or not. Better to cut it off now, though, and prevent any…unfortunate reactions from Theo before he knows what he’s doing.

“Okay,” Harry says, as if it’s that simple. Maybe it is. Theo relaxes. He can get along with people who treat him right. And maybe Harry just wants that, too. He sits on his bed and looks at both of them.

Theo turns his head. He’s the one who knows, but Blaise is the one who sees. Blaise nods to him. “Harry wants to know what’s so important about last names. He started calling Weasley by his first name right when he met him.”

Theo can’t keep his eyes from widening, but, well, Weasleys. “Okay,” he says, and faces Harry, who stops swinging his legs like he’s in Binns’s class and pays attention. “Most of the time, we use last names except when we’re around people we know really well. It never pays to be friends with someone who isn’t your friend in return.”

“But how do you know that? If they’re not your friends, then they could call you by your first name on purpose, to make you think they are.”

Theo smiles. He’s glad that he won’t, as Professor Snape says, be teaching a dunderhead. “With a lot of us who grew up together, it’s a matter of knowing traditions and alliances. Draco calls us by our first names because his father knows my father. And Blaise’s mother,” he has to add. As much as anyone can know Blaise’s mother. “But Draco thinks he’s being superior to me and Blaise and calling us by our first names because we can’t do anything about it. He thinks we call him by his first name because we’re his friends and in awe of him.”

“So why do you call him by his first name?” Harry’s forehead is wrinkled, creasing his scar. Theo stares at it despite himself and then manages to look away. He would really like a chance to study that scar, one day.

“Because we want him to think the way he does.”

“I thought Malfoy was the most respected person in Slytherin.” Harry speaks slowly. “That’s not true, is it?”

Theo shakes his head. “I think his father was, when he was here. At least, that’s the way mine talks about him. And his family has lots of money and favors in the Ministry, and they’re quick to expose their enemies to ridicule or hatred when they can.”

My father will hear about this!

It’s such an uncanny imitation of Draco’s voice that Theo nearly checks his charm on the door. Then he meets Harry’s grin and smiles without feeling like he has to force or calculate it for the first time in a long time.

“Exactly. Lucius is like that, except it’s the Minister he tells.”

Harry nods slowly. He looks quiet and determined and like he’s salting something away in his head. Theo starts to ask what it is, but Harry speaks before he can. “You don’t respect Mr. Malfoy either, do you? You call him by his first name.”

“Very good,” Theo murmurs. He doesn’t think Harry has any of the natural instincts that come to someone who grew up around people like his father and expected to Sort Slytherin. But he can learn. “No, I don’t. He whines too much.”

Harry laughs, and then claps a hand across his mouth. “Sorry. I’ve just…never heard someone use that word about an adult before.”

“It’s the right word.” Theo shrugs. The right word matters a lot more to him than someone possibly running and tattling to Lucius—not that Harry will anyway. “It’s better to stay silent and secret and be powerful when you can.”

Harry frowns. “I don’t think I can do that. I have to say something if I see someone doing the wrong thing.”

Blaise and Theo exchange a look of the kind Harry probably never will learn to interpret, and Theo finally nods. “Well, your kind of power is different. You’re the Boy-Who-Lived. You can make people respect you in a way that I can’t unless you grew up around me, and then you probably already do anyway.”

“That doesn’t make me strong! It makes me weak! All those people who thought they knew who I was and that I was evil, just because I can talk to snakes! It was worse because of who I was! There’s nothing good about being the Boy-Who-Lived!”

“I…”

Theo has never thought of it that way. And he doesn’t think he’s ever seen Blaise look flabbergasted, but that is the right word for the expression on his face.

Harry is ranting on, ignoring the way they stare at him. “Everyone acts like I wanted it! The fame, everything! Like I wanted my parents dead. Like I wouldn’t trade every one of the whispers and the stares and the newspaper articles about me that Lockhart made me pose for to have them back.

“It’s a curse. Is there a spell that can take your fame and give it to someone else? Because I’d look it up and then I’d practice it until I was good at it and I’d use it.”

Theo leans slowly back on the bed. His mother died when he was small, and it’s one of those things that it’s not wise to talk to his father about. But at least he’s had his father, and he’s learned magic, and he was raised in the wizarding world.

Blaise is almost the same, except it was his father who died, and probably for close to the same reasons. It’s one of the many ways they became friends. He walks slowly up to Theo’s side of the bed and joins him in staring at Harry.

Harry abruptly seems to realize they’re staring, and flushes. “Sorry,” he mutters. “I just—I don’t like attention.”

“You don’t have to like it. But I think it would help you to learn how to use it.”

“Make it a weapon?”

Once again, Harry is putting concepts into words that Theo thought would either have to wait or would make him balk. He nods, faintly impressed. “It’s already a weapon, you know. Something that strong always is. It’s just that either the newspapers will keep reporting on things you don’t want them to, or they’ll say what you tell them to say.”

“I’m not that strong. I—you must be joking.”

Theo shakes his head. “It’ll take a lot of work, but you can turn this weapon around in your hand, so it points their way. I can help you. My father knows how to make the papers stop talking about him.”

“Why did they talk about him in the first place?”

Theo hesitates, but someone else would tell Harry if he didn’t, and that means he has to risk it. “Because he was a follower of the Dark Lord.”

Harry bolts to his feet. His face is so white it looks like the icing on some of the buns the house-elves serve at home. “No.”

“That doesn’t mean I am.” Theo has to admit he always expected to be, but he only has to admit it to himself. “We can change things. You can—”

“I wish I was never put here! I wish things were different! I don’t belong here!”

“You could learn to belong, is what I’m saying. We could teach you, and help you, and that would mean we wouldn’t have to lie to people like Draco anymore. I’d like to be able to tell the truth and laugh at who I want. I don’t right now because it’s too much trouble to deal with Draco getting offended and Lucius getting whiny. But I’d like to.”

Theo still expects Harry to run out of the room, and Blaise moves like he’s thinking about interfering. But Harry stares at him instead. Then he says, “Prove it.”

“What do you mean? How can I prove it?”

“We’d like to help you,” Blaise adds earnestly. He always does earnest better than Theo. “But we don’t know how you want us to do that.”

Harry is quiet for so long Theo thinks he just said that and doesn’t know how to back it up now. Then he takes a deep breath. “You say you have powerful fathers—”

“Mother—”

Parents, fine—and you can teach me how to control what the papers say about me. Prove it. Prove I can do what I want. I don’t want to go back to my Muggle relatives for the summer. But Dumbledore says I have to, and even Professor Snape said it would be for at least three days. Then he’s got some plan to remove me from them. But I don’t want to even see them again. Keep me from having to go back to them. Prove it.”

Blaise starts to protest, but Theo raises a hand, and he falls silent. “Why don’t you want to see them again?”

Harry gives him a glance that sears. “I hate them.”

Theo smiles, and even when it’s as wide as it can get on his face, it feels like the smile is growing inside him. He nearly thought Harry was just too different, except for being sort of intelligent and a Parselmouth.

But this they can work with. Harry not running out of the room when he heard about Theo’s father and hating Muggles. This they can use.

“We’ll do it,” Theo says, and removes the spell on the door so Harry can leave.

“But how?” Blaise whines the minute the door is shut, and whining is the right word. “We only have two days, counting today, before we go home for the summer. And I know Mum’s heard about Harry being here, but that doesn’t mean she thinks there’s any value to doing something like this.”

“I have a favor I can call in from Father,” Theo tells him quietly. “I’m going to use it.”

“And you think Harry would even take any favor your father offers him? You think your father will do it no matter who it’s for?”

“He has to,” Theo says, and he’s talking about them both. He knows it, he can see it, the racing pathways of power, the way he sometimes can just sitting on the couch in the common room and staring into the fire. It’s like being a seer. He knows the ways strong people are going to go, whole and complete, without being able to break them down into their individual parts.

“It begins now, Blaise,” he says, and he can feel the thrill moving up through his veins, as almighty as an earthquake. “It really begins now.”

Chapter Text

Theo wastes no time in writing the letter. It’s not long. It doesn’t have to be.

Father,

The time has come for me to call in the debt I told you about when I was seven. You praised my cleverness in figuring out the truth then, so I hope you will think well of the same cleverness now.

You’ve probably seen in the papers that the Hat re-Sorted Potter into Slytherin. Potter has indicated that he lives with Muggles and he would prefer to never see them again. However, Dumbledore thinks this is fine and wants to send him back there. If you can make sure that he never has to return, he would owe us a debt and my favor would be cleared.

I am sure I want to use the favor for this, Father. Draco grows more and more of a prat each day, and there’s little I can do to budge him unless I want to reveal my strength too soon. But Potter has the potential to shake things up. If he owes us a debt, that’s an easy way to ride the wave.

Theo.

Theo smiles a little as he signs the letter. He’s seen the ones Blaise writes to his mum, and he knows Blaise would be horrified to realize Theo doesn’t include “Love” or “Sincerely” or anything like that above his name.

But both Theo and his father know why that’s so, and as long as certain rules are respected, the arrangement suits both of them.

Theo reads over the letter one more time, nodding. He thinks he’s forestalled all the counterarguments his father might use and the complaints he must make. He stands up to go to the Owlery.

Draco is in the common room, bragging to Greg and Vince about some potion his father is going to let him brew this summer. Theo keeps his eyes straight ahead as he walks across the room, but he still gets a remark from Draco about how he wishes he could brew that potion.

Theo nods and says nothing more, but his back bristles from the insult of Draco’s eyes on it, and he only relaxes when he’s up in the Owlery watching his grey bird take wing with the letter.

Things are going to change.

*

“Mr. Potter. I need to speak with you, please.”

Harry turns around, blinking. He’s spent most of the afternoon since he left the Slytherin dorms with Ron and Hermione, and he hasn’t seen Professor Snape or Dumbledore anywhere. That suits him. He doesn’t want to listen to them about how he has to go back to the Dursleys for three days.

Snape is walking along the corridor with that frown that scatters people out of the way, only there’s no one here but them. Harry wonders absently if his face is just stuck in that frown and he forgets it’s there.

Then Snape stops in front of him, staring down, and Harry has his answer. The scowl is slowly disappearing. There’s a narrow, searching gaze there instead, as if Harry is an interesting potion.

“Do you believe me when I tell you that the Ministry will remove you from the Dursleys’ care?” he asks softly.

Harry fidgets with the edge of his sleeve, making Snape eye him sharply. But no, the truth is, Harry doesn’t believe him. Snape always does what Dumbledore wants. Harry was grateful for that at the start of the year, when Dumbledore said he and Ron wouldn’t be expelled for stealing Mr. Weasley's flying car. But now, it’s terrible.

“Why not?” Snape asks.

“Because it never changes.” Harry knows his voice is whiny but he doesn’t care. “People say it will, and then they talk to the Dursleys, and the Dursleys make everyone think they’re normal and everything is all right, and nothing changes.”

Snape barks a laugh in a way that makes a small Hufflepuff who is about to turn the corner whirl away again and run straight for their common room. “You think I am as easily fooled as Muggle teachers and policemen? No. I know the truth. That means I will not stop until it changes.”

“But Dumbledore—”

“He cannot stop me.”

“Maybe not right away, but later. I mean, you work here and he’s the Headmaster, right? So he could take your job away, or tell you that you shouldn’t do it if you want to be paid, or something.” Harry shrugs in the face of Snape’s astonished silence. It only makes sense to him. “Why wouldn’t he? He really wants me to stay with the Dursleys.”

“You—” Professor Snape considers him for a long moment, as if he thinks that Harry will conspire with Dumbledore or something. Then he says abruptly, “So the Hat had more than one reason for putting you in Slytherin.”

Harry doesn’t know about that. He doesn’t think he’s cunning or ambitious, despite what he told Blaise and Theo today. He’s just tired. “Anyway. He could do that. So I want to think things will change, but I know they won’t.”

“Do not despair. It will only be three days. That is the earliest time I could secure a Ministry appointment, and they will not cancel it even if the Headmaster Floos them and tells them to.” Professor Snape actually reaches out and places a hand on Harry’s shoulder, which astonishes Harry so much he just stands there. “You need not worry,” Snape continues in a softer tone. “Not this time.”

Harry only stares at him. Snape is stranger than he ever knew. He doesn’t think he knows anyone else who could go from not caring to caring just like that, just because someone had a different color on their tie. The Dursleys wouldn’t, and Ron hasn’t, and Voldemort can’t.

In the end, though, he just gives up and turns back to the common room. Snape walks with him part of the way, hand cocked at a strange angle Harry finally figures out is the angle he’ll use to draw his wand if someone attacks.

Harry goes straight to bed, he’s so tired, and ignores the way Malfoy tries to taunt him. They aren’t very good taunts anyway.

*

Theo gets the owl back the next day at breakfast, their last full day at Hogwarts before the summer.

It says simply,

Consider your favor taken away, and the task fulfilled. I have spoken with the relevant Ministry Departments—the ones I still have more influence in than Lucius Malfoy. Someday you must tell me the history of the feud between Malfoy Miniature and Potter that makes him willing to see the boy locked up.

No signature, even. It hardly needs one. Theo let out a deep breath of relief and waits a moment until Draco starts bragging to Greg and Vince about something. You can almost set your watch in the morning by when he does it. This time it’s something about the size of the eggs he’s served for breakfast each morning and how he must have friends among the house-elves.

Harry is listening to Draco’s boasts with more concentration than he usually does. Theo does manage to slide in next to him, but he has to practically rap Harry’s shoulder with his finger before Harry turns around.

“What?”

Theo shows him the letter. Harry reads it, and his face tightens and shines with a strange light that looks more like the radiance of sweat than hope. Theo supposes he won’t believe it until he’s actually tucked away in a magical house, away from Muggles. “What does this mean? What he’s going to do?”

“Exactly what he says he will,” Theo says, and blinks. He’s pretty sure Harry understood the language of the letter, which makes the question all the stranger.

“But how does he—I mean—” Harry glances up at the head table, and Theo follows his gaze to Dumbledore.

“He has his ways,” Theo says, which probably sounds silly, but it’s true. His father doesn’t give secrets away, even ones that everyone will know about in a little while. “We just have to wait for word from him. If he couldn’t do something before the summer starts, he would have said that.”

“Oh,” Harry mumbles. “I—what kind of debt will I owe him?”

“Not him,” Theo says. “He took the favor that I owed him, and he’s glad to be cleared of that. It’s shameful to owe a favor to your own blood,” he explains, because Harry is staring again. “You owe a debt to our family.”

Harry exhales, and then says, “Just as long as he doesn’t want me to torture Muggleborns for him.”

Theo smiles. “There are so many better things to do with them than torture them.” And Harry gives him a look like he’s not quite sure Theo is joking or not, and that makes the morning all the better.

*

Harry sits next to the lake, listening to Ron and Hermione bicker about whether Lockhart was ever a good professor, and feels as though someone has tossed him from the Hogwarts Express. He challenged Theo to help thinking he would never do it anyway. I mean, his dad must hate me. And now—

Now it seems like he won’t have to spend part of the summer with the Dursleys at all.

If he can trust a follower of Voldemort. Harry rubs his scar unconsciously, at least until Hermione notices and leans forwards in concern.

“Does your scar hurt, Harry?”

“Not because of Voldemort,” Harry says, and doesn’t even feel amusement as he watches Ron leap up and sit down again, muttering at him. Everything is changing so fast, and he feels as if something is going to shatter any time now. Or toss him on the ground, or turn around and laugh at him, or something. It’s not possible that this can be his life, that he’ll actually manage to get away from the Dursleys before he turns seventeen. “Just because of a headache.”

“Is living in Slytherin that way?”

“Not all of them,” says Harry, and watches Hermione pluck grass and not look at him. “Blaise and Theo—Zabini and Nott, sorry—are sort of nice. They’ll talk to me and listen. And I go to bed when Malfoy starts bragging.”

Hermione laughs. She starts to say something, but Ron interrupts, eyes big and round as Aragog’s. “They gave you permission to call them by their first names? That’s huge.”

“I never heard of that,” says Hermione, in the tone that means, How dare knowledge hide from her.

“Well, a lot of people don’t keep that rule anymore.” Ron shrugs. “I mean, I call Malfoy by his last name and I’d never call him anything else, but it’s a big deal to certain kinds of pure-blood. And I know Zabini and Nott are both that kind of pure-blood.” He hesitates. “You know that Nott’s dad was—”

“A Death Eater. He told me.”

“Oh, Harry! Don’t talk to them! What if something happens to you?”

“He sort of has to talk to them,” Ron points out, the voice of reason for the first time in a while. “He lives in the same House.”

“I know,” Harry says. “I’m not—I’m not going to go along with him into the Forbidden Forest or anything.” He does wonder if he might have to to get away from the Dursleys, though. And honestly, he’d be willing to do that. “Anyway, Theo’s not bad. He’s so intense, sometimes. It’s a bit creepy. But he’s not like Malfoy.”

“And Mr. Zabini?”

Harry jumps. Professor Snape is standing behind him, arms folded and dark look on his face. That’s all Harry can call it, dark. It’s not really upset, and it’s not really disapproving, and it’s not really angry. It sits there and looks at Harry from Professor Snape’s eyes.

“Blaise is all right, too,” says Harry cautiously.

“I was wondering what you talked about with them,” Snape says, each words spaced as precisely as if he’s about to yell like Dudley, “that would lead to Mr. Nott mentioning his father was—a follower of the Dark Lord.”

“Stuff.”

Professor Snape narrows his eyes. Harry narrows them right back. He doesn’t think Snape is as bad as he used to, but he’s still bad enough to only care about Slytherins.

“You have possibly begun playing a game you do not know the rules of,” Snape warns him in a low voice.

“I know the rules of lots of games,” Harry says brightly. “I know a lot about Quidditch, for example. Do you want me to tell you, sir? You have this ball called the Snitch, you see, that the Seeker has to catch, and—”

Professor Snape shoots an arm out towards him. Harry is on his feet, ready to run or dodge, before he can think about it.

Snape stops. He watches Harry in a way that makes Harry’s face hot. Ron and Hermione are frozen beside the lake; Harry thinks he can see Hermione holding on to Ron’s arm from the corner of his eye.

“I am trying to keep you safe, you brat of a child,” Snape says.

“Lots of other people have tried, sir. Didn’t work too well.” Harry shrugs. “And I know Dumbledore is trying to keep me safe, too, and his idea is for me to stay with the Dursleys. I think lots of people have different definitions of safe.”

“You will not be going back there to stay. Do you understand me?”

“But I’ll still be going back for a few days. You said. And if there’s someone who can keep me from ever having to see them again, why wouldn’t I go with that instead? It only makes sense.”

Snape looks honestly staggered by his words, his eyes opening wide enough that Harry thinks he can see something new in the back of them, other than the dark look. But then he bends down and grabs Harry’s arm and says, “Come with me.”

So Harry’s afternoon of relaxing by the lake with his friends is spoiled—not for the first time—and neither of them can even make a squeak as Snape drags him away. Harry looks back at them and shrugs as best as he can with his free arm. He hopes he’ll see them later.

But since Snape ruins most things he touches, probably not.

*

Severus does not bother trying to speak, or the read the truth out of Potter’s mind, until they are safely in his office, and he can turn around and stare at the boy as he stands by his chair. The boy doesn’t bother looking aside. Whatever Nott and Zabini told him, it didn’t include the information that Severus can use Legilimency. Then again, they may not realize it themselves; Severus has never been certain of the state of their parents’ knowledge.

A swift dip into Potter’s mind and he knows; it’s shining at the top of Potter’s thoughts as bright as an uncovered treasure. Severus actually staggers back and catches himself with a hand on his desk, and stares at Potter again. The boy’s expression has gone from confused and defiant to wary.

“What have you done?” Severus whispers. “You—have you asked something from Nott’s father that you will not be able to repay?”

Potter squeezes his fists together. “How do you know about it?”

“I know,” Severus says roughly. “Better than you, what the prices of such games are and what happens when one cannot pay them.”

His mind is reeling a little. He expected conflict with Malfoy, and the boy has been punished with detention for tumbling Potter down the stairs and breaking his collarbone. He expected the boy to have a slow time making friends, to remain aloof, to reach out to Zabini first if he did anyone. That boy is cleverer and quieter than he appears, and Severus knew he would probably see Potter as the way to change the power balance in Slytherin in his favor.

But he never expected this. For Zabini to reach out so quickly, for Nott to join in, for Potter to reciprocate. It still smacks of naiveté, since the boy has no idea what Nott’s father will demand in return.

It is undeniable, however, that Potter has cunning. That only infuriates Severus the more when he thinks of some past situations. So Potter thinks his cunning of use only in escaping his worthless relatives, not in saving his own life?

But it will only alienate the boy to speak that way now. Severus clears his throat and says, “You will be rescued from your relatives. I promise it.”

“But not as fast as they’ll do it.”

“Is it only speed that matters to you?” Severus lets his scorn through. “If it comes down to the choice between being in debt to the Notts for the rest of your life, and spending three days in the Muggle world, you will choose—”

“I know it’s going to be more than three days!” Potter is on his feet now, yelling, his face as red as a phoenix, his hands clenched. “I know Dumbledore’s going to interfere and leave me there, or you’ll change your mind because you don’t really care about anyone except people who were Slytherin all along, or something else will happen and I’ll end up staying there! That’s the way it is! That’s the way it’s always been! I don’t trust you, I never have, I never will! I think Nott’s dad is probably evil, but at least he’ll only care about what I can do for him, not that—that I look like my father, or that I’m living in the Muggle world, or that I have to be safe from Death Eaters, or that I used to be a Gryffindor, any of the rest of the things you do! I’ll be away from them! I don’t care!”

Severus has not locked the door, and Potter storms through it before he can speak. Severus is the one left standing, this time, and blinking over Potter’s words.

It is a good thing that the boy was once a Gryffindor, he thinks now. It has led him to be honest, and Severus will run with that honesty.

First to set some plans in motion, and second to correct Potter’s assumptions.

Because some of them—as little as Severus wants to admit this—are correct.

Chapter Text

“My father has things in motion.”

Harry turns his head to the side a little as Theo whispers that into his ear, but Theo plants a hand on the back of his neck and turns him face forwards again. Harry nods and starts to eat. He supposes it will look strange if he doesn’t enjoy the huge breakfast that’s their last meal before they leave Hogwarts. Besides, he wants to eat a lot in case this doesn’t work.

But his hands are sweating, and he fumbles the knife and fork more than once.

“Harry?”

Harry looks up. Blaise is leaning over in his seat, his face troubled. “Can I talk to you before we go?”

“Let me eat a little more first,” Harry mumbles, and chews his way through a scone with enough honey on it to satisfy even Dudley, a huge bowl of porridge, and some sausages that break crisply and just right under his teeth. Blaise only waits. Harry finally stands, wipes his mouth on a napkin, and follows him out.

He thinks they’ll go outside or down into the dungeons, so it’s a surprise when Blaise casts some sort of charm. Harry squints. He can almost make out the faint red shimmer in the air around them, which he supposes is a privacy charm of some sort.

“I wanted to ask you what you know about my mother.”

Harry blinks. He’s only heard random gossip about Blaise around the Slytherin dorms now and then. The older Slytherin students act like they never notice second-years, except for Malfoy sometimes. “I—don’t know? I mean, she raised you, right? And she’s had lots of husbands?”

“Yes. That’s it. That was the part I wasn’t sure you knew.” Blaise’s hand is very tight on his wand. “I have lots of stepfathers. Sometimes we move around to a new house that Mother’s bought or we go to live with one of them. And sometimes they notice me, but more often they don’t. Mother only notices me sometimes.”

Harry scowls. He was thinking of all magical families as like either the Weasleys or the Malfoys. He never imagined anything like this. “It sounds sort of like the Dursleys.”

“Exactly.” Blaise studies Harry with one eye, head tilted like a raven. “I don’t know if I can help you. I don’t have the resources Theo and his father do. But if you ever need someone who can understand exactly what it’s like to live with people who don’t care about you, then I can do that. I want—I want to be your friend. Theo’s my only one.”

Harry slowly stretches out his hand. Blaise takes it. He doesn’t try to say anything, which Harry is grateful for, because it’s not like he has the words, either.

“Thanks, Blaise. But I don’t like talking about the Dursleys much.”

“It’s not the talking. It’s the knowing.” Blaise gives him a fleeting smile and walks towards the dungeons to pack.

Harry watches his back, and finally nods. He supposes Blaise is right, at that. And having someone else who knows wouldn’t be terrible, as long as Harry isn’t under an obligation to be friends with him.

He’s already packed, and going back to the dungeons will probably just result in a confrontation of sorts with Malfoy, who’s been getting prissier and prissier about Harry being in Slytherin. Harry turns around.

No, he realizes suddenly, going back to the dungeons wouldn’t have resulted in a confrontation, because Malfoy is right in front of him. Harry just stares him down. Crabbe and Goyle aren’t here, and he knows—pathetic as the reason for it is—that Malfoy got detention with Snape for tumbling Harry down the common room stairs. So he doesn’t think Malfoy will try to start anything.

“Do you have to have everything?”

Harry blinks like he did when Blaise started talking. “What do you mean?”

“You’re famous, and you have all this money, and you’re great at Quidditch, and you’re a Parselmouth, and now you’re in Slytherin, too, and everyone’s falling all over themselves to be friends with you. The only thing I have that you don’t is parents.” Malfoy sneers, but Harry gets the feeling that it’s a lot more half-hearted than usual. “I don’t…why do you have to have everything? I’d kill to have half what you have!”

“I want my parents back more than anything in the world. You have no idea how lucky you are, Malfoy!”

“But you have everything else. Why can’t I have my parents and everything else, too?”

Malfoy sounds like Dudley, but looking into his face, Harry thinks he can see past that. Malfoy means what he’s saying. He’s upset and bewildered and even though he’s also kind of stupid, Harry thinks, because he doesn’t know what it’s like to grow up as an unwanted orphan, he really thinks there should be some way he could be both Harry and himself.

“I don’t know. That’s the way the world works. But I don’t really care for most of it, Malfoy. I’d give you my Parseltongue in a second. I don’t want that. And I’d go back to Gryffindor if I could.”

“But Slytherin is the best House to be in!”

“For you. The only reason the Sorting Hat put me here is because I’m a Parselmouth, and that’s really not enough reason for me.” Harry shrugs, feeling a dry, tired shiver run down his shoulders. “If I could make you a Parselmouth, then there would be no reason for me to stay here, and I’d just go back home.”

Home is Gryffindor Tower, and squashy armchairs, and listening to the twins plan some new prank and Hermione and Ron bickering. Dumbledore said something once about how he has to think of the Dursleys’ house as home. Harry can’t, and it’s not just a matter of stubbornness. He can’t think of Slytherin as home, either.

“To your Muggles?”

“To the Tower.”

Malfoy is watching him with his mouth a little open, and Harry realizes abruptly that he’s probably said too much. Malfoy can’t taunt him right now, because summer is about to start, but who knows what he’ll say when they come back?

And Harry is still in the cold place that can never be home.

“Go away,” he says abruptly, and turns away himself, clattering up the steps towards Gryffindor. He has his shrunken trunk in his pocket; he’s going to keep it with him and set Hedwig free to fly until he’s sure that Theo and his dad have kept their promise. He’ll go up to Hedwig in a few minutes.

But first he wants to see the Tower one last time, to carry it like a good-luck charm with him for a while. He’s going to be free of the Dursleys. Is it too much to hope that he can be free of Slytherin, too?

*

Theo touches the letter in his pocket and turns away from watching the sweep of the grounds from the Astronomy Tower. He knows what his father’s distraction will be, and he thought he might spy it from there, but it’s clear that it’s not coming to Hogwarts. Father will probably send it to meet the train.

A foot shifts below him, and stone drops away. Theo immediately shrinks back. He already has a Disillusionment Charm on himself; he didn’t want anyone to think that he had anything to do with the distraction if it happened here and someone running looked up and saw him.

But the arguing voices don’t come any closer to the top. They’re standing on the staircase that leads up to the Tower. Theo creeps slowly towards them, stopping whenever a noise or a cascade of dust could reveal him. Some people can see through Disillusionment Charms, and he doesn’t want to give them any reason to suspect him.

It sounds like one of the people who can see through them is one of the arguing voices.

“I know what you want, Severus, and in other circumstances, I would support you to the best of my ability. Surely you know that.” Dumbledore is weary, or wants other people to think he is, Theo decides, crouching right at the top of the staircase. “But Harry will not be safe from Death Eaters in any other place than his relatives’ home.”

He’s not now, Theo thinks, and touches his tongue of one of his back teeth.

“He has already made a deal with the son of a Death Eater for safety,” says Snape, harsh as the tooth. “Do you want to drive him further into their arms? He hates the Muggles more than he fears for his own life, Albus!”

How does he know that? Theo cocks his head to the side. His father once had suspicions Professor Snape was a Legilimens, but he never had any proof, he told Theo, and he couldn’t make accusations without proof. This is probably proof, because Harry wouldn’t have told Snape willingly.

I have to tell my father. He would do it right now if he was at the Owlery. As it is, Theo has to remain still and listen with all his might.

“I know. But I am going to have a talk with him before he leaves on the train, Severus. He will understand that he can’t go with a Death Eater. Perhaps I should have had it with him before now, but—well, I did not realize how desperate he had become.”

“You should have. You should have.”

“Other than reading his mind, Severus, what should I have done? Harry is a resilient child. I thought he would take this shock and cope with it, not go running to Death Eaters the minute my back was turned.”

And the Headmaster is a Legilimens, too. Theo isn’t as surprised by that. He still makes sure that his hands are clenched around his knees and holding on tight, and that his breathing is as careful as possible.

“You should have let me and Minerva do what we proposed. Now I do not even know if Potter will agree to follow me in that, or if it is too late. He has made it perfectly clear that he trusts neither of us.”

“Nonsense, Severus. I think the boy is adapting to trust you as his Head of House, given the situation and that he has not tried to do something like move his trunk back into Gryffindor Tower. And I will have that talk with him now.”

The voices move away down the stairs. Theo still sits as quiet as a frog with a hawk flying nearby until he’s sure that neither of them has lingered behind to try and catch eavesdroppers.

He slips away to the Owlery at once. He is too late to alter either the distraction his father has planned or the conversation Dumbledore is going to have with Harry. He will and can send the information about Legilimency, though. He will do what he can.

*

“Harry, my boy. I have one more thing I wanted to ask you about the Dursleys.”

It does not astonish Severus, how Harry’s head lifts and he stops on the step he’s on. How he speaks as if someone is pulling the words out of his mouth with a hook. “Yes, Headmaster? What is it?”

“How long has it been,” Albus asks, bending down, “since you talked to them? Really talked? About the reasons they took you in, about how they made you part of their family?”

Harry’s shoulders are thin, but they straighten with a snap, as if someone was pulling them up on a puppet string. But Severus suspects they are not being pulled that way. Not any longer. “They were never my family.”

“Now, Harry.” Albus is gently disapproving, the way he sounded when Severus came to him with news of the prophecy and his will to change sides. “Your aunt loved your mother very much, you know. She even sent me a letter asking if she could attend Hogwarts with her sister, despite not having magic.”

For a moment, Harry’s face softens. Severus can see how deep that craving for knowledge about his family runs, and he pauses. Did Petunia truly never say anything about Lily?

It is wrong that she never did. Lily was a shining light who does not deserve to be dimmed, especially in the memory of her only child.

Then Harry takes a step back from the edge of the stair and watches Albus with almost-closed eyes. “Maybe she loved my mum once, sir, but she’d decided she hated her by the time I was old enough to ask about my parents. She told me my parents were drunks who died in a car accident. Why would she say that about them if she loved Mum?”

“Petunia was most disappointed when I had to refuse her. I think she always wished to come to Hogwarts, always wished to possess magic. Can you not forgive her, my boy? Perhaps approach her in fellowship and ask for those stories that she, of all people, would know best how to give you?”

Severus clears his throat. He can hardly believe he’s about to say this, but in his mind is an image of Lily’s face tumbling down and down a dark hole, and he does not wish to see that every time he closes his eyes. “Come to that, I would serve the boy just as well as a source of stories, Headmaster.”

Albus turns to him with a swiftness that does not match the placid smile growing on his face. But before he can say something, Harry has lunged forwards off the step and is standing at the bottom of the staircase, staring at Severus.

You?”

Your surprise is not flattering. But in some ways, he has earned it, that lack of surprise. Severus nods. “I grew up in a Muggle neighborhood. Your mother lived nearby, and I was the one who taught her what she was. Until she knew, her sister thought that her ability to make rocks float and flowers grow was strange.”

“Freakish.”

That sounds like a word the boy has heard more times than he can count. Severus acknowledges it. “I was the one who named it for her, and taught her about Hogwarts and the wizarding world. We were best friends for—a time.”

“Tell me about her. Tell me all about her.”

Severus breathes out carefully. He may have found the bait that will counteract the Notts’ deadly trap. If only Albus does not interfere.

And, of course, he does. It is as if he cannot help himself.

“Harry, your aunt loves you. I’m sure she does. Even if your uncle doesn’t and your cousin is too young to understand, your aunt is your blood family.”

“But, sir,” Harry says, with only a fleeting glance away from Severus at Albus, “blood family doesn’t love each other sometimes. Like Neville and that great-uncle he talks about, or me and Aunt Petunia. And Dudley.”

Severus lets his lip curl a little. Dudley Dursley. Only Petunia Evans would think of a name like that.

“Blood family can keep you safe,” Albus says, his words as soft as water wearing away a stone, “keep you protected from all dangers. You wouldn’t want to put other people in harm’s way, would you, Harry?”

Harry’s fists tremble at his sides. Severus sees it and leans forwards to clasp them.

“Make the boy go back, and he will only run away,” he says, sure he is not insulting Harry. He only speaks the truth, and Harry is smart and complex-minded enough to realize what he is doing, if he listens closely.

Which, given his flared nostrils and the pinched way his cheeks seem to be collapsing inwards, might not be the case.

“But he must understand the love of his aunt. Even his cousin. The love of a home.”

Harry laughs like a raven. “They’re not my family! They’re not my home!”

From the way Albus’s face turns sickly pale, Severus is sure he understands now. There are blood protections that depend on sincere emotion—everything from the desire to see a family line continue to loyalty to a ward’s deceased parents. Since neither of those would be in play here, Severus determines that it must be Harry’s feeling that the Dursley house is home.

And maybe that would have worked when he knew nowhere else. But what did you think introducing him to the wizarding world would do? Are you honestly surprised, Albus?

“If they cannot love you,” Albus says, and his voice is still a little shaken although gaining in strength by the second, “surely you can love them?”

No.”

Harry turns and marches off towards the entrance to the school. Severus and Albus stand a moment, in what Severus suspects is shock on Albus’s part. He does not know that he himself feels anything but a thin churning of triumph.

“I will try to keep him safe, and convince him that this is only a temporary detour. I will try to remove him from the Death Eaters’ clutches.” Honestly, the only reason Severus shared that information with Albus in the first place was to show him how serious the situation has become.

“The Dursleys cannot be temporary, Severus. Not until he reaches seventeen.”

“Because you want him to stay safe from Death Eaters more than anything else. Even though, in this school, he has access to their children.”

“Voldemort is still the greatest danger, and the blood protections hold against him.”

Severus shakes his head in silence and turns away. He has tried things Albus’s way; he has warned him, because Albus’s strength, thrown behind him, would ensure a quicker response from the Ministry.

Now all bets are off, and Severus will do things in his manner.

Chapter Text

Harry gets on the train with his shoulders so tense that he thinks curses might bounce off them. He looks around suspiciously, but no one seems to be watching him. People are more occupied chasing their cats and shrieking to each other and hugging and promising to write.

Harry sighs and sits down in the compartment Ron and Hermione have saved. “Nothing yet,” he tells them.

“Do you think Professor Dumbledore is going to come after the train?” Hermione’s eyes are big.

“No, he would have stopped Harry in the school,” Ron tells her, and then turns to Harry. “You’re sure he didn’t put a spell on you to make you Apparate back there or something? I mean, when the train is moving and none of us can stop it to make it go back and get you.”

“Ron! Professor Dumbledore wouldn’t do that.”

Ron scowls and slumps back in his seat with his arms folded. “I don’t know about that,” he grumbles. “I’m starting to think he might do almost anything he takes a mind to.”

Harry gives him a quick smile. It’s nice to know that someone is on his side. Well, two people, really. He knows Hermione doesn’t think he should go back to the Dursleys, either. She just doesn’t distrust Dumbledore as much as he does.

Harry takes a deep breath and looks out the window, watching last-minute people bustle onto the train. He doesn’t see any of the Slytherins, but several Gryffindors. He swallows back the pang and thinks about things.

Snape can tell him stories about his mum. Blaise wants to be his real friend. Harry isn’t sure which one of those shocks him the most, but he does know he would rather think about them than about the way Malfoy’s going to taunt Harry when the summer’s done.

Dumbledore doesn’t come out and scoop him off the train, though. Neither does Snape. People finally stop scrambling around, and then there’s a shriek and a blast of steam and the Express starts rolling.

Harry leans back in his seat and closes his eyes. So he’s on his way back to the Dursleys. Well, there will be a way to escape them. Maybe Theo’s father will even come and get him before he can leave King’s Cross Station.

Snape’s face looms in front of his hidden eyes. You shouldn’t want that. Not a Death Eater.

But what alternate does he have? He has to belong somewhere. He’s never belonged at Privet Drive. He’ll never belong in Slytherin. He knows, deep inside himself, that that’s the real reason he’s fought to never go back to the Dursleys, which he didn’t do before. He had Gryffindor before.

Now he doesn’t.

“Are you okay, Harry? You look awfully upset.”

Harry manages to open his eyes and sit up. “Just hoping everything will work out. Hey, Ron, do you want to play Exploding Snap?” That will drown out their voices as well as his despair. He hopes.

*

Theo leans intently towards the window, and ignores both Blaise’s attempts to talk to him and Malfoy’s unimaginative taunts about Theo hoping to spy a possible girlfriend that way. Malfoy’s less inspired than usual. Theo would wonder what’s happened to him, but it’s honestly not worth a moment’s consideration.

More time, and more countryside, passes than Theo thought would. He’s about to give in to Blaise’s conversational overtures after all when he sees a flickering curl of red mist. Theo sits back and sighs deeply.

“What is it?” Blaise follows his gaze out the window, but he won’t know what the red mist is. No one can know that except Theo.

Theo answers anyway, by pointing his chin. “This might do something for Harry.”

Harry? You call him Harry?”

Even Draco’s most creative taunts wouldn’t grab Theo’s attention now. He keeps looking, and he can make out tendrils of mist reaching out to embrace the train, and eyes floating on the tendrils, and the opening and closing of different mouths in it.

He hopes Harry hates the Muggles as much as he’s always claimed to.

“Your father,” Blaise murmurs almost into his ear. “This wouldn’t have anything to do with those violations of the Experimental Breeding Ban he was charged with once, would it?”

Theo reminds himself to tell Father that Blaise knows about that, somehow, and just smiles. The red tendrils have curled around the wheels of the train, but they don’t stop it. They simply keep rising, brushing against the windows, seeking out the flavor of the mind—pulsing with the right name—that Father will have told them to seek out.

This wouldn’t work if Harry didn’t remember who he was or if he’d decided in the last day to change his name. But given the circumstances, Theo thinks he hardly needs to worry about failure.

Which is probably why Father chose to send the Mirror of Mouths instead of one of the others.

*

“What is that?” Ron stops playing Exploding Snap and leans over to stare out the window.

Harry glances out, too, although he doesn’t really think he’s going to see anything. Ron and Hermione have kept giving him more and more worried glances as the ride goes on, and whispering to each other. They probably want to cheer him up, and it would be like Ron to pretend to see something interesting so that—

But then a huge eye on a tentacle flattens itself against the window, and Harry jumps to his feet. It looks like the Giant Squid if it could have crawled out of the lake and chased them all the way from Hogwarts. The tentacle flails around for a minute and then slides down the window glass, leaving behind a delicate smear of something that doesn’t look like blood.

“What the bloody hell?” Ron breathes. Hermione doesn’t even scold him for language.

“I think it’s attacking the train,” she says decisively, and starts casting some spells on the window that Harry doesn’t recognize. He thinks they might be meant to strengthen the glass or something. He finds it hard to take his fascinated gaze away from the glass and the creature hovering beyond it, even when he hears other students screaming.

And then it proves he was right to keep paying attention, because a tentacle comes curling back and smashes the window with a little tinkle, and reaches in and grabs him.

“Harry!” “Mate!”

The tentacle doesn’t squeeze. Instead, a different one with one of the eyes comes back and hovers outside the window, and stares straight into Harry’s face.

Do you hate the Muggles? The voice in his head is low, moaning, the way Harry thinks a ghost’s voice would probably sound.

Harry braces his hands against the tentacle—which doesn’t feel like anything except mist, cold and clammy—and nods. “Yes. They kept me in a cupboard and they don’t love me and they don’t feed me enough.”

“Harry!”

The eye in front of him is huge and blue, veined with red. It reminds Harry of the eyes of drunk people he’s sometimes caught a glimpse of on the telly. It studies him with such intense concentration that Harry feels like his brain is cooking. But honestly, he doesn’t know what it wants. This must be the distraction Theo and his father promised, but that doesn’t mean Harry knows what’s about to happen next.

Hermione casts some kind of hex at the beast. The spell simply blurs into the misty tentacle around Harry’s waist and fades from sight.

Do you remember why they have no right to do this to you? The voice is stronger this time, and seems to boom around inside Harry’s head.

He nods, but the beast is still waiting, so he says, “They don’t have the right to do it to me because they should have treated me better. And I should be able to go some place that has people who at least take care of me. I don’t care that much if they like me,” he adds, because that’s the truth, the truth that hides behind all his happiness about going to the Burrow and his fear of owing the Notts a debt. “It would be better if they did, though.”

The beast pauses, as if listening. Harry’s not sure if the train has stopped or if the screams are stopping. Ron and Hermione are wrestling with the tentacle reaching through the window, but they can’t move it or even really touch it; Harry sees it sliding through their hands like water.

You will need to become part of me for the journey. You cannot be solid, for we travel too fast. You must speak your name aloud.

Harry swallows. He opens his mouth, and hears Hermione scream, “Don’t do it, Harry!”

But Harry can’t pay attention to her, can’t pay attention to anything but the huge bloodshot blue eyes watching him. He doesn’t think it’ll devour him. He doesn’t think the Notts want to kill him, because what would be the point? Theo thinks he can make changes in Slytherin. He can’t do that if he’s dead.

And he needs this. He needs something to build off of or he won’t survive. He knows that as easily as he knows his name, as easily as he speaks it.

“Harry Potter.”

The world around him blurs in odd patches, as if Harry is part of a cloth that isn’t getting washed correctly. Then he’s floating out the window, yanked along by the tentacle. He’s as light as a balloon.

He can still hear the screams of his friends, but they’re oddly flattened, turned sideways, as if he is hearing them through a magical mesh across his ears. And Harry, now, is not afraid. He’s part of the mist, and when the beast turns and begins to float across the country, moving far more rapidly than the train, he’s cradled inside it. Safe. Not able to be taken out by many magical means—he knows that because the beast knows it about itself—and no Muggle ones.

The price for this may be more than he’s willing to pay, if he thinks about it. But he knows what the other price would have been, and that knowledge means he’s smiling as he flows away with the beast.

*

What the hell was that?

Draco is asking the same question of Theo, but aloud, and Blaise knows Theo won’t answer. Besides, Draco is probably only asking because he knows that Theo’s father breeds experimental beasts and he can’t keep his mouth shut, not because he knows Theo was planning to kidnap Harry.

Is it kidnapping if he goes willingly?

Blaise shakes his head and licks his lips. His face still feels frozen, not because there’s cold around like there would be from Dementors but simply because the beast is so strange. He watches the little smile playing around Theo’s lips and hopes that he’s right, that Theo values Harry and the changes he can make to Slytherin too much to hurt him.

Or rather, perhaps he should hope Theo’s father values him that way.

The door of their compartment abruptly bangs open. Blaise isn’t the only Slytherin to spin around with his wand in his hand. Granger stands there, and Weasley behind her, braced like lions, their own wands pointed at Draco and Blaise.

“Which one of you did it?”

Blaise only shakes his head. “What are you talking about?”

“That thing that attacked the train ran off with Harry.” Granger stalks a few steps further into the compartment, and if she sees the wands pointing at her, she’s really good at pretending that she doesn’t. Her entire, burning, radiating attention is pointed at Blaise. “You were talking to him sometimes. He mentioned it. He said you call him by his first name. Did you trick him into going away with that thing? Did you?”

“No,” Blaise says. It’s the truth, after all, and maybe he can find out a little more about what happened from Granger. It’s not like he was in the compartment with Harry to see. “He went away with it on his own? Willingly?”

For the first time, Granger falters, and shivers. Weasley surges forwards as if to back her up, but Granger isn’t interested in striking out at them right now, Blaise can tell. “I—don’t know. It reached a tentacle into the carriage, and he said some things…it made it sound like he was answering questions the beast asked him. Why would he do that?”

“What kinds of questions?” Blaise doesn’t have the first idea what the beast is, so he doesn’t know what it would have asked.

“He said his name, and he said that he didn’t mind going somewhere where people didn’t like him, but it would be better if they did.” Granger blinks hard and focuses on Theo, who has eased out from behind Blaise. Blaise doesn’t know why Theo is doing that when most of the time he takes care to stay in the shadows, but he turns around, too. “Do you know about this?”

“Even if he went with the beast willingly,” Theo says softly, “you’re asking who when you should be asking a more important question.”

“What do you mean?”

Why.” Granger flinches, and Theo continues, “What’s waiting for him that’s so bad Harry would go with an unknown magical creature to get away from it?”

“Nothing! I mean—not nothing. But it was going to work out. And the beast could do anything. It could kill him. It could eat him. It could lock him away somewhere and leave him without any way to see us ever again.”

“What a pity that would be,” Draco interjects, his voice thick with smugness.

Blaise rolls his eyes, but keeps it to himself, because Weasley has turned on Draco, roaring, “Shut up, Malfoy! I bet it was you who arranged this, eh? Daddy keep that beast in his cellars?”

“I most certainly did not do such a vulgar thing—”

“This isn’t going to do any good, Ron!” Granger is tugging on Weasley’s arm, and Blaise finds himself glad that they’re going to be spared a full on Malfoy-Weasley fight. They’re never any fun, not least because Draco sulks for days afterwards. “We have to find a way to get a message to Professor Dumbledore! He has to know that something took Harry!”

“What about getting a message to Professor Snape?” Blaise asks. Granger stares at him, and he adds, “I mean, he is Harry’s Head of House. And that means that he’s in charge of his well-being while he’s anywhere near Hogwarts. That includes the train.”

“I don’t have any way to get a message, anyway,” Granger snaps. “So it’s moot.”

“But you could still contact Professor Snape when you have a way to send one.”

“There’s a way to send one.”

Blaise glances at Draco, wondering what game he’s playing now. If he has a secret Portkey, he’s kept it well-hidden. Of course, maybe he’s just going to offer Granger the use of his eagle-owl, as out of character as that would be for him.

“There are a few seventh-year Slytherins who specialize in message charms,” Draco says casually. “It happens that one of them owes me a favor.”

Blaise knows exactly who he’s talking about—Kyle Avery—and he gapes before he can stop himself. Then he realizes that maybe Draco wants to see people gaping, and he closes his mouth hastily.

Behind him, Theo is listening, silent and still.

“Why would you do that?” Granger asks.

“Because I want you to send the message to Professor Snape.” Draco steps forwards. “I want you to acknowledge that your perfect Potter is a Slytherin. And if he went with that beast willingly, maybe he even plotted with someone to escape the train and your precious Professor Dumbledore. I want you to say that. Actually, never mind, I’ll send the message, because Avery would only insult you anyway.” He opens the door of the compartment and vanishes out of it before anyone can stop him.

Blaise keeps from looking at Theo with a massive effort. He wonders if he should have said something, but. Well. Too late now.

*

Theo can’t help frowning a little as he listens. Professor Snape, at least, knows about the deal that Harry made with Theo and his father.

On the other hand, he has no idea how fast the Mirror of Mouths moves. And he has no idea where Father stores it when he’s not using it. Neither does Theo, so not even reading Theo’s mind will reveal the secret to him.

Granger and Weasley tumble after Draco, so that leaves only Blaise as a potential problem. Theo looks at him, and holds his eyes until Blaise says softly, “I hope you know what you’re doing.”

“I do. And more, my family does.”

Theo goes back to looking out the window. He’s actually fairly curious to find out whether Father will let him meet Harry when he gets home.

Chapter Text

Severus narrows his eyes when the silvery, flickering bird soars through the window and towards him. He knows, even as he stretches his hand out, that he will not be able to touch it. This is a message charm of the kind that Filius has his seventh-years practice frequently.

That knowledge does not answer the question of why one of them would be coming to him.

The bird alights on Severus’s hand and leans close to his ear. It speaks, jolting him, in Draco’s voice. “Sir, Harry Potter has been kidnapped from the Hogwarts Express by a red mist that had eyes and tentacles. He apparently answered some questions before he left. His friends said he might have gone with it willingly.”

The bird dissolves into speckles of light. Severus has to close his eyes and sit still for a long moment before he can trust himself to move.

And his first move is not to go to Albus’s office. He assumes that one of Harry’s friends will use an owl when the train stops moving to alert Albus, but going to him would be productive of nothing except delays. Or possibly a quick search, but one that would have all the might of Albus Dumbledore behind it, and be too obvious.

Severus can at least make a guess where Harry is going. And he doesn’t have to listen to moralizing about Death Eaters while he does it.

He stands up and crosses to his Floo. Then he taps his wand against the mantel and casts the first of the elaborate countercharms that he has to use to unwind the knot of protective spells which will prevent him from using Floo powder to access the Notts’ home. Some pure-blood families want to keep their Floo open to select visitors, but not have those visitors barging in at all times. Or keep them on the edge of magical exhaustion when they come through.

Severus does not intend to cross through unless it’s a requirement. Such as if he sees Harry in the background.

The knot takes nearly ten minutes to unwind, and other than when he has to pause for breath and to let the ripples running through his core subside, Severus does it with constant spellcasting. Then he sags back and lets himself breathe a little before he casts in the Floo powder and calls, “Hemlock House!”

The fire seems to waver and open sullenly, although Severus is almost sure that is only his imagination. He still watches narrowly as the flames hiccough apart.

“Severus. To what do I owe the interference?”

“Tarquinius,” says Severus, and inclines his head. “I want to know whether it was your beast that attacked the Hogwarts Express and took Harry Potter.”

Tarquinius gives him a lazy smile. “If you intend to lay kidnapping charges against me, then you’ll need better evidence than that.”

“I am the boy’s Head of House. His welfare is my responsibility.”

“Not during the summer, dear Severus.”

“Until he steps off the Express—steps—then, legally, it is.”

Tarquinius pauses. Severus knows it is an unexpected victory, but it will not remain a victory unless he can press forwards and make it so. He leans in, smiling a little as he focuses his eyes on Tarquinius.

“Come, my friend. You know that you could not take the Boy-Who-Lived and simply expect it to go unreported.”

“I hoped it might go unreported for longer,” says Tarquinius. He shakes himself a moment later, and some of the indolent air comes back. Severus thinks it is his greatest weapon, perhaps, this way of making it seem to many that he is simply lazy, too lazy to bother doing anything they need contest. “But, Severus, you are not approaching me from a position of strength. In a few hours, your interest in the boy’s welfare will cease until August.”

“Then call it an interest of a different kind, too.” Staring intently, Severus moves his hand towards his left arm.

Tarquinius lifts his head like a hound scenting a fresh trail. “I did not take him to torture or otherwise cause him pain, whatever you may think.”

“I doubt your son would approve of that, when he wants to use Potter to gain social prominence in Slytherin.”

“Theo could have social prominence whenever he wanted it. Malfoy’s offspring isn’t that hard to circumvent.” Tarquinius frowns lightly. “I enjoy the thought of having someone so important indebted to me, of course. But you will get him back in August.”

“And will he be the same boy who left my custody?”

“Afraid that I’ll add a few limbs or eyes?” Tarquinius chuckles. “Don’t be, Severus. I promise that he will come back as human in shape as ever. What I might tell him, teach him, impress upon his mind…that is a different matter, of course.”

“I will lead the search for him. And since I know that you have him, I will be able to cause much more trouble than if I had no idea.”

Tarquinius’s eyelids droop for a moment. Severus has often thought he looked like a great lizard, and this is one of the clearest resemblances he can remember. “That is true, Severus. I had not anticipated you taking such an interest in the boy.”

Severus remains silent. Tarquinius peers around as if trying to see into the room beyond him. “And should I expect a cavalry charge with Albus Dumbledore at the head?”

Part of Severus, the part that has been coiled most tightly since the message came, relaxes slightly. “Not Dumbledore. He has mishandled the boy and made him willing to seek shelter and indebtedness with you in the first place. No. I will not necessarily remove the boy from your care. What I want is regular access to him.”

“Do you think I’m foolish enough to let you come to my hidden places?”

“Then you’ll have to let him meet me elsewhere. And endure the risk that I may remove him.”

Tarquinius sits like a basking lizard while he thinks about that. Severus remains still. Albus would never approve of him handling things like this, but then, the chances that Albus will learn about it before Tarquinius makes a decision are infinitesimal.

Finally, Tarquinius murmurs, “I will require an oath that you will not betray the location of my hidden places.”

“What interest do I have in helping the Ministry enforce its bans on your beasts? I will be happy to swear the oath.”

“Perhaps not the Ministry, but until today, I thought you had some interest in hoping Albus Dumbledore enforce his policies.”

Severus meets the man’s eyes, and it is as if they are back in a Death Eater meeting, measuring each other while the Dark Lord murmurs over to the side. Severus always tried to speak the truth in those meetings when he could. It makes a potent weapon and leaves less ground for others to try and attack him by twisting his own lies.

“If he wanted to ensure that,” Severus says, with deliberate slowness and malice that is there and real, “then he should have taken better care of the boy while he was still a Gryffindor.”

Perhaps that is some of the assurance Tarquinius was looking for, because he nods, and his eyes blink a little faster. “I will let you know when you can see the boy. No later than tomorrow. I will assume that he may be dazed by his fast travel today and require some time to recover.”

Severus bows his head without looking away. “You should know that I will—bring consequences down if I must wait for longer than that to interview Potter.”

“You need not tell me, Severus.” Tarquinius waves a thin, impatient hand. “This is one of the hazards of doing business in a school, with schoolboys who are still under the protection of authorities.”

“You intend to do business with Potter?”

“As I said, Theo could take leadership in Slytherin House whenever he desires to do so. Personally, I think he overestimates the danger posed by the Malfoys. If he wants to use Potter as an excuse, he can. But I want something else.”

“As long as you remember all the consequences.”

“I shall,” says Tarquinius, and he is not stupid. Severus knows that he is thinking of some of the spells and potions Severus used during their first war to ensure his domination over the other Death Eaters. Tarquinius might manage to kill Harry, but he will have to decide whether the victory would be worth having his own death immediately follow that.

The Floo shuts, and Severus sits back and traces a finger over his left arm, sighing. Albus will make his own searches and have some good luck or good contacts in the Ministry who might be able to point him in some of the right directions.

But without Severus, he will have no luck in locating Tarquinius’s many hidden homes.

And Severus finds himself…disinclined to give Albus that help.

*

Harry feels the red mist blow abruptly away from him, and then he’s standing on a stone floor in a large, well-lit room. But the room is bare. There’s a fireplace, blazing away, but no furniture.

Harry blinks and touches his forehead. It was strange, being part of the Mirror of Mouths like that. He was blowing along with it, and he knew he wasn’t alone. The Mirror kept asking him questions, mostly about his name and the Dursleys. After a while Harry ran out of new things to say, but it didn’t matter. The questioning was special, somehow. Important. And it made him feel special and important.

“Everyone acts like I already am special and important,” Harry whispers to himself as he stands in front of the fireplace. “But I don’t feel that way.”

“That’s very interesting to know, Harry Potter.”

Harry spins around. There’s a door opening in the side of the room that he didn’t see before, and a man steps through it. He looks a lot like Theo, thin and with dark hair, but he has a smile and a sharp gaze that Harry’s never seen on Theo.

“What’s your name?” Harry asks. He supposes he should be afraid, but part of the Mirror of Mouths is still with him, maybe. It’s hard to think about being afraid when you were part of something that could blow through the countryside like wind and attack the Hogwarts Express.

“My name is Tarquinius Nott. Theo’s father. I want to welcome you to my home.”

This is your home?” Harry asks, and glances around at the stone walls and floor and ceiling. And the fireplace, but he thinks it wouldn’t be comfortable to sleep on the hard floor in front of it, no matter how warm.

“One of them. And I did want to make sure that you weren’t so shaken by your journey you would start indiscriminately destroying things.” Mr. Nott snaps his fingers.

Abruptly, the floor shakes, and then beds and chairs surge out of the stone. Harry stares with his mouth dropping open. The beds are rich and high and have canopies, mostly in green and purple and blue. The chairs are overstuffed. But that’s not what impresses him.

“You can do wandless magic?”

“Oh, no. Not usually. But there’s such a thing as a chain of contingency spells that can be cast and renewed at intervals. A contingency spell guarantees a result if a certain thing happens. In this case, I snap my fingers and the furniture arises.”

Harry looks longingly at a chair, but isn’t sure he should sit down. Aunt Petunia would scold him—

“Do sit, Harry.” Mr. Nott takes one that puts his back to the fireplace.

Harry does, and then says the first thing that comes into his head. “Why did you agree with Theo to get me away from the Muggles?”

“Because I want something from you. I think you could probably guess that. More than what Theo wants, which is power in Slytherin. I haven’t been a Slytherin student for a long, long time.”

Harry nods. He expected this. He has to be prepared for it, and ignore the way that his heart is knocking like it did when he did accidental magic back at the Dursleys’. “What do you want?”

Mr. Nott only studies him for a few moments, his frown so pensive that Harry doesn’t know what he’s thinking. Then he says, “A choice.”

“Of what?” Harry knows his voice shakes this time, but he tries to make up for it with a glare that he knows is impressive.

“A choice when the Dark Lord returns. I know the rumors that have swept Hogwarts. I know that he is not dead.”

Mr. Nott’s face is flushed, his eyes burning. He reminds Harry of Snape. But he’s ignored or beaten Snape a time or two. Harry makes himself sit still, and say, “I’m not going to let you give me up to him.”

Mr. Nott chuckles. He sounds kind of like the Mirror of Mouths, which is more reassuring than maybe it should be. “At the moment, you couldn’t do much to stop me. And that is the problem.”

“It is?”

“I want a choice,” Mr. Nott repeats. “Either to serve the Dark Lord, or—to go free. He is no longer as impressive in my memory as once he was. Even when he returns fully, I may not want to serve him. But Dumbledore would only offer me platitudes and no protection that could stand against his powers. That means I need a figurehead to lead another side. Someone who can gain the allegiance of people who follow Dumbledore, but does not follow Dumbledore himself.” He props his chin on his fist. He’s unnerving. Harry doesn’t think he’s blinked once yet. “You’re the only candidate.”

“I don’t want to be a figurehead.”

Mr. Nott gives him an amused glance. “I suspect you don’t know what the word means.”

Harry folds his arms. “I don’t know everything it means, but I know it means now that you would take away my choices, and make me someone you only pretended to listen to. I don’t want that any more than you want to serve Voldemort.”

Mr. Nott flinches. It’s brilliant, and it makes Harry calm down a little. A second ago he was thinking that he didn’t have any choice but to do what Mr. Nott wanted. Now he knows he has some power.

“You could be useful,” Mr. Nott says. “But perhaps more useful than a figurehead.” He has his head cocked to the side and he’s squinting at Harry like he has blurry glasses on. “It would depend on how much personal power you have, of course. I’ll be testing that.”

Harry swallows back some bitterness. This place might be better than Privet Drive if Mr. Nott is going to teach him magic. But. “Are you going to starve me?”

“What would be the good of that?”

“Are you going to lock me in a cupboard?”

“I have no idea what that means.”

“Are you going to tell me that I can’t use magic and call me a freak and deny me my heritage?”

“Where are you coming up with this? Of course not.”

Harry heaves in a breath. “Then you’re already better than my Muggle relatives.”

Mr. Nott is silent for so long that Harry begins to think he’s changed his mind and might lock Harry in a cupboard after all. But instead, he says, “I will bring you to another of my houses. You may eat there and greet Theo when he returns. But I have something to do first.” He stands and places his hand on the wall next to the fireplace.

One of the stone blocks sinks into the wall, and Harry blinks at the place it was. There is something else there, something dark and slick and shifting. Mr. Nott pulls it out and stares at it for a few seconds. Then he says, “You are to go to the place I tell you and do what I tell you.”

The creature answers him, and Harry starts, because it’s speaking in Parseltongue. “I hear and obey. Only tell me.” It twists in Mr. Nott’s hand, and something dark green falls from its mouth. It’s a drop of liquid. Harry watches it hit the floor, and burn a hole there.

Mr. Nott glances at Harry with a faint smile. “This will only take a moment. And then we’ll go through the Floo.”

Harry waits as Mr. Nott goes into the next room. He’s almost sick with his heartbeat, shaking.

But things are looking better now. And he doesn’t think he’s going to regret this.

*

Tarquinius watches the snake in his hand. No one else has ever named it, and the only name Tarquinius has thought of for it sounds too grandiose to speak aloud.

But in the privacy of his head, he can call it the Vengeance-Seeker and not fear that someone will take it the wrong way.

“The Dursleys, Number Four Privet Drive,” he says. “Kill them.”

The Vengeance-Seeker goes sliding through his hands, and flows into the shadows. It passes through the walls, but not even Tarquinius’s eyes can see it when it does that.

Tarquinius stands, and thinks of his son in a cupboard. Starving. Not knowing he’s a wizard. Called a freak.

His only regret is that the Vengeance-Seeker will make their deaths swift. Painful, but swift.

He smiles a little as he returns to his guest. He does look forward to telling Severus.

Chapter Text

 

Harry eats a meal so thick with lettuce and tomatoes and bacon and potatoes and anything else he asks for that he starts asking for more, just to see if Mr. Nott’s house-elves will bring it to him.

They do. They’re fast and silent and efficient, but they don’t look unhappy the way Dobby did—or the way Harry used to when he was doing chores for the Dursleys. They watch their plates instead, and rush them to the table, and listen to what he wants, and then pop back to the kitchen without wringing their ears.

Harry pauses with his fork halfway to his mouth.

What did happen to Dobby?

He puts the fork down again, feeling a little sick that he hasn’t thought about that. Dobby helped him—well, he did what he thought was for the best—and Harry has just forgotten those things as if they meant nothing at all.

“Is something troubling you?”

Harry looks up quickly again when Mr. Nott comes into the room. He brought Harry to this huge dining room and sat him at the table and told him to eat whatever he wanted, but Harry hasn’t seen him since. The dining room is made of paneled wood, both on the floors and the walls, and it feels a lot more home-like than the bare stone room Harry first woke up in.

“I—I was thinking about a house-elf who tried to help me,” Harry says, and eats a couple of bites quickly. “I knew he was being punished by his family, but I sort of forgot about him after I was Sorted into Slytherin.”

“House-elves are meant to be forgotten.” Mr. Nott frowns at one who comes forwards now with the plate of treacle tart Harry requested five minutes ago. The house-elf squeaks and bows without looking up from the plate, or the table as it puts the plate on it. “I hope mine haven’t been troubling you.”

The way I was forgotten. Harry swallows the last of his ham and reaches for the treacle tart. He won’t let anything put him off his appetite, but he does have to realize that Mr. Nott isn’t all good, he supposes.

“This elf tried to help me.”

“Why?”

“He thought I was in danger at Hogwarts. And then he—he thought it would be for the best if I didn’t go back to Hogwarts. He said that he owed me a debt for—” Harry hesitates and touches the scar on his forehead.

“You can refer to him however you like, except by name,” says Mr. Nott. “You do not have to call him the Dark Lord, as I do. I can understand why you might not wish to. However, there are echoes here that will respond to the name. They are not wise to wake.”

Harry stares at him. “You mean that there’s a spell that will make—something wake up if I say the name Vol—” He stops himself in time.

“Not the first time. Not the second. But the third, and beyond? Oh, yes. He spent a lot of time here. He set spells that would catch some of his enemies, as his loyal followers would never be caught. Speak his name too much, and they will wake and come looking for you.”

Harry shivers. It sounds like what he’s read about Acromantulas and basilisks, only worse. He finishes his treacle tart and then asks, “Am I going to be able to see Theo?”

“When he gets off the Hogwarts Express. I imagine that won’t be long now. One of the elves will fetch him.”

Harry nods and traces a finger across the tabletop again. Then he says, “You said that you were—I think you were going to teach me magic.” It takes him a lot of courage to bring up, in case Mr. Nott is going to take it away again, but he doesn’t want to let the chance slip through his fingers, either.

“I am thinking about which kinds you need to learn most. Theo sent me a letter, although that was some time ago, during the term, that mentioned you are talented at Defense.”

“Maybe defending myself? We’ve had horrible professors, though.”

“We shall have to stand in you in front of my own Silver Hourglass and see what competencies it measures in you. I know you would have been tested before, but it happens too young for most children to remember much about it—”

“What’s a Silver Hourglass?”

Mr. Nott pauses, then says, “Ah, of course. Muggles.” But for some reason he looks cheerful right after he says that. “Then you will not have been tested, and should go in front of the Hourglass sooner rather than later.”

Harry swallows, feeling a little queasy. “All right.”

“Shall we?” Mr. Nott rises, and the house-elves immediately appear and begin to clean the plates off the tables. It’s not as wondrous as Hogwarts, where the dishes disappear on their own, but Harry reckons that it’s easier for a smaller group of elves.

He follows Mr. Nott, not sure he’s ready, down two twisting corridors that are lined with thick green panels. Harry can’t tell if they’re stone or wood, and he has no desire to touch them. But he does notice, as they enter a room that has a large pentacle in the middle with a raised platform in the middle of that, that his head is starting to feel stuffy. He hopes he’s not coming down with a cold.

“Notice that, then?”

Mr. Nott whips around. Harry jumps, and nods. Mr. Nott smiles. “That’s the magic in the room being deadened so that the Hourglass can more easily measure your own. It’s a sign of strength that you can feel it so clearly.”

Harry catches a glimpse of the thing on the platform behind him, which Mr. Nott was blocking from view at first. It is a giant silver hourglass, gleaming, at least twice as tall as Harry. It has no sand in it Harry can see, but there are runes carved all around the edges of the bulbs.

“How does it work?” Harry is starting to think that maybe it’s suspicious he’s never heard of this before or noticed anything about it in a book.

“You stand in front of it, and soon sand will flow into the hourglass,” Mr. Nott says calmly enough. He’s standing to one side and he doesn’t have his wand drawn. Harry hopes that’s a good sign. “The sand comes from the magic of the hourglass itself. It moves in certain patterns that indicate magical specialties or strengths. I’ll interpret them for you.”

Once again, Harry hesitates, but he’s already put this much trust in Mr. Nott. It’s a little late to start thinking that Theo’s dad shouldn’t know as much about what Harry can do.

Slowly, Harry steps in front of the hourglass. It shivers, and Harry can hear a deep chime that comes from somewhere. Golden sand fills it, sparkling hard against the silver hoops of the hourglass itself.

The sand crosses and crisscrosses. Harry can’t see many patterns in it, honestly. Now and then there’s a curve or an X, but they always dissolve back into the chaos of flowing gold. Harry decides to stand and look at how pretty it is and hope Mr. Nott can tell him something useful when it finally ends.

The hourglass finally chimes again. The sand all falls into the bottom bulb, which looks about half-full. Harry blinks and glances at Mr. Nott.

Who’s standing there with a faint smile on his face.

“You wouldn’t remember it if you have been tested by the Hourglass before, but I don’t think anyone who was there would have forgotten it,” Mr. Nott murmurs, moving closer. “That was incredible, Mr. Potter.”

“It was? Why?”

Mr. Nott flicks a finger at the sand in the bottom bulb. “The amount of sand indicates the power. Most wizards fill it a quarter of the way. Maybe a third. Half is very impressive.”

Harry folds his arms. “Does that mean you think you can train me in magic?”

“Certain kinds of magic.” Mr. Nott waves his wand, and a pattern forms in the air. It’s a brilliant blue, and Harry recognizes some of the twists and turns that the sand took when it was filling the hourglass. Not all of them, but on the other hand, he doesn’t really see what Mr. Nott would gain from lying about what he saw. “You have no talent for the Dark Arts at all, I’m sorry to say.”

Harry only shrugs, because he doesn’t know what the right response would be, but secretly he’s relieved.

“Defense, yes, that specialty is strong. And flying. And you have some possible untapped potential for spell creation, although you’d have to work to make it as strong as your Defense talent is.” Mr. Nott pauses and waves his wand again, and the whole configuration of blue light flips and twists over. Harry can see several small X’s in a row. He blinks. He certainly never saw them when the light was flying around. “Ah, now this. This is interesting. You’re a Parselmouth?”

“Yes,” Harry says, a little startled. He would have thought Theo would tell his dad that.

“You could have a talent for snake magic,” Mr. Nott says.

“Like—Care of Magical Creatures?”

“Nothing so plebian.” Mr. Nott consigns them to non-existence with an easy flip of his hand. “No, I mean the talent of reading the messages snakes send, as well as speaking to them. Even the magical serpents that we typically can’t work with or tame respond to a snake mage. They can perform magic that normally belongs to other branches, such as forming their bodies into runes that one may read, or into patterns that can predict the future.” He ends the image with a snap of his wrist and looks at Harry intently. “But that would also take work. And it would take more training than I could give you. You’d either need lots of books or more tutors.”

“I can afford the books.”

“I thought you would want the tutors.”

“I don’t think if it’s a good idea if everyone knows I’m here. What happens if one of the tutors supported Dumbledore and tried to take me back to him?”

Mr. Nott looks at him with raised eyebrows, which make Harry start to flush, certain it’s a stupid objection. Instead, though, he claps his hands together and nods. “And you may also have more of a talent for intrigue than I thought. Of course, that’s hardly something one could expect the Silver Hourglass to show.”

Harry tries a small smile. Mr. Nott goes on looking at him thoughtfully, then turns around and says, “Theo should be coming in soon. Let’s go meet him.”

*

The first thing Theo feels is relief at seeing Harry at all. He didn’t think Father would lock him up or experiment on him, but Father doesn’t always do the most sensible things. And Harry doesn’t look shaken or upset. Theo goes over and shakes his hand. “I’m glad you got here safely.’

“I did. Thanks for owling your father to rescue me.”

Harry looks at him intently the whole time as they turn to the dining room table. Theo wonders if Harry is thinking about the debt he owes. He has something to say to Harry about that, but it won’t do in front of his father.

He and Father eat. Harry nibbles on a bowl of custard the house-elves bring him. He obviously ate earlier. Well, if some of the things that Theo heard about the Muggles are true, food would be precious to him.

When they finish their meal—roast venison, for the most part, although with some fresh fruit and Theo’s favorite, candied oranges—Father leans over the table and says, “I tested Mr. Potter by the Silver Hourglass, since I wanted to know what his specialties were. He has talents for Defense and for snake magic.”

Theo swivels around to stare at Harry. “Snake magic?”

“I don’t know. I suppose I have it because I’m a Parselmouth?” Harry seems less cool and reserved now, shrugging as he turns red. “I don’t really know what to do with it.”

“You could talk to dragons,” Theo says, absolutely certain of this. Father had him read all about magical talents before he went to Hogwarts. The Silver Hourglass said Theo didn’t have a lot of them except a gift for Dark Arts, but it’s always useful to know what other families who could turn out to be your enemies have. “That’s the only way dragons work for us. Someone who has snake magic talks to them and they’re willing to do things he asks them to. But you can’t tame dragons. You can only persuade them.”

“I suspect talking to dragons may be even easier for Mr. Potter than it would for most,” Father says, cradling a cup of the nutty-smelling wine he’s said Theo can have when he’s fifteen. “After all, he is a Parselmouth, and dragons are related to snakes, although not closely.”

Theo shakes his head, just amazed. He wonders if Harry would ever have known about this if he’d stayed a Gryffindor. Probably not.

Which only makes it more exciting.

But when Theo looks at Harry, he doesn’t see excitement. He sees Harry frowning and looking back and forth between them.

Father seems to notice at the same time, because he puts down his cup of wine and leans forwards. “What is it, Mr. Potter?”

“The training in magic you promised me sounds great.” Harry’s voice is so cautious Theo is reminded of the time that Father trained him to walk on bones without making a sound. Theo probably wavered back and forth like that with his arms spread. “But Dumbledore’s not going to let me stay here, is he? Even if he can’t find me this summer, he’ll probably prevent me from coming back next summer.”

“He cannot,” Father says, and his voice and face are bright with malice. “He’ll have to give guardianship over to someone else.”

“Why?”

“Snake mages are considered dangerous around Muggles.” Father turns his head to the side, so he’s watching Harry with just a single eye. “Even though I can’t remember historical records of it happening, only legends, they’re afraid that snake mages will turn wild Muggle serpents against anyone who mistreats them. In fact, the Ministry is afraid of that happening when snake mages live in our world. Only then the creatures they are supposed to be able to command are magical, of course.” Father shrugs a little. “Only a very few wizards who have the libraries or can hire the tutors to give the training would be permitted to take care of you. I am one of them.”

Harry relaxes, but Theo keeps his steady gaze on Father. There’s something else, he can sense it. Some other reason Harry won’t be going back to the Dursleys, other than the reassuring truth Father told him.

Father meets his eyes. Theo doesn’t need writing to translate the message in his face.

Leave it alone.

And Theo will, for now. But he will also find out.

*

“Good morning, Mr. Potter.”

Severus uses the name deliberately. He isn’t going to call him Harry, not in front of Tarquinius. From the way that Harry’s eyes widen, though, the politeness has done much the same thing as calling him by his first name would have done.

Cursing silently, Severus nonetheless bows his head and looks once around the receiving room. It is made of thick black stone, the chairs big and bulky although not actually black. The fireplace flickers with a dim light.

“There will need to be a bit more light if Mr. Potter is to see the notes he will take on Potions, Tarquinius.”

“You do intend to teach the boy, then, Severus? Not simply remind him of the places that you would prefer he be?”

Harry’s eyes flicker like the fire for a moment, and then he says, “I’m the one who should decide that, surely.”

Severus stares at him. Tarquinius doesn’t appear as surprised, but perhaps the benefit of an extra day around the boy—

No. Not when it was the first day.

“Is Dumbledore searching for me?” Harry goes on, and faces Severus as if he has forgotten that such a person as Tarquinius Nott exists. Severus finds that satisfying for a number of reasons. He doesn’t try to untangle all of them now.

“Professor Dumbledore.”

Harry tosses that off with a flick of his hand. “Is he?”

“He certainly would like to know where you disappeared to.” Severus folds his fingers. “Do you want me to tell him?”

“Of course not. He thought I belonged with the Dursleys. With people who made me sleep in a cupboard. With people who were as happy not to feed me as feed me.” Harry leans forwards a little. “I’m never going back to them again.”

“Of course you are not.”

Something is in Tarquinius’s voice that is more than simple agreement with Harry. Severus cannot define what it is, but then, there is a reason that he was a good Death Eater, whether or not he could explain it. He turns to Tarquinius, and waits.

Tarquinius smiles a little, and produces a Daily Prophet. Severus tenses. It’s true he didn’t read the paper this morning, engaged in preparing for this meeting, but he would have seen something in the headlines pertaining to Harry. Enough other people read it around him.

Tarquinius flips to the third page, however, and holds it out. Severus stares without comprehension, until he finds the words that say, Death of Muggle Family. A smaller headline says, Magical creature believed responsible: Ministry investigation.

“You did not,” Severus says.

I did not.”

Harry takes the paper, and neither Tarquinius nor Severus tries to stop him. They are too busy staring each other down. Harry makes a choking sound, and then says, “The Dursleys are dead?”

“Yes.” Severus moves a little nearer, as tenderly as he can. Despite Harry not wanting to return to his relatives, that is a long way from wishing them dead. Severus thinks he might need to catch him as he vomits or faints.

But instead, Harry looks up and says, “Good.”

Chapter Text

Harry can’t say all he feels.

On the one hand, part of him does feel that the Dursleys being dead is horrible, because anyone being dead is horrible. There was one day when Uncle Vernon saw a story on the telly about a train crash and thought for some reason it was the train Aunt Marge was on; he spent hours ringing and yelling at people before he was satisfied his sister was safe. Harry went about with a strange feeling in his stomach even though it would have meant he didn’t have to see Aunt Marge ever again.

This is the same way.

On the other hand…

If the Dursleys were still alive, Dumbledore would find a way to send Harry back to them. Harry knows that with the deepest part of his heart. It doesn’t matter what Mr. Nott or Snape says. They would get him.

So it’s good they’re dead.

“Mr. Potter? Are you all right?”

That’s Snape, and Harry looks up and tosses the paper on the floor. Maybe that’s not a polite thing to do, but at the moment, he’s done with being polite. “What were you going to teach me, sir?” he asks. “Or was there some other reason you wanted to see me?”

Snape studies him with sharp eyes. Harry shrugs some sense back into himself and waits. Snape finally says, “Do you want to be alone to think about your relatives’ death?”

“No.” Harry thinks it was probably swift. He’s almost sure that the snake Mr. Nott sent did it. He doesn’t think he would make their deaths not swift, because another Muggle could walk in or something. Mr. Nott doesn’t strike Harry as someone who would take a chance that way.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. Sure, sir,” Harry adds, when he sees Snape still watching him as if he’s going to make Harry sit down and put his head between his knees. One time a primary school teacher made Harry do that after he’d been punched in the stomach by Dudley, and Dudley thought it was so funny that he kept pushing Harry’s head between his knees for two weeks afterwards.

Dudley.

Harry pushes away the hope that Dudley might have survived. He’s not sure that he really wants that, unless there’s no chance that he’ll ever have to see or talk to Dudley again. If Dudley is still alive, then maybe Dumbledore would try to use him to reestablish the blood protections.

“That is not the way most children would react to deaths in the family.” Snape is still studying him, and Harry gets impatient.

“They weren’t my family, sir. Family doesn’t hate you and insult you for existing.” Harry shakes his head. “If you want to talk about the Dursleys, then you can go back and talk to Dumbledore. No offense,” he adds, when he sees the way Snape’s face darkens.

“And then arrange your next visit later,” Mr. Nott says helpfully. “In fact, that might be for the best, Severus. You look as if you’re the one who’s had a shock.”

“I am fully recovered, thank you.” Snape’s voice is so cool that it reminds Harry of the fruit juice the Nott house-elves served for breakfast this morning. He turns to Harry. “I want to teach you Potions. And Defense.”

You can teach Defense?” Harry stares at him and says the first thing that comes to mind. “Then why don’t you?”

“Dumbledore prefers to keep my—talents to Potions.” Snape’s voice and mouth are both thin. “At any rate. I will teach you. And talk to you. Make sure that you do not suffer more than you are thinking of at the moment.”

“Still hoping to see some sign that the boy’s suffering, Severus?”

Snape turns his head and gives Mr. Nott another stare. Harry doesn’t know what’s behind it, but it makes Mr. Nott give a kind of little half-smile, as if he knows something Snape doesn’t, and walk out of the room. The door shuts with a snap and blends in with the rest of the wall.

Snape turns to Harry at once and leans forwards, lowering his voice. “Has he tried to hurt you?”

Harry blinks. “No.” He supposes that Snape might think Mr. Nott is trying to corrupt him or literally twist his arm to make him do something, but it’s a little stupid of him to think that.

“I’m not only talking physically,” Snape says. He takes a moment to pace around the room, staring at the fireplace as if he thinks some beast is going to come bursting out of it and wrap him in its claws. “I meant mentally, too. Has he lied to you? Told you he’s the only alternative to the Dursleys? We—could have found something else. He didn’t have to kill them.”

Harry ignores the way Snape wants him to respond, because he doesn’t think that Snape would like what Harry has to say anyway. “He was perfectly fine. He had his house-elves feed me, and it’s a lot more than I ever got at home. And then he had me stand in front of the Silver Hourglass.” Snape spins around, and Harry seizes the chance. “Why didn’t anyone ever suggest I get tested by that at school, sir? Or was I tested when I was really young and everyone just forgot I wouldn’t remember it? Do you think someone would have the records from that?”

*

He put the boy in front of the Silver Hourglass?

Tarquinius is a bastard. Clever in ways Severus has not anticipated. Because of course he would look straight into the boy’s heart and see how desperately Harry wants to be admired and loved—but for what he is, his native talents, the way his Housemates honor him for being good at Quidditch. Not for being the Boy-Who-Lived.

And the Silver Hourglass, which so regularly reveals unexpected talents, is a masterful way of doing that.

Severus pours cool water on his distress and, yes, his envy, and inclines his head. “As far as I know, you were never tested when you were a baby. Eighteen months is young, and Silver Hourglasses cannot be easily moved or made. The nearest one was probably in the Potter house, and for obvious reasons, your parents did not want to go there.”

Harry’s eyes dim a bit, and Severus remembers the other baited hook he threw out in Hogwarts, the one that might convince the boy to swim to him eventually.

“But I can tell you stories about your mother. About other things that you do not remember.”

Harry doesn’t smile the way Severus expected. He tilts his head a little. “What would you want for them?”

Severus says, “Pardon? You cannot pay me for them. They are my memories to freely choose to share, or not. I will not put a price on them.”

Harry’s face burns. Severus sees it with some satisfaction. At least the boy himself is not clever enough yet to see through that intimidating language to what Severus is doing.

There is a price, yes. But it is not one either Severus or Harry can force the other to pay. It is simply a yielding, a curiosity, an agreement to listen to Severus more than he listens to some other people.

Like the man whose house they are standing in.

“Well, if you want to tell them to me, you can tell them to me.”

Harry is grumpy and looking the other way, and he’s made no promise to listen. But he if had, that would alarm Severus more than soothe him. It would indicate that Harry’s far gone into the kind of intrigue and word games that most Slytherins take several years longer than he’s old to learn.

Severus is ready to deal with a Slytherin Harry Potter, but perhaps not one quite that Slytherin.

“Very well,” he says. “In the meantime, I think we should start with basic Potions instruction—of the kind that might get disrupted in your ordinary classroom by the people you know as well as I will not get named here.” He adds that because Harry is opening his mouth as if to interject something.

Harry shuts his mouth and nods, but his eyes are also a little clouded. “Are you going to yell at me and call me names the way you usually do?”

Severus blinks. It takes something that simple to win the boy’s trust? “No.”

“All right.”

There’s still a tense wariness in Harry’s body that Severus doesn’t know the cause of. However, for now he doesn’t need to. He takes out a shrunken cauldron from his pocket and restores it to normal size, then casts the spells he always does to cleanse it of any particles of dust or dirt it may have picked up from the cloth of his robe.

“Why are you doing that?”

A question that he doesn’t think Harry would have asked before. Severus is happy enough to answer it. “Brewing means that you must have a surface clean of impurities…”

*

Theo looks up as Harry enters the library. Harry pauses when he sees him, then nods and comes towards him.

“Snape’s a lot nicer when he doesn’t have your lot to show off for.”

It’s not what Theo expected at all as far as talk about summer lessons goes, but he does have to smile. “Your lot? Have you forgotten that you’re a Slytherin now?”

“Not the same,” Harry says, and Theo can’t disagree. He dumps himself into the chair next to Theo and looks curiously at the book he’s holding. “What are you reading?”

Theo sees no reason to hide it, and extends the book. Harry flickers through a few pages and shudders, probably because he caught sight of the picture of someone dying from Death’s Head Potion. “Ugh. Why do you want to know about poisons?”

“I’m of a family that often has assassination attempts planned on it,” Theo says quietly, and puts the book back on the table in front of him. Looking at it is less important right now than talking to Harry. “It’s good to be able to recognize poisons and resist them.”

Harry gives him a faintly horrified look. “People plan assassination attempts on you?”

Theo nods. “My father’s an important man, Harry, and he’s killed a lot of people,” he adds, when Harry stares at him. “Some of them are people who have the means to try revenge on him. Some are people who might try revenge on me instead. So I have to know Defense and Potions and Dark Arts and poisons and lots of other things.”

Harry looks sick and horrified now. He swallows several times. “Did—did someone use poison to kill your mother? I knew she wasn’t around, but—I didn’t want to ask about her. In case it was something sensitive.”

“Yes, poison killed her,” Theo says, speaking the perfect truth. “So you can see it’s even more important to me to recognize it.”

“Oh.”

“But that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about.” Theo doesn’t think his father will leave them alone for long, especially now that Harry’s mentioned poison and Theo’s mother in the same sentence. He has wards that pick up that kind of thing. “I wanted to talk to you about the debt you owe us.”

“Oh. That.” Harry sounds indifferent, not nervous. “Is it to you or your father or both of you?”

Theo blinks. “I—was going to ask you which one you consider it to.”

Harry eyes him. “To both of you. Because you told your father to get me out, and he was the one who got me out. And he’s said that he’ll let me live with you both during the summer and teach me magic.”

Theo smiles a little at the longing in Harry’s voice. Draco has a tendency to say that Muggleborns and Muggle-raised wizards can’t possibly like magic enough to want to use it all the time, because they weren’t around it from birth. Other wizards think the same thing, although Draco is one of the few crass enough to say it aloud.

He would change his mind if he could see Harry’s face in that moment. This is Harry’s heritage, and he’ll seize it with all his heart.

“Good,” Theo says. “Then let me choose how I want to be repaid, okay?” He turns his head. Part of the magic of the house obeys him—Father can’t change that, it’s because Theo’s his heir—and he knows Father is coming nearer and nearer. “Don’t ask me about it until I tell you what I want. And don’t talk about it in front of Father.”

Theo expects questions about why, especially since Harry thinks Father has been so nice to him. But he gets a narrow-eyed look that wouldn’t shame an eagle, and then Harry nodding and saying, “I know what it’s like not to trust adults. Okay.”

Theo stares at him in wonder, and finds himself whispering, “You must at least suspect that Father killed your Muggles.”

“I know he did.”

“Then—how can you sit here and be so calm?”

“I don’t know all of it. I know I wouldn’t have wanted to kill them if someone offered me the chance.” Harry looks away and touches the edge of the table as if he’s going to carve a rune there that will answer Theo’s questions. “But I don’t mind that they’re dead.”

Theo doesn’t have the chance to ask him more about that, to figure out if his sense that there’s something more going on under Harry’s quiet surface is correct. Father says pleasantly from the door, “I didn’t think you’d mind, Mr. Potter. Come, tell me what you learned from Severus today. I know him, of course, but I never learned from him as a student—except sometimes on the other side of a battlefield.”

Harry laughs. Theo sits and wonders if he can’t see it’s a joke, or if the unexpected insight that meant Harry realized the debt might be owed to more than one person is working here, and Harry just doesn’t see the point in talking about literal battlefields right now.

Theo hopes for his sake that it’s the latter.

*

“You’re very intent on your letter, Blaise.”

Blaise tilts his head in response to Mother’s implied question. “Yes. We’re making friends with Harry Potter, you know. Theo and I. But he’s staying at Theo’s house for the summer. That means I have to work extra hard to make sure he doesn’t forget me. The letter has to be perfect.”

“How ambitious of you, darling.” His mother leans over the highly polished table where Blaise sits working, in a room filled with summer sunlight. Blaise looks at the dim reflection of her face in the ebony rather than directly at her. “Entertaining reaching out to the opposite side of the war?”

“I never knew we had a side.” Blaise signs his name and picks up some sand from the small bowl of it on the edge of the table to scatter over the ink to dry it. There are charms that will dry it in an instant, but they’re tricky for a second-year to manage without vanishing the entire message.

“The side we might claim as our own. The side that Bernard thinks we should claim as our own.”

Blaise doesn’t frown, because he has more control over his self and his face than that, but he does wonder why in the world Mother’s latest boy has so much influence over her actions. “Oh. I didn’t know that.”

Mother studies his reflection—probably—a little longer in the tabletop, and then chuckles indulgently and steps back. “No reason for you not to build friendships and alliances, of course. You told me Potter lives with those dreadful Muggles. He might be more easily swayed to whatever side we do choose than someone with a strong family behind them.”

Not anymore, Blaise thinks even as he nods obediently. He recognized the name in the paper in ways he thinks his mother didn’t, because she didn’t know they were called the Dursleys. “He lets me call him by his first name. And now he knows the significance of that, because we explained it to him.”

“Do keep in mind, darling,” Mother says, face perfectly placid when he looks at her, “that it may someday not have to be we with you and Theo.”

“Don’t worry, Mother. I keep a lot of things in mind, and I know those things can change in an instant.”

Mother laughs in delight and touches his hair once before she sweeps away. Blaise watches her go. He’s heard a few of the girls in Slytherin giggle about how handsome he is, and he holds onto the knowledge because any knowledge like that, any advantage, is a good one to have. But he knows his face doesn’t have the austere beauty of his mother’s, and his hair will never be that dark and thick and shining.

If it comes down to a contest between him and Mother, Blaise knows he will lose.

Which is why it must not, not until he knows he can win.

He stands up and makes his way towards the owlery.

Chapter Text

“What’s that, Harry?”

Harry doesn’t look up to speak in response to Tarquinius’s voice, but he feels his shoulders tense. That will probably tell Tarquinius lots of things. He keeps his voice as neutral as he can. “A letter from Blaise.”

“Zabini? Ah, yes, Theo did tell me that you made friends with him as well.” Tarquinius leans back in his chair and smiles. Harry knows he’s doing it without even looking at him. He can get attuned to adults very, very fast. “What does Zabini say? Has his mother killed her latest toy yet?”

Harry’s head jerks a little, and Tarquinius is grinning at him when he looks up again. “You don’t have to look so startled, Harry.” Tarquinius shrugs. “Everyone knows that Zabini’s mother marries and then slaughters men. She’s got away with it far more often than I think she should, but her beauty and magic both charm the judges in those cases.”

Harry looks back at his breakfast and says nothing. He first heard something about the reputation of Blaise’s mum last year, but he didn’t pay much attention to it at the time. So he knew. It just…startled him.

Being startled like that can be dangerous. It’s something Snape said to him yesterday when he was showing Harry the best way to clean cloth fluff off a cauldron. Harry knows Snape thinks he’s stupid, but he is cautious. He just can’t always live by Slytherin rules.

“Oh,” Harry says, and goes back to his porridge topped with cream. Tarquinius has promised him a magic lesson this morning, as long as Harry can call him Tarquinius and not Mr. Nott. Harry has been doing pretty well so far.

Theo likes to sleep late, so he isn’t around as Harry and Tarquinius make their way back to the room with the Silver Hourglass in it. Tarquinius turns to face Harry, calling his wand into his hand. Harry warily draws his own.

“What if I told you that you owe me two debts,” Tarquinius asks suddenly, “one for getting you here and one for freeing you from your family?”

“I would ask why you decided to do the second thing. I didn’t ask you to.”

Harry thinks he’s got a good sense of when Slytherins are amused, now, from the way Tarquinius nods a little. “I could not stand your account of how they treated you.”

“But I didn’t ask you to do something about it,” Harry says. He doesn’t want to think about what he told Tarquinius right now, and why the man reacted to it when no one else ever did. “That should mean I don’t owe you a debt. You don’t owe people debts if they just do something for you without being told to.”

Tarquinius spins his wand around so that it’s pointing at himself instead of Harry. Harry doesn’t trust that, and keeps his eyes on Tarquinius. Tom Riddle wasn’t pointing the wand at him at first, either. “What about if someone saves your life? Spur of the moment. You didn’t ask them to do it. Are you saying you wouldn’t owe them a life-debt?”

“That’s different from what you did.”

“Tell me how it’s different.”

Harry takes a step forwards and stares straight into Tarquinius’s eyes. He honestly doesn’t know where this is coming from, this courage, but he’ll ride it as far as it takes him. “You had to think about it. It wasn’t sudden. You got that snake out and took it into another room, and I know that the snake is what killed the Dursleys.”

Tarquinius studies him for long moments. Harry waits. He doesn’t think he’s suddenly going to get a spell cast at him, but he also thinks he can handle it if he does.

“You seem to have much less complicated feelings about the deaths of your relatives than I imagined. Or being around their murderer.”

Harry lets his breath out slowly. He didn’t read the article closely enough to determine if Dudley survived. Probably the reporters don’t even know. “I know that you don’t really want to hurt me, because it would be bad for you. And if you start getting too demanding about the debts, then I’ll leave and go elsewhere.”

“Who would take you?”

“Professor Snape.”

He seems to have found the right answer, even though it was sort of by accident. Tarquinius’s mouth curves, and he snorts. “That is true. Very well, Harry. I won’t attempt to press the matter of the debts right now, or ask you what you felt about your Muggles. But I am going to insist that you duel me.” He falls back and bows the way Snape and Lockhart did in the dueling club.

Harry bows his head a little. He doesn’t think he wants to miss the first spell.

And he doesn’t. Tarquinius casts a purple one Harry doesn’t know. It comes straight at him like the lightning bolt on his forehead.

Harry leaps aside and casts a Tripping Jinx. Tarquinius clucks his tongue and sidesteps it. “You’ll have to use more than basic spells, Harry.” This time, he does speak the incantation aloud, but it’s still not a spell Harry knows. “Frango!”

This time, it’s like a shimmering, hazy wave of hot air that Harry rolls underneath. He thinks about the way they defeated the troll, and he Levitates a book from a shelf on the side wall into the air. Tarquinius stares at him, but has to duck when Harry sends the book zooming at his head. He’s laughing. “Very good, Harry! Frango!”

This time, the heat wave is too close to Harry, and it hits him. Harry feels a wrenching pain in his shoulder, and his left arm dangles limply. Luckily he’s right-handed. Harry backs up, keeping his eyes on Tarquinius.

For some reason, though, that seems to be the wrong move. Tarquinius blinks and lowers his wand. “What are you—”

Expelliarmus!”

Tarquinius’s wand leaps out of his hand and into Harry’s. Harry eyes him for a second, but Tarquinius doesn’t charge him and try to recover his weapon. He only leans against the wall, shaking with silent laughter. Harry nods and tosses the wand back to him.

This time, there’s another expression that tells him he’s done something wrong. Tarquinius stares at his left arm. “You’re not going to ask me to fix that?”

“I thought you’d probably do it because you didn’t want me to be a worthless investment.”

There’s a whisper of another silent spell—Harry has got to learn how he does that—and then the pain is gone and his shoulder is whole again. Tarquinius shakes his head. “I think of you as more than a simple investment. Or did me killing your worthless Muggles not convince you of that?”

Harry pulls in his breath and holds it, waiting until his chest feels painful. Sometimes he used to do that when he lay in the cupboard under the stairs. Then he releases it and says, “I don’t want to discuss the debt right now.”

“Very well.” Tarquinius’s face is smooth and unreadable. “Now, I think you won that duel because of luck and surprise. I didn’t expect you to be such a good fighter. But you won’t always be able to rely on that.” He aims his wand. “Ready?”

“Will you teach me how to do silent magic sometime?”

“If Severus does not. Now. Frango!”

*

Blaise feels a small pulse of happiness in the center of his chest when the owl wings down and lands next to him. It’s Harry’s white owl. He supposes Harry feels comfortable enough to send her now that he’s living with a wizard. He feeds her a bit of his sausage and examines the letter, ignoring Bernard’s curious stare from the other side of the breakfast table.

Dear Blaise,

Thank you for sending me your letter. I want you to know that I’m doing well enough in Theo’s care. And his dad’s. Mr. Nott has offered to tutor me. I’m going to accept. I’m sick and tired of learning nothing during the summers.

I’m glad that you’re well, too. What do you do during the summers? Study? Or do you just visit the beach and eat delicious food? You’re so lucky that you live in Italy. I’ve never been out of Britain. I’d love to go.

I don’t think there’s a lot I can tell you. I know that Mr. Nott wouldn’t like me to discuss some of it. But I can tell you that Professor Snape is going to tutor me, too. And I know I’d like you to visit if you can. Can you ask your mother about that?

Make sure to feed Hedwig well and pet her. She can be temperamental about taking messages back otherwise.

Thanks,
Harry.

Blaise puts the letter thoughtfully aside. Harry didn’t pick up on all the subtle hints that Blaise sent with his own letter, but he chose to respond to enough of them. To tell Blaise that he’ll learn more—and not just magic, because that isn’t the way he’s talking. To tell him that he can tell Harry some more about what he does during the summers, and visit.

“Writing to your Light friend?”

“I don’t know if he’s so Light as all that,” Blaise murmurs in response to Bernard, and picks at his food. “He got Sorted into Slytherin after being in Gryffindor. And the rumors say the he killed a basilisk.”

“He didn’t really. No twelve-year-old can kill a basilisk.”

Blaise doesn’t glare at Bernard, because there’s no point. He can only shrug and mutter, “Well, that was what the rumors in the school said.”

“You know how useless rumors are.”

“Right.” Blaise nods, and tucks the letter casually into his pocket before Bernard can ask to see it.

*

Harry has a natural talent for cleaning. Or perhaps not so natural, Severus thinks, standing back and staring as he watches the boy scrub a cauldron. He shudders to think of the possible sources of that talent.

“Did your aunt make you do chores around the house?”

Harry tenses up for a moment, and then he nods. “But I don’t want to talk about it, please.” He bends even more elbow and shoulder strength into cleaning the cauldron.

Slowly, Severus nods back. “Very well. Then perhaps I should tell you what Dumbledore is doing and thinking at the moment?”

Harry looks up and blinks at Severus. His green eyes still aren’t clouded with shock or fear, even though he’s lived with Tarquinius for nearly a week now. “I didn’t think you would tell me that.”

“Why? You must have known that I chose your side the minute Dumbledore tried to send you back to the Muggles. The minute I told you that I knew your mother.”

“No. I just know that you were unhappy and you told me that.”

Severus sighs in a way he doesn’t often allow himself. It will take incredible strength to work through Harry’s defenses, especially because at least half of them are instinctive, oblivious blindness. Harry doesn’t see things that could hurt him in a particular way. “Well. I have abandoned the old man. But he doesn’t know it. The closer I remain to him, the more damage I can inflict on him.”

“You want to damage him?”

“I told you that I am loyal to you now.”

“But that isn’t the same thing as wanting to damage him.”

That is either another example of obliviousness or profound intelligence, and frankly, at the moment, Severus doesn’t have the mental strength to work out which one it is. “Well, I do. He continues to insist that we have to find your cousin and make him the cornerstone of new blood protections.”

Harry’s shoulder blades fly up like wings. Still too thin, and although Severus is sure that Tarquinius’s house-elves are feeding him well—starving his assets is not a sin anyone can accuse Tarquinius of—they haven’t made much of a dent against years of mistreatment. “I can’t let them find Dudley.”

“At the moment, no one knows where to find young Mr. Dursley,” says Severus, and rolls his eyes for effect. It’s wasted, as Harry is staring into the cauldron, but Severus manages not to sigh again and continue. “He might have vanished before the attack took place. He certainly wasn’t there when it happened, and he wasn’t wounded. Perhaps Muggle authorities took him away, but I don’t know what they would have wanted with him before the attack happened.”

Harry’s arm jerks a little. “I think I might know where he is.”

“Where?”

“Why would I tell you? Then you might change your mind and tell Dumbledore about it.”

Severus catches back his temper and leashes it. “I can defend myself,” he says quietly instead. “I can read minds. Your friend Mr. Nott may have told you that.” Harry nods, no longer looking into his eyes. “So can the Headmaster, that is true. But I can also defend myself against him. There is an art called Occlumency that is the opposite of Legilimency, the art of protecting one’s own thoughts instead of reading another’s. Be assured that Dumbledore will learn nothing about Mr. Dursley’s whereabouts from me.”

“But why do you want to learn it?”

“Because the knowledge may be useful later.”

“Later, then.”

Severus does not grind his teeth. He has become aware of the value of small gestures around Harry. He will pay far more attention than Severus ever knew to those gestures, and make part of his decision of who to trust based on them.

“All right. Then you should know that the cauldron is clean enough. I want to see you brew your best attempt at a Calming Draught in it.”

He has put just the right amount of sourness and doubt in his voice, he thinks. Harry’s head comes up, and his eyes blaze. “I can brew them just fine when Malfoy isn’t here to throw things in my cauldron!”

“Then prove it.”

Harry is already moving for the ingredients arranged on a shelf next to them.

*

“I acknowledge that you may have done a good deed. But I want to know why you did it.”

This isn’t the first time his father has asked Draco that, only the most direct. And this time, Draco has decided on the answer he will give.

The answer he will keep to himself is different.

Quietly glad that his father never learned Legilimency, Draco still lowers his eyes and gives a low, whining sigh. “I told you about Blaise and Theo becoming friends with Potter. Didn’t I?” he adds, pausing as if he can’t remember, which is one of the biggest lies he’s ever told.

“Many times.”

“I can’t let them have an advantage I don’t!” Draco bursts out, and then wilts when his father glares at him. They’re in the study with all the mirrors, which means Draco gets a view of himself in more than one surface, twisting his fingers. “Sorry. But, I mean—if Potter is really going to be part of Slytherin and he’s going to stay, then I have to make peace with him somehow. Letting Professor Snape know about him and where he went and what his friends said was the best thing I could think of.”

“You think Potter will be your friend because of that?”

Of course not. But it will mean a second glance, and one glance is all Draco needs.

“I—I didn’t think of that. Maybe not, Father. I’m sorry.”

“I can see that you are.” Father’s voice gentles, as always. He touches Draco’s forehead. “But you must think before you act, Draco, or you will not survive when the inevitable happens.”

When our Lord returns. Father doesn’t say that, but the implication is there in the silence.

Draco nods. He watches Father leave, his head still lowered, watching his pale robes flickering through the mirrors.

What if I don’t want our Lord to return?

*

“This is ridiculous.”

Hermione starts and looks up. Ron has slammed the latest letter from Harry on the kitchen table. His face is so red that she’s really afraid for his life for an instant, and all she can think of is how hard she had to fight with her parents to let her visit the Burrow. If Ron dies in an apoplectic fit now, it will all be for nothing.

Then Hermione tells herself not to be stupid, and asks, “What’s ridiculous?”

“He writes to us, but he’s not telling us anything!” Ron waves his hand over the table. “He just talks about his summer and chatters about living with a Death Eater as if it’s all normal. It’s driving me mental!”

“Ron, we can’t force Harry to talk about it if—”

“No, but we can bloody well write to him and ask to visit. If his high and mighty Death Eater guardian is so forthright and honest, he’ll let us visit, won’t he?”

Hermione swallows. She wants to say that there are things going on here that they aren’t aware of. For one thing, she really thought Professor Snape would grab Harry by now—Harry’s mentioning that he gets to visit—and take him away. But the more she thinks about that, the more she wonders if Hogwarts professors have any homes away from the school. Or at least if Professor Snape does. Could he take Harry anywhere that Dumbledore wouldn’t know about?

And it’s horrible, to distrust Professor Dumbledore like that. But she doesn’t see that she has any choice.

“All right, Ron. Let’s write to him.”

Ron beams at her, and then goes off to fetch his ink and parchment. Hermione sits back and casts a little narrow-eyed glance at the door into the kitchen. She has privacy spells up on them that will warn her when someone is coming.

Right now, Ron’s parents are outside, working on Muggle things and laundry, and his brother Percy is at some friend’s house, and Ginny is asleep the way she has been almost constantly since Harry rescued her, and the twins are doing God knows what. But someone could come in at any moment.

And Hermione doesn’t want anyone else to know that they’re writing to Harry.

It makes her stomach squirm, distrusting adults like this. But for Harry’s sake…

Again, she doesn’t see that she has a choice.

Chapter Text

“There is no reason I should let your friends visit.”

“Okay.”

Tarquinius pauses. He anticipated objections from Harry. He anticipated Harry leaping to his feet and storming out of the dining room. But Harry goes on eating his porridge and reading the book that he brings to the table every morning—a heavy tome of history Tarquinius wouldn’t have expected to interest him—like always.

Unexpected reactions deserve more study. Tarquinius lets a few more moments bleed past. It alters nothing. Harry frowns and flips back one page to study something he’s already read, but Tarquinius can’t prove that’s a distraction tactic.

“Why aren’t you angrier about me not letting your friends visit?”

“It would probably be a disaster anyway, that’s why,” Harry says, and looks at Tarquinius over the top of the book. “Ron would say something about you, and you would get angry. Or you would say something about blood traitors and call my friend Hermione a Mudblood, and then maybe you would fling curses at them. Or use one of your pets on them. It would be nice if I could see them, but only if no one gets hurt.” And he goes quietly back to the book as if he’s said nothing either remarkable or offensive.

“I would not be so crude as to use curses or insults.”

“But you didn’t mention your animals or poison.”

Tarquinius stares some more. It’s hard when the boy won’t meet his eyes. Theodore perfected that gesture long ago, of course, but it’s always obvious when he’s trying to ignore someone. Theodore has a trick of blushing and letting his eyes dart. Harry only acts as if the book is the most important thing in existence.

“You would—you believe I would hurt your friends, and yet you think you can stay here without consequences?”

“At the moment, I owe you a debt, and you’ve talked about that. And you want to train me in magic. Why would you do that if you were just going to kill me?”

“I could hurt you without killing you.”

“I know. But I can stand pain. It’s come with pretty much every summer.”

Tarquinius slams his hands on the table. Harry finally glances up from his book. “I am not like the Muggles,” Tarquinius says. It is more of an effort than it should to be to keep the saliva out of his voice. “I will not starve you. I will not lock you up. I already told you that. Have I not already shown you information you would not have known otherwise, and taught you magic, and warned you about dangers that might have overcome you in the house?”

“You dislocated my shoulder. Dudley did that to me a few times.”

It’s a mask. It has to be a mask, the indifference in those green eyes. The boy must want to see his friends. But Tarquinius cannot find the edges. If Harry is bluffing, he is doing it better than Tarquinius’s own son does most of the time.

“I had the impression that you considered it a sacrifice to your education. You didn’t object to it at the time.”

“Why should I have? I’m not saying you have to stop. I’m just saying that you’re like the Dursleys in a lot of ways, and they would never have let Ron and Hermione visit.”

Harry flips another page and frowns, then reaches out and writes down a note on the scroll of parchment Tarquinius didn’t even notice him taking out of his pocket. That says many things about his own concentration that he does not want to hear.

“If I were to let them come…”

“I want them to survive. So you shouldn’t.”

“If I were to swear not to harm them…”

Harry sighs and looks up. “You would want another debt from me. I think I owe you enough already. I’m not willing to ask for another one when the price might be Ron and Hermione suffering from some loophole because I didn’t ask enough questions. We can find something else to do.”

Tarquinius drums his fingers on the table. “If the other thing you find to do with your friends put myself or my son in danger, I will not be merciful.”

“I don’t see how letters can do that.” Harry puts a bookmark in his tome and swallows a few more spoonfuls of his porridge before he pushes it away. “Do you know if Theo is still asleep? I’ll go and knock on his door if he is.”

Baffled, Tarquinius only shrugs, and watches Harry leave. Then he looks back at the book, but it is a book on history and nothing more. It certainly contains no secret letters from Harry’s friends with tips on how to drive a former Death Eater to madness.

Not that Tarquinius really thought it did.

He leans back and touches one hand to his eyes. No, they are the normal morning combination of slightly gritty from the painkilling potion he takes at night and slightly wet from the potion he applies in the morning to counter those effects. There is nothing to indicate Harry slipped him another kind of potion, one that would influence his mind.

Frowning deeply, Tarquinius stands. He will find a way to answer Harry’s request that puts him back in control. But until he does, he will stay away from the children. It is unconscionable to let a twelve-year-old manipulate him.

*

“Does your dad always get upset when you tell him the truth?”

He and Theo have been studying the history of brewing for the past few hours, because Snape is coming this afternoon and he already expects Harry to know all these things like how the metal of the cauldron interacts with various kinds of flowers. Harry’s ready for a break, and this is the only question that he thinks can really distract Theo.

Theo blinks and looks up at him, marking his place under a sentence with one finger. “I mean, it depends on what you say.”

“He said my friends couldn’t come visit. I told him okay. Then he talked like he wanted to let them come visit, or he expected me to argue. I told him that he probably just wanted another debt from me, and I wasn’t going to do that when it might mean that Ron and Hermione got hurt.”

“I—never thought he would ask you that. They sent you a letter asking if they could come visit?”

“I don’t think they really trust your father.”

“Well, that’s only intelligent, though.” Theo runs his fingers down the book’s spine, deep in thought. “Do they think they could do something to stop him if he was determined to hurt you? Does Granger know a lot of Dark Arts?”

“Oh, come on, Theo.”

“Yes, that was a stupid question. But it doesn’t make any more sense to me why they would demand to visit if they can’t stop him.”

Harry stares into Theo’s shining eyes, full of that desire to understand, and feels a little quiver in his stomach. Theo isn’t being stupid. He really doesn’t understand the kind of friendship that Harry, Ron, and Hermione share.

It makes Harry fiercely glad that he was Sorted into Gryffindor for the first two years, even if he has to stay in Slytherin the rest of the time.

“They want to keep me safe, and they don’t really care if they can’t do it by themselves or if they have a plan. They’ll come, and they’ll try to take me away if they think your dad is threatening me. That’s all.” Harry shrugs a little when Theo stares harder than ever. “I mean, Ron and I didn’t have a plan when we went after the troll to save Hermione, either. We just did it.”

“Why?”

“Because we couldn’t leave her there.”

Theo only sits back and frowns. Harry shrugs again. “Do you mind if I go on reading? I want to know this before Snape comes this afternoon.”

“I thought you wanted to know if my father would get angry with you for being honest.”

“I don’t think you really know, do you?”

“No…I mean, I think this is the first time that someone’s ever asked me something like that.”

Harry nods, and returns to the book. He can feel Theo looking at him sometimes, but honestly, he doesn’t understand why. This really is the simplest thing he can do: ask questions.

Sometimes he still remembers that the Dursleys didn’t want him to ask questions, but then he remembers that they’re hardly around now to enforce the demand. And he can’t stop the fountain of guilt mingled with relief that bubbles up in his chest.

*

Theo suspects that Harry is fooling him and his father in the same way.

Without ever meaning to fool them. Theo is smart enough to realize that. Harry isn’t a mastermind with complicated plots, or he can’t do it yet, or he’s too bad a liar and he would give them away. Maybe all of those things are even true.

But as Harry sits there, paging through his book, and Theo pretends to do the same, but really remembers the way Harry just shrugged at him when he asked the question about going to rescue Granger, Theo is smart enough to realize something else.

He will need to understand this. Both because he doesn’t want to be fooled in the future…

And because if he wants to be Harry’s real friend, then he needs to know how to do it.

Being Harry’s real friend in the future is going to be important. Theo can feel that much.

*

“Enough with the cauldrons, Harry.” Severus can feel his own frustration giving his voice extra bite. “Come over here. I want to talk to you about dueling.”

Harry drags his stirring ladle back over the lip of the cauldron, and nods, his breathing soft and labored. Severus thinks that is more likely to be the fumes and the effort of concentration than the manual labor. Harry has proven where his disturbing propensity for that came from.

But when he sits down in the chair Severus indicates and looks up at him, he does not express gratitude for the information. “I thought Mr. Nott was going to talk to me about dueling? We dueled a few days ago.”

“I knew that Tarquinius was going to do that,” Severus says, and tries to recover his mental balance in the face of Harry’s skepticism. “But surely that does not mean you want only one teacher?”

“Are we going to duel, too?”

“I think you should understand more of the theory first. That ridiculous Dueling Club this past year hardly provided you with any.”

Harry nods and then keeps watching him. Severus pauses. In the end, however, there seems no reason not to continue the lesson as he has planned. He raises his wand and conjures an image in front of him, two cloaked and hooded wizards standing on a field of swirling red. At least Harry leans forwards and becomes more attentive then.

“Most opponents do bow to each other at the beginning of the duel,” Severus says. “But that is formality. The theory behind a duel is different. What is the goal of a duel?”

“Um. In battle? Or in a club like the one Lockhart had?”

And I,” Severus says before he can stop himself. It galls him to see the fool given credit for any idea that is not repeated Memory Charms.

Harry eyes him.

Severus sighs and continues. “In a battle. A duel is considered now as a formalized contest between two wizards, but that takes place in—contexts that you are unlikely to be involved in except in class. When you fight for your life, the duel is what happens between any two wizards who encounter each other in battle. There is a theory of multiple duels at once, which we will tackle later. For now, we need to concentrate on one opponent at a time.”

Harry nods, but doesn’t say anything further. Severus wishes for a conveniently placed wall to rest his forehead again, and repeats, as carefully as he can, “What is the goal of a duel in battle, Harry?”

“Oh! Um—to kill the person you’re fighting?”

“To disable,” Severus counters, feeling a squirm of that same unease in his gut that he felt when Harry heard of the deaths of his Muggle family without blinking. “It doesn’t matter whether they’re only lightly wounded or not, as long as they can’t strike at you any longer. And that is what you should keep in mind, since I am not sure that you should concentrate on deadly spells anyway.”

“Because I’m underage?”

“And because I thought you would not want to kill.”

His voice finally seems to get through to Harry, who fidgets and looks away, touching his face with a reluctant hand. “I just—”

“I would like to know about this, actually.” Severus didn’t think an opportunity to get his questions answered would arise so quickly, but now that it’s here, he’ll hardly waste it. “Why did you seem almost relieved to hear of the deaths of your Muggle family, instead of distressed? Why are you comfortable living here with a Death Eater? That is not the boy I thought I knew.”

“I don’t have any home anymore.”

Severus didn’t anticipate this answer. He keeps himself from showing confusion, however. That has proven fatal in every dealing with children he has ever had. “What do you mean by that?”

“It didn’t matter so much when I came to Hogwarts, because Gryffindor was home.” Harry whispers the words, his eyes locked on his trainers. Severus notes in passing that they’re much cleaner and less scuffed than they were when Severus first saw him in the Nott house. Tarquinius’s doing, no doubt. “I hated last summer, but I knew I would be coming back to Gryffindor Tower and all my friends. But then when I was Sorted into Slytherin and I thought I wouldn’t have a home…”

“So you were willing to do anything.”

“Yes.”

“But why rejoice in the deaths of your Muggle family?”

“Because why should I feel bad for them?” Harry’s eyes cut up to him, and Severus sees his hands form into fists. “They made my life horrible. They’d just go on doing it.”

Severus considers for a moment how to respond, and ends up choosing a tactic that has not occurred to him before this moment. “You risked your life this year to save a young girl whom, despite her relation to your friend, you barely knew. I thought you—perhaps had a huge fund of compassion and a heart capable of forgiving anyone.”

“Ginny hadn’t done anything I had to forgive her for.”

Severus sighs when he sees the tight way Harry’s face is shuttered. He won’t get anything else out of him. “If you would like to go back to dueling theory…”

Harry obediently turns to watch the image Severus has conjured, and Severus shakes his head and moves on with the lesson.

*

Harry feels the truth bouncing around inside of him, and part of him is almost tempted to confess it to Snape. It would make him stare. At the moment, Harry thinks that might be the best he can hope for.

He saved Ginny because he felt sorry for her and she’s Ron’s little sister, and Ron would be upset if she died. That’s it. That’s the honest truth. He’s not some hero who cares about everyone in the world. He cares about people who like him and are nice to him.

It’s the same reason he can’t feel as upset about the Dursleys as he knows he should. They would make his life ten times worse now that he doesn’t have a home at Hogwarts, and he could ignore them before, but now it would be horrible. They weren’t nice to him.

Maybe this is the real reason the Hat put him in Slytherin, he thinks. Not because he’s a Parselmouth, but because he’s not as heroic and happy as everyone in Gryffindor thinks he should be. He’s still upset and angry that people thought he was the Heir of Slytherin and the Hat put him in Slytherin. A real hero would move past it.

Harry can’t.

*

Tarquinius shakes his head as he strides into the breakfast nook. He spent most of yesterday considering what he should do about the situation with Harry’s friends, and the only real course of action open to him is to surrender to the “manipulation” that he isn’t even sure Harry is consciously practicing.

It’s a thing he has had to do more than once in his life: give in to an opponent, and then handle that opponent’s reaction and fit it into his plans instead of dictating the situation as he likes to do. But he never expected to have a twelve-year-old boy put him in one of those tangles.

“Your friends can visit,” he tells Harry, who once again has the history book he only seems to read at breakfast.

Harry immediately puts the book down. “And you’ll promise not to hurt them while we’re here? Not attack them or curse them or poison them or hurt them with your animals or anything else? And you won’t insult them?”

Tarquinius frowns a little at him, wondering why Harry seems to be more worried about poison than the animals he knows obey Tarquinius’s will, but word order is not something he wants to question Harry about. “I will. As long as you promise they won’t insult me or my son without some correction from you, and you won’t allow them to explore the manor on their own or touch anything I wouldn’t allow you to touch.”

“I can do that.” Harry hesitates for a long minute, and Tarquinius wonders if he will want to do the oath now, before they eat. He will insist they remain here if that is Harry’s idea. He still needs more food than he has received.

But instead, he gets a dazzling smile and a soft, “Thank you.”

Then Harry goes back to his book.

Tarquinius piles food slowly on his plate, and tries not to stare too much. He has the feeling he has just been manipulated again, but if anything, Harry would have more innocent intentions with a smile than with words.

Perhaps I shall have to learn more about honesty and kindness, simply to separate them from his actual attempts to manipulate me.

Chapter Text

“He says we can come.”

Really? Give me that.”

Hermione surrenders the letter to Ron readily enough; she knows what she read. She sits back in her chair and shakes her head in immense relief, and not a little shock. Of course she wants to see Harry, they both do, but it’s shocking to think it only took a letter to get them to the Notts’ house.

Then again, she thinks that Harry just wrote a letter to get to the Notts’, too. Or maybe Theodore wrote a letter. It seems that having a Death Eater taking care of Harry isn’t the death sentence for visiting him that she thought it was.

“Don’t you wonder why he said we can?”

Hermione pulls herself back to reality. Ron is looking at the letter like it’s going to curl up and bite him. “Not—really?” she asks. “I mean, Harry must have talked to him and persuaded him. I think Nott probably wants to stay on Harry’s good side, if he really did take him for political advantage.”

Ron eyes her sidelong, and looks back at the letter. “Do you think Harry could trick a Death Eater?”

“Why would he have to trick him? Why not just have Nott give in because he wants to keep Harry happy?”

“Because I don’t think a Death Eater would care about keeping Harry happy.” Scowling, Ron flings the letter back on the table. “You realize my parents aren’t going to like this? They won’t want me to go over to a Slytherin’s house.”

“A Death Eater’s house.”

Ron rolls his eyes at her. “Like I’m going to tell them that, Hermione. I’ll just say it’s a Slytherin’s house, and they’ll want to know why I’m going.”

Hermione begins to smile. She’s not surprised when Ron frowns at her, but it’s her turn to make deductions that didn’t occur to him. “Leave that to me,” she says, and starts thinking about the words she’ll say.

*

Theo leans over the railing from the upstairs, and watches as Weasley and Granger run through the front door and hug Harry. They don’t even gape at the enormous spiral staircase or the marble walls or the portraits that are frowning at them. It’s unusual, and Theo doesn’t like it. They appear to be engrossed in Harry.

At least Weasley pays attention after a few minutes, and does start to gape. Theo knows that’s his cue. He stands up and saunters down the stairs, letting one hand rest on the banister the way she taught him long ago.

“Nott?”

Granger pulls back from hugging Harry at Weasley’s question. She nods to him, but keeps one arm around Harry’s shoulders. “Nott.” Harry is beaming back and forth between both of them.

The sight depresses Theo, a bit. It’s one thing to acknowledge Harry is friends with Blaise, too, and another to share him with Gryffindors. But he also knows they’re not going to go away, so he has to make himself as pleasant as possible. “Granger, Weasley. Welcome. I think my father will come greet you—”

“Right now. Good morning, Miss Granger, Mr. Weasley.”

Father sweeps around the corner, holding his dark robe draped over one arm as though he’s a witch handling a dress with a train. It’s a gesture that Theo’s never seen him make before, and he swallows uneasiness while Father nods to both of Harry’s friends. Then he turns and looks at Harry, who’s stepping away from Granger with mussed hair and bright eyes. “Is this all you hoped for?”

“If we keep our promises, then I don’t think there’s any reason it can’t be.”

“What kind of promises did you make, Harry?”

Theo, his stomach prickling with anxiety, has to agree with Granger’s question. But Harry doesn’t answer. He shrugs and grabs Granger’s hand, pulling her towards the spiral staircase. “Later. Theo, can I show them the library? I know Hermione will appreciate that.”

“And what about me?” Weasley grumbles, trailing after them. “Tell me they have a Quidditch pitch or something.”

“Not a pitch, but a place we can fly.” Harry glances over his shoulder and grins at Theo. “Theo has all sorts of brooms that you can borrow if you want.”

Since it’s true, Theo only trails them, frowning a little. Father doesn’t try to call him back. In fact, when Theo glances down the stairs once, Father is standing there and watching them go with his hands folded behind his back. He turns a second later and walks through the arched doorway back into the dining room.

Theo frowns. Maybe later he’ll figure out what his father gained from letting Weasley and Granger into the house.

*

Harry grins as he watches Hermione tug another stack of books from the shelves. She seems undecided whether she wants to bury herself in them as they fall around her, or go and look for more treasures.

Even Ron has found a book he likes: a biography of Godric Gryffindor. Harry is a little surprised that’s here at all, but he supposes Tarquinius is the kind of person who likes knowledge no matter what it is. He wonders briefly if Theo’s dad was a Ravenclaw instead of a Slytherin.

Not that it really matters. And he’s not about to ask the question, just in case it means he suddenly owes another debt.

The only person who doesn’t seem to be having a good time is Theo, who leans against the library table and watches Hermione dig around. Harry walks up and leans next to him. “What’s wrong?”

Theo turns to him and casts a little charm that dims the sounds Ron and Hermione are making, although Harry doesn’t think it’ll keep anything they say really private. “I was thinking that you were becoming more and more Slytherin. But then I see you with your other friends, and I realize—you’re still as Gryffindor as you ever were.”

Harry blinks. It’s not something he’s been thinking about much in the last few days. “Well, I’m both. Or I’m only Slytherin because the Hat said I was. You know? I can still be your friend and friends with Ron and Hermione. And Blaise,” Harry adds after a second of thinking about it.

Theo twirls his wand between his fingers. “What if someone tries to make you change?”

“Is this about something you think your dad might do?”

Theo shakes his head, though, and Harry believes him. “Only that people didn’t have time to react because you were Sorted into Slytherin near the end of the year. When we come back—what are you going to say to people who think that you should stay in our House? Or go back to Gryffindor?”

“That it’s none of their business. And keep being friends with everyone who wants to be friends with me.” Harry has done some thinking, based on things Snape and Tarquinius have said to him. If people make fun of him the way they did for being the Heir of Slytherin, then he thinks he can ignore them now. That he has the right to ignore them.

Theo hesitates. “You don’t mind what they think about you?”

“Part of me always will. But nothing I can do will make them change their minds, either. I protested last year, and people still thought I was the Heir. I acted like a Gryffindor, and it didn’t change everybody’s minds. I tried to speak Parseltongue to save somebody, and they didn’t believe that’s what I was doing. So what can I do?”

Theo nods. Harry can’t tell what he’s thinking now. “Do you hate people for thinking like that?”

Harry sighs. “Sometimes. But if nothing I can do changes it, then I have to stop thinking about it because it’ll only drive me mad with frustration.”

Theo nods again and drops the privacy charm. Harry eyes him, wondering what that’s all about, but Hermione calls, “Harry, look at this! It says it’s a biography of Salazar Slytherin written by Rowena Ravenclaw!”

Harry runs over to look, but glances over his shoulder at Theo, too. Theo only shrugs and smiles at him.

It could mean anything. And like he told Theo about the students in school who might talk about his Sorting, Harry isn’t going to let things he can’t change drive him mad with frustration anymore.

*

I don’t understand why he isn’t more…

But Theo doesn’t even know the right words for what he wants to think. After all, what Harry says is perfectly reasonable. He probably couldn’t change anyone’s minds about him being the Heir of Slytherin, and there will even be some people who think that him being Sorted into that House makes him the Heir after all. Harry is well-served to put their hatred out of his mind and focus on what he can change.

At the same time, that Harry isn’t thinking more about the political context and the friendships he could make with Slytherins if he cut ties with Gryffindors is strange to Theo.

Weasley is watching him suspiciously. Theo makes himself smile and move over to the table where Weasley is sitting with his book. Harry isn’t the only one who needs to think more about the context of possible friendships, here.

Theo opens his mouth to make a comment about the size of the library and the way that Weasley can read more books if he wants, but Weasley interrupts. “Why does your family have a biography of Godric Gryffindor here?”

Theo blinks. He’s never cared to ask his father about that particular book, because he’s never read it. It’s old and, he supposes, valuable enough, but honestly, the cover has patches of blue mold on it, and some of the pages have crumbled corners. “I don’t know. I suppose one of my ancestors must have thought it was valuable.”

“I should take it. People like you shouldn’t have a book like this.”

“My father might be upset if you stole it. And what do you mean, ‘people like me’?”

“Ron.”

Harry’s voice is so full of warning that Theo stands up before he thinks about it, reaching for his wand. But he makes himself stop when he sees the way Weasley is flushing. He and Harry trade glances, and then he turns and looks at Theo.

“Right,” he says, although Theo doesn’t think that constitutes an apology. “Do you—do you think your father would listen if I wanted to buy it from him?” His hands are tight on the sides of the book, and Theo bites his tongue to keep from telling Weasley that he’s going to damage the book he wants so much to save.

“I have no idea. I have no idea how much he values that book or what price he would charge.”

“I probably can’t afford it anyway,” Weasley says, his head bowed, and he puts the book back in the stack and stares at it for a second before he shakes his head and starts to turn away.

“Why not read it while you’re here, though?” Theo continues, unable to believe Weasley is giving up that easily. “I know you can’t finish it, but—you have some time, and you—might come back and visit Harry another time.”

His argument sounds weak and stumbling to him, but Weasley stares at him as if he’s saved his life, and Theo gets an approving nod and smile from Harry. Theo smiles back weakly. He still thinks Weasley is unbelievably stupid for not thinking of the solution himself, and for offering to buy the book when everyone knows his family has no Galleons, but—well. Going around telling Harry his friends are unbelievably stupid isn’t a good idea, either.

“That’s right, Nott. Thanks.” Weasley already seems to have forgotten about “what kind of people” Theo is, as he grabs the book and plops on the stool next to the table with it.

Theo shrugs once and goes to listen in on Harry and Granger’s conversation about the books she’s picking out. He probably can’t sympathize with what she’s interested in, but he can make comments on the ages and contents of the books if she asks.

*

Tarquinius watches the children come in from a tour of the gardens, and sees the Mudblood’s eyes glint as she stares at him. A second later, she leaves his son and Harry and the other Weasley friend discussing whether the gardens could accommodate a Quidditch pitch after all, and moves towards him.

Tarquinius links his hands together behind his back and waits for her. He is comforted by the knowledge that his robes are impeccable, and he will not speak the insults that line up in his mind, and he can defend himself if she curses him.

Granger stops and stares at him. Tarquinius only looks back. Since he has no idea why she’s approached him in the first place, waiting is best.

“Why did you decide to adopt Harry?”

“Adoption is not the same as giving him a sanctuary from his family and from the pressures of politics and fame.”

“But you know you’re going to have to adopt him in the future. Otherwise, Professor Dumbledore won’t let him stay here.”

Tarquinius decides he can risk a little more plain speech, since her words make him curious. “Why would Professor Dumbledore have ultimate jurisdiction over his placement, rather than the Department of Family Services in the Ministry?”

Granger pauses. Tarquinius can see the birds of her thoughts flying behind her eyes, but doesn’t know if they’ll produce an answer.

“I—don’t know. But I thought the Headmaster took in loco parentis authority for students at Hogwarts. So he would have to be the one to consent to—”

“Certain arrangements when students are at Hogwarts, yes, such as whether a wound is too serious to be treated by the school’s hospital wing and the students should be transferred to St. Mungo’s,” Tarquinius interrupts. He does his best to make it gentle. “That does not mean he can dictate where students stay during the summer. And since Harry is an orphan, his legal guardians should be the ones to make that decision. The Headmaster of a school does not take responsibility for every orphan from the last war.”

Granger raises her head. “But his guardians are dead now.”

“Then I imagine the Ministry will need to be informed soon,” says Tarquinius, and wonders for a moment whether Harry told her about the Dursleys or whether she read about it in the Prophet and made the connection. It is a pity he cannot use Legilimency on her to find out.

“Professor Dumbledore might still need to know.”

“I do not think he does.”

Tarquinius looks her in the eye and tries to convey his quiet assurance. In reality, it doesn’t much matter what she tells Dumbledore. Tarquinius has other sanctuaries and will simply remove Harry there. He does have legal arrangements in progress—not for an adoption, but for something else—but they are taking a frustratingly long time.

“I think he really has Harry’s best interests at heart.”

“Then ask yourself why Harry is here instead of at a place of the Headmaster’s choosing.”

Granger’s mouth purses as if she’s sucking on an ice cube. “I just might ask him that.”

“Yes, you should,” Tarquinius says, and dismisses himself from the conversation, seeing the way Harry’s eyes rest on them. Honestly, he doesn’t think he’s done badly. Neither has Granger. She has a nice way of speaking, if a bit of naiveté.

And she has reminded him to check on those legal arrangements, which might be coaxed to move faster if he pays a bit of personal attention to them.

*

“What is it like really living with a Death Eater, mate?”

Harry sighs. They’re up in his bedroom now, after dinner, and he supposes he should be grateful Ron waited to ask until they were here.

And that he didn’t cast a charm to find poison in all the food at the table, the way Harry thought he would when he saw Ron clutching his wand under the table.

“It’s okay,” he says. “We make bargains, and he teaches me magic, and he doesn’t lie to me as much as Dumbledore did. I don’t think he’s honest all the time. But on the other hand, Dumbledore wasn’t honest all the time, either.”

“What did Dumbledore lie about?”

Hermione’s leaning forwards as though she’s interested in the answer to that, too. Harry turns to look at her. “He can’t really expect me to stay with the Dursleys and this blood protection idea. He wants to dictate where I go during the summer, but I found out he can’t do that. And he tried to make it impossible for me to do anything I wanted, like stay with Ron’s family.”

“Maybe he was just concerned for you?”

“Why would it be better for me to stay with the Dursleys than the Weasleys, though?” Harry snaps back. It’s not the sort of thing he would have said to Hermione just a while ago, but Snape and Tarquinius have been poking at him and making him think more, and he’s even had to think when he talks with Theo and Blaise. “He can’t answer that. And he can’t answer why he has that authority. Maybe he could have talked to the Dursleys, but they would have been thrilled to have me stay somewhere else. Dumbledore was the only one who kept insisting their house was the best.”

“And now they’re dead.”

Harry sits up a little. He didn’t tell Hermione that. But she could have learned it from the paper and putting clues together. He stares at her and says, “Yes.”

“I think Mr. Nott probably killed them.”

“He could, he was a Death Eater,” Ron says, but he looks shaken. “Harry, mate—are you sure you really want to stay here?”

“Yes,” Harry says. Once again, he thinks of how impossible it is to really explain everything that he’s feeling. He’s never managed to do it. Or he would have got away from the Dursleys when he was a kid and Muggle adults were asking him questions. “He still treats me better than they did. And Dumbledore had no right to tell me that I probably just hadn’t talked to the Dursleys and I didn’t understand them.”

“He said that? That’s horrible.” Hermione pauses, pulling at her robes with one hand. “But not as horrible as killing people.”

Harry says nothing. He wishes she hadn’t brought this up. No, she’ll never understand, and neither will Ron.

But does she need to understand?

The question sounds like it’s in Snape’s voice. Harry knows the one that comes after it. He looks Hermione in the eye and asks, “Are you going to tell Dumbledore?”

“That you’re here? That he killed your relatives?”

“Any of it,” Harry says, because that’s easier than trying to untangle the complexities of the moment.

There’s a long silence where Hermione waits, and Harry waits with a sickness in his stomach, and Ron looks back and forth between them. Harry hopes Ron will abide by Hermione’s decision. He really doesn’t want to lose his friends. This visit has gone better than he ever expected. But he isn’t going to let Dumbledore force him into living with Dudley ever again, either.

“No,” Hermione finally says, reluctantly. “I—there are some things I thought were true about Dumbledore, and now Mr. Nott says they’re not. I’ll have to look them up and see if they are, but I think it’s important to support you.” She sighs. “I’ll leave it alone and do what I can to support you, okay?”

Harry lunges forwards and hugs her. Then he hugs Ron. Ron pats him on the back and coughs.

“You didn’t show us this dueling room, mate,” Ron says, and Harry gets up to go do that.

He doesn’t want to lose his friends—any of them. But maybe he can keep them all.

Chapter Text

“I think you have a natural talent for dueling.”

Harry stands up from where he ducked behind a cauldron when Severus launched a spell at him. “Thank you, sir.” He takes the Calming Draught Severus extends to him without hesitation. Severus watches with slowly narrowing eyes as Harry’s breathing eases off while he drinks it.

“You’ve had that before?”

“Tarquinius gives it to me all the time after we duel. He says that I get soaked in adrenaline and I need to calm down.”

“And what can you tell me about this particular potion?” Severus murmurs, taking the vial back and dropping it neatly into the nearest pocket of his robe. He keeps his voice casual and his head turned as if he is inspecting a chip in the brass cauldron on the table instead of listening to Harry’s words.

“That you need to be careful how you take them. If you drink too many in a day, then it’s likely to clog up your throat. Some people make them with dandelion seeds, but that’s not a useful variation. You can brew some of the ingredients in an eggshell and get a concentrated version of it when you’re on the battlefield and you don’t have a cauldron.” Harry pauses. “Do you want to hear about how to brew it, sir?”

“No. You’re doing well.” Severus glances up then. “Why is it that you can do so much better here than you did in my Potions classroom?”

“Because I think that you care more about my success now. And there’s no Slytherins around to throw things into my potion and knock me off-balance.”

“You realize that that might be Gryffindors, now?” Severus touches his wand to the chip in the cauldron and murmurs a Reparo. It won’t do to hold a brewing lesson with less than perfect equipment. That is information he tries to impart to students with both words and actions. God knows that most of them never listen.

“Yes, sir.”

“And?”

“And I’ll deal with that when it happens.”

Severus glances at Harry. Harry is still wiping sweat from his forehead, but his gaze back is calm and stoic. Severus has to nod. He admits it makes little sense to worry about problems before they happen. One should prepare, but worry and panic are the opposite of useful emotions for preparation.

“You should think about other things that will change when the school year resumes as well,” Severus tells him. “Such as how you’ll handle playing Quidditch, and how you’ll handle negotiations with Mr. Malfoy for the Seeker position.”

Harry’s face hardens a little. “I’m thinking about it, sir.”

That is all Severus can ask for, after two years of no thought.

*

Tarquinius rolls his eyes and tosses the letter from the Ministry into the fire. He expected these legal arrangements for Harry to take a long time; no one has tried to make them in more than a century. But he did not expect to be dealing with people who doubt that Harry is a Parselmouth at all.

Of course, now that he thinks about it, his self-imposed deadline doesn’t need that much urgency. Harry will return to Hogwarts soon. While he’s there, Tarquinius doubts the Headmaster will try to move him somewhere else, and he’ll probably consent to Harry spending the holidays with the Weasleys. That is annoying in one way, but Harry can probably contrive some way to slip away and visit Theo. Tarquinius has at least that much faith in the child’s cunning.

No, the real deadline is summer of next year, when Harry will need a residence that is not a former Death Eater’s home.

Tarquinius smiles a little. He looks forward to seeing what Harry does in the next year. It might make the “former” part of the title he just thought more true than ever before.

That moment of humor makes it easier for him to apply his mind to the problem in front of him again.

*

“I wanted to talk to you about something important, Blaise.”

Blaise moves hesitantly into his mother’s dressing room. Normally Bernard would be there, but he doesn’t seem to be this morning. Then again, didn’t he mention something about going to check on his Greek businesses yesterday?

Blaise sits down in the beautiful, spindly chair with the sunburst back in front of his mother’s ebony vanity, and watches her arrange her hair in a complicated knot on top of her head. He knows that other women do this with either magic or the help of house-elves. But there’s little about Naarah Zabini that connects her to other women.

His mother looks into the mirror, and nods at something there Blaise can’t see for this angle. Then she pulls a hand back, and the dark lock she’s been touching stays in place. Blaise can catch a glimpse of a gleaming black comb for only a moment before she turns to look at him.

“I’m concerned about your friendship with the Potter boy.”

Blank face, hands calm in his lap. Blaise has played this game for years. “Oh? What specifically concerns you about it, Mother?”

His mother pauses. Blaise wonders if she thought he would deny the friendship, or try to say that it’s not that close.

But Blaise can hardly do that, not with Harry’s distinctive owl coming and going all the time. And Blaise thinks Bernard has probably cast some charms that let him read the letters over Blaise’s shoulder or as a reflection on the wall sometimes.

Mother never does things like that. She expects willing submission, which means truth when she asks Blaise questions like this.

Mother touches her jawline as though she’s swallowing a potion that will help her think better. “You know that I have raised you to be as discreet as possible, Blaise. You don’t need to show yourself better than others because you know that you are better.”

Blaise blinks. “Yes, I think that’s wise, Mother. I am trying to follow you what you taught me.” He wonders for a moment if Bernard has complained about him reading Harry’s letters, but schools his face to calmness. He won’t get good results if he tries to separate Mother from her boyfriend right now.

Mother regards him again. “And you don’t have anything you want to tell me, Blaise? About the letters, or the degree to which you follow Harry Potter?”

Oh. So that’s it. She’s concerned about the possibility that Harry might influence him unduly. Blaise shakes his head with a faint smile he can’t help. She should be worried about so much other than that.

Then again, maybe she should worry. Blaise has never had a genuine friendship before. He doesn’t know what it’s going to do to him.

“I’m glad that you find this amusing. Someone should.”

Blaise only shakes his head again. He doesn’t feel threatened, not at the moment. He knows the friendship he’s forging with Harry is as far beyond his mother’s comprehension as it once would have been beyond his own. “I was only thinking, Mother, that I can’t follow someone I have to spend most of my time guiding.”

“Oh?”

“He knows nothing about Slytherin, Mother. He spent his first few days upset and pouting that he was placed there. I know that he’s learned a little more about it because he’s been with a Slytherin this summer, but that doesn’t mean he’s got all the subtleties down. Look how long they take most people to learn. And he’s writing to me with questions, and he’s never been taught to use the power of his name.”

Mother makes a gesture that almost brushes loose the lock of hair she spent so much time tucking away. “You must be mistaken about that, Blaise. Dumbledore would have ensured that he knew—”

“Dumbledore had him raised by Muggles, though.”

Mother goes still and looks over Blaise’s head into the mirror. Blaise doesn’t turn around to see what she’s looking at. He wouldn’t understand even if he caught a glimpse of it. And another thing Mother has raised him to do is not show curiosity.

“He must have had a motive for that,” Mother murmurs finally, tapping her long, gleaming blue-black nails on the surface of the desk. Blaise doesn’t look down for the marks they must be placing there. “Perhaps Potter is playing into that. Perhaps you are playing into that, following Potter.”

“Can you follow someone who doesn’t want to lead?”

Mother blinks, a slow, perfectly-calculated movement. “Who would not want to lead?”

“Potter. He simply acts as though he’s astonished when I bring up anything about the difference he might make in Slytherin House or what kinds of people might want to follow him. That’s why it’s going to be a genuine friendship on his side. He doesn’t have any idea how to let it be anything else. He doesn’t see the power structures that are everywhere in Slytherin.”

Mother lets her head sink until her chin is resting on her knuckles. “But you still do not have to be his friend.”

“If not me, then someone else would be. And when that person rises with Potter to the top of the hierarchy, I’ll be left behind.”

Mother smiles as if she doesn’t want to. That may be the first time Blaise has ever seen that. Mother simply doesn’t do things she doesn’t want to. “You are learning my lessons well, Blaise, and I believe you have earned a reward.” She extends a hand. “Bernard will be away on his business until at least tomorrow. You and I will go to see the sirens swimming outside Venice and luring Muggles to drown.”

Blaise stands up at once. He’s never been allowed to go on this journey before. Mother always said he was too young to appreciate such refined amusements.

As he takes Mother’s hand and feels her drop the house’s defenses so they can Apparate, Blaise wonders whether she’s taken into account that Harry Potter has managed to change even this, the behavior of people who were once Slytherin but are no longer.

He doesn’t say it, of course, Mother has probably thought of it, and Blaise will need to take that into account and act with it in mind.

And if there’s a chance she hasn’t…

What a fool he would be to give up that advantage.

*

Theo watches as Father walks from the dining room to go take his pain-killing potion, the way he does in the mornings. He nods and swivels around in his chair to face Harry.

“What do you want to do today?” he asks. It’s only a week until they go back to Hogwarts, and Harry’s friends have visited several times. Theo has been allowed to join his dueling and brewing lessons with Professor Snape most times now, too.

His father still keeps them to separate lessons when it comes to him. Theo doesn’t mind that. Harry is so open he tells Theo everything he and Father study anyway, although Theo can’t always follow it easily.

Now, though, Harry toys with his food instead of coming up with the expected answer of, “Flying!” He’s frowning, and Theo settles slowly back in his chair. It looks as though Harry is working up the courage of asking any one of the number of questions he should have asked before now.

Theo’s ready.

Harry finally glances up. “Do you think it’s true that Blaise’s mum has killed a lot of people?”

Oh. Not the question he expected, after all. Theo thought he would ask about Father, or her. He blinks, then says, “I think it’s probably true. It’s only rumors, though. You can’t just go up and ask Blaise about it. He’d be obligated to defend her.”

Harry’s mouth gets long and stubborn in the way Theo’s already recognized means a huge argument. “Okay, but if it’s true, or it’s probably true, then why is no one doing anything about it?”

“Because she lives in Italy most of the time, and the British government doesn’t care enough to extradite her. And because only a few of the people she killed were even citizens of wizarding Britain, I think. They’re not going to start an investigation into rumors about people killed several countries away.”

“She lives in Italy, but Blaise goes to school at Hogwarts?”

“She’s British by birth, I think. And she has a kind of sentimental attachment to Hogwarts. Why?” Theo can’t stop himself from adding. “Do you think you might have to go rescue him from her or something?”

He’s sorry for the question when he sees the way Harry faces him, lightning brewing in his eyes. “I think I might. He can’t tell me hardly anything in his letters. I know that he has problems with his mum, and you have problems with your dad, but you can at least tell me more about it.”

Oh, Harry. You know so little. The truth is that he doesn’t need to know more than he does about Father right now, though, so Theo resists the temptation to enlighten him. “I know that Blaise wonders why she chose to produce just one child. What was different about his father from the other ones she’s slept with and murdered, or what’s different about him from the other children she could have had. He’s under a lot of pressure to be perfect.”

Harry spends some time brooding on that. Theo watches him in both wonder and contentment. He thinks he knows what’s going to happen next, but he’s not sure. It’s fun watching Harry figure out what he’ll do next.

Harry finally looks up. “We have to make sure that Blaise is safe in the future.”

“I’m not sure he would thank us for that. It’ll make him look weak in front of his mother, and if that happens—”

“Then we’ll just have to make sure that he’s beyond her reach.”

Theo sighs and decides that he has to give up part of the game. “My father can’t run a halfway home for orphans, Harry. Blaise would probably never consent to come here anyway.”

“Didn’t your father say he was making other arrangements for me?”

“Yes, but they might not be ready before next summer. And there’s no reason that whoever it is would consent to take Blaise as well.”

“I want to do something.”

“The best thing you can do for now is make the changes to Slytherin that he thinks you can make. That will prove to his mother that he’s right about you and let him continue your friendship.” Theo pauses. “You’re going to commit to living in Slytherin, right? Not cut yourself off like you did at the end of last year?”

“How could I do that? I know you and Blaise now, and neither of you would let me do that.”

“True.” Theo isn’t entirely reassured, though; there’s a distance n Harry’s eyes that makes reassurance pretty much impossible. “I suspect one of the first challenges you’ll have to face is over the Seeker position, and whether you’re going to take it away from Draco or whether you’ll try out for Chaser or Keeper.”

“I’ll face it.”

Harry’s voice is clipped. Theo raises his hands and backs off. “All right. But you still have to realize that we can’t just march in and rescue Blaise. I might like to, but we can’t.”

Harry nods briskly. His eyes are still gazing somewhere in the distance. “I just want to make sure that I don’t endanger him accidentally, either.”

What about endangering him on purpose? But Theo is wise enough not to say that. “Fine. So those are things that we can think about when we go back to Hogwarts. What do you want to do now?”

And now Harry smiles in the way that Theo’s come to think of as natural to him, and turns around to head up the stairs. “Fly.”

Theo spends a moment pondering why he feels better when Harry’s smiling than when he’s not. He shrugs and follows him up the stairs in the end without an answer, though. He doesn’t understand enough of the changes that are happening in him, in Harry, and all around them to say anything about that yet.

*

Harry sits in the compartment on the Hogwarts Express and breathes softly. Around him are Theo, Blaise, Ron, and Hermione. His Gryffindor and Slytherin friends are sort of ignoring each other; they speak to people in the same House and to him, but not really across the House divide.

It’s a start, though, and that’s all Harry wants right now.

The door to the compartment slides open, and Malfoy steps inside. He looks straight at Harry, ignoring the way Blaise and Theo tense up and Ron turns red and Hermione opens her mouth, and says, “Can I sit here?”

Harry considers him. Then he nods. Honestly, he thinks at least one of his decisions will be popular with Malfoy even though it will make Harry unpopular in Slytherin. It’s a good start if he can ease tensions now.

“Sure.”

“Harry!”

“Mate—”

“The only reason all of you are here at once is because I’m here,” Harry says mildly, although he can feel his shoulders tense up. “Now, you don’t have to stay here. You can go somewhere else. But I’m not about to leave, and neither is Malfoy.”

“You can call me Draco,” Malfoy says quietly, and sits down on what Harry supposes he has to think of as the ‘Slytherin’ side of the compartment.

Ron makes a furious gesture to him. Hermione looks as if she isn’t going to relax until they reach Hogwarts. Harry just smiles apologetically at them and starts talking about exams with Hermione—a real sacrifice, since he doesn’t want to, but he knows she’ll pick up the topic excitedly and be happy until the end of the train ride, and he owes her something for having invited the boy who insulted her last year to sit with them.

He and Draco do talk a little before they reach Hogwarts, about the strictly neutral subjects of the weather and Hedwig. Draco is still giving him cautious glances when they leave the train. Harry just smiles idly back and then looks ahead of him at the castle.

They’ll take the carriages instead of floating in on the boats, of course, but Harry still thinks this view is magnificent, with the castle glowing with light.

Show time.

Chapter Text

 

Harry does get to watch the Sorting and eat part of his dinner before Dumbledore calls him to his office, but only part. The Headmaster stands up and nods, saying something to McGonagall, before he walks down from the Head Table and comes to stand in front of Harry.

“If you’ll come with me so we can speak, Mr. Potter,” he says. His voice is heavy and sad. But Harry got used to sadness during the summer, from Hermione sounding worried for him and feeling it for Theo and Blaise and enduring disappointed looks from Tarquinius and Snape.

Everyone is staring at them. Harry hopes it’s just because he’s the Boy-Who-Lived and not because they think he’s going to start acting like a Slytherin now. He doesn’t want to spread the disappointment around.

“Yes, Headmaster,” he says, and follows him out of the Great Hall.

They make their way to the first staircase up to the Headmaster’s office in silence, but then Dumbledore stirs and asks, “So how was your summer, dear boy?”

“Interesting.”

“And did you want to tell me where you were staying, instead of with the Dursleys?”

“No.”

Dumbledore only sighs like he expected that. They come to a stop in front of the gargoyle, and he turns around and bends down so that he can look into Harry’s eyes. Harry looks at the gargoyle instead. He doesn’t want Dumbledore to read his mind. Although Snape doesn’t think Harry will ever be good at Occlumency, there’s no law saying he has to look into the eyes of a Legilimens.

“Harry,” Dumbledore whispers. “I am so sorry about the deaths of your relatives. I should have realized that grief would make you react this way. First you were stripped of your friends and your place in the Tower, and then your family died. You’ve had no one to rely on. I want to make that better. But I can’t if you aren’t honest with me.”

Harry wonders if he would have felt better responding to that when he was a Gryffindor. But then he shakes his head. No, the Dursleys weren’t dead then. A lot has changed.

“I don’t want to be honest with you,” he says. Dumbledore actually takes a step back as if Harry’s statement is a wind pushing him away. Harry makes a note to himself to look up wind spells. They sound like they could be useful. “Sir, you wanted me to live with the Dursleys instead of the Weasleys. You sound…” He hesitates, because he isn’t good at this. But he has to try. “You sound like you understand why it was hard for me to be in Slytherin, but you were going to send me back to the Dursleys anyway. Why?”

“It is the safest place for you, my boy—”

“Then it didn’t matter they called me a freak?” Harry asks. His hands are shaking, and he doesn’t want to talk about this, but it seems like it’s going to come bubbling out anyway, whether or not he wants it to. “It doesn’t matter that they made me sleep in a cupboard until I got my Hogwarts letter and told me my parents were drunks and all the rest of that rubbish? Everything was fine as long as I didn’t die?”

Dumbledore is watching him with wide eyes. Then he shakes his head and gives a glance down the corridor. Harry wonders if someone is trying to sneak up on them and listen. “I think my office is a better place to talk about this.”

“Not without me, Headmaster.”

Professor Snape is walking up to them, his lips compressed in a thin line. He stops and puts a hand on Harry’s shoulder. It feels as if it’s going to burn right through Harry’s robe, even though Harry is used to thinking of Professor Snape as cold and clammy. “I have a vested interest in learning what Mr. Potter has to say about his relatives.”

Harry hunches his shoulders. So Snape isn’t here to support him. He’s here because he wants Harry to “talk.” He kept trying to make him “talk” during the summer. Harry berates himself for his own stupidity in bringing up what the Dursleys did in the first place.

Then he reminds himself of what else he decided on the train, what he’s already kind of started by telling his friends that Draco was going to sit in the compartment with them. He’s going to do what’s best for him, and not what people think makes him a Slytherin or a Gryffindor or evil or a hero. He manages to stop feeling like an idiot and just stand there looking at Dumbledore as if he has no idea what comes next.

“My office, Harry,” Dumbledore repeats softly.

“All right, sir.”

*

Severus holds back a hiss of exasperation at the way Harry keeps his back to him all the way up to Albus’s office. What does the boy want? Does he think that the summer doesn’t matter here? Does he expect Severus to pretend that he never learned about him, never tutored him?

It will not happen. And now that Severus is the boy’s Head of House, he has the power to enforce that decision without being a bully.

Albus waves Severus and Harry to chairs in front of his desk, his eyes brightening as he glances between them. Probably hoping that Severus has “forgiven the sins of the father,” or something like that.

Severus muffles a snort. Albus has no idea who Harry has turned into. Then again, at the moment, neither does Severus. They both turn to look at him expectantly when Harry sits down.

His eyes are gleaming. His jaw is set. Severus raises an eyebrow, but Albus starts the questioning again.

“Don’t you want to be safe during the summers, Harry? The attack on your relatives proves that anything can happen to your protectors at any time. It would be best if we collected young Mr. Dursley, who I’m sure survived the attack, and established another set of blood-based protections as soon as possible.”

“But if the Dursleys died, sir, doesn’t that prove that the blood protections weren’t worth anything?”

“They can be renewed, and then they will be worth something,” Albus replies at once. “Please, Harry, tell me where young Mr. Dursley is. It won’t be needed for ten months, of course, but in that time, we can start work on a new home for you both.”

“No.”

Albus looks at Harry. Harry looks back. Severus, forgotten by both, leans back in his chair and thinks he has never seen such pure refusal in another human face before.

“I know that your relatives did not always treat you well.” Albus pitches his voice in what Severus has come to think of as his gentle wheedle. “But Harry, no one can expect perfection from all human beings. In your aunt’s case, she was jealous of your mother and perhaps it is to be expected that she would take that jealousy out on you—”

At that point, Severus intervenes, because the tide of poisonous black disgust rising from his belly is too strong to be contained. “That sounds perilously close to blaming the boy for his abuse, Albus.”

The man starts and turns to him. From the sharp gesture he makes, Severus knows that he does not want to make Harry think that. He is manipulative, yes, but at such a deep level that he can hide his manipulations even from himself, along with all the other things that he does not want to face straight on. “Never that, Severus. The things Harry describe sound hideous. But we need to remember that Muggles and wizards have a long history of misunderstanding each other, and—”

“You can fetishize blood family and Muggle-wizard interaction all you like, Albus.” Severus holds his voice low. Shouting would only attract more fascinated attention than that of the portraits on the walls of the office. “But you will not make a member of my House a recipient of your idolization.”

Harry glances sideways at him. Severus thinks he knows why, down to the words that Harry is probably putting his thoughts in. He only cares about me because I’m a Slytherin. He wouldn’t care about anyone else who wasn’t.

That is not true, but it is the safest role for Severus to play in front of the Headmaster. “You will not make someone else pay the price of your good intentions. Besides,” he adds, picking up on the thread that he thinks Albus has been trying to conceal, “even if Mr. Potter was foolish enough to agree to this, his cousin is his age. Who would keep watch over them both?”

“I believe the Dursleys had other Muggle relatives, Severus. I must admit I haven’t had good success in tracing them yet, but—”

No.”

It rings out over the office, impregnated with enough magic to make the portraits and Fawkes’s perch rattle. The whispering Headmasters of years past and the phoenix go silent abruptly. Severus stares at Harry. His eyes are glowing with power this time.

“No,” he says flatly. “I only met one of Uncle Vernon’s relatives, and she hates me. She’s not going to take care of me. She probably ran away with Dudley, and good riddance. I’m never going back to them again.”

“Harry, you must agree—”

“No.”

“You must see that running away from the school and potentially staying with a Death Eater—”

“No.”

“I am only trying to help you, Harry, my boy.” Albus’s voice breaks with frustration. For the first time since Severus has met him, he thinks the man is close to running his hands through his hair. “You need a safe place to stay. Going to a Death Eater will not keep you safe from Voldemort!”

“No,” Harry says, but Albus would be a fool to mistake it for agreement.

Either a fool or hopeful, Severus thinks with a roll of his eyes, as Albus smiles a little. “Then you won’t stay in the same place next summer?”

“I want to stay with the Weasleys.”

“That may be difficult to impossible, though, Harry.” Albus picks up the serious tone that he uses to convince straying members of the Order of the Phoenix. “It could easily put them in danger. You wouldn’t want to do that, would you?”

“No.”

Severus holds back the headshake the same way that he’s holding back multiple attempts to shake sense into Albus. This time, the man is smiling as if he does think Harry is agreeing.

Harry, staring back like a wolf in a trap, has agreed to nothing. He doesn’t want to put his friends in danger; that doesn’t mean he will spend summers and other holidays where Albus places him. Severus seethes on the inside, while maintaining an expression on the far side of bland. The boy needs careful handling, delicate exploration of the damage the Muggles have done to him. But the chance is gone now.

“Good. Then we’ll discuss what should happen over the summer when the summer gets closer.” Albus clasps his hands and smiles at them both. “Good evening, Harry, Severus.”

*

Snape insists on escorting him back to the Slytherin common room, as if Harry could have forgotten where it was in two months. Harry keeps his mouth shut all the time. He doesn’t want to get angry in front of Snape, and he also doesn’t want to get into the matter of the Dursleys, which he thinks Snape will raise if he gets a chance.

They stop in front of the blank stretch of dungeon wall, and Snape delicately clears his throat. “You realize that you can talk to me when you—wish an adult confidant who will not try to shove you back into living with your relatives.”

Harry nods.

“Is there anything you wish to speak to me about right now?”

Harry doesn’t think Snape would try to read his mind, but he still keeps his eyes locked on the wall. “No, sir.” He knows he’s not acting like a Slytherin, any more than he did when he confronted the Headmaster in the corridor outside his office. But he’s not a Slytherin, not really. He’s himself.

Snape sighs as if that really bothers him. Harry doesn’t doubt it does. It’s not that he really thinks Snape would use the Dursleys against him, not now after keeping Harry’s secrets all summer.

It’s that he doesn’t want to talk about it.

“Very well.” Snape looks at the wall and adds, “Draconis rex.” The wall slides open, and Harry walks in, aware of Snape’s eyes on his back.

He didn’t expect to feel other eyes, though, except maybe Blaise’s and Theo’s. So it’s strange to see almost everyone in the common room looking at him. Harry comes to a stop, his hand on his wand. He’ll draw it if he needs to, but he doesn’t want to get accused of starting a fight and have everyone gang up on him.

“Took you long enough, Potter.” Marcus Flint stands up and nods briskly at him. “We’re discussing the role you’ll play on the team. I want to make sure that you know I expect you to try your very best, even when we’re opposite Gryffindor in the air.” He flashes a grin that makes Harry a little nauseous. “But we’ll try to keep you away from the Bludgers and make sure you never have to do anything but chase the Snitch. Meanwhile, Draco will be trying out—”

“No.”

Flint stares at him. Harry thinks it’s the only time he’s seen that expression. Flint usually looks either eager or homicidal. “What?”

“I’m not taking the Seeker’s position away from Draco.” Harry can feel Draco watching him from a few seats down. But he can’t tell without looking what Draco’s feeling right now, and he doesn’t think it’s a good idea to take his eyes off Flint.

“Malfoy’s already agreed,” Flint snaps. “Slytherin plays to win, Potter. We don’t give special privileges to people just because they might have been on the team last year.”

Then what was giving Malfoy a place on the team because his dad bought you brooms about? But Harry doesn’t say that. He only shakes his head. “Then you shouldn’t give me a place, either.”

“But everyone knows what you’re like, Potter. Do you see a single person in here who’s ever beat you to the Golden Snitch?”

“I won’t be the exception.” Actually, Harry doesn’t intend to play Quidditch at all. It would just be a horrible idea. A lot of Gryffindors would resent him, some Slytherins would—Draco most of all—and he doesn’t like the idea of cheating the way the Slytherin team always does.

No.

And plus, he wants to do other things. Practice more of the magic that Tarquinius taught him. Try to get up his Potions mark in a classroom instead of alone with Snape teaching him. Learn more about the magic that Tarquinius showed him with the Silver Hourglass.

Learn more about why I never got tested with it before, or maybe, if I was, where those records went.

Hell, just managing his Gryffindor and Slytherin collection of friends will take more time than he can spend on Quidditch practice.

“You’re making a mistake, Potter.” Flint steps towards him and lowers his voice, although Harry’s well-aware that everyone in the room can still hear every word. “You have to do something to prove that you’re of value to Slytherin House. You know, since you were Sorted here late.” His eyes flick up meaningfully to Harry’s lightning bolt scar, proving that he’s talking about that, too.

Harry smiles. It makes Draco flinch; he can see that much out of the corner of his eye. “You mean, Parseltongue isn’t valuable enough to Slytherin House?” he hisses.

Flint takes a wary step back. When Harry does nothing else, he says, “What good are you going to do with just that, though? It won’t earn Slytherin House points, or help us win the Quidditch Cup!”

“I was just proving that I have other things to offer,” Harry says, with a small shrug. “People can come and talk to me if they want a description of the Chamber of Secrets, or what it’s like being a Parselmouth,” he adds. It’s a thought he’s never had before, but honestly, talking about the Chamber of Secrets would be easier than talking about the bloody Dursleys or why he doesn’t want to play Quidditch.

Flint is scratching his head as if he doesn’t really know how to take this. Then again, Harry’s never thought he was the brightest of the lot.

“This isn’t over, Potter,” Flint finally settles for saying, before he stalks away dramatically. Harry shrugs and turns away before he rolls his eyes.

That brings him face-to-face with Draco, though. “Are you telling the truth about not wanting to play Seeker for Slytherin?” he demands.

“Yes.”

“But—” Draco looks a little lost. “Why?”

“I don’t want to cause hurt feelings, and there are things I would rather do instead,” Harry answers. “Like go to bed.” He marches up the stairs, ignoring Theo’s attempt to get his attention. He wants some privacy.

He only relaxes when he’s on the bed and staring up at the damn green curtains he’s pulled shut and locked with a charm Snape taught him.

If I have to be a Slytherin, it’s on my own terms.

*

Draco stares after Potter, and feels his heart pound with confusion. On the one hand, of course he’s glad that Potter isn’t going to challenge him for the Seeker spot.

On the other hand, he doesn’t like feeling grateful. And he can’t believe that someone would give up Quidditch. And part of him agrees with Flint—it’s important that the best players be on the team so the House can win. It doesn’t matter who they are, just what their skill level is.

In his heart of hearts, Draco Malfoy knows that Harry Potter is a better Seeker than he is.

He still hasn’t decided what to do by the time he goes to bed, and Theo and Blaise are muttering to themselves, too. There’s utter silence from Potter’s bed.

Draco falls asleep staring at the closed curtains and wondering what he should do.

Chapter Text

Harry’s coming down the stairs the next morning when he sees the twitch of a wand from the corner of his eye. He immediately pulls his own wand and ducks low, letting the jinx soar past him to splash against the wall and break a section of stone open.

Tarquinius taught him to be that sensitive to the motion of a wand. Harry’s mentally thanking him as he jumps down the rest of the stairs and whips around to put his back to the wall, facing Marcus Flint.

Flint gapes at him for a second, then scowls and steadies his grip on his wand. “You’re going to be Seeker, Potter. Or you’re going to watch your back.”

Harry can remember being afraid of Marcus Flint the first time he saw him, thinking he looked like a troll and how easily he could smash Harry off a broom. But he’s thought about, and faced, scarier things this summer. Dumbledore is scarier than Flint, because he has more power over Harry’s life.

“You have a Seeker,” Harry says. His own voice is quiet and furious. He almost seems to be floating outside himself, listening to it. “Be satisfied with him and back off.”

“I told you to do something, Potter. Your scrawny little arse doesn’t have that much power in Slytherin.” Flint comes forwards to loom over him. “Are you going to do what I say, or do you have to learn your lessons the difficult way?”

Harry’s blood is pounding so hard his vision feels distorted. And Tarquinius and Snape both taught him only one response to that when he feels it.

His hand twitches, and he snarls, “Reducto!”

The Blasting Curse hits Flint squarely in the shoulder and sends him rolling backwards, his wand flying from his hand. He’s shouting and squirming and grabbing hold of his arm. Harry isn’t surprised. He heard the distinct sound of snapping bone.

Harry stands there, panting and coming back to himself. A few other Slytherins have stampeded into the common room, including some of the Quidditch players, but none of them are making any move to help Flint. They just stand there, wide-eyed.

Harry gives them a nasty smile and puts his wand away. “He tried to curse me,” he says. “Probably something like this, judging by the size of the hole in the wall. Go tell Professor Snape if you want. I’m going to breakfast.” And he turns and walks away.

*

The first action between Harry and someone else in Slytherin, and I had to miss it!

Theo shakes his head at himself as he runs out of the common room, swinging his satchel around his shoulder at the last minute and counting his Shrunken books by feel as he runs. He thought everything would be all right for at least a day. Yes, Harry confronted Flint last night, but no one did anything. Theo thought the tensions would simmer and then spill over, and he could make sure it wasn’t Harry setting himself up like he was in opposition to the rest of the House. That would give Theo—and Blaise—a chance to show that Harry does have Slytherin friends.

Instead, this happened.

Theo pelts to the Great Hall as hard as he can, and then stops and stares when he gets inside. Harry isn’t at the Slytherin table. Did he decide to skip breakfast? Theo hopes not. If he goes and eats with the Gryffindors, that could be just as bad. He walks in, looking around cautiously.

But no, there Harry is, just chatting with Granger and Weasley but not sitting down with them. Even as Theo watches, he waves and walks towards the Slytherin table. He aims for an end of the bench where he can sit with just one person beside him.

Theo moves over and sits down in that spot. Harry shoots him a little glance and then pours himself a glass of pumpkin juice.

“Why?” Theo asks, buttering his own toast thickly. He loves the Nott house-elves, he’s good friends with a couple of them, but he has to admit that Hogwarts has fresher butter and better toast.

“He was threatening me. Your dad and Professor Snape taught me how to duel. What do you do when someone is threatening you?”

Theo pauses. He thinks he’s probably had more dueling practice than Harry over the years, but he wouldn’t have reacted like that. “I—well, I suppose I would tell him to back off and then try to Disarm him.”

Harry pauses in turn. Then he asks, “And what would happen if it was a Gryffindor cornering you?”

Theo nods. He thinks he understands better now. But he wants to clarify something for Harry. “You don’t have to react like that just because he’s a Slytherin, even if he’s older and he wants something from you. Blaise and I will back you up. Maybe even Draco at this point. You don’t have to settle everything like you’re fighting for your life.”

Harry gives him a dark look. “He wants me to play Quidditch. He threatened me.”

“You’re still a Slytherin. He wouldn’t get away with it if he did something to you. And you’re not going to get away with doing this to him,” Theo has to add. “You know Professor Snape is going to give you detention.”

“I’d rather have that than be in hospital with a broken bone or boils or something.”

Theo frowns. There’s something—he doesn’t know, it’s strange, because Harry isn’t threatening him. But there’s something about the statement that makes him worried. He keeps a close eye on Harry as they eat, and when the rest of the House spills into the hall, gossiping and pretending not to look at Harry.

Blaise sits down on Theo’s other side, and for a second, they trade glances. Blaise doesn’t look as worried as Theo feels, though. After a second, Blaise shrugs and takes some pumpkin juice. “Someone already went to take Flint to the hospital wing, Harry. They probably reported you to Professor Snape, too.”

Harry shrugs. He’s taken a book out of his satchel and started reading. Theo thinks it’s one Father let him borrow from the Nott library. It’s apparently about countercurses.

“You aren’t worried about the detentions?” Blaise persists.

“What can he do? Make me scrub cauldrons? He did that all summer. Writing lines is boring, but I can put up with it. And I don’t have any Quidditch practice to worry about missing.” Harry says all that in a monotone without raising his head, and turns a page. “I’ll deal with it when it comes up.”

This time, Blaise glances at Theo. Theo can only shrug. There’s no way to predict what’s going on in Harry’s head, or what’s going to come next. Theo, for one, would never have predicted a Blasting Curse.

As long as Harry keeps his head down and his eyes on the book, there’s not much they can say anyway, so Theo goes back to breakfast.

*

“Um, Hermione?”

They have Potions class first thing in the morning this year, and of course it’s with the Slytherins. Hermione winces sympathetically for Neville and turns to him with a soothing smile. She supposes she’ll partner up with him when she’s not with Ron. “Yes, Neville, what is it?” Professor Snape isn’t in the classroom yet, so there’s no recipe for him to prepare, but Neville would be nervous anyway, just because it’s Professor Snape.

“I heard—I heard Harry hexed a Slytherin student this morning. That Marcus Flint. Some of the Slytherins were talking about it when I came into breakfast.”

Hermione can feel her eyes widen even as she spins around and instinctively looks for Harry at the Slytherin tables. But he’s not here yet. “Oh, no! I wonder why he did that? He shouldn’t do that!” He’s going to have detention at the very least, and probably some Slytherins are going to hex him, too. Hermione feels anxiety flutter in her throat. “Did you hear anyone say why?”

“Just that Flint wanted him to play for the Quidditch team, and he didn’t want to.” Neville bites his lip. “Hermione, do you think that means Harry’s still a Gryffindor?”

Hermione winces. She doesn’t really know how Harry would want her to handle this. On the one hand, he came over and talked to them this morning like everything was fine. On the other hand, she knows that he’s really not a member of Gryffindor House anymore, and she thinks things will be worse if everyone pretends he is.

Before she can think of what to answer, Neville looks at her wistfully and adds, “I mean, he won’t hex us in the corridors, will he?”

Hermione relaxes. Neville’s not really asking about House identity, then. “No, Neville. Harry wants his friends to stay his friends. He’s very open about that with Ron and me. Didn’t you see—” But no, Neville must have come in late to breakfast to hear the Slytherins talking, so he wouldn’t have seen. “Harry came and talked to us this morning. Before he sat at the Slytherin table, I mean.”

“Oh? He did? Do you think he would be okay talking to me?”

“Of course. Why wouldn’t he?”

Neville’s eyes dart away. “He just—he’s your friend. We’ve never been all that close.”

“Oh, Neville.” Hermione reaches out to squeeze his hand. “Harry still wants to be friends with all of us. It doesn’t mean he’s going to side with us all the time or play Quidditch for the Gryffindor team. But he wants to be our friend.”

“Blimey, of course he does!” Ron flops down in the seat next to Hermione and winks at Neville. “Did you hear about him hexing a Slytherin this morning? If that doesn’t prove he wants to be our friend, I don’t know what does! What?” he adds, as Hermione glares at him.

Hermione only shakes her head, and then turns around as he sees Harry coming into the classroom. He has his cauldron under one arm and a look of utter grim determination on his face. She waves, and he catches sight of her and his face softens. But not a lot.

He sits down in the Slytherin section and faces the front of the room. When the other Slytherins come in, they’re whispering, and many of them sit down a long way behind Harry. Hermione feels her heart sink a little. Of course she wants Harry to stay friends with them, but his life will be much harder if he can’t fit into Slytherin and he goes around attacking all the popular people.

Professor Snape comes sweeping into the room then, and Hermione sits up. The professor is looking straight at Harry, but there’s not the usual kind of sneer she saw there last year. Instead, there’s grim lines. He looks—disappointed.

“Potter?” he says. Harry looks up from his book, which Hermione doesn’t think is his Potions book. “Detention for cursing a student. A week, to be served with me, starting at seven tonight.”

Harry only nods and turns back to his book, at least until Professor Snape starts calling their names. Then he puts it away and faces the front of the room again, his hands clenching on either side of the cauldron.

Hermione tries to catch his eye, but then they’re busy brewing the potion, and Professor Snape starts swooping around the room to make sure they’re all doing it properly, and Hermione has her hands full helping Ron and Neville. She can only hope that she’ll have the chance to catch up with Harry after class.

*

“Why’d you do it?”

Draco hisses the question to Harry more than once as they work on their potion, but Harry only shrugs and stirs or chops or checks the temperature of the fire or goes to fetch ingredients from the storage cupboards as needed. He’s sunk into a kind of iron mood.

That’s what he calls it, anyway. The only time he used to feel it was when Dudley and his gang had chased him so much that Harry just started feeling indifferent about what happened to him. One time he turned around and faced Dudley when he had Harry cornered near a fence, and something about the look on his face made Dudley run away. He didn’t tell his parents, either.

He’s starting to think he really shouldn’t have cursed Flint. It’s going to get him detention and mutters and lots of things. But the last thing he cares about is fitting into Slytherin. He wants to be done with the nonsense of which House he belongs to. Or he wants to make a new House that will just have his friends in it.

And if he was in the same situation again, he would do the same thing again. He doesn’t want to let the other Slytherins think they can just hex him or threaten him or prank him and get away with it.

“Why’d you do it?”

“I’m going to do it to you, too, Malfoy, if you don’t shut up,” Harry hisses over his shoulder, as he carefully picks through the shrivelfigs in front of him to make sure that all of them are chopped.

Draco turns away in offense, and Professor Snape, who’s walking down the row and shaking his head at Crabbe and Goyle’s cauldron, pauses to narrow his eyes. Then he jerks his head at Harry. Harry steps away from the cauldron, his breathing up. His adrenaline is still up as if he’s in the duel with Flint, in fact.

“Listen to me,” Snape says, his voice so extremely soft that the sound of stirring from nearby potions covers it. “I do not know what happened, but you will not continue to threaten other students. Do you understand?”

“Yes. I—” Harry doesn’t know why he admits it, except that he did study with Snape over the summer and the stirring and popping and bubbling will still cover his voice. “It feels like I’m in danger and I need to be ready to deal with it any second.”

Snape’s eyes widen a little and he draws his wand. Harry starts to fall back, ready to draw his own, but Snape hisses, “Be still, you stupid boy,” and Harry finds himself obeying even though he should get upset at the insult. Snape draws a circle in the air over his head and watches as a pattern of concentric rings forms. It means nothing to Harry. Another spell he has to study, he supposes.

Snape scowls at the results, then jerks his head down. “It can wait until the end of class. Then I will take you to Madam Pomfrey for the antidote,” he says, and flies away to harass someone else.

What antidote?” Harry mutters, but he feels a little better knowing that maybe he’s not just going to go around hexing people left and right. He turns and goes back to his cauldron. He can try to salvage some of his grade with the potion.

Draco keeps watching him. Hermione is doing the same thing from the other side of the classroom. Harry only shakes his head at them, and keeps working. The iron mood is starting to crack, he thinks. He still won’t try to fit in with either Slytherin or Gryffindor just because someone wants him to, but he’s a little calmer.

And he doesn’t need to hex Draco, and their potion turns out all right, although Draco does whisper, “If it was just me working by myself, it would have been perfect.”

Harry shrugs, and steps over to Professor Snape’s desk to await their trip to the hospital wing. They have History of Magic next. Nothing he cares about missing a few minutes of.

*

Severus shakes his head as he leads Harry up the stairs. Less than twenty-four hours back in Hogwarts, and Harry’s managed to curse another student, earn himself a fairly implacable enemy, and been potioned. It must have happened last night during dinner. The Drake’s Breath potion takes that long to work.

“Why do I have to have an antidote?” Harry asks. He sounds polite, if a little shaken.

“Because the potion that got slipped into your food, or most likely your pumpkin juice last night, is called Drake’s Breath,” Severus says over his shoulder. He is glad that the break in Marcus Flint’s bone was a clean one, meaning it took Poppy approximately three seconds to heal it and send Flint on his way. It means they won’t meet him in the hospital wing now. “It puts the drinker into a more or less permanent state of adrenaline and regarding most people around them as enemies. Warriors sometimes drink it the night before a battle. It takes days to wear off, and someone would probably slip you another dose before then.”

“Oh.”

Harry is quiet for several stairs. Then he says, “So that means that I had an enemy in Slytherin even before I cursed Flint. Or talked to him about playing Quidditch.”

Severus nods. “And it must have been slipped into either more than one dish, or with a huge dose into your pumpkin juice. Since you didn’t get a chance to finish your whole meal before the Headmaster interrupted you.”

“Oh.”

They enter the hospital wing, and Poppy scowls at Harry. Severus catches her eyes. “We need the Drake’s Breath antidote, Poppy. Someone decided it would be a good idea to administer it to our Mr. Potter here.”

That makes her scowl ease. Poppy knows as well as any Healer what Drake’s Breath does. “Of course,” she says, and bustles away. Thank Merlin they have a lot of the antidote on hand, Severus thinks as he turns back to Harry. It’s a common prank potion among the upper years.

“Why should I care about cursing them, though?” Harry mutters suddenly. “If they already hate me and they’re going to prank me no matter what I do…is everything I’ve felt since last night the result of the Drake’s Breath?”

Severus is beyond impressed that Harry is starting to question his own perceptions now, while still under the potion’s influence. “No. It wouldn’t have started working until sometime in the middle of the night.”

“Good.”

Severus studies him carefully. “Is there something you want to tell me, Harry? About what you felt last night, I mean?”

Harry looks up and at him. His eyes flash. “Just that I won’t let myself be anyone’s puppet, sir. Slytherin’s or Gryffindor’s or any—one’s.”

Severus would have liked to say more, but Poppy comes back with the antidote then, and Severus watches to make sure Harry drinks all of the curling red-gold potion. It scorches the throat, and sometimes those under the influence of Drake’s Breath see someone giving them the antidote as another enemy and refuse it.

Severus can already see that he will have this year cut out for him.

Chapter Text

“Are you going to tell the Headmaster about the potion, sir?” Harry asks Snape as they stop in front of the door to the Slytherin common room after his detention, which Snape insisted on walking him back from. Harry hopes the answer is no. He doesn’t want to deal with Dumbledore trying to protect him or telling him that he should stop suspecting everyone and Hogwarts is safe.

“Do you think it would do any good, Mr. Potter?”

Harry looks up at Snape and can practically see Snape’s mind running along the same tracks as his own. “No good at all, sir.”

Snape nods. “You may tell Mr. Flint that you will continue to serve the detentions I assigned you. Beyond that…” He pauses for so long that Harry wonders what’s going on. “I don’t care what you tell him.”

Harry blinks. It feels like permission. “Sir?”

“You heard me.”

It is permission, and Snape is getting annoyed that Harry doesn’t recognize it. Harry bites back his smile, and just nods and says, “Yes, sir,” then slips into the common room as Snape pronounces the password.

It doesn’t surprise him that the common room is full of people trying not to look as if they were waiting for him. Blaise and Theo both stand up right away and start towards him. But they’re not close enough to the door to get there before Flint does, standing up and sneering at Harry and folding his arms to emphasize his muscles. Or maybe his healed bones, Harry isn’t sure which.

“What do you have to see for yourself, Potter?”

Harry holds Flint’s eyes. Tarquinius is more frightening, really, even though Harry thinks Theo’s dad wouldn’t want to hurt him because he wants to collect on his favor later. “I’m serving detentions with Professor Snape for a week because I hexed you.” He moves a step towards Flint, whose nod fades into knotting brows. “And he says I could do whatever else I wanted to you,” he hisses.

“Wh-what? Potter, what are you doing? Stop that!” Flint snaps as he watches a snake that’s hanging from the chandelier above them come to lazy life and start looping down the side of the lighted crystals.

Harry just manages to hold back his smile. He started the snake moving with an animation charm that Tarquinius taught him over the summer, one of the spells he drilled Harry on until Harry could do nonverbally every time. It’s a relief to see that it still works. And it makes Flint think that Harry can control all the snakes in the common room because he’s a Parselmouth.

You heard me,” he hisses, and takes another step, which Flint matches with one backwards. The stone snake reaches the edge of the chandelier and drops to the floor with a solid smack, rearing up in front of Harry. “Is it my fault if you don’t understand the language of the House you were Sorted into?

Blaise and Theo are standing at his sides by then. Theo breathes into his ear, “That might be enough.”

Harry has to concede that it probably is, when he sees how white Flint is looking. “Come here, beautiful,” he hisses at the snake as if he’s commanding it, when it’s really just a flex of his will through the animation charm. It turns around and slithers back to him. Harry picks it up and strokes the cool, slightly rocky back.

“You know that I can command snakes anywhere I go, at any time?” Harry asks softly, looking up at Flint. The snake coiled around him arm is an odd pressure, but he makes sure to look like he does this every day. “I’m sure there are some carved on your bed, or on the walls in your bedroom. Do you want to antagonize me?”

For a long time, it seems like everyone in the room is holding their breaths. Harry waits. He hopes this is enough to make Flint back off, but Flint is so stupid it might not be.

“If you want your House to lose at Quidditch, who am I to stop you?” Flint finally sneers. It’s a transparent attempt to recover, but when he turns his back and stomps up to his room, Harry decides he doesn’t care. He lets control of the snake go and makes sure to hiss in Parseltongue one more time. Then he removes it from his arm and drapes it over the back of a couch.

“You could—you could put it back on the chandelier?” someone asks in a high, squeaky voice that reminds Harry of Dobby. But when he looks over, it’s Pansy Parkinson, her eyes wide as she holds a book on her lap.

Harry’s not about to admit that he probably can’t do that since he didn’t memorize the position the snake was in before. “It doesn’t want to go,” he tells her instead.

Parkinson squeaks again and apparently decides to study in her room for the rest of the night.

Harry would go up himself, but Blaise gives him a friendly look and says, “We are going to talk.”

Harry sighs a little and walks over to a corner where they can put up a Privacy Charm without it being obvious. He got to talk to Ron and Hermione about what was going on earlier, before dinner, but Blaise and Theo weren’t in the library then. He supposes he owes his Slytherin friends an explanation, too.

*

Blaise can feel his skin tingling with excitement as he sits down on the couch next to Harry. He and Theo are the only ones who dared come near Harry once he started speaking Parseltongue. They’re the brave ones, the ones who are going to get to associate with a Parselmouth. The other Slytherins give them envious looks, but their fear—or their wisdom—prevents them from approaching closer.

That doesn’t mean Blaise doesn’t want to know what the source of Harry’s anger is, though. The Harry Blaise thought he got to know through letters this summer wouldn’t break someone’s arm.

“All right,” Harry says, and still lowers his voice even though Theo has layered the Privacy Charms. “Someone slipped me a potion. Drake’s Breath. It puts the one who drinks it in a constant heightened state of adrenaline. It needs time to work, so Snape knows it must have been last night, at dinner.”

Blaise blinks, and blinks again. He didn’t expect this revelation.

“Who did it?” Theo asks quietly. His wand is resting on his lap, and he looks ready to go to war.

“There’s no way of telling yet.” Harry’s face is stiff. “It could be someone who bribed the house-elves. Or it could have been a professor who gave something to a house-elf and told them to make sure I drank it.”

“Dumbledore,” Theo says at once.

Harry snorts. “It could be him, but I don’t know why he would want to make me paranoid.”

“So that he can say you don’t fit in with Slytherin and send you back to Gryffindor.”

The logic seems obvious to Blaise, too, but Harry only shakes his head and frowns a little. “He hasn’t objected to me being Sorted into Slytherin, not really. He’s a lot more concerned about where I’m going to stay during the summer, and about me staying with my Muggle cousin, for some reason.”

Blaise catches Theo’s eye just then, when Harry is too busy staring into space to notice, and gets a sharp nod that confirms his own suspicions. No one who matters is going to let Harry head back there.

“I think he’s fine with me being in Slytherin if he can just control where I go,” Harry mutters. “And one House in the school isn’t a lot different from another.”

Blaise supposes he has to concede that, at least when it comes to staying inside Hogwarts’ walls. Otherwise, the statement is so absurd that it isn’t worth responding to. “Is that why you performed all those detection charms on your drink tonight?”

“Yes. And on my food. But I did those ones with my wand underneath the table, so it was harder for someone to tell. If they start putting something in my food, then I’ll know.”

Was anything tainted?” Theo is leaning slightly forwards, his eyes almost aglow.

“No. But that might be because a dose of Drake’s Breath is supposed to last forty-eight hours. The person who gave it to me wouldn’t have a way of knowing that Snape took me to the hospital wing and gave me the antidote already.”

Theo nods. “Then you’ll have to make sure that you’re on guard tomorrow.”

“I know. Especially tomorrow night.” Harry sighs and suddenly looks so much older than it reminds Blaise of one of his stepfathers who his mother fed an Aging Potion to. “Why are people doing this? I’m not trying to take over Slytherin or anything! I don’t want to fit in to just one House! I want to have my own group of friends, and I want to learn more magic, and that’s enough.”

Blaise sighs, then realizes Theo is looking at him. Apparently, absurdly, he’s supposed to explain this one. He glares. Theo glares back, and says silently that he’s been carrying the bulk of the conversation so far, it’s Blaise’s turn.

With a slight grimace, Blaise faces Harry. “But you made yourself look like a true Slytherin tonight, commanding that snake.”

“I just did it to make Flint back down, though. Not because I’m mad with power.”

“Deception to protect yourself,” Blaise says at once. “Even more of a true Slytherin.”

“But I don’t want it,” Harry says, so intense that Blaise feels as if he’s standing in front of a desert wind. “I’m not going to build on it, you know. I just want to help my friends.” Suddenly he looks at Blaise, and Blaise has the odd sensation that everything has reversed. “I told Theo this over the summer, but I couldn’t tell you because I knew that someone would probably read your letters. If you want help in getting away from your mum, I’ll help you.”

Blaise coughs before he thinks about it. He sees Theo’s blank face from the corner of his eye. Theo would probably go along with Harry, but only if Harry actually had a sensible plan. That he doesn’t means it’s probably not going to happen. “Oh, ah, thank you for that, Harry, but I don’t think my mother would kill me.”

“Really?”

It’s not comfortable being on the searching end of an interrogation, but then, Blaise already knows that from being around his mother and stepfathers. “No,” he says firmly. “And you are building a power base in Slytherin, Harry, just showing other people that things can be done differently—”

What shuts him up this time isn’t the way Harry shrugs and turns his back, but the grip Theo has on his arm. Theo shakes his head. Blaise understands. Now isn’t the time to talk to Harry about building a power base. He’ll either come around on his own or he’ll build a different sort of base outside of Slytherin.

When he speaks next, it sounds like he might have started.

“I’m going to put together a multi-House study group that’ll meet in the library. Do you want be part of it?”

“Of course,” Theo says at once. “Father taught you some pretty interesting things during the summer. Of course I want to keep that up.”

Blaise nods vigorously when they turn and look at him, even though he isn’t sure that he’ll be enthusiastic about all the spells that Theo and Harry know. But he wants to stay close to the center of power. “I want to join.”

To stay close to the center of my power. Or to stay close to…my friend?

From the way his gut twists when Harry’s smile lights up, Blaise isn’t sure which one it is, but he does know he’s going to make an effort. And if he gets to learn brilliant magic on the way, that’s what will happen.

*

“Zabini. Nott.”

“Granger. Weasley.”

Harry wants to roll his eyes, their greetings are so guarded, but he keeps it to himself. He knows he’s the only one at the table who will think it’s funny. “All right,” he says, and opens one of the books that Tarquinius let him take out of the Nott library. “I think we should work on defensive spells.”

“I know the Shield Charm,” Blaise offers quietly.

“Me, too,” Theo says and glances at Ron and Hermione.

“I know the incantation, but I haven’t practiced it,” Hermione says, almost bouncing in her seat in her eagerness to learn more. Harry has to smile at her. She blinks and smiles back, although Harry doesn’t know if she’s guessed what it’s for.

Ron has a more practical concern. “We can read about the spells here, but we can’t practice them,” he says, waving his hand around at all the other students who are sitting at tables and reading and sometimes peering towards them, as if wondering why Gryffindors and Slytherins are gathered in the same place. “Where are we going to go to practice?”

Harry pauses and thinks about that. Then he smiles. “I know there are some house-elves who work for Hogwarts. I bet they could tell us where secret passages and old classrooms are. Don’t you think so?” he adds, when he notices the way Theo’s staring at him.

“I—would never have thought of asking a house-elf.”

“Well, you should,” Harry says, with a shrug. “Anyway, I just need to find the way to the kitchens. That’s where they mostly work. We’ll go and talk to one of them. But until we can do that, we’ll just read up on the incantations and the theory, okay?”

All of them nod, and Harry goes back to the book. “There’s different kinds of shields,” he says, and flips a few pages. “The Shield Charm protects you from everything except the spells that are too strong for it. But there are shields that just hover above your skin and prevent physical blows from touching you, and shields that stop flying creatures, and shields that protect your mind, and shields that keep your wand from being snapped, and—”

“I want to learn the skin-shield!”

“The wand-shield should be first.”

Blaise and Hermione stop speaking and both glare at each other. Harry rolls his eyes a little and glances at Ron. Ron is stroking his rat Scabbers, who’s asleep on his shoulder, and grins with a small shake of his head. Harry reckons he’s just glad to see someone able to out-talk Hermione.

“Let’s split up into little groups so that we can learn them both,” Harry says. “I already know the skin-shield, so, Hermione, why don’t you and—and Theo study that, and Blaise and Ron and I can study the wand-shield.” He was about to say that Ron should study with Hermione, but the whole point is to keep people from just splitting up into Houses.

Theo has a disgruntled expression on his face. Harry knows he knows how to do one kind of skin-shield already, too. Harry gives him a pleading look, and Theo shifts around the table so that he’s sitting next to Hermione. She gives him a faint nod and leans over the book.

Harry shuffles around to be by Blaise and Ron. They’ve spent about ten minutes complaining that the wand-shield doesn’t have enough explanation of the different kinds of shield when someone says, “Um, Harry? Are you—you’re here with Slytherins? But also Ron and Hermione?”

Harry looks up, blinking. Colin Creevey is standing there, holding his camera and giving Blaise and Theo such dubious looks Harry is surprised that his face can stretch that far. He smiles at the boy and says, “That’s right. Did you need something? Maybe help on your homework?” He could do that.

“No. Um. Just—just a lot of the Gryffindors don’t believe that you’re really friends with Slytherins.” Colin plays with his camera for a second. “Can I get a photo of you? Just to show to them?”

Harry checks Blaise’s and Theo’s moods from the corner of his eye. Neither of them look very pleased, but they also don’t look upset. Harry shrugs and turns back to Colin. “Sure, you can do that. Although I don’t see why it’s so special.”

“It’s just,” Colin says breathlessly as he gets the camera up to his eye and aims it at them, “Gryffindors and Slytherins never are together. I mean, except in class, and we have to be, someone makes us be.” Suddenly he pauses and peeks around the camera. “Or did someone make you be together?”

“No,” Blaise says suddenly, and leans forwards so that he can give Colin the most sincere look Harry has ever seen on his face. “We’re here because we think that House unity is important.”

Colin, of course, being a second-year, buys it, beaming and nodding. “All right! That makes sense!” Then he jerks the camera up to his eyes and snaps it so many times that Harry thinks he probably has a dozen pictures.

When he acts like he’s going to keep taking them, Harry hides a roll of his eyes and says gently, “Colin, we need to get back to studying, so if you’re done…”

“Oh, yeah!” Colin steps back and smiles at Harry, patting his camera. “I have so many that they’ll have to believe me now!” And he turns and runs out of the library, towards Gryffindor Tower.

“You don’t mind being seen with Gryffindors?” Ron is asking Blaise when Harry pays attention again.

You don’t mind being seen with Slytherins?”

“Well, it’s not like you’re Malfoy.”

One step at a time, Harry comforts himself, and goes back to arguing about wand-shields.

Chapter Text

“Oi, mate, I’m in the paper!”

Harry turns around with a smile. Ron’s hurrying up behind him, waving the Daily Prophet. Harry glances at it, and blinks. There’s what has to be Colin’s picture on the front page, with him, Ron, Hermione, Theo, and Blaise around the table in the library. Scabbers is even balancing on Ron’s shoulder, staring at the camera.

“So is Harry,” Hermione says, and comes up behind Ron to tap him on the back of the head. “And Zabini and Nott and me.”

“It’s still brilliant,” Ron says, though with a slight flush, as he rolls up the paper and glances at Harry. “Did Colin tell you that he was going to send the picture to the Prophet? He sure hasn’t mentioned anything in the common room.”

“No,” said Harry absently, his eyes scanning the Great Hall. There’s Colin, standing behind his little brother Dennis at the Gryffindor table and gesturing so hard that it looks as though his hand’s going to fall off. “Colin?”

Colin hears him right away—part of Harry thinks uncomfortably that maybe he’s always listening for a call from Harry—and comes hurrying over, beaming. “What do you think of that picture? Pretty great, right?”

“It’s a good picture,” Harry says, smiling down at him. “But how did you get it in the paper?”

“Oh, this woman called Rita Skeeter. She saw me with my camera in Diagon Alley once, and she heard me say I knew you, Harry, and she said she’d really like any pictures that I managed to take!” Colin bounces up and down in place. “She’s a fan, Harry! I sent her an owl, and she liked this picture so much she said she’d write an article to be with it right away!”

Harry frowns. He vaguely recognizes Skeeter’s name. She’s one of the people who wrote a lot of articles him about last year when he was Sorted into Slytherin. “Er—does she seem like she’s really a fan, Colin? Only she wrote a lot of stories about me, and some of them—”

“Oh, but I asked her, and she said she’s changed now! She thinks that you’ve been discriminated against,” Colin pronounces the words with pride, “and she wants to set the record straight by writing good stories about you.”

Harry exchanges a glance with Ron and Hermione. Ron shrugs. “I don’t know, mate. I only know that my mum likes her articles.”

“This one isn’t bad,” Hermione says with a slight nod. She’s pulled the paper away from Harry and is reading the words under the picture. “She just says that you’re encouraging inter-House unity at Hogwarts.”

“We do appreciate your efforts, Mr. Potter.” Harry turns and sees Professor McGonagall coming up behind him. She smiles at him. She looks weary, he thinks, but before he can wonder about it, she goes on, “I think the rivalry between Slytherin and Gryffindor should have died a long time ago.”

“Do you, Minerva? Well, perhaps it will when the Gryffindors admit Slytherin superiority once and for all.”

Snape has come up behind them, too. Harry scowls at him. Snape blinks and gives him a look that clearly asks, What have I done?

If Snape doesn’t know, then he’s probably being deliberately stupid. Harry just nods and says, “Thanks, Professor McGonagall,” and walks over to the Slytherin table. Neither Blaise nor Theo is there yet, even though for the last few days, they’ve tried to get up and walk with him. In fact, the only third-year Slytherin is Draco Malfoy, who’s playing with a spoonful of porridge.

He looks up and widens his eyes at Harry. Harry hesitates only once before he nods and sits down. He can’t be welcoming of Malfoy on the train and then act standoffish when they’re at school.

“Hi, Draco,” he says, and goes about slathering his toast with marmalade in the way that used to make Hermione scowl at him when he sat with the Gryffindors. He can’t help checking over his shoulder. Sure enough, she’s scowling again. Harry has to grin.

“Um, Potter—Harry? Can I ask you something?”

Draco sounds hesitant. That’s not like him at all. Harry turns around and blinks. “Sure, I reckon.”

“If you—if the only reason that you’re not playing Seeker is because you’re afraid of what I think, I want you to know that I think you should be Seeker. We have to win. And you’re better than me.” Draco speaks the words as if he didn’t just cut his pride, but his fists are clenched on either side of his plate.

Harry gapes at him. He can hear people walking in behind him and coming towards the Slytherin table, but right now he can’t care. He can’t take his eyes from Draco’s face. Draco flushes more and more brightly, and finally ducks his head, shaking it.

“Why are you doing that?” he whispers.

“I just never thought you would say that.”

“Say what?” Blaise swings in on one side of Harry, with Theo right behind him. A Slytherin girl Harry doesn’t know takes his other side, but he ignores her for the minute.

“Draco says that he doesn’t care if I take the Seeker position,” Harry says, a little dazed.

Blaise drops his toast. Theo freezes in place and looks at Draco. Harry has no idea what he’s thinking. But Draco is speaking anyway, and it’s more important to listen to him right now.

“I do so care! I want you to be the Seeker because I care so much about Slytherin winning! You know that we’re going to stand at least a chance of losing the House Cup if you don’t play!” Draco plants his hands on the table. “The least you can do is repay my sacrifice by becoming Seeker in turn!”

Harry doesn’t laugh, but it’s a near thing. “So, because you admitted I’m better, that’s enough reason for me to play?”

“Of course it is!”

Harry grins, at least, because it’s that or explode. Draco is just staring at him as if he’s baffling. He’s sincere, Harry thinks. He really does think Harry is better, and it’s cost him who knows what to say it.

But he’s also still—silly, if he thinks that this huge sacrifice from him is enough to get Harry on a broom for Slytherin House.

“Thank you, Draco,” Harry says. “Really, thank you. But you’re still a great Seeker, too. And Gryffindor doesn’t have anyone as good as you. Right now,” he has to add, because it’s true that maybe they’ll have someone try out this year who’s great. “Slytherin could easily still win. Don’t worry about it.”

Draco’s face turned pink. “So—you’re rejecting my offer?”

“To quit so I can become Seeker? Yeah. But not because it’s you or because you’re a horrible Seeker,” Harry adds quickly, since Draco looks as if he wants to stalk away from the table. “It’s because I don’t want to play Quidditch anymore.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Study. And practice Parseltongue.” Harry isn’t sure how true that is, because he isn’t sure that Parseltongue is the sort of thing you can get better at by practicing, but it sounds good, and it’s true that he’ll want to practice some of the magic he can learn by using serpents.

Draco is staring at him, so betrayed and mottled pink and wide-eyed that Harry can’t help what he says next. “You look exactly like Ron when I told him that I wasn’t going to play Quidditch this year.”

“I—do not!”

“Oh, that was an intelligent retort, Draco,” says the Slytherin girl on the other side of Harry. Harry glances at her and sees her curling her lip a little. Her dark green eyes are focused on her plate. “You probably do. Quidditch fanatics are all the same. And you don’t know when to give up on a business negotiation, either.” She pauses, then adds with some context Harry doesn’t know but is sure is embarrassing, “Like father, like son, after all.”

Draco shoves back from the table and marches away. Harry opens his mouth to call after him, but he spins around near the doorway of the Great Hall and shouts, “At least I have parents who are happily married, Daphne!”

Then Draco has left the Great Hall, and Harry sighs.

The Slytherin girl, Daphne apparently, has turned her own shade of red, but it fades by the time Harry opens his mouth to say something. “Don’t listen to him,” she tells Harry. “He needs practice before he can accept anything gracefully.” She holds out her hand to Harry. “I don’t think we’ve been properly introduced. I’m Daphne Greengrass.”

Harry studies her carefully as he shakes her hand. She has smooth brown hair as well as the green eyes, but he really doesn’t recognize her. No, wait. He thinks he saw her standing behind Pansy and snickering one time last year.

He’s made peace with Draco, who did worse than that to him and his friends. But Draco also reached out and tried to help first. He’ll reserve judgment on Daphne, he supposes.

Theo has decided to be more blunt. “Why are you only talking to him now, Daphne? What did he do that made you decide you can be his ally?”

Daphne shifts her eyes to Theo. She doesn’t have any expression on her face. “If you’ll notice, Theo, I came over and sat down next to Harry before he said anything to Draco. It was what he did in the common room a few nights ago. I took the time to think about it.” She nods to Harry. “You’re going to be a powerful wizard.”

“Because I’m a Parselmouth?”

“Of course. Parselmouths are always powerful wizards.”

Harry can’t help but peer at her. On the one hand, Salazar Slytherin and Voldemort are both powerful, but on the other hand, it’s not like he would have wanted to follow either one of them.

Daphne only looks back at him, and then spends a moment patting at her mouth with her napkin. “And what did you to Flint the first morning was quite impressive, even if you seem to have decided against it for now.” She sounds disapproving.

Harry only shrugs. He’s not about to confess that he was under the Drake’s Breath potion, so altogether he thinks it’s probably just as well to avoid discussing it. “Do you want to find a classroom to practice the shields today?” he asks Blaise and Theo.

“I asked a house-elf about that,” Blaise says, sounding incredibly smug that he got to talk to a house-elf. He’s eating his toast with neat, quick bites, but he stops long enough to talk. “It said there’s one on the fifth floor. Down that corridor past the ugly statue of the kitten playing with a ball.”

“No kitten is ugly.”

Harry looks sideways at Daphne. Blaise ignores her and only says, “We’d probably want to put a Silencing Charm on the door, for the inevitable moment when Weasley falls over and hits his head.”

“Please call him Ron and don’t insult him.”

Blaise pauses long enough to swallow the bite of toast in his mouth. Then he says, “All right, Harry. I won’t.”

Daphne says nothing further then, but when they get up to go to Potions, she falls in line behind Harry and murmurs, “It’s interesting how you’ve got them so well-trained that they do what you say.”

“Blaise and Theo? They’re my friends. I’m not training them.” Harry hesitates, then adds, “And if you’re going to be—an ally, then I don’t want you insulting them, either. Otherwise you might as well go back where you came from.”

Harry thinks that will make her go away, but instead, Daphne’s face brightens, and she laughs. “I like you, Harry,” she says, and holds the door into the Potions classroom open for him.

Harry can’t think Slytherins are weird, because he knows too many of them who act sane now, but as he goes into the classroom, he does think, Girls are weird.

*

Lucius Malfoy studies the picture in the paper. He hasn’t moved since the Daily Prophet’s owl brought it into him. Narcissa went out to Diagon Alley earlier. Lucius managed a smile for her, as he usually does for his wife, but he’s been quietly turning the implications of the picture around in his mind for an hour now.

Harry Potter was Sorted into Slytherin last year. That is an indisputable fact. Lucius has dismissed rumors of other “facts,” such as Potter killing a basilisk and gathering a group of Slytherins around him to make a political move. They seem so impossible. A twelve-year-old boy, against one of the deadliest beasts in the world? And someone without a political bone in his body, like most Gryffindors, always reactive instead of active, doing this?

But the picture shows Potter with Nott’s and Zabini’s sons. And while Lucius still can’t believe they would associate with Potter of their own free wills, neither can he imagine that they would sit beside three Gryffindors only for a joke.

If Nott is involved, then Tarquinius will know about it. He might even have ordered Theodore to do it. Lucius stands up and makes his way to his fireplace, to cast in the Floo powder and name Nott’s main residence, where he will probably be. “Shadow Hall!”

Sure enough, it takes only a minute before Tarquinius’s face appears in the fire. He smiles a little at the sight of Lucius, which isn’t one of his signs of surprise. “Ah, Lucius. Flooing me about a certain newspaper article?”

“More the picture. I don’t pay much attention to what the Skeeter woman writes, except to know what the common rabble will be thinking. But I do want to know what your son is doing sitting with Potter willingly.”

“Of course. Well, it’s true that I think Potter’s interesting, and he seems to be surviving in Slytherin so far. Have you heard from your son that he’s triumphed in several confrontations with Marcus Flint?”

“Flint would fail an exam a troll could pass,” Lucius points out, wondering what maggot’s got into Tarquinius’s head. “Unless Potter bested him in a wrestling match, that’s not interesting news.”

Tarquinius pauses. “I see your point, Lucius. Why did you contact me, then?”

“It does look like Potter’s trying to be political. I wanted to find out what your son is doing, how you’re involved, and if you intend to guide the boy. Remember that it would be better for our Lord if Potter never became a political power, even a weak one.”

“That’s true, Lucius. And you know that everything I do is for our Lord, bar the regrettable necessity of pretending to be under the Imperius Curse after the last war.”

*

Poor Lucius, Tarquinius thinks when the Floo is sealed and he can go back to writing the letter he’s been laboring over most of the morning. Not to see that the boy is already a political power, because of his name if nothing else.

Not to see that our Lord is, at best, a wraith reduced to possessing others’ bodies to survive.

Tarquinius returns to writing. He’s not worried about the balancing act he’ll have to do, between Lucius and Harry. Lucius is charging down the wrong path and isn’t likely to turn his Abraxan around in time. Tarquinius, on the other hand, has options, a plan, allies, and more enthusiasm than he’s felt for anything but breeding animals and covering up the truth in years. He chuckles and signs his name with a final flourish to the letter.

Then he summons his favorite bird, a dark hawk that he created years ago out of some spare parts from experiments with owls. The bird, which he calls the Deliverer, perches on his arm and stares at him with round golden eyes.

“You are to fly fast and straight,” Tarquinius says as harshly as he can, his eyes fixed on the bird’s. “Turn aside only for winds, predators, or other dangers that might prevent you from delivering your message. Do you understand? Nothing matters as long as this gets through.”

The Deliverer makes a soft, curtseying bow, wings spreading out on either side of its body. Then it extends its leg so Tarquinius can tie the message on. Tarquinius watches as the Deliverer springs and speeds out into the bright morning.

The process will still take a few more months to complete after the addressee receives his letter. But that is the last step. The months are only necessary because of the ponderous formality with which the people involved tend to move, not because they will refuse or because there are any more things to be done.

Harry will have a secure place to stay for the summer, and the holidays, and all other years to come. Among people who have no reason to fear the Ministry, the Wizengamot, or the Headmaster.

Tarquinius is smiling when he turns around.

Chapter Text

“There you are, Mr. Potter. You are to stay near your Housemates at all times until this crisis resolves. If you go outside the school, you must have at least two other Slytherins with you.”

Harry turns to stare at Professor Snape. He’s looming over Harry and scowling nearly as much as he did last year when Harry was first Sorted into Slytherin. Harry shakes his head. “What are you talking about, sir?”

For a second, Snape’s face blanks. Then he says, “You have not yet seen a Daily Prophet this morning, then?”

“No, sir.” Harry thinks about explaining how he left breakfast early so he could go look at the room the house-elves told Blaise about, and then he did some extra studying for Defense—the new Defense professor is kind, but demanding—and then he went to Charms and Transfiguration, and now he’s on his way to lunch. But Snape doesn’t need to hear all that.

“You are being hunted by a fugitive who broke out of Azkaban,” Snape says, and his eyes are glittering. “By Sirius Black, the man who betrayed your parents and let the Dark Lord find them.”

Harry feels as if someone has slammed him in the stomach. He doesn’t lose his breath and he doesn’t grab the wall, though, because it’s not like someone actually did, and if he can keep from showing weakness in front of Dudley, he can bloody well not show it in front of Snape. “I—see. Thank you for telling me, sir.”

“Did you acknowledge the warning I gave you about spending time with other Slytherins?”

“Well, what about Ron and Hermione, too? Sir,” Harry adds as he sees Snape’s eyes narrow. He can sort of understand why Snape doesn’t want him going anywhere alone, but that doesn’t mean he only has to have Blaise and Theo with him or something.

“They are Gryffindors. They will encourage you to risk your neck for revenge or something else similarly stupid. Slytherins, Harry.” There’s no one around, Harry knows, or Snape wouldn’t have used his first name, but he still lowers his voice and leans close enough to loom over Harry. “Or do I have to restrict your movements by putting you in detention every evening?”

“No, sir,” Harry says between his teeth. He can’t believe how stupid Snape thinks he is. And how stupid Snape thinks Ron and Hermione are, really. He’s not going to go seeking out Sirius Black! “You don’t.”

“Good,” Snape says. “Then see that you stick to the terms of our bargain.” And he sweeps away before Harry can point out that it was a demand, not a bargain, and a pretty bloody one-sided demand at that.

Harry scowls at the air where he was, and stomps down the stairs. Blaise chuckles as he comes out of an alcove and falls into step beside him. “What did Professor Snape do now? That’s your scowl that says he’s been bothering you.”

“He said that Sirius Black broke out of Azkaban and I have to only stay with Slytherins. Not even Ron and Hermione.”

Blaise comes to a stop for a second and sort of whistles. “He’s afraid that they’ll encourage you to take revenge?”

“For Merlin’s sake, my friends are not idiots!”

“Well, he might be worried that you’ll only need a little encouragement,” Blaise says cautiously. “What with Black being your godfather and all.”

Harry comes to a stop. He stares at Blaise. Blaise scuffs a foot on the floor and says, “Oh. You didn’t know? Er.” He looks around as if hoping that Professor Snape will appear from around the corner and rescue him.

“You’re going to tell me what you know about this,” Harry whispers. He wants to shout it, actually, but it’s as though he can’t get any breath into his throat.

Blaise sighs and tugs him over so that they’re mostly behind a suit of armor and people walking down the corridor won’t see them right away. “Listen. Sirius Black was your father’s best friend. I think that’s why your dad made him your godfather. Your parents were under the Fidelius Charm. It can only be broken if the person who’s the Secret-Keeper betrays the secret willingly. Sirius Black turned out to be a Death Eater. He took the knowledge straight to—the Dark Lord. And when another of your father’s friends, Peter Pettigrew, confronted him about it, Black laughed and killed Pettigrew and a dozen Muggles. Blew up the street right under them. You can see why people didn’t talk to you about it?”

“No.” The weight of the new knowledge is a small, heavy stone in Harry’s stomach.

“Because it’s a horrible story. Of course no one wanted to tell you.” Blaise hesitates. “Or maybe they just thought that you already knew. Until this summer, I thought you lived with a wizarding family, maybe some of your father’s relatives, and knew everything about your history.”

“Right,” Harry says, and begins stalking towards the Great Hall. Blaise trails him, watching him all the time. So do most of the students when they come into lunch and Harry heads straight for the Slytherin table.

Come to that, Harry saw more than one person watching him this morning and then darting their eyes quickly away again. But people do that all the time, and he just thought it was because some of them still aren’t used to the idea of the perfect Gryffindor—the one they all thought he was—being in Slytherin.

Harry slams himself down at the table and grabs the first Daily Prophet he sees. It’s sitting next to a fourth-year who looks at Harry and opens his mouth. Then he closes it again and carefully goes back to his sandwich.

Harry stares at the photograph on the front page with his eyes burning. Sirius Black looks crazed. Then again, Snape and Tarquinius both told him something about Azkaban this summer. If he wasn’t mad when he went into it, then he will be now.

Harry skims the article, but it’s just highlighting the points that Blaise already told him. It doesn’t even mention anything about Black being Harry’s godfather. Harry chokes roughly and flings the paper on the table.

“You really didn’t know,” Blaise says, and sinks into the seat next to him.

“No, I didn’t,” Harry says, and he looks at Blaise, because he’s the one who’s there, even though he’s not really the proper target for Harry’s wrath. “Look. If there’s something else you think I should know, then realize I don’t, bloody tell me. All right?”

“All right,” Blaise mutters as he starts spooning some potatoes onto his plate. “But only because you need to know that sort of thing if you’re going to be an effective leader in Slytherin, not because you’re demanding it.”

“I am not going to be a leader in Slytherin,” Harry says, and takes his rage out on the pieces of his sandwich he’s slapping together. It’s less than satisfying, but at least now he has something to really be irritated at Blaise about. “You and Theo can take that nonsense about me being one and shove it up your arses.”

Blaise doesn’t say anything. It’s a very careful silence, but it’s still silence, and Harry eats his sandwich with large, deliberate, ill-mannered bites. He’s sick of people keeping things from him and trying to turn him into someone they think they can control.

*

He really doesn’t understand.

Blaise thought Harry did. Harry’s made the offer to help him if he needs help. He’s befriended Blaise and Theo and turned Draco down when he asked for something stupid. That pointed, at least to Blaise, towards the fact that Harry wants to upset the power structure in Slytherin.

And then he says things like—this.

Blaise eats casually as he watches Harry, who alternates between scowling at his plate and scowling at the newspaper. Of course Blaise would be upset if someone had kept information as important as this from him. But it only happened because everyone assumed Harry already knew. So why he is hanging onto that anger?

Oh. He’s dealing with the same emotions that he would be as a child if he heard this for the first time then.

Blaise swallows thoughtfully. All right. Harry might claim he’s in no danger of dashing off and trying to get revenge, but Blaise isn’t sure of that. If he has a chance to confront Black, he might take it. And a Death Eater clever enough to fool his best friends could present that chance just to lure Harry out of the castle.

Well, Professor Snape’s injunction about Harry going nowhere without other Slytherins is going to be obeyed. It’s a shame that Harry might not be the one to obey it, but that’s the way things are, sometimes.

Blaise has all his classes with Harry. He’s part of his study group. And between him and Theo—and maybe Daphne, if they can recruit her—then Harry should be covered on his trips to the Great Hall and the common room and between classes. And certainly meals.

“What are you looking at?” Harry mutters sullenly.

“An upset person,” Blaise says. “For understandable reasons.”

Harry is already puffing his cheeks out like images Blaise has seen of wind gods, but he stops and relaxes when Blaise says that. “Oh. Right.” He pauses and then reaches out and pats Blaise’s shoulder. “Thanks.”

“Welcome,” Blaise says, and then eases to the side as he sees Weasley and Granger marching over to them from the direction of the Gryffindor table. He can still keep an eye on Harry while letting him have some personal time with his first friends.

*

Harry’s ears are ringing with admonitions from Hermione, who seems to have the same concerns as Snape, and worry from Ron, who can’t believe that Harry didn’t know Sirius Black was his godfather, by the time the day is done. They kept after him in Potions, which Gryffindors and Slytherins have together, and as long as they could on the way to Herbology, which they don’t. Harry sighs and pulls off his gloves as he steps out of the greenhouse.

I’m not going to run off and endanger myself. I did try, last year, to involve Lockhart. And McGonagall the year before that. Not my fault they didn’t pay attention!

Theo is lingering outside, waiting for him. Harry covers a snort with one hand. Blaise and Theo think they’re being subtle. But they’re not. Well, Harry doesn’t mind, as long as they don’t try to convince him that some perfectly ordinary thing like going to the classroom Blaise found is dangerous.

“Hey, Potter.”

Harry feels as though someone’s just driven an iron post of tension through the top of his head. He turns around slowly. Marcus Flint is standing in front of him, his eyes squinting as though that’s the only way he can direct this much hate at Harry.

“Yeah, Flint, what?” Harry keeps his voice as indifferent as he can.

“Heard about your godfather.” Flint clears his throat with a cough that might conceal a laugh. No, does conceal a laugh. Harry’s sure of that. “And how you never knew that he betrayed your parents. Pretty big thing to be ignorant about, isn’t it?”

Harry can feel the few muscles in his body that weren’t already tense clench up. Theo grabs his arm and murmurs urgently into his ear, “Come on, Harry, he’s just acting like this because he lost once. He knows that he can win if he makes you snap again.”

That’s true. Harry relaxes his jaw as much as he can and turns away.

“You are a coward, Potter. Diffindo!”

Harry spins around and pushes Theo out of the way, to the ground. Because he’s turning, the Cutting Curse doesn’t hit him as badly as it could have, but it scores him across his arm. Probably because he broke Flint’s arm, Harry acknowledges. He grabs for his own wand, but in the meantime, Professor Sprout has come out of the greenhouse.

“What is the meaning of this, Mr. Flint?” Flint is taller than Professor Sprout, but she still seems to loom over him as she reaches out and snatches his wand. “A seventh-year bullying a third-year! Well, I never! Thirty points from Slytherin!”

“He has his wand out, too!” Flint stabs his finger at Harry, who doesn’t try to move as Professor Sprout turns around and looks at him.

“And he hasn’t cast a spell, or you would be injured,” Professor Sprout says, with such assurance that Harry can’t help blinking. It’s strange to think a professor has that much faith in him as a duelist. “Now, Mr. Flint. I saw well enough what happened through the wall. You are going to the hospital wing, Mr. Potter, and you are coming with me right now to see your Head of House, Mr. Flint!”

Harry opens his mouth to argue—he doesn’t think Flint getting in trouble will stop him from going after Harry again—but Theo says, “Come on, Harry,” and pulls him along. He does it by his unwounded arm, thankfully. Harry doesn’t want the cut opening and bleeding more.

Theo glances at him when they’re halfway to the hospital wing and says, “Why aren’t you howling with pain?”

“It just doesn’t hurt that much,” Harry says. He doesn’t like the way Theo’s looking at him, so he steps closer to him and lowers his voice. “After the spells that your father used on me this summer—well, some of them? It really doesn’t hurt.”

“Okay,” Theo says, in the most unconvinced voice ever, but he makes sure that Harry walks in front of him as they head to the hospital wing. Harry isn’t sure whether he finds the implication that he’s going to bolt or the implication that he might forget the way more insulting.

*

Severus spends a few minutes sitting behind his desk and looking steadily at Marcus Flint. The boy looks back sullenly. Severus shakes his head. He knew Flint failed to pass enough NEWTs to qualify for any job and that’s why he’s still here, but he didn’t suspect the boy was also stupid enough about the way House dynamics worked to do this.

“Why did you curse Potter?” he finally asks.

“Because he insulted me!”

“That’s not what Professor Sprout said,” Severus murmurs, and leans forwards. “She said you grew frustrated when he wouldn’t respond to your taunting and drew your wand on him. And now Mr. Potter will spend dinner in the hospital wing thanks to you.”

“She’s just a Hufflepuff, what does she know?”

Yes, definitely more stupid than expected. Severus looks calmly at him, waits for the moment when Flint realizes something is wrong, and then asks, “How is it going to look, that you cursed a student five years younger than yourself?”

“It doesn’t matter! Potter thinks he can make a fool out of me at Quidditch, and he’s a coward! He won’t go search for his godfather, he won’t stand up to people, he thinks he can just hiss and he’s so much better than everyone—”

“The Boy-Who-Lived is in our house now, Mr. Flint. We already have a reputation as Death Eaters in the making. What does it say, that he’s now been injured by someone much bigger and stronger than him?”

“He hurt me first!” Flint is still clinging to his irritation, but his eyes flicker a little.

“You already tried to get your revenge for that. And now this? You lost your control. Then you lied. You thought you could lie to me. Tell me, Mr. Flint, why I shouldn’t have you dismissed from Slytherin for stupidity outright!”

Severus is lying when he implies that he can do that, of course. If he could, he would have had to kick out Crabbe and Goyle the minute they were Sorted into his House. But Flint is also stupid enough not to know or think of that, and now he’s staring at Severus in practically a panic.

“Please, sir,” he says finally. “I have to pass my NEWTS this time around. It’s my last chance. What my father will say—”

“I suspect he would encourage you to concentrate on your studies, not bully the younger students.” Severus stands. “You will serve detention with Mr. Filch for a week, Mr. Flint. I will take no more points since Professor Sprout has already taken care of that. Do try to keep up with what’s happening around you now. Some sense of burgeoning political awareness would serve you well in the future.”

Flint nods, looking glad to have escaped rather than knowing what those big words mean, and tears out of the office. Severus sits back and puts his hand to his forehead.

It always comes back to Harry. Black’s breakout, the supposed success of their Quidditch team, Flint’s instability, someone trying to wound Harry or give him potions…Severus sighs wearily. He supposes he cannot really punish Harry for Flint’s actions when he did nothing that would cause that problem.

And he now appreciates the boy’s declaration that trouble comes looking for him rather than he for it. According to Pomona, Harry was walking away from Flint when he cast the curse, and he actually pushed Theodore out of the way. Severus shakes his head.

A heroic, self-sacrificing Slytherin. What is the world coming to?

Standing again, Severus makes his way towards the hospital wing. Madam Pomfrey will want to keep Harry in for observation, but simply based on Severus’s observation of the boy’s temperament, she may need some help with that.

Chapter Text

“Ah, Harry. Thank you for coming to my office. And I’m sorry to hear about what happened to you with Mr. Flint yesterday.”

Harry sits down in the chair across from Dumbledore’s desk and just nods. The more he doesn’t say anything, the better the chance of getting out of here without doing something that Dumbledore wants him to do, like agreeing to go back to the Dursleys or something.

He can’t help shooting a curious glance at the man who’s sitting in another chair next to him. The man is staring avidly at Harry, but Harry’s certain he’s never seen him before. He would have remembered brown hair that shaggy and wild. Harry’s only seen his own to compare to it.

Of course, the man is probably only staring because Harry’s famous. Harry tries to put that out of his mind as Dumbledore starts talking again.

“Now that Sirius Black is on the loose, we need to make sure that you are protected,” Dumbledore says. “I managed to talk the Ministry out of sending Dementors here, but only by promising that I would recruit someone else. Someone who once knew Sirius Black, and who needs to tell you some information.” He nods to the man, who sits up a little and shows Harry that he’s painfully thin, too.

Harry blinks. Then he says, “Um? Who are you, sir?”

“My name is Remus Lupin,” the man says in return. His eyes are gentle and kind, lightening almost to amber. Harry relaxes. He seems even kinder than Professor Dawlish, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, who has pretty high standards for essays that Harry doesn’t always manage to meet. “I was—a friend of Sirius and your parents, both.”

Harry immediately says, “Do you know how he betrayed them? I mean, do you know why? That’s what I can’t figure out. He was my godfather and people told me that he was really close to my mum and dad. Why did he do that?”

Lupin gapes at him a little. Dumbledore frowns. Lupin glances at Dumbledore, then clears his throat and says, “I was going to tell you that he was your godfather, actually, Harry. I didn’t realize you already knew.”

“One of my friends told me.” Harry instinctively doesn’t think it’s a good idea to say that it was Blaise who did it.

“Is it that widespread as knowledge?”

Harry doesn’t know if Lupin is asking him, but anyway, it’s Dumbledore who answers. “I had not thought so. But, on the other hand, Minister Fudge knows. Almost anyone who works in the Ministry could have learned of it from there. Fudge’s office is porous.” Dumbledore sighs and looks older.

“That’s true.” Lupin turns back. “Well, I wanted to share a few things about Sirius with you. These aren’t common knowledge, all right? But both Albus and I agreed that you needed to know to protect yourself.” He hesitates, then adds, “Sirius can transform into a black dog. He’s an Animagus, and that’s probably how he escaped Azkaban. No one would notice a dog where they were looking for a human. If a dog approaches you, you must retreat and get back inside the school to safety as soon as possible, all right?”

Harry blinks. “No one said anything about that in the papers or to me,” he mutters, and he glances at Dumbledore before he can stop himself.

Dumbledore only nods sadly, though, and the twinkle has faded from his eyes until Harry almost can’t see it anymore. “It’s not commonly known, Harry. Sirius and your father and the man Sirius killed—Peter Pettigrew—became Animagi when they were in school together.”

Harry recollects himself and turns back to Lupin. He’s the one Harry wants to talk to, not Dumbledore. “What form did my dad have?”

Lupin’s smile comes back, and it’s soft. “A stag. We called him Prongs. Peter was a rat, called Wormtail. Sirius was—” He closes his eyes, and his face is miserable again. “Padfoot.”

Harry sits there and digests that information. He wouldn’t have got it anywhere else, not when he didn’t know Lupin existed until today.

Although, of course, Dumbledore knew and could have told him. But why would he do that? Harry keeps himself from shivering in disgust or rolling his eyes, though, because he’s thought of something else, and it’s a lot more important for him to ask Lupin about it than spend his time questioning Dumbledore.

“Do you think my dad would have been okay with me?” he blurts out. Lupin blinks at him, and Harry makes a self-conscious gesture to the snake on his robes. “Because I got Sorted into Slytherin when the Hat fell on my head.”

“Yes, Albus told me all about the true circumstances,” Lupin says, and he’s sitting up straight now and there’s an expression on his face that’s somehow happier than a smile. “And I am absolutely sure that James would be proud of you no matter what. Okay? So would your mother. I’ve never seen anyone so joyous as Lily was when you were born. What would matter to them would be what kind of person you are, not what House you’re in.” Lupin leans forwards and takes one of Harry’s hands. “And as I said, Albus told me about the basilisk, and the true circumstances surrounding the Philosopher’s Stone. Never doubt that you are a person your parents would be proud of, Harry.”

Harry sits back and relaxes with a long sigh that he didn’t know could come from the bottom of his stomach. Part of him has been worried about that all summer. He’s resigned to staying in Slytherin, since no one seems likely to get him out of it, but it’s good to know that—maybe he can make something more of it than that.

“They would be proud of you for staying out of trouble around Sirius, too,” Lupin adds. “I hate to say it, because he was one of my best friends, but he’s dangerous, Harry. You probably saw the way he was laughing in those photographs in the papers?”

Harry nods. He’s seen the way that Black stared at the camera and almost choked on his tongue laughing. It reminds him of the way that Uncle Vernon sometimes looks in his rages. He isn’t eager to get closer to the madman.

“Good.” Lupin waves a hand. “We’ll try to capture him. I have some unique advantages because I—” He looks over his shoulder at Dumbledore, then sighs as if they’re having a silent argument, and says, “Because I know him so well. But I’ll be staying at Hogwarts for a while, in some of the rooms that don’t get used anymore, and so I can tell you stories of your parents if you want that.”

Harry has to smile at him. “I’d like that, sir. Thank you.”

Lupin flushes. “Please don’t call me that. It sounds wrong. Remus will do.”

“All right.” Harry decides that Remus is an okay adult. He still wonders why he never heard of him before and why Dumbledore never told him about his father being an Animagus, but he doesn’t think he should ask that immediately. “I need to head down to breakfast. Professor Snape gets upset when I miss it.”

“It’s so nice that Severus is protective of you,” Dumbledore chimes in, right on cue.

“He is?” Remus sounds astonished.

“It’s true that Severus and James didn’t get along,” Dumbledore says calmly, “but I think Severus has changed his mind on young Harry since his re-Sorting.”

“Oh.” Remus blinks and reaches out to grip Harry’s hand again. “Well, it was nice to meet you for the first time since you were a baby, Harry. I’ll be staying behind the portrait of the Vampire Queen at the end of the westernmost corridor on the sixth floor.”

Harry doesn’t know where that is, but he’s sure he can find it. He smiles back at Remus and waits until he lets go of Harry’s hand on his own before he leaves. Dumbledore says something to his back. Harry doesn’t bother to listen to it. It’s either going to be a warning against Black or something about Harry acting like a Gryffindor and how great that is. Either way, Harry has no intention or desire to listen.

Snape is waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs from the Headmaster’s office. He flares up to Harry and stands staring at him. Harry shrugs at him. “Dumbledore’s phoenix brought me a note to meet him in his office the minute I woke up, sir. I couldn’t stay and wait for anyone else.”

“You could have had their company to the gargoyle,” Snape retorts, and turns to pace alongside Harry as an escort. Harry very carefully doesn’t roll his eyes. “What did Albus want?”

“To introduce me to Remus Lupin, because he knew my parents. He’s going to be hunting Black, and he told me some things—”

Snape’s hand reaches out and tries to close on Harry’s shoulder. Tries, because Harry ducks and spins and comes up a safe distance away without even thinking about it. That’s the kind of training that both Tarquinius and Snape tried to drill into him over the summer, and after Flint wounding him the other day, he’s going to keep it up.

Snape stands there staring at him. Then a sneer works its way over his lips. “Please remember, Mr. Potter, to keep those evasive maneuvers for the werewolf.”

“Remus Lupin’s a werewolf?” Harry is a little surprised. Then again, he’s never met a werewolf before, so it’s not like he would have any idea how they would act.

“That you do not express immediate horror tells me that you don’t understand,” Snape says, and takes a moment to massage his nose as if that hurts instead of his forehead. “At the full moon, he goes wild. He takes a potion that supposedly controls some of the symptoms, but he is a wild animal, who can infect anyone he touches. If I find that you have been visiting him, then you will receive a week’s worth of detentions for each visit. Is that clear?”

Harry flinches as Snape’s voice suddenly snaps like a whip, but he nods. “It is, sir.” And it really is. Snape sweeps in front of him to the Great Hall, on the way to breakfast, and Harry follows him thoughtfully.

Of course, he still intends to visit Remus and learn about his parents. It’s not like he knows many other stories than the ones Snape carefully doled out over the summer, and they were only about his mum and only about their first five years at Hogwarts. Snape will give him detention if he finds out that Harry has been visiting Remus.

What he doesn’t know, Snape can’t do anything about.

*

Remus bloody Lupin is in the bloody castle. Of course he is. Severus stalks through the corridors to his first class, his breathing under control only because he spent a few minutes standing in an alcove forcing it to be so. When Albus mentioned that he’d come up with an alternative to the Dementors, I never suspected it was the werewolf.

Then again, Albus has never been predictable for Severus. He would need to be sane for that to be so.

Severus snorts bitterly as he rounds the last corner before the Potions classroom. He once thought that only the Dark Lord was insane, because Albus, as erratically as he behaves, at least did not want to take over the bloody wizarding world. But lately, he suspects that Albus has lost sight of some of his ultimate goals in his concern with, among other things, keeping Harry under control. There is no other reason for his continued insistence that Harry return to his Muggle cousin.

And if a man will share his reasons with no one, what can one do but lay plans as if that wizard was insane?

Severus sweeps into the classroom and causes the few Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs already there to blush or pale or duck behind cauldrons, as is their preference. Severus bares his teeth in what they won’t take as a smile, because they aren’t first-years, and continues marching up the aisle between the tables.

Halfway to the front, he smells it.

Severus keeps walking, keeps his eyes focused straight ahead. But the smell of boiled copper, one of the prime ingredients of the Drake’s Breath potion, teases about his nostrils long after he has turned around to stare his early students into submission.

He reminds himself, as he pulls out a blank piece of parchment and pretends to scan it as if it is of ultimate importance, that he doesn’t know if the person who slipped Harry the Drake’s Breath is actually in front of him. It could be that they used this room to brew the potion.

But that only makes him more enraged, and have to control his breathing again. That someone could have created the potion during one of his classes—

No. I would have smelled the copper. And immediately confiscated the cauldron and the ingredients and probably the knives and wand of whoever was preparing it, because boiled copper reacts violently with almost everything else in common use in a Potions classroom.

So that means the person most likely just came from preparing a dose of the potion. The smells wouldn’t linger long.

Severus studies the Ravenclaws, and the one Hufflepuff, in the classroom from under his eyelids. None of them are remarkable. He knows their names, but he would never have singled them out before this year. They are all in NEWT Potions, but that only means they passed the OWL exam with an acceptable mark. Severus has only known two students in all his years of teaching who he would say merited being in his NEWT class. He must accept students with an Outstanding mark because there is none higher.

But there should be, Severus thinks, and then wrenches his mind back to the problem in front of him. A Ravenclaw or Hufflepuff isn’t who he would have suspected. A Slytherin seemed likeliest, then a Gryffindor. One who was upset about Harry’s not being on their Quidditch team anymore, perhaps.

He lets his eyes travel lazily around the classroom again, sharpening and stopping on the door as would be expected when two Hufflepuffs blunder in. They immediately slow and duck their heads as they see him. They tiptoe to their seats, and Severus wants to shake his head. Hufflepuffs. It is tempting to discount all of them.

But what he cannot discount is that the smell seemed stronger when he passed closer to their side of the classroom.

Again he let his eyes travel, and then they stop on a Hufflepuff towards the back. Hugh Claremont, a half-blood with pretensions beyond his years.

And a pure-blood cousin in Slytherin.

Severus wants to tilt his head at his own stupidity. Just because someone else is brewing it doesn’t mean that someone in Slytherin isn’t actually feeding it to Harry.

The connection snaps into place in his mind with the intuitive rightness of solving a problem in creating an experimental potion. Darius Willowbeam, the cousin in Slytherin, comes from a family with both low-ranking Death Eater members—not caught because they did not bear the Dark Mark, as they were never part of the Inner Circle—and an ancient blood feud with the Potters. James Potter did nothing to carry on that feud that Severus knows of.

Probably the only one that the arrogant cretin did keep away from.

There could be other motives; there could be someone else who slipped the Drake’s Breath potion to Harry. But Severus is certain he is right.

Therefore, when the rest of the class has arrived and they have begun to brew, Severus makes an excuse to linger, sneering, over Claremont’s adequate but not impressive effort and make the young man look him in the eyes.

Yes. There. The memory of brewing the Drake’s Breath is strong because he was doing it right before he came to this classroom, as a matter of fact.

Severus has to turn away his head, and to keep the snarl from leaving his lips is an effort. But he does it, and only aims a small spell at Claremont’s cauldron from a distance to make it wobble and ruin the potion altogether as the ingredients combine too fast and on the wrong side of the cauldron.

“Detention, Claremont, for your clumsiness,” he says, not looking around, and steps to the front of the classroom. He knows who the perpetrators are now. As soon as he has evidence that is not based solely on the Legilimency he is not technically supposed to use, then he will make sure that the children are punished to the fullest extent of the rules.

Now, if only he can get through the next few days without Potter-related mishaps. Including from Black and the bloody werewolf.

Surely the boy won’t go near the werewolf. Surely he won’t be that stupid as to tempt not only a bite but my ire.

At least, that is what Severus thinks before he gets the owl at lunch—a meal Albus conveniently misses—informing him that he is to brew Wolfsbane for one Remus Lupin.

Chapter Text

"But if my dad was so awful to my mum, why did she decide that she had to date him later?"

Remus gives Harry an uneasy look. He does that a lot, Harry thinks. At first he thought it was only because he never came and visited Harry at the Dursleys, but now he thinks it goes deeper than that. All the way to being upset that Harry doesn't laugh at his stories of his parents, he thinks now.

And that's not true, anyway. Harry laughs at some of them. It's just that the ones where it sounds like his dad was bullying people, or even his mum, don't make him laugh.

Remus clears his throat and pushes the plate of biscuits he had standing ready when Harry came in across the table to him. The room where he's staying is always bright and sunny, thanks to the enchanted windows that light it up. And the dark-stained table and chairs and little end tables glow in the warmth. It's a pretty room, Harry thinks as he takes another biscuit. Just not always comforting. It looks a little too much like the drawing room at Privet Drive for that. Remus and Aunt Petunia have—had—similar taste in furniture.

He doesn't think Remus is a Legilimens, but he is pretty good at following up thoughts Harry hasn't voiced. "Do you ever feel sorry that your relatives died, Harry?" Remus asks now, toying with his own teacup. His eyes are sharp and bright.

Harry shrugs. He knows Remus by now. Some of the things he wants to say will get reactions that'll upset him, just like Remus gets upset at Harry not always laughing. "Sometimes I wish that I could have seen them again."

But it would have been just wanting to see the look on their faces when he told them he was going away to someone who would actually teach him magic during the summers. Nothing more than that.

"Albus was worried about you when they died."

"Then he could tell me that himself, instead of just telling me that he wants me to live with my cousin again."

Remus pauses, his nose twitching. Harry wonders if he would have figured out Remus is a werewolf even without Snape's warning. He does act awfully animal-like sometimes. "But—don't you want to live with your cousin? You grew up together."

"You know how my dad acted towards the Slytherins you told me about?" He's noticed how Remus is careful not to mention the names of those Slytherins.

"Yes?" Even more cautious.

"That's how my cousin acted towards me," Harry says, and takes another bite of biscuit. He might spoil his dinner. He doesn't care. He told both Ron and Hermione about Remus, and they'll always cover for him if he's missing. They understand why Harry wants to visit him in a way none of the Slytherins would.

Hell, maybe the Slytherins would run away at the very mention of the word werewolf.

It's not comfortable for Harry, with all these different people with different prejudices in his life, but since when is life about comfort for him? He takes another biscuit.

"I—he played pranks on you? Harry, that isn't that bad. You've known your cousin all your life. Can you really abandon—"

"Thanks for the tea, Remus," Harry says, and stands up. "And the biscuits." He turns around and walks to the door covered by the portrait of the Vampire Queen. She doesn't like him, so she always lets him out quickly.

"Harry, please. I'm not asking because I agree with Albus that you should necessarily go back there. I just want to know why you're not good friends with your cousin."

Necessarily, Harry thinks, and stands with his face to the wall and his back to Remus. "Because he bullied me and chased me and beat me up and told all the other kids that I was a freak and they couldn't be friends with me."

"I—see. James never did anything that bad."

"You said there was a Slytherin that he tried to chase away from my mum. That's pretty bad. And since I know from the stories Professor Snape told me that it was him, then it's even worse. It was bad enough that Professor Snape hated me for two years. That sounds a lot more like my cousin than just my dad having fun."

"Harry—"

Harry slips out of the portrait. Then he spends a minute standing with his eyes closed and fighting down the bitterness that started welling up when Remus was talking about his dad and the memories of Dudley came to him. He should have known that someone sharing memories of his parents wouldn't be helpful. Professor Snape was so careful with the memories of his mum, but Harry still know something painful and bitter happened between them.

And that painful bitter thing ended up with his mum and his dad getting married and giving birth to him.

Harry's tired, sometimes. He just wishes his existence wasn't painful for other people. Just once.

"Potter?"

Harry blinks his eyes open rapidly. That's not Ron's or Hermione's voice, which means he might be in trouble.

Daphne Greengrass is standing in front of him, frowning. She looks at the portrait of the Vampire Queen, and then shakes her head and says, "I know Professor Snape told you to stay with one of us. Come on, let's go to dinner."

Harry follows her mostly because he wants to know what she's going to decide next, if she'll report him to Snape or not. But she doesn't say anything about it all the way down the stairs and around the trick steps and through the corridor that always seems to have dust around the torch sconces no matter how hard the house-elves work. Harry's the one who finally has to bring it up as they're coming down the last steps. "Please don't tell Professor Snape that I was there."

Greengrass looks at him out of the corner of her eye. "That just makes me more worried. And it makes me think I should."

"He wants—"

"He wants to make sure that you're safe—"

Harry laughs. The sound is harsh and bitter even to his ears, so he stops. Greengrass is staring at him. "And sometimes things matter more to me than safety," he says. "Not because I'm a Gryffindor. Sometimes you need things to make you feel alive."

He's not sure why he thinks she'll understand. It's not a Slytherin vs Gryffindor thing. There are plenty of Gryffindors, like Hermione, who wouldn't understand and who would still think that he should obey a professor.

But Greengrass says, "Yes, I do. All right, I won't tell him. But you'll owe me a favor at some point in the future."

"At this point, I can't even worry about that. Thanks, Greengrass." Harry walks into dinner and nods to Blaise and Theo, then waves to Ron and Hermione at the other table. Draco glances at him, turns pink, and moves down the table. Harry sighs a little. So Draco doesn't want to talk to him.

Compared to finding out that his father was sort of like Dudley, that doesn't matter. Not today. He finds it hard to even sit down and force himself to eat the carrots and potatoes that appear in the bowls next to his plate.

*

Blaise knows very well that either someone upset Harry or they did something that upset Harry, but he can't get Harry to talk about it.

He asks indirectly, bringing up Harry's afternoon homework at dinner. Harry always acts quieter in Transfiguration than he does in other classes, maybe because they have it with his former Head of House, or maybe because he doesn't think he's good at it; Blaise hasn't figured out which yet. "Is your homework going all right?"

"The Transfiguration essay? Yes, all right."

So informative. Blaise doesn't want to ask a question in front of the others that would reveal something Harry doesn't want known, so he settles for observing Harry. And for observing the way that Flint and other Slytherins sometimes look at Harry.

There's no clue there, though. Flint keeps his eyes studiously away from Harry. None of the other sixth- or seventh-years seem inclined to meditate much on having a former Gryffindor in their House, not now they've got used to Harry's presence. Not even many of the first-years, who the story was new to, look at him anymore. Harry looks at his plate, and they look at each other, or their friends, or their own plates, or the books they've brought along to the table, the ones who should probably have Sorted Ravenclaw.

Blaise waits, tapping his fingers on the table next to his fork, until they're ready to stand. He and Harry, Theo, and Granger are going to meet up to practice some of the spells they've been studying. Weasley managed to get a detention for setting off a firework and has to spend tonight with Filch.

"Are you going to tell me what's wrong?" He asks it under his breath as he and Harry wait for Theo, but Theo hears it as he catches up to them and gives Blaise a slicing glance.

"There's nothing wrong."

"You've brooded all through dinner, Harry." Theo luckily takes up the interrogation, since Blaise isn't sure what to do in response to blatant denial. "There has to be something wrong. Usually you're talking or looking at the Gryffindor table instead of brooding."

"Or glaring at newspapers," Blaise adds, remembering the day that Harry found out about Black.

"It's nothing. I'm fine."

"What's nothing?" Granger has bounced up to them, and Blaise feels a moment's hope. She's both more direct—in fact, she's never heard of indirectness—and more experienced with getting things out of Harry.

"Nothing is nothing," Harry says, and grins. "Say, Hermione, you said that you thought we should perform the wand-shield first, instead of the skin-shield. Why? I mean, not many people seem to aim to break each other's wands in combat, so why do that one first?"

And away Granger goes, babbling information that Blaise would find fascinating if he wasn't lost in frustration at how easily Harry manipulated her into not asking questions.

Well, and admiration, too. That was deftly done. Blaise isn't sure he could have handled anyone the same way.

He meets Theo's eyes across Harry's head. Theo nods. At least that reassures Blaise he isn't imagining this, and he isn't alone in wanting to know the answer. It also confirms that Theo will try next, after they're in the practice session.

*

Harry is really good at magic, Theo realizes.

Of course, most of them have a specialty. Granger knows the theory, and Theo knows a lot about the Dark Arts, and Blaise knows poison, and Weasley...Weasley must know the history of every Quidditch team ever invented, Theo decides after wavering back and forth for a minute. Not much of a specialty, but. There you are. He is trying to be fair to Gryffindors.

But Harry, when he flings himself heart and soul into a spell, is great at it.

Theo wonders idly why he never tries that sort of thing at Potions, and then shakes it off. Harry is doing better in Professor Snape's class, anyway. Theo isn't here to think about that. He's here to pry Harry's secret out of his shell.

He steps up to Harry and cocks his head, watching the bright red shield that flickers around his wand. "That looks good. Do you think you could show me how to do that if we talked about it tonight?"

He gets immediately wary eyes, which doesn't make a lot of sense. Harry hasn't shown that much distrust of him since the summer holidays. But Harry wipes away a drop of sweat that's beaded at the corner of his eye and shrugs. "Sure. Although I've never taught someone before, so I don't know how good I'll be at it."

Theo only nods, and falls back for a time so that Harry can work on the spell with Granger. Granger achieves it on her third try, and beams. Then Harry turns around and waves Theo forwards. “We might as well do it here.”

Damn it. There goes my chance to talk to him privately. From the slight flicker of Harry’s eyes as he looks down at his own wand and dismisses the shield from around it so that he can show Theo how to cast the spell, that might be the reason he did it.

But Blaise is giving Theo speaking looks, and Theo himself wants to speak. So he pays attention to the lesson, and gets the spell on the fifth try, and endures Granger’s lecture on exactly how the wand-shield helps the wand resist the Disarming Charm, and then they go back to the Slytherin common room.

Theo glances at Blaise. Blaise nods and falls back. Theo speeds up a little, and Harry matches his pace without seeming to realize what he’s doing.

“I’m worried about you.” Theo thinks he has to be Gryffindor-direct about this, or he’s never going to get the words out.

Harry actually blinks a few times as if he thinks the words will make sense if he considers them. Then he asks, “Why? You’re staying with me, just the way Professor Snape said you should be. I don’t think Black’s going to break into the castle and try to kill me.”

Theo sighs. He’s not good at this. And he has to look around to make sure that no one else is near them, because he’s paranoid about what will happen if someone overhears this. “I’m worried about you because something happened, and you’re brooding about it, and you turned Granger’s question aside and Blaise’s question, and now you’re turning mine.”

“Maybe I just don’t want to talk about everything that’s going on in my life,” Harry snarls.

Theo feels his jaw drop open. That Harry would do this, when he was the one who adapted to living in a Death Eater’s household, and wanted to rescue Blaise from his mum, and—

Then he narrows his eyes. “Very funny, Harry. You can’t out-manipulate a Slytherin.”

“No, but I can outwait one,” Harry says, and slams his mouth shut.

He doesn’t say another word all the way to the common room, and he doesn’t say a word while they do their homework, and he doesn’t say a word while they’re getting ready for bed. Theo has to admit that not even his father is a master of the silent treatment like this. At one point Blaise actually resorts to making a snide remark about Weasley, and Harry only levels him with a glare and then climbs into bed and swishes the curtains shut.

Swishing should not be a dramatic statement. This one manages to be.

Theo looks at Blaise. Blaise only shakes his head, sighs, and climbs into his bed. “Maybe he’ll feel better tomorrow,” he mutters.

Theo can only nod helplessly.

*

Harry lies in his bed with his hands clenched together and his head pounding, his heart is beating so hard. The only good part of the day, he thinks, is that Greengrass is the one who found him outside Remus’s room, and agreed to a bargain. He doesn’t think he could have put Blaise or Theo off so easily.

He just—

He doesn’t have anything left.

His godfather is a murderer. His parents are gone. Tarquinius is nice enough in his own limited Death Eater-y way, but Harry can never forget that he owes the man a favor, and Tarquinius killed the Dursleys, so he might kill other people if he thinks he should. Including maybe people Harry is fond of. And Dumbledore is useless, and Professor McGonagall isn’t his Head of House anymore, and Hagrid can’t do anything.

And his father was a bully. And Remus doesn’t seem to see anything wrong with it. And Professor Snape wants to keep him from seeing Remus, which doesn’t help, because he was the one who Harry’s dad bullied and now Harry feels kind of awkward and sorry for him, and he also seems to hate werewolves, which Harry doesn’t, which makes Harry upset with him. And his Slytherin and Gryffindor friends both want to follow him around and “keep him safe,” and Blaise and Theo would probably also be horrified about Remus if they knew.

Harry was feeling settled, after this summer. He might not know where he’s going next summer, but he thought he could make do until then, and he trusted Tarquinius not to choose abusive guardians because he wants Harry alive and thinking of him kindly so Harry will do him that favor.

Now—

He can’t trust anybody. He doesn’t belong anywhere. Not with the Gryffindors who bullied Slytherins and don’t see anything wrong with that. Not with the Slytherins who want to trade for favors all the time and think it’s right to hate people because they have a disease they can’t help.

Harry rubs furiously at his eyes. He is not going to cry like a baby. That doesn’t do any good, either.

So what can he do?

I’m going to get so good at spells that—that I can fight Voldemort and win. That would get rid of one problem. And then I wouldn’t have to live any particular place, because the war would be over and I could defend myself against Black and no one would want to kill me.

Harry shudders and slowly brings his emotions back under control. He wants to study anyway. Blaise, Theo, Hermione, and even Ron aren’t going to see anything unusual in that, since Harry already said he wanted to.

And he just isn’t going to tell anybody things. He let Blaise and Theo think that he wanted to study alone this afternoon, while he slipped away to visit Remus. They wanted to play Exploding Snap anyway. That lie won’t work every time, but he only has to come up with a few that do and use them carefully, one at a time.

And he isn’t going to tell Remus that he’s disgusted by his dad being a bully. Remus just doesn’t understand. He wants to hear stories of his parents, so he’ll swallow the bad with the good and listen.

And he isn’t going to tell Professor Snape that he knows about the bullying. What the hell would he say? There’s nothing he can do. Nothing he can change. They’re getting along all right, and Snape won’t find out about him going to find Remus, either, so nothing needs to change.

And he isn’t going to tell anybody that he’s worried about this summer. What would it help?

Harry’s hands are clenched so hard that his fingers hurt. He sighs again and releases the hold. He’s all right. He’s really all right. Nothing will get better because he wants it to.

He has to get better at magic, and endure, and someday fight Voldemort and Black and win. That’s it. That’s all.

He can do this.

If he falls asleep restlessly and wakes up from a nightmare of Black and his dad laughing at him while Harry dies, well, that’s not something anyone needs to know, either.

Chapter Text

Severus narrows his eyes as he watches Harry place the ingredients in his cauldron and stir twice. Those are exactly the steps he should be taking, of course. Severus has no complaints about that. Harry has much improved in Potions since he came back to Hogwarts after his summer tutoring.

But there is a strange expression, or lack of expression, on Harry’s face lately that Severus cannot attribute to his increased skill. If Harry had been a Slytherin since first year, Severus might say that he had finally decided to start subduing his emotions and focusing on his studies.

Even focused on his studies, Harry Potter normally exudes more vitality than this. Severus orders him to stay after class, and ignores the indignant looks from Granger, Weasley, and, more surprisingly, Mr. Zabini. Mr. Nott is clever enough not to show anything unusual, and he drags Zabini from the classroom.

“I want to know what happened,” Severus says, taking his place in front of Harry. That calm assumption that he already knows what is going on has shaken loose more student confessions than he cares to remember.

Now, Harry only blinks as though determined to lie with his eyelashes and stares at him. “Happened, sir? Nothing. Except that I think I got the potion right today.”

Gritting his teeth, Severus meets the boy’s gaze. “I wasn’t referring to that, Mr. Potter.”

“Then what were you referring to?”

The problem is, Severus cannot make a guess. If Harry was still sneaking off to visit Lupin, he might have named that, but he does not think Harry can have avoided both Severus’s vigilance and that of his Slytherin companions. Besides, Lupin would tell Harry stories about his father that would have him glowing with joy. This complete lack of affect is both unnerving and doesn’t fit anything Lupin could do that Severus can think of.

Unless…. He whips his wand out so fast that Harry draws his own. But then he just stands there blinking as Severus casts the necessary diagnostic charms on him.

Severus finally pulls his wand back with a relieved hiss. No. Lupin did not bite Harry. Severus has developed spells that can recognize werewolves even when they don’t have the outward characteristics of someone like Fenrir Greyback. He puts his wand away and watches Harry slowly do the same thing.

“What was that for?” Harry demands. At least he sounds a little more alive.

“That was trying to find out why you’re shambling around like a walking corpse,” Severus snaps, resting his hands on the desk. “I thought you were sick. You are not. Tell me what happened.”

For a second, Harry’s eyes rise to meet his, and Severus thinks that he’s going to bear into that green gaze and read the truth right out of his mind. Then Harry grimaces and averts his face. “It’s nothing serious, sir. Just tiredness with the way my life is going right now, with a murderous godfather and another friend of my parents that you’ve forbidden me to visit.”

Severus says nothing for long enough to let the shocking feeling of Harry’s words fade. Then he shakes his head. “You know why that is.”

“I do.” Harry’s voice is exhausted, dusty. “That’s why I haven’t argued back. Can I go now, sir? I think Professor Sprout will be angry if I’m late for Herbology.”

Severus wants to pursue this, but so far he has got nowhere, and even though he would risk Pomona’s displeasure in a heartbeat, he has his own next class coming in. He contents himself with a nod and a narrow-eyed stare that Harry doesn’t look up to meet. “Only understand that these precautions are being taken for your safety, Harry.”

Harry laughs, suddenly, and then covers his mouth. He shakes his head. “Sorry, sir. For a second, I didn’t know if I was standing in front of you or Professor Dumbledore.”

Severus clenches his teeth. He’s not sure how to respond, which is frustrating in itself. “Go, Mr. Potter.”

Harry marches off. Severus watches through the door only long enough to see Zabini and Nott fall in on either side of him, and then his own next class of second-years tumbles into the classroom and he has to glare them into silence.

I did think he was less reckless, that he understood why I didn’t want him going near Black or Lupin. Has he changed his mind? And why is that?

*

Harry blinks and tries to focus on the swimming words in front of him. Everyone in their little group—even Daphne Greengrass, who joined them two days ago—has mastered the wand-shield, but no one has managed the skin-tight shield that goes all the way around your body instead of just up your arms or legs. That made Hermione decree they should study the description of the spell again, and Harry is trying to do that.

His eyes just keep shutting, though. The weight of the burdens on him has got to the point where he seems to feel it all the time. But sleep isn’t an escape, because he just has nightmares, so he doesn’t know what his stupid body is doing. He sits up, rubbing at his eyes.

“Harry?”

Damn. Theo notices everything lately, even the little fleeting expressions Harry didn’t realize were on his face in response to certain words. He yawns and sits up further. “Yeah, what? Did you find a better description of the wand movement?” That seems to be what’s tripping them up. Under Hermione’s instruction, their incantations are note-perfect.

“I think maybe we should end the meeting early today,” Theo says, and shuts his book with a wary glance at Madam Pince. “I’m so tired that I don’t think I’ll find anything else. And I still have that Divination homework to finish.”

Harry grimaces. “Yeah.” Divination has turned out to be a disappointment. Trelawney does nothing but flounce and tremble and predict his death every seven seconds. But at least it’s a stupid kind of stress, not serious like the others.

Theo and Blaise both talk to Ron and Hermione as they put their own books away and get ready to return to their common rooms, and Harry thinks that’s progress. But he can’t help watching with bleak eyes as Ron and Hermione wave and walk out the library door. They’re going to Gryffindor Tower. They’re going to laughter from the twins and games of Exploding Snap and insults and jokes from all sorts of people Harry knows.

The Slytherin common room is quiet, on Snape’s decree, since people use it to study. It’s full of people who still give Harry these cautious sideways glances or murmur and look away. He doesn’t get insults or jokes from Blaise and Theo, most of the time. Still being a Gryffindor would make what he has to do, resist and fight and study until he defeats Voldemort, easier.

“Okay,” Blaise says, when they’ve walked most of the way from the library back to the dungeons, “you’re going to tell us what’s wrong.”

Harry lifts his eyebrows and turns his head a little. It’s the way Pansy Parkinson keeps looking at him whenever he’s too near her in the common room. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“You’ve gone all silent,” Theo says. “You don’t smile as often.”

“Well, excuse me for having a murderous godfather after my head and taking Snape’s warnings seriously,” Harry snaps. He has no desire for Snape to increase the restrictions he has on Harry’s movements. It’s already hard to make sure that he can go and visit Remus half the time.

“It’s not that. I know you well enough to realize it’s not that.” Theo looks ahead, where Greengrass has gone walking and disappeared from sight, then cranes his neck to look at Harry. “You have to let us help you. Please. We don’t want to watch you go cold and bitter the way my great-uncle did.”

It’s a story Harry only heard hinted around the Nott house, because Tarquinius wouldn’t tell him. Theo sounds as if he will now. But Harry keeps stubbornly silent, watching the torch sconces move past him. He kept silent when Dudley taunted him and Vernon told him he was a freak and people said he was the Heir of Slytherin last year, because talking did no good. He’s going to keep silent now.

Blaise and Theo exchange glances, and nod. Harry finds himself tensing, suddenly horribly reminded of the way Dudley and his gang would communicate when they planned to ambush him, but Blaise and Theo don’t hurt him. Instead, they turn so that they’re standing and facing him with crossed arms.

“What?” Harry doesn’t draw his wand because that would be stupid, but he wants to.

“We’re going to stand right here until you tell us what’s wrong,” Blaise says.

“That’s right,” Theo adds. “Stand here and make us all late for curfew, and get detention. Maybe you’ll finally tell us what’s wrong if we have a detention together. Professor Snape will probably get angry enough to put us all in the same classroom.”

Harry stares at them. He can’t imagine how many points that would lose for Slytherin. Snape doesn’t want to take them normally, but Harry has already seen how he deals with deliberate defiance rather than mistakes. “You—you can’t do that.”

“It seems that we’re pretty easily able to do that,” Theo says, folding his arms harder. “Since we’re just standing here.”

“Right,” Blaise says, and nods.

“Stop finishing each other’s sentences, that’s creepy. You’re not the Weasley twins.”

“No, but I bet we could manage with a bit of ginger hair dye. Right, Blaise?”

“Right. Build up a reputation for pranks to go along with that, and no one would ever be able to distinguish between us.”

Harry shakes his head. “Right, you two, but I can tell that you’re manipulating me to get me to stay out here.” He turns and walks in the opposite direction. There’s another staircase that goes down a floor and has another passageway to the dungeons. It’s just not the most direct or obvious one.

Theo and Blaise trot after him and stand in front of him again. Harry raises an eyebrow at them. He’s heard what he doesn’t think they have, because they’re joking with each other about being twins again in an attempt to—to get him to smile, Harry thinks. It makes him a little incredulous, but there it is.

“What are you boys doing out here?”

That’s Remus’s voice, light but suspicious as he looks back and forth between Theo and Blaise. He might even recognize them, Harry thinks. Theo does look a lot like his dad, and Remus probably fought against Tarquinius in the last war.

It all makes Harry want to squeeze his eyes shut. How in the world can I have any peace when I have all these conflicting loyalties?

“Oh, we were just escorting Harry back to our common room,” says Theo, radiating innocence. “You know, since there’s his murderous godfather around and all. Professor Snape told us to stay close to him.”

“I’m sure that Professor Snape has good intentions,” says Remus. He sounds as though he’s checking the truth against some inner dictionary and finding it wanting. “But it would help more to keep Harry safe if he actually wanted to go with you.”

“Of course he does,” Blaise mutters. He’s squinting at Remus, and his inner dictionary obviously has some different definitions. “We were his best friends all summer, you know.”

“Harry?”

Harry only nods absently. “I just wat to get back to the common room,” he says earnestly. “I can walk with Blaise and Theo. It’s no problem. It’s just that we’re so late already, and it’s almost curfew!” He checks his watch, and sees looks of frustration pass over Blaise’s and Theo’s faces. At the moment, they really do look like twins.

“Well, off you go, then.” Remus stands there with his arms folded and makes it clear that he’s going to watch them out of sight. Harry waves and sets off with the pace of a good student eager to get to his common room before curfew comes around.

“That was disgustingly brilliant of you,” Theo says when they’re around the corner and out of Remus’s direct line of sight.

“I don’t know what you mean,” Harry says innocently, and ducks when Blaise tries to strike him on the back of his head. What can he say, ducking a frying pan and Bludgers is good training for other skills.

“You know very well what we mean.” Theo says and exchanges a glance with Blaise. For an instant, they look like they’re arguing over who has to say something next. Blaise must have won, because Theo is the one who goes on talking. “We just want to know what’s happening to you, Harry. You’ve gone all quiet. We just want to help.”

“And what if I told you that it’s something you can’t help? That I appreciate what you and your dad did for me, and I appreciate both of you being my friends, but you can’t help me with this, because nobody can?”

Harry winces when he hears his voice echoing off the walls. They’re near the common room now, and a seventh-year Harry knows vaguely gives them a frown as he passes. Harry sighs and waits until he’s out of sight before he says, “You can’t help me. That’s not your fault. It’s just something that I’ve chosen.”

“Not to be helped?”

“Not to go whining about it. Because that’s what it would be when no one can help me.” Harry looks up ahead and sees the door of the common room sliding open. They’re going to get through it without having to say the password. At the moment, Harry’s grateful for that. Even a little bit of extra effort feels like too much. “So, please, thank you, and drop it.”

Theo and Blaise actually do, even if they scowl at him as they go into the common room. Harry is a little surprised, but then he has to smile. His experience of telling friends things is based on having Gryffindor friends. Ron would have relentlessly tried to cheer him up until Harry told him the secret in self-defense, and Hermione would have lectured him about not telling a professor.

In some ways, the Slytherins are more convenient friends to have than the Gryffindors.

But it’s convenience, on my part and theirs. I have to remember that.

*

Blaise lies in his bed after Harry’s gone to sleep, his mind bubbling like one of Longbottom’s potions. He has to do something to help Harry. There’s not much he can do, is the problem. He can’t appeal to his mother the way Theo can appeal to his father, and he—

Well, sometimes he thinks he has a hint of a magical talent. But it’s talent like his mother’s, and Blaise doesn’t want to really exercise it. Not until he’s sure it’s there and there’s a really good reason.

But he needs Harry to survive. Because Harry promised to get him away from his mother and because he’s upending the power structure in Slytherin and bringing Blaise straight to the top with him. Because…

Because Harry is his friend.

Blaise rolls over and scowls at his pillow. His mum has always told him not to have friends. She’s told him that they only make you look weak. And Blaise can see the point. He still remembers, although he was very young, the time when his fifth stepfather died. Blaise’s mother had a lot of friends in the community they were living in then, and they all came over and asked questions and pried into his affairs and made his mum very uncomfortable.

Blaise learned the lesson before his mother told him in explicit words afterwards: friends slowed you down and made it hard for you to do what you wanted to do.

Of course, Blaise thinks now, the first time he’s ever put it in explicit words for himself, that only matters if what you want to do is murder people and steal their money.

And he doesn’t think he wants to do that. He’s not sure what he wants to do, especially if he’s got the talent that he suspects he has. But he supposes knowing what he doesn’t want is a good start anyway.

And he wants to be Harry’s friend. That’s a good goal even if it’s not a career to practice or magic he wants to learn.

Anyway, he can think of two things he can do. One is just to stay by Harry and watch him like an Augurey watching out for death. He might surprise Harry into actually asking for help if he does that.

The other thing is to talk to his Gryffindor friends about it, and maybe Professor Snape. He’s not sure how much the professor can do—he strongly suspects Professor Snape has already talked to Harry about it—but he can learn certain things from the way their Head of House reacts when he asks.

Blaise sighs, and relaxes. He hates being helpless most of all. At least if he decides on a course of action, then he can be fairly sure he can change things, even if it means getting in trouble and changing the balance by getting someone angry at him.

Blaise has to smile as he drifts off to sleep.

If Harry’s going to be angry at me, at least it’s safer to have him be that way than someone like Professor Snape or my mother.

Chapter Text

Harry streaks around the Quidditch pitch on his broom. The wind makes him clench his teeth and stings tears out of the corners of his eye. He kicks the broom sideways and veers and spins, and for a minute, the sky and the ground trade places.

“Harry!”

He rolls his eyes and rolls himself back upright, at the same time. He never gets the chance to do anything “dangerous.” He agreed to let his friends come and watch him fly so that he wouldn’t get in trouble for sneaking out of the school alone. Isn’t that enough for Hermione, instead of having to do everything safe? She never objected when he was playing Quidditch for Gryffindor.

“I’m fine,” he says, and swings towards the side of the pitch where she, Ron, Blaise, and Theo are all sitting in the stands. Greengrass must have wandered out a few minutes ago, because she’s there too, now, eyes fastened on him. Harry scowls at her. She gives him a cool smile.

“You really ought to be playing Quidditch,” she murmurs. “Draco offered the Seeker position to you. Why don’t you take it?”

Harry’s tired of talking about it. Or maybe he’s never actually told Greengrass his reasons, but he doesn’t need to, either. “I don’t want to play this year,” he says, and turns to Hermione. “But I was perfectly safe doing that roll. It only looks dangerous to someone who doesn’t play Quidditch.”

Hermione leans forwards and puts a hand over his. Her eyes are huge and bright with concern. Harry almost thinks she’s going to cry. “But you’re doing this because you can’t take out your emotions any other way, Harry. Do you really want to do this? It would help so much if you talked to someone—”

Harry catches the way Blaise is looking at them, and he’s almost positive Blaise said something to Hermione. He pulls his hand back, ignoring the way Hermione flinches and takes a little hurt breath. “I’m fine.”

“You’re not. Harry, I can see it—”

But Harry is paying attention to something else. There was a movement at the edge of the Quidditch pitch a second ago, and he’s vigilant when it comes to things seen from the corner of his eye here. Last year, it always would have been a member of the Slytherin team trying to send a Bludger at him extra-hard or something.

It’s on the ground, not in the air, though. There’s a black dog crouched there, almost invisible from behind the tree it’s using to hide, staring at him.

Of course Harry knows who it is. He doesn’t think he can forget any of the things Remus told him, and this particular one is burning and shimmering on his brain.

He thinks about shouting for a second. But the black dog—Black—is just looking at him, and he’s sure that he would either make his friends panic or bundle him back inside the school at once. He feels so much better with the clear air blowing in his face.

Besides, he thinks it’s strange that Black is only sitting there instead of attacking at once. That’s what he wants to do, isn’t it? It’s what makes him a murderous Death Eater.

So Harry doesn’t snap. He holds Black’s gaze, and he holds his mouth shut, too. Then he turns back to Hermione and interrupts the lecture she’s giving him, which he hasn’t even paid attention to up until that point.

“Hermione, I’m fine, really. I understand the restrictions are for my own good.” The words make bitterness bubble in his throat, but he has to get through this, he just has to get through this, until Voldemort is defeated. “And I’m ready to go back inside now.” He swings his broom over his shoulder.

“But you need to talk to someone.”

“I am,” Harry retorts lightly. “I’m talking to you.”

Harry! You know that’s not what I mean—”

“Give it a rest for right now, Hermione.” Ron’s voice is cheerful, and he slings his arm around Harry’s shoulders with no sign of hesitation. Not for the first time, Harry wants to give thanks for his Gryffindor friends. “You’re welcome in our Tower for a while, mate. To play some Exploding Snap?”

Harry’s heart aches. Yes, that’s what he needs right now, what would make him feel even better than being outside and wondering about why raving mad dog Animagi aren’t attacking him. To be back in the familiar atmosphere of Gryffindor Tower, laughing and watching the twins try to sneak up on Ron—

“I’m afraid that we can’t allow that,” Blaise murmurs.

“Yeah,” Theo adds, sounding a little apologetic when Ron turns around to glare, but not much. “We can’t possibly follow Professor Snape’s orders if Harry is running into another House’s common room.”

“It’ll only be for a few hours,” Ron says, and rolls his eyes. “Sit outside the Fat Lady’s portrait for all I care. But Harry needs this. He needs to spend time around more than just two people who’re friendly to him.”

Theo starts to say something else, but Blaise puts a hand on his arm and stops him. “You know, I heard one of the first-year Hufflepuffs bragging the other day about how her older brother is in Gryffindor and lets her in through the portrait.”

Harry blinks. Ron, not seeming to pick up on the subtext, shrugs. “Yeah, her name is Annelinda Gorzug and she’s annoying as hell. What about it?”

“If people of other Houses can visit the Gryffindor common room…”

“What? No!” Ron’s cheeks flame hotter than Harry’s ever seen them, even when he’s talking about Quidditch or chess. “You’re not going to visit our common room!”

“I fail to see how that’s different from young Miss Gorzug.” Blaise is watching Ron as if he’s an interesting new Potions ingredient, but he catches Harry’s eye and winks. Harry jerks his gaze away. He feels—strange, knowing that Blaise is manipulating Ron and even agreeing a little with it. “You said she was annoying. We haven’t been worse than annoying in the last few months, have we, Weasley?”

“But she’s a Hufflepuff! And Padma Patil’s a Ravenclaw! You’re Slytherins!”

“So is Harry.”

Harry wonders for a second if Ron will drop the arm on his shoulder, but he just clenches it and drags Harry closer with a snarl at Blaise. “That’s different. He was Gryffindor first. He’s always going to be part of us. You’re just—”

“My friend,” Harrys breaks in quietly, because Blaise’s face is getting noticeably paler even with his dark skin. “If you can bring me into the Gryffindor Tower, you can make an exception for him, Ron.”

Ron glares at him. “Mate.”

“Either all Slytherins are banned, or none are,” Harry says, and raises his eyebrows a little when Ron continues to look betrayed. “I know no one ever has before, but not many Gryffindors bother to make Slytherin friends, either, do they? Now that you have—and I know you’re really friends with them and not just me, Ron, or you’d complain more—you can bring all of them in.”

“Other people will get upset,” Ron mutters, sliding his foot along the grass as if he wants to scuff it up.

“And, of course, you care so much about other people,” Harry says, and nudges him in the ribs with his elbow until it’s either bend over and cough or smile. Luckily for both of them, Ron picks the second one.

“It would be kind of fun to see their expressions when we show up with some Slytherins in tow.”

“Then let’s go,” Harry says, and feels more at peace than he’s felt in days as he walks towards Gryffindor Tower with both sets of his friends.

He doesn’t even feel the urge to look over his shoulder for the black dog.

*

“What is he doing here?” someone snaps the moment the portrait hole opens up and Harry climbs in. Hermione is still in the corridor behind him, but she can hear the sentiment clearly.

She exchanges a frown with Ron. She would understand that reaction if Zabini or Nott had been the first in, but she thought, like Ron, that most people in Gryffindor still thought of Harry as one of them. He was Sorted into Slytherin against his will, after all. That ought to be clear to anyone who watches him mope around and avoid most of the people in his new House.

“He’s here because this is his home,” say two voices at once, and Hermione smiles. She never thought she would be grateful for Fred and George’s habit of speaking in tandem. At least it’s less annoying than when they finish each other’s sentences.

“Yeah, piss off, Cormac,” someone else adds.

Cormac—oh! McLaggen. He’s a fourth-year boy who always seems to be sneering about something and sometimes flexing his muscles when the older Gryffindor girls are around. Hermione can’t say she likes him much. But some people must, because she’s heard him described as the most popular Gryffindor in his year.

“I just see a silver-and-green tie climbing in here—”

There’s a complicated squeak. By the time Hermione gets in, behind Ron and Harry and just in front of Zabini, Cormac is hanging upside-down in the air and Fred and George are looking at him as if he’s an interesting specimen. One of them leans towards him and whispers something. Most people are probably far enough away in the common room not to hear, but Hermione can.

“There’s this marvelous Muggle invention,” says the one who might be Fred, and his brother nods vigorously behind him. Hermione blinks. She never thought of how unnatural it would be to hear them not speaking in tandem. “Called a zipper. It pulls down and just opens the thing it’s attached to. Splits it in half. Wonder what would happen if we tried to do that to you, McLaggen?”

Cormac’s eyes are so wide that Hermione winces. “I—I don’t—”

“You don’t think, that’s right,” says the other twin, and he flips Cormac back upright just before Hermione would really have to interfere because of how red his face is getting. “And you don’t deny Harry his place in his home when he wants to visit. There’s a lot of things you don’t do, and it’s helpful for you to remember them. All right?”

“Right.” Cormac gulps and scurries away. Hermione watches him go with a twist of pity in her chest.

“But there are other Slytherins here, too,” Parvati says suddenly. She’s sitting on a couch near the fire, and now she makes a face Hermione never knew she could make and pulls her legs towards her as if she’s trying to ward someone off. “What are they doing here? They didn’t used to be Gryffindors!”

“No, but they’re my friends.” Harry is calm and keeps his gaze trained on Parvati the whole time. Hermione studies him. He’s changed since he went into Slytherin, and making new friends and being more manipulative isn’t the most of it. He’s more confident, too. Maybe he has to be, because otherwise the Slytherins who aren’t his friends would push him around. “And they can come with me if they want. Parvati Patil, this is Blaise Zabini and Theo Nott.”

“I know who they are,” Parvati says, and stands up, shaking her head so that her hair tumbles down around her neck. Hermione doesn’t know why she does that. She thought it was a flirty gesture the last time she saw it, but this doesn’t seem like a time when Parvati would be trying to flirt. “I don’t want to associate with them.”

“That’s your right, of course,” Nott says, and gives Parvati a little bow that makes Hermione have to choke back a giggle. “I won’t blame you for succumbing to Gryffindor prejudice. Even Harry did at first.”

Parvati, who’s turned mostly towards the stairs, whips back around. “I’m not going to let you chase me out of my own common room! And I’m not prejudiced!”

“My mistake, then,” Nott says, and he smiles and sits down in the chair on one side of Harry. Ron starts to take the one next to him on the other side, but Zabini is already sitting there. Ron blinks for a second, then flops down on the couch that Parvati was sitting on.

Parvati takes yet another chair, scowling. Lavender does the same thing, although Hermione thinks her scowl is a little lighter. Sometimes she’s seen Lavender watching Nott with a wistful look on her face.

“Exploding Snap, mate?” Ron asks, and flicks the cards out. There’s a bang as two of them come too close together, for all Hermione knows—she doesn’t play enough to know everything about them, and they’re boring—and Ron jumps, then laughs.

Harry is already looking better. “Yeah. Come on, spread them out on the floor over here, so Theo and Blaise can play, too.”

Ron does that, and they bend over the cards. Hermione sits down on a squashy stool and watches all four of them start to play. Soon enough, even Nott is flushed and even Zabini is smiling, if reluctantly. And Parvati and Lavender and a few other people are leaning nearer to try and figure out what’s going on.

“Thank you. He needed this.”

Hermione jumps and glances over her shoulder to find Greengrass standing there. “How did you get in?” she blurts. “No one invited you!”

“No one didn’t invite me, either. Everyone was paying too much attention to the boys to notice another Slytherin following them in.” Greengrass drags a stool up beside Hermione and gives a detached look around the room. “In some ways, I like this. It looks a lot warmer than the dungeons. There’s too much green and gloom there.”

“I thought that was something no Slytherin would ever say.”

“And I didn’t think any Gryffindor would extend us an invitation to come back to their Tower, either. You shouldn’t believe everything you hear about House stereotypes. People do that for Harry, and look how it’s damaged him.”

Hermione props her chin in her hand. “It would have been easier for him to transition into being a Slytherin if he wasn’t always hearing how evil you lot were, that’s true. And what do you want from him, Greengrass?”

“What makes you think that I don’t want the same things that Blaise and Theo do?”

“Because I know what they want. They want Harry to rise to the top of the Slytherin power hierarchy and carry them with him. But I don’t recognize you having a rivalry with Malfoy or anyone else recognizable in the hierarchy. So what do you want?”

“Of course what you recognize is always the most important thing, Granger.” Greengrass flips a piece of hair out of the way of her nostrils. “There are different ways of being a leader and a follower. My concern is much more with the greater powers moving beyond the school.”

Hermione narrows her eyes. “Like Voldemort?”

She nearly misses the way Greengrass flinches and clenches her hand into a fist on the other side of the stool. Then Greengrass laughs, a brittle sound, but low, so that no one else glances away from the increasingly violent game of Exploding Snap. “Of course not. He isn’t even back yet.” This time, her eyes are narrow as she stares at Hermione. “But some of the same structures that made his rise possible the first time are still in place, I’ll have you know.”

“Of course,” Hermione says, and she manages not to roll her eyes. “All right. But I don’t see how Harry can affect those larger power structures. Maybe when he’s older. Not right now.”

“You’ll learn.”

And Greengrass is dismissive and curt enough that Hermione can tell it isn’t worthwhile trying to continue the conversation. She turns back just in time to see Harry fling his head back, laughing, his hand reaching out to snatch a card away from Ron’s fingers just as it sparks and explodes.

Hermione’s breath catches. He looks so much younger than he did a few hours ago. He really wants to be here. It really is his home. That’s the truth, not just something Fred and George said to intimidate Cormac.

It’s not possible to reverse the re-Sorting, of course. Hermione is sure that Professor Dumbledore would have done that already if it was. He wants Harry in Gryffindor as badly as the rest of them.

But if he wasn’t in Slytherin, then Zabini wouldn’t be putting out a fire in his eyebrows right now and Nott wouldn’t be scowling ferociously down at his cards. And Greengrass wouldn’t be sulking on the stool next to her.

Hermione can’t say she values these new additions all that much. Not yet. Any more than they value the person Harry is instead of the one they want him to become.

But there’s potential here, in Gryffindors and Slytherins laughing together in the same common room.

Chapter Text

Harry opens his eyes with a gasp. There’s so much darkness in the room that he honestly can’t tell where he is for a second. But then he shakes his head and sits up. Of course he’s in his bedroom in Slytherin. Where else would he be?

The dream images of trees rushing past him fade as he looks around. The others are all asleep, he thinks as he recognizes five other snoring voices. He does spend some time watching and listening, though. Theo tricked him more than once during the summer when Harry thought he was asleep in the library.

Eventually he satisfies himself that Theo’s deep breaths are because of real sleep, and he slips out of bed. He takes his Invisibility Cloak out of his trunk and walks down the stairs to the common room. The only other person here is a seventh-year who’s dozed off over what looks like a NEWT essay. Harry carefully moves the essay and the book he’s holding further away from the fire.

Then he looks towards the door of the common room.

It seems like forever since he’s been alone. He’s grateful that his friends are getting along better and happier since he got to spend time in Gryffindor Tower, but that’s not the same as time alone. He doesn’t want to get in trouble or fly or anything like that. He just wants to walk by himself and clear his head.

His footsteps are silent after he casts a charm he’s learned in their study group over himself. And he seems to float through the corridors and down the stairs, even past the trick ones. Once Harry hears Mrs. Norris coming, but he just pauses and waits, and she scurries past him, apparently hot on the trail of a mouse. Harry moves off after that.

He finds himself at the door to the entrance hall not long after. Harry leans on it and stares longingly outside. He promised he wouldn’t go out there and get in trouble.

But the moon is nearly full, not completely, and Harry knows Remus won’t be running around in his werewolf form. And he remembers how the black dog just watched him the other day, instead of attacking.

He moves off, and skirts the lakeside and the trees of the Forbidden Forest all the way to Hagrid’s hut. He realizes he has a shadow halfway there. Harry stiffens a little, but he keeps his attention focused ahead as though he hasn’t noticed the black dog.

He probably found me by smelling me. Harry grimaces a little. If he wants to sneak around effectively, then he has to learn some charms that cover that.

But he still acts as though he doesn’t notice, and walks up almost to the Quidditch shed. The black dog steps into the moonlight there, whining a little. Harry freezes and turns around, then pulls the Cloak’s hood off his head.

He sighs and says, “Wow, boy, you scared me!”

Black takes that as some kind of permission to come romping up to him and sniff around him. Harry snorts at him and strokes the thick fur on the back of his neck. “You’re not as smart as you look, if you’re running around the grounds at night,” he scolds in a whisper. “Don’t you know there are horrible creatures in the Forbidden Forest?”

Black makes a bark that is surprisingly like a scoff, and nestles his nose into the crook of Harry’s arm. Harry laughs before he can stop himself. Then he goes back to stroking Black’s neck. It’s surprisingly soothing.

But all good things have to end.

There’s a noise from the direction of Hagrid’s hut that has Black jerking his head up and growling a little. Harry looks, too, wondering if Remus is out searching for the black dog the way he said he might be. But although no one comes out into the moonlight, Black is tensing, and Harry knows he’ll probably run any second.

And who knows when Harry will see him again, or get to tell him what he knows?

“Look, I know you’re Mr. Black,” Harry whispers as quickly as he can. The dog’s mouth literally drops open as he whips his head back, and Harry has to smile. “Look, it’s—I don’t know why you spared me the other day if you’re a Death Eater, but I want to talk to you. They just almost never let me out of the school. Can you come back here the night after the full moon? I’ll have my Cloak.”

Black wags his tail once, although he’s still staring at Harry like Harry started to drown him and then stopped. A second later, he’s slipping back into the shadows. Harry strains his eyes, but it’s surprisingly hard to make him out. Harry supposes it isn’t only black panthers who can blend with the darkness like that.

Now someone is coming, stalking in that way that means it’s Snape. Harry hastily flings the hood of the Cloak over his head. Snape walks past him, although he glares at the ground as if he thinks he’ll find footprints.

But it hasn’t rained in almost a week, and that means the grass and dirt is too hard to reflect Harry’s weight.

Snape swirls past. Harry turns and sneaks back to the school as soon as he’s sure that Snape won’t turn back around and come towards him again.

Even when he’s back inside Hogwarts, he can’t stop grinning or almost swaggering through the corridors, as though he’s outside and has the wind blowing in his face. He’s finally accomplished something. He’s taken a thing that made no sense and done his best to force it to make sense.

And he’s taken a risk and nothing bad happened. He didn’t realize until now how caged and stifled he was feeling. He knows his friends and even Snape want to keep him safe, but there’s a difference between safe and motionless.

For the first time in weeks, Harry sleeps soundly.

*

Draco stiffens his spine when he sees Potter sitting at the breakfast table by himself for once, hastily stuffing toast into his mouth before he heads for Potions. Blaise and Theo have already eaten and departed. Potter slept late this morning.

Draco wishes he could have practiced his words in front of a mirror, but unfortunately, all the mirrors in Slytherin are enchanted and would have just mocked him for it. He’ll have to speak it unpracticed and hope this goes better than last time.

“Potter,” he says, and sits down at the table long enough to take a scoop of sliced apples to tuck into a napkin. He’ll eat it quickly on the way, and it’ll function to fill him better than Potter’s toast.

“Malfoy,” Potter says, not in a hostile tone, but also as if he can’t imagine Draco being important.

Draco shivers, but tells himself not to succumb to idiocy, and lifts his head as high as he can. “I really do want you to play Quidditch for Slytherin. The first game is coming up, and you’re the best we’ve got.”

Potter leans back and studies him thoughtfully. Draco doesn’t lower his chin or look away. This is the way it has to be. He’s making the appropriate sacrifice, he’s doing things for the good of his House, he’s doing things that should earn him Potter’s friendship. If this doesn’t get him back into the good graces of some of his House members and close to the top of the power structure again, nothing will.

“It’s more than just skill, you know that,” Potter says gently. Draco immediately bristles, hating the gentleness for obvious reasons. “I haven’t been attending any practices. I don’t know how to work with the Slytherin team the way I did with the Gryffindor one.” He shakes his head. “It’s good of you to offer this, Draco, but it’s not an offer I can take.”

“You have a natural talent,” Draco says, and lowers his voice. There’s a few too-interested eyes watching from the Gryffindor table. “You don’t need that much practice. And you know the others can fit in around a skilled Seeker. They’ve done it with me.”

“We do have different styles of play. And I really don’t have the time or consideration for Quidditch right now.” Potter stands up and dusts off a few toast crumbs from his shirt. “No, thanks.” He heads for the entrance hall.

Draco snatches a few more apple slices, hastily eats one, and runs after Potter while trying to make it seem like he isn’t running. “You have to at least try it, Potter! Don’t you miss Quidditch?” Draco would go mad if he’d ever avoided playing for as long as Potter has now.

“I miss what I thought Quidditch was,” Potter says, and suddenly his eyes are distant and all philosophical. Draco frowns warily, not sure he likes the tone in Potter’s voice. “The freedom and the thrill of it. But I don’t miss the game itself. And I don’t miss the kind of politics that get attached to Quidditch.” He gives Draco an unexpectedly bright half-smile. “Do you really think it’s a good idea for me to play Quidditch, when my new Housemates can’t even decide if they like me half the time?”

Draco thinks of being in the air with Beaters and Bludgers who didn’t like him, and he shudders without meaning to.

Potter pats his shoulder. “You see? Slytherin might win even without me, you know. I don’t know who they’ve got to replace me as Seeker in Gryffindor, but it’s probably not someone as good as you.”

And he goes off, trotting to class exactly as if he hasn’t completely flipped Draco’s world around by giving him a compliment. Draco gulps air, then gulps another apple slice and races after him. Professor Snape won’t tolerate lateness even from members of Slytherin, not since he’s decided that they have to—set Harry a good example or something.

And he’s Harry, just like that, in Draco’s head, too. Draco sits behind Harry and stares at him blankly, and ignores the way that Blaise and Theo both give him harsh looks and then move a little closer to Harry.

I don’t understand. We’re not friends. What kind of person compliments someone they’re not friends with and even refuses to take favors from them?

Draco actually messes up his potion that day, earning a stare from Professor Snape. Draco ducks his head and flushes. He hopes that Snape won’t write home to his father about this. Draco will, he decides. He’ll spin it and make it sound less impressive an error than it really is.

Something’s changed, but I knew that. I knew Harry was changing how Slytherin works. I even volunteered to get close to him for that reason.

But what the hell is this, then? As long as he treats me like a friend, what does it matter if we’re not really friends?

*

Harry takes a deep breath and grins. The air is soft and moist with rain that fell this morning, and it’s crisp enough outside that it feels like September instead of November. The full moon is past, and he knows Remus isn’t out hunting Black tonight. He’ll be sleeping off the effects of the full moon.

It’s the perfect night to meet a fugitive godfather.

Harry takes his Cloak again, and moves softly across the grounds, looking out frequently over his shoulder. Tonight he does leave footprints that Snape can find. But he doesn’t seem to be out patrolling around the castle now. Harry reckons the professors have different shifts just like the prefects do.

He settles against the side of Hagrid’s hut, and smiles when he hears a low whine and a sniff in front of him. The black dog jumps when Harry whips the hood of the Cloak off, but wags his tail hard and leaps up on Harry. Harry has to laugh and push him away.

“Look, I know your name is Sirius Black, and you’re my godfather, and you were my dad’s friend, and you’re an Animagus, but that’s all I really know. Can you shift back and tell me something? Why don’t you want to kill me?”

Black stops jumping up and drops down on his haunches to pant up at Harry. His eyes are so wide that Harry snorts. “Honestly, you’re not that hard to figure out. You just sit there and stare at me all the time. And you were friendly the other night. You’re not here for me, are you?”

There’s a long pause while Black seems to consider the virtues of telling the truth, and then he bows his head and a shimmer of magic works its way up his spine. Harry falls back with a gasp when he surges up into a tall, gaunt man. He looks as though he hasn’t had a proper bath in weeks, and his eyes are dark and hollow.

“You are James’s son,” Black says, and grins at Harry. “I had some doubts when I heard you were Sorted Slytherin, you know? But you’re his.”

Harry feels his own smile waver. He didn’t think that Black would have the same attitudes about Gryffindors and Slytherins that Remus would, but of course he would. And he doesn’t even have the excuse of spending lots of time out in the real world that Remus does. He’s been in prison for a decade.

Harry takes a deep breath and says, “Well, I was a Gryffindor for years. But I got Sorted Slytherin because I’m cunning enough to take care of myself.” It’s as good an explanation as any. He stares at Black demandingly. “Who did you come here for?”

“Peter.” Black’s face twists with hatred as he says it, and Harry flinches away before he can stop himself. Black quickly gives a laugh that sounds like a woof and shakes his head. “No, don’t worry, Harry. You had nothing to do with it. He’s a rat Animagus, that’s all, and I saw his picture in the paper.”

It doesn’t take Harry long to fit the puzzle together. “Scabbers? You mean that Peter Pettigrew is Ron’s rat?”

“That’s right, you’re best friends with a Weasley.” Black yawns and gives a long stretch. “Yes. He framed me and then escaped in his rat form. He was the real traitor, but he made it look like I was.” He growls, Harry swears he does, and rubs his hands together for a second. “I can’t wait to get my hands around his scrawny little neck.”

“But if you kill him,” Harry says, his mind already working away at the problem in a way that’s probably Slytherin, “then that means that you can’t be proved innocent.”

Black clenches his hands into fists and his face writhes again. “Like anyone would believe I was innocent! They didn’t even give me a trial! No, Harry. I’m going to kill Peter, and let the rest take care of itself.”

“What about me, though?”

“What about you? I mean, you’re here, and I’m grateful that you took the chance to come and talk with me, but—”

“I was living with Muggle relatives,” Harry interrupts. There’s a bump in his chest that aches a little, a bump in the rhythm of his heart. He thought maybe Black broke out because of him. But no, it was just Pettigrew.

I will not let it hurt. I will not.

Harry throws the thought away as hard as he can, and goes on. “But they’re dead now. Killed in some magical attack they can’t trace. That means I don’t really have any place to go right now. You’re my godfather. Couldn’t you get custody of me or something?”

Black blinks. “Not as a fugitive.”

Then don’t kill Pettigrew. Honestly. For the first time ever, Harry feels sympathy for Snape’s rants about the cluelessness of Gryffindors.

But he reminds himself again that Black has been through prison and Dementors—which sound awful—and he calmly answers, “Then bring in the rat and get a trial. And they can use Veritaserum on him, right? So they could figure out that he was really the guilty one and you could get free. And I’d have a place to live. It would all work out.”

Black blinks, and blinks again. Then he grins. “I told James once that Lily’s blood would make you smarter than either of us!” he says happily. Harry feels another little bump in his chest, but this time, it’s something he didn’t know about his parents, something that has nothing to do with pranks on Slytherins. “Looks like I was right!” He grabs Harry up and spins him around. Harry laughs aloud, not knowing what else to do.

“We’ll do it!” Black practically howls, dancing up and down in the wet grass and making squishing sounds that just make Harry happier. “We’ll catch Peter, and then we’ll take him to the Ministry, and we’ll find someone who’ll believe us, and talk to them, and—”

“BLACK!”

Harry stiffens. He feels Black drop him at the same second that a red curse streaks past them. Harry isn’t sure what it is, but after training with Tarquinius, he knows it’s no Stunner.

Black transforms into a dog in the space of a hot second and goes springing and running away towards the Forbidden Forest. Harry drapes his Invisibility Cloak over himself and gets ready to disappear.

This time, the spell that Snape flings is a Body-Bind, and Harry tips over, only half-invisible. Snape stalks up and stands over him, tugging the Cloak all the way off so he can see Harry’s body. His eyes and nostrils are both equally wide and red.

“Harry Potter,” he hisses.

He doesn’t need to say anything else. Harry knows what deep shit he’s in.

Chapter Text

Harry finds himself dragged into Snape’s office first thing—of course. Snape slams the locking spells on the door and then whirls around, his nostrils flaring out so hard that Harry takes a step back.

But he reminds himself that he went outside to face a man lots of people thought was a crazed murderer. He can do this. He just puts his head up and waits.

From the way Snape is staring at him, eyes bloodshot and hands clenched, he thinks Harry looks like a Gryffindor. But that doesn’t matter at the moment. All that matters is if Snape is going to listen to him, or if he’s going to try to keep Harry from seeing Black again.

Harry really wants to see Black again. And it’s hard to remember the last time he wanted something so strongly, instead of just putting up with the things other people were telling him and doing to him.

“You are an idiot.”

Harry nearly flinches, but he thinks of all the time the Dursleys called him a “freak” and how he didn’t flinch from that, and he just says, “I did what I thought was right. Sir.” He decides he needs to add that because otherwise they might never find his body.

“You are insane.”

“Why, because I went outside and met a dog that I knew was acting strangely, and then he turned out not to be a Death Eater? I already suspected he wasn’t, sir. I saw the way he sat and looked at me one day, and he could have attacked because—”

Snape abruptly steps across the room and stands in front of him, bending down until his hooked nose almost touches Harry’s. Harry looks at the nose instead of his eyes. If he looks at Snape’s eyes, then he might start feeling shame.

He doesn’t want to do that. He doesn’t want to give up feeling happy and let Snape drag him back to the Slytherin common room. Staying there might keep Harry safe, but it’ll also cage him and drain his spirit.

Maybe I could say that to him?

But Harry rejects the notion out of hand. Snape won’t listen to him. Snape doesn’t care about anything except his physical safety. Harry only waits, with his hand resting on the side of his robe near where he could draw his wand if he was facing almost anyone but Snape.

“You suspected he was here,” Snape breathes. His voice is so faint that Harry can’t really tell what emotion’s in it. “You knew of his Animagus form—”

“Not right away,” Harry says, because he’s Slytherin enough to realize that telling Snape about his visits to Remus is not the thing to do right now. “But I was able to figure it out. I mean, Sirius Black, a black dog? It was kind of obvious.”

Snape turns slowly away. He says in a flat voice, the kind of thing he uses when he’s talking to Crabbe and Goyle in Potions, “So you don’t care about your own life. I have striven to show you that you matter. It seems I did not do a good enough job.”

Harry blinks, and blinks again. “Huh?”

Snape snaps back around to face him, his face distorted with pain. “What else is the reason that you run away from your minders and go to confront a man who you do not know for certain wanted to spare you? You do not value yourself as you should. You believe that you should—take risks, die, I do not know what. And why did you not tell me that you suspected Black was an Animagus?”

Not suspected, knew, Harry almost wants to say, but he’s not stupid enough for that. He folds his arms and says, “I do so value myself.”

“Not enough.”

“Not enough, fine!” Harry snaps, and his voice vibrates in odd ways, and a crack makes its way through the glass of a flask on the shelf with something floating in it. Snape stares at him with wide eyes. At least he’s not talking nonsense anymore. “But I’m going numb surrounded by people all the time! And not able to be what I want!”

“What—”

Where I want!” Harry can’t stop the words from bursting out of his mouth, or the part of his brain that apparently believes Snape must know and understand everything. “I want to go back to Gryffindor Tower! That’s my home! Not in the dungeons with Slytherins who stare at me half the time and whisper behind their hands and sneer when they think I’m not looking!”

Snape spends some more time studying him the way he might an expensive Potions ingredient. Harry supposes he should be grateful that it’s the way he might look at an expensive ingredient. “I had thought that the Slytherins were leaving you more alone since the incident with Flint,” he says at last, his eyes shrewd and speculative.

Harry snorts in despair. “They’re not leaving me alone! They follow me everywhere—”

“But the ones following you everywhere and the ones sneering behind their hands are not the same.”

Harry grits his teeth and refuses to stab Snape with his wand, even though he really wants to. “No, they aren’t. Sir.”

“You feel stifled. And you don’t feel as if you have a home to go to.”

Harry begins to laugh, because he can’t help himself. “No, of course I don’t! Slytherin isn’t home! And you don’t want me to go back to Tarquinius’s house, and neither does Dumbledore, and Dumbledore wants me to go back and live with my cousin and I’m never going to do that, and it’s not safe enough for me to stay with the Weasleys, and—and if Black clears himself, then at least he’s my godfather and he can do something to make sure I have a home!”

There’s silence in the room when Harry finishes. Harry’s panting and avoids Snape’s eyes as best as he can. He can already feel the flush creeping up his cheeks. He shouldn’t have said all that. He shouldn’t have said anything at all. What is he, stupid?

Snape’s going to think I am.

But standing there and feeling sorry for himself isn’t going to accomplish anything. Harry turns back around to face his fate, which is probably going to be enough detentions to last the rest of his third year.

*

That is what the boy was hiding. That is why he looks on the verge of a panic attack.

Severus keeps himself outwardly calm. He studies Harry instead, and sees him go from red to pale. Severus finally sighs and waves his wand to pull a chair from behind the desk so that he can sit down in it. He holds out a hand to Harry. Harry blinks at it as if he has no idea what fingers are.

“Sit,” Severus finally snaps.

“Where, sir?”

Oh, for—Then again, it makes sense that Harry won’t know advanced Transfiguration yet. Severus hardly covered that in their summer lessons. He waves his wand in a complicated spiral pattern, and one of the ancient, rusted cauldrons that he keeps to scare children with the permanence of potions stains more than anything else springs forwards and transforms into a stool. Harry swallows and takes his seat.

“I did not realize you were so acutely unhappy,” Severus tells him softly.

“I am.”

Severus leans slowly back. He can change some things, but not all of them. There is still the fact that Harry was ignoring his own safety, and didn’t tell anyone about the dog when he first saw it, and knew Black was an Animagus when Severus thinks that even Albus might be ignorant of that particular fact.

Of course, once he wreathes his mind around the possibilities, the obvious conclusion stands out to him. “Lupin told you of Black’s Animagus form,” he says, and tries not to snarl at the way the boy flinches.

Harry says nothing, simply watching him, with his head a little bowed to make it harder to look him in the eye. And he looks small enough that Severus doesn’t relish the idea of shaking him.

Although it’s what he deserves.

“I specifically told you that you were also forbidden to visit Lupin.”

“For stupid reasons. As long as I stay away from him on the full moon, it’s not like I’ll turn into a werewolf. And I know that you’re brewing the Wolfsbane for him. Why does it matter if I go visit him?”

Severus says nothing, instead trying to calculate how Harry could have eluded his minders for long enough to see the wolf. The Cloak made it possible for him to leave the school, along with his roommates being asleep. But it should have been impossible for him to be absent long enough during the day.

That is something he will have to take up with Mr. Nott and Mr. Zabini when they are awake again. For now, he continues to stare passively at Harry, and lets the silence wear on, making the boy acutely uncomfortable.

But not uncomfortable enough to speak, it seems. Harry slides his hands between his knees and squeezes them shut on his wrists. He grimaces. He keeps silent.

Severus finally says, trying not to spit the words, “I wanted to keep you safe.”

“And you kept me unhappy, instead.” Harry is staring at the far wall now. He seems to think that will make Severus give up on his interrogation.

Severus hisses and stands, moving over to the side so that Harry will have no choice but to meet his eyes. “I did what I had to do. You do not understand how dangerous Death Eaters and werewolves can be—”

Harry makes a sound somewhere between a snort and a snarl, and yanks his sleeve up. Severus finds himself looking at a scar, a long white slash that surrounds a puncture wound. He frowns at Harry, wondering if this is some wound his relatives gave him.

“This is from the basilisk,” Harry says. “I don’t have any scars from when I faced Voldemort in the back of Quirrell’s head, but that’s pure luck. Don’t tell me that I haven’t faced danger, sir.”

Severus forces himself to take a mental step back. He’s handling this badly right now, and there’s too much chance that Harry will simply fade away from him if he doesn’t calm himself. He inclines his head and says, “Yes. You have faced danger. And it may be that a werewolf is small next to a basilisk.”

Harry lets his sleeve fall down over the scar again. His eyes are narrow. Severus can feel the suspicion radiating off him like heat.

“It doesn’t mean that I want to see you put in more danger,” Severus continues, soft, intense. “It doesn’t mean that being bitten by a werewolf and suffering for the rest of your life is something you should desire or seek out.”

“You still haven’t answered my argument about how I’m in danger as long as I stay away from Remus during the full moon and he stays on Wolfsbane. Sir.”

This child. Except that Severus knows the cynical spirit peering at him through those green eyes doesn’t really belong to a child. He acknowledges the many, many mistakes he’s made and tries to go on not to make anymore.

“Perhaps I have exaggerated the danger. I faced a transformed Remus Lupin myself, and since then, I have been—careful around werewolves.”

“Was that one of the stories about them bullying you that Remus didn’t tell me?”

Harry immediately turns the color of a wound inflicted by a Cutting Curse. Severus breathes through the immediate pain and panic in his chest. Harry has not blabbed those stories to anyone, despite the weeks he must have spent hearing them from the wolf. No students are taunting Severus. No Gryffindors are covering up sniggers and then pretending to look sympathetic.

“Then you know what your father, Black, and Lupin did.” Memory forces Severus to add, “And Pettigrew, although he was another victim of Black’s instability—”

“But he’s not! I mean, he’s alive. He was a rat Animagus. He is, I mean. He’s hiding out as Ron’s pet rat. That’s what Black told me. That’s why he’s here. He wants to kill Pettigrew. I think I convinced him to turn him in to the Ministry instead so his innocence wouldn’t be questioned, but—”

“It is the sort of lie Black would come up with,” Severus says stiffly, although he feels a bolt of shock tear through him, and some part of him instinctively believes it. He shakes his head and goes on. “I am willing to test Weasley’s rat and see if it is an Animagus. But you will not be involved in the testing. Or any future meeting with Black.”

Harry looks at him in a way that makes Severus sure he will sneak out of his bed as soon as Severus’s back is turned. Severus strides towards him, makes himself modulate his stride in mid-step, and comes down rather oddly on his left foot, almost turning his ankle.

Harry watches him, and blinks. Severus ignores that to kneel in front of him and speak as softly and intensely as he ever did during the summer.

“You have given me a story to investigate. Thank you. Now. You have done enough. You have proven that you do better with some measure of freedom, and I will instruct your fellow Slytherins to spend time with you one-on-one when they can and allow you outside more often. But you cannot be involved in this.”

Harry’s nostrils flare stubbornly.

A harsh note creeps into Severus’s voice. “I was thinking of not assigning detentions, Mr. Potter. Do I need to reverse that decision?”

“This affects me more than anyone else! Black can adopt me if he’s right and Pettigrew is still alive—”

“And if Pettigrew is taken to the Ministry, and if Black’s name is cleared, and if Dumbledore allows you to go with him for the summer,” Severus says sharply. He hasn’t forgotten that Tarquinius only managed to get Harry in his house in the first place by essentially kidnapping him. “Listen to me. You have made a contribution. You have done enough. Even if Black is right, there is still a Death Eater in this school, one who might panic and attempt to hurt you the instant he discovers he’s been found out. We know his master is still alive. Are you going to fight me on this?”

“It’s just—you’re talking to me the way you would a child.”

“You are—”

“No, I’m not!” Harry stands up to shout at him. “No, I’m not! I’ve fought things and survived things and come back from things that adult wizards couldn’t fight! Stop talking to me like I’m an idiot!”

Severus waits until his own impulse to strike has subsided. Sometimes having reflexes honed by war is a bad thing, however useful it can be in the middle of Potions class. He inclines his head and says calmly, “I would never call you an idiot.”

“Just a child, right?”

Severus holds Harry’s eyes this time. He thinks it might be because of his milder displeasure in spite of it, but Harry turns an incredibly bright red and lets his eyes drop. “You are making assumptions,” Severus says quietly. “Such things are dangerous. Yes, your chronological age entitles you to protection and consideration that an adult might not have. And that means I will overlook your outburst.”

“Then—”

“But you will still have detention for a week, Mr. Potter. All with me. You are going to be writing lines. Lines about honoring the worth of your own life and the sacrifice that your parents made to protect you.” It’s surprisingly easy to speak about James Potter when casting him in the mode of someone who sacrificed his life for Harry.

Harry’s horrified gasp is everything he’s hoped for. Severus arches an eyebrow. “You are a child in this much: you have not learned a lesson from this. You still think that you should escape without punishment.”

“But you could just make me scrub cauldrons!”

“How would that address the problem?” Severus asks softly, back in control. “You would only tire out your hands and arms and think of your own good position self-righteously all the time you were scrubbing. Much better, I believe, to have you think about why I am upset that you sneaked out at night.”

“I was sure he wasn’t a Death Eater!”

“Why didn’t you come and tell me?”

“I didn’t think you would be any fairer about him than you were being about Remus!”

Severus pauses. There is the heart of the problem, then, and not just that Severus has been keeping him under too close a watch. He speaks quietly. “You thought that Slytherins were being unfair about Gryffindors, and Gryffindors were being unfair about Slytherins. That is it? You felt that you belonged nowhere?”

The hectic color surges up in Harry’s cheeks as if a firework has gone off underneath his skin. But he looks down, and finally nods.

Severus grimaces. He would do so much to avoid this, including leaving Hogwarts. But the oath he swore to protect Lily’s son binds him still.

And so, too, does the promise he made to himself during the summer: to see Harry happy if possible, and settled for the future with someone other than Tarquinius.

“I will do what I can to see that Pettigrew is captured, and Black’s innocence proclaimed,” he says, and watches the way Harry’s head snaps up, the way his eyes lock on Severus with reluctant hope glowing in the backs of them. He doesn’t want to trust, not really. But Severus nods encouragingly in response to the glow.

“But first, I will escort you back to the Slytherin common room, and give you a sleeping potion.”

“You can trust me to stay put without that.”

Severus sighs and reveals another consequence of this small adventure of Harry’s. “Perhaps, but I no longer do trust that you will do what you say, when you lied from the beginning. We can begin to rebuild this trust when this—matter is settled.”

Harry opens his mouth to argue, then subsides into silence when he sees the meaningful way Severus’s eyes are fixed on him. He nods grudgingly. Severus turns to gather up a mild sleeping draught from his stores.

He almost misses the words, then almost thinks them a product of his imagination, but when he plays them back in a Pensieve later, they are really there.

“Thank you, sir.”

Chapter Text

Harry wakes late. He did take a sleeping potion, after all, and it always makes his head feel fuzzy when he does that. Funny, he thinks he’s only done it in the hospital wing. He shakes his head, rubs his eyes, puts his glasses on, pushes the curtains back, and jumps in place.

Blaise and Theo are both standing outside his curtains, glaring at him with their arms folded. Draco hovers behind them, but he turns his head away when Harry almost catches his eye. Harry shakes his head again. “What?”

“Professor Snape told us about you sneaking away from us,” Theo says. His voice is flatter than some of the sheets of parchment Harry’s seen.

“He said that you were all right. But also that you went looking for Black.” Blaise sidles closer to Harry. He looks like he really, really wants to hit him. Harry knows that look from Dudley, and he almost gets his wand. But Blaise is his friend, so he holds still. And that lets Blaise reach out and grab his ear.

“What were you thinking?” Blaise snarls as he pinches Harry’s ear.

Harry pulls back with a scowl, and just when he thinks he might actually have to rip free of Blaise’s hold, Blaise snorts and lets him go. Harry rubs his stinging ear and thinks about taking up his wand again, this time to cast a Soothing Charm. But it would make him look stupid, so he doesn’t.

“I was fine.”

“But you might not have been.”

Harry scowls harder. He understands, mostly, what Professor Snape was on about when he got angry about Harry going outside to visit Black. Professor Snape is an adult who thinks adults ought to be in charge of children and protect them. But Blaise is just a child like him if Harry accepts Professor Snape’s argument that age makes him a child. He doesn’t have the right to get all upset.

“I am, though. Why are you wasting time thinking about what might have been?”

“Remember what you told me at the start of the year?”

“I told you lots of things at the start of the year—”

One of them,” Blaise says, teeth gritted so hard that Harry thinks he might actually break one, “is that you would—help me if I wanted. You thought I was in a horrible situation, and you would help me if I wanted. Remember that?”

Harry does. Of course he does. He still thinks Blaise’s mum sounds like a horrible person, and like she probably abuses him. If only because she must tell Blaise about the murders she’s committed and make him wonder if he’s next. Harry knows exactly what it’s like to live in a constant state of fear.

“Of course I do! I meant it.”

“And I mean it when I say that I want to help you and keep you safe. All right? No more sneaking off at night to meet Death Eaters—potential Death Eaters,” Blaise corrects himself without a pause when Harry starts to open his mouth, which is proof that Snape told them more than Harry thought he would. “Because I don’t like it, and I want to help you.”

Harry glances at Theo. He never made the same offer to get Theo away from his father, in part because Tarquinius is kind of—he has rules.

Theo smiles at him. The flatness is still there in his eyes, but it’s got a little better than it was, at least. “Listen up, Harry Potter. I didn’t follow you around and spend a lot of time with Gryffindors just because Professor Snape told me to. I want you safe, too. Because you’re my bloody friend.”

“You don’t hate spending time with all the Gryffindors.”

“It’s also something that I never would have done if not for you. And your friends wouldn’t have spent time with Slytherins, either, so spare me the next argument I see coming out of your mouth.” Theo sighs and abruptly sits down next to Harry on the bed, as if he’s the one who was up half the night. “Come on, Harry. Stop acting stupid. Stop acting like you don’t understand why people care about you.”

“I don’t think you’re my friend because Snape told you to be. But I did think you were following me around wherever I went because he told you to.”

Theo pauses for a second, in that way he has when he’s thinking. It looks like he’s listening to distant music. “Oh. I think I understand it now. You’re used to people caring about you because you’re the bloody Boy-Who-Lived.”

“They do. If you didn’t see all the stares last year when they still thought I was the bloody Heir of Slytherin—”

“You mean you aren’t?” Draco interrupts, sounding totally shocked.

“Draco, try not to increase the volume of idiocy in the room if you can help it,” Theo says, voice as dry as Snape’s sense of humor, and turns intensely back to Harry, ignoring Draco as he splutters. “We don’t care about you because of that. I thought you knew that—”

“I know that.” Harry won’t let them go around thinking in mistakes like this. “It would probably be easier for you if I wasn’t, since you want to be my friend.”

“Exactly.” Theo prods him. “But we want to keep your life safe, and keep you from falling off your broom, and confronting Death Eaters and having to ram swords through giant basilisks, because you’re our friend. Friends can take risks together, sure. I know you’re used to that with Weasley and Granger. But they can also keep each other safe.”

“And spy on each other?”

“Is that what you call it when someone saves you from your own stupidity?” Harry hasn’t ever seen Theo this serious, even when he thought Theo was trying to warn him about trusting Tarquinius sometimes. It’s really unnerving. “I can call it that if you want. It’s not going to keep me from doing it. You take too many risks, Harry. You want me to play dirty to keep you from that? I can. If you want. Just say the word.”

Harry rubs his forehead. He’s too tired for this shit. He doesn’t say the words, because he knows Theo would just challenge him and insist that he make all these arguments he’s not really interested in.

“Fine. I take too many risks. But I don’t want you taking risks to follow me or make me safe or something.”

“Hear that, Blaise?” Theo stands without his eyes moving from Harry’s face. “The one who sneaked away from us is trying to dictate how we should act.”

“It’s adorable,” Blaise says. “What do you think we should do to him, Theo?”

“Probably point out that as Slytherins, we don’t take nearly as many risks?” Theo takes Harry’s arm and draws him towards the bathrooms. “And that we’re going to be late for breakfast if we don’t hurry up?”

“Those sound like excellent suggestions, Theo.”

Without really being sure how it happened, Harry finds himself under a shower of warm water that makes him splutter and throw up his hands to try and catch the drops trickling down his forehead. At least Theo has taken his glasses somewhere, and Harry trusts him—somewhat—not to break them. Then he finds himself scrubbing at his face with a washcloth, and groping for fresh robes that Theo ceremonially hands him.

“Now that you’re awake and your head is a little clearer,” Theo says, his voice gentler as Harry stumbles back into their bedroom and tries to do up his tie, “maybe you can think again about forbidding us to follow you?”

Harry lies back on his bed and stares up at the green canopy, in hopes that it will give him answers. It doesn’t. It just reminds him that he’s in Slytherin, still, and that apparently the rules are different here.

“Your Gryffindor friends follow you into danger,” Blaise says, leaning over Harry so that Harry has to practically look up his nostrils. Harry sits up hastily. “It seems to me that you’re trying to say we’re not your real friends after all, if you’re keeping us from joining you.”

“That is not what I mean.” Harry wants to bury his head in his hands and groan aloud, but he’s ragingly hungry, and he thinks they might as well have this argument on the way to the Great Hall. He snatches his bag, stuffs what he hopes are the right books inside, and sets off down the corridor. Blaise and Theo follow him. Draco is ghosting somewhere behind them, but Harry can’t worry about Draco right now. “I just mean—Ron and Hermione know what the risks are.”

“And we don’t?”

“Not most of the time,” Harry sighs, thinking about how much he still hasn’t told them, about the Philosopher’s Stone and the hunt for the Chamber of Secrets and how Black isn’t what they think he is.

“Then tell us. The real stories. Not the sanitized ones or the gossip that spreads around school.”

Harry hunches over a little, and says nothing. Theo walks beside him on the right. Blaise joins him on the left. And then Greengrass comes out of nowhere and walks behind him. Draco speeds up a little, looking offended, and matches Greengrass stride for stride. It’s utterly ridiculous, Harry’s very own Slytherin parade.

The ridiculousness is finally what pushes Harry to speak.

“It’s just—people don’t want to follow me around and know the details most of the time because they like me, okay?” he finally snaps under his breath when they’re almost to the Great Hall. “They want to know so they can taunt me. Or they follow me around so they can catch me doing evil or being the Heir of Slytherin or something. So this is bloody new.”

“Fine,” Theo says. “Let it be new. Think about it as new for a whole day if you want. And when you feel ready to talk with us, then we’ll be here. But in the meantime, don’t act as though we’re not fit to hear. And don’t even think of trying to sneak away without us.”

He abruptly peels away from Harry and goes to sit on the other side of the Slytherin table, the place where Harry thinks he remembers him sitting from last year. He leaves Harry blinking uncertainly after him. Draco hesitates, then follows Theo. Blaise walks away, too.

Greengrass stays next to Harry, and sits down next to Harry, and picks up scones when he does.

“Why aren’t you going away?” he asks her, feeling exhausted and battered in a way he never has before.

“Because I’m not really your friend, am I? I’m your ally. You keep saying that, and I do think of myself that way.” Greengrass butters her scone in what Harry supposes is a graceful, pure-blood maneuver, or something. “Someone might as well stay and keep an eye on you and make sure that you don’t slip into manly Gryffindor brooding.”

“I don’t brood.”

“Don’t worry,” Greengrass says gently. “Like I said, I’m sure it’s very manly Gryffindor brooding.”

“I don’t—”

Greengrass eats her scone, and ignores him.

Harry leans back in his seat, and rubs his forehead. Then he notices Theo watching him with a frown from the other side of the table, and stops. It’s not that his forehead hurts, not really. Not his scar. He just—has a headache.

Somehow, meeting Black and learning the truth about Pettigrew seems the simple part of the day.

*

Severus smiles a little as he glances down at the cat under his arm. He has “borrowed” Mrs. Norris to allay Pettigrew’s suspicions as well as provide a backup in cast the bloody rat runs under a piece of furniture or out of his sight. She was squirming and yowling when he picked her up and he had to protect himself against some swift scratches.

Now she is staring at the closed door of the Gryffindor boys’ bedroom with her nose twitching and her whiskers vibrating.

Severus opens the door and sets the cat free with a twist of his arm. She promptly streaks away from him and dives underneath a bed. Severus waits, looking around and now and then saying, “Bloody cat!”

He is mindful of the human ears that might be listening.

There’s a sudden grey streak past his boot towards the door, with a dust-colored streak behind it. Even prepared for that, Severus is so startled that he almost lets the rat escape. In the end, his wand snaps out, and he conjures a cage with no bottom, which falls on top of the rat. Mrs. Norris hisses and paces around the bars, striking in now and then with a pat. Scabbers—or Pettigrew—cowers against the far bars, his tail shaking with how hard he’s trembling.

Severus sighs and conjures a bottom for the cage with a practiced motion; it’s a spell he’s used more than once to trap Transfigured mice who have escaped from Minerva’s classroom. Then he holds up the cage to eye level. Pettigrew stops trembling when he sees Severus, but as much as Severus can make out emotion in a rodent’s beady eyes, he looks conflicted.

“This is the last time that I do Minerva a favor,” Severus mutters, to keep up the pretense, and uses a Sticking Charm to hold Mrs. Norris to the floor of the room when she won’t stop trying to climb his robes. Then he scoops up the cat with a leather-protected arm and carries the cage and the squirming cat out of the room.

He sets Mrs. Norris free in the corridor, but she follows him persistently to his office door. Luckily, Severus manages to close the door before she can come in. A Silencing Charm takes care of her scratching and yowls.

He puts the cage on a table and stares at it. Pettigrew is trembling harder now, perhaps fearing that he’ll be cut up for Potions ingredients.

Severus studies the rat in silence for a moment, as if he is pondering what a great potion he’ll make, and finally sees it. One of the paws is missing a toe.

All they ever found of Pettigrew was a finger.

Severus curls his lip. As much as he hates to admit it, Black’s story is looking likelier.

He steps back and spends a moment pulling the magic to himself. He will have to cast a few spells in quick succession.

Then he spins around and moves his wand through the motions so quickly there should be no chance for Pettigrew—if it is him—to escape. “Finite Incantatem! Corpus muto! Incarcerous!

The spells slam into the cage, and it vanishes. A second later, the telltale blue glow that forces an Animagus to change back surrounds the rat, and he squeals in a high-pitched voice that becomes a scream. Then ropes bind him, and he stops squealing for a spot of pathetic struggling.

Severus paces towards him. Instantly Pettigrew freezes, his scraggly whiskers, even in human form, quivering hard as he stares at Severus.

And it is Pettigrew. Severus honestly wasn’t sure if it would be, or if he would recognize the man, but memories of ancient Order meetings come back more easily than he was aware they would. He recognizes the pitiful face, the eyes that dart around in search of help—or crumbs—and the clasped hands that curve like paws.

Really, I ought to have guessed that he was a rat Animagus long before this.

“Well, Pettigrew,” Severus says, and he lets himself smile. From the immediate and cowed reaction, the rat doesn’t know what to do next. Severus has spells on his quarters that prevent any Animagus from transforming here unless he forces them to—part of a long-ago protection against Minerva’s retaliation for Gryffindor’s fourth loss of the House Cup in a row. “What an interesting story you should have to tell.”

“It was Black!” Pettigrew abruptly cries. “I hid as a rat for twelve years because I’m so frightened of him!”

“And you cut off your finger to—what? Make him think you were dead?” Severus paces around the man.

Pettigrew nods eagerly. “Of course! Sirius is unstable! He was unstable even before Azkaban, you know that! I knew he would want to murder me the way he did poor James and Lily, and I couldn’t let that happen! The only way I could think of to protect myself was make him go to prison, and—”

“I only see one problem with that,” Severus interrupts.

“What’s that?” Pettigrew’s nose twitches.

Severus gestures with his wand, and Pettigrew’s left arm twitches, too, to the side. The Dark Mark glares on his skin.

“That,” Severus says softly.

Pettigrew stares at him with his mouth open. Severus waits, but for once, it honestly seems like the man has nothing to say.

Severus sighs. This will launch a lot of undesirable consequences. I shall have to explain the matter to Albus. I shall have to testify in a trial before the Ministry, undoubtedly. I shall have to go through months of preparation so that Potter can live with Black.

But none of that matters as much as the highest undesirable consequence.

I am going to have to apologize to Black.

Chapter Text

Harry finally finds Blaise and Theo when a day is up and takes them over to sit on a couch next to the fireplace. Greengrass drifts up and settles herself on a chair at the side of the couch, and Draco follows her, although he takes a different chair. He’s almost bristling, as if daring someone to chase him away.

Harry gives them very blank looks. Greengrass does what is probably her best blank look back. Draco hunches.

Fine. They can stay. If one of them spreads the stories he’ll tell as gossip, then he’ll know it was them.

“Can you use that privacy spell that your father taught us this summer?” Harry asks Theo.

Theo blinks and then shrugs. With a flick of his wand, he raises the spell. It’s one Harry had a hard time mastering. As usual, he studies Theo’s wand movements as hard as he can, and as usual, he honestly can’t tell a difference between those ones and the ones he makes.

With a sigh, Harry faces Blaise and Theo again. “How much do you already know about what happened at the end of our first year?”

“We know Dumbledore was guarding something in the school.” Blaise’s face is intent, and his fingers twitch as if he wants to pick up his wand. “On the third floor, in that corridor we were all forbidden to approach. And you went down there and—saved it somehow.”

“There were rumors that the Dark Lord was involved.” Theo twirls his wand between his fingers, showing no intention of putting it away. “Is that true?”

Harry grimaced. “Yeah. Sort of. I mean, it was him, but not the way that you’re probably picturing. I really did destroy him somehow that night. Or my mum did,” he adds, remembering what Dumbledore told him about his mother’s love. “But he was on the back of Quirrell’s head.”

Blaise recoils. Theo just stares at him. Harry doesn’t bother looking to the side to get Greengrass and Draco’s reactions. They would probably only act superior, anyway.

“I think,” Theo says, his words so precise that Harry could imagine him writing on glass with just his voice, “that you had better tell us what you mean by that.”

“You know how Quirrell wore that turban? And constantly stuttered?” Harry waits until they nod. It takes a minute. He almost wonders if they’ve forgotten Quirrell, and wonders how, but then remembers that most of them didn’t burn him to death with their bare hands. “It turns out the stuttering was an act. He was really a Dark wizard. Or maybe he wasn’t at one point, but then Voldemort got to him—”

“Get to the point, Potter,” Greengrass says in a voice as precise as Theo’s.

Harry doesn’t turn and look at her. There would be no point. “Voldemort was a wraith at that point. He possessed Quirrell. It manifested as a second face on the back of Quirrell’s head. He took off his turban when we were facing off over the Philosopher’s Stone, and there it was. He was.”

Blaise looks as though he’s about to swallow his tongue. Theo is composed, gravely interested, and he even nods for Harry to go on as if this is no big deal. “I always thought something was strange about Quirrell,” is all he says.

Harry glares at him briefly. “You have no idea how strange.”

“No, I don’t. But you were there, and you saw it. I’d like you to tell me.”

Somehow, in the face of Theo’s calmness, it’s easier to calm down, too. Harry exhales hard and says slowly, “It was so gross and horrifying. But it’s not the thing I have nightmares about. When I dream about something, it’s about—look, I tried to stop Quirrell. He was going to kill me. I grabbed hold of him. I burnt him to death with my bare hands.”

There’s such a silence that Harry has to turn to look at Draco and Greengrass, as much as he doesn’t want to. Greengrass has lost her poise for once and is gaping at him like he’s really done the impossible. Harry supposes the rest of the story doesn’t count for her. As soon as she notices him meeting her eyes, of course, she draws herself up with a haughty sniff and folds her hands once more. But Harry can see they’re shaking.

Draco looks utterly sick and horrified when Harry glances at him.

“Do you have any idea what caused him to burn?” Blaise asks quietly.

“Something about my mother’s blood protection. I suppose Voldemort can’t touch me when I have that.” Harry stares down at his hands. He does have some nightmares sometimes about them, although right now he has more dreams about how his parents died at Pettigrew’s hands and the basilisk and what if he’d been too late to save Ginny.

“So it’s not a Gift?”

Blaise says that like it definitely has a capital letter. Harry looks up and shakes his head. “What’s that?”

“A Gift is a talent inherited down your bloodline.” Blaise is studying him so intently that Harry feels himself flush a little. “It means that your ancestors would have been able to burn someone to death with their hands, too.”

Ugh,” says Greengrass.

“Don’t be silly, Blaise,” Draco says, although his voice is shaking a little. “If any of the Potters had a Gift like that, they would have used it against the Dark Lord and other people they fought.”

“Just because one member of a bloodline has a Gift doesn’t mean they all do—”

“No, I don’t believe it,” Theo says, in that decisive way that kind of makes him a voice of reason among the people around Harry. “Not really. The blood protection makes much more sense.” He looks at Harry, and his face has turned considering in the way that means Harry isn’t going to like what he says next. Harry tries to say something to stop it, but Theo speaks first. “It’s much more likely that Parseltongue is a Gift of the Potter line, and those who had it hid it, because it would have brought shame down on what people thought was a Gryffindor family.”

“That’s not true, either,” Harry snaps. Honestly, do they always have to try to make him into someone special? If Blaise and Theo meant what they said over the summer, then it should be enough just to be his friend. “Dumbledore told me last year. The Parseltongue power I have comes from Voldemort.”

“There’s no way that could happen, though,” Greengrass says in a voice that shows disgust for Harry’s ignorance. “People who fight each other don’t transfer Gifts.”

“Well, that’s what happened.” Harry folds his arms. He doesn’t trust a lot of what Dumbledore said anymore, but he does think that this is right. Because Parseltongue is so rare, and it really does seem more likely that he got it from the real Heir of Slytherin. “Professor Dumbledore said that Voldemort left a bit of his powers behind in me the night he tried to kill me. Those were pretty much his exact words.”

Blaise and Theo are staring at him. Harry tilts his chin back. “What? Going to abandon me now, because I’m not a real Parselmouth?”

He tries not to show how much he doesn’t want that. Because, in the end, if they abandon him over this, they were never his real friends anyway, just like all the people who whispered about him Petrifying people last year.

*

Theo tries to speak, but stops. He’s going to trip over his tongue.

Daphne is right. Fighting someone doesn’t work like that, or some wizards would have long ago transferred all possible Gifts to themselves, and their bloodlines would be far more powerful than any of the currently existing ones are. Theo knows that some of his Nott ancestors had the Gift of creating poison with a touch of their hand, but no one’s had it in generations. If there was a way to control who got it…

Of course it would have been discovered long before this. And his father would probably have done something about it.

Theo shakes his head again and again. Harry only glares at him challengingly. Theo finally manages to say, when it’s that or explode, “But that’s not the way it works. And Dumbledore would know that’s not the way it works.”

Harry’s hands tighten on the arms of his chair. He looks as if he wants to pick it up and throw it at them. Honestly, Theo would prefer that to the conversation he thinks they’re going to have.

“I can think of a few reasons he might have lied,” Theo says, carefully, picking his way through horrible options. “He doesn’t know how you’re a Parselmouth and why you have—that scar, and he doesn’t want to admit it. Or he was trying not to scare you with the truth.”

“What is the truth, then?”

“Um. I don’t know. But it’s not that.”

“It can’t be that,” Blaise chimes in, and Theo is grateful that someone else is going to help him carry the burden of this conversation. “That the Dark Lord gave you powers, I mean. Then he would have been doing that all over the place during the war, except he would have made other people give him their magic. And there are people mad enough to do it, too. Think of all the people who swore loyalty to him.”

“Your mother wouldn’t have,” Theo said, not sure why he says it, except it’s so true he has to.

Blaise darts him a narrow-eyed look. “No.” And that’s all it seems as if he has to say on that topic.

“I think maybe Dumbledore doesn’t know,” Harry says.

Theo sighs. “But he also wanted you to stay with abusive Muggles for no reason that he can articulate, Harry. He seems to have this—this prejudice against telling you the truth for fear that you’re going to do something he doesn’t want. Why would this be any different?”

Harry’s brows are furrowed. If he was any younger, Theo wouldn’t be surprised to see him biting his fist.

Draco is the one to break in, of all people. “I know how we can find out,” he says.

“Find out what? That Dumbledore is lying?” Theo doesn’t really want to go up against the Headmaster. He would do it if he had to, but Dumbledore is old and powerful and can use Legilimency. It’s not something he prefers.

“No. What the Dark Lord did to—Harry.” Draco pauses so long before saying Harry’s name that he obviously wants to draw attention to it, Theo thinks in irritation. “I think I can find out from the books in my father’s library.”

“And he lets you waltz into his library and pick up books like that?” Theo’s a little incredulous. There’s a lot in the Nott library that other children couldn’t see, but Father had carefully curated it before Theo was born. So there are no books left that could make Theo—or Harry, now that he’s been in there—dangerous or a challenge to his power.

Well. He thinks there aren’t. Theo keeps a smile from twitching at his lips, reflexively. There have been times when Father could have figured him out with a smile.

“He wants me to learn,” Draco says, and sneers at Theo the way he used to last year before Harry was re-Sorted. “Sorry that your parents don’t want you to learn.”

“My parent.”

Theo says it quietly, but Draco goes pale. He nods a second later. “Anyway,” he says, “if there’s anything about curse scars or anything, then it’s going to be in my father’s library. He did a lot of research years ago on ways to subdue his enemies. I’m sure that ways to transfer powers, if they actually exist—”

“They don’t.”

Draco ignores Daphne. “They’re in there. I know my father did a lot on the inheritance of Gifts. He wanted to see if I would inherit the Malfoy Gift,” he adds, when Harry peers at him inquiringly.

“What’s the Malfoy Gift?” Theo asks. He’s never been on such terms with Draco before that he could ask.

Draco grimaces. “Wandless, irresistible Imperius Curse. Why do you think Crabbe and Goyle follow me around everywhere?”

“But then your father—” Theo feels as if his wand arm’s turned to stone.

“No, no, some ancestor of mine who had the Gift cast the spell on Crabbe and Goyle’s ancestors,” Draco says irritably. “I tell you, it’s bloody boring at times. Can’t move a foot without them.” He tosses his head at where Vince and Gregory are staring at him from across the room. They only respect the privacy charm Theo put up because they have to.

“Oh.” Theo relaxes, staring at Draco. He’s not sure he believes him about his father not having that ability, but then again, he has just as much reason to think Draco’s lying about the Gift in general as he does to think Draco’s lying about his father not having it.

“I don’t actually want to control anyone like that.”

Theo blinks at Draco. His face is lowered and his hands clenched on the arms of his chair a lot like Harry’s. He glances up a second later and shakes his head, biting his lip. “It makes people boring.”

Oh, good. For a second I thought Draco was growing a conscience, Theo thinks, and sees by the amused way Harry’s gaze crosses with his that he feels the same.

“Anyway,” Draco says, “I can do research on that. I can convince my father to let me have the books.” He turns to Harry. “But I’ll have to let him believe that I’m planning on double-crossing you and going behind your back to find some weakness the Dark Lord can exploit.”

Harry just nods sharply without looking surprised. Theo wonders, gloomily, if Harry would be surprised by anything, including the knowledge that someone is planning to betray him. “Sounds good.”

“And what about the basilisk?” Blaise asks abruptly. Theo is grateful to Blaise for reminding him. Otherwise, they stood the chance of becoming distracted entirely by the side-conversation about how Harry became a Parselmouth, and forgetting the stories they want to hear from him. “Did you really kill it with the Sword of Gryffindor?”

“Yes,” says Harry, and his eyes turn stubborn again as if he doesn’t think they’ll believe him. “That Dumbledore’s phoenix flew in to me.”

“How could you kill a basilisk with a sword, though?” Daphne asks abruptly. Theo glances at her, then away. He’s not sure if he should mistrust her or not. “Even most curses would bounce off their scales.”

“I thrust it up through the mouth. I’m pretty sure I hurt the brain.”

Blaise is gaping, and a little grey. Theo only shakes his head and says, “But why didn’t it Petrify you?”

“Fawkes had already clawed out its eyes.” Harry hesitates as if he’s going to say something else, then firmly sets his mouth closed.

“Tell us what you were going to tell us.” Theo leans forwards and makes sure to show that his wand is near his hand. Harry gives him an utterly unimpressed look.

“No.”

Harry,” Blaise says, in a heavy, disapproving voice.

“No.”

“Does it have something to do with that scar on your arm that you keep trying to hide?” Draco asks, in his best bright, innocent, trying-to-be-helpful voice. Theo has heard him using that more than once when he’s pointing out something a Gryffindor is doing wrong in Potions class. But this time, he could smile at him for it.

Harry promptly claps a hand to his right arm. Daphne is faster. She casts a spell that slides Harry’s sleeve up. Most of the time, it’s meant to bare someone’s skin so you can spill a potion on it, but Theo isn’t going to quibble over using it for this.

The scar is wrinkled and surrounded by thin, pale lines that make Theo shudder a little to look at. Then again, it isn’t that the scar is especially ugly. It’s just knowing that it was caused by a basilisk.

“Where did that come from?” Blaise asks casually, although all of them already know.

“The basilisk’s fang going through my arm,” Harry mutters. Then he looks at them as if he thinks they’re about to attack and adds, “Fawkes healed it.”

Theo breathes out slowly. He hasn’t spent much time studying phoenixes, since they’re Light creatures, but of course he knows their tears are a powerful healing substance. Harry is lucky to be alive.

“No more of that.”

Blaise is speaking. He stands up and stands in front of Harry, glaring at him. “No more rushing off on your own. We’ll come with you next time.”

“But that’s why you can’t!” Harry is glaring back. “It’s dangerous! And I didn’t go alone, anyway! It’s just that Ron and Hermione had to get left behind when I was facing Quirrell because of all the obstacles in the way, and then Ron got trapped on the other side of a rockfall in the Chamber of Secrets and Hermione was Petrified! I wasn’t alone!”

“And you won’t be again,” Blaise says, calm and unshakable. “We’ll be there.”

Theo isn’t sure that Blaise is including Draco and Daphne in those words, but he doesn’t need to be sure. He knows Blaise is including him. “We will be.”

“No.”

“You’re so arrogant, Potter,” Draco says in a drawl. “You really think you can handle everything by yourself?”

Harry whirls around without getting out of the chair. “That’s not it! I just don’t want any of you in danger, that’s all!”

“But we get to choose that,” Theo says. “We get to choose if we want to be in danger or not. You let your Gryffindor friends choose,” he adds when Harry opens his mouth again, and he doesn’t mind twisting the knife. “Are we less than them? Are our friendships with you less important than theirs are?”

“I—that’s not what I mean!”

“Then think about what you mean,” Theo says. “Just think about it.”

Harry can’t say anything else before the door to the common room opens and Professor Snape steps inside, looking pale.

“Come at once, Mr. Potter,” he says. “There is something you will—wish to see.” He grimaces so hard that it looks as if he’s going to crack his teeth, at least to Theo. “And then you will summon—someone I need to speak to.”

Chapter Text

Harry stares at the sniveling man sitting in the ropes in Snape’s office. Snape has shut and locked the door behind them. He doesn’t say anything. Neither does the man in the ropes.

Harry can’t truly believe this man is Scabbers. Or the one that betrayed his parents. He didn’t even know anyone had betrayed his parents until recently. In his mind, they just—fought and died.

He takes a deep breath, and the man looks up. His eyes widen at the sight of Harry. “You look just like James,” he breathes. “But with Lily’s—”

“My mum’s eyes, I know,” Harry interrupts. He’s heard that enough, and he doesn’t want to hear it from this traitor. “What are you going to tell me that’s useful?” He steps forwards and circles carefully around the man, staring at him. He’s short and pale, and there’s a scraggly brown beard making its way across his jaw. And he keeps blinking as though his eyes aren’t used to the light yet.

“I’m sorry,” Pettigrew says, his head weaving and bobbing back and forth. “I didn’t mean to—I panicked—I never meant to betray your family to the Dark Lord! I didn’t want to!”

“Rubbish,” Snape says, which is so unexpected that Harry turns to stare at him. Snape meets his gaze and gives both Harry and Pettigrew a nasty smile. “Pettigrew was the keeper of a Fidelius secret, Mr. Potter. There is no known torture that can take the secret from someone. He must have betrayed it willingly.” Pettigrew flinches back as if each word is a lash.

“I was afraid,” Pettigrew whispers, and he’s looking at the floor now and not anyone else in the room. “You have no idea what it’s like to be that afraid. You don’t know—”

“Oh, really?” Harry snarls. He’s already shown the scar once today, so it doesn’t seem like such a big deal to pull back his sleeve and show it again. Pettigrew still won’t look at him, so he shoves his arm under the rat’s nose and makes him squeak and flinch again. “This is a bite from a basilisk. I faced that in the Chamber of Secrets last year. I killed it. Then I killed the thing that was possessing my friend. I was scared to death! But I still did it.”

Pettigrew doesn’t say anything. Harry waits, and finally says, “And I was a Gryffindor then, just like you were. So don’t give me this—this shit about how you can’t do anything because you’re too afraid.”

“Language, Mr. Potter,” Snape murmurs, but he doesn’t sound as though he believes what he’s saying himself. He strides forwards and takes Harry’s arm, turning it back and forth. “I may have a potion that would reduce the scarring.”

Harry shrugs and lets his sleeve fall again, hiding the ugly thing from sight. “I’m used to it by now.”

Snape frowns, but Harry turns back to Pettigrew. “So I won’t ask you how you could do it, because I already know that. I’m going to ask you if you feel proud knowing you condemned an innocent man to prison. Do you feel proud knowing I had to grow up with abusive Muggles and get scarred by what they did, too? Do you feel proud—”

“No! But I was afraid.”

Harry rolls his eyes. “Fear isn’t an excuse. For anything. I know you might think it is, but that only proves how stupid you are.” He makes Pettigrew flinch with just his eyes this time. “And you’re still afraid. Well, now you get to see what it’ll be like to sit in Azkaban and be afraid of Dementors.”

*

He gives away secrets about himself and does not even realize it.

Severus clamps a hold on himself that he’s perfected through long years of spying and does not snarl when Harry shows Pettigrew the scar from the basilisk—a scar even Severus has not seen until today—or when he talks about the abusive Muggles he grew up with, or when he reveals just how much he knows of fearlessness. Pettigrew is blinking, taking it in.

Time to give him something more to think about.

Severus moves a step forwards. Pettigrew immediately snaps his gaze to him. His breathing quickens until Severus thinks he can hear each individual laboring movement of his lungs. He curls his lip.

“You will go to trial at the Ministry,” he says. “As soon as we can locate Black.”

Harry stares at him with his lips slightly parted, as if to ask what Severus is thinking, giving away Pettigrew’s ultimate fate, but Severus ignores him. The point is to see how Pettigrew reacts.

And that way is to scream and thrash against the ropes. “Not—you can’t! No! The Dementors!”

Severus smiles a little. Yes, of course. Pettigrew’s cowardice would mean that creatures who exude fear would be one of his ultimate nightmares. “That is what will happen,” he repeats. “The only reason that you survived in rat form for as long as you did is that no one thought to question Black under Veritaserum. But they will, and that means that you should have a swift trial and be thrown into Azkaban within a month at most.”

He is exaggerating the speed, but again the point is Pettigrew’s reaction, not reality. The man is staring blank-eyed past Severus, as if he can already see the Dementors coming to get him.

“So.” Severus moves to the side, but Pettigrew doesn’t turn to face him. “If you could resign yourself to your fate—”

“Severus.” Pettigrew seems to have decided that Harry, the boy he condemned, doesn’t matter anymore. He turns around in his ropes and gives Severus a look of desperate appeal. “I have a secret that no one else knows.”

“I’m afraid that many people will know it now,” Severus drawls, and catches a brief, quickly-hidden grin of what looks like pure appreciation from Harry.

“Not that secret. Another one.” Pettigrew shakes his head and leans in. He’s trying to look mysterious and composed, Severus is certain, but he doesn’t look it at all. He doesn’t smell it, either. “I know where the Dark Lord’s wand is hidden.”

Severus lets his eyes fall half-shut, into the look of calculation that fooled so many Death Eaters when he was pretending to be one full-time. “That would be useful knowledge.”

“Right. But I’ll only reveal it to you if you let me go.” Pettigrew looks down at the ropes that wind around his arms and legs. “I mean, if you promise to let me go.”

“Useful,” Severus repeats, and stares Pettigrew straight in the eye, which makes him flinch yet again. Honestly, he’s so entertaining that Severus can almost see why Potter, Lupin, and Black kept him around so long. “But hardly tempting.”

“Severus—”

“Your betrayal led directly to the death of the only friend I ever had. And you dare ask forgiveness from me?”

Severus comes closer. Pettigrew scrambles as if he’ll piss himself, and ends up panting, wide-eyed and wide-mouthed. Severus lays his wand against the rat’s tongue and wishes so much did not depend on the truthful words he must speak. He would take great pleasure in dissolving it and suffocating Pettigrew by stuffing his throat full of the scraps of it.

“They are dead,” Severus tells him, never looking away. “Because of you. Mr. Potter spent years in the hell he told you about. Because of you. An innocent man—much as I hate the entire concept of Black as innocent—spent a decade in prison. Because of you. And you think that I am going to let you go?”

“That means you never really served the Dark Lord!”

Severus turns his wand sideways and casts without words. If Pettigrew truly has come to that conclusion, then Severus cannot let the knowledge survive in his brain. Pettigrew freezes, and his body seems to vibrate. He stares blankly for a second before he slumps and shakes his head a little and goes back to whining for his life and freedom.

Harry is watching with a frown. Severus has no chance to indulge him now and explain his own variation on a targeted Memory Charm. “Keep begging, Pettigrew. It is amusing.”

The man turns back to Harry instead. “You don’t really want me dead, do you, Harry?” he asks, and lifts his bound hands as if he’s going to kneel down and pray for mercy. “I played with you when you were just a baby! I never really meant to hurt you! I could be your pet rat, you know. And I could tell you all the answers that you want to know on your exams!”

Severus thought nothing could bring him to laughter in this situation, but the utterly disgusted look on Harry’s face comes close.

*

Why is he begging like that? Why does he think I would forgive someone who helped murder Mum and Dad? I’m not going to forgive Voldemort!

But staring at Pettigrew, Harry decides that he does believe that. Either that, or he’s so scared that he doesn’t think he has anything to lose. That was the way Harry used to beg Dudley and his gang to lay off him. Harry never thought they would do it, but by the point that he was begging, he was willing to try anything.

Harry just hardens his heart and shakes his head. “You made Sirius suffer,” he says, and sees the way Snape starts and looks displeased over the fact that Harry is speaking Black’s first name. It doesn’t matter, though. The only thing that matters is impressing the truth on Pettigrew. “I can’t forgive you for that, even if I wanted to forgive you for Mum and Dad and the Dursleys.”

“I was scared.”

“You can say that all you want. It’s not an excuse.” Harry turns to Snape, because honestly, he’s tired of looking at Pettigrew. “Sir, can I go outside and call Sirius in? I don’t think he would believe many other people.”

“Not yet. We will wait until more of the students have gone to bed and will not spread the secret around.”

Harry pauses. Without knowing it, he just assumed that Snape had already told Dumbledore. “So no one else knows?” he asks, a little dumbly, if the look Snape gives him is true.

“No one else knows. I did not think it safe as yet.”

Harry nods slowly. Yes, he can see why Snape would think that, at least about Dumbledore. Dumbledore might still want to send him elsewhere to live during the summer. He might bring up his stupid idea about living with Dudley again. He wouldn’t like it that Harry could live with Sirius.

And Harry hates that he has to think things like this about Dumbledore. But Snape told him the truth. And that’s that you have to distrust people who want certain things from you.

As long as you’re willing to pay the price for defying them.

Well, Harry was always willing to do that with the Dursleys. And Dumbledore is stupid sometimes, but he’s nowhere near as bad as the Dursleys.

“In the meantime…”

Harry takes a step back even though he knows Snape isn’t going to torture him. It’s just the look on Snape’s face as he waves his wand and conjures up a desk and chair.

The desk has a single piece of parchment and an inkwell on it. And there’s a quill there, too. Harry stares at Snape. He knew Snape said something about punishing him for sneaking out after Sirius, but he didn’t…

“You’re not going to punish me in front of the man who betrayed my parents, are you, sir?”

There is a sigh so long and loud that Harry winces a little. Then Snape waves his wand again, and Pettigrew is snoring without even the red streak of a Stunner hitting him. Snape nods to him and then to the desk.

Harry sits down and looks at the line on the piece of parchment he has to copy. It turns out there are actually three of them.

My life holds value.

I am not worthless.

I have as much of a right to safety as other students do.

“I already know this,” Harry mutters. He resists the urge to stab the parchment with the quill.

“You do not act like it,” Snape replies calmly. “You will write the lines, forty of each. Then I will ask you questions that will seek to show you have learned the lesson.”

“What if I don’t answer them the way you want?”

“That is why it is a week’s worth of detentions, Harry,” Snape says. He looks smug for the first time this evening.

Harry closes his eyes and wants to bang his head against the table. Everyone always thinks that he doesn’t understand these things. But he really does. It’s just that he doesn’t always have the chance to sit back and spout bloody philosophy when there’s an insane professor casting spells at him or a basilisk charging him!

And Snape can think it all he wants, but Harry doesn’t think even most of the adults in the school would be much help in situations like that. Professor McGonagall disbelieved him and Ron and Hermione when they tried to tell her about the Stone in first year. And look how bloody useless Lockhart was.

But from the way Snape is staring at him, pointed and still, Harry knows he isn’t going to get out of this by thinking about reality. With a heavy sigh, he picks up the quill.

*

As he waits for the castle to quiet enough that they can chance summoning Black, Severus watches Harry write.

The boy is scowling over the parchment, even though Severus also thinks he is copying each line faithfully. Now and then he shakes his head as though he has flies buzzing in his ears. Severus is satisfied to note that the punishment is mimicking the exact sensation Harry gives him when he is in trouble.

He does seem to be writing a little more slowly and thoughtfully as the night goes on, but Severus honestly has no idea if some of the lesson is sinking in, or if his wrist is simply getting tired. He goes and removes one piece of parchment when Harry lays it aside, and slides a smooth new one onto the bottom of the stack.

“This is useless,” Harry mutters.

“Is it?”

“And boring!”

“Is it?”

Harry shoves his glasses up his nose and glares at him. “What is the point of this? Sir.”

Severus would allow no other student to get away with such disrespect, but the point of this punishment in the first place is to make Harry think. He will not shut down the thinking aloud part of the punishment. The only thing that would happen is the boy going silent—and Severus has seen what happens when that occurs.

“Part of the point is to make sure that you won’t do something as stupid as charging after a suspected Death Eater on your own again, because now you know what is waiting for you.” Severus nods at the desk covered with parchments. “And the other part is that repetition sometimes makes people think more about what they are writing, or saying, or doing. You may think a little more next time before you decide your life is worthless—”

“I never thought that!”

“Then what did you think?”

The question rocks Harry back on his heels, as Severus also intends. For a second, he flails around as if he actually thinks that he’ll find the answer floating in the air next to him. Then he draws himself up and says, “That I can protect other people!”

Severus sighs. He knew there was a piece of the puzzle he was missing, and now he thinks he’s found it. “Why do you think you have to protect them?”

He expects some answer about how hard it is to trust adults. Instead, Harry laughs, and the sound is bitter ashes. “That’s what everyone’s been bloody telling me since I’ve been here, isn’t it? I saved them all once, I have to save them all again. And last year, when they were calling me the Heir of Slytherin and saying I was evil, it got personal. I had to prove I was good instead of evil.”

“You are neither,” Severus says, staring him in the eye. Even though he doesn’t mean to, he catches a flash of a thought that seems to center around the Dursleys. “Because you are human, and no human can be described or captured in those words. You are a mixture, you are not a hero, and you do not have to be.”

“Then why call me the Boy-Who-Lived? And even Voldemort thinks I am. Even Tom Riddle, the shade I saw last year.” Harry pulls his glasses off and rubs his forehead. “Why do they want me to save everyone else if I don’t have to?”

Severus is about to answer when something scratches at the door. His mind immediately flashes to the full moon, but then he remembers it is not tonight. He still draws his wand before he goes to the door. Perhaps it is Mrs. Norris, still urgently trying to get at the rat she helped him track down.

He opens the door partway, only to have it literally slammed into his face. And then there’s a huge black dog standing over him, snarling, and dividing its gaze between Severus’s face and the man bound in ropes in the corner.

“Sirius!” Harry is on his feet, but he must not be close enough to see the look in the dog’s eyes. Something has happened to enrage it—him. Severus thinks that Black has only hesitated so far because he doesn’t know whether to rip out Severus’s throat or leap and try to kill Pettigrew before he can escape.

So Severus turns to the trick that will serve better than a spell.

“I apologize for believing the worst of you, Black.”

The gape he gets, even as a dog, gives him plenty of time to cast the Stunner.

Chapter Text

“He Stunned me!”

Harry rubs his forehead. His scar doesn’t sting, but he almost wishes it would. No, it’s just Sirius’s shrill voice giving him a headache. And the way Sirius is bound to the chair with ropes, has been since Professor Snape forced him back into human form, but it’s hard to blame Professor Snape for that one, really. He gave Sirius the chance to act normal when he woke up. Sirius instantly tried to tear out his throat again.

Snape is just standing back against the wall with his arms folded now. And probably looking disgusted, but Harry doesn’t turn to stare at him. It’s his task to convince Sirius that he can actually listen to them.

“He had to. You were going to bite him.”

“He’s a git! And a liar!”

“He captured Pettigrew for you.”

That’s what Harry has been trying to say for ten minutes now, but Sirius kept shouting. Sirius stares at him, then stares at Pettigrew, who’s still unconscious. Then he shakes his head slowly. “Snivellus wouldn’t do something like that for me.”

Don’t call him that!”

Harry utterly surprises himself with how loudly he yells. He surprises Sirius too, apparently. Sirius just looks at him with his mouth hanging open. Then he smiles and says, “You’re a kind boy. But you don’t know everything he did during school. He was a Death Eater—”

“Yeah, well, I stayed with a Death Eater this summer. And Professor Snape helped tutor me. It was a lot better than staying with my relatives.”

Sirius looks devastated. And lost. He finally says, “Harry, you can’t be serious.”

“Perhaps, Black, if you had been available,” Snape says, “then Harry would not have had to stay with abusive relatives. He might not have been Sorted into Slytherin. He might have turned out more like the Gryffindor ideal that you pride yourself on being. Your own fault, really.”

Harry turns around and scowls at Snape. “You say out of this, too. Sir.”

“Hey! How come you’re more respectful to him than me?”

“Because he’s insulting you, but he’s not using a stupid nickname,” Harry says, and turns back around to scowl at Sirius. “Anyway. You can’t spring surprises on me like that. I know Professor Snape was a Death Eater.” It’s actually kind of hard to remind himself to keep putting “Professor” in front of Snape’s name, but he has to show Sirius that he respects him, or they aren’t going to get anywhere. “I know he did lots of things he’s not proud of. And you, too. I know you’re innocent, okay? I told Professor Snape that. And he’s the one who hunted down Pettigrew and tied him up.”

“Dumbledore must have done it.”

“No.”

“Then Remus.”

“No.” Harry rolls his eyes. Sirius isn’t much like an adult, or at least he’s not acting much like one right now. Then again, Remus doesn’t, either, most of the time. “Why would they have tied him up and left him in Professor Snape’s quarters? No, Professor Snape did it.”

“But—why?”

“I did it for Harry.” Snape is examining his nails when Harry turns around. Harry didn’t think people actually did that outside of books. “Emphatically, not you, Black.”

“You would never have done something like that for James’s son. Never!” Sirius tries to shrug off the ropes so hard that the chair rocks.

Can both of you just stop acting like idiots?”

Harry’s scream makes both of them stop and pay attention to him. Sirius just looks like someone’s shot a Stunner at him again. Professor Snape’s expression is more dangerous. Harry gulps a little and shakes his head. “Well, you are,” he says, and tries not to think about how he might have detention for the rest of the year. He looks at Sirius. “Professor Snape was even going to have me go outside when most people stopped moving around and search for you.”

“I’m glad that didn’t happen.” Sirius’s face is suddenly savage. “The Ministry lost patience or heard I’d been seen or something. They’re sending Dementors onto the grounds.”

Harry shivers. He’s never been near a Dementor, but the thought of them is bad enough. Professor Snape promptly straightens up and points his wand, and Harry snaps to attention, mouth open to protest. If he’s going to curse Sirius—

“You are not to go outside by yourself.”

This again. Harry glares steadily at Snape. “I know there’s a charm to keep them away. The Patronus Charm, right? I’ll learn it. I’ll teach it to my friends. But I’m not going to stay caged in the school.” He eases up on the tone when he sees the narrow-eyed way Snape is staring at him. “Please. Besides, they might go away when the Ministry realizes that Sirius is innocent, anyway.”

“That lot? They’ll never believe that.” Sirius almost barks his laugh. He makes the chair rock again as he turns to stare at Pettigrew. “Just give me that bastard and I’ll take him off your hands. I’ll kill him, and then James and Lily will be avenged—”

“And you will remain on the run for the rest of your life,” Snape interrupts, voice smooth. “Which is likely to be short. You will also take away the chance at a steady home for Harry. Now, I am not personally convinced that you value that option, when revenge was the first thing on your mind twelve years ago as well as now. But I am doing this for Harry, not for you, and my own personal prejudices must stand aside.”

“Shut up, Snape!” Sirius whirls back again. “You know nothing about it! There’s no way the Ministry will ever grant me a trial! It doesn’t matter what evidence they have! They’ll be too ashamed that they fucked up the first time!”

“Such language in front of your godson, Black.”

“I’ll say whatever I bloody well fucking please, you berk!”

Harry groans, so loudly that they both shut up and pay attention to him again. Harry shakes his head and stares back and forth between them. He doesn’t really know what he’s going to say until he opens his mouth and says it.

“I can’t believe it. I’m doing so much better than you two!”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

Snape’s voice is quiet and dark, the kind of voice that promises detentions for a month, but honestly, at this point Harry doesn’t care anymore. He faces Snape and folds his arms. “I got moved from Gryffindor to Slytherin, and I hated it. And I have people in that House who want to kill me. And I stayed with a Death Eater. And I’m still making friends in Slytherin and doing better with Slytherins and Gryffindors than either of you are. I mean, than either of you are with someone from another House. And you’re bloody adults.”

Snape’s gaze rakes across his face as if he’s going to read Harry’s mind. Harry averts his eyes a little. His pulse is beating so fast in his throat that it feels as if he’s going to throw up. But he’s not about to take the words back.

“He sure told you,” Sirius says, and starts laughing.

“I’m telling you the same thing,” Harry says. He faces Sirius. Maybe he thought it didn’t apply before because Harry was looking at Snape? Well, it does. “You still can’t stop taunting him even though you’ve been out of school for longer than I’ve been alive. You’re really—” The word struggles in his throat, and he almost doesn’t want to say it, because it was what the Dursleys said to him sometimes, and he hates it.

“Tell us.” Snape’s voice is low, almost hypnotic.

Harry does, even though he’s not sure it’s the best thing. “You’re disappointing.”

Sirius stares at him. “Harry?”

“When I heard you were my godfather,” Harry whispers, “I felt awful. Then when I realized you were innocent, I thought it was going to be different. But it’s not, is it? You hate Sn—Professor Snape. And you’ll probably hate me, because I’m a Slytherin now.” He’s shaking, and he didn’t mean to do this, and he’ll pay for this later, but right now, he can’t help the hot tears that are welling up, sliding down his face. He takes off his glasses and wipes furiously at his eyes. He hates this. “I thought it was going to be different, and it’s not. It’ll never be different. I’ll always have to live with someone who hates me—”

He clamps down, and finally manages to stop saying any more. Snape’s hands are on his shoulders, drawing him gently backwards.

“You will not.” Snape sounds like he’s making a vow. “I promise it. If Black is unable to take you, then we will find someone who will give you what you need.”

Sirius throws himself forwards against the ropes binding him and almost knocks the chair over. “Get your filthy Death Eater hands off him, Snivellus!”

Snape jerks and hisses out a long breath between his teeth, but his hands don’t move. “Are you all right, Harry?”

Harry keeps his head bowed for a second. He’s honestly not sure, and that’s pathetic. But he keeps breathing, and the world keeps turning, and that means there’s only one answer. He lifts his head and nods.

Sirius is hanging forwards and staring at Harry like he’s the center of the universe. Words cascade off his lips. “Harry, please. It’s not like that. I don’t care about insulting Snivellus more than you! I don’t care about revenge! I care—”

“You say that, and you still can’t stop insulting him,” Harry hisses. He wonders for a second if he’s used Parseltongue, because Sirius looks stunned. But he shakes his head and presses on.

“Fine, I’ll call him Snape. But I don’t care about other things! I care about you! I want to be your godfather! I want to adopt you—I mean, get custody of you! Just let me have a chance.” Sirius calms down a little, but his eyes are so yearning they look like black pits. “Please. Please let me do it.”

*

Severus is aching with the urge to say something, to point out, in case Harry has forgotten, that the mutt still cared more about revenge than him up until a few minutes ago, that he came here for Pettigrew and not because he thought Harry needed someone. But he stays silent. That would simply push Harry further away.

And he wants to maintain that connection with Harry. Even if Harry is adopted by, or becomes the ward of, Black. Even if the world tilts impossibly far and Black turns Harry more into a Gryffindor and makes him start insulting Severus, too. Children have done worse things for love or the lack of it.

Harry only shudders under Severus’s restraining hands. Severus can guess some of the depth of the battle going on in him. He doesn’t move. Harry needs a stronger anchor for the storm inside him than his own will can provide.

Harry finally says, in a croaking voice, “I do want to give you a chance, Sirius. But you have to do more than stop insulting Professor Snape. You have to take Pettigrew to the Ministry and undergo a trial.”

“What if the Dementors kill me first?”

Severus sneers in spite of himself. Black always comes up with some bargain, some contingency, that means the careful planning of others is in vain and he should be allowed to do what he wants.

But Harry only shakes his head, and says, “Minister Fudge still listens to someone. He listens to Dumbledore. Dumbledore can make him back off and take the Dementors away if we talk to him first. I’m sure of it.” His body trembles for a second, then calms down. “And if he doesn’t for some reason, I have something Dumbledore wants. We can make a bar—”

No, Harry,” Severus says before he realizes he’s going to speak. “You are not going to promise to remain in your cousin’s company during the holidays just to make sure that Black has a trial.”

Harry only tilts his head. Severus has learned better than to mistake that for compliance. He leans down towards Harry and makes his voice as calm as possible. “No.”

“Get off my godson, Sn—Snape!”

Severus sneers at Black and does not move. If Harry wishes to walk away from him, he can. But Harry is still fighting his own tremors.

“You’re the adult,” Snape says in a low voice. “You make the sacrifices.”

“You think spending a decade in Azkaban wasn’t enough of a bloody sacrifice?”

Severus watches, and says nothing. Of course Black’s time in Azkaban would influence his behavior, but that’s not the point, not truly. If it influences him that much, to the point that he would let Harry do something he hates because it would be more convenient for him, then he is not ready to be a guardian.

“I’d prefer it if we didn’t have to do that,” Harry says, and hesitates. Severus does not know what he is thinking, and has to wait in silence as much as Black, until Harry murmurs, “There’s another option. Minister Fudge might listen to the Boy-Who-Lived.”

Severus says nothing. He thinks Harry might hate this option as much as going to Dumbledore, but at the least, it would be something to set him higher as an independent being, without clinging to the Headmaster’s cloak.

“You can’t do that!”

“Why not?”

Black shakes his head. He looks so old and harrowed that Severus might find room in his heart to feel sorry for him if not for—many things. “Because I told you. Fudge isn’t going to give me a fair trial. I know what sort of idi—man he is. He’s going to blame someone else for his mistakes. He’ll see me locked up on a technicality if he can’t give me the Kiss. And he’ll take advantage of you, Harry.”

“Like that’s new.”

Black peers at Harry in hurt surprise. Severus hides the roll of his eyes he wants to give. He does wish Black would stop being so hurt. He hasn’t been here for twelve years of Harry’s life. Did he expect to find a pudgy, laughing baby?

“At least it would be taking advantage that I chose, this time,” Harry says, and from the sound in his voice, Severus knows he’s made up his mind. That was the way Lily sounded when she had. “I’ll write to Fudge in the morning. I’ll tell him that I’m very concerned about new information I found out about the betrayal, and I want to speak to him personally. Because otherwise, my only source of information is the papers.”

Severus coughs into his sleeve to hide his smile. Perhaps it was forced by his House placement, perhaps Harry has been getting ideas from his friends, but it does sound like a more Slytherin plan than he would have been capable of last year.

“I don’t want you to have to do that for me, Harry.”

“Yeah, I know, Sirius. I appreciate it.” Harry’s voice goes soft and he steps forwards to put a hand on Black’s arm, and Severus feels such a scorching jealousy that he holds still and says nothing at all. “But we all do what we have to do. This will pass, too. I’ll get you freed, and then we can live together.”

“We will make sure that the paperwork is meticulously in place, this time,” Severus interjects. He tells himself it is not because he wishes desperately to be a part of the conversation. “So that no one can reject custody.”

“Why would you do that for me?”

“As I do keep telling you,” Severus drawls, glad to see that the hatred is back full force in Black’s gaze and he need not feel guilty for anything, “I am doing this for Harry, not you.”

“Can you two stop squabbling like Ron and Hermione?” Harry snaps. “Anyway, I need to write the letter—”

“You need to go to bed.”

Harry whirls and glares up at him, while Black barks at him again like the fool he is. “What kind of say do you have in it, Snape?”

“I am his Head of House,” Severus says, holding Harry’s eyes. They are the important things, not Black. If he is indeed doing these things for Harry, then it is time that he took that vow seriously. “And I know that he has had a tiring, exciting day. I think that even the time before I told him of the capture of Pettigrew and then you intruded was not restful.”

Harry nods slowly. Then he says, “I want to be at my best when I write that letter to the Minister, right?”

“Yes, you do.” Severus nods to the desk with the abandoned parchment on it. “And when you come back for detention tomorrow to do your lines.”

Harry grimaces, but says nothing. Black, as always less mature, breaks in. “You can’t just tell him that! What use are detentions when his life has just changed?”

“It hasn’t changed yet,” Severus murmurs in response. And right now, I am a source of stability in shifting waters.

He might only be that source of stability for a little while longer, if Black does win custody. Then Severus expects to see nothing of Harry outside class interaction. But he will do what he can while he can.

“And Harry? Stay within the castle walls.”

Harry pauses on his way out of the walls. Once again, though, Black speaks, not him. “What happens if he doesn’t, huh? What happens if he decides that he’d rather take the chance?”

“Then it will not be writing lines about the subjects that you have written about so far,” Severus says, to Harry. “It will be talking about them.”

Harry’s face does have a good dramatic pallor when he wants it to. He nods, gulps hurriedly, and slips away.

Black continues to yell. Severus conjures a bed for him, and blankets, and a sturdy cage around the chair, then lets the ropes loose. Then he raises a Silencing Charm around the cage and goes quietly back to work.

Black is going to learn that Harry’s choice matters. And he is going to learn that Severus is more mature than he is.

Chapter Text

Harry wakes up and lies in bed for a small space of time, savoring the fact that he might actually have someone who can take care of him now. He doesn’t want to get up and find out it was all a dream, the way he’s afraid it might. Already Sirius’s words seem to be fading and he thinks he could open his eyes and Snape wouldn’t have captured Pettigrew and wouldn’t have made Sirius listen to him.

“Harry! Get up!”

It’s Blaise, yanking on his bed-curtains. Harry wrinkles his nose and sits up, knowing that Blaise won’t wander away when he’s this intent. He opens the curtains and reaches for his robes. “I’m up, I’m up.”

“What happened last night?”

Harry doesn’t look at Blaise. He’s afraid his expression will somehow give it away. “Tell you later,” he says, and whisks into the shower before Blaise can protest.

As he scrubs his hair and tries his best to make it lie flat, Harry starts thinking about the letter he’s going to have to write to the Minister. It should be the best letter he’s ever done. No pressure, of course, Harry thinks idly as he ducks his head so the water can comb the shampoo away. I just have to make the Minister believe me and give me a place to stay for the summers, which I want more than anything in the world. Simple as Dudley.

But Harry knows he won’t get anywhere thinking like that. If he was really so despairing, he should have given up the minute he got Sorted into Slytherin. He thinks of some phrasing on his way to breakfast, and it pleases him enough that he writes it down when he gets there.

“What are you doing, Potter?”

“None of your business, Greengrass.”

Greengrass sniffs, but she stays close as Harry eats breakfast, writes some more words down, ponders, and writes some more again. He hasn’t paid a lot of attention to what the Minister does, but he has heard about some parties and charity events. Minister Fudge would probably like it if Harry attended one of them, right? Harry can plan on that.

“What are you writing, Harry?”

“None of your business, Blaise.”

And maybe Harry can even promise to make a donation to St. Mungo’s or something. Yeah, that would be all right. The Minister is pretty well-known for “donations.” Harry hears other Slytherins griping about that all the time. Some of the older ones just say “bribes.” Harry doesn’t have a lot to offer, but he’d trade all the gold in his vault and ten years of his life for the right to remain safe.

“What are you writing, Harry?”

“None of your business, Theo.”

Fudge is going to be embarrassed because the Ministry didn’t give Sirius a trial, but—and Harry is pretty certain of this—he wasn’t Minister at the time. So Harry will suggest that Fudge can just blame everything on the previous Minister. And…

Harry pauses, a dripping spoon in front of his lips. He has to move it hastily when it tries to drip porridge on his parchment, though.

He’s thought of something that might work. But on the other hand, it might not. Not if what people have said about Fudge relying on Dumbledore all the time is true.

But on the other hand, Harry knows that Fudge was upset with Dumbledore last year because of the Chamber of Secrets. And there are Dementors out on the school grounds now when Dumbledore tried to keep them away. That might mean he would listen to Harry if Harry said something about Dumbledore. He just has to find the right words.

Excited, Harry begins scribbling roughly. By now there are four Slytherins craning their necks trying to see what he’s writing. Harry elbows Draco out of the way when he gets too close, and raises an eyebrow at him. “Don’t you have studying to do for class or something?” And there are even a sixth-year and a fourth-year staring at him now, wonderful.

“None of it is as interesting as you are, Potter.”

Harry blinks at Draco, then shrugs. He doesn’t have time to worry about Draco changing his mind or whatever he’s doing right now. “I’m not interesting,” he says, and casts a spell that he found in the Nott library above his paper. It will make whoever looks at it just see rippling blurs instead of words.

Draco groans. “Yes, you are.”

Harry might or might not be interesting, but he has no interest in getting involved in a childish argument. He finishes his porridge hastily, grabs the apple Theo all but shoves into his hand, and takes off at a run for Charms. He gathers Ron and Hermione up because they’re going out of the Great Hall at the same time, and then he’s trailing a little group of Slytherins and Gryffindors behind him.

Harry rolls his eyes. This is silly. Don’t they have anything better to do?

“You look like you got good news, Harry.”

Harry grins at Hermione and nods. “I did. But I can’t tell anyone else about it right now, okay? You’ll be the first ones I tell when I can, though,” he adds, to Ron’s mutter and Hermione’s deeply disappointed look.

“And what about us?”

Harry twitches. He’s still not used to having two groups of people who care about what he says. It isn’t what he expected when he was Sorted into Slytherin at all. “I’ll tell you at the same time,” he says to Theo and Blaise.

“And us?”

“Don’t push it, Greengrass.”

She laughs a little, and then they enter Charms and Ron and Hermione have to leave for Transfiguration. Harry waves wistfully after them, and settles down in between Theo and Blaise, who are both watching him as if he waved treacle tart in front of them and then hid it.

“Can you stop doing that? It’s bloody creepy,” Harry mutters, taking out his parchment and scribbling a few more lines on it. He has maybe five minutes until Flitwick arrives, and he wants to make every moment count.

“Do you have any idea how important you are?”

“Yeah, yeah, I do. Boy-Who-Lived and all that nonsense.” Harry thinks of one way he could word the part that’s convincing Fudge not to listen to Dumbledore, and indulges in a mad scribble that he hopes he’ll be able to read later. But honestly, he doesn’t think he’ll have a problem. It’s like his mind is on fire, and burning so bright and clear. He just has to keep going, and he’ll get Sirius free.

“That’s not what I meant—”

But Flitwick shows up, a little early, and Theo has to stop talking. Harry gives him a slight impatient glance as he puts away his letter. He’s still staring at Harry as if there’s something else about his words that Harry should really understand.

Is it Harry’s fault if people want to romanticize him and think that he’s some kind of hero when he’s not? Or follow him around the corridors? No, it bloody isn’t.

*

He has no idea what he’s like when this happens.

Theo can’t actually think of any other time when it happened, though—no, wait, he can. When Harry spoke to the serpent Draco conjured at the Dueling Club last year, and revealed that he was a Parselmouth. Then he had the same kind of magnetic draw about him, with eyes going to him as he strode down the corridors.

But even that is different, because Theo has to admit the vast majority of the attention Harry received last year was negative. This time, it’s positive. People want to be near him, and the energy like a fire he’s putting out.

Theo tries to explain things to Harry that evening, after Harry comes back from a long detention with Professor Snape. Harry just stares at him blankly.

“What?”

Theo settles into the chair next to Harry. He has a parchment on his lap that looks different from the one this morning—it’s longer and has more lines—but when Theo tries to focus on it, it simply gives him the hazy heat-shimmer of before. Theo sighs and turns to Harry.

“You’re a natural leader,” he says, trying to phrase it in a way that will sound better, or at least more likely to Harry’s skeptical ears. “You have this ability to make people want to be close to you.”

Harry nods and goes back to writing. “Because I’m the Boy-Who-Lived. Yeah, believe me, I’ve heard that all before.”

No! I didn’t mean it that way! You saw the other Slytherins this morning.”

“They were only paying attention because the rest of you were making such a fuss.” Harry squints at the parchment, smiles, and then signs his name with a flourish, which at least tells Theo that it’s a letter. That doesn’t sate his curiosity, of course, since he still has no way of knowing where the letter is going. “I appreciate your support, Theo, but there’s nothing all that special about me except the scar on my head.” He blows on the ink to dry it, and then just draws his wand and casts a Drying Charm. That makes it seem like an urgent letter, and Theo squirms in anticipation.

“What?”

“What what?” Theo realizes he sounds like an idiot, but he can’t help craning his neck and seeing if he can maybe get around to the side of the parchment and read the letter that way.

Harry puts his hand on his arm, and Theo jumps. Harry is staring at him with those piercing deep green eyes that have the same depth of experience Theo sees in the mirror. Harry wasn’t raised by Tarquinius Nott, but he might as well have been.

“I’ll tell you as soon as I can,” Harry says. “In the meantime, please back off.

Theo sighs and sits back in the chair. There’s a growl in the undertone of Harry’s voice that he knows means he won’t be able to convince him to share any further. “All right,” he says reluctantly. “It’s just that I want you to believe me about people thinking you’re special for reasons that don’t relate to the scar on your head.”

Harry’s eyes soften, and he claps Theo on the back. “That might just be your friendship for me speaking, though,” he points out, and then snatches up his letter and pelts out of the common room. Theo is sure he’s heading for the Owlery.

It occurs to him that he might follow Harry and listen to the name he tells the owl to take the letter to. He restrains himself.

“You didn’t get anything out of him, either?”

“No, Blaise.” Theo leans back in his chair and watches the fire. He can see Draco and Daphne drifting towards them out of the corner of his eye, but honestly, he can’t be bothered to shoo them away. “When he wants us to know, he’ll tell us.”

“He’s not as politically sophisticated as he might need to be to keep himself safe.”

“I know, Daphne.”

“And he really doesn’t understand his position in our world.”

“I know, Draco.”

Theo stares into the fire and restrains his curiosity the way he had to when he was young and didn’t understand things and then found the book that clarified everything in the library. He survived them, in much more dangerous circumstances. He’ll survive a few days, or maybe a week, of not knowing who Harry is to writing to.

I just hope that it’s not more than a week.

*

Harry smiles as he watches Hedwig soar away. Professor Snape gave him some good suggestions for the letter when Harry was in detention with him tonight. And Sirius told him some more about the betrayal, when he wasn’t taunting Snape. Harry really hopes this will work and the Minister will give Sirius a trial.

Harry turns around and starts when he sees Remus standing in the doorway of the Owlery. “Hi,” he says cautiously.

Remus sighs and folds his arms. “Harry, I smelled Sirius’s scent going into the school,” he whispers. “It just seems to disappear when it gets to Snape’s door. What have you done?”

Harry clenches his hands in response. “We haven’t hurt him. We know the truth.”

“You’re going to turn him over to the Dementors?”

“Of course not!”

“Then what are you going to do?” Remus takes a step closer, and bends down as if he thinks that he can see the truth hiding somewhere in the back of Harry’s eyes. “Why didn’t you tell Albus right away?”

“Because I don’t trust him.”

Remus blinks. He acts like he never considered that, but Harry doesn’t know why. He did tell Remus about not wanting to live with the Dursleys and the way Dumbledore tried to force him to. That ought to be enough of a clue. “But why, Harry? He’s the one who protected me, who protected your parents—”

Harry shakes his head impatiently. “He didn’t do it well enough to keep Pettigrew from betraying them.”

Remus sucks in a shaking breath. “It was Sirius, not Peter. Peter is dead—”

“No, he’s not. He was the one who betrayed Mum and Dad and then pretended to die so he could accuse Sirius. But he just transformed into a rat and escaped down the sewers.” Harry didn’t intend to tell Remus this, but the secret is out now, which means he has to keep going. He steps close to Remus, staring at him. “Come on. I can take you to Professor Snape’s office, and you can learn the truth about them yourself.”

Remus covers his eyes with one arm. “That can’t be true. I mean—you could have spoken to Sirius, he could have told you about Peter’s Animagus form, but—”

Harry can’t help laughing, even though it sounds a little choked. “You think I could talk with Sirius about someone’s Animagus form and not get killed? I mean, if you think Sirius is really an insane murderer?”

Remus lifts his eyes and stares at him, obviously conflicted. “I have no idea what to believe right now, Harry.”

That’s true enough. Harry shrugs. The only thing he can do is take Remus to Professor Snape’s office and make sure that Snape knows that Remus is in on the secret. Then Snape can come up with some way to keep Remus from telling Dumbledore.

Part of Harry knows that Snape might tie Remus up and keep him in his office, too, or Obliviate him. But that doesn’t matter to the part of him that knows it. Nothing is going to stop him from living with Sirius. Nothing.

*

Severus can only stare at Remus Lupin crowding into his rooms, and the way he freezes and stares at both Pettigrew—whom Severus has been feeding the Draught of Living Death—and Black. Black leaps to his feet and clenches his hands on the bars of the cage, his eyes bright with exhaustion. “Moony?” he whispers.

Strange how he doesn’t look at his godson with such happy eyes, Severus thinks. But then, he shouldn’t find it strange that Black doesn’t value what he has. He was the same way even in school.

“Padfoot.” Lupin sidles forwards a step, and then stops. He turns around and glares at Harry and Severus both, as if he can’t decide which of them is more responsible. “Why are you keeping him in a cage?”

“Because that’s what you do with wild beasts,” Severus says, and takes pleasure in the way Lupin flinches. “And because he won’t stop insulting me and trying to murder me, even when I have been instrumental in capturing the rat that betrayed him.”

Lupin looks as if he’s going to have an aneurysm on the spot. “What—you—”

“I did it for Harry, not you.” The more Severus says it, the truer it is. And the better it sounds to him.

Harry shoots him a quick glance, but Lupin is the one who says, “This is outrageous, that Sirius never got a trial. And that you’re keeping him like this. I’m going to tell Dumbledore.” He turns around and marches towards the door.

Severus doesn’t think twice. He simply Stuns Lupin and floats him over to the side, ignoring Black’s outraged yelps. Then he conjures a cage and places Lupin in it with the same furniture he gave Black. After a moment’s thought, he raises the Silencing Charm around Black’s cage.

When he turns back, he’s taken aback by the look on Harry’s face. He appears as if he’s trying desperately not to laugh. Severus expected outrage. “You wanted me to let the wolf go to Dumbledore?”

“No.” Harry swallows a giggle. Then he shakes his head. “And except for Dumbledore and me and you, no one even knows he’s in the castle. Which means that no one is going to report him missing until my letter to the Minister gets back.”

Severus relaxes. “Good.” A wave of his hand conjures the parchment, and the desk, and the chair. “Write your lines.”

Harry grimaces, but sits down to do so. Severus watches him. He knows that he promised Harry he wouldn’t have to talk about these things if he wrote about them, but more and more, he’s beginning to think the talking may be necessary.

And he’s not unobservant. He can see the longing looks Harry shoots Black.

We may well have to talk about more than one thing.

Because Severus meant what he said when he told everyone he was doing this for Harry. He will act in Harry’s best interests.

Even if Harry hates him for it.

Chapter Text

“Harry, if you would, please? I need to talk to you.”

Harry doesn’t much please, but he stands up. Headmaster Dumbledore has a faint, determined smile on his face, as if he imagines that he’ll look straight at Harry and all his secrets will come spilling out. But that’s not going to happen as long as Harry can keep his head a little ducked and a firm grasp on his Occlumency.

Blaise and Theo stand at the same time. “I think we’ll come with him, Headmaster,” Blaise chirps. “That way we can all leave from your office at the same time and make sure that Harry isn’t late to Potions.”

Harry knows he isn’t imagining the tightness to Dumbledore’s jaw, although his smile and eyes are as bland as ever. (And Harry would never have noticed that last year. He doesn’t think being a Slytherin makes him bad anymore, but it does make him different). “I think we can discuss this in private, Mr. Zabini, Mr. Nott.”

“Then why did you approach Harry in public?”

“Mr. Nott. That is enough.” Professor Snape’s voice sounds behind the Headmaster’s shoulder, smooth and cool. “While the—grace of your offer is noted, I will accompany Mr. Potter to the Headmaster’s office.”

Harry relaxes a little. It’s insane to be so calm around Snape, part of him still insists, but it does mean that he’ll have someone there who knows all the secrets and can tell Harry if Dumbledore is using Legilimency. He nods to Professor Snape and moves around the table so that he’s standing next to him.

“I was under the impression that you had a class to prepare for, Severus.”

“So does Mr. Potter, but you wanted to talk to him anyway. Shall we?” And Snape nods to the doors of the Great Hall and then starts walking towards them with a bored expression on his face. His hands rests on Harry’s shoulder, making sure that Harry comes with him whether or not he really wants to.

If that’s the way it goes, Harry thinks, and falls into step beside Snape. Dumbledore gives a loud sigh, but Harry doesn’t look around.

Other than that sigh, Dumbledore doesn’t actually make a sound until they get to his office; he even whispers the password for the gargoyle too softly for Harry to hear. Harry doesn’t know if that’s a good sign or not, so he just keeps quiet, too. Dumbledore sits down behind his desk once they’re in the office and shakes his head. His face is so sad Harry would have winced.

But he thinks Sirius’s story, and the way that Peter betrayed his parents, is sadder. So he just looks past Dumbledore and smiles at Fawkes, and waits for Dumbledore to say something he can react to.

“I am grieved that you think I would hurt Harry, Severus.”

“Did I say anything that implied as much, Headmaster?”

“Your wanting to be present with him when I spoke of private matters—”

“Is no more than any Head of House might do for their students. I know for a fact that Filius was present when you ordered that Ravenclaw girl last year to leave Hogwarts, mightily though he agreed she deserved it.”

Dumbledore pauses. Then he says, “I’m hoping you can explain this letter to me, Harry.” Harry looks up. Dumbledore pushes a letter across the desk, and Harry picks it up and scans it over quickly.

He can feel his breathing quickening, despite the way that Snape reaches out and presses down on his shoulder. He knows he shouldn’t show any emotion. But he can’t help it. The letter is from Fudge, and in it he’s complaining to Dumbledore about Harry writing to him with stories of Sirius Black and asking why he can’t just go through Dumbledore instead.

Harry looks up. Dumbledore is peering at him over the top of his hands. Harry doesn’t think he can feel the press of Legilimency, but he doesn’t always, so he keeps his eyes a little to the side, on Dumbledore’s forehead and beard.

“Why, Harry?” Dumbledore says, still quietly.

Harry feels Snape press close behind him. Telepathy would be useful right now, Harry thinks, and only says, “Because I want a real home with someone who cares for me, sir.”

“Dudley would care for you—”

“You would still have to have an adult take care of us. Who is it going to be, sir?” Harry isn’t even going to address the stupidity of Dudley wanting to live with him. If Dumbledore is that stupid, the arguments won’t get through anyway.

“Well, I thought Remus might be acceptable.”

“The werewolf who can’t legally have custody of children?” Snape laughs like a crow. “That is your brilliant idea, Albus?”

Harry thinks he knows now why Dumbledore invited Remus to Hogwarts, other than because he really might be able to search for Sirius in his Animagus form. He wanted Harry to get to know him and get comfortable around him. “I don’t want Mr. Lupin to take care of me permanently, sir. He’s nice sometimes, but he is uncomfortable around me, and he tells me uncomfortable things.”

“I had hoped you wouldn’t pick up the prejudice against him for being a werewolf, Harry.”

“I mean that he tells me stories about him and my father and Black bullying Slytherins. And then he looks shocked when I don’t laugh.”

Dumbledore pauses for a long time. Harry wonders if it’s the honesty that’s throwing him, Harry’s bluntness, or the fact. Maybe he never considered that fact, Harry has to admit. He doesn’t seem to think a lot about anyone who’s not a Dursley or a Gryffindor.

“I—see,” Dumbledore says finally. Harry thinks he means to say something else, too, but Snape surges in to fill the gap.

“And you know that legally, werewolves cannot have custody, Albus. It is the major reason that Lupin never took care of the boy before now. I heard you say as much to Minerva. Do you want to place him with an adult, have Potter start to get used to him, and then have the arrangement crumble again when the Ministry finds out Lupin’s condition?”

“They have no need to find out Remus’s condition—”

“Secrets do have a way of slipping out.”

Snape and Dumbledore are staring at each other as if they’re going to light the air on fire between them. Harry uncomfortably clears his throat, and does it again, even more uncomfortably, when they won’t look at him. Dumbledore finally does. Harry says, “I don’t want to stay with Mr. Lupin.”

“You would prefer to go back to a Death Eater?”

“That would be better than Dudley.”

Dumbledore only shakes his head and says, “I think you’re exaggerating, Harry. I know how badly you want to live in the wizarding world, but your cousin is not the same as someone who tortured people to death.”

Harry must go a bit mad then. It’s the only explanation he can think of later for why he does what he does next. He jerks up his left sleeve and turns around a little, so that Dumbledore can see the thick scar that runs behind his elbow. “Dudley had his friends hold me down and he cut my arm open, sir. With a rock. It took a long time, and it hurt a lot. And the only thing my aunt and uncle ever said was I mustn’t get blood on the carpet.”

Snape makes a sound like a dying serpent. Dumbledore leans back and looks older than ever by the time Harry turns around again.

I know that I’m going to have to talk about that to Snape later, Harry thinks, but that’s one reason that he carefully doesn’t turn and look at Snape. He only stares across the desk at Dumbledore’s cheek more than anything else.

“I have made mistakes.” Dumbledore’s voice is soft and old. “But you made another one, Harry, writing to the Minister.”

“Why?”

“Because—because anyone could have intercepted this letter.”

“But you didn’t. You only know what I said because Fudge wrote to you and asked you what he should do with me.” You spineless little coward, Fudge.

Dumbledore lowers his glasses as if he thinks Harry will find it more intimidating to be looked at over them. Harry doesn’t. Right now, he wouldn’t find Voldemort resurrected from the dead intimidating. He just stares, and Dumbledore finally sighs and asks, “Is what he says true? Is Sirius innocent?”

“You could have asked that at the first, Headmaster,” Snape murmurs.

Harry fully agrees. “Yes, he is,” he says. “And you can test him with Veritaserum and find that out for yourself.” He stares at Dumbledore, willing him to meet Harry’s eyes this time, willing him to see that Harry wants to know why Veritaserum was never used on Sirius in the first place to find out why he supposedly betrayed Harry’s parents.

Dumbledore doesn’t say anything, though he does flinch a little. If he can read Harry’s thoughts right now, Harry hopes it was the most pointed one. “Then we have much planning to do.”

“Yeah. If Sirius is going to be sane enough to take custody of me—”

“Oh, Harry. That won’t be true for many years. On the mind of an innocent man, even Azkaban would operate terribly.”

Harry feels his magic rising up in his chest, buzzing and vibrating, the way that it sometimes did when Vernon and Petunia insulted his parents after he knew the truth about them. He’s going to say something any minute. He’s not going to live with Remus and have Dudley with him, he’s not, he’s not

*

Severus knows he must act now. Harry, with the most understandable of reactions, is still going to play straight into Albus’s hands. He will say that the boy is unstable and needs a stable guardian, and then he’ll propose the damn werewolf again, or some Order stooge who will probably think that what Harry needs is warm milk and walks and naps. Severus steps forwards and clamps a hand down on Harry’s shoulder.

Harry still isn’t used to being touched in a way that isn’t malicious, one reason Severus chose this tactic. His magic subsides like a tide washing down the shore. Severus seizes the moment to speak.

“I would not trust most of the Healers in St. Mungo’s to cope with a man released from Azkaban,” he says. “They do not often treat such, after all. On the other hand, Headmaster, you know that I invented my own potion to mitigate the effects of the Dementors on a non-corrupted mind, after my own…brief stay.”

Albus’s eyes are on him, with such a confused mixture of emotions that Severus coughs to keep from laughing aloud. There’s hope, and wariness, and distrust, and that eternal love for Gryffindors. The hope probably comes from Albus thinking that Severus is offering this for Black’s sake, not Harry’s.

I will never forgive my nemesis, but that is different from keeping him from Harry, Severus thinks smoothly as he watches Albus wrestle with the choices.

“What are you offering, Severus?” are the words he finally decides on.

Such nice words, they leave so much open, Severus thinks, and inclines his head. “To work on healing the man so that he may offer Mr. Potter a stable home by the summer. The Christmas holiday would be far too soon, but both Black and Mr. Potter could stay here, under my supervision, and we could see the areas where Black is still suffering—deficiencies. When summer comes, then we will see how much ground we still have to cover.”

“I do want you to promise that Remus Lupin will be Harry’s guardian if Sirius can’t be made well enough.”

“I cannot promise that, as you well know, Albus,” Severus replies softly. The man is trying to use guilt to make him do the impossible, again. It will not work this time. “Not only do we not know if Black will be declared innocent in the Ministry trial he is going to receive, no one is of the mind to suddenly render werewolves legal guardians for children.”

“Remus was your father’s dearest friend,” Albus says, to Harry.

“No, that was Black,” Severus corrects, briskly and without making it look as if he knows the depth of manipulation Albus is capable of. “That is one reason it astonished so many people when Black apparently betrayed them.”

“Then someone should have looked into it sooner,” Harry mutters, but his voice is small. He looks—stunned is not too small a word for it. Severus will be happier when he can speak to him alone, but for right now, they seem to be in accord.

“They should have,” Albus says, and now he’s shining and twinkling away, probably assuming that Harry is heading back to his side and that Severus willingly spending time with Black is a good thing. “Harry, will you forgive me for not investigating? It was the height of the war, still, since so many Death Eaters did not believe Voldemort was gone. But I grieve that I sent an innocent man to prison for twelve years.”

For a moment, Harry looks up, and Severus wonders what response he’s going to give, the Gryffindor one or the Slytherin one. But Harry ends up looking down again and saying in an almost shy voice, “I can’t forgive you, sir. Sirius is the only one who can do that. You’ll have to apologize to him.”

“And I definitely will, Harry. Now, let us consider how we are going to safely hand Sirius and Pettigrew over to the authorities, and get the Ministry to send the Dementors away.”

The discussion does sound as though it isn’t going to turn on technicalities, as though Albus is committed to imprisoning the real traitor this time. Severus still listens and watches and prepares to point out anything questionable. All the while, he keeps his hand on Harry’s shoulder and wonders—because his mind is very good at running down different paths at once—whether Albus understands the importance of Harry’s last words.

Harry is absolutely right that Black is the one who has to make the choice of what to say to the man who should have fought hardest for him. But he also refused to forgive Albus.

Though Severus is reluctant to assume that anything at all gets past the Headmaster, that one honestly does seem to have slipped straight through the damn twinkle in his eyes.

*

“Harry—we’re going to be late for Transfiguration!”

Blaise wants to roll his eyes. Is that all Granger cares about? She obviously didn’t understand what Weasley, from the way he perks up, seems to have grasped at once: that if Harry is tugging his Gryffindor friends into an alcove where his Slytherin ones are already waiting, that means he’s going to tell them what he was doing yesterday, all at once. Just the way he promised.

“It’s nothing, Hermione, McGonagall will just give us detention, that’s all.”

“I don’t want a detention—”

“It turns out it was Peter Pettigrew who betrayed my parents when he was their Secret-Keeper, not Sirius Black,” Harry says.

Blaise can feel, through his dim shock, appreciation for Harry’s sense of timing. He’s pretty sure that Harry did not have that last year, or he wouldn’t have revealed he was a Parselmouth in front of the whole bloody dueling club. That’s a good thing Slytherin must have taught him.

Granger and Weasley gape. Even Draco looks too startled to make a sound, and Greengrass as if she’s trying to understand. Theo leans forwards and says intently, “What happened, then?”

“Sirius was my parents’ Secret-Keeper, but he thought everyone would suspect that because he was my father’s best friend,” Harry explains in a rush. His eyes are glowing. Blaise realizes, startled, that he would fight for a lot to keep Harry that happy. “So he suggested they switch to Pettigrew. Pettigrew betrayed my parents, and then waited until Sirius came after him and shouted words that made it seem like Sirius was the traitor, then killed all those Muggles—”

“But how did he survive? That was a pretty nasty curse!” Weasley is almost dancing in place, and his eyes are glowing like Harry’s. For the first time, Blaise can really see why they might be friends.

“He turned into his rat Animagus form and escaped down the sewers,” Harry says importantly. “They were all Animagi, Sirius and Pettigrew and my dad. Sirius is a dog. That’s why the Dementors couldn’t find him or really feed off him! And then—” He abruptly gives Weasley a guilty glance. “Sorry, Ron, but Sirius saw a picture of Pettigrew in the papers and broke out to get revenge. Only, luckily, we’ve talked him out of it, and he’s going to get a trial.”

“In the papers?” Weasley repeats blankly.

“He was Scabbers.”

Weasley just stands there and stares like the others did. Then he whispers, “I was—there was a bloke on my pillow when I went to sleep every night?”

“Yeah, mate. Afraid so.”

Weasley gives the most comprehensive full-body shudder Blaise has ever seen. He’s pretty impressed. He doesn’t even say anything, though, which turns out to be a good thing, because Granger and Theo are pelting Harry with questions, and he wouldn’t get a word in edgewise anyway.

Blaise watches, and listens, and congratulates Harry when it seems appropriate. He can see the flame of hope when, in answer to Theo’s question about what will happen now with Black, Harry says, “Well, Sirius is my godfather. All we need is for him to be proven innocent and then he can have legal custody of me.”

Granger exclaims at that and throws her arms around Harry. Harry just looks blissfully happy as he returns the hug.

Blaise, listening, thinks it might not be so simple. He knows what damage Dementors can do to someone’s mind. His mother taught him that as part of the many, many reasons not to get caught when he does something illegal.

But honestly, it doesn’t matter, does it? He and Harry’s other friends have already been there through some bad things, and they can be there through more bad ones. For the moment, they’re just being asked to share the joy.

Chapter Text

“They’re not going to give me a real trial. Not really.”

“Fudge is negotiating with Dumbledore now about removing the Dementors from the grounds and giving you a real trial,” Severus replies without taking his attention away from the bubbling flask of sludgy potion in his hand. Honestly, he thinks that the chances Black is getting are more than he deserves. Forgiven by the boy who he should have cared for, stopped before he could commit the stupid mistake of murdering Pettigrew, apologized to by Severus himself… But Severus will not say it, lest he look as if he thinks that Azkaban was not punishment enough. “He can’t act too soon. It would make him look weak.”

“He is.”

“But he can’t afford to look that way, especially since he’s going to declare you innocent and say Peter Pettigrew is a resurrected villain, not a dead hero.”

Black goes unexpectedly silent. Severus finishes the last swirl of the potion, and nods. He took the potion to recover from his short stint in Azkaban. Despite his confident words to Albus, he is not sure that it will work for Black, with his much longer one, to recover his mental health.

Then again, it’s not as if he cares that much if Black actually recovers. He’s doing this for Harry, not for Black to be with Harry.

He turns around with the potion and finds Black leaning forwards on his chair, studying Severus. His chair inside the cage. Severus carefully hides a smile at that. How interesting that Albus didn’t order Severus to put Black in more comfortable quarters, or come himself to see him.

“What you said almost made sense.” Black is tapping his fingers suspiciously against the chair arm.

“Imagine that,” Severus drawls back, and it’s honestly hard to prevent the urge to roll his eyes. “Someone who speaks truth and makes sense.”

“But you hate me.”

“What would lying to you gain me? If nothing else, Harry would visit you soon and simply tell you the truth. He would have yesterday, but you were asleep by the time he visited.” Black spent most of yesterday raging at Severus and stressing his pain-racked body and mind with the screaming. Honest sleep, not one of Severus’s Stunners, consumed him before Harry could make his way to detention.

“But you hate me.”

Severus shakes his head. He can’t pierce the veils that shroud Black’s mind, and honestly, he doesn’t have the will to try right now. He holds out the flask. “This is the Mind-Lifting Potion. It helped me when I was in Azkaban. It should lessen the paranoia that plagues you now.”

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

“Not really,” Severus says, honest as he can’t be when Harry is in the same room. “I would prefer it if you ceased to exist and left me alone. But we can’t have what we wish for.” He extends the flask again. “Drink this, Black. Harry wants you sane. He wants you to be his guardian. This is the fastest way to restore some of that sanity.”

Black only studies him for a few minutes. Then he nods and grasps the neck of the flask.

Only Severus’s own instinctive paranoia saves him. Black swings the flask and shatters it against the bars of the cage, then throws the broken pieces at Severus. Severus dodges smoothly to the side and lifts a shield to make sure that none of the flying shards hit him.

In the meantime, breaking the flask has left Black’s fingers lacerated. But he looks as satisfied as a happy, panting dog asleep in front of the fire can.

“What the hell, Black.” Severus keeps his voice flat. Honestly, showing any emotion other than shock is beyond him now, so profound is that shock.

“You were trying to poison me. I could tell when you said that you were trying to help me.” Black is tilting his head back and forth so his ratty dark hair tumbles around his shoulders, obviously proud of himself. “You can’t fool me, Snivellus. You can’t really want me to recover, and you want me gone. You said so yourself.”

Severus sneers and says nothing, because he can hear something other than the sound of his own self-congratulations. That sound is the noise of someone catching his breath and the rustle of the soft cloth that comprises an Invisibility Cloak.

Harry pulls it off his head and just stares at Black. “Why did you destroy the potion, Sirius?” he whispers. “It must have taken Professor Snape a long time to make that.”

Severus watches him. Honestly, at this moment the boy looks almost nothing like James Potter, even though pulling the Cloak off has made his hair even more flyaway than usual. His face is pale, his eyes wide, his voice respectful.

Black frowns a little. “I know he says all the right things, Harry, but he’s just a git and a bully. He says that he wants me to go away and then hands me a potion. Honestly, what am I supposed to think? I mean, you’ll understand when you’re a little older.”

Harry only shakes his head slowly. “I understand that you’re sick from Azkaban.”

“Sick of being there? Sure!” Black grips the cage bars and leans forwards with an idiot’s grin. “But you can help me get better, Harry. I know that I’ll be as right as rain when I have you to take care of!”

“Sick mentally,” Harry says, his voice and face both incredibly solemn. “I mean—how could anyone be normal after they’ve been around Dementors for ten years? But it’s only now that I really realized what that means.”

“I do want to take care of you, Harry.” Black gives the smile that so many found charming, even Lily in the end, as he presses against the cage bars. “It’s just going to take a little while. And I just don’t like Snivellus.”

“You’re still calling him that?”

It’s incredible how much the room can chill with one small boy’s disapproval, Severus thinks as he stands back. He’s glad he’s not on the receiving end of Harry’s interrogation.

It does remind him that he has an interrogation of his own to give. But no need to do it now, while Harry takes a step forwards and looks at Black as though he’s peering through a slimy mirror.

“I want you to stop talking to him that way. I don’t want to be friends with someone who talks that way.”

“But we wouldn’t just be friends, Harry! I would be taking care of you.”

“I had guardians who hated me for my magic. I don’t want a guardian who hates someone else for something they can’t help.”

“He could change his name from Severus if he wanted!”

Honestly, Black, Severus thinks, just barely resisting the urge to shake his head, as he watches the way the frown contorts Harry’s face. Severus knew Black was childish. He simply didn’t realize how much.

“I don’t want to discuss this with you,” Harry says. “I want to discuss you healing your mind. Would you drink that potion that Professor Snape was trying to offer you if Dumbledore brewed it?”

“Albus? Yes, of course.”

Severus opens his mouth to complain that Albus doesn’t even know what the potion’s ingredients are, much less how to brew it, but he gets a look that’s so unexpectedly fierce, he blinks and shuts his mouth.

“Then we’ll get him to brew the potion and give it to you, okay? In the meantime, I want you to concentrate on that meditation you told me you were doing. Remembering the happy times of the past and forgetting about Dementors.”

“Okay,” Black says, and there’s a soft yearning in his eyes that Severus supposes a child might find attractive. “I really do want to be your godfather and take care of you, Harry. It’s all I’ve ever wanted.”

Bollocks. He came here wanting revenge on Pettigrew.

Unlike Black, however, Severus has an idea of when speaking up would only imperil his position, so he keeps his mouth shut again, and Harry manages to smile at Black and say, “All right. I have a detention to serve with Professor Snape.”

“I can get you out of it!”

Harry turns and walks out of the room, his usual tactic whenever Black passes the limits of his tolerance. Severus lingers only long enough to watch Black slump back against the cage bars before he follows Harry into the outer room.

Making sure to raise the charms that will prevent Black from hearing anything they say, Severus begins, “If you want me to let Albus brew the potion—”

“What?” Harry lets his school tie dangle loosely around his throat and gives Severus a distracted glance. “Oh. No. Of course not.”

“But you told Black—”

“I told him that because he would only get upset if he knew you were brewing it. You’ll still brew it, sir. But we’ll just give it to him and tell him it came from Dumbledore.”

Severus closes his mouth slowly, and blinks himself. Then he says, “Risky, if Dumbledore speaks to Black.”

“He hasn’t so far. I think he’s too much of a coward to.”

Severus has to agree with that. As he has to agree that he would be a coward himself if he put this necessary work off any longer. He nods to Harry. “Sit down. We need to speak about some of the things you’ve been writing lines on. And what you said in Dumbledore’s office.”

*

Shit.

Harry sits down slowly in the chair that’s usually his, although there’s no desk in front of it for writing lines this time. He keeps a wary eye on Snape, who sits down opposite him. That’s new. Usually he stands.

I thought I was being a good enough Slytherin with the lies and all to keep him from asking about this. I reckon not.

“What your cousin did to you was torture.” Snape speaks slowly and evenly, as if he thinks Harry’s about to fly out of the chair. “You suffered from it. I want to know how you feel and think about it. You used it as a weapon against Dumbledore, but most of the time you keep the scar concealed. Are you ashamed of it?”

Harry stares at him. This doesn’t sound like the man he thought Snape was, so calm and assured and cool. And smart. “Of course I bloody am!”

Snape goes still, his eyes glittering and watchful. Then he says, “But it was done to you. You didn’t do it to yourself. You were too young to defend yourself—”

“No, I wasn’t,” Harry snaps, his head seething with memories of making the glass at the zoo vanish and Apparating onto the roof. “I could do accidental magic. I did it all the time. Half the time I didn’t even want anything to happen, it just did. And then I lay there and wished and wished and wished for something to happen while Dudley was cutting me, and nothing did! I could have done magic to protect myself, but I was too weak to call it!”

If Harry thought Snape was still before, it’s nothing compared to the way he looks now. He examines Harry with utter intensity, and Harry wants to turn away and curl up in a corner and not see anything for a while. But Snape’s demanding eyes keep him from doing that.

“Accidental magic does not work that way,” Snape finally says.

“But sometimes it does! Once I wanted to keep Aunt Petunia from cutting my hair in a stupid way, and I managed to grow it back! And once I escaped from Dudley’s gang—”

“It responds to fluctuations in emotions and desires and even atmosphere,” says Snape, flicking his fingers as if tossing a ruined potions ingredient away. “It is not something under conscious control, and very few wizards understand how it works at all. You are not weak for not being able to make your cousin go flying backwards. You are not.”

Harry bites his lip and flares his nostrils out, and says nothing. One thing he’s learned with Snape is that protesting usually makes it worse. He’ll just assign the detention to you harder once he understands how much you don’t want it. And, well, Harry won’t say anything now, and just let Snape think he agrees with him. That’s the best way to handle it.

Snape smiles a little, and shakes his head. “I want to hear your agreement.”

Harry glares. Snape watches him. When it’s gone long enough that Harry thinks he’ll get a scolding, Snape lifts his eyebrows and says in a very mild voice, “I want to hear you say ‘I am not responsible for defending myself from my abusive relatives.’”

Harry clenches his hands into fists. It’s not that he would hate saying something like this—he wouldn’t—but Snape is just going about it all wrong.

“Harry. I am waiting.”

“It’s not that way and you know it!” Harry snaps.

“I don’t know it at all, because I don’t know what you are talking about.” Snape’s voice is level. “Tell me.”

“I mean that it’s not as simple as you say it is!” Harry shoots up out of the chair that he was half-sitting in and paces around the room. He’s about two seconds away from waving his hands, but he can tell Snape doesn’t really care. “I have accidental magic, I should be able to do something! I just lay there and let Dudley do it—”

“You didn’t fight?”

“Of course I fought! But he had two friends holding me down, and—”

“Then it is not your fault.”

Harry spins around and snarls at Snape. “I should be able to do something! I should have fought when they locked me in the cupboard! I should have gone and told someone among the Muggles who could have stopped it! I should have done something!”

“You were a child.” Snape says it so calmly that Harry wouldn’t believe the voice was coming out of his mouth if he couldn’t watch Snape’s lips moving. “You were not responsible for anything. The people who should have loved you and comforted you—they didn’t. That is not your fault.”

Yes, it is!

“Harry. Listen to what you are saying.”

Harry catches himself back before he can say something else, and angrily closes his eyes. He’s trembling, on the verge of tears and hating it. He can feel Snape still watching him, and then Snape comes forwards a step and clasps Harry’s shoulder, gentle and strong and comforting.

How messed-up is that, that I find Snape comforting?

“You can admit that they tortured you,” Snape says, almost in a whisper now. “You can admit it was wrong. You had no trouble appreciating the fact that they were dead and you did not have to go back. What is so different about this? Is it simply speaking the words?” His hand shifts on Harry’s shoulder as if to hold him up, even though Harry isn’t about to collapse. He’s not that much of a weakling.

Harry shuts his eyes harder and controls his breathing. That’s one of the things he found in the books in Tarquinius’s library that has been pretty consistently useful. He can calm himself down if he counts his breaths.

“They make me weak just by existing,” he finally says, when he knows that he’s not going to get any calmer and Snape isn’t going to go away. “I want to forget about them. I don’t want people to know about them and laugh at me. What does it matter, what they did to me? They’re dead.”

“I would say that your words contain a contradiction,” Snape says, in that dispassionate tone that Harry hates most of all, because he can’t help but listen to it. “If they do not matter, then why do you wish to forget about them?”

Harry swallows and doesn’t reach down to rub the scar on his arm, but only because he knows Snape is going to be watching for that. He just says, “I don’t want to talk about it. They’re dead and gone.”

“We have to talk about it.”

“Why?”

“Because what they did to you still has consequences. In the way that you risk your life, because no one ever taught you it has value. In the way that you wanted to live with Black right away, because you are so used to parental figures who hurt you and shove you away that you are prone to cling to the tiniest spark of light in that direction.”

Harry jerks himself away from Snape. He meets the man’s eyes, and winces. Snape is looking at him with all this compassion, again, this sensation that Harry hates. He shakes his head. “That’s not why—”

“They influenced you,” Snape counters him, never raising his voice. “One of the things you can think of, Harry, is that that weakness will go on plaguing you until you deal with it.”

Harry winces with each blow that Snape gives him. It’s true that—that that makes him sound so weak, not being able to stop Dudley and his friends from beating him up sounds strong in comparison. But he doesn’t want to think about the Dursleys. Or talk about them. Maybe he can’t help thinking about them, but he sees no reason to let Snape into his thoughts.

But if he’s going to be stronger in the future, and Snape is right that this is a weakness plaguing him, and he’ll be a lot stronger once it’s gone?

Harry bites his lip and flops down into the chair that Snape pulled out for him and nods. “All right. Let’s talk.”

Chapter Text

“When was the first time you can remember the Dursleys abusing you?”

Harry flinches from the word, but although he keeps his head lowered and glares at Severus from under his fringe, at least he’s looking. “I can’t remember the start. My first memories of them are sleeping in the cupboard and them calling me a freak.”

Severus controls the surge of vicious response that wants to rise up in him. Now is not the right time for it. “And when did you first realize that what they did to you, what they called you, was wrong?”

“I suppose when I went to primary school?” Harry sounds a little more uncertain about this answer. Severus feels his chest clench, and the surge of viciousness nearly gets out of control at the thought that Harry might not think, on some level, that what the Dursleys did was wrong. “Then I realized that other kids talked about their bedrooms. And sometimes I heard other parents call their kids something like brat, but it was always—nice. Like they loved them and were just exasperated with them. That’s when I knew.”

His last words are firmer, and Severus gratefully lets go of his suspicion. “What did the Dursleys do when you tried to change their behavior?”

Change?” Harry stares at him. “There was nothing I could do to change it. I knew that. Sometimes I would be sitting in the middle of the cupboard doing nothing, and they would rip open the door and scream at me for being a freak. I didn’t know about magic then, but I knew they hated me just for existing. And Dudley and his gang hunted me, and no one ever stopped them. So I knew there was nothing I could do.”

“What did you do?”

“Lived through it.”

The way he did through the Killing Curse. Severus half-closes his eyes. He never realized how descriptive that title of Boy-Who-Lived would be for Harry, and how saddening.

“And now?”

“Now what? What can I do to change the way they felt about me? They’re dead. And I’m not going to live with Dudley no matter what Dumbledore says, so why should I worry about changing their hatred?”

Severus shakes his head. “No. I mean now, do you still feel that you can do nothing to change how someone treats you? Is that why you never complained to me about the Slytherins sabotaging your potions when you were in Gryffindor? Or about the Headmaster pushing you into danger?”

“He didn’t push me into danger. I went there myself. And—I didn’t complain to you because I was sure you wouldn’t do anything about it. You would just see the poor innocent Slytherins and the terrible Gryffindor.” Harry’s head ducks a little more, and he breaks eye contact with Severus for the first time since this part of the conversation started. “Now I know more about why you hated my father. So. Um. Sorry, sir.”

I think you have a reason to hate me, so I’m not going to do anything about it, Severus translates. He shakes his head and reaches out to grip Harry’s shoulder, ignoring his wince of surprise. “Listen, Harry. I want you to tell me if someone treats you unfairly or if people from your current House or your former one hurt you. The way I wanted to know right away when it turned out that someone put the Drake’s Breath potion in your food.” And he has to work out a way to punish those two idiots, as well.

“But only because I’m a Slytherin. You wouldn’t care if I was still in Gryffindor.”

Severus draws his hand back slowly. Harry doesn’t seem to want him to keep it there right now. “I do not have authority over Gryffindor students.”

Harry stares at him. Then he says, “But you’re a professor.”

Yes, perhaps it is hardly fair to disclaim my authority. Severus grimaces in acknowledgment of his own thoughts more than Harry’s wide-eyed gaze, and says, “Yes. I could have protected you better. I could have been—more just. I can do more now that you are in Slytherin, however.”

“And you can do other things, too. You can stop going after Neville. You can stop ignoring things that Slytherins do that are worth detentions when you give them to Gryffindors.”

Severus tenses. “There is a limit to what I can do.”

“Why?”

“Because if the Dark Lord returns, as Albus is convinced he will, and as I believe myself, I will be needed as a spy.”

Harry looks quickly at his left arm, then up at his face. “I don’t see why that changes the way you treat Gryffindors.”

“I must convince Slytherins with Death Eater parents that I have not changed. That I still despise Gryffindors and people like the Weasleys who have all their children in that House.” Severus shakes his head when Harry opens his mouth. “I can—moderate my behavior. I will do that, to please you. But I cannot change completely. That would be as suspicious as making no change at all.”

“You shouldn’t do it to please me.” Harry makes it sound as if that’s the worst possible motivation someone could ever have. “You should do it because it’s the right thing to do.”

Severus struggles with words for a moment. For one thing, he wants to direct the focus back to Harry, to remind him that they are supposed to be talking about Harry’s problems.

But in that respect, he will be no better than Black or Albus, refusing to respect the boy’s wishes. He finally manages to say, “Perhaps I can work on that. But for the moment, the motive is pleasing you. And if you insist on a universal standard of ethics rather than situational ones, there are other behaviors that you will want to encourage in this school.”

“Such as?”

“Encouraging other professors to be fairer to the Slytherin students. Making sure, in particular, that the Headmaster’s favoritism is curbed. I believe you saw one example of that at the end of your first year, when he snatched the Slytherin victory away from us at the last moment. He could have done that any time in the days between your confrontation with the Dark Lord and the Leaving Feast. But he waited until the end of the year. The last moment. When it would hurt the most.”

“I thought—I thought he was just being dramatic.”

“Perhaps he was. And perhaps causing pain was not his primary motivation. But that is what happened.” Severus knows that his first-years of that year, in particular, were affected, and it is one reason that Draco’s animosity against Gryffindor was so great last year.

“All right,” Harry says, and thinks about it before he nods. “Thank you, sir.”

“And in the meantime,” Severus says, in a soft tone that makes Harry snap back to alertness on his chair, “we can discuss why you struggled so hard to keep your abuse secret. Why you still do so. I know that you did not tell Albus many details until you showed him the scar.”

Harry twists his lip and looks off into the distance. “It’s disgusting.”

“If you mean that you think it makes you disgusting—”

“No, I don’t! Stop twisting my words. Sir.”

Severus relaxes with a small lift of his shoulders. While he isn’t entirely sure that he believes Harry’s words, at least the fact of the denial means that he isn’t as bad off, mentally, as he could be.

“Then what do you mean?”

“It’s disgusting to talk about. I don’t think most people want to hear about it. And I did try to talk about it to Muggles a few times, you know, when they saw something and I couldn’t just explain it away. The Dursleys always could, though. Their pity would turn to disgust, because they would think that I was always starting fights.”

Or playing pranks. The similarity of those Muggles’ thoughts to his own past ones about Harry enrages Severus, but it will do no good to burst out yelling now. He nods. “You are aware that not all adults are the same? And that some would have believed you?”

“I haven’t met one that would yet.”

“I do.”

“But that’s different. You already had some outside confirmation. It’s not like you saw a bruise and had the Dursleys explain to you what nice people they were and how they just couldn’t discipline a nephew who would scream and kick and howl like a three-year-old no matter what they told him to do.”

Severus breathes through his own sickness, which feels as though it’s welling up behind his nostrils, and says, “Let me understand this. They claimed that the bruises you had were from them defending themselves?”

Harry nods, still staring off into the distance. It’s probably just as well that he’s not looking at Severus right now, or he would see through the polite mask that Severus maintains when he’s teaching, to the Death Eater beneath. It’s only with extreme strength that Severus manages to wrestle the Death Eater back under control.

They’re already dead. And you’re not experienced enough in necromancy to bring their spirits back to punish them.

Severus does succeed in the battle for control, and tells Harry in a gentle voice, “We’ll work on meditation techniques together that will help you come to terms with the memories. In the meantime, I’d like you to tell me about a few of those times you just mentioned, in detail.”

*

Harry snaps his head around. He was in the middle of a memory where a tearful Petunia was telling one of his primary school teachers that they tried and tried and tried, but they just couldn’t keep Harry from beating up Dudley. To be awakened from it by Snape saying that to him…

“I already told you about them,” he says, his muscles coiling. He keeps telling Snape things that he’s never revealed to anyone else. Why does Snape always want more?

“Not in detail. I will not make you relive every one—although, in time, I hope that you will be comfortable telling me about those,” Snape says, his eyes tracking easily over Harry as if he’s memorizing details that will help him defeat Harry, or cook him. “I would like you to tell me about one of the times that you tried to request help and the Muggle disbelieved you.”

No.”

“Why not? You need not protect yourself from the Dursleys anymore by keeping the secret—”

“I hate that memory! I’ll feel poisoned for hours if I tell you about it! Why should I?”

Snape watches him with that intent look Harry never once thought to see on his face, and then shakes his head and says quietly, “I would have suggested that, rather, you would feel as if you were letting the poison out.”

Harry turns away. “That just shows how much you know,” he mutters, not really caring if Snape hears him and puts him in detention again. Because it does. He hates talking about things like this. Sometimes he did it with Snape over the summer, and that was horrible. And it was horrible every time it happened, or almost happened, in front of a Muggle. He won’t do it now.

“Harry.”

And the problem is, he could cope if Snape was going to put him in a detention, or yell at him for being disrespectful, or get distracted by telling him what a brat he is. But not when he sits here and stares at him with cool eyes, and waits.

“I hate talking about it.”

“I would like to hear one story. That is all. One time.”

Harry swallows. “Fine. I was seven and one of my teachers noticed that Dudley was yelling at me on the playground. She called Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon in to talk to them, and they told her that I always yelled at Dudley at home and I was a horrible little boy. After that, she never smiled at me again. She was nice, too.”

“That might be a reason for your distrust of teachers.”

And adults. Harry shakes his head, though. Because it’s not like he’s going to pour his heart out to Snape. Just some memories. “That’s one reason I’m glad they’re dead,” he finds himself saying, in an effort to distract himself that doesn’t work too well. “Because they can’t go around telling stories to people here and getting them to believe them.”

Snape straightens up as if Harry has insulted his potion-making abilities. “You think I would have believed them?”

“No offense, sir, but you decided based on nothing at all that I was exactly like my father and you hated me.”

Snape is still for long enough that Harry wonders if he’s crossed another one of those lines he shouldn’t cross and insulted him too much. But he tightens his muscles. He won’t let this lie. Snape is still only treating him better because he’s in Slytherin. Harry isn’t going to rest until he treats Gryffindors better, too.

“I would have been able to use Legilimency to sense the truth if Petunia had come spinning her tales to me,” Snape says, but his voice is soft. Then he sighs. “And that is what I should have done if I had doubts about your demeanor in class. I—apologize, Harry.”

Harry stares at him with his mouth falling open, despite the way Snape arches an eyebrow at him. He apologizes? Harry knows that he said something similar to Sirius, but that was only a ploy to be able to Stun him. Harry never once thought he would get an apology of his own.

“I cannot change the past,” Snape finally says, when he seems to realize that Harry isn’t going to say anything no matter what the provocation. “I should be glad to do so if I could, but—there is no way.” He tilts his head down so that his dark hair falls around his face, watching Harry covertly. “Please let me change the future.”

*

If anything, his using the word “please” shocks Harry even more than the apology. He simply gapes, and then shakes his head and sits up and says, “You can quit asking me questions, if you want to change the future and make me like you better.”

“I want to help you heal,” Severus says, and he keeps his eyes focused, because if he looks away right now he will lose—at least Harry’s respect, probably, and any attempt to press this issue in the future, for a certainty. “I want to avoid causing you pain the way I did in the past.”

“Then stop talking to me about this.

Harry’s accidental magic rattles jars on the shelves. Severus only regards him in silence. Harry calms down after a second and takes a deep breath.

“It’s done. It’s over with. I don’t have to worry about them anymore.”

“So you feel nothing about them?”

“Right.”

“Then what emotion was it you used to show the scar on your arm to Dumbledore?”

Harry bows his head and closes his eyes. His breathing comes soft and strained. Severus wants to go to him, but holds himself back. He watches, and finally Harry raises his head, his face set in a grimace. He nods to Severus and says, “Fine. But I only need to talk about them when I’m facing Dumbledore and trying to make him sorry for what he did.”

While Severus has to smile at this display of Slytherin tactics, he cannot let it go unquestioned. “No. What will happen when Dumbledore brings them up and brings up the idea of you living with your cousin?” Harry tenses, and his magic causes a low rumbling sound to travel through the floor. Severus points down at it and arches his eyebrows. “You see? It would cause…problems. You need to master your own anger and pain enough for Albus’s words to slide off you like water.”

“Why do you want to hear about it so badly?”

“I truly believe this is the path to healing.”

“Then you did it?”

“Not while the person I wanted to hear my confessions was alive,” Severus says softly, remembering those bitter, lonely nights over Lily’s grave, when he talked about all the things he should have told her while she still wanted to hear them. “But I believe I am better off for even confessions to the dead. So, Harry. Will you let me prevent you from making some of my mistakes, and speak to me now?”

Harry nibbles his lip. Then he says, “But not all at once. Just a little at a time. And I already told you the story about my primary school teacher. That counts for this evening.”

Ordinarily, Severus would balk at a child setting the terms of detention and punishments, but for one thing, he cannot treat these like punishments or he will lose Harry forever. And for another, Harry is not ordinary. Severus nods. “Very well. You will return for half an hour tomorrow evening, perhaps around seven. We will set a more regular time in the future.”

Harry nods and stands up. He hesitates, then says in a rush, “I know you think you’re helping me, sir. I don’t think you are yet, except with Dumbledore, but—thank you for trying, anyway.” And he slips out of the room.

Severus sighs, long and deep. He will see if he can actually atone for what he’s done. If it’s enough.

But in the meantime, he will accept, and be content with, what has already happened.

Even Lily’s eyes in his memory do not seem to blaze at him with such disappointment, tonight.

Chapter Text

The Dementors are finally gone from outside the school on the seventh of December.

Harry stands outside the castle, watching the breath foam up from his lips. For once, none of his friends are around. Ron has detention, Hermione is studying one of the shield spells she still has trouble with in the library, Theo is writing a letter to his father, Blaise is writing a Transfiguration essay that Harry actually finished yesterday, Draco is muttering to himself about something lately non-stop and has gone off to do whatever it is, and God knows where Greengrass is. Sirius is doing better now that he’s drinking that potion he thinks Dumbledore brewed, and he’s moved up to secure quarters on the second floor, along with Lupin. Snape is making more of the potion.

That means he can stand and stare at his reflection in the lake if he wants, or conjure snowballs and send them whizzing around his head. That’s one of the spells that he and his friends have been practicing. He’s doing it when he hears a muffled argument from behind him.

Harry turns around. There are two tall students he doesn’t recognize facing something in the snow with their backs to him. Harry can see they have Ravenclaw robes, and he thinks one of them looks a little familiar, but he doesn’t know them. Fourth-years, maybe?

Then the thing in the snow moves, and Harry realizes it’s not a fire, which is what he thought they were doing at first. It’s a person.

Harry narrows his eyes. The other Ravenclaws still have their backs to him. It’s not like he knows for sure. But he knows what this feels like to him.

The times when Dudley and his gang cornered Harry, and taunted him as he struggled to stand upright and find his glasses.

Harry stalks towards the Ravenclaws. They’re too busy laughing to notice him. Harry pauses about a meter from them and raises one of the skin-tight shields that he and Theo have just about perfected. They won’t notice anything under his robes.

“What are you doing?”

The Ravenclaw girls turn around in confusion. One of them he still doesn’t recognize, but the other one is Cho Chang, the Seeker for her House.

Harry remembers thinking she was pretty. Not now, though. In the snow in front of them is a small blonde girl with straggling hair who’s trying to get her shoes back on. Harry looks at her robes, which are soaked through with snow, and gives Chang and her companion a look that actually makes them take a step backwards.

“What were you doing?” he asks again, and his voice is harsher and colder than the snow that’s starting to whirl down around them.

“I—nothing!” says the girl next to Chang, flushing as though she’s stuck her face in boiling water.

“We were just playing,” Chang says soothingly, and smiles at him. Harry can remember a time when he had vague daydreams about that. Now just the thought makes him tired. “You don’t need to worry about it, Potter. Looney—I mean, Luna knows we were just playing, right, Luna?” She smiles at the blonde girl, who’s back on her feet by this time. Harry notices she’s wearing a necklace of what looks like wilted lettuce leaves around her neck.

“The Nargles like to play,” says Luna, and waves one hand. “Where did my Nargle-bane go?”

There’s another crushed necklace on the ground near Chang’s foot, or maybe Luna was wearing it in her hair. Harry doesn’t care what they say. He heard the contempt in Chang’s voice before she thought to change that insulting nickname.

“You were bullying her,” Harry says. He’s a little astonished at how cold his voice is, even knowing that he hates bullies. He draws his wand. Chang skips backwards and looks a minute away from drawing hers, but the girl next to her just cowers. “Get out of here. The next time I see you doing this—”

“What can you do? You’re a year younger than us!”

“Make sure that you get detention with Professor Snape.”

“You—you can’t do that. I mean, you may be a Slytherin now, but everyone knows that he hated you last year.”

“Really.” Harry stares at them, and is pleased to see the way that Chang’s hand flutters away from her wand. Maybe he shouldn’t be, but he is. He arranges himself protectively in front of Luna. “Get out of here.”

Chang and the other girl look for a second as if they’re going to argue, but then they turn and pelt towards the castle. Harry shakes his head in disgust and turns and holds out his hand to Luna. “They’re idiots,” he says. “Hi. I don’t think I really introduced myself properly. I’m Harry Potter. You’re Luna—what’s your last name?”

“Lovegood.” Luna is staring at him in interest, even as he takes her necklace and casts the charm that ought to straighten it out. It would work with ordinary jewelry, but here, Harry can only really manage to get some of the wilted leaves to look whole again. “You’re not with the Nargles.”

“Are most people?” Harry can already tell that Luna isn’t going to talk about this openly, which means he’ll have to ask questions in a kind of code to figure out who bullies her and how much. He turns and walks with her back to the school. Luna settles the restored cord in her hair with a simple nod.

“Most people like the Nargles. They spend all their time around them and laugh at their jokes. But what they don’t know—” Luna looks up at him with silver eyes that really do shine like the moon “—is that Nargles don’t know secrets. They don’t keep secrets. They’ll tell everything you trust them to keep precious to someone else.”

Ah. Harry doesn’t smile, because he thinks it would be a mean smile and might frighten Luna, but he nods. “Thanks for telling me, Luna. That’s good to know.”

“Is it? Why?”

Harry snorts a little, but it’s easy to avoid laughing at her, remembering what she looked like in the snow when Chang and the other girl were bullying her. He turns around in front of the Great Hall and clasps her hand. “Because maybe I can do something about Nargles if I don’t have them around me on a regular basis,” he says.

“I don’t think so. The Nargles don’t ever really go away, you know. The most you can do is make them leave someone alone for a little while.”

“Then that’s what I’ll do.”

“It’s nice to meet someone who understands the Nargle problem,” Luna says, and shakes his hand firmly. “Another thing they do is cloud people’s brains, you know. People think that they’re thinking all their own thoughts when that’s really not true.”

“A good thing to keep in mind.” Harry smiles at her. “Do you want to come join our study group in the library? We meet this evening at eight. We study ways to protect ourselves. We might be able to come up with something that works against Nargles.”

“It might be a good idea, if only to learn how to defend against Blibbering Humdingers.”

“They’re around a lot, too?”

“All the time.”

“Just tell me when they are, and I’ll help protect you.”

For a second, Luna’s eyes sear him as if she’s judging his actual intent instead of his words. Then she smiles and nods and looks vague again. “I’ll see you at eight, Harry.” She slips away to the Ravenclaw table. Harry watches. A few people glance at her and turn away in disdain. Luna doesn’t appear to notice. She solemnly builds a wall of breadcrumbs around the edge of her plate instead, before she starts eating.

“Harry.”

That’s Draco, beside him with an intent expression in his eyes. Harry blinks and follows him back to the Slytherin table. It’s unusual to see Draco at dinner as the first Slytherin there. Besides, Harry had the impression that whatever he was doing would take a long time. “What is it?”

Draco sits down across from him. His face is almost blank, but his hands are clasped in front of him. “My father would be honored if you accepted an invitation to Malfoy Manor for the holidays.”

No, Harry almost says. Then he swallows. He doesn’t actually want to, and more than that, he doesn’t think Snape would let him go. On the other hand, Snape isn’t his legal guardian, and there has to be some important reason that Draco is asking this. “Why?” he asks.

Draco understands the question behind the question. He nods, eyes fastened on Harry’s face. “Because I’m on the verge of convincing my father that my loyalty is to him and him alone, and that he can use you,” he whispers.

Harry hesitates. Then he says, “Is it going to be unsafe for you if I don’t go?”

“I—don’t know. It might.” Draco clenches his hands for a second, then seems to think that’s too revealing and slips them down into his lap. “At the very least, he’s decided that we’re not friends and he can do whatever he wants.”

“Let me discuss it with Professor Snape, then.”

“Why? He’s not your legal guardian. He can’t make you stay at Hogwarts if you don’t want to.”

“But he’s the one who would make my life the most miserable if I didn’t consult with him and he found out,” Harry says dryly. “Which he would if I agreed and didn’t tell him.”

Draco shudders. “Good point.” Then he eyes Harry curiously. “You’re actually considering this?”

“Do you want me to or do you not want me to, Malfoy?”

Harry didn’t mean to sound so dark, to make Draco flinch and bite his lip the way he does, but he honestly isn’t sure what to do, and he doesn’t want Draco dancing around from one side to the other and apparently changing his mind. Draco finally jerks his head down and says, “Yes. I want you to come.”

“Then I’ll talk with Professor Snape and get back to you as soon as I can.”

Harry eats most of his dinner in peace, then, but Ron suddenly yells out at him from the Gryffindor table near the end of it, “Mate! You’re coming to the Burrow this year for the hols, right?”

Draco tenses and practically hisses next to him. Harry hides a groan. It’s not like Ron could know. And if Draco thinks of this as some competition to see who gets the most of Harry’s attention, he’s going to have to think again.

Harry manages a smile and a shrug. “We’ll have to see.”

“Rubbish! What’s stopping you?”

Harry rolls his eyes and stands, aware that far more people than he wants are watching his every movement. God, he wishes he was ordinary, that no one really noticed or cared about him—just a few friends. Like what the Dursleys wished for, after all.

“I think I should talk to a few people before I do,” he says, and slips out of the Great Hall before Ron can say anything else.

Draco follows him. Harry keeps his eyes focused ahead, because he will look annoyed if he turns to Draco now; it’s just the way things are.

“I need an answer.”

“So do I. But you can’t give me the one I need most, so we’ll both have to wait.”

“What do you mean?”

“I want to know if your father is going to kill or torture me or put me under the Imperius Curse if I do go to your Manor for the holidays. And you can’t tell me that. I doubt he would tell the truth even if he did decide to say something to you about his intentions.”

Draco pauses, then catches up with him as Harry continues marching towards the dungeons. “Probably not the killing or the torture. He has to suspect that people would know what happened to you, and think he has some motive to murder you.”

Harry laughs in despair, then stops himself because he can already tell from the unhealthy sound of the cackle that no one else would be able to. He stops in front of Professor Snape’s door and knocks three times. He was supposed to be here this evening anyway for detention, but now he has to spend this time handling this new problem.

The despair wants to well up, thick and black, but he forces it down. If he can do this to help Draco, he will. It’s just that—

Sometimes it would be nice if someone was doing something for him for a change, or saving him.

Snape opens the door and studies them for a moment. Then he nods and says, “In.”

Harry slips inside and stands against the wall as he watches Draco nod to Professor Snape. Snape questions him first, and Draco says, “I don’t know, sir,” more often than he says anything else. But he does tell Snape what Harry thinks are probably true details about how he’s been working to get free of his father and convince him that Draco is on his side at the same time, and that it would help if Harry accepted Lucius’s invitation for the holidays.

Snape turns to Harry then. Harry shrugs at him. “I can’t tell how safe it is. That’s the only reason I haven’t said yes.”

Snape’s eyes narrow further. “The only reason?”

“Well, yes,” Harry says slowly. He doesn’t understand. Does Snape think that he’s being stupid to even think about going? Or that he’s selfish enough to put Draco at risk even when Draco has told him that him being safe depends on Harry going to the Manor? “I knew you would get upset if I put myself in danger.”

*

He’s perfectly willing to risk it, on the tiny chance that—

But Severus stops himself. He cannot expect Harry to understand all the politics of the older Slytherins when he is still working on mastering the politics of the younger generation. He steps back, looks Harry in the eye, and says, “Draco’s father is not going to harm him.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Yes, of course I know that.” Severus turns to Draco. “Tell me now, Mr. Malfoy. Do you really think that your father would hurt you if you are unable to persuade Mr. Potter to accompany you?”

Draco shuffles in place and lowers his eyes. Severus watches him, and sees the moment when the tremor of uncertainty passes through him. He snorts. He must know Lucius better than the boy does at the moment, which is strange to think about.

“You are his only child. And he would have to contend with your mother if he hurt you. Of course he is not going to do that.”

Draco looks him in the eye. “He might not. But he might.”

Harry is already tensing with resolve. Of course he’ll fling himself into the breach and offer to go. Severus shakes his head at him. “The situation is not impossible to handle, but it will require you to think, Mr. Potter, instead of volunteering yourself for martyrdom.”

“I do not volunteer myself for martyrdom!”

“You are preparing to visit the house of a Death Eater who has given no sign that he wants to use you and thus protect you for a while in the way that Tarquinius Nott did. What about that is not desperation for pain?”

“I have to protect Draco.”

Severus notes Draco’s dropped jaw, although he doesn’t intend to call attention to it. Yes, you are among his friends now. See that you do not mess up the chance. “There are other ways to proceed, I said. Will you calm down and listen to me, or will you blindly charge ahead and inflict pain on yourself and others?”

Harry closes his eyes and breathes deep. Then he says, “I’m listening.”

The tone he uses makes Draco’s jaw drop further, but as Severus intends to swear the boy to secrecy about several things, he sees no need to call attention to that, either. “You will stay here for the holidays,” he says. “You will say that it is at the command of your Head of House. And on one of the selected days when Hogwarts is not in session, then I will accompany you to Malfoy Manor.”

Harry blinks his eyes open. Then he says, “That could work. As long as Draco’s father isn’t going to hurt him because I’m not there all the time.”

Severus turns on Draco. He has the sense to snap his jaw shut and shake his head fervently. “No, that would be great! That would be wonderful! I don’t think my father thought I would manage to persuade you at all, honestly.”

“Fine,” Harry says. “But—isn’t Ron going to be upset that I can’t spend the holidays with him?”

Severus cannot help the roll of his eyes this time, and does not try. “You may cast all the blame on the evil Professor Snape when Weasley talks to you,” he says. “And in the meantime, you will go and tell your friends the good news while I speak with Draco.”

Harry gives him the most suspicious glance possible, but is wise enough to leave without lingering. Severus faces Draco and draws his wand. Draco winces and sucks in a breath.

“I will swear you to secrecy about several things you saw and heard here today,” Severus says smoothly. “And you will do what I say, Draco. You will not endanger him based on what you now know about him. Do you understand?”

“Why would I want to endanger the first person who acts like he wants to protect me just for being his friend?”

Well. That is unexpected. But Severus picks it up and weaves it into his plan. If he can gain another protector for Harry, that is all to the good. “Then repeat after me. I, Draco Malfoy, swear on my magic…”

Chapter Text

"Harry? Can I talk to you?"

Luckily Harry is by himself in the library, looking up spell techniques and wand movements he hopes will help him in Charms, when Cho shows up. He doesn't want Luna exposed to her right now. He cautiously sets down his Charms book. "Yes?"

Cho stands in front of him, biting her lip and flipping her hair back and forth. Harry waits. Honestly, he almost forgot about the way she bullied Luna. Luna hasn't seemed to have problems like that since she started studying with them, other than one reference to her shoes being gone. Harry Summoned them back and put a charm on them that meant they won't go with anyone except her again. So it's been quiet.

"I wanted to explain what happened--that day."

Cho has her head down, and her voice is so soft Harry can barely hear her. He nods and leans back, kicking a chair out so she can sit. "Okay."

"My best friend in Ravenclaw is Marietta Edgecombe." Cho sits down and keeps her head tilted so Harry can't see her face at all. "A lot of people don't like her. She's sarcastic and has a dark sense of humor, and she's a half-blood. Ravenclaw isn't like Slytherin, we don't think about pure blood all the time, but there are some people who count that against her because they're already counting things against her."

"Not all Slytherins think about pure blood all the time, either."

Cho finally looks up, startled. Her eyes dart to his green-and-silver tie, and she swallows. "Of course not."

"So it was Edgecombe's idea to bully Luna?" Harry just wants to move it on.

"Yes. And Loon--Luna's strange, other people did it, too, so we thought there was no harm in it." Cho plays with one of her sleeves.

"There was."

Cho winces. "I see that now. I'm sorry, Harry."

Harry shakes his head a little. "If it was just me, I'd accept that apology, but you have to apologize to Luna, too." He thinks for a minute, but it's not like Edgecombe approached him. "And if Edgecombe cares, then she does, too. If you ever bully her again, then I'll consider the apology a trick and act accordingly." It's the kind of thing Blaise or Theo would say, but Harry sees no reason not to copy them, right now.

"Um--accordingly?"

"You'll hurt. A lot."

Cho turns absolutely pale. "All right. I don't think Marietta wants to apologize, but I'll--say sorry to Luna the next time I see her."

Harry considers her carefully, but he can't see any reason, in the end, for Cho to apologize in front of everyone in their study group. She can do it and then Luna will confirm she did it. It's not like Luna would lie. Harry just has to figure out the code she might say it in. "Okay. Thanks, Cho."

Cho nods, stands up, hesitates, and then turns around to face him instead of leaving. "Do you think I can come join your study group?"

Harry blinks, and blinks again. This is the first time anyone older than him has asked about it. Now and then older Slytherins give him and Blaise and Theo and Draco and Greengrass weird looks when they talk about it or head to the library, but all of them seem happy to work on their own. "After you've apologized to Luna. And only if she wants you there."

Cho gives him a relieved smile and hurries off. Harry shakes his head and goes back to reading about the Switching Charm. It sounds like the wand movement is a lot like the Summoning Charm, which he's perfected by now, but he still can't get it right.

*

Theo leans against the shelf that concealed him while Harry was speaking to Chang with a small smile. He supposes that he should mourn Harry threatening someone, but all he can think is, It's about time.

Sometimes you have to threaten people. Theo has seen that with his father. Of course, the subtle threat went over Father's head, and Theo took his vengeance in another way. And Blaise can raise an eyebrow and drop a hint of his mother without saying anything. Draco isn't subtle enough to be good at it yet, though.

But Harry...

Now he's not ignoring the threats Theo can sense in the "idle" joking of older Slytherins. Now he can be the threat.

It's what he needs to survive. Theo hopes that Harry will never be as jaded and cynical as Theo himself, as Draco, as those older Slytherins. But he'll take jaded and cynical over dead.

He steps out into the open and goes to help Harry with the Switching Charm.

*

"I can't believe that you have to stay at Hogwarts instead of coming with us, mate."

Harry sighs and pounds Ron on the shoulder for a second, something he only does when it looks as though Ron is going to frown himself to death. "It's all right, Ron. This way, I can be closer to Sirius and see what the Mind-Healer actually says and does with him. They're coming from St. Mungo's tomorrow. And I'm going to visit you on Christmas Day. Professor Snape has to come with me, but at least we'll get to be together."

Hermione examines them thoughtfully. Ron is completely transparent, she thinks. He's been upset about Harry having to stay at Hogwarts instead of the Burrow since Harry told him. He's no longer pouting or whinging as much, but his feelings are there.

Harry's more reserved, though. Hermione realizes now that he's always been, but she couldn't see it that way when they were all in Gryffindor. Slytherin's only enhanced what was already there.

Harry does feel glad about staying here. It might be Sirius. It might be other reasons. Hermione hopes he'll share them soon.

"I hope you have a happy Christmas too, Hermione."

Hermione gives in to her impulses and hauls Harry into a hug. He goes with her, but he does it wide-eyed, and she judges it best to back off and smile at him instead of explaining why she did that. "I will. My parents are going to take us to Switzerland again this year. I like skiing so much. And the snow seems so much more crystalline than the snowfalls we get around here! I wonder if it actually is or that's my perception..."

Hermione talks happily the rest of the way to the carriages, and watches Harry relax more and more. He does want to stay here, she realizes. And she doesn't think it has to do with just wanting to be with Sirius. It also doesn't have to do with wanting to avoid the Burrow in any way, or he couldn't look Ron in the eye. Harry is a terrible liar when he has to tell them.

But he's very good at lying by omission.

It's not until Zabini comes up next to Harry as they're waiting for a carriage and leans casually on a wall, insulting Ron with ease, that Hermione thinks she sees part of it. Harry is keeping a subtle watch on all of them, her and Ron and Zabini and then Nott when he joins them, and Neville, who gives them all a timid smile before accepting Hermione's invitation to share their carriage. As if he has to balance them, watch who's getting too upset. He cuts off Zabini and Ron's conversation before it can turn into shouting or hexes.

Harry doesn't want to choose a friend's house to go to for the holidays and insult the others by doing so. Of course he doesn't. It's blindingly obvious once Hermione sees it that way. Harry can't just perceive the friends he has now as a bigger group. He worries about insulting them, or worrying them, or making someone feel less special than someone else. He even seems to divide his smile exactly between Neville and Luna, when she drifts up behind him and says something about radishes and teeth.

Hermione leans back in the carriage with a little sigh and makes murmured reassurances to Ron when he complains about Harry not being able to come to the Burrow, but only shakes her head when he plans to get Harry out of "that git Malfoy's house."

"He's not staying at Malfoy Manor, Ron. He's staying at Hogwarts."

"But Malfoy wanted him to stay! And he's going there!"

"Only for one day, and not alone. Do you really think Malfoy can intimidate Professor Snape into making him leave Harry there?"

"Well, maybe not the git we know, but Lucius Malfoy is a horrible person," Ron says resolutely, leaning back and folding his arms. "Besides, I don't know why Snape's protecting Harry anyway. Maybe it's just until You-Know-Who returns, and then he'll give Harry up to him and taunt us all that we were fools for trusting him."

Neville coughs nervously. Hermione starts. She honestly forgot Neville was there sharing a carriage with them, he's so quiet. "Professor Snape wouldn't do that, Ron."

"Oh, come on, Nev! You hate the greasy git!"

"I mean--I think he might harm Harry." As always happens when people are looking at him, Neville's blushes and stutters are worse. "But he wouldn't announce it like that. And n-no one thinks You-Know-Who is coming back right now, r-right? So it's best for everyone to go along with this and pretend to believe Snape and g-get Harry back when the time is right. If Prof-Professor Snape wants to hurt him."

Ron sighs and nods. "Yeah, all right."

Hermione smiles her thanks at Neville, and he blushes and stutters some more. At least he and Ron start playing Exploding Snap on the train, leaving Hermione to read a book and get her thoughts in order.

Yes, she's right. Harry wants to balance all his friends and wants them to be comfortable, or at least as comfortable as they can be when some of them still dislike each other. Hermione wishes she'd known that before. She would have got him a different Christmas present if she knew.

She's still sure Harry will like what she got him. It's just less useful than she prefers to be.

*

Harry sighs and leans back in his chair, eyes closing. Theo's gone home for the holidays, and Draco, and Greengrass with her skeptical, watching eyes. And Ron and Hermione and Neville and Luna.

The only ones left are Sirius--who Harry doesn't have to work as hard to fool--and Blaise. Harry does open one eye curiously when Blaise drops into a seat beside him in the common room.

"How did your mother take it when you said you were staying here?"

Blaise's face is blank, with something that might or might not be bitterness. It's still hard for Harry to tell even if all of them praise him at the strides he's made in learning Slytherin politics. "She doesn't mind. It turned out her plans for the holidays didn't include me."

Harry sits up and gapes at him. Then he says, "I'm so bloody sorry. Your mum treats you worse than the Dursleys treated me."

"Would you like to compare stories?"

And just like that, Blaise can make the hair stand up on the back of his neck. Harry swallows and glances away. "No. But you can tell me your stories if you want."

"Maybe later."

Harry lapses into silence, looking up at the ceiling of the common room and all the snakes that twine around it. He's thinking about the gifts that he sent people by owl order. Well, Theo and Greengrass and Luna, anyway. He's going to take Ron and Hermione's with him when he goes to the Burrow on Christmas Day, and give Blaise's to him here, and bring Draco's with him to Malfoy Manor. It's a little insane, to think he has that many people to buy presents for.

He hopes they like them.

He goes on looking up at the ceiling, at least until he feels Blaise staring at him again. Harry twitches his eye sideways. Blaise seems to get the silent message and shrugs with a faint smile and shake of his head.

"If you want to talk to the snakes, I won't mind. There's only three other Slytherins here and they're all up in their bedrooms right now."

Harry nods slowly. Then he asks in Parseltongue, "Do you want to come down and join me?"

The snakes slide immediately down the sides of the wall, running like flowing water. There are two big stone ones that come and coil around Harry's feet, and a small one that perches on his shoulder, shifts about as if looking for a comfortable spot, and then winds around his neck. They're all grey when you first look at them, but Harry finds green and blue sparks as he peers closer. He can't keep himself from smiling as he pets them. The basilisk doesn't actually trouble his memory. These snakes are as different from that one as it's possible to be.

“Why don’t you use your Parseltongue more often?”

Harry jerks. He almost forgot Blaise was there, which is careless of him. He watches Blaise from the corner of his eye, but he only sits there as if he’s curious. And maybe he is. Harry doesn’t imagine that a lot of people know a lot about Parselmouths, if only because there was only one book on them in Tarquinius’s library, and Harry can’t imagine a lot of Dark wizards have libraries more complete than his.

“It frightens people.”

“Slytherins it would frighten don’t deserve to be called Slytherins.”

“Well, remember that it frightened Flint.” Harry looks away and shrugs. It’s harder than it usually is, what with the glittering snake draped around his neck. “I don’t like all the things that make me different from other people.”

“But you’re not consistent about that. You stand up to other people even when that gets you more attention.” Blaise stretches out and closes his eyes. “You played Quidditch even though it’s practically the thing that gets you the most attention in this school. You dash into danger to fight trolls and battle basilisks and help your friends. I think it’s only some things that you don’t want attention for.”

“What an interesting theory, Mr. Zabini.” Harry tries to do his best imitation of Professor Snape. “What do you think makes the difference between things I don’t want attention for and things I do?”

“If it makes people praise you, you want attention for it. Anything negative, you shun.”

“Because that’s so unusual.”

“But there are some things that are an exception to my theory, which is why it isn’t true all the time.” Blaise turns his head towards Harry and opens his eyes. “Because I don’t think you think beforehand whether saving someone will get you positive attention. You just see them in danger and you jump.”

“If they’re my friends or someone innocent in danger. I don’t get involved in every argument everyone has!”

“And there are things other people would value. Like being a Parselmouth. Why don’t you value it? The real answer, this time.”

“Excuse me for not wanting to share this ‘gift’ with the man who killed my parents!”

Blaise stays relaxed, although his eyebrows creep up. “And that’s the truth,” he finally says, when Harry would have stormed off, except the stone snakes are still heavy on him. “Even though it’s a stupid reason, it’s the truth. I believe you.”

“It’s not a stupid reason!”

Blaise just shakes his head. “You’re a wizard, too. Is magic dirty because you share it with—” He takes a huge breath and then says, “Voldemort. Is it dirty because you’re both wizards? Would you want to be a Squib?”

“No, of course not.” Harry clenches his fists in his lap, frustrated. Blaise is twisting all his words around somehow, and Harry doesn’t know how he’s doing it. “I just—I want to think of it like this, okay? Parseltongue isn’t something I have to use. I don’t have to call snakes to me.”

“But you like doing it.”

“I wouldn’t have done it now if you hadn’t told me to do it.”

“No, wait, don’t put them back.” Blaise waits until Harry has settled back, reluctantly. “I’m sorry if I upset you,” Blaise says, in that sort of cool, controlled voice that means it’s not really an apology. Harry heard Aunt Petunia use it more than once. “But Parseltongue connects to all sorts of other magic. You’re neglecting your ability to develop other gifts if you don’t use it.”

“What if those are kinds of magic I don’t want either?”

All of them? Do you know all of them you might not want?”

Harry scowls at his lap. He doesn’t, of course. It’s one of those things that he keeps meaning to look up, especially since Tarquinius told him about them in front of the Silver Hourglass, but it’s hard to find the time. And since he apparently needs specialized training for them, the library might not have any books on them anyway.

“You’re going to fight in a war,” Blaise says finally, when silence has pressed down on them heavier than the snake on Harry’s shoulder. “Think about it that way, if you don’t want to think of it as developing new gifts or making yourself a better wizard. Do you really want to lose the war because you’re stubborn? What if Parseltongue could help you win?”

Harry fights with himself for a few seconds before he nods, choppily. “Thanks, Blaise. I’ll think about it.”

“You’re welcome.”

“But you’re still wrong about one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“I don’t like the attention,” Harry says fiercely. “I didn’t play Quidditch for the attention. I did it because McGonagall and Oliver wanted me to be the new Seeker, and flying is fun. And my broom was one of the first gifts I ever got, okay?” He blinks, and stands up to coax the snakes off his legs. “And I save people because I should, and I stand up to people so they won’t bully me, and I used Parseltongue to get down to the Chamber of Secrets because there wasn’t any other way. But I hate attention. I wish I was just a normal wizard.”

He leaves, and leaves Blaise staring after him.

*

Blaise blinks. That was…informative.

And it seems Harry is telling the truth, unusual as such a perspective is to Blaise.

I’ll have to see if there’s a way I can help him cope with it if he does become a leader, Blaise decides, and goes to the library to think.

Chapter Text

“HARRY! Happy Christmas, pup!”

Harry smiles up at Black and extends the gift he picked out and wrapped himself. Severus doesn’t know what it is. The boy insisted on visiting Hogsmeade alone and then smuggling his purchase back into the castle. Severus only cast enough spells to determine that it wasn’t dangerous or breakable.

He watches with mixed feelings now as Black shakes the gift, holds it to his ear, jokes about what it might be with Lupin and Harry, and then tears off the gleaming paper covered with moving Quaffles and Snitches.

“Books?”

Black sounds more than a little disappointed. Harry flushes and immediately hurries to explain, while Severus averts his eyes to the disgusting red-and-gold coloration of the room and carefully adds another tick to his personal tally against Sirius Black.

“They’re a series about a pureblood who rebels against his family and joins the Muggles. They came out while you were in Azkaban. So I know you haven’t had a chance to read them. But the main character reminds me a lot of you. I—I thought you might like them.”

Black handles the books reverently, then, putting them down a little dark wood table next to his overstuffed golden chair before he scoops up Harry in a hug that makes Severus’s wand hand twitch. Lupin appears to notice, and hovers anxiously over the pair. At least he seems to have gone a good job of keeping Black in line and making sure that he doesn’t escape these rooms.

Those threats to withhold Harry from contact with him have worked well.

“That’s wonderful, Harry,” Black says, dropping Harry back on the floor. “Thanks for thinking of me. And this is for you.” He reaches casually behind his chair and takes out a huge package that no one needs to shake. The shape of it is too obvious for that.

Severus stiffens. Harry accepts the package with hands that tremble slightly. “A broom?” he whispers. “This is great. But Sirius, you didn’t have to.”

“Yes, I did,” Black says, and his eyes are dim suddenly. “It’s not like I got to spoil you enough when you were a kid. And you haven’t had enough spoiling since then, either. So take your Firebolt and like it.”

Severus controls many impulses while he watches Harry unwrap the broom. Yes, this is ridiculous. Yes, Harry hardly needs a more dangerous broom than the Nimbus he has. Yes, Black is an idiot for not being able to resist his own impulses, and using money from the Black vaults, which could attract Ministry attention if someone is monitoring them closely enough. Most goblins wouldn’t give information like that to the Ministry, but since gold is the only thing that matters to them, a large enough bribe would convince them.

And yes, Severus can admit that he is jealous of Black for making Harry’s eyes shine like that. He probably isn’t going to get the same reaction for the gift he got Harry.

“Happy Christmas to you, too, Harry,” Lupin says then, all prim as if he has a right to act like that, and holds out a gift. Severus casts a detection spell at it before Harry can touch it. Lupin shoots him an exasperated glance.

Harry doesn’t, but neither does he look at Severus. “Thank you, sir,” he says, and opens the package to reveal a Defense book that Severus reluctantly supposes is a good one. Harry’s eyes promptly blaze, and he flips it open and looks through it for spells he doesn’t know. “Thank you!”

“You’re welcome.”

“And here. Here’s your gift.”

Severus agreed to make the Wolfsbane that Harry wanted as a gift for Lupin mainly because it was Harry asking, but also so he could see the man’s face. And the expression is everything he wants as Lupin opens the velvet-lined box with the vials in it. “Harry…”

“It’s only enough for two months, but I thought it would help.”

“It does. Thank you.” Lupin bends down to hug Harry, giving Severus a suspicious look that is almost as entertaining as the last. Honestly, the man appears to think that only Gryffindors can change over the years.

“I want to watch you fly it, Harry!”

“Not right now, Black,” Severus says with a slight drawl. “Or we are going to be late for the Weasleys’ party.” Molly ended up demanding that they come Christmas Eve and stay overnight. Nothing could make Severus do so, but he gave Harry permission. He knows that Harry’s little friends will make a bigger fuss than usual if they’re late. They seem to think that Severus is only waiting for the right moment to cut Harry up into Potions ingredients.

(Severus is insulted that they think he would be that obvious with a body).

“You timed this, Snape? Didn’t you? You made sure that I wouldn’t have time to watch Harry fly just to torment me!”

“No, he didn’t, Sirius. It’s just that we have to leave, and I wanted to give you your gifts on Christmas Eve. As close to Christmas Day as possible. I know you missed a lot of Christmases when you were in Azkaban. That’s all I was thinking of.”

Severus feels his chest ache as if someone has broken one of his ribs. Harry should not need to reassure adults this way. Severus can think of few thirteen-year-olds for whom it would ever be necessary. The ones he can think of all have Death Eaters for parents, and have years of caution instilled in them. They reassure and placate those who are dangerous, those who could hurt them.

Never, as Harry is doing right now, in an attempt to make sure that an adult is not hurt.

“Well, all right, then.” Black leans back with a sigh and a dramatic fold of his arms. Severus finds his pout equally dramatic, or perhaps melodramatic. “As long as you’re going to be back soon and I can watch you fly it.”

“Of course I will, Sirius.” Harry flings his arms around Black and holds on tight for so long that Severus feels compelled to clear his throat. Harry starts a little as he lets go of Black and gazes wistfully at both him and Lupin. “We’ll get to fly and read and do everything else that we want to.”

And that sounds as if he is reassuring a child, Severus thinks, barely managing to keep from shaking his head. He ushers Harry out the door of Black’s rooms, although he stops several times so Harry can look back over his shoulder and wave.

“Thanks for taking me to see them. And brewing the Wolfsbane. You didn’t have to do either of those things.”

I wish to make you happy.”

Harry looks up at him suspiciously, which he should, since Severus put the emphasis on that particular word on purpose. “Okay,” Harry says slowly. “Do you think we have all the presents that we need to take to the Weasleys’?”

You should. I am not indulging in this ridiculousness.”

“But you’re going to help me gather them up and float them around, right, sir? And get them through the Floo?”

Severus chooses to nod and then not look back at Harry as they return to his quarters, where the gifts for the Weasleys are piled. He is afraid that he may say something out of pity, and that will cause Harry to retreat in indignation. It is hard enough making sure that he keeps his temper and his composure when they talk about Harry’s past. He is the only one Harry speaks to about things like this. Severus doesn’t dare alienate him. That would be an enormous step backwards for Harry.

Perhaps it is its own piece of ridiculousness that he is the one taking care of James Potter and Lily Evans’s son. But it is not a piece that he is prepared to give up.

*

“Oh, Harry.”

Mrs. Weasley is hugging him so hard that Harry feels a little suffocated. He wriggles and manages to escape, and she lets him go, but she’s still pushing tears and hair out of her eyes with one hand and sniffling as she smiles down at him.

“Come and see the tree,” she says, and then Ron and Hermione pop up and hug him, and Professor Snape is floating the gifts they brought past them so that they can settle under the glittering tree. Ginny’s there, too, although she doesn’t say anything, just smiles at him. Harry smiles back. He’s glad that she outgrew sending him singing Valentines.

The tree is enormous and looks as if it might make the Burrow’s ceiling collapse in on itself. Most of the garlands seem to be red and gold. Harry can tell without even looking that Professor Snape is curling his lip. But there’s a strand of green-and-silver garland strung around the bottom of the tree.

Mrs. Weasley beams at Harry when he thanks her. “Well, you’re always welcome here, Harry. It doesn’t matter which House you’re in.”

The evening becomes one long, warm blur after that. Harry eats potatoes and ham and buttered bread and biscuits and hot chocolate until he thinks he might burst. Even Professor Snape unbends enough to have a conversation with Mr. Weasley about something in the Ministry. Ron sits next to him and complains happily about how many games the Cannons have lost. Hermione talks about homework until the twins pelt her with strings of garlands that wrap around her hair. Percy makes a pompous speech about the Ministry and the celebrations they did there that no one pays attention to. Bill and Charlie, Ron’s older brothers that Harry’s barely met, are there and tell all sorts of fascinating stories about Egypt, goblins, dragons, fire, and Dark curses that make Harry think he might like to be a curse-breaker someday.

And the gifts seem like there’s no end to them. Harry gets the usual Weasley jumper and an enormous tray of chocolate biscuits from Mrs. Weasley. Hermione’s got him a book on the history of Slytherin and Gryffindor and the beginnings of the House rivalry. Harry shoots her a questioning look, but she only smiles and nods and looks a little wistful.

Ron has actually put together a book for him, out of all the newspaper articles that he can find concerning the Cannons. He must have bound and stitched it together with the spells he was practicing so hard in the library near the end of term. Harry grins as he flips through it and watches Seekers miss the Snitch, Chasers miss the Quaffle, and Beaters collide with their own Bludgers instead of the opposing team’s.

“This is wonderful, Ron.”

“Knew you’d like it. How could you not like it? It’s the Cannons.”

Ron elbows him, and Harry elbows him back, and watches in contentment as Ron opens Harry’s box of chocolates from Honeydukes, and Hermione opens the huge box of different kinds of quills. Her eyes are bright as she flips through them: quills that check spelling in languages other than English, quills that draw small amusing pictures of owls on the parchment when left on their own, quills that change color when you write an incorrect comma.

“Thank you, Harry,” she says, and beams at him before she goes back to sorting through her treasures.

“She likes those, mate? Is she mental?”

Harry only shrugs, and says nothing. It’s enough to know that he chose wisely when it came to Hermione. The quills felt a little impersonal, but on the other hand, they’re exactly the kind of practical gift that Hermione prizes. And she’ll have fine taking apart all the different spells on them and figuring out how they work.

Harry gifts the twins with pranks from every joke shop he could order from in Britain, not just Zonko’s, and a few in Ireland. Fred’s face is full of glee as he spreads out an array of sweets on the floor. George’s hands are twitching as he examines the potions.

So are Professor Snape’s, in fact. “Must you?” he hisses at Harry under his breath, from the corner of his mouth.

“Yes, sir.” Harry meets his eyes and wishes for a second that he’d brought Professor Snape’s gift with them. But he doesn’t think that Snape would appreciate opening it in front of the Weasleys. “This makes them happy.”

Snape gives him a deep, thoughtful glance, the kind he used after Remus and Sirius opened up their presents. Harry is glad to turn away and open the set of “special” Exploding Snap cards the twins got him, which immediately attempt to grow wings and fly to the far corners of the room while singing at the tops of their voices.

The evening ends with hot chocolate and Professor Snape going back to Hogwarts while promising to come fetch Harry the next day, and Harry and Ron eating enough chocolate to feel uncomfortable, before they bed down in Ron’s room and argue over the Cannons and the Falmouth Falcons in heated whispers.

Ron falls asleep in the middle of a sentence, and Harry lies there with his arms folded behind his head and watches the glittering stars that Ron has enchanted his ceiling with now that he’s good enough at the spells they’ve all been practicing together in the library.

It’s the end of a wonderful day.

*

“You are being very quiet, Theo.”

Theo smiles a little and nods to his father, turning away from the window where he was watching the falling snow. “I was thinking about the gift Harry got me. It’s very thoughtful, but—surprising. I didn’t think he knew me that well.”

“I didn’t, either. I didn’t realize you were that paranoid.”

Theo doesn’t touch the bracelet clasped around his wrist, because he doesn’t need to. He can feel the sharp protection humming around himself and through his bones. Harry paid for so many protective spells to be cast on the bracelet, which in itself is a rather plain and heavy silver cuff, that Theo can feel them in his teeth. The bracelet is going to shield him from a lot of poisons, a lot of technically non-poisonous potions, most hexes and jinxes and Dark spells, and the Imperius Curse.

Each spell had to be cast separately, which means that Harry must have been planning this for a long time. Theo thinks he understands why Harry spent the money—he can hear Harry’s impatient tone now about what else does he have to spend the money on?—but the time is a different issue.

“One might think that you conceive of yourself as living in dangerous times, Theo.”

“Not so much in the school. But one can’t take enough precautions. I would never have thought Flint was stupid enough to stand up against Harry and get punished as soundly as he was. But that happened. And Harry’s been threatened in the school for two years running now, even if Black didn’t turn out to be a threat. No saying what might happen now that I’m closer to him and could get caught up in his adventures.”

“It would please me if you did not.”

Theo inclines his head and stands. “Of course, Father. I intend to follow Harry to glory of a certain sort, you know. Danger is not it.”

His father smiles thinly. Theo stands for a moment looking at him before he’s dismissed from the library. Yes, he is a little thinner than before about the face. A little paler around the eyes.

Small changes. Not ones that many people would notice. But Theo notices.

“You may go, Theo.”

Theo bows to his father and departs, his steps soundless on the thick carpet. His own smile is thin, for different reasons than his father’s.

People like Draco believe in immediate, non-subtle revenge. Blaise always holds his tongue and holds back, so that the strike might come from any direction when someone isn’t expecting it—but not more than a few months later. And Theo thinks that Harry probably doesn’t believe in revenge at all. He’ll attack or forgive, and otherwise he’ll warn people the way he warned Chang.

But Theo is his own person, not the sum of his friendships or his House.

Theo does not forget.

*

“You should not have sent a gift to Harry Potter, Daphne.”

Daphne only stands there and watches her mother. Alianora Greengrass’s brow is wrinkled, and she glances out the window at the departing owl and then turns back to Daphne with a small sigh.

“You realize what this might do to the standing and reputation of the family?”

“Only those you tell. I know that Harry won’t tell anyone else if I don’t want him to. And he’s smart enough to keep quiet until he hears from me.”

“Then why make the gesture?”

Daphne looks patiently at her mother, and finally Alianora softens and bends down to kiss Daphne’s brow. “Yes, all right. Come to the dining room, then. The house-elves are getting agitated about our absence from dinner.”

Daphne is happy enough to follow. She has made the gesture she wanted, taken the step she wanted.

It remains to be seen what happens. But she’s pleased with what she’s accomplished so far.

Chapter Text

“Welcome, Severus.”

Mr. Malfoy’s voice feels as cold as winter to Harry. He nods to Mr. Malfoy and then ignores him as best he can to focus on Draco. He blinks when he sees that Tarquinius and Theo are there, too. Then again, he supposed they didn’t say they weren’t invited.

But he doesn’t have a gift for Tarquinius. Harry shrugs to himself and holds out his hand to Draco. “Thank you for inviting us, Draco.”

Draco nods and shakes his hand. His motions are slower than Harry’s used to, and his face is so cold and distant that he looks like some of the stars in Astronomy. Harry hopes everything’s okay with him.

“The famous Mr. Potter.” Mr. Malfoy’s voice is still low and wintry. He moves in front of Draco almost before Harry’s let go of his hand, and looks Harry over. Harry just stares back. He’s not going to forget that Mr. Malfoy is the one who slipped the diary in Ginny’s cauldron. “Do you not feel frightened, confronting a Slytherin in his own home?”

“I see Slytherins every day in the common room. Sir.”

Both Professor Snape and Tarquinius make little motions at that. Harry ignores them. If they’re going to tell him to be quiet, then they should think again. He’ll say exactly what he thinks, unless he thinks that it’s going to get Draco hurt.

Mr. Malfoy lifts his eyebrows and studies Harry again. Then he says, “Well-spoken. I assume his vocabulary has improved since you took him under your wing, Severus?”

“I have never found Mr. Potter’s vocabulary lacking.”

“Neither have I. And he stayed with me an entire summer. I think I should know if anyone does.” Tarquinius steps forwards and holds out his hand for Harry to shake. Harry does, and looks over at Theo. He sees Theo is wearing the silver bracelet, and relaxes with a smile. “It’s nice to see you again, Harry,” Tarquinius adds, which means Harry looks at him.

“You, too, Mr. Nott.” Harry glances at Mr. Malfoy. He doesn’t hold out his hand. Harry hopes he doesn’t show his relief at that.

“Shall we proceed to the parlor?” Mr. Malfoy asks. Harry blinks, but apparently no one else thinks it’s odd to have people say words like “parlor” here, so Harry just follows behind everyone else as they walk out of the first grand room, decorated in white and gold and enough jewels to make Harry feel blinded, and into the second grand room, with tons of bookshelves and mahogany and ebony and probably other things that end with -y. There are some chairs in front of the enormous fireplace, and they look big enough to hold Dudley. Harry waits to sit down, though, until Mr. Malfoy gestures at one of three in a half-circle. Harry takes the one on the far left, and Theo the one on the far right. Draco settles between them and looks around importantly.

“My wife will join us shortly. In the meantime, I will have elves bring refreshments. Dobby!”

Harry nearly leaps out of his skin. He has to admit, he’d forgotten all about Dobby and anything that had to do with him. He just knows that Dobby hasn’t bothered him, and Harry hasn’t seen any sign of him.

But it really is Dobby that appears in front of him now, whimpering and bowing and clutching at his ears as if they’re going to fly off his head. “Yes, Master Malfoy, Dobby is answering!” He sees Harry and goes a kind of muddy greenish-grey color that must be the house-elf version of going pale. But he looks at Mr. Malfoy right away, so Harry hopes the glance didn’t give him away.

“Bring plates of biscuits for our guests, four glasses of wine, and three mugs of butterbeer—”

“Please, Father, can I have pumpkin juice?”

“You may, Draco. Change that to two mugs of butterbeer and one glass of pumpkin juice, Dobby. And bring it swiftly and without spilling a drop. Do you understand?”

“Dobby understands, Master Malfoy,” Dobby whispers, and then disappears in the middle of a deep bow that almost makes him have to take his hands off his ears so they can touch the carpet.

Harry sits there, feeling awful. He did forget about Dobby. He remembers Tarquinius saying last summer that house-elves are meant to be forgotten, but that doesn’t mean Harry should do it. He has too much in common with Dobby. He knows exactly what it feels like to work for cruel people who don’t appreciate you.

I have to get him free.

But Harry knows, from some of the research he and his study group have been doing, that a house-elf’s owner has to give them clothes. It can’t be Harry. Harry has to come up with some way to trick Mr. Malfoy into it.

“Ah, my dear, here you are.”

Harry actually glances up expecting to see Dobby, but instead, it’s this absurdly posh and polished woman who Aunt Petunia probably was in her dreams. She has unmoving pale hair exactly like Draco’s, and bends to give him a kiss on the cheek that makes their resemblance even more open. Draco squirms like he wants to wipe it off, but doesn’t.

Mrs. Malfoy then nods at Theo and turns to study Harry. Harry finds himself sitting up straighter.

“My name is Narcissa Malfoy,” the woman says, after what feels like a full minute of staring. “And you are Harry Potter, Draco’s friend?”

“Yes,” Harry says, to both parts of it.

She gives him a thin, cutting smile, and holds out her hand. Harry doesn’t know if he’s supposed to kiss it or not. He just clasps it, and that seems to be enough. She pulls back her hand and takes her place in the semi-circle of adult chairs, opposite him.

“What a fascinating young man,” she says, to apparently no one in particular. “Can I attribute that to your influence, Severus?”

“You know as well as I do that Harry Potter has been exerting his fascination on the masses since he was fifteen months old, Narcissa.”

“But this kind of fascination is new.”

Both of Draco’s parents seem to be looking at him. Draco is shrinking down in his chair. Harry decides that he’s not going to let them get away with making Draco smaller. “Are we going to have dinner soon?’ he asks.

Dobby pops back in with a tray of biscuits and everything else Mr. Malfoy requested. Mr. Malfoy slowly tips his head at the tray. “You are able to eat this, yes? A full meal will not happen for some hours yet.”

Harry can feel himself flush as he takes one of the biscuits from the tray. He knows he looks stupid. But on the other hand, they aren’t kind-of-glaring at Draco anymore. So that makes it worth it.

“Gifts will come first, of course,” Mrs. Malfoy says, and clasps her hands. Another house-elf appears, with a small tree that it puts on the floor and taps with one long finger. The tree immediately grows to gigantic size, so quickly Harry jumps. But he’s the only one who does. Then gifts begin appearing under the tree. Mrs. Malfoy looks serenely at him. “Do you want to put the gifts that you brought under the tree, Mr. Potter?”

Harry reaches out and picks up the gift for Professor Snape and the one for Draco, and puts them under there. Mrs. Malfoy frowns a little, but luckily Professor Snape leans forwards with the bottle of wine that he said he would take care of giving to the Malfoys. “For your gracious invitation, Narcissa.”

She unwraps the bottle and exclaims over it. Meanwhile, Harry just holds still. He doesn’t think they got him gifts. That means not getting them gifts is perfectly justified.

He’s worried about Tarquinius, though. He can’t help it.

*

Tarquinius wonders idly if the Malfoys have always been as unpleasant as this.

Oh, Lucius can be condescending. And he’s been to more than one party hosted by Narcissa Malfoy that had its icy silences and its waters of gossip swirling around some poor unsuspecting victim to tug under. But he doesn’t remember their concentration on making the evening so tense for one guest.

Their remarks are to each other, which doesn’t give much space for Harry to say anything. But they’re about the undesirability of Muggleborn blood, and messy hair, and plain robes, and all sorts of other things that only one person in the room has.

Tarquinius sits still and smiles, of course. For one thing, etiquette would declare that’s what he should do since he’s not the guest being spoken about.

But for another, he can watch the way Harry’s jaw sets and the color in his eyes goes deeper and deeper. He’s already shedding the Malfoys’ insults. And this is not the way to curry favor with him. Perhaps Draco might break away from his parents and follow Harry. But the adult Malfoys are entrenching themselves further and further in the category of people he will never bother to consider at all. In fact, Harry seems to spend more time watching their house-elves than them.

What fools.

The Malfoys have got Tarquinius some nice wine and an antique cane, the same gifts they’ve exchanged the other times they’ve bothered. For Theo, there are a few older books that Tarquinius will examine before he allows his son to put them in the library. All as usual. He and Theo respond with polite thanks.

Draco opens so many books and broom accessories and sweets and fancy robes that Tarquinius tires of looking at them before long, and looks over to see Severus opening a lumpy gift in green paper. Harry’s, of course. He watches in interest as Severus draws out a scroll and opens it with a faint frown.

Severus reads the scroll, and his eyes widen. Then he slams it back into the wrapping and nods to Harry. The boy relaxes, getting rid a tension Tarquinius hadn’t noticed in his general alertness.

“Thank you, Mr. Potter,” Severus murmurs. There’s a tone in his voice that Tarquinius knows he hasn’t heard before.

“What did he get you, Severus?”

“Yes, tell us.”

“I prefer to keep some gifts private, Narcissa.”

Narcissa draws back with an offended expression on her face, but then, it’s not different enough from her general expression for anyone to really notice. Tarquinius holds back the temptation to chortle, and watches a house-elf hand his gift to Harry.

Harry immediately flushes and looks sideways at Tarquinius. “I didn’t get you anything, though.”

“This is a gift in recognition of the many new things that you’ve taught me over the summer and since.”

Those words are pure bait for Lucius and Narcissa, who both narrow their eyes. But Lucius is the one who speaks. “What could you learn from one young former Gryffindor, Tarquinius?”

“Many new things.”

Lucius looks prone to snarl at him. Tarquinius smiles back and watches as Harry slides away the paper and the ribbon as if expecting something to bite him, and then opens the lid of the box that’s revealed the same way.

He catches his breath. Tarquinius toasts the boy with his own glass of wine, and watches in contentment as the clockwork serpent he made climbs out and winds firmly around the boy’s arm. Harry touches the head as if he doesn’t know if he should pet it or not.

“You can, you know,” Tarquinius tells him. “The head is brass mesh. It’s not going to bite unless it opens its mouth. And then the fangs are modified dagger blades. You’ll be able to see where they go easily enough. No venom, alas. I couldn’t figure out a way to make it stay inside hollow fangs, and solid ones can’t spread it.”

Severus is glaring at him. Tarquinius ignores it. This is a gift for Harry, not him. And if he tries to take the snake away from Harry, he will find a few nasty surprises that Tarquinius did manage to build in.

“I—thank you.” Harry gingerly touches the snake’s mouth, and it obligingly opens. The soft ticking of clockwork is audible inside, and Draco gapes a little and looks at his parents as if about to demand that they buy him one. Tarquinius ignores that, too. It’s not as though Draco will manage to buy one like this. “Can I command it in Parseltongue?”

“I at least designed it so it should be possible. Since I’m not a Parselmouth myself, I couldn’t test it.”

Harry swallows, nods, and hisses something. The snake closes its mouth and coils up on his shoulder, overlapping bronze scales gleaming.

“What a princely gift, Tarquinius.”

And there is Lucius’s suspicion, again. But Tarquinius is more interested in the way Harry flushes and mutters, “I didn’t get you anything. Sorry.”

“Just say ‘thank you’ for your present, Harry.”

“Thank you.”

And then Harry gets distracted because Draco is opening a package that’s apparently from him, and sighs softly in what sounds like relief when Draco says, “I read about this! These are the fastest bristles money can buy! You put them on a Comet, even, and it’s as fast as a Firebolt!”

“That is also a princely gift,” says Narcissa, but her face is relaxed in a way that suggests she means it. “Say thank you to Mr. Potter, Draco.”

“Thank you.” Draco cocks his head, and the smartest expression that Tarquinius thinks he’s probably ever worn crosses it. “You don’t want them for yourself?”

“No. You’ll get more use out of them than I will, since you’re the one playing on the Quidditch team.”

“Right.” For some reason, Draco looks embarrassed and then determined. Tarquinius supposes that he’ll learn the reason sooner or later.

“This is for you, too, Harry.” Theo holds out a hinged box that Tarquinius never noticed him bringing. He frowns at his son. Theo doesn’t notice, his eyes on Harry as he opens the box and looks at the velvet-lined interior.

“The velvet dampens any magical vibrations,” Theo explains calmly, something that Tarquinius wonders at. But then he remembers Harry’s Muggle upbringing and that he wouldn’t know this very basic truth. “So if you want to keep the serpent that my father got you or something else in the box, the velvet will wear away any foreign magic on it that’s not part of the original enchantments. It’s a good way to get rid of curses that someone else tries to put on your possessions.”

“Um. Thank you, Theo.” Harry puts the box carefully aside. Tarquinius can almost hear him thinking that it’s a paranoid gift, but a useful one. “I know exactly what I’m going to put in there, too.”

“Good.”

“Now you have to open the one I got you,” Draco says self-importantly, and shifts what Tarquinius reckons is a stack of wrapped books into Harry’s hands. “I’m sure this is the best present that you’ll get all Christmas. I know that you need it.”

Harry mumbles thanks and opens the bundle. For an instant, he just sits there, staring at it. Tarquinius can’t help craning his neck, even though the bundle is mostly-wrapped and he can’t see the titles.

“Etiquette books. How thoughtful, Draco. Thank you.”

Tarquinius wonders that the Malfoys don’t hear the blankness, the flatness, in Harry’s voice, but they don’t seem to. Narcissa flutters and simpers, and Lucius makes one of those proud, cold, ambiguous remarks, and Draco beams before he drags Theo and Harry away to help him put his new broom bristles on his Nimbus.

In the ensuing silence, or what feels like silence, Tarquinius leans towards Severus. “What did Harry get you? A scroll with some ancient Potions recipe on it?”

“Nothing you need concern yourself with.”

Tarquinius raises his hands and leans back. Severus is sensitive about the boy, it seems. Well. Tarquinius will let it go for now, confident that the plans he has in motion mean that Severus won’t win in the end.

He also notices, although he wonders if Lucius and Narcissa do, that Severus hasn’t given the boy anything. Perhaps that sensitivity doesn’t extend as far as it seems to.

*

Severus looks at the scroll again when Tarquinius and Lucius start to argue about Death Eater tactics in the last war and Narcissa seems content to listen. He immediately cast a charm on the parchment that means no one but him and Harry can read it, but one can’t be too cautious.

Not with this gift.

Dear Professor Snape,

I promise that I won’t run into danger again. If I do, then you can just show me this scroll, and I’ll give myself detention.

I promise that I’ll try to talk honestly about what happened with the Dursleys. I still don’t think it’ll make much difference, but I promise that I’ll try and not hold back even when I really, really want to.

I promise I’ll try harder in Potions. It seems like one of those things I have to know if I’m going to defeat Voldemort.

I promise that I’ll listen when you talk about Sirius and Mr. Lupin. I might not agree with you, and maybe I’ll decide to do something on my own and spend more time with them, but I promise to listen to you.

If there’s something you want me to promise, then talk to me, and maybe I can promise it. I just wanted you to know that I do listen, sometimes.

Happy Christmas.

Harry Potter.

The tenor of the conversation changes, and Severus lays the scroll aside and gets ready to participate. He has to. If he seems too distracted, then he risks someone deciding that the scroll is worth more to him than it seems.

But already he’s counting down the moments until dinner, and then beyond that, when they can return to Hogwarts, and he can finally give Harry the gift he has for him.

Chapter Text

Harry pauses when they come into the dining room. It’s partially because the room is so completely overwhelming, white and gold flashing from snowy cloths on the table and the branches of glowing candelabras and a decoration overhead that looks like an enormous frozen crystal snowflake with glints of gold in it.

But it’s also because he just had an idea, and for all he knows, it’s going to work. He tilts his head a little.

“What is it?” asks Draco, who is the one right beside him. They’re spreading out to sit at different chairs at the table, and Harry watches where he’s supposed to go. He’s supposed to sit next to Draco, who’s next to Professor Snape. That will work. Theo is on his other side, but Theo will only watch and listen.

“I’m thinking about something,” Harry says. It doesn’t take a lot to put hesitation in his voice. He’s hesitant about this whole thing. “I want to tell you the truth, but I don’t know what to say without hurting your feelings.”

Draco bristles at once. “You can say anything you want,” he hisses at Harry as they sit down. His parents are talking with Tarquinius and it’s perfectly obvious they think children shouldn’t interrupt an adult conversation. “I’m not a Hufflepuff about things.”

Harry wants to remind him how they got two years of hatred out of Harry refusing to shake his hand on the Hogwarts Express, but that’s exactly what shouldn’t happen right now. He nods a little. “Okay. The etiquette books were kind of an insulting gift, Draco.”

Food has appeared on their plates. Theo is slow to pick up his fork, and Draco just gapes at him. “But why? You need them!”

“I’d like lessons from a friend in private if he really thinks I need them,” Harry says, and eyes the wobbly orange thing on the plate in front of him. He honestly has no idea what it is. He takes his fork and carves off a small slice, and it tastes like oranges, so he supposes it’s okay. “But books in public make me feel bad.”

“It wasn’t in public!”

“It was still in front of people who would know exactly what you think of me by giving me etiquette books.”

“He’s right, you know,” Theo says in a quiet voice, leaning around Harry so he can see Draco. “I don’t know if your parents thought they were a good gift and you were just going along with them, or—”

“I thought of them! All on my own! And they are a good gift.” Draco seems to be calming down, maybe because he doesn’t want to force his parents to pay attention to their conversation. “Anyway, I’m not taking them back. You need them.”

“But when someone feels insulted by a gift,” Theo prompts in a tone that makes Draco glare at him, “what should you do?”

This is evidently an etiquette lesson that the children of Death Eaters get taught. Draco is turning a pale pink color and looking away. “You apologize,” he murmurs. “And you get them another gift. Something they choose so that you can be sure they like it. And you pay the price no matter what it costs.”

“That’s right,” Theo says, with a patronizing nod.

Harry breathes out slowly. That’s what he thought. That’s what he hoped, because he really didn’t know. But it seemed likely given the other rules pure-bloods have to follow. That means he was right, and now he can go ahead with his risky plan and just hope that it’s not too risky when it comes to what Mr. Malfoy is going to think of Draco.

“All right,” Draco says, after a few minutes of waiting for Harry to bring it up. But Harry is going to be damned if he brings it up. He’s been eating his orange thing and drinking his glass of—something. It’s too pale and cold to be butterbeer. “So what do you want?”

Harry makes sure to keep his voice low. “Freedom for one of your house-elves.”

Draco almost knocks his drink over. Theo almost drops his fork. Tarquinius frowns down the table. “Is everything all right there?”

“It’s fine, Father,” Theo says, and smiles a little. “Draco and Harry are simply instructing each other on methods of etiquette.”

From the way the older Malfoys get chilly smiles on their faces, Harry is sure that they think Draco is the teacher. He ignores that. Ultimately, it’s not going to get in the way of what he wants from Draco, because he won’t let it.

Draco drinks some of his clear water and looks at the glass instead of Harry. “What makes you think I can even give you that?”

He’s not outright denying it. Harry meets his eyes, and Draco flushes and looks away again. “Because you’re one of the masters of the Malfoy house-elves, and I know they can be freed if you give them clothes,” he says, softly but definitely. “One of them helped me last year. I forgot about him, which was stupid of me, but now I want to free him.”

“Why would you want to?”

“I have a lot of empathy for him.”

Draco looks up again, and his eyes are so wide that Harry’s sure he’s making some connections he hasn’t before. “Your relatives—”

“We aren’t going to discuss it right now.”

Draco narrows his eyes from their wideness. “All right. But a house-elf is a really valuable gift, even if I’m not giving him directly to you. That means that it can’t be used just to make up for giving you the wrong gift like the etiquette books. So you’re going to talk to me and answer three questions truthfully. All right?”

“Agreed.” Harry would agree to a lot worse than that to free Dobby. And it sounds as if Draco is actually going to do it.

“After dinner.”

Harry nods, and then goes back to actually eating. He can feel Tarquinius and Professor Snape looking at them. He ignores that. They can’t interfere in what’s going to happen, because Draco has the power to free Dobby and they don’t. They might be able to spy on it, but Draco knows his own house the best. Harry hopes he can get them into a private room or corridor where he can do what he needs to do.

The stares don’t go away, but Harry’s a lot better about bearing things like that than he would have been a year ago.

*

Draco stretches the length of Slytherin tie around his hand and tries to ignore the feeling that his father is going to come around the corner any moment. He knows that’s not true. A debate about the Ministry’s likely next move to outlaw werewolf employment started during the last half of dinner, and his parents, Professor Snape, and Theo’s father are all engaged in the dining room still. Father won’t leave until he thinks he’s won, and the same is true of Mr. Nott.

Harry’s weight of expectation next to him is worrying enough.

“Dobby!” Draco calls, rolling his eyes a little as the house-elf pops up next to him. He should have known it would be Dobby even before Harry told him the name. He’s always been strange, and the one who gets punished the most out of the Malfoy elves because he’s so strange.

Dobby appears, and stares at Harry for a second before he turns back to Draco and screws his eyes almost shut, like that will prevent him from seeing Harry anymore. “Yes, Young Master Malfoy?”

Trying not to think of what his father is going to say when Dobby doesn’t appear anymore—even though Harry has a lie prepared for that, it might or might not be enough—Draco throws the tie at him. “Go on. Get out of here. You’re free.”

Dobby catches the tie and gapes at it for long enough that Draco starts to regret what he did. All they need now is for the weird elf to go and find Father and brag that Draco set him free or something.

But then Dobby looks up with watering eyes and flings his arms around Draco.

Theo starts snickering. Draco reaches down and pries at Dobby’s arms and tries to get him off, but there’s no sign Dobby notices. “Young Master Malfoy is being good!” he whispers in what sounds like ecstasy. “Dobby never dreamed Young Master Malfoy was being good!”

Draco swallows. Theo’s laughter is getting louder, and he doesn’t dare look up and see what Harry’s expression is. But right now, that seems less important than the fact that one of the Malfoy elves thought he was a bad person. “Er, it’s all right,” he says, and pats Dobby awkwardly on the back. “Can you go to Hogwarts now? I think there’s a place prepared for you there. I know that, um, Harry here is going to offer you a Galleon a week.”

“Young Master Harry Potter is—” Dobby starts wailing so loudly that he’s going to alert the whole house in a minute.

“Go on, please, Dobby.” Harry’s voice is gentle and just the right volume, somehow, to cut through the sound Dobby’s making. “I’ll be there soon, okay? I’m staying at Hogwarts for the holidays. I’ll give you your Galleon and get you settled into the kitchens.”

“Do you even know where the kitchens are?” Theo asks in an undertone.

“I’m sure Blaise can help me find them.”

Draco frowns, but Dobby nods eagerly and Disapparates before he can say anything. Draco blinks at where he was. “It’s strange to think I’ll never see him again,” he mutters. Dobby’s always been there, bringing him breakfast and hanging up his clothes and pausing regularly to bash his head on something or wring his ears.

“Of course you can.” Harry is giving him a look as if Draco is the strange one. “Just go down to the kitchens at Hogwarts.”

“Oh. Um. Right.” Draco can feel his face flushing, but there’s really nothing he can do about that. He’s just so far off-balance. The etiquette books weren’t a good gift, and then Harry asked for this, and then it happened. Draco certainly never thought, when he woke up this morning, that he would be freeing any house-elves at all, let alone like this.

Harry suddenly smiles. Draco stares at him. I wonder if he knows how powerful he is. “Thank you, Draco,” Harry whispers. “Really. It was my fault for forgetting about him for so long. Thank you for doing this.”

“You’re welcome,” Draco replies, still a little dazed. He’s seen his father smile at Ministry politicians and all sorts of people smile in the paper. They’re powerful.

None of them smile like Harry, like suddenly you’re the center of his whole world and he’s happy you are.

Theo and Harry start talking about Arithmancy as they go back towards the dining room. Draco trails silently after them.

*

“Now.”

Severus tries to make his voice as portentous as possible, the kind of voice he uses when someone has piled half a dozen shreds of dried lavender into one cauldron with powdered obsidian and is trying to start a fire underneath. He doesn’t know if he succeeds. He does keep his back turned to Harry as the boy comes into his office and halts.

“Is this about the gift you got me, sir?”

No hesitation in the boy’s voice. Good. Severus would not want him to start doubting now that Severus did get him a gift, even if the one he’s chosen ends up being a poor match for that remarkable scroll.

Severus finds the present under a drift of essays—of course he does, he has an excellent memory—and turns around with the heavy box in his hands. Harry flicks his eyes from Severus’s face to the way he holds it, and comes forwards slowly. Of course, all the staring in the world won’t show him more than the box’s outside, which is polished ebony with silver hinges clasping it near the top. Severus cast some particular charms that mean no one can turn the sides transparent or look inside without opening it.

“Is it dangerous, sir? I mean, the way you’re holding it—”

“Not dangerous, but fragile, and easily triggered.” Severus sighs and sets the box down on the desk where Harry writes lines during his detentions. “It will be less fragile after you’ve opened it. Do so now.”

He winces a second later. He didn’t mean to make it sound like he was ordering the boy.

Harry apparently finds nothing wrong with his tone, though, perhaps because it is a present. He reaches out and lets his hand drift to a stop on the box’s lid. There’s a quiet roll of sound, as deep as thunder but not as loud, and then a chime. Severus relaxes. The spells have worked as they were supposed to work, and disengaged the stronger protections on the box so Harry can reach inside.

(Not that he doubted they would work).

Harry gives him one more curious glance and then flips open the lid. It’s big enough to hide the expression on his face from Severus at first. Severus makes himself relax with a clench of his fingers into his palms, and watches the way Harry takes a slow step back from the box.

He hates it. He’s disgusted—

“What is it?’

Or perhaps he simply doesn’t know what it is. Severus can scoff at himself as well as he can at anyone else. He nods and steps forwards. “If you take it out and hold it up, then I can show you how to use it. You’re the only one who can touch it.”

Harry does remove the shining thing from the box. It resembles a pendant without a chain, a hovering silver shield wreathed with curlicues and with an amethyst gem in the center. Hovering around it, each one equidistant from the pendant, is a circle, or pentagon, of five shining silver points.

“It’s a protection for you,” Severus says quietly. “Armor that most people won’t think is there at all. Hold it so that the amethyst is aligned with your heart.”

His mouth is dry, but at least his voice sounds normal. Harry scrambles to obey. In seconds, the amethyst is right in front of his chest, which means that two of the points of silver light are hovering around his feet, two to the sides of his ribs, and the fifth one above his head.

Invoco defendere,” Severus says, and reaches out to tap the amethyst with his wand.

The way the light swells in the middle of his gem warns Severus. He closes his eyes and relaxes as best he can, and the power swirls forwards and seizes him and throws him into the far corner of his office.

“Professor Snape!”

Severus cheated earlier, and placed Cushioning Charms there, which means that it doesn’t hurt nearly as much as hitting his head on stone should. He sits up, blinking, and runs his hand over the back of his head. Yes, he’s fine.

And when he glances at Harry, the presence of the armor has faded. There’s only a gleam of purple or silver here and there, and you have to be extremely quick-witted to catch it.

“Why did it do that to you? It has to know that you won’t be a threat to me!”

“It knows no such thing. It does not have a mind, as such. I did not want to buy you something that had a mind of its own, after the incident with the diary last year.”

Harry is helping him sit up, staring at him. “Thank you, but—I still don’t understand.”

“I fed some of my power into the gemstone,” Severus says. “It will now react like that to any wizard of my power or lesser—and although there are wizards more powerful than I am, Albus and the Dark Lord among them, I flatter myself that there are not many that you will interact with on a daily basis.”

Harry glances around as if trying to find the gem. “I don’t see it now.”

“It is invisible when fulfilling its purpose. And you need not fear. It will react only to curses and hostile intent. You can practice dueling with your friends and harmless spells in Defense without triggering it. The only time that should happen is if it turns out that you have enemies among the students.”

And I know that you have those.

Harry smiles gently. “Well, thank you. It’ll make it easier to keep myself safe the way I promised you I would.”

“That is not the only gift. Look in the box once more.”

Harry turns around to do so, although he does say over his shoulder, “You don’t need to do that, sir. I only got you one.”

Severus says nothing. It is not Harry’s prerogative to decide how many gifts he receives, only how many he gives.

Harry lifts out the book that lies there and opens it. Then he goes still. Severus finishes standing up and remains in the corner, not sure whether he might have breached some inviolable barrier with this gift.

Thank you.”

Severus relaxes. That tone of voice was sincere. In truth, Harry does not often lie; he’s not good at it. He just doesn’t say what he’s thinking, or insists that he’s fine when someone asks how he is.

Harry is turning slowly through the book, savoring. Severus does not need to look at the pages. He knows well enough what is there: Lily’s letters to him that she wrote during the summer and sometimes during other holidays. He gave Harry the originals and made duplicates for himself. Now and then is a picture, again an original of something he copied for himself. He doesn’t have many of those, not nearly as many as letters, but Harry can see his mother’s face laughing above a book, and sometimes by the light of a fire, and in the Potions classroom when she and Severus sneaked in after Slughorn went to bed and experimented with ingredients they weren’t allowed to use during the day.

“Thank you,” Harry repeats, and puts the book carefully aside. Then he approaches Severus, looking as nervous as Severus ever could, and hugs him, as carefully as he treated the book.

Severus bows his head. He does not believe in the notion of a perfect moment, one that will compensate for everything that has gone wrong before.

But this moment comes as close as anything can in this world.

Chapter Text

Harry stares blankly at the package in his hands. It’s from Greengrass, he can see that, but he honestly didn’t think he would get a Christmas present from her. And it has a tingle of magic that makes him want to put it straight in the box Theo got him.

“Open it or not, Potter, but stop dawdling and making me anxious.”

Harry makes sure to look at Blaise and not the gift as he casts spells on it. It’s wrapped in plain paper, a faint silver color that borders on grey, and not one of the spells returns a thing wrong with it. It seems to be just a gift.

That doesn’t tell him what it is or why she got it for him, though.

“I could open it for you.”

Harry sighs, dodges Blaise’s grab from the next common room couch, and says, “Fine. I’ll open it.” He still makes sure to use spells to slit the paper and take apart the string, just in case.

Inside is a box. Harry rolls his eyes and uses a spell to open that, too. A faint sweet smell hits him in the face. Is the box made of cedar or something?

Then he forgets about that when he sees the thing in the box, and recoils. Blaise immediately moves around the back of the couch so he can see. Harry hears him catch his breath, which does not make him feel better.

“Is that what I think it is?”

“Greengrass thinks I’m a bloody girl, apparently,” Harry mutters, and Levitates the pendant out of the box. Or the necklace, or the locket. Whatever it is. It’s jewelry. He’s never going to wear it. “How do I go about telling her I appreciate this gift and then never, ever wearing it?”

“You have to wear it. It would be an insult not to, and it’s powerful protective magic. Plus it opens, see? You can put pictures inside it, and the necklace will extend a little bit of protection to them, too. Good luck, mostly.”

“I’m not a bloody girl.

“Did anyone say you are?”

Harry deflates a little at the unimpressed look Blaise is giving him. “Well, this thing.” He turns it around. The necklace looks like it’s made of interwoven thorns, and the pendant at the end is an irregular circle of some purple gem. Amethyst? Harry doesn’t know. He just knows it’s jewelry. “Boys don’t wear this kind of thing, Blaise. Not where I come from.”

“You’re a wizard.”

“But not a pure-blood.” Harry has never been so glad for that excuse before.

“You’re part of our culture,” Blaise says, and adds before Harry can object, “Wizards, not pure-bloods.” He lifts the pendant and turns it around thoughtfully. “Once you put it on, you tap it with your wand and tell it what you want it to protect you against. It can be a single spell, like the Blasting Curse, or a single kind of spell, like all curses.”

“What about potions?”

“That, too. But it has to be magic. You can’t charm it to protect you against falling down the stairs or something.” Blaise pauses. “And it can’t defend you against the Killing Curse.”

Harry sighs. He supposes the pendant is valuable, but he doesn’t like the way putting it around his neck will make him look. Maybe he can keep it under his robes for the most part. “What will wearing it mean? I mean, will it signal to Greengrass that she’s my friend, or to everyone else that we’re about to be married, or something?”

“Oh, Harry, so suspicious.”

“You learn to be, in Slytherin.”

“I suppose you do.” Blaise thinks for a second, and then shakes his head. “No. I recognized the necklace because I’ve seen others made like this. The chain and the pendant aren’t different from the way the others were made, and they just meant whoever was wearing them had protection. Not marriage.”

“But friendship?”

“Don’t you want to be friends with Greengrass?”

Blaise sounds honestly curious, so Harry strokes the clockwork snake that is pausing on his shoulder and tells the truth. “I don’t know. She seems quiet enough, and she hasn’t insulted my friends like Draco used to...” Harry wrinkles his nose. He’s getting to the point where he’ll have to get Draco to apologize to Hermione and Ron, too, and that is going to be a mess. “But she’s so cold, and she’s always staring.”

“Probably taking lessons in leadership from you.” Blaise’s voice is light as he passes the pendant back to Harry. “You know, because you radiate that kind of special light that attracts everyone everywhere you go.”

Harry flushes horribly, not amused by the way Blaise laughs. “Stop it.

“But why? Don’t you enjoy being on display?”

“No. And you know it.” Harry snatches the pendant and holds it up. “What do you have to do to activate it?”

“Touch it with your wand. Give the gem a moment to absorb your magic. Then announce your name and say Defendere, followed by the name of the spell or kind of spell.”

Harry thinks about it. Then he nods, holds the pendant up, and touches his wand to it. An odd tingle runs through him. He feels as if the pendant is thinking about him, too, making up its mind about him in some way.

When it feels right, he says, “Harry Potter. Defendere malicious potions.”

The gem blinks, once, as if it’s an eye that’s opening and closing. Then it gleams, and the pendant suddenly turns really light and flies out of Harry’s hand. Harry snatches his wand back, convinced this was a trick after all, but the pendant settles firmly around his neck and clasps there. When Harry reaches back, he can’t find the place where the chain would have parted to let him take it off.

“Blaise,” he whines.

“The pendant is working the exact way it’s supposed to,” Blaise says firmly. “But why malicious potions and not something else?”

“Because I can defend myself against a lot of curses and I can learn the counters, but I didn’t see people putting potions into my food once already, and learning to brew antivenin would take a long time.” Harry tugs cautiously at the chain. It remains smooth, like it was something forged all in one piece. “You’re sure it’s not meant to come off?”

“It can’t protect you if it’s off.”

“But how do I get it off?”

“Tap the gem with your wand and say Finite.”

Blaise sounds like he’s weary of the world. Harry sighs and doesn’t do it. “And I can hide the pendant under my clothes and no one will know what it means or think I look like a girl?”

No one would think you look like a girl,” Blaise says, in an exaggerated way. He moves around the couch and sits down next to Harry, staring at him. “You’re so worried about this. Why? Other wizards won’t care, and if some random Muggleborn from a weird place says something, why would you care?”

Harry winces and glances aside. He would have to tell Blaise a lot about the Dursleys to really answer that question, and he doesn’t want to.

“Okay, fine,” Blaise says. “You can wear the chain under your robes. But you should at least thank Daphne and tell her that you got the gift and you like it.”

“Even if you had to explain to me what it was?”

“She probably thought you’d ask her.

Blaise sounds smug for some reason, but after thinking about whether he really wants to hear the reason, Harry ends up rolling his eyes and letting it go. There are things he has to learn to survive in Slytherin, and there are things he wants to learn, and then there are things that are neither and just annoying. And it sounds like Blaise being triumphant over Daphne is the third.

*

He has no idea just how influential he can be.

Well, Blaise doesn’t mind that. He can explain the pendant and other important pieces of magical culture to Harry, and Harry can be his friend and depend on him for wisdom. Blaise doesn’t think that’s a bad place to be at all.

Besides, Harry can’t remain ignorant of his true potential forever. He’ll embrace it when it comes time to defend his friends or his godfather or—hopefully, anyway—his place in Slytherin House someday. And Blaise will be right at his side to laugh at him and tell him that he told him so when that happens.

And benefit.

And maybe even laugh with him.

*

“Look at you go, pup! I can’t believe how fast you are on that broom!”

Harry zooms back down and over Sirius’s head, laughing. Sirius came out to watch him in the form of a dog at first, but from what Harry has been able to figure out, the Ministry is almost through trying Pettigrew and has all but declared that Sirius will be free and able to claim his life back soon. That means he’s a man now, laughing and shouting and waving his arms.

Harry knows he has to go through a trial visit with a qualified Mind-Healer, too. But Sirius seems so much better now. That won’t be a problem.

Harry doesn’t want it to be a problem. God, does he ever. He wants to go and live with Sirius and have Remus and Professor Snape and his friends visit and live happily ever after.

He knows Snape doesn’t think Sirius is perfect yet. Or Remus, Snape doesn’t like him, either. But Remus has been kinder since Christmas, and he’s the one who told Harry how much better Sirius was doing over the holidays. Harry wants to live with Sirius.

He wants someone who’s just his own. Maybe it’s selfish, but he does. Hermione has her parents since she’s an only child, and Ron can’t have his parents to himself but he wants them, and Snape has to be the Head of Slytherin House for everyone and can’t give Harry anything special, and his other friends have parents or best friends. It has to be Sirius.

Harry turns once more on the Firebolt and leans sideways. This is something he’s been waiting to show Sirius. Snape would have a heart attack, and so would some of his friends, and people like Oliver Wood would try to drag Harry back onto the Quidditch team even if they had to imprison him in the dungeons.

“Watch, Sirius!”

Sirius’s shining eyes say he’s watching. Harry leans to the side as he speeds across the pitch, straight towards the Keeper’s hoop. Then he swings again, to the side, and executes a spiral so tight around the pole of the hoop that Sirius actually yells, “Don’t do that, pup!”

But Harry does, and he reaches the bottom of the spiral and lands in the grass. He’s laughing so hard tears are streaming down his face, and then Sirius runs over and hugs him and his sides are hurting in a good way. The move isn’t anything special for Quidditch, but it sure looks brilliant.

“I’d love to see you do a Wronski Feint,” Sirius murmurs into his hair.

Harry perks up. That’s not a move he thought of, since he isn’t actually chasing a Snitch right now, just showing Sirius how he can fly on his Firebolt. “Do you have something I can enchant into a Snitch?”

“Sure!” Sirius picks up a pebble from the grass next to his feet after a little searching. He throws it to Harry, and Harry casts a charm on it that makes it lighter, one that makes it glow gold, and one that makes it fly. He’s a lot better at magic like that than he was a few months ago. The study group sessions with different students are really helping.

“Okay, watch, Sirius,” he commands, and tosses the pebble in the air. Then he’s after it, flying as close as he can without actually capturing it.

The pebble starts to fall. Harry pretends there’s a Seeker in the air opposite him, and aims the Firebolt straight at the ground.

For a second he wonders if it counts as a Wronski Feint if there’s no actual Seeker there and he’s really diving after the Snitch instead of just pretending to see it near the ground.

Then he’s diving.

There’s no room for anything else. The air tears at his nostrils. His eyes stream so hard that he’s afraid he’ll cloud up his glasses. His hair blows straight backwards. The Firebolt is faster than anything he’s ever ridden.

He doesn’t know how close the ground is. He can’t see.

He goes by feel, in the end, the feel of grass skimming along his arms for a second, and then his feet pull up and he’s almost rolling around the broom as it barrels above the pitch. He whoops as he forces it back and up. He couldn’t do this at all if he wasn’t small and slight. He bellows with his mouth open.

Sirius is cheering and shouting madly when Harry glances at him. He grins and checks to make sure that all his teeth are still there. Then he flies back and lands in front of Sirius.

“The hard thing is—”

Just making sure that I don’t crash into the Bludgers by accident, he’s about to say, but Sirius flings his arms around him and squeezes him breathless. Harry wheezes and pats Sirius’s shoulder.

“I do have classes tomorrow, you know,” he says, when Sirius pulls back. “I need to be able to walk.”

“Not even James could have done that.” Sirius is beaming down at him, his hand rubbing back and forth as if he enjoys making Harry’s hair stand up more than normal. “He was a great Chaser, and he flew a fast broom, but not that fast.”

Harry ducks his head. It still makes him feel sticky and uneasy when someone is complimenting him. “Well, the Firebolt hadn’t been invented then. I’m sure he would have been an even better Chaser with a broom that fast.”

“Harry.” Sirius kneels down in front of him and puts his hands on Harry’s shoulders and looks him right in the eye. “I promise, your dad would be happy that his son could do something even better than he could. You should have seen him when you were born. I thought he’d burst with pride and happiness. He kept telling me all about your little freckles and how many times a day you waved your hands and how long you slept and all these other details, because he couldn’t conceive that someone else wouldn’t be as interested as he and Lily were.”

Harry flushes a little, and nods. This is another reason he wants to stay with Sirius. People keep telling him that his parents were heroes and that he has his father’s hair and his mum’s eyes, and that they played lots of pranks during school. But no one tells him anything else. It’s this kind of details that only Sirius and Remus can tell him.

“Do you think he would be okay with me being in Slytherin?”

“He might have been disappointed at first. But he would understand that the Hat did a stupid thing and re-Sorted you. You’ll always be a Gryffindor at heart.”

Harry swallows. It’s not what he hoped to hear, but Sirius knows his parents better than he does—well, got to know them at all. “And my mum?”

“She would understand the same thing! She was a real Gryffindor, Harry, true of heart and brave and loyal and strong.”

Harry could point out that loyalty is supposedly a Hufflepuff trait, but he’s not going to. He picks up the Firebolt and turns back towards the school. Sirius bounces along beside him, looking longingly at the horizon. “It’s not dark yet. Why do we have to go inside?”

“I have one of those talks with Snape tonight.”

“With Snivellus? Don’t go, Harry! Did you know Dumbledore is getting a Mind-Healer for me? You could come to the same Mind-Healer! We could have talks together! Then we could get to know each other!”

“Um—I thought the Ministry or St. Mungo’s was going to choose the Mind-Healer.”

Harry says it calmly, but that’s because he’s inwardly reeling in shock. He really did think that was what was going to happen. He has no idea why Dumbledore would be the one choosing the Mind-Healer. Does he actually know anything about Mind-Healing? Does he think that he can pick better than St. Mungo’s? Why?

“Yeah, he’ll choose someone who’s Gryffindor and understands things.” Sirius bounces again and grins at Harry. “Most of the Healers that are at St. Mungo’s are Ravenclaws, you know, or sometimes even Slytherins.” Sirius pretends to shudder. “He’ll find one who’s Gryffindor. He told me that I didn’t even have to thank him for it. And he’ll fight to make sure that I get custody of you and get to take you home with me.”

“Tell me about the house that we’re going to live in.”

While Sirius goes into a rant about the horrible house of his childhood and how he’s going to choose a home that’s the opposite in all possible ways, Harry thinks of what Dumbledore’s doing. He has to know that Sirius would blab about him at some point. So why did he tell him that?

It doesn’t take much training in Slytherin politics for Harry to figure out an answer. Dumbledore is offering his help, offering to make Sirius free and make sure Harry can live with him. He’s walking back into Harry’s life, he’s interfering, but this is the price. And the prize is a great one.

Harry hates the thought that Dumbledore is trying to control him. But at least him living with Sirius means Dumbledore can’t force him back into trying to live with Dudley or Aunt Marge.

With a little shiver, Harry decides he’s going to accept it. He has to.

Family of his own, just for himself, is worth any price.

Chapter Text

“I think you’ll be very pleased with my choice of Mind-Healer for Sirius, Harry.”

Harry doesn’t say what he’s been thinking, which is that no, he won’t. He just inclines his head and makes his smile as real as possible. “What’s their name, sir?”

“Miriam Hawksgift. She knew Sirius at school, briefly, although she was a few years ahead of him so they didn’t spend much time together. She is brave, honest, and loyal. Some Mind-Healers get accusations that they spill the secrets of the people they spend time with, did you know that, Harry? But Miriam has never had someone accuse her of that.”

“Was she a Gryffindor, sir?”

“Why, yes, she was. That’s one reason she got to know Sirius as well as she did. He and James were the most popular students in Gryffindor for a few years. Let me tell you about the time they managed to sneak a Continuous Laughter Draught into the juice that all of the staff were drinking…”

Harry nods and smiles through the rest of Dumbledore’s speech, even though it’s a prank that he’s already heard about from both Sirius and Remus. There’s a soft ache in the bottom of his stomach.

Everything is falling out exactly as he predicted. Dumbledore isn’t outright saying that Harry will owe him for getting Sirius a Mind-Healer and Harry will have to listen to him again, but he doesn’t like saying that kind of thing anyway. It’s what he means, though. And Harry will have to go along with it.

Just in case Dumbledore takes this Hawksgift person away, and Harry never has a chance of living with Sirius and being loved for just himself.

“Are you listening to me, Harry?”

Harry sits up and plasters a smile on his face. “Oh, yes, sir. But I was just thinking that I haven’t finished my essay for Professor McGonagall’s class yet, and…”

With a chuckle, Dumbledore waves him away. “And you perhaps already heard this story from your godfather. It’s a good sign that he’s coming back to himself, Harry, if he remembers the past so well. Things that he probably wouldn’t have reason to dwell on when he was in that prison cell.”

But he can still think of things that hurt me.

Harry shoves down that thought and stands up. “I’ll see you later, sir. When is the Mind-Healer supposed to start visiting Hogwarts?”

“Oh, she wanted to wait until she could be sure that Sirius was in recovery. But I think now, with the ability he has to focus on the present and hold conversations and think about the future instead of the past, I can tell her that he’s ready.”

You mean that you can tell her everything’s ready because I agreed to it. Harry nods and smiles and walks towards the top of the stairs. His head feels peculiar, as though he somehow has a cold without a nose that’ll run.

I don’t want to see things like this. I don’t want to think like this.

But when he thinks about it, Harry realizes that he wants something else more. He wants to be able to go through his day without everyone trying to bloody manipulate him.

That isn’t going to happen as long as he’s the Boy-Who-Lived and stands up to some people, though. Which means it’ll never stop happening.

Harry bows his head, and keeps moving.

*

“Something’s wrong. What is it?”

Harry blinks at Blaise over the top of the book that he’s found on Arithmancy somewhere in the library. “What are you talking about? Nothing’s wrong.”

Blaise snorts and flings himself down on the couch next to Harry. Theo is across the common room, working on Ancient Runes homework, but he tilts his head when Blaise glances at him. Blaise stretches out his arms, casually, and says, “It’s the way you go around scowling and sighing. And won’t talk about it. If it was just Trelawney or something, you’d mention it.”

“I’m fine.”

“Do you realize you say that every time someone asks you something, whether or not it’s about your health?’

“So what? It’s true. I’m fine.

Blaise Summons the Arithmancy book. He’s got a lot better at Summoning Charms since the study group started using them, and he’s better than anyone else. Granger accused him of being lazy because he wanted to learn that charm first so he wouldn’t have to keep getting up to fetch things. Blaise can absolutely admit that.

Blaise. Give it back.”

“Such threats.” Blaise places his hand over his heart. “There’s no need for threats, you know. Not as long as you tell me the truth when I ask you a question.”

“I will kill you.”

Blaise leans back on the couch and looks patiently at him. Harry picks up his wand, but he’s not worried. He knows the Shield Charm pretty well, too, and he knows that Harry isn’t going to hex him with something permanent the way his mother would.

Just as Harry aims the wand, Blaise says, “Hex me and I won’t tell you where your Christmas gift is.”

Harry pauses. “I told you that you didn’t have to get me one.”

“And I told you that I did, it’s just taking it a while to get here.” Blaise sighs. That’s true, but he doesn’t understand the look on Harry’s face. “A trade, right? An answer for an answer. You tell me what’s bothering you, and I tell you where your gift is.”

“You think you can bribe me?”

“Not with Galleons.”

Harry scowls at him, but puts his wand slowly away. Blaise wants to crow. He doesn’t, because that would defeat the purpose. He knew he would win this contest by appealing to Harry’s curiosity before anything else. “All right.” Harry glances around and lowers his voice. “Dumbledore is choosing the Mind-Healer for Sirius.”

Blaise almost twists himself off the couch. “What? That’s illegal!”

“Why would it be?”

“Because he has no authority! He was the one who had the power to call for a trial originally, and he didn’t. Or didn’t you wonder why he’s been virtually left out of this trial that Black’s getting now even though he’s the Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot?”

Harry’s face says he didn’t wonder. But he pushes on. “But he’s the one who can find a Gryffindor Mind-Healer.”

“Why does it need to be a Gryffindor?”

“Sirius isn’t going to accept anyone else.”

“All they’d have to do is find someone who didn’t go to Hogwarts. Or who was a Hufflepuff or a Ravenclaw—”

“No. He told me. He feels it has to be a Gryffindor. He doesn’t think that other people can—understand him.”

Blaise pauses with his throat jumping. He’s sure, he’s just sure, that this is part of Dumbledore’s manipulation. He wouldn’t even have to manipulate Black very much. All he has to do is suggest that a former Slytherin can’t understand anything about a former Gryffindor, and Black will agree. Blaise has watched with narrowed eyes as Harry spends more time with his godfather. He seems to be urging Harry to forget his new House affiliation.

“This is all Dumbledore’s business. You have to know that.”

Harry stares off into the distance for a second. Then he looks at Blaise and nods. “I do know that. But I want Sirius to get better. I want to live with him. And he’ll refuse to get better if he has to work with a Mind-Healer who was a Slytherin.”

Blaise sighs. The best thing he can do is make sure that Harry keeps talking to them and doesn’t go into a little shell because Black is an arsehole. “All right. Your gift is a book. It’s just taking a while to get bound and copied.”

“A handwritten book? What kind of book is it?”

Blaise meets his eyes. “I’m not telling you the subject yet. It’s just a book that can’t be copied by magic, because it’s old and it basically has protections against that. You’ll see it as soon as the people I paid to copy it are done.”

“People?”

Sometimes Harry is annoyingly perceptive. “Yeah. It’s also something that it wouldn’t be good for one person to copy all at once. There are—things in it that aren’t exactly—palatable to some people.”

Harry doesn’t ask the obvious question, whether it’s illegal or about the Dark Arts, but Blaise can see the curiosity shining in his eyes. He smiles slightly. He’s about to say something else when Theo interrupts.

“I wonder, Harry. Why do you want to live with Black so badly? You know there are people who would take you in an instant. You could even spend the summers with different people, the way you did with my father last summer. Perhaps this summer you could stay with Weasley, and the Christmas holidays with Draco, and so on.”

“Because Dumbledore would interfere in it,” Harry says, as if Theo should have known that already. Well, maybe he should have, Blaise admits to himself. “He was already unhappy that I couldn’t go back to—the Dursleys. Sirius is my legal godfather and he’ll have the ability to make Dumbledore happy and me once he’s better.”

“Cleverly argued,” Theo says softly. “Not clever enough, though. Come, Harry. Tell me why you’re so desperate for Black, why you aren’t considering alternatives when I know you can see the Headmaster’s hand behind this.”

Blaise leans back. He thought of saying for a second that they shouldn’t make Harry defend his choices, but he thinks now that if they hadn’t, then what Harry was concerned about might have slipped straight past him. Let Theo do the questioning, for now. He might have better luck.

*

Harry straightens his shoulders. He’s going to tell the truth, of course he is, but he’s also going to make it clear that this is not their business. He holds Theo’s eyes and waits.

“What is so special about Sirius Black?”

“He’s my godfather. Come on, Theo. Use that cleverness that you’re so proud of.”

Theo gives a faint smile. His head is cocked as if he’s listening to something Harry can’t hear. His fingers were tapping on his Ancient Runes parchment, but now he’s stopped them. “I want to know why that matters so much.”

“Theo—”

“You didn’t know him for most of your life. Of course you would want to see justice done for him, but that’s being done now. Why do you have to be so concerned about him? Why not wait until the Mind-Healer sets his thoughts to right? Which could take years.

“It can’t take years!”

“Why not?”

Shit. Harry calms his face and drops his shoulders from the hunched position they’ve almost taken around his ears. He wants to go somewhere else and stop reacting this way and apparently stop giving away clues every time he moves. But it’s too late for that. “Because I want to have somewhere to stay for summer hols.”

“And I’ve told you, you have other places you can go.”

“I don’t want to intrude on anyone.”

Theo pauses, and then smiles. “That’s true, but it’s not the only truth.” His voice is soft but penetrating, and Harry realizes that he must have cast a Privacy Charm around them. He wouldn’t be speaking like this otherwise. “Come on, Harry. Can’t you tell one of your friends? Are you afraid that I’m going to betray you to my father?”

“No. Not—that.”

“Then come on, Harry.”

Harry reaches for and finds the courage to refuse, one more time. “You would tell me that I’m being stupid and I should go and talk to Snape. And I don’t want to do that.”

“Hmmm. That’s harsher than I think we would be.” Theo moves his eyes over to Blaise, but his head doesn’t move. Harry realizes that Theo is kind of creepy. Maybe not as creepy as Daphne and that cold smile like glass she gave him the other day when he thanked her for the pendant, but pretty scary right now. “Why would we tell you that? Unless it is a stupid plan. Something a lot stupider than you’ve done in the past.”

Harry grinds his teeth. But he’s kind of got them off the track. They think it’s something he’s going to do instead of something he thinks. “Keep dreaming, Theo.”

“We’re your friends. We won’t call you stupid.”

Harry sighs and stares at the wall for a second. “Listen, can I have time to think about it? I just—I know you and Blaise and Ron and Hermione are fine, it’s some of the others that worry me. Gryffindor and the whole school turned on me half the time I’ve been here…”

“So you’re still a little paranoid.” Theo relaxes. “All right, a few days. But then we are going to ask. No matter how you want to phrase it.” He hesitates, then adds, “You can phrase it as clumsily as you want. We aren’t going to care.”

“That’s—big of you,” Harry says, and it actually is. He gets up, claps Blaise’s shoulder, and goes over to do the same to Theo. Theo is watching him with narrowed eyes now, as if he senses the truth behind Harry’s ploy: the few days will let him make up a convincing-sounding lie about the “plan” that he didn’t want to tell them about. But Harry smiles, and Theo seems willing to let it go. “All right. Thanks, you lot.”

“It’s fine,” Theo says, and goes back to his homework. Blaise continues thoughtfully studying him. Harry decides that it’s probably time to go up to his room and get some early sleep.

And work on his lie.

He can’t tell them that it’s because he wants someone all to himself. It’ll sound selfish and, yes, stupid. But a lie that they “know” about will be fine.

*

“You don’t think he was telling the truth,” Blaise says once the door to their bedroom closes behind Harry.

“Of course not.” Theo examines the last rune he drew while listening to Blaise’s and Harry’s conversation, and frowns. He’ll have to redraw it. The leg is crooked. “But we’ll have the truth out of him sooner if we hold back and don’t push.”

He looks up to see Blaise’s eyebrows rising. “I suppose that could work,” he murmurs.

“It’s going to work. I thought it up.”

“Oi, Nott!”

Theo cancels the Privacy Charm and turns his head slowly. Flint hasn’t given Harry any trouble lately, and he’s left the rest of them alone, too. Then again, he doesn’t often have any interest in someone who’s not standing in his way or making fun of him. “Yes, Flint?”

Flint’s grin is ugly, but then again, there’s not a lot about him that isn’t ugly. “You might as well know that you and your daddy aren’t going to survive long.”

“Oh?”

Yeah, Nott. There’s those who don’t like traitors, like you and your daddy. Traitors to the true Dark. Traitors to Slytherin House. You’d best think about that.”

“What fascinating fodder you’ve given me for thought, indeed, Flint.” Theo turns back and erases the crooked leg of the rune.

“Aren’t you listening to me, Theodore? I said—”

Theo’s vision blurs and his thoughts rush. So does his body. When his sight comes clear again, he’s standing across the room with his wand pressed to Flint’s throat. Flint’s eyes are watering and he’s leaning desperately back in his chair. Theo doubts that it’s really his wand that’s causing that. Instead, it’s probably the knife he drew on the way, which is pressing against Flint’s groin. Not that most people sitting across the common room would be able to see that. And Blaise will only know it’s there because Theo has done this before.

“You were saying, Flint?” Theo asks, and his voice is a clotted snarl.

Flint’s eyes widen and some more sweat leaks down his face. “Sorry,” he whispers. “Theo.”

“That’s better.” Theo moves backwards and tucks the knife away before he makes his way back to his seat. Some of the firsties have shaking hands and wide eyes and whispers going on. Theo ignores them. No one’s been stupid enough to call him Theodore so far this year, so it’s the first time they’ve seen it. As long as they’re smart enough to pick up the lesson, then he doesn’t care what they do.

“Your own fault, Flint,” Blaise says over his shoulder, and goes upstairs, shaking his head. Theo focuses on the rune in front of him until his crazily slamming heartbeat calms down and he can concentrate again.

Around him, the common room is as quiet as a bone under skin.

*

Draco sits up when he sees Harry come into the bedroom. It’s not often he’s alone without Blaise and Theo around lately, and of course when they’re in the library the big study group is always around them. Well, Draco’s not wasting this opportunity. “Time’s up, Harry. I want the answer to one of my three questions.”

Harry stops walking for a second. Then he shakes his head and goes over and sits down on his bed. “Just one?”

“Yes,” Draco says, a little unnerved. Harry seems weirdly unconcerned. “It’s an important question. And you have to answer it truthfully, and you can’t leave out important details.”

“You and I might disagree on what’s important.” Harry faces him with his arms folded. “Fine. Ask.”

Draco breathes out slowly and does. “Exactly how badly did your family treat you?”

He sees the frozen expression on Harry’s face and winces a little. He knew this would get a bad reception. But he wants to know.

And he waits, and Harry glares at the wall, and Blaise comes into the room and Draco grinds his teeth, but Harry glances at Blaise, and Blaise leaves, and then Harry turns to Draco and begins to talk.

Chapter Text

Harry knows he has to be careful. He could say some things that would really upset Draco. He wants to avoid that. Draco doesn’t need to hear everything. He doesn’t deserve to yell and turn red and—whatever would happen when he hears what Harry’s life with the Dursleys was really like.

But he also needs to tell some of the truth, or Draco will just accuse him of lying and get worse and worse.

“All right. They didn’t want me there. They didn’t tell me I was a wizard—”

“So—wait. You’re saying that you got on the train to Hogwarts completely ignorant?”

“No. But Hagrid only took me to Diagon Alley a month before. So when I saw you in the robe shop, I’d only known I was a wizard for a day.”

Draco doesn’t seem to hear. He’s nodding and trying to look wise and only looking stuck-up. “I wondered why you didn’t come and find me. But it was because you didn’t know any better. You sat with Weasley and refused my hand because you didn’t know any better—”

Stop it,” Harry snaps, and watches Draco flinch. He’s not going to feel bad about that, though. “You’re degrading Ron. I refused to shake your hand because you were insulting and a git.”

“Weasley insulted my name first!”

“You insulted him right back. And he was the first friend I ever had. I’d do it differently now, but that was me then. And you’re the reason I wasn’t in Slytherin in the first place, so you should blame yourself for that. Not me not knowing anything.”

Draco gets distracted, the way Harry knew he would. His face turns so pale that he looks like he’s going to fall off the bed. “You—you made your whole decision based on me? Or, wait, how could you make the decision? The Sorting Hat just puts you in one place and it’s done!”

“It did that for you and Ron and some other people. But I know it offered me Slytherin, and I told it I didn’t want to. Because of you and because I’d heard that all evil wizards came from Slytherin. I didn’t want to be in the same House as the man who killed my parents.”

“That was Weasley telling you that nonsense about evil wizards, though, wasn’t it?”

“And Hagrid.” Harry’s happy with the way this is going. He won’t have to tell Draco about the Dursleys if he can just keep him talking about the Sorting Hat and being in Slytherin until the others have to go to bed. “But now I know it’s not true. And I don’t have anyone telling me Slytherins are evil anymore—”

Except Sirius.

Harry winces, but Draco has, unfortunately, turned back to the beginning of the question. “So why did you relatives keep you so ignorant? You can’t tell me that’s normal. Muggleborns’ parents don’t know, but that’s sense. Your family had to know since your mum was a witch.”

“Aunt Petunia hated my mum.” Even now, after Aunt Petunia has been dead for months, it’s not easy for Harry to talk about. It’s strange to think about how much his aunt must have hated his mum. She was dead for years, she didn’t live, she didn’t get saved by her magic, and Aunt Petunia still hated her and wouldn’t talk about her. “She didn’t want to tell me anything because she wanted to pretend there was no such thing as magic. And my uncle was the same way. They thought I wouldn’t ever be able to be a wizard if they just didn’t tell me anything.”

“That’s abusive.”

Harry flinches. Then he tries to keep himself from flinching, because Draco will spring on that, too, if he notices. “Fine, it was. But I thought you wanted to hear about how they treated me, not talk about it yourself.”

Draco frowns. He makes a little swirling “go-ahead” motion with his hand, though, and Harry goes ahead.

“They yelled at me all the time. If I used the word magic, I got yelled at. If I used accidental magic, I got yelled at. I didn’t know it was accidental magic, of course.”

“What did they tell you it was?”

“They didn’t tell me it was anything. They just didn’t want to acknowledge it happened. I shrank one of my cousin’s jumpers so I wouldn’t have to wear it and my aunt decided her washing must have shrunken it. I Apparated onto the roof and they thought I’d climbed up there to get away from my cousin and his friends—”

“You accidentally Apparated? You must be really powerful!”

Harry hates the look in Draco’s eyes. Hates it so much that he yells at him. “I’m not powerful! I didn’t know what I was doing! I haven’t ever done it again! I just did it, okay? And anyway, I turned a teacher’s hair blue and made all my hair grow back after a bad haircut, too. That’s not powerful.”

*

Draco blinks and says nothing. Harry seems to be sensitive about this, and after a second, Draco thinks he knows why.

He’s powerful, but this doesn’t make him feel powerful. His relatives were awful and they were in control of his life for a long time. So he feels weak when he talks about them. And he reacts with scorn to people saying that he’s not weak, even though that’s the truth.

Draco tries to smooth his face down into calm acceptance. Later, maybe, he can convince Harry that he really is strong, and that he should use that fact to his own advantage instead of just waiting around for someone else to use his magic for him. “Okay. What else did they do?”

“Insulted me. They called me ‘freak,’ and I didn’t know why. Well, I mean, for things like my magic and my scar, but I didn’t know that then. And my cousin might not even have known about my magic. He just called me ‘freak’ because his parents did.”

“I don’t like your cousin.”

“I don’t care whether you like him. He’s probably living with his Aunt Marge now, and he’s just a kid like me, and I don’t care if I ever see him again. But he wasn’t as wrong as my aunt and uncle were.”

“You said he chased you with his friends! How can you forgive him?”

“The same way I forgave you, even though you insulted my friends. And that’s something you’ll have to apologize for, you know.”

Draco opens his mouth to protest, then closes it again. He knows Harry is trying to get him off-track, and he’s not going to let him. This is fascinating, and it’s frustrating to be told he has to apologize to Weasley and Granger, but he needs to hear more.

“Did your cousin beat you up?”

“With his friends.”

Draco nods. “And your aunt and uncle didn’t stop him.”

“They thought it was funny.”

Draco swallows. Those words tell him a lot about what Harry’s life was like, and he knows Harry would probably be mortified that he knows. But honestly, he doesn’t think that it’s bad. Harry doesn’t seem to talk about this much with anyone else, except maybe Professor Snape. It’s good that Draco knows.

“What else did they do to you?”

“Not give me a bedroom until I started getting Hogwarts letters and they thought someone was watching them.”

“Did they make you sleep on the kitchen floor or something?”

“Why so horrified, Draco?” Harry’s voice is smooth and his smile is sharp. Draco has never seen a smile like that before and he doesn’t ever want to see it again. “You probably made the house-elves sleep there, right? And you thought it was a perfectly fine bed for them. My relatives thought of me as a house-elf. They thought the same way. You ought to think it’s perfectly okay.”

Draco understands, again, in a way that he doesn’t think he would if he didn’t know about his parents, or his father. Harry is lashing out because he wants to hurt Draco. He doesn’t want to answer the question. He wants to make him back off.

Draco shakes his head. “I treated Dobby badly, and I’m sorry. But that isn’t the same as what your relatives did to you. Where did they make you sleep, Harry?”

Harry glances aside, his smile fading. Draco’s glad. “In a cupboard.”

Draco feels as though all the pudding he ate in the Great Hall is going to come out his mouth. He waits until he knows he isn’t going to vomit, and then he nods and says, “I’m sorry they did that to you.” Harry stares at him in silent, stunned astonishment. It hurts, a little. “And they made you do all the chores, since you were their house-elf?”

“Yes.”

“Things like cleaning the house? Weeding the garden? Cooking the food?” Draco has to know. He’s throwing out all the ones he can think of, and he expects Harry to stop nodding any time now, but he just keeps on doing it, and Draco is discovering that you can’t really kill people who are already dead.

“Yes. And some other things. Washing the laundry and cleaning up after my cousin and things like that. And washing the car—the things the Muggles drive. Maybe you saw them in King’s Cross Station.”

“I didn’t see them. I’m glad I didn’t.” Draco makes his voice flat. He knows there’s something else missing, too, although he honestly doesn’t know what it is. “Did—did they do anything else to you?”

“It would be a more satisfying story if I got beaten, right? Or if I learned to hate all Muggles because of that?” Harry tilts his head. “No, there’s nothing else, Draco. They never really beat me. Once my aunt swung a frying pan at my head. My uncle shoved me around. Dudley is the one who beat me up with his friends. But I didn’t get abused in the traditional way.”

“Shit,” Draco whispers, feeling but ignoring the fact that his parents wouldn’t want him to say that. “It—what happened to you is enough. You don’t have to act like it’s not.”

Harry just gives him a sort of twisted smile. “I wondered because you’re sitting there like it’s all too overwhelming or something, but I promise that this is what happened. I’m not exaggerating. I probably shouldn’t have told you everything, anyway. You look like you want to cry or murder someone.”

“I do not want to cry,” Draco snaps. “Except maybe for you, because you went through that. And you’re still sitting here and lying to me!” He’s sure about the lying. Just not sure what it’s about.

“I told you everything.”

Harry’s looking at him with big, guileless eyes, and all Draco can think is that he’ll never trust anyone who tells him that Gryffindors aren’t good liars again. Well, maybe Harry in particular is a good liar because he was supposed to be in Slytherin House all along, but Draco has to wonder about Granger and her big eyes now.

“No, you didn’t. You have to tell me everything. You told me about the insults and that they kept you in a cupboard. What could be worse?”

*

Harry hesitates. Now that he thinks about it, he should have fought to keep the cupboard from Draco before anything else. That’s definitely the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to him, and it makes Draco look at him in an embarrassing way. Next to that, what does a little starvation matter?

“Okay. Sometimes they didn’t give me as much food as they should. They would shut me in the cupboard and tell me I couldn’t have any meals. That happened when I was at the zoo with my cousin on his eleventh birthday and I vanished the glass accidentally and let the snake out when he was taunting it.”

Draco stares at him. Then he turns around and casts a spell that Harry has never heard before. He tenses up, then blinks when it just makes a crystal vase appear at the side of the bed. Draco picks the vase up and hurls it against the wall. Harry jumps at the crash.

He watches Draco clean up the pieces with an angry wave of his wand, and then he says, “Um. What was that?”

“A Malfoy spell. We’ve got all these ugly heirlooms that we can’t get rid of. That spell pulls a breakable heirloom to us and then we can break it any way we like.” Draco takes a deep breath, like he’s about to describe the spell some more, and then he turns to face Harry. “I cannot fucking believe they starved you. Is that why you’ve always been so small and skinny?”

And now Harry really wishes that he’d kept that secret to himself. “You asked the question about the Dursleys, and I already told you a lot,” he says firmly, instead. “I’m not going to tell you anymore. If you want to know about other things, then you’ll have to use another question. Do you want to use another question?” He almost hopes Draco does. Then he can burn through two of them in one evening and get them out of the way, with all the shame and embarrassment.

Infuriatingly, Draco just shakes his head. “No, I think I’ve learned enough for tonight,” he says, and he stands up and walks to the door. He hesitates there, like he is about to ask something else, and then he walks out and shuts the door behind him.

Harry wastes no time washing his face and brushing his teeth and changing into his pyjamas. He knows that Blaise and Theo might want to come in and ask him something else, and he needs the time alone. He knows he needs to think up a good lie.

Because, after seeing the expression on Draco’s face, there’s no way he can tell them what Sirius means to him, or why he needs family of his own.

*

Tarquinius pauses when he sees the color of the bird flying towards him. It’s the first pink owl he’s ever seen.

Of course, that tells him who it must be from. He’s glad that he’s managed to sculpt his face into an expression of relative calm by the time the owl lands on the perch next to his window. It watches him doubtfully for a moment, from eyes the color of garnets, as if it assumes that he can’t possibly be who it’s looking for. Then it extends its leg.

Tarquinius casts all the usual detection spells over the letter, which is the first thing he’s done that seems to earn the owl’s approval. Tarquinius ignores that, though. He’s much more interested in unrolling the scroll and casting yet another spell that makes the sigil at the bottom, a rearing serpent in gold, glow red.

Good. This is authentic, and the message that he’s been waiting for.

And the message is short, to the point, and, more important, an acceptance of his proposal. Someone who is a Parselmouth and has a talent for serpent magic does indeed deserve to be protected and guided by the Speakers.

Tarquinius exhales. This solves several problems. His home would not be thought a fit sanctuary for a child for long. Dumbledore has had longer now to raise objections and would bring up the past in undesirable ways if Tarquinius gave him fuel. This way, Tarquinius can look innocent and noble and wise in placing Harry with suitable guardians.

It will keep Harry safe from Lucius. Tarquinius has seen the light in the man’s eyes, heard the note in his voice. He will move soon to gain control of Harry. And this is an impeccable wall placed in his way.

It will keep Harry safe from Sirius Black. Tarquinius does not understand the boy’s desire to live with a half-mad Gryffindor who can only tell tales of the past—or so Tarquinius understands from his son’s letters—and it’s best that he’s herded away from the man and Dumbledore’s influence as soon as possible.

It will frustrate Severus. In the long contest they are playing, this is not a small consideration.

And finally, it will be the best thing for Harry himself. Tarquinius believes that someone will manage to resurrect the Dark Lord eventually. There are Darker magics than the ones practiced in the Slytherin common room. The Dark Lord has probably taken advantage of them to make himself immortal already. This is the best way to combat him. The Speakers are stronger together than the Death Eaters ever were.

Tarquinius writes the acceptance and watches the owl wing away. He’s turning towards the doorway from the owlery when the coughing fit takes him.

It’s worse than the others, much worse. Tarquinius coughs until it feels like jabbing knives into his own lungs, and he forces himself to stop. He lifts his fingers to his lips, and they come away with blood on them.

Tarquinius feels a distant brush of fear, as if the owl is still there and has touched him with a plume. But he shakes his head. The Healers are confident that they have this under control. And no one could have cast a curse on him. He passes every morning through a variant of the anti-theft waterfalls at Gringotts that wash away all the magic on his skin. This is a disease, nothing more.

He will get it treated.

He will survive, and thrive, where so many others didn’t.

Chapter Text

“Have you made up your mind about telling us the truth?”

“Yes.”

Theo doesn’t actually trust the smooth face that Harry’s wearing for a second, but that’s all right. He sits down next to him and butters his toast. There’s still food to be eaten. Books to be read. And messages from the Nott house-elves to treasure in all their crinkling parchment in his pockets.

Harry stares at the far wall throughout most of breakfast. Theo is satisfied to see that Professor Snape is watching him from the staff table. Harry isn’t going to get away with this for very long.

“So. Care to spill?” Theo finally asks, when there’s only about five minutes left of breakfast and Blaise has settled in on Harry’s other side. Draco and Daphne are sitting further down the table, glancing over now and then. Draco’s glances are a lot more cautious than Daphne’s. Then again, Harry is wearing that pendant that means he’s accepted her alliance. So maybe Daphne has a reason to feel smug.

Harry sighs. “Okay. You know that the Muggles didn’t treat me that well when I was growing up.”

Draco jumps as though he’s been pricked by a pin, although Harry’s voice isn’t loud. Theo simply holds his calm expression. “I know.”

“I want to have something stable,” Harry says, lowering his voice. Blaise and Theo are listening intently; he probably knows that he can speak like this and they’ll still hear him. “Something that won’t change. And my only hope of having that is Sirius. He’ll get healed by this Mind-Healer and then I’ll have something stable.”

“Black is the least fit person to have custody of you.”

“He’s the only legal choice.”

“He can—”

“I don’t want to move from house to house the way you were suggesting, Theo.” Harry sounds tired. “I don’t want to be a nomad. This is the only way that I’ll have someone who can stay in one place and I can live there, not just visit.”

“Black is dangerously unstable,” Blaise says in a bland, helpful voice. “You can’t just go to him and expect things to work out, for reasons that we’ve already discussed, Harry.”

“I don’t have a choice.”

There’s so much bitterness underlying those words that Theo pauses for a second. He wonders when the last time was that Harry felt he did have a choice, and how much he wants one. Perhaps he isn’t welcoming his friends’ help for that reason, because he thinks that they’ll just make his decisions for him.

But Blaise, who doesn’t seem to be struck with the same thought, is persisting in his quiet way. “You’re not thinking clearly, Harry. You can’t be. You really think that Black is going to make the best guardian?”

“Not the best one. Just the best choice I have.”

Harry stands up abruptly and leaves the table, heading for the door. And it’s true that they have to follow him or they’re going to be late to Herbology, but Theo can feel his stomach jumping still, unsettled.

This wasn’t the whole truth. Or it’s similar, but not exactly what Harry is lying to them about.

But Harry says nothing else, and there’s not enough yet to take to someone else, an adult like Professor Snape or who is actually him. Theo will have to wait.

*

Blaise glances around. They’re in History of Magic, and no one is paying particular attention to him. This is probably the best time to test whether he does have his mother’s Gift or not.

He focuses on a girl to his left. She wears Ravenclaw colors, but he doesn’t actually know her. He didn’t want his first test to be on someone he knew.

Blaise cautiously extends his magic, a thin thread of it. The girl starts and turns to look at her. Blaise gives her an apologetic smile. “Could I have your quill?”

Her hand closes on the quill, which is made from an eagle’s feather and expensive. She probably noticed that Blaise asked for it as if he wanted to keep it forever, not just borrow it. That’s because he does.

Blaise leans his head on his fist and sends more magic at her. It doesn’t actually work best to weave it in loops around her, he finds. Instead, it seems to be best to beam at her like he’s the sun. The girl’s face becomes dazed, and she picks up the quill and holds it out. Blaise takes it and admires it. The very edges of the upper plume are touched with silver.

“Thank you,” he says, and bows his head at her. Then he releases her, and she turns around and digs out another quill from her bag to copy some of Binns’s words down as if nothing happened.

Blaise swallows. So he has the Gift. His mother mentioned once that he should speak to her instantly if he ever manifested it. Blaise knew she didn’t actually expect him to do that, though. She thought he didn’t have it.

But Blaise never intends to tell her.

The use he makes of it is going to be his and his alone.

*

Draco tears up yet another letter to his father. He knows he should write him. This is important information, the extent of Harry’s mistreatment. It could be a way to bring down Minister Fudge and Dumbledore. Right now, they don’t have as much power as they did, since everyone found out about Black being denied a trial, but they still have too much. Father would want to know.

And yet, Draco can’t. It’s like all the words turn to mud and he knows that he won’t convince his father with them. He has to make them just right, and no matter what he tries, they aren’t.

Draco Vanishes the pieces of the letter and looks over at Harry’s bed. The curtains are drawn, but Draco knows Harry isn’t sleeping. He’s become accustomed to the sounds that all his roommates make when they’re sleeping. Harry’s is kind of a soft snore, but not loud, as if someone told him once that he shouldn’t make loud noises.

Probably those bloody Muggles.

And right now, there are no snores.

Draco hesitates, then casts a Silencing Charm centered on his own body and gets out of bed. When he touches Harry’s curtains, he’s gladder of it than he was, because they send a vicious current of energy through his body. He yelps and cradles his hand, blinking at the curtains as they yank back.

“What are you doing?” Harry has his wand leveled at him.

“I knew you were up, and I am too, so I wanted to talk to you.” Draco settles down on the floor next to the bed, careful not to touch the outer edge of the curtain. “What are you going to do about your family?”

“Um. They’re dead except for my cousin. Hard to do more about them than that.”

“I didn’t mean that.” Draco winces a little at the sound of his own voice. That’s the petulant tone that Mother is always trying to tell him he should master. He sits up and tries to make it deeper. “I mean that you have to talk to someone about them.”

“I did.”

“What? Who?”

“You.”

Potter! Don’t be ridiculous.”

“I owed you the answer to a question, Draco. You got it. That doesn’t mean I owe you anything else.” Harry turns his back and flops into his bed as if that does, in fact, answer everything and he’ll just put his wand back, probably under his pillow, and go back to sleep.

“I mean that I think you’re still suffering from them. That can make you weak. It won’t make you a good leader. What are you going to do about that?”

Draco doesn’t miss the little flinch that tightens Harry’s shoulder blades at the mention of being weak. But still his voice is light. “I’m going to learn more magic so that I’m not weak. And I’ll fight Voldemort if he keeps coming after me. And I’m not going to be more of a leader than that.”

“You’re already becoming—”

“You know, when Cho Chang said she wanted to be part of the study group, I made her apologize to Luna. And then I thought it’s really not fair if I make one person apologize for their bullying but not another person. You have to do the same thing. You need to apologize to Ron and Hermione.”

What?”

Harry doesn’t say anything else. Draco wrestles some more with his incredulity. Harry said something like that once before, but Draco didn’t think he meant it. He manages to force his breathing and his heartbeat back under control, and says simply, “Then they should apologize to me.”

“For what?”

“Insulting my name. Insulting my family. Hitting me—”

“You think that’s on the same level as calling someone a Mudblood?”

Draco sits back. He wants to say that he doesn’t think so, no, because it’s worse, but he also knows that would upset Harry. He’s starting to wish that he never got out of bed and started this conversation. “You’re really upset about this, aren’t you? Why? You didn’t say anything about it for months.”

“I realized I was being unfair.” Harry sighs and rolls back to face him, his eyes glinting and strange without his glasses. “And maybe Ron and Hermione think I don’t really value them because I’m spending time around you and I made Cho apologize but not you. So you need to apologize to them tomorrow.”

“And you say you’re not a leader, even though you’re concerned about what other people think and keeping the harmony of this group intact.”

Harry just rolls back the other way again.

Draco gets up and sulks on the way back to bed. But surprisingly, he doesn’t feel upset when he lies down, and even though he still doesn’t have the words for the letter to his father, the worry has passed off. Just before he falls asleep, he realizes why.

Harry didn’t say he was going to kick Draco out of the group for insulting his best friends for years. He just said he had to apologize.

That’s a way of caring about what Draco does and says that he’s never had.

*

“Mr. Potter, stay after class.”

Harry gives Ron and Hermione an apologetic look. Potions is their last class today, and they were going to head straight for the library for the first meeting of the study group with Cho and Terry Boot, who says he knows a good thing when he sees it. And Draco was going to apologize today.

But Snape probably wants to give him detention for not spending enough time talking about his feelings or something.

“Yes, sir,” he says, and feels Hermione press his back fleetingly as she leaves. Theo and Blaise linger until Snape narrows his eyes at them. Harry faces Snape and bows his head a little. Maybe he’ll look contrite and Snape will let him off from the detention he probably has planned.

Snape leans forwards. Suddenly he’s different than he was a second ago, but not the way he looks when he’s giving Harry Christmas gifts and talks about the Dursleys, either. He’s staring at him and his eyes are wide. “When were you going to tell me about Dumbledore setting up Black with a Mind-Healer?”

Harry winces. It’s not something he consciously avoided telling Snape. He just—forgot. “I knew for a while.”

“He will not get better with anyone Albus chooses.”

“Well, he’s not going to open up to anyone who wasn’t a Gryffindor at Hogwarts, because that’s the way he is right now. When he gets better, then maybe he can talk to a Slytherin or a Ravenclaw or whatever. But right now, he has to get better.”

“What did Albus promise to pay you?”

Harry could pretend to misunderstand the question, but he doesn’t see the point. “Not in so many words, but I know that he won’t oppose me and Sirius living together, the way I want to.”

“You want to live with Black.”

It’s not a question. It’s a statement with so much raw pain in it that Harry can only compare it to the birthday when his relatives promised him presents and then gave them to Dudley instead. It was the first time he realized they would never love him no matter what they said. He flinches away.

“Have I not shown that I would take care of you?”

All of Harry’s frustration comes welling to the surface. More people, making decisions for him. Snape is different from Dumbledore in a lot of ways, but not this way. God, he hates people making decisions for him. They don’t treat him like a child when he has to kill basilisks and professors with Voldemort on the back of their head, why do they keep trying to treat him like a child the rest of the time?

“You wouldn’t be allowed to. Dumbledore would make you not do it. So Sirius is my only choice that Dumbledore is going to approve of, and he’s the only one who has the right to legal custody of me. It’s terrible, and it’s not what I would choose. I would make Sirius sane. I would make my parents come back to life. But at this point, I want something I can actually get. Sir.”

Snape is staring at him with wide eyes. Harry stares back. Snape should know this already. What, is he surprised that Harry does?

“I would do something,” Snape says like a promise. “I would go up against Albus and force him to let me take care of you.”

“You wouldn’t win.” Harry is so weary. He wants to go and be with his friends and make sure that Draco apologizes to Ron and Hermione, because at least that isn’t going to get stalled by Dumbledore being the Head of the Wizengamot or something. “Sirius is the only choice I have.”

“There are others who would fight for you. Others you know well have more power than I.”

“But they all just want to use me!”

“You think that Albus Dumbledore does not? Potter—”

“But at least Sirius doesn’t, and he’s someone who could love me for me when he gets sane, and that’s what I want! Someone who’s just for me and not thinking about politics and other kids all the time!”

Harry realizes what he’s done at the same time as he sees Snape’s face beginning to change. Towards pity, of course it is. Harry is so stupid. All that sneaking around and lying to his friends and then he goes and tells the one thing he didn’t want to tell to Snape.

He ducks underneath the spell that Snape throws, but he realizes too late that it’s not aimed at him. The door is locked when he gets there. Harry draws his wand, and then Snape Summons it and he’s standing there wandless.

“Calm down, Harry.” Snape’s voice is calm, but Harry still can’t look at him, because he knows what he’s going to see in those dark eyes. “I want to talk with you.”

Harry hunches his shoulders and says nothing.

“I have no children. You have stayed a summer with Tarquinius, who does. Where does this sudden desire to have someone all to yourself come from?”

“You have other Slytherins to take care of.” Harry folds his arms and sucks back in all the tears and sniffling and upset that want to escape into the center of his chest. “And it’s not sudden. I’ve had it for a long time. But why talk about it when it’s not ever going to come true? Now it can, because I have Sirius.”

Snape steps up behind him and rests a hand on his shoulder. Harry hunches again. He hates it when Snape touches him like that, because it feels—warm and protective and all the other things that Harry can’t get used to, because even if Snape didn’t have other Slytherins to take care of, there would still be the fact that he can’t take care of Harry.

“During the summer, I would not.”

“Dumbledore won’t allow you to.”

“I have favors I can call in.”

“You still wouldn’t win.” Harry can do this, he tells himself. He can make his own decisions. He firms his chin and his jaw and his voice and steps away from Snape and turns to face him. Snape still looks pained. But Harry is used to seeing adults look that way. It doesn’t change things. He makes sure that his throat isn’t choked up before he talks. “It’s okay. Sirius has the legal right. I want him to take me for the summer.”

“That would not be wise.” Snape is almost hissing the words, his hands curled in front of him. Harry eyes his wand. He’s going to try a bit of wandless magic to Summon it back in a second if Snape won’t let it go.

“Why not?”

“He is still immature even if he is saner than he has been. He has the werewolf around—”

“Remus has all that Wolfsbane you made for me to give him for Christmas—”

Snape takes a step forwards. This time, he’s the one who sounds as if he’s having a confession ripped out of him. “Black does not love you. He only sees your father when he looks at you. He will encourage the Gryffindor in you and nothing else.”

Harry stares at Snape, and for a moment, he feels dizzy. Snape is implying—

He wants to encourage the Slytherin in me, and nothing else. That’s all he’s implying. Harry shoves the dizziness away, Summons his wand with a wave of his hand, unlocks the door, and flees.

He knows, as he pounds through the corridors, that he’ll have to go somewhere and calm down before he can go to the study group. He’s too hoarse and panting and has his eyes too near to overflowing.

But he can’t deal with the fact that Snape might—care about him like that. It seemed easy at Christmas, when he could accept Snape’s gifts and smile at him and everything was all right.

But not now, not when Snape can’t win any legal battle and Dumbledore would never let him and Harry isn’t going to be stupid and wish for something that can never happen.

He’s mature and realistic and more grown-up than he was a year ago. He has to live with what he has.

It takes him a long time to stop trembling.

Chapter Text

Harry walks into the library and sees Draco standing uncertainly in front of the table where their study group usually gathers. Hermione has her arms folded and Ron looks stubborn and Blaise looks as though he’d like to leave the table and go bang his head against a wall.

Only Theo and Daphne look cool, but then, they usually do. Harry shakes his head and walks over to them. “What’s the matter?”

“He says he apologizes. But he doesn’t say for what.”

Harry turns and focuses on Draco. He doesn’t know exactly why Draco squirms a little whenever he does that, but he’ll take advantage of it. “Say what you mean.”

“But it’s so bloody humiliating,” Draco breathes. His face is turning darker than Ron’s right now. “To say it like this where everyone can hear.”

Harry waves his wand and casts the spell that he’s learned from one of Tarquinius’s spellbooks on the air around their table. “There. Now no one can hear us, and everyone here is already aware of what went on, anyway.”

Daphne smiles. “I’m not. I never bothered to pay attention to every nuance of Draco’s interaction with Granger.”

“Not helping, Greengrass.”

Daphne blinks and shuts up. Then again, it’s not often that Harry calls her by her last name to her face anymore.

Draco appears to be distracted by something else. “How did you do that?”

“I cast this spell I know. I promise that no one else is going to overhear us—”

“I didn’t mean that. I meant, how did you cast that spell without saying anything? I saw you wave your wand and I felt the magic, but I didn’t hear you!”

Harry blinks. He supposes that he’s practiced the spells he had trouble with, and that was one of them, for so long in his bed at night when he doesn’t want to wake anyone up that he can do it now without speaking aloud. “I practice. It is unusual to be able to use wordless magic like that?” Most of the books their study group is reading now don’t say it’s unusual.

“Oh, no,” Theo says.

“Then—”

“If you’re a seventh-year Hogwarts student.” Theo leans back and considers him from head to foot, as if he’s never seen Harry before. “You really don’t know the extent of your own power, do you?”

“What does it matter? We’re here so that Draco can apologize to Ron and Hermione.”

“What about him apologizing to you?”

“I don’t care about that, Hermione. I consider what he gave me for Christmas as enough of an apology. But you’re the ones who get to choose if he means the words he says, and if you’re going to accept them.”

Draco swallows and seems to realize that now’s not the time to discuss whether or not Harry can use wordless magic. He faces Hermione again and says, “I apologize for calling you a Mudblood. I should never have done that.” He sneaks a glance at Harry, but Harry only waits, because it’s not like that’s the only thing Draco’s done, maybe just the worst. Draco sighs. “And I’m sorry that I implied that you’re a know-it-all and inferior to me.”

“What about what you did to me, Malfoy?”

“I was getting to that, Weasley. I’m sorry that I sneered at you in class and insulted your House, Granger. And I’m sorry for bullying you.” Draco pauses for a second. “I really can’t remember what else.”

“Last year. When you were going around saying that you hoped Slytherin’s monster killed all the Mudbloods.”

Draco winces. Harry blinks. He honestly wouldn’t have put that on the list of things for Draco to apologize for. It seems like the whole school hated him, not Muggleborns, and Draco wasn’t the only Slytherin who seemed gleeful about the prospect of “purging” the school.

“Yes. I am sorry for that. I think—” Draco straightens his back with what looks like a painful snap and locks his hands together behind him. “I think that I did that because I don’t really know what death means. I’ve never seen anyone die in front of me. If I did, it would be horrible. But I didn’t know. I just acted like I wanted it.”

Hermione scrutinizes him, then smiles. Harry relaxes. Those aren’t the words he would have chosen any more than he would have chosen to ask Draco to apologize for that crime, but Hermione knows what she’ll accept best. “Then your apology is accepted, Malfoy. As long as you never do anything like that again.”

“Thank you, Granger.” Draco faces Ron. “I’m sorry for calling you Weasel, Weasley. I’m sorry for making fun of your family and their—lack of money. I’m sorry for taunting you because of your parents and your House.”

“And you’re sorry for attacking me and threatening to get Crabbe and Goyle to beat me up,” Ron prompts.

“Yes, I’m sorry for attacking you and threatening to get Crabbe and Goyle to beat you up.” Draco looks calm and resolute, but Harry can see how tightly his hands are locked together behind his back. This is hard on him. But probably not as hard as it was on Ron and Hermione to get bullied by him. “Do you accept?”

“No.”

“Ron!”

Ron scowls at Harry and Hermione. “You never said I had to accept. I can’t do that. I know that he’s only apologizing because Harry made him, and because he wants to go on studying with us so that he can do well on the exams. He doesn’t mean it.”

“Then I don’t have to apologize,” Draco says unexpectedly. “You don’t want to be my friend, fine. But I tried, so that means I’ve done all I can and I can stay.” He turns and looks at Harry for approval.

Harry wishes they would all stop treating him like he’s a bloody leader. He doesn’t want other people making decisions for him and he doesn’t want them to insist that he make decisions for other people. But since he was the one who came up with the idea for Draco to apologize, he has to at least make this one.

“What else do you think he should do, Ron?” Harry asks.

“Mean it.”

“How could he show you that he means it?”

“Stop acting like a git all the time.”

“I’ve stopped acting like a git to you! I stopped that when I started participating in this study group!”

“But you need to be sorry for what you did.”

Draco opens his mouth, looking furious, and Harry steps in. “This isn’t going to go anywhere good right now. Draco can stay. Ron, if you decide to accept his apology, great. But you don’t have to talk to him, and Draco doesn’t have to talk to you.”

Ron’s face turns red again. “Why are you letting him stay? He didn’t apologize because of his own free will!”

“Neither did Cho before I told her to apologize to Luna.” Harry nods his head at the far end of the library, where the two Ravenclaws are waiting for them to lower the privacy spell. They still look uneasy around each other, although Luna is smiling and Cho is just trying not to look at her. “She thought she could make things better by apologizing to me. If I come up with ideas like this, and people do them, then that should be enough.”

“What if I don’t want to be in a study group with Malfoy?”

“Then leave.”

Ron stares at Harry with a look of outrage. Harry doesn’t back down. It isn’t fair if he kicks Draco out when he apologized. Draco did what Harry told him was the price. Ron doesn’t get to control who’s in the study group. Sometimes he mutters about Theo, even though Theo never spoke a word to him before they started working together. Harry doesn’t intend to let it get to the point where he’ll have to make everyone in the study group a Gryffindor.

Ron slams his books around dramatically for a second, but doesn’t actually get up and storm off. Harry relaxes and lowers the privacy spell, making sure to say “Finite” aloud this time. Doing it in the instinctive way is stupid when it’s just going to result in people staring at him like he he’s dangerous.

Cho and Luna come walking up. Cho is smiling nervously. “Um, Harry, I know someone in Hufflepuff who’d like to be part of our group. He’s in your year. His name is Zacharias Smith.”

That prick?” Blaise asks.

Harry blinks at him. Blaise rarely swears. “What’s wrong with him?”

“He’s descended from Helga Hufflepuff somehow. He goes around scorning everyone who doesn’t have the blood of the Founders in them. Which is everyone, of course.”

Except Tom Riddle, Harry thinks, and wonders if he can find a way to slip the Heir of Slytherin into conversation. He shrugs. “Tell him that he can come along and the minute he’s a prick to someone here, out he goes.”

“I’m sure he can control his mouth,” Cho says, with a little glare at Blaise. “Thanks, Harry. He was busy today, but he did say he was interested in joining.” She sits down and spreads her books out. “Can we work on that charm that you said bounced hexes back at the caster? It sounds more useful than some of the other shields.”

“Sure.” Harry feels himself relax as he falls into the role of teacher. He doesn’t have to worry that much about Snape, he thinks. Sure, he said a stupid thing, but what can Snape actually do? He doesn’t have the power to oppose Dumbledore and Sirius. “The incantation is Murus rufus, and the wand movement is up from the height of your heart and to the left, sharp-like…”

*

“Why are you speaking with me, Severus? If you have a problem, then you need to talk to Sirius.”

“I do not think he will listen to me.” Severus forces his arms to remain folded across his chest instead of reaching for his wand. “Whereas there’s a chance that you will. You are the more reasonable one.”

Lupin gives him a tired smile. He’s standing outside Black’s quarters, where he seems to spend most of his time. “That’s a new opinion for you, Severus.”

“Do not joke. Did you know that Albus basically intends to serve the boy to Black on a silver platter, choose Black’s Mind-Healer, and otherwise make it impossible for Harry to extricate himself from the Headmaster?”

Lupin starts up. “If he tries to make Harry live with his cousin again—”

“I think that suggestion would be a long time in coming. I am more concerned about the fact that he could have Black legally declared sane before he actually is.”

Lupin’s face shuts down. “And that’s just your jealousy of Sirius talking, Severus. I don’t know when Harry started mattering to you, but I know that it’s not as important to Harry as the bond with his godfather is.”

Severus wants to snarl. He holds himself back. Harry is more important. “This is not about jealousy. This is about the fact that I watched Harry flying on his new broom yesterday with Black supposedly guarding him, and the mutt was encouraging Harry to risk his life.”

“Harry has James’s talent. I think a lot of the things he does that you think are dangerous actually aren’t.”

“Flying as fast as he can around the Keeper’s hoop and ducking his arm through it? That could break his arm, Lupin!”

Lupin looks troubled, but he shakes his head. “If you try to raise this with Sirius, he’ll only get defensive, and that will slow down his healing.”

“That’s why I want you to know about it. Black is likely to let you spend time around Harry that he’ll never let me spend. I want you to tell him not to try to make Harry into more of a daredevil than he already is.”

“I told you, it would slow down Sirius’s healing.”

“Even if you raise it?” Severus stares at him.

“Yes. Anyone who opposes Sirius right now is going to be in for it, and going to hurt him. That’s why Albus was trying so hard to find a Gryffindor Mind-Healer. Not really because he wants to control Harry and Sirius, but because it will make Sirius more comfortable. He’s opposed, he’s going to dig his heels in.”

“Listen to me, Lupin.” Severus’s tone of voice by itself is apparently enough to make the werewolf reach for his wand, because Severus hasn’t moved. “While everyone is prioritizing Black’s stubbornness, who is caring for Harry’s safety?”

“Sirius would never deliberately endanger Harry.”

“It’s exactly the accidental harm that I’m worried about! Need I remind you that the last time Black decided to have a bit of fun at this school, it nearly resulted in me being turned into a corpse and you into a murderer?”

Lupin’s face turns pure white. He swallows and Severus thinks he’s about to admit something, but in the end, Lupin’s loyalty to his friends runs too deep. He says, huskily, “Sirius didn’t mean to do that—”

“That is the point—”

“He would never do anything like that now,” Lupin cuts him off hastily. “I know you don’t think so, but he loves Harry. He only wants the best for him.”

“And if the best consists of flying so fast that he breaks his arm trying to be a Quaffle? Or his head? Are you still going to say that’s the best, Lupin? Or is it the best for Black?” Severus pauses, then pushes his point one more time. He thinks it’s all he dares risk. “Black would be hurt, as well, if something happens to Harry. Stop thinking that he’s a complete innocent and get him the help he needs.”

“He’ll get it. I’ve met Healer Hawksgift. She’s a perfect Gryffindor, and that’s what Sirius needs right now.”

Severus gives up in despair. He doesn’t know what else he can do at the moment, but he obviously can’t go through Lupin. “I had hoped that your days of standing back and looking uncomfortable while Black does his best to torture someone were over, Lupin.”

Lupin does look like he’s about to faint now. It’s cold comfort. He still values his old friends more than he values one friend’s son. Severus turns and stalks away. He’s going to do something.

And it’s increasingly looking as though his only choice of allies may be his old ones.

*

“That was great, Harry!”

Harry laughs and lets Sirius ruffle his hair. His heart is beating fast with excitement. Sirius told him that if he went as fast as he could, until it felt like his heart would explode, he would also do the best flying of his life. And that’s what happened. Harry swooped around the trees of the Forbidden Forest and nearly got an eye poked out, but that’s okay. It didn’t happen.

And Sirius is looking at him like he’s the center of the world. That’s what matters. That’s the only thing that does.

“Did you hear something?”

Harry looks up at Sirius in concern. Sometimes Sirius acts paranoid and jumps at shadows. On the other hand, he does have keener senses than most people because of his Animagus form, and they’re in the Forbidden Forest. Harry draws his wand cautiously.

Sirius sniffs loudly and looks around at the trees. Then he crouches down like he’s about to transform into a dog and attack someone. Harry tenses in anticipation.

Sirius does transform, but he leaps on Harry, barking, instead of running after danger. Harry laughs and goes down under him, rolling over and over. It’s nothing like the way that Dudley and his gang would sometimes make him do this, although his heart is still beating fast. Sirius is trying to lick his face and mock-growling and snapping his teeth playfully at Harry’s sleeves.

Harry finally sits up and shakes his head, mopping his face off with one hand. “Did you really sense something?”

Sirius shakes his head and takes off for the castle, his tail thrumming. Harry follows him, remembering to snatch up the Firebolt before he does.

This is what life should really be like: sneaking out of school and doing fun things with someone who loves him.

*

Daphne leans back against the tree behind her and touches her wand. Her Disillusionment Charm is getting better, if she managed to fool a crazy dog’s nose.

So Black is making Harry do dangerous things. Daphne watched him speed past the trees with a distant admiration and with terror clawing at the back of her mind as she realized her gift wouldn’t protect him from crashing into a limb and losing his life.

She has too much invested in Harry to simply stand back and let Black kill him because he has a fragile mental state or whatever. So that means she has to do something to make sure that Harry doesn’t end up with Black.

That should be simple enough.

Chapter Text

“I want to talk to you after class, Mr. Potter.”

“Yes, sir.” Harry keeps his eyes down and utters the words without looking up from the potion in front of him. He knows he’s doing better in Potions than he ever has, but he no longer thinks he’s really improving. It’s just that Snape is marking him better for substandard efforts.

The way he always does with Slytherins.

Harry is starting to think that Sirius is right. He’ll never be an actual Slytherin, but Snape wants to encourage that side of him and so he gives him good marks and pretend smiles and fake talks to make him feel better.

Harry stands passively off to the side as his friends leave, and Snape locks the door and turns to him. He looks as pale as he always does. Harry waits.

“I want you to know,” Snape begins, “that your—wish to be loved for yourself and have someone who will focus only on you is natural. I cannot be that person because of my House duties, as you surmised. But I have a list of candidates who can be.” He pulls out a piece of parchment that he lays flat on the desk in front of Harry.

Harry looks at the parchment and wants to laugh, because the first name at the top is Professor McGonagall. “Have you forgotten that my old Head of House is in the exact same position as you, sir? Or does it not matter because she’s a Gryffindor?”

Snape gives him an odd look. “What would that have to do with it?”

“You want me to reject the Gryffindor side of myself. You would never actually put me with a Gryffindor as a guardian. So you put her name at the top of the list when you know that I’ll have to reject her right off.”

“It is not my life’s goal to make you hate your former House—”

“Real House,” Harry corrects sharply. “It’s always going to be part of me no matter what you do. No matter what you tell me I’m allowed to do or like or act like.”

Snape blinks slowly. Then he says, “If you reject Professor McGonagall, then I believe that you must also reject the next person on the list.” He gestures at the name that Harry just stares at. He doesn’t know who that is.

“I have no idea who that person is,” he says, and his voice is high and sharp and—

He cuts himself off with a shake of his head. He was weak in front of Snape once. It doesn’t mean that he needs to be weak all the bloody time.

“She is Arthur Weasley’s mother.” Snape’s face is blank. “The Headmaster seems opposed to your staying with the Weasleys themselves. But Cedrella Weasley lives by herself, and although she is old, she was capable of caring for a child, the last I heard. She is also one of Black’s relatives by blood and one of yours by marriage.”

Harry swallows. Then he says, “I don’t want to stay with someone I’ve never met.”

“There are other names on the list that you can look at.”

“All of them are Death Eaters, right?”

“Why would I offer you a Death Eater for a choice of guardian? You know that Dumbledore would never let that stand. And I was under the impression that you wanted to placate Albus Dumbledore, or else your tame yielding to his interference in your life makes no sense.”

Harry feels as though there’s boiling water in his throat, and he can’t spit it out because then everyone else will get scalded. He hunches miserably in on himself and says nothing.

“You can look at the other names.”

Harry does, a fast glance. They all seem to be people he hasn’t heard of. “I want to stay with Sirius.”

Snape makes a fast movement, as though he’s going to reach out and shake Harry, and then he pulls back. Harry stares at him hard. Sirius hasn’t actually said that he should watch out for Snape, but that’s one of those things he assumes Harry knows and he doesn’t need to say.

“Why are you trying so hard to make him into something he is not? A sane, competent guardian.”

“I told you,” Harry says. “I hate that I told you, but you should understand it. Sir. He’s the only one who can love me and me by myself. He doesn’t have other children to look after. He doesn’t have grandchildren. Even—even Cedrella Weasley would have Weasley grandchildren to love. Sirius only has me.”

Snape looks at him quietly. Then he says, “He doesn’t have other children, but he does have other obligations.”

“What? He would have told me about those!”

“He considers himself under obligation to Dumbledore. For allowing him to stay free, for finding a Mind-Healer for him. Do you want to stay with a man whose loyalties are divided?”

“And that applies to everyone else on the bloody list!” Harry finds himself yelling, his hands clenched at his sides, and he steps back and swallows, appalled at himself. He can’t yell like that. Now if he wants to have any privacy or secrets left. But he has to keep speaking, because Snape looks as though he’ll stop him if Harry tries to be quiet again. “The Weasleys would probably be loyal to Dumbledore, too. The former Death Eaters would be loyal to Voldemort or to politics or the Ministry or something. You’re loyal to people who aren’t me. I want someone who will always put me first.”

“Putting you first need not mean putting you only. You could find someone else who had children or a family or obligations, and who would still protect you with all their power.”

“No. I want—for once in my life I want something for myself.”

“Harry—”

Snape put a locking spell on the door, Harry heard him do it, but that doesn’t matter. Harry faces the door and waves his hand at it. The locking charm parts like it’s made of paper, and Harry dashes out.

He stops running the minute he’s in the corridor, though. There are Hufflepuffs walking past on their way somewhere, and plenty of other Slytherins, and they’re glancing at him curiously.

Never let people realize what you’re really thinking and feeling. They’ll use it against you the way Snape does.

Harry lifts his head and meets a few pairs of eyes with deliberate blankness until they glance away. Then he goes on his way. There’s another class. And there will be lunch after that, and then another class, and then another study group meeting, and playing with Sirius in the woods. It’s all right. He can do this.

He doesn’t need someone to see what’s inside him and try to fulfill his every need. He has Sirius for that.

*

I hope you know what you are doing, daughter.

Daphne smiles and folds away the letter from her mother. The single sentence is permission. And she has all the parchment and ink that she’s likely to need for the next part of the plan. She probably won’t need to talk to her parents about it again until she reaches a part she can’t do by herself or until something stops working.

In the meantime, she faces Harry, who’s standing in front of the study group in the small classroom they’ve taken over for their own use. No one else ever comes here, probably because the walls are stained and cracked and horrible-looking. Harry has a patient expression on his face, and he’s looking at Nott with it. It makes Nott bristle. Daphne thinks that’s awfully entertaining.

“I can’t do it. It’s impossible.”

“I can do it. That means you can, too.”

“Yeah, but you’re Harry bloody Potter.”

“Exactly what is that supposed to mean?”

Harry’s voice is so polite. Daphne bites her lip to avoid giggling. It wouldn’t sound right for a descendant of the proud Greengrass family and someone allied to Harry bloody Potter to giggle.

“You have a lot more power than I do.”

“I don’t think power has a thing to do with it. Concentration and practice do. Most people never learn wandless magic because they’re children and children don’t concentrate enough on it, and then they have their wands and they don’t see the point of it. But I see the point of it.”

“What’s the point?”

“That someone might disarm you if you only have your wand. But if you have wandless magic, then you can always escape.”

Daphne looks thoughtfully at Harry. She thinks there’s a good reason that he thinks of escape first, and also why he’s chosen Nott to learn wandless magic first. But she can keep a secret.

Nott looks as though someone has told him to swallow a spider. He lays down his wand on the floor beside him at Harry’s instruction, and stands up and walks a few steps towards him before he stops. Daphne doesn’t blame him. Harry doesn’t have a wand, either, but he has a scary smile. Daphne can think of grown Death Eaters who would be unnerved by that smile.

“What am I supposed to do?” Nott asks.

“Think of what you want most right now. You have to focus on things you really want to do before you can start using wandless magic for other things.”

“I want you to stop smiling like that,” Nott mutters.

He says it softly, but of course Harry hears. “And you don’t know any hexes or charms or curses that could make me stop doing that?” He sounds politely disbelieving. Daphne approves. Harry’s manners have got better since they started spending time with him, and even Granger and Weasley are less rude than they were. No one can do anything about Lovegood’s staring, but Daphne knows a pointless battle when she sees one.

“Of course I do.”

“Then focus on how much you want me to stop smiling, and push your magic towards that target,” Harry instructs him, and moves back a step or so to wait.

Nott scowls, and his brows dive down. Harry faces him and closes his eyes a little. They seem to be struggling and straining with not a drop of sweat falling or a spell passing between them. But Daphne can feel their magic surging and crackling in the air, and even Malfoy looks nervous.

Then Nott sags forwards with a gasp. At the same moment, Harry’s wand flies into his hand.

“What was that?” Nott demands, standing back up. “I was willing your face to freeze, and you—what did you wish for?”

“My wand to come to my hand,” Harry says patiently.

Daphne has to stifle a snicker at the betrayed look on Nott’s face. Harry cocks his head a little. “Just because you didn’t think of it doesn’t mean it’s a stupid idea.”

“I don’t think it’s stupid,” Nott says, although Daphne thinks the expression on his face says differently. “But it proves my point. I really wanted you to stop smiling, and my spell didn’t work.”

“I think you need to want it more.” Harry drops his wand on the floor again, and moves away from it. “Now. I’ll wish for something else, and you try something else, too. Something you can wish for more than for me to stop smiling.”

“Can’t think of what that would be right now,” Nott mutters darkly, but he does pivot to follow Harry without complaint.

Daphne watches, and she sees the slight spark that Nott manages to make fall from one hand at last when he says he was trying to burn Harry’s wand. She participates, and so do Draco and Lovegood and all the rest, and even Zacharias Smith unbends enough to admit he’d like to learn wandless magic, even if he “refuses to humiliate myself in front of the plebeians.”

Yes, Harry is far too precious to leave to an insane godfather who will make him risk his life in the name of “love.” Daphne is sure that her plan will have better results.

*

“I don’t like giving you detention, Harry, but I will when it is the only way to get you to talk to me.”

Harry scowls at Snape and says nothing. He honestly doesn’t know what Snape thinks he’s going to achieve by taking Harry away from spending time with Sirius in the evenings. In the end, he’ll have long days spent with Sirius during the summer hols.

God, I want to go.

Sirius has been promising him that he’ll have the house at Grimmauld Place cleaned up by the summer. There will be a pleasant room for Sirius to sit and spend time with the Mind-Healer, and there will be a greenhouse where Harry can grow his own plants, anything he wants, and Sirius will expand the back garden so Harry can fly over it. And there will be something even more, something Harry can barely imagine, barely wants to think about, in case his anticipation makes it go away.

His own room.

Snape waits until Harry looks back at him. Then he asks, “What do you think is going to happen if Black doesn’t get cleared by the Mind-Healer?”

“He will.” It’s the one good thing about Dumbledore choosing the Mind-Healer, Harry knows. She’ll say whatever he wants. And Dumbledore wants Harry to live with Sirius. “He’ll be free, and I’ll be free.”

“Of what?”

“Of people wanting to use me.”

Snape sighs as if he’s being very stupid. Then again, Harry’s been hearing that sigh through all those years of Potions classes, and it no longer affects him the way it used to. “And you don’t think Black will bring you out for photos when Dumbledore wants him to? That he won’t encourage you to have interviews with the papers concentrating on how much Dumbledore is doing to fight the Dark Lord, and how likely the Dark Lord is to return?”

Harry hasn’t thought of that, and the words stick in his throat for a second. But then he says, “It could always be worse.”

“Harry.”

Harry wants to back up. Nothing good ever happens when Snape says his name in that deep voice. But Snape actually drops to his knees on the floor in front of him, and Harry winces. God, he doesn’t want to do this.

“Please don’t do that,” he tries to say, but his words come out as a croak.

Snape doesn’t listen to him. “Your only two choices are not abuse and being used. You can live with someone who will protect you from the press and listen to you. Someone who will respect your power.”

Who, for fuck’s sake?” Harry shouts, and then immediately wishes that he hadn’t done that. Snape is going to give him detention for months.

Snape only gives him an opaque glance and says, “There is a family named Yaxley who had a Death Eater serving in the Dark Lord’s ranks—”

This is your great solution?”

“Listen to me.” Snape’s voice is commanding enough that Harry does, although he scowls all the time so Snape can tell how unhappy he is with this. “Not every member of the family supported the Dark Lord. The Yaxley I just told you about went to prison, and that confirmed for the others that becoming Death Eaters was a loss. They have removed themselves from politics. They no longer seek to influence the Wizengamot. I believe they will remain neutral until the Dark Lord has been defeated for good or has taken over Britain.”

“Which will never happen.”

“You are so committed to fighting him?”

“He hardly gave me a choice, did he? Besides, he’s never given mercy to other people, either. So I’m going to make my own choice to face him. Why do you look upset about that?”

“I only wish that you, a child, did not have to,” Snape says, and he sighs a little before he manages to shake that off. “All right. This is what I’m trying to tell you. The Yaxley family can get away with their neutrality partially because they have strongly-defended homes that the Ministry and wizards sympathetic to the Dark Lord can find no excuse to raid, and partially because they are themselves powerful. They are looking for something to change the political situation. The family as a whole would do you no good, but there is one woman, Themis Yaxley, whose great-nephew was the Death Eater who went to prison. He is her only close relative left. She has washed her hands of the rest of her family and asks only to be left alone.”

“Then she won’t want to adopt me, either. Or be my guardian, whatever. No one would leave her alone.”

“She asks only to be left alone. What I believe she wants is very different. I—met her, once.” Snape’s expression says that he isn’t going to tell Harry how that meeting happened. “She wants revenge, too. On the Dark Lord and the Ministry, who barely gave her great-nephew a sketch of a trial but let far more influential Death Eaters walk free. She would enjoy the ability to spite them all. Being your guardian would let her do that. And she keeps her promises.”

Harry snorts a little. “She sounds like the best option, if Sirius didn’t exist.”

“Harry—”

“You still need my consent. And the only person I consent to be with is Sirius.”

And Harry shuts his mouth after that. Snape tries to get him to talk. He cajoles him. Harry stares with silent eyes. Snape finally gives up in disgust and sets him to writing lines, after telling him that he’ll have another detention next week for his language earlier.

Harry doesn’t like alienating Snape, but the man is never going to stop trying to take him away from Sirius. Harry has to make it clear where he stands.

And he’ll do the same thing for Themis Yaxley, and Tarquinius Nott, and anyone else who thinks they have a right to interfere in his life.

Chapter Text

Daphne copies the letters carefully, glancing at the parchment each time she casts the spell to make sure that every flourish and curlicue of the words transfers. Then she leans back against the library shelf and breathes.

No one around her is paying attention. Probably they think that she’s copying notes for one of her classes.

Daphne gathers up the letters and walks calmly out of the library, aiming for the dungeons at first before turning towards the Owlery. No one seems interested in watching her here, either, but her parents have taught her caution. They have enemies in the Ministry, ones who would have loved to find, or fake evidence of, a Dark Mark on her mother’s arm. Some of those enemies might try to do her and Astoria harm at Hogwarts.

But she reaches the Owlery without incident, and calls the proper number of school owls over softly. They all settle on perches in front of her and stare at her expectantly.

“Take this to Augusta Longbottom,” she tells the first one, and watches the bird soar out the window before she begins to distribute the others.

In the end, all six are gone, to the Longbottom, Abbott, Macmillan, Fawley, Shacklebolt, and Slughorn families. Out of the pure-blood families Daphne knows, they are the ones most strongly allied both to the Light and to power. Slughorn might be a bit doubtful, but even though he was in Slytherin, he never fought for the Dark in the last war, and Mother says that he was always too cautious to practice the Dark Arts.

Daphne marches away from the Owlery, and heads back down to the common room. She has an essay for Charms to write.

And other plans to set in motion.

*

Severus watches Harry the next few days in class. Harry avoids his eyes and produces substandard potions. Severus doesn’t assign detentions even though he nearly chokes with frustration. They would do no good.

Harry has taken to either staying silent around him or only uttering “Yes, sir,” and “No, sir,” as appropriate. When he does meet Severus’s eyes from time to time, his own flare with hostility. He won’t let Severus do as he thinks best, won’t move an inch from his own appointed position as the godson of Sirius Black.

And Severus needs his cooperation. If he does not have it, the boy will simply run away from any guardian he is placed with. Severus understands his stubbornness that well. But nothing he can think of will win Harry’s consent.

He sits in his office supervising detentions at night, marking essays and feeling as though he could revolve plans in his head until Muggle doomsday and nothing would change. He could apologize to Black, but Black is likely only to jeer at him. And it would make Harry believe that he thinks well of Black, which is counter to his purpose.

The stalemate continues until one night in March.

*

“I have something new for us to try tonight.”

Harry can’t help the way his eyes widen or his heartbeat picks up. The times when Sirius says that are always the most interesting ones. And there’s a twitch in the back of his mind where he remembers that he’s out in the Forbidden Forest after curfew, but so what? It’s not like that’s anything new.

Sirius leads him deep into the Forest, sometimes as a dog, sometimes as a man, dodging the centaurs when they appear. Harry swallows deep lungfuls of air and tilts his head back to look up at the moon. Not full yet. Sirius will need to be with Remus tomorrow, though.

“Look.”

Harry lowers his gaze from the moon. They’re on the edge of a large clearing that looks as if someone made it, maybe the centaurs. There’s a pole in the middle of it. Harry stares at it. For whatever reason, he can feel magic radiating from that pole. It appears to be made of iron, but he doesn’t think it is.

“What does that thing do?”

“Watch!” Sirius is grinning. He jumps into the clearing and taps the pole with his wand. In a second, it starts vibrating. And then a huge clump of air turns red and whirling and edged with blades, and the whole thing attacks Sirius.

Harry shouts in panic, but Sirius is already dancing around it, and spells that Harry has never seen before are dancing with him. They’re shields, Harry realizes after a second, and he stops shouting. He watches in wonder as Sirius conjures them and then dismisses them. Every time the red cloud tries to stab him with something, he’s right there, holding them away.

The cloud fades out. Sirius turns around and bows. Harry begins to applaud frantically, grinning at Sirius. Sirius nods back, his face bright and shining.

“Now you try it, pup.”

Harry blinks a little and lets his mouth fall open. He doesn’t know any spells that do what Sirius does. “I don’t think I can—”

“Nonsense! I know that you have to be great in Defense to survive the basilisk and going after the Philosopher’s Stone. I’ll just set the pole at a lower level.” Sirius taps his wand against the pole, and it hums. The humming grows less while Sirius whispers a spell to it. “Come on, Harry. You can do it.”

“I don’t think I can,” Harry says truthfully. His back prickles with the way Sirius looks at him, but he really is telling the truth.

“You’re not scared, are you?”

Harry grits his teeth, because he knows that Sirius hates no one more than he hates cowards. Harry will have to move forwards now, even if he hates it, even if it feels wrong to him, because that’s the way it is.

“Of course I’m not,” he says, and he strides over and stands in front of the pole. Sirius nods at him and then moves back and whispers another spell that Harry thinks is meant to start the pole working.

“Okay!” Sirius bounces to the side and waves his arms around. “Let’s see what you can do.”

Harry faces the pole, wondering if he needs to tap it or something. But it turns out that he doesn’t.

He very much doesn’t need to.

A boiling yellow cloud comes out of the pole this time, and heads straight for him. Harry sees that it has no blades, but he can feel the heat from here. He saw steam like that in the Dursleys’ kitchen more than once. It might scald him.

Harry ducks and rolls. The cloud shoots by above him and then turns back around. Harry calls on the Shield Charm that he and the others have been practicing in their study group. “Protego!”

The cloud hits the shield and seeps around it. Harry rolls again, and hears Sirius say something that sounds like a complaint from behind him.

And then he doesn’t have the chance to move, since the cloud divides into two, and one of the tendrils comes at him from the front while the other almost stabs him in the back. Harry pushes raw magic at the one in front of him, trying to shove it back out of the way while—

Burning!

The steam catches him across the shoulders, and Harry screams. He recoils into more steam, and barely manages to turn his head and protect his eyes. He can feel his skin blistering the way it did when Dudley made him grab a hot pan one time, and Sirius is almost shouting himself hoarse.

Harry manages to concentrate. This is the kind of thing he’ll have to face in battle, and he can’t run around hiding his face and yelling pathetically then. He gasps, “Finite Incantatem!”

That takes care of some of the steam, but not all of it. In the end, Sirius is the one who has to banish it while Harry lies shivering on the ground, his teeth clamped on his tongue so that he won’t cry out.

“Harry, what were you doing? What happened?”

Sirius tries to pick him up, but Harry jerks away. He’s burned all across his shoulders, he can tell, and some on his face and neck. He manages to speak, even though it hurts, it hurts, it hurts. “I need to go to Madam Pomfrey.”

“No! We can’t! I’m not supposed to have this kind of magic device, and if they find out that I have it—”

Silencio.”

Harry looks up, blinking. And his heart sinks more than it did when he saw the steam cloud as Snape steps out of the trees. He looks at Harry with furiously glittering eyes, then turns and Summons Sirius’s wand when he tries to cast something with it.

“Since you cannot take care of your godson, I will,” he says, in a voice as soft as pine needles.

Then he picks up Harry with one spell and starts a continuously flowing stream of lukewarm water with the other, while Harry floats and shivers and tries to turn his head back in order to see Sirius. But Snape gets in the way, and after a moment, mutters a spell that Harry recognizes.

“I don’t want to go to sleep!”

“What you want, right now, is of no importance to me.”

And Snape says the spell again, and Harry forcibly has to leave all his dread and worry behind and embrace the blackness of sleep.

*

Severus looks up from Harry’s bed only when he sees movement near the door of the hospital wing. Madam Pomfrey has gone to contact an expert at St. Mungo’s and make sure that no one needs to be summoned, because Severus made a fuss until she did. Frankly, Harry’s fame should have earned at least the level of treatment other students would receive long ago.

Black stands there, staring at Harry.

“How is he?”

“Second-degree burns.” They’re the only words that Severus intends to utter, despite knowing that his spell and Pomfrey’s potions will keep him from waking.

“How—the spell wasn’t that harsh!”

And something within Severus rips free. It’s not unlike the rage that sometimes blurred his sight when he was still a willing Death Eater. He moves towards Black, who steps away and reaches for his wand before clenching his fist at his side when he doesn’t find it.

“You exposed a thirteen-year-old child to the defenses of a weapon used to train Aurors,” Severus hisses. He’s shaking. His hand trembles on his wand, and his tongue curls around a curse he would love to hurl. He only manages to restrain himself because he knows that Harry would never forgive him. “And you dare to stand here and look at me and pretend that it isn’t your fault.”

“It wasn’t! I never meant for this to happen!”

“The last defense of the thoughtless.” Severus discovers he is holding his wand pointed at Black’s chest. He manages to lower it, but only because he knows what distressed noises Harry would make if he was awake. “You didn’t mean for it to happen, so obviously that heals all wounds and pain.”

“Harry’s not really a child, though,” Black says, and he sounds as though he’s convinced himself. “He’s training with that little study group of his and he’s told me all about the spells he’s learned. He’s not just a thirteen-year-old. He’s special.”

“He is a child who would do anything to please you,” Severus whispers. “Who would fly a thestral to his death if he had to. Who would agree with any assertions you made. Because he thinks that you are the only one who cares for him as he is. But you do not, do you? You see a trained Auror.” He pauses. “You see his father.”

“Like you don’t, Snivellus! I heard all about how horribly you treated him until he got into Slytherin! You just saw James and you were upset that you didn’t get a chance to punish the father, so you went after the son!”

“That is true.”

“What?” Black halts and blinks at him.

“I did treat him horribly. I am still trying to make up for that, and I don’t think I have done a good job. But I am trying to make up for it. What apologies have you made for rushing off after Pettigrew and leaving him with his Muggle relatives for twelve years?”

Black dashes at him. Severus merely watches as the shields that Madam Pomfrey long ago installed in the floor of the hospital wing rise and protect him. Black won’t be able to make any offensive moves without hitting one of them.

Severus thinks that she might have got the idea from his own frequent feuds with the “Marauders.”

“You’re going to pay for this, Snivellus. I promise.”

“Not as much as you are, Black. There’s no way that I’ll let him live with you now.”

“Why don’t you ask Harry what he wants?” Black steps back, probably because he’s looking so smug now that he thinks he’s won. “He wants to live with me, and you can’t deny him.”

“He is still a minor child,” Severus says. “And your legal guardianship is only going to be reinstated pending a clean bill of health from the Mind-Healer.”

“As if there’ll be any doubt on that matter, with the one Albus found for me.”

“You don’t care about him at all, do you? You only care about his father.”

“Right back at you, Snivellus.”

Severus shakes his head. Honestly, arguing with Black accomplishes nothing. And he can’t tell whether the man is simply oblivious to the damage that Harry sustained or caught up in using Harry as a pawn to score points off Severus, or something else.

Just in case, though, to show that he gave Black the benefit of every doubt he could, Severus pulls the blankets back. Black can still see well enough through the shields.

Black starts to say something, but his breath snags in his throat.

Severus turns towards him, and nods. He knows what Black will see: the blisters, the weeping red skin, the way that Harry shivers with the pain even in sleep. “He will heal, but it will take days, and some potions to regrow the skin.”

“It’s not like I knew that would happen!”

Severus shakes his head again and pulls the sheet back up. In the end, nothing is Black’s fault in his own mind. He is either thoughtless and thinks that is enough to excuse himself, or he does things out of malice and insists that the targets deserve them, as with his pranks on Severus. “As you wish, Black. I’m sure it will make a grand comfort to Harry, to hear you say that.”

“He’s going to live with me!”

Severus makes no response. He can hear Madam Pomfrey’s footsteps coming back, and it seems Black can, too, and does not want to face her. He slips out of the hospital wing with one more flash of teeth at Severus that, fittingly, precedes his transformation into a black dog.

Madam Pomfrey steps inside and nods to him. “There’s a Healer coming through with some of the potions that I don’t have on hand.” She hesitates.

“What is it?”

“I wondered if Mr. Potter would prefer privacy. I didn’t tell the Healer who the patient was. Do you think we should hide his face?”

“Some of the burns are on his face,” Severus says harshly, staring down at the edge of a blister that he can see on the edge of Harry’s nose. The steam came close to taking his eyes. Severus is never going to forget this, is never going to forgive Black.

“That’s true. I suppose we had better tell her, then.”

Severus doesn’t reply, but he’s in intense, almost insane agreement. They will tell the world. Harry won’t be able to hide this. Severus is going to scream far and wide until he sparks public outrage that can counter Dumbledore’s intention to hand the boy over to a frothing ex-convict.

Harry has to live to live with someone who can love him. Severus will not give up now, will force the boy to talk if he must. Better that Harry hate him and live than die of Black’s carelessness.

*

Daphne smiles and steps away from the door of the hospital wing. She saw Professor Snape stalking through the corridors with Harry hovering behind him, and of course she followed. And she cast the charms that proved so useful before in avoiding detection, even by an Animagus’s nose.

She listened long enough to learn all the particulars, and hear Professor Snape’s and Black’s conversation, and to determine why the protections that she knows Harry has on him failed. This wasn’t the direct effect of a spell, but a side-effect, burns from a cloud of steam, like being hit by a stone uprooted by a Mudslide Curse. No protection can stop everything that magic can hurl at you.

Daphne treads softly away. She intends to send updated letters to the Light-oriented pure-blood families that she already told about Harry’s plight. She agrees with Professor Snape. Everyone is going to know soon that Harry Potter was burned while under the care of his insane godfather.

Daphne feels her smile fall. That happened. That nearly ended Harry’s life. It could have. Or it could have crippled him if the steam had hit his eyes.

She has a vendetta against Black now. She will wait for the proper moment, and he’ll never notice her coming.

Chapter Text

Harry opens his eyes slowly. For a minute, he doesn’t understand why he hurts, and then he remembers the steam.

He tries to sit up, but Professor Snape is already there with a potion. Harry tries to open his mouth and ask if Sirius was hurt, but Snape pours the potion down his throat instead. Harry chokes indignantly on it. He supposes it’s probably some sort of burn-cooling potion. Or maybe a painkiller. He would just prefer burn paste, thank you.

“Is Sirius all right?”

“Black wasn’t harmed.” Professor Snape’s voice is even as he holds out another potion, and Harry finds himself gulping it before he can even try to protest. It tastes like spit mixed with lint. Snape peers at him and nods. “There is no damage to your eyes. I feared there was.”

Harry swallows, and only part of him can pretend it’s to get the nasty stickiness of the potion out of his throat. “I—I don’t want to be blind. I know my eyes aren’t the best, but I don’t want to be blind.”

“Neither does anyone else want you to,” Snape says, and gives him yet another potion. Harry swallows it grumpily. He thinks he’ll glow in the dark any second now from the sheer effect of so much potion magic inside him.

“Where is Sirius?”

“He’s been banned from the hospital wing for the moment.”

What? Why?” Harry can remember the moment when Sirius said they shouldn’t go to Madam Pomfrey, and it makes him feel horrible, but he never thought it would go so far as keeping Sirius from seeing him.

“Because he came in here while I was waiting for Madam Pomfrey to return from St. Mungo’s and tried to attack me.” Snape takes a seat on a chair beside the bed, one that must be conjured or Transfigured, because Harry doesn’t remember seeing it before. “He can’t tolerate me near you. I must say, I understand how he feels.”

Harry glances at him quickly. “Why?”

“Because I can’t tolerate him near you. And I waited far longer than I should have in the Forest, observing you, before I came to your rescue. Can you forgive me, Harry?”

“You were there when—”

“Yes. When he used an artifact intended for training Aurors, an artifact that he should never have been able to obtain or conjure, on you.”

“Sirius didn’t mean to.”

Professor Snape leans towards him, and Harry finds it difficult to look away from those black eyes, even knowing that the professor is probably reading his mind. “That is what everyone says. That is what he said to me himself. And I wonder why it should be a defense. So he did not mean to. Does unintentional harm harm you any less? If you had died or been blinded, would he have gone to the funeral saying he didn’t mean to?”

Harry has to close his eyes. He knows what Professor Snape is saying, but he doesn’t want to acknowledge it.

“There you are, Mr. Potter! I hope that Professor Snape hasn’t been exhausting you.”

Harry turns his head to see Madam Pomfrey hurrying towards him. Following her is a tall woman with bright hair like Ron’s, dressed in the green robes that Harry remembered hearing once indicate St. Mungo’s. She has the crossed bone and wand patch, too. She nods to him and runs her wand in a circle that makes some of Harry’s injuries light up.

“He isn’t exhausting me, Madam Pomfrey.” Harry wants to go back to sleep and sleep for a thousand years, but that’s not Snape’s fault. “When can I leave the hospital wing?”

“Not for a while, Mr. Potter! The steam burns aren’t healing as cleanly as they’d like. I suspect it’s because they were inflicted by magic—”

“Yes, that is the cause, Poppy.” The Healer has a deep voice. She tucks her wand away and nods to Harry. “Can you tell me which spell this was, Mr. Potter?”

“I don’t know the name.” And that’s the truth, so Harry doesn’t see why Snape scowls at him.

“Describe the looks of the spell for me, if you would.”

“It was a yellow cloud. Um. Of steam.” The Healer only nods patiently, and Harry gets the impression that she’ll stand there until nightfall if she has to. He sighs. “I tried to shield, but it divided in half and went around the shield.”

“Sentient Steam.” The Healer sounds like Aunt Petunia discussing magic in general, but her eyes are neutral. “There are only a few places that could have come from.”

“One of them is an artifact used to train Aurors. The Iron Pole.”

Harry whips around to scowl at Snape, and then gasps in pain as that stretches some of the burns on his shoulders. Madam Pomfrey immediately bustles up with another potion, and stands there until he takes it. This one is sweet, which makes Harry suspicious. Then his eyes start drooping, and he fights it.

“Where would someone at Hogwarts have got an Iron Pole?”

“I don’t know, madam. But I have my suspicion as to the source. Would you care to accompany me?”

“Don’t—I want to come—” That’s all Harry manages to choke out before he can feel the potion almost pressing his eyelids into his face. He struggles to open them anyway. “Don’t hurt Sirius,” he manages to whisper.

“I won’t let them,” Madam Pomfrey says, but from the way she smiles, Harry isn’t so sure. He’s asleep before he can protest again.

*

“You say that the boy’s godfather was responsible for his injuries, Professor Snape? But why would a devoted godfather let his godson play with such a dangerous toy?”

Severus nods to Healer Helios as he strides rapidly up the stairs. He hasn’t seen Black since last night, and suspects the coward to be hiding either in his rooms or with Dumbledore. No mind. It will give them a clear path to where Severus thinks the Iron Pole came from. “Sirius Black is damaged from the months he spent in Azkaban. I don’t think it’s so hard to understand.”

“I was under the impression he had been cleared.”

“His trial cleared him of the criminal charges that mistakenly placed him there. But he has not yet seen a Mind-Healer.”

“That should have been a condition of his taking up the post of godfather to Mr. Potter again!”

Severus smiles thinly. At least there’s as much disapproval in Healer Helios’s voice as he’d expect. “From my understanding, one has been secured for him, but he hasn’t yet met with her.”

“Do you know her name?”

“Miriam Hawksgift.”

“She was stripped of the right to practice Mind-Healing in Britain a year ago! She behaved inappropriately with one of her patients. Who thought it was worth bringing her on?”

“Albus Dumbledore made the decision.”

Severus privately thinks it makes a great deal of sense that Albus chose a Mind-Healer who would be totally dependent on him for a case and would owe him further if he kept her secret. But he doesn’t intend to listen to Healer Helios’s expostulations right now. They stop outside the Room of Requirement, which Severus learned about a few years ago. He gives Healer Helios a glance and sees that she’s focused on the horrible tapestry hanging on the wall.

“Where is this place? A hidden storeroom?”

“Worse, Madam. A place where you can make a request of the magic that powers the school and it will create that object. Or hiding place. Or whatever else you want to tell it.” Severus turns and walks past the wall, thinking clearly, I want to find the place that Sirius Black took the Iron Pole from.

On his third pass, just when Healer Helios is beginning to watch him skeptically, a small wooden door appears. Severus carefully turns the waxed knob, even though he’s never had a bad result from opening a door into this room, and has his wand drawn when it opens.

He finds himself staring into a mass of jumbled boxes and books and chairs and so many other broken items that he wants to shield his eyes from the mess. But there is another Iron Pole, or maybe the same one if Black returned it, standing tall over the rubbish heap, and Severus nods to it. “It seems that there is a wealth of Auror artifacts in here, madam.”

Healer Helios is already casting spells, her face a leaden mask. One of them makes the Iron Pole glow a yellow similar to the steam cloud that attacked Harry. She lowers her gaze with a heavy sigh. “That is it. Thank you for bringing me here, Professor Snape.”

“It was my pleasure, madam.” Severus bows to her and leaves her to secure the Iron Pole in whatever way her evidence demands.

Sirius Black is going to have another trial. And Harry might hate him until the end of time, but at least other people now know both about Black injuring his godson and Albus hiring a disgraced Mind-Healer.

*

“I demand to see Albus Dumbledore.”

It’s only chance that Hermione is walking through the corridor towards the Charms classroom when she hears that. She immediately turns around. She knows what happened to Harry, and she does not approve of Sirius doing that, and someone demanding to see Dumbledore now almost has to be about Harry and Sirius.

The woman standing there is one that Hermione’s never seen before. She has white hair that’s done up so tight on her head Hermione winces. Doesn’t it give her a headache? And she has thin lips and a pointed face like a fox’s—or like Malfoy’s—and she has a huge ruby ring on her hand and she grips her cane as if she’s going to hit someone with it.

Professor McGonagall looks flustered as she steps out of her own classroom and nods to the woman. “I think Albus is in his office, Madam Macmillan. If you want to come with me, I can show you—”

“I know the way, Minerva. I only wanted to know where the scoundrel was.” Hermione has never heard anyone put that much depth of feeling into a word that’s not a curse word. “I will be on my way now.” And she sweeps away. Her cloak is long and purple and expensive and it flutters. Hermione watches her leave, and she knows her mouth is open.

Professor McGonagall sighs, and then she catches sight of Hermione. Her face darkens. “Not a word about this, Miss Granger.”

“Of course not, Professor.” Except to my friends. Hermione waits until the professor leaves, and then she goes to Charms. She immediately writes a note to Ron and shows it to him.

We have to have a study group meeting. I know Harry can’t be there, but it’s important.

Ron nods, his jaw clenching. He won’t like it, but Hermione knows that he’ll pass on the word to Zacharias Smith, who’s sitting not far behind him. Hermione sees Cho Chang in her Advanced Arithmancy class, and she’ll speak to her there. Cho can tell Luna. Hermione glances around and decides that she’ll find a way to tell the Slytherins as soon as she can. She’ll send an owl if she has to.

For now, she writes a note to Neville, who’s sometimes there and sometimes not, and slides it across the room when Professor Flitwick’s back is turned.

He might even approve of what she’s doing. That spell to pass the message is actually a very complicated charm.

*

“Greetings, Mr. Potter. I am Madam Gwendolyn Macmillan.”

Harry stares at the regal-looking woman in front of him. She’s tall enough that he thinks she’s probably the tallest woman he’s ever seen. She isn’t exactly smiling, but she is looking at him with an expression of sympathy.

There’s only one thing he can think of to say. “Ernie’s grandmother?”

“His great-aunt. The matriarch of my family at the moment, since there were too many people with no sense who have died.” Madam Macmillan sits down on the chair next to the bed, which is where Snape usually sits, and stares intently at him. “I am here to tell you that I think what Albus Dumbledore and your godfather did to you was shameful.”

Harry tenses, which makes some of the burns on his shoulders hurt. “What are you talking about? You know?”

“I know that Albus Dumbledore was going to choose the Mind-Healer for your godfather. I know that your godfather pushed you to use a spell he should not have and you were injured.”

“But I don’t want you to know! I don’t want anything to happen to Sirius! I want to live with him this summer after I’m healed! It’s the only chance I have!”

Madam Macmillan watches him, and then continues when Harry hides his face with his hands, because he didn’t mean to say that. “I do not want to separate you from your godfather permanently, Harry. But you must see that you cannot live alone with him right now. And a Mind-Healer who cannot heal him is worse than useless. It might make him overconfident, and you might get hurt again.”

“I want to live with him,” Harry whispers harshly. “And not anyone else.” He’s trembling. He knows, he knows, that Sirius hurt him, but all the other options are so much worse.

“I know. But you should have a secondary guardian as well. You should make the decision as to who that secondary guardian is. They would make sure that your godfather is attending sessions with a registered Mind-Healer that Albus Dumbledore had no part in choosing. They would see you on a regular basis and make sure that you are uninjured. Wild pranks or other ideas that your godfather comes up with could be vetoed. They would provide you a safe place to retreat to if your godfather became threatening.”

Harry lowers his hands slowly. He ignores what she says about Sirius becoming threatening, because he wouldn’t, not on purpose, but the rest of it—doesn’t sound bad. “I would be able to choose them?”

“Of course. Why wouldn’t you? You have power as the Boy-Who-Lived. Use it. A regular thirteen-year-old can be shuffled from home to home, but not you. Would you like me to run the press campaign for you?”

“What…press campaign?”

“While you aren’t an ordinary thirteen-year-old, there will be people who object to you choosing a secondary guardian because of your young age. You’ll need someone to spend time explaining to the papers why your situation is different. I can do that. Or you can choose someone else. I would choose someone with specific experience, mind. Someone incompetent would make as much sense as placing your godfather with a Dumbledore-chosen Mind-Healer.”

Harry stares at her. This sounds too good to be true, which means it must be. “But Dumbledore…”

“I have spoken to Dumbledore.” Madam Macmillan looks extremely satisfied with herself. “He had no arguments when I pointed out the specific laws he had broken—both in never giving Sirius Black a trial in the first place, and now trying to sneak through the regulations. He has no power where I am concerned, Mr. Potter. I am too rich for him to make worry about money, too well-connected for him to threaten politically, and too used to living my life in the relentless scrutiny of pure-blood society to have any blackmail material lying around.”

“But he could still threaten Ernie, couldn’t he?”

“I would like to see him try.” Madam Macmillan looks an inch away from cackling.

Harry blinks and gets back on track. “How did you even know what happened?”

“I received a letter with some of the details. It followed up on another letter that had concerned me, but I was still debating whether to act. After all, if your parents were alive, neither of them would thank me for interfering. They knew their own minds.” Harry can see why Madam Macmillan would approve of that. “But then I reminded myself that they’re not alive, and you might now know some of the things a traditional Potter would do in this situation. I decided to speak to you and find out what you wanted.”

“I want to live with Sirius.”

“You can. With adequate guardianship.”

“I want to live with Sirius without someone else interfering.”

Harry thinks she’ll tell him no again, but Madam Macmillan looks deeply into his eyes and asks, “Is that true?”

Harry swallows. He thinks of the burns on his shoulders and how he could have lost his sight if Snape didn’t get him to Madam Pomfrey when he did. He sighs and admits, “No.”

“Who are you and what are you doing here?”

“Arranging things, Severus Snape.” Madam Macmillan doesn’t flinch or look away from Harry. “Well, then. That’s something you can think about. Think about who else you want to live with, how you’ll manage your press campaign, and how you’ll make sure that Dumbledore interferes less in your life. You want to live with your godfather. That can work, if he’s healed. But only focusing on that and nothing else blinds you. You know that.”

Harry nods a little. Yes, he can see that now. He never even thought about the option of a second guardian, and he should have. When Snape started bringing up those other names, he should have asked about it.

But he didn’t. Because he thought Sirius was it and there was no one else and that was—just the way it ended.

“He will not be living with his godfather.”

“Yes, he will. With proper regulations in place.”

“His godfather will be tried for endangering a child soon!”

“Who in this room do you think has the most influence over the cases that come up in front of the Wizengamot, Severus Snape?”

Harry, meanwhile, is staring at Snape and feeling as though someone’s snagged a fishhook in the back of his throat. “You told someone?” he whispers.

“The Healer who came to see you. She insisted on knowing how your injury happened.”

“You didn’t have to—push for a legal case.” Harry is a little dazed, and he doesn’t like the sense of betrayal he feels. Since when was he relying on Snape?

Madam Macmillan sighs. “You never knew when to leave well enough alone, Severus Snape. Your mother was the same way, poor half-brained thing.” She nods to Harry and stands up, leaving Snape snarling at her back. “Think about it. I will be happy to help you, or you can choose another. But you should think about it.”

Harry lies back in his bed and closes his eyes. His shoulders hurt, and he wants to rest, and he wants to think. “All right, thanks, Madam Macmillan.”

“Call me Gwendolyn if you wish, Mr. Potter. But not Gwen. I despise Gwen.”

She leaves, from the tapping of her cane. Harry keeps his eyes closed. Snape is breathing raggedly.

Finally, Snape asks, “Why did you listen to her, and not me?”

“Because you hate Sirius,” Harry says. “Maybe you hate him more than you want to help me. Getting him tried and arrested again—and I’m supposed to like you?” He thought he was just going to talk in a normal voice, but suddenly, he’s yelling instead and he can’t help it. “Get out, get out!”

Madam Pomfrey comes in then, and says some things about Snape that Harry wishes he could listen to. But his mind is churning. He wants to rest. And he wants to think.

For once, he might have the chance to make his own decision about living with Sirius. It feels…

Wonderful.

Chapter Text

Harry thinks long and hard, lying there in his hospital bed during the night and looking up at the ceiling.

His brain felt like it was on fire before. Everyone wanted to deny him living with Sirius, except Dumbledore and Remus, and Harry knew he couldn’t trust Dumbledore, and it was hard to trust Remus. But he also knew Sirius loved him. That was the problem with all the guardians that Snape proposed to him and the things other people said. None of them would have cared about him. Just about politics or making themselves look good or sticking it to Dumbledore.

Snape might accuse him of not being very Slytherin, but Harry’s learned that much in his new House. You don’t just trust what people say to you.

But now Sirius has hurt him, and Snape wants to arrest him. Harry puts aside his blind fury at that for a second. Snape can’t get Sirius arrested all by himself. That means there must be people who agree with him, as stupid as that seems to Harry. Like the Healer who came from St. Mungo’s, probably.

So other people are going to think Snape is right. Harry has to prepare himself for that.

He has to be calm. He has to act rational, even though he hates the feeling. Otherwise, people will dismiss him as a hysterical thirteen-year-old, the way Madam Macmillan said they would most people his age.

What can he do to prevent that from happening?

He can choose someone as a second guardian who makes sense. Someone who will watch out for him but accept that Sirius is the most important person, because he’s the only one who loves Harry.

The problem is, Harry can’t think of someone who will make sense and satisfy all the other requirements, like convincing people that Sirius shouldn’t be arrested for child abuse.

Last year, I would have thought it was Dumbledore.

Harry swallows and tucks the thought away. Yes, fine, but that was last year. A lot of things have changed since then.

The second guardian doesn’t have to love him like Sirius does, though. They just have to be calm and rational themselves and have some good standing and be willing to let Sirius get treatment with a qualified Mind-Healer.

And they have to not hate Sirius. Which exiles Snape from any sort of consideration.

I can’t believe I was considering him in the first place.

Harry rolls over restlessly, then hisses in pain. Sometimes he still forgets about the steam burns on his shoulders, at least until he moves in such a way that they remind him. He lies on his stomach and stares into the darkness of the hospital wing. Some Ravenclaw firstie came in earlier today because of a Potions accident, but she’s gone to sleep, with little light snores.

I would have liked it to be him. He’s trying as hard as he can to get me to choose another guardian. But he hates Sirius. He won’t accept the plan of a second guardian. He hates Sirius more than he cares about me. If he didn’t, then he would have backed off when I told him to.

Harry sighs, and lets the thought go. As far as he can tell, it has to come down to someone who both makes sense and can’t be influenced by Dumbledore. That’s not very many people. That means it probably has to be Madam Macmillan or that Yaxley woman Snape was talking about.

Or maybe Cedrella Weasley? Harry wishes he knew her. He wishes he’d ever met her. He wishes he knew she wasn’t influenced by Dumbledore.

I’m going to write a letter to her tomorrow, he decides, as he drifts slowly away to sleep. And I’m going to put one of those spells on the owl that Theo told me about, so no one else can stop it from flying away without getting a nasty sting on the side of their hand.

*

Severus has to admit to a sharp clench of satisfaction in his heart as he watches the Aurors march into Hogwarts. And there are a few among them who have tight lines around their eyes, as if they always expected this.

Black wasn’t guilty of the first crime he was accused of. But they probably always knew this day would come. It’s hard to escape the shadow of Azkaban.

Severus has to wince a second later. He was in Azkaban for a short time himself, before Albus vouched for him and freed him. He suspects that some of those Aurors would look at him and think the same thing about him that they are thinking about Black. He knows that Albus thinks Severus still under his influence, in his debt, for remaining free of the place.

He has tricks up his sleeve that Albus could not have anticipated, however.

“Where is Sirius Black?” The woman at the head of the Aurors is dark-skinned, with a scar on her chin where the claws of a manticore caught her once, if Severus is any judge. She plants her heavy iron staff on the floor in front of her and looks around at the gaping students.

“Why are you here to collect him, madam?”

Severus stares. He expected Albus to be the first to confront the Aurors, if anyone did. But it’s Granger, moving forwards out of the Great Hall where the students are having breakfast. Flanking her are Weasley, Nott, Zabini, Longbottom, Chang, and Ernie Macmillan. Macmillan is frowning in a pompous way that would ordinarily make Severus laugh, but right now it gives him a chill.

“He is under arrest.” The Auror doesn’t seem inclined to give Granger any information other than that.

“Is it about Harry Potter? Because he’s my friend, and he’s still in the hospital wing. And I know that he wouldn’t want to press charges. Who’s going to press them, please? Can you tell me, madam? I’m Muggleborn, and I don’t know a lot about how the wizarding world works, but it just doesn’t seem right.”

Severus stares at her in blank amazement. I’m Muggleborn, and I don’t know a lot about how the wizarding world works…that manipulative little Gryffindor.

The Auror seems to assume that a Muggleborn wouldn’t know about charges and who would press them, however, because she answers after a pause with a faint smile on her face. “The Healer who saw Mr. Potter is going to press them. He seems to be in bad shape and it’s his godfather who caused it.”

“Suppose they should have investigated him before they let him take charge of a child,” another Auror mutters.

The woman in the lead turns around and scowls hard enough to make him scowl back, but he shuts up. Then she faces Granger again. “So you see, it doesn’t have to be the hurt child himself who presses them. It can be the Healer.”

“Um, thank you, madam, but I suppose I’m still confused?” Granger raises huge, shining eyes to the Auror’s face, and Severus is rethinking every interaction he’s had with her in the past few years. “I read a book, you see. It says in the wizarding world, only the child or their guardian can press the charges. And Sirius Black isn’t going to get himself arrested, right?”

“There’s an exception for Healers.”

“Healers have to get the guardian’s permission, though, the book said. Or the child’s permission. I know that sometimes guardians abuse their wards, and that’s horrible.” Granger’s head droops like a flower on a cut stem. “But they have to still get permission. Did this Healer ask Harry?”

And Severus knows the answer to that. He moves forwards in a slow, gliding stalk that serves to turn the Aurors’ attention to him immediately. “No need to ask him, Miss Granger,” he says. “I took care of it.”

“You did, sir? But how? You don’t have legal custody of Harry, either.”

Severus would have snapped if they were in private, but he doesn’t dare risk not being accommodating when they’re in public and Granger is radiating innocence like the sun does light. “I informed the Healer of the incident that caused Mr. Potter to be injured, acting in loco parentis as the head of Harry’s House.”

The dark-skinned Auror smiles and nods to him. “Knew there had to be something to it, Professor Snape. I would never have expected Harry Potter in Slytherin, of course, but it looks like there’s some good to it.”

Severus blanks his expression to conceal his reaction and looks at Granger. She’s giving him a steady, cool look.

“That book said Heads of House couldn’t do it, though, sir,” she murmurs. “It goes back to a legal case where the Head of Hufflepuff hated one of her students’ guardians and tried to get him arrested on false charges. The guardian or the child, or someone else with their permission. No one else.”

Severus bares his teeth in a snarl at her, and then Macmillan steps forwards and makes the whole situation worse.

“My great-aunt came and saw Harry the other day,” he says, with a nod to the Aurors. “Madam Macmillan, y’know. She knows how the system works. She recommended a second guardian for Harry, but someone who would work in conjunction with Sirius Black. Don’t think she thought he was going to be arrested for child abuse.”

“Well, endangerment,” one of the Aurors starts in with pedantry.

“Don’t think she thought that, either.” Macmillan remains resolutely unimpressed. “Could you contact her? She’d know the law.”

“Children cannot stand in our way,” the leading Auror says implacably. “I understand your eagerness to have your confusion clarified, but if it turns out the arrest was a problem, we can always release Mr. Black later.”

“The way you released him the first time, on the first false charge?”

Severus snaps around. Harry is standing at the top of the staircase that leads down from the first floor, his face so pale that it looks as though someone has been bleeding him. Longbottom hovers next to him. Severus never even noticed him leaving Granger’s little group.

“Mr. Potter?” The leading Auror asks it with a tone that makes Severus hope she isn’t going to let Harry get away with whatever he wants to do.

Harry advances slowly down the steps, swaying a little. Longbottom keeps beside him, ready to grab him if he falls, it seems. Severus shoots the boy a nasty look for enabling someone injured to leave his bed at all. Longbottom swallows, but doesn’t seem inclined to back away from Harry. “I don’t want Sirius arrested.”

“What he did to you—”

“Was a failure of judgment. I don’t want to live with him by myself. I want someone else there who can help me if Sirius does something stupid again. And I want him to get real Mind-Healing. Which probably has to mean—someone who’s not a Gryffindor.” Harry stops to gasp for air, and Severus strides towards him. Harry snaps a freezing glance that actually locks him in place. “But I don’t want him arrested.”

“Mr. Potter, you are a child,” the lead Auror murmurs. “You don’t necessarily know what’s best for you.”

“Imagine what will happen if I go to the papers and say that I didn’t want my godfather arrested and you arrested him anyway,” Harry says, his eyes snapping. “And took him back to Azkaban, where his mental condition started to deteriorate again. He isn’t even over the first time! What do you think they’ll say?”

This is the kind of nonsense that Madam Macmillan planted in his head. He shouldn’t have to fight his own battles.

“I think they would still believe that you are a child and we are the adults,” the leading Aurors says, probably unwisely.

“With all the witnesses here?” Granger has apparently dropped her pretense of being an ignorant little Muggleborn. “Really? I might not have much power in the wizarding world, but people with the names Macmillan and Nott do.”

“Shouldn’t think my great-aunt would be pleased to hear of it at all,” says Macmillan, right on cue.

The Aurors look at them as if they can’t believe that several children have managed to turn the world upside-down. Severus would be doing the same thing if he wasn’t used to it already. He does glare at Zabini and Nott, though, who are both wearing smiles of delight.

“Would you see him condemned to the mutt?” he asks in a low voice, stepping away from the clump of Aurors so he can speak to his Slytherins as privately as possible.

Nott looks up at him. “I want to see him make his own decisions.”

“Right,” Zabini says. “And none of this nonsense about him being a child who adults have to look out for. He’s tried that. We’ve all tried that. And look at how well it bloody turned out!”

Severus is reminded with some force about the rumors concerning Zabini’s mother. He frowns and glances back in time to see Harry looking at him, his expression still bloodless but set.

“I wish I could trust you,” Harry says to him there in front of everyone, words that make the hair stand up on the back of Severus’s neck, words that should only have been spoken in private echoing in the air around the staircase. “I really wish I could. But you would just get Sirius arrested when my back was turned.”

“You can trust me.”

“No, I can’t,” Harry says, wearily enough that Granger sniffles. “You don’t want to let me live with Sirius even when it’s me making the choice.”

“I fear for your life living with him!”

“But that’s why I need a second a guardian, who can make sure that I’m safe.” Harry sighs. “And you don’t want to be that for me because you hate Sirius. So I’m going to write a few letters, and we’ll see.” He turns and begins making his way up towards the hospital wing again, with Longbottom hovering protectively at his side.

Severus surges towards the stairs. His hands are clenched, and his throat ripples as though he’s going to throw up a poisonous potion. He doesn’t recognize the snarl that rips out of him.

“I don’t want that because I wish to be your first guardian!”

The world is still around him. Severus is flushing as he has not done since he was a sixth-year and trying to explain to Dumbledore how Sirius Black set a werewolf on him. Everyone is staring. He has admitted to something private. He would never do this for anyone, anyone. And now he has done it for bloody James Potter’s bloody son.

He wishes the floor would open and swallow him, but this is Hogwarts, with all sorts of defensive and suppressing spells holding down accidental magic. It will not.

Harry turns back to look at him. He’s as baffled as a dragon confronted by a Keeper for the first time. “But you hate Sirius.”

“What does that matter?”

“It means you would keep me from seeing him. You would keep me from doing most of what I want. And you hated my father. So you would never—you would never be able to tell me stories about him, the way Sirius can.”

“Remember who I have cared for,” Severus says, as carefully as he can. Some things he will never reveal, not in front of his students and strangers. Let the others think he is referring to Harry himself. “Remember what I have told you.”

Harry is still staring straight at him. Then he says, “But you would keep me from seeing Sirius.”

“Mandated—visits—might be permitted, if he saw a trained Mind-Healer.” Severus can barely believe he’s saying this. The world is already dancing around him the way it did the one time he drank too much Firewhisky. He can’t take his eyes from Harry’s to see the expression on the faces around him. He can see only Longbottom’s expression from this angle, and he’s gaping like a fish.

“You would keep me from doing anything fun.”

“Fun might be permitted. Under adequate supervision.”

Harry snorts a little, and keeps looking at him. Then he says, “I need to think about this. What I know right now is that I’m not just going to live with Sirius, and I’m not going to let him be arrested for hurting me. Going back to Azkaban isn’t going to help.” He turns to the Aurors. “I don’t press charges, and I don’t give anyone else the right to press charges. And Sirius is still my legal guardian.”

It seems Granger has indeed summarized the laws correctly, because the lead Auror grimaces and glances at the door. “We have wasted our time coming here,” she says, and marches out. The others trail behind her.

Severus takes a complicated breath. He took a huge risk, and he needs to know that it has paid off. “Harry?”

“I need time to think,” Harry murmurs, eyes complicated themselves. “But—thank you, sir, for telling me that. It’s given me something to think about. If you can actually get over hating Sirius.”

“I will do anything I need to.”

Harry opens his mouth to say something else, and then wavers and collapses against Longbottom. Severus is the first one up the stairs to him, and he snarls at him under his breath as he carries him back towards the hospital wing. They both know that Harry has pushed himself much too far.

But Harry has the nerve to grin at him and then not say anything in response to his rant, only eyeing him thoughtfully as Severus gives him some potions and summons Poppy to be sure that nothing is thoroughly wrong.

Then Severus goes to report to Healer Helios that there will be no charges after all.

It is—his wish.

Chapter Text

Harry wakes up the instant that Sirius slips through the doors into the hospital wing. It’s like he knows, and he can’t stay asleep with someone who hurt him standing next to him. He rolls over, ignoring the way that his burns hurt when they brush against the blankets, and stares up at Sirius.

Sirius winces and meets his eyes and winces and then throws himself down on his knees next to the bed and sobs. Harry grabs his wand and casts a Silencing Charm. He doesn’t want anyone to interrupt. He knows this is going to be important.

“Can you ever forgive me?” Sirius moans.

“If you tell me a few things,” Harry says.

“Anything. I’d do anything for you, Harry. I love you. You’re my godson.”

Harry doesn’t know what to feel as he looks down at Sirius. “Why didn’t you come and see me before this?”

“I tried! But I was afraid that I was going to be arrested, and I didn’t want to go back to prison. Albus told me that I wouldn’t do you any good if I was in Azkaban again, and I knew that was true.”

So he spoke with Dumbledore but not me. There’s a dull spinning motion in the back of Harry’s head. It’s like he’s strained himself too far again or taken that foul-smelling potion Snape keeps insisting he drink, but this time he knows that he’s really seeing things clearly. For the first time, maybe.

“You’re not going to be arrested,” he says. “Hermione looked up the laws. Maybe they’re kind of stupid—” Harry knows they’re stupid, he would hate to have the Dursleys get away with hurting him if they were wizards just because he wouldn’t say something or they wouldn’t say something “—but I think they got written because of exceptions and personal stories and grudges and all that. So you’re safe. Why did you wait until tonight to come see me?”

“Albus wasn’t sure it was safe.”

He does listen to him. Harry ignores the little jab of pain in the center of his chest. “You’re going to be safe. I think that I’m going to have a second guardian, and—”

Sirius surges to his feet. “Why do you want anyone other than me? Did Snape use Legilimency on you or something? We have to teach you Occlumency as soon as we can, pup. Healer Hawksgift knows it. We’ll teach it to you.”

“I already know some,” Harry says. The sensation of reeling in his head gets worse. “But anyway, I want someone else because—” His tongue tangles around his teeth. It’s one thing to think this, and another thing to actually say it to Sirius.

He didn’t mean to hurt me. I know that. He never would have had me face that spell if he didn’t think I could handle it.

But it happened anyway.

“You want to get rid of me. You’re upset at me. You hate me.”

Sirius whispers the last words, and Harry sits up and wraps his arms around as much as of Sirius as he can. “No. I just think that you need some more time to recover, and that means you need a different Mind-Healer. And I want a second guardian so that a situation like the one in the Forest never happens again. If you get upset or something, or we need some time apart to think, then I could go over to the second guardian’s house.”

Sirius is staring at him. “Who are you thinking?”

“Um, I don’t know. Maybe Snape.”

“You want your guardian to be the man who made you an orphan?”

“What are you talking about, Sirius? Voldemort is the one who did that to me.”

Sirius is shaking his head fast, his eyes bright the way they were when he was telling Harry to go up against the Iron Pole. Harry scoots further back from him. He shivers. Suddenly his burns are hurting again.

“No, Albus told me all about it.” Sirius speaks almost too quickly, so that his words seem to rush and blur in Harry’s ears. “There was a prophecy that made Voldemort attack your parents. It was about a boy being born at the end of July who could defeat him. Well, Snape overheard part of that, so he went straight to Voldemort and told him. And Voldemort attacked Lily and James because of that.”

Harry sits there and feels cold and crushed. He feels—ripped. As though part of himself he didn’t even realize was there has peeled away and left him behind.

But also, sitting there, he thinks of something.

“When did Dumbledore tell you that?” he asks quietly.

“What? Well—a few months ago. When we were arranging for my trial.”

“So you knew all this time,” Harry says, forcing the words through numb lips, “and you didn’t tell me? Why? Why tell me just now?”

But he knows. He knows as though Sirius has written the words on a giant piece of parchment and waved it around. Because until now, he didn’t care or didn’t think it was important. Only now, when he thinks Harry might actually choose to live with Snape, is it important.

It’s a weapon. It isn’t a secret he deserves to know or a fact that matters to Harry, so someone should tell him. No, it’s a weapon.

Harry closes his eyes. The peeling part of himself is being followed by another part. It’s the part that was convinced that Sirius loved him unconditionally and he could just—be with him and it would be okay.

I suppose some people don’t get someone who loves them like that, Harry thinks wearily to himself. Sirius wants to hurt Snape, and Snape wants to hurt Sirius. I suppose—I’m just in the middle. That’s all.

So he’ll have to put aside his hopes of having someone love him like a parent does. It doesn’t matter. Harry will make it not matter. He can still have his own room and someone who treats him better than the Dursleys and a stable home. He can’t have everything he wanted. But since when did he get everything he wanted, anyway?

He can live with this. He can live with Sirius’s hatred of Snape and the fact that he never told Harry the truth until he could try to hurt Snape, and he can live with Snape’s hatred of Sirius and the fact that he never told Harry about overhearing this prophecy, either. He’ll just—live with things.

It hurts. But sometimes pain is what you get.

“I wanted you to know! Before you run off and live with Snape!”

Harry sighs and says, “I’m going to talk to Madam Macmillan tomorrow. I think I will have her talk to the newspapers for me, if she still wants to. And we’ll get you a regular Mind-Healer—”

“I want Healer Hawksgift!”

Harry looks up and tries a variation of the trick that he saw Hermione using. “And you don’t care about me, Sirius?” he asks softly, making his eyes as big as he can. “I don’t want Healer Hawksgift treating you. I want a different Healer. Are you going to make me beg you for it?”

Sirius immediately lunges over the bed to hug him. “Harry, Harry, no! Of course not!”

“Then will you go to a different Mind-Healer? For me?” Harry tries to let his voice wobble the way Dudley’s did whenever he saw that he had one last birthday gift than last year.

“Yes—just for you. But you’re the only one who could ever ask that of me. Don’t you dare tell Snivellus that I’m doing it.”

Harry wants to laugh, but he clears his throat instead and says, “Thank you, Sirius. Anyway, this is going to be—different than I thought it was. I want to live with you, but I also want Snape to be able to visit whenever he wants.”

Why? Why him?”

“Because he has to make up for what he did to me by taking away my parents somehow,” Harry says. It’s the first thing that comes into his head, and not true, but he also thinks that Sirius is going to accept it. Sirius is into revenge and things like that. “And this will be the best way to do that. By making him take care of me and look into my face and see my dad every day. And by making him deal with you.”

Sirius grumbles about it for a little, but he looks pleased. He ruffles Harry’s hair. “You’re acting like a proper Marauder.”

This is me acting like a Slytherin, Harry thinks, but he doesn’t say it. He has to talk to Snape as soon as possible, to make sure that he goes along with the lie and to confront him about what he said in the entrance hall.

And the prophecy?

I don’t want to talk about it.

He probably has to, though, because otherwise there’s too much chance that Sirius would blurt it out at some point, or brag to Snape that he told Harry. Great. Another conversation he doesn’t want to have tonight.

“Can you get Snape for me, please?” he asks Sirius, making his eyes as wide as he can. “And don’t tell him why. Be as polite to him as you can.”

Sirius frowns for a second, then chuckles. “Because you want to spring it on him that you know. You have great ideas, pup!” He hugs Harry again, and then turns into a dog and lunges out of the room and down the stairs.

Left alone, Harry buries his face in his legs, and takes a slow, deep breath. He doesn’t cry, but he’d like to. He’d like to be the kind of person who can cry and have a normal life and wake up from a nightmare and have a parent comfort him.

But he just isn’t, that’s all. So he sits there, and waits for Snape, and feels another piece of the person he used to be rip away.

*

Severus enters the hospital wing cautiously. It still feels as though the raw emotions he expressed earlier are glowing on his skin like a sunburn. The summons from Black, and the blank face he used to deliver it, are agitating Severus further.

Harry turns around and shows him a likewise blank face. But Severus can see the devastation in those green eyes.

There’s only one person who could have put it there. “What did Black do?” Severus asks, and makes his voice as soft as he can so he won’t shout.

Harry sighs. “He’s agreed to see a real Mind-Healer and to allow me to have you as a secondary guardian. But he thinks I’m doing it to make you deal with me and take revenge on you. So you’re going to have to go along with that lie.”

“You should not be anywhere near Black. You should—”

Harry’s eyes flash, and all the pillows around him spin into the air. “Be with the man who told the prophecy to Voldemort?” he yells.

Severus freezes in place. Now he understands the reason for both the blank mask Black wore and the malignant glitter deep in his eyes. Black told Harry. “You know.”

Harry slumps back against the pillows as they drop back on the bed. “Yeah,” he says dully. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter. You’re still my best choice. I know that you only stared caring about me when I was Sorted into Slytherin, but you’re strong and competent, and you’re not afraid of Sirius, and you can stand up to Dumbledore at least as much as you have so far. And you said that you cared about me a few hours ago, and I believe you. So you can be my secondary guardian.”

“I care about you for more reasons than your House.”

Harry glances at him, his face gone blank this time. “I know. But you only started when I was suddenly a Slytherin. And you never told me that you went and told the prophecy to Voldemort. Sirius never told me, either, but now he has, and I don’t—I don’t really expect better of him. I expected better of you. I thought you’d told me all the important secrets. Stupid of me, wasn’t it?” His tone is absolutely flat.

“You cannot be surprised that I did not tell you of this before,” Severus snaps before he can stop himself.

For a second, Harry struggles, and the pillows tremble on the bed again as if they’re going to fly up. Then he glances away and gives a tight nod. “Yes, all right, I’m not. I know why you didn’t. But I wish you’d managed before Sirius said something.”

“I had no idea that he knew. Nor had I come up with some way to tell you the truth without hurting you.”

“I know,” Harry says, and seems to let go of his anger, although the weary expression that replaces it on his face is not a true improvement. “Anyway. How do you want to handle this? I’m not going to live with Sirius in Grimmauld Place, because he says the protections on that house can keep out anyone, and I don’t want him holding you at bay. And I don’t even know if you have a home outside of Hogwarts.”

“Not a true one,” Severus says tightly, thinking of Spinner’s End and shuddering. “I have the means to acquire one, but the price was too high before.”

“Is it just money? I can pay for that.”

“You are not to pay for something your guardians should pay for!”

“But why not? I have money, and you’re speaking like you don’t, and the house could be yours anytime that I’m not there.”

Severus squints at Harry. It seems the boy has learned the lessons of Slytherin too well, in some ways. He fully expects that Severus will let him purchase the house, will take advantage of him because that is the way that some Slytherins would act.

“I told you I had the means to find a home.”

“And you haven’t done it so far, sir, so you must have good reasons to avoid it. What are the reasons?”

The boy looks calm again, as if he has tucked away his anger and the broken heart that must have come from evidence that Black doesn’t really care about him. He’s studying Severus with careful curiosity.

Severus sighs and says, “I would owe a favor to the Malfoys when it was done. I don’t want that.”

“Oh, yes, I can see that. Well, just let me buy the house then, sir.”

I will not.

Harry just watches him with his forehead wrinkled. “But you don’t want to be in debt to the Malfoys, and I don’t want you in debt to them, either. Are you worried about being in debt to me? I wouldn’t say you were. I would just give you the money and ask you to find a place that we could live.”

Severus stands up and approaches the bed. Harry doesn’t flinch, but some part of him does grow tight and coiled. Severus wonders if he will ever be able to rid Harry of the reflex to tense up when an adult comes towards him, even an adult without an obvious weapon in hand.

“A guardian should take care of a child,” Severus says, making sure to emphasize the words as he leans over the bed. “That does not include letting the child buy his own clothes or food or home.”

“And I’m hardly a normal child, sir. Let me do this.”

“Why?”

“Because I don’t want to find myself at the mercy of the Malfoys one day. And Sirius would go even crazier if he found out I was, and then maybe he would do something or Dumbledore would do something to make sure you were blocked.”

Severus pauses. That’s a better argument than he expected. He knows full well how devious the Malfoys are. Lucius might indeed manage to reach through the debt and put Harry at risk somehow, if only by contacting him and talking cryptically about how much Severus owes him. Harry would feel compelled to pay the debt then.

“You realize that this will cause comment?”

“We don’t need to advertise it, sir. Besides, I’m going to have Madam Macmillan helping me with statements to the press and that kind of thing. They probably won’t find it nearly as fascinating, even if they find out about it, as the fact that you and Sirius are my guardians in the first place.”

Severus nods slowly. There are plenty of people in the wizarding world who know about his and Black’s rivalry. But he does have one other thing to say. “I will not tolerate Black hurting you.”

“I know that, sir.”

Why are you so determined to give him a second chance?”

“Because I still want to be in contact with him, and I think he deserves the chance to redeem himself. Maybe he can’t, but I don’t know that yet. I’ll see what he’s like after he has contact with a regular Mind-Healer.”

Harry speaks so wearily. Severus finds himself on the verge of snarling again. “Even less than your own care are you responsible for the mental health of your guardians.”

“Unless I want to be.”

“Black does not deserve the chance!”

“That’s not for you to say.”

Harry turns his face away, and Severus pauses. He does not want to leave on this note. He softens his voice. “I will allow you to purchase the home, perhaps, but I will still do my best to protect you from all harm, Harry.”

This time Harry at least glances at him and smiles a little. “Thank you, sir. I do believe that.”

*

Harry lies awake in bed later that night, after he’s sent an owl to Madam Macmillan that Hermione took to the Owlery for him. His mind is churning with thoughts. He still has to find out who actually alerted Madam Macmillan to everything that was happening; she never did tell him. And he has to find out how to contact Gringotts and arrange for some of the money to go to Snape so he can buy a house. And he has to figure out what to say to Sirius and Remus, who’s only visited him when he’s asleep so far, according to Madam Pomfrey.

But he also has to struggle against the sense of bitterness welling up inside him.

I shouldn’t have to do this. I shouldn’t have to take care of Sirius. I shouldn’t have to make peace and compromises with someone who hurt me. I shouldn’t have to just—ignore the fact that Snape didn’t tell me he sold out my parents to Voldemort.

Harry shakes his head. But what else could he do? Snape does care for him, and he’s trying to make up for betraying the prophecy in his own way. And guilt would eat Harry alive if he didn’t try to do something for Sirius.

He told Snape he wasn’t a normal child. So he has to be abnormal in all sorts of ways. He has to make sure things are done right. And if that means acting like an adult—

That’s the way it has to be.

He drifts off to sleep feeling as though something else is ripping inside him, but his dream is about snakes and how they shed their skin, and the hope that maybe that’s what’s happening inside him, too.

Chapter Text

“Hello, Madam Macmillan.” Harry smiles at the woman who sits down at his bedside and peers at him with her sharp eyes. Harry’s starting to think that Madam Pomfrey, Snape, and Sirius are all ridiculous. They insist on him staying in bed even though his burns are mostly healed and Harry no longer gets dizzy when he stands up. But it’s not worth the fuss trying to slip out and meet Madam Macmillan in the entrance hall or something. “Thank you for coming.”

“You look horrible, Mr. Potter.”

“That’s the burns on my face, I suppose. I know it’s lucky they missed my eye.”

“I’m not talking about physical wounds. I’m talking about spiritual ones. What did you suffer since I last saw you?”

Harry sighs a little. Does he wear his emotions on his face that much? He supposes that he’ll have to work harder on Occlumency and lying. “I settled my choice of guardian. But it was hard.”

“And Black?”

“I’ve persuaded him to see a real Mind-Healer. My secondary guardian is going to be Professor Snape.”

Madam Macmillan grunts skeptically and settles her cane between her legs while she stares off into the distance, contemplating something Harry can only guess at. Then she turns back to him. “You called me because you want me to manage the press campaign for you?”

“Yes, please,” Harry says. “I know lots of people don’t like Professor Snape, and some people still think Sirius is insane and guilty.”

“Of one thing, at least, he is.”

Harry holds his breath for a second, then releases it and just goes on. That’s effective sometimes with Blaise and Theo, to ignore what they said when it’s stupid and pretend that they never said it. “So them working together will make it seem even more mental. Can you explain to the papers that this is the way I want it? Use whatever words you need. I can give an interview if you think I need to.”

“Not right now,” Madam Macmillan says slowly. “Your injuries could explain that, and it will give the press time to come to terms with you engaging them in your own way. But in a few weeks, it might be necessary.”

“Okay. If you could tell me what I ought to do before then, I’d be—grateful.” The shape of the words is strange in his mouth, but it’s still true.

“I will.” Madam Macmillan settles back, but somehow her back is still straight. “We’ll have to work on elocution and posture. Right now, it won’t be important for more than the minutes that you’re in front of the press, but you’ll need more lessons later.”

“Why?”

“Because this is only a beginning, Mr. Potter. And because someday you’ll want to manage your own press. No one should control it for you forever. You only have three years—give or take a few months—until you’re an adult. Then you can have done with these guardians of yours forever if you wish.”

“I don’t think I’d want them out of my life forever,” Harry says lightly, although the back of his neck aches when he remembers Sirius and the way he kept the information about Snape secret. He turns his head, because someone is moving at the door and he thinks it might be one of his friends. But it’s Remus, hovering. He starts badly when he realizes Harry’s noticed him.

“Who is that?”

“Oh, his name is Remus Lupin. He’s a friend of my godfather’s.” Harry keeps his voice light and neutral again, and he nods to Madam Macmillan. “Do you want to come meet Madam Macmillan, Remus? She’s been kind to me.”

Remus shuffles inside as if all the sheets on all the beds are going to jump off and strangle him. Harry distracts himself for a second by wondering if he could make them do that, and if it would be Transfiguration or Charms if he did.

“Hello, Gwendolyn,” Remus says. Harry blinks. Huh. They must know each other.

“Mr. Lupin.” Madam Macmillan inclines her head without taking her eyes from Remus. “I understand that you have not attempted to restrain Sirius Black from his irresponsible actions?”

Harry groans aloud. The adults both glance at him. Harry slumps a little over in his bed. He isn’t above milking his injuries to avoid an argument. He used to do it all the time at the Dursleys’ to avoid chores. “Sorry,” he says, and covers his mouth and winces as though he’s holding back another groan. “Hurts.”

“I shouldn’t tax your good health by sitting here.” Madam Macmillan stands up in a swirl of robes. “I’ll write up a list of what I intend to do, including the announcement I’ll send to the papers, and send it to for your approval, Mr. Potter. You deserve to have at least some people respect your wishes.” She gives Remus a cool look and walks out of the room.

“Oh, wait, Madam!” Harry calls after her. She turns back at the door. “I wanted to ask you. Who sent you the letter that told you about me being injured?”

“There was actually no name on it,” Madam Macmillan says, frowning thoughtfully. “There was a seal on it that is only used by Light families when they want to tell each other the truth, however. The sketch was perfect. I assume that one of your friends, or someone else in the school concerned for you, wanted to alert me and some of the other Light witches and wizards of political power without revealing themselves.”

“What? Why would they keep it secret?”

“Considering your desire to keep your godfather free,” Madam Macmillan says, gaze leveled on him, “they might have been afraid you would react badly.”

And she turns and leaves. Harry blinks and slumps against the pillow. That’s even stranger. Not just her, but several other people? He thought it was Ernie before, but now he supposes it’s not. And anyway, Ernie probably would have just told Madam Macmillan directly if he wanted to.

“I want to talk to you about—different things, Harry.”

Harry looks back at Remus. “Are you going to do it without running away this time?”

Remus flinches all over like a kicked dog, but after a moment, he nods and gives a strained smile. “I suppose I deserve that. So, Harry. I know that you might not realize it, but Dumbledore and Sirius want the best for you.”

“How was having Sirius work with a Mind-Healer who raped one of her patients the best thing for me?”

Remus’s mouth falls open. Harry at least thinks his shock is genuine. “That didn’t happen!”

“Professor Snape found out it did. She wasn’t the right Healer for him. I don’t care if she was a Gryffindor. Are you going to tell me that I should have let Sirius work with her?”

Remus rubs the back of his wrist across his mouth. “No…no,” he says slowly. “I suppose that, given that perspective, I can admit they made a mistake.”

“But not with anything else? Professor Dumbledore was the one who put me with the Dursleys in the first place, Remus. And Sirius needs help, but I think that means he doesn’t know the best thing for me. I’m the one who has to take care of him.”

“Both of you have a powerful friend. If you just listened to me.”

“I talked to Madam Pomfrey, you know. She said that you only came to visit when I was asleep, but that was better than Professor Dumbledore. He hasn’t visited at all. Do you think he really cares about me, Remus?”

“He’s a very busy man,” Remus says, a little helplessly. “But I know that he’s done great things, Harry. You heard about his defeat of Grindelwald? And he let me attend school here. Most people wouldn’t have done that. I’m the very first student werewolf in the school’s history.”

“I know that he’s done great things. But him defeating Grindelwald doesn’t mean much when it comes to him putting me with the Dursleys. And he should have protected you better and Snape better and the secret of you being a werewolf better. How come my dad and Sirius and Pettigrew all got to turn into Animagi and run around with you and no one ever found out?”

Remus looks down at his hands. Then he finally looks up again and says, “I’m not going to stop being loyal to Albus no matter what you say, Harry.”

Harry sighs and looks up at the ceiling for a second. Then he says, “Okay.”

“That’s all?”

“You can be loyal to him all you want. You’re not one of my guardians. Sirius is the primary one, and Professor Snape is the secondary one. You can visit, but you’re not going to get custody of me because you’re a werewolf. What you think doesn’t have to matter that much to me.”

Remus shivers. “Harry, I was one of your father’s dearest friends.”

“And I never knew about you until this year! I know Sirius was in Azkaban and no one wanted to tell me about that. Or they all thought I knew that already. But what was keeping you from contacting me?”

“I’m a werewolf. I would have been dangerous to you—”

“So you would be dangerous if you were my guardian.” Harry sighs. He doesn’t hate Remus, but he’s tired of him. He has to take care of Sirius because Sirius loves him as much as he can love anybody, and Harry’s starting to think the same is true of Snape. But Remus doesn’t, and Harry doesn’t have to give a shit what he feels. “Go away, please, Remus. I want to go back to sleep. My burns do hurt.”

“I know it was manipulation, what you did to get rid of Madam Macmillan. You shouldn’t do that, Harry. She’s a political rival of Albus’s, you know. You shouldn’t listen to her.”

“I’m going to listen to her partially because she is his political rival and he can’t manipulate her. But that’s not the only reason.”

“What’s the other one?”

“She speaks to me like I matter.”

Remus recoils, and looks at Harry as if he slapped him. Then he stands up and walks out of the room without another word.

Harry closes his eyes. Yes, he’s tired. Yes, he’ll rest. And he’ll wait for the day when he has to take care of Remus, too, when he apologizes and stops acting as though the future rests in Dumbledore’s hands.

I have to take care of so many people. It’s tiring. But on the other hand, if I didn’t do it, who would? Dumbledore seems like he thinks things will just take care of themselves, and that’s not how it works.

Harry doesn’t fall asleep for a long time, because the thought is revolving in his head. Before, it would have made him more tired. Of course he has to do what nobody else can do, just like he’s the one who always has to rescue people from basilisks and Voldemort and possession and themselves.

But maybe…

Maybe he can make it a source of power, too. His Slytherin friends are always acting like he’ll become a leader someday. Harry doesn’t like the idea of becoming a leader like Lucius Malfoy or Tarquinius Nott, all smiles and good manners and being cruel to their children.

But maybe he can become a leader who saves people. And if other people see that and follow him, the way Blaise and Theo do, then he’ll have others to share the responsibility. Others who won’t take Dumbledore seriously. People who want to help him.

It’s a tempting thought.

*

“Severus, my boy, what are you doing?”

Severus turns around. He just came back from a visit to a house that he’s virtually sure is going to be the one he ends up buying for himself and Harry. Visions of the future are buzzing in his blood, and he doesn’t want to deal with Albus right now.

“Walking to the hospital wing,” Severus says, because it’s true.

Albus sighs sadly. “I don’t mean that, of course. I mean, why are you championing Mr. Potter’s absurd thoughts? He’s too young to be on his own.”

“How will he be on his own when he will have two guardians? I’m afraid that I don’t understand your concern, Albus.”

“He is imposing his own ideas on my own and on Sirius’s health. I don’t think he should be doing that, but you seem to be encouraging him.”

Severus settles himself against the wave of reproach that he can feel flowing towards him from those bright blue eyes. He knew he would be facing this when he chose Harry’s side. “The Mind-Healer that you had hired behaved inappropriately with one of her patients—”

“She was a Gryffindor. That is what Sirius needs right now.”

“Given that he’s agreed to seek out someone who is not disgraced, I think Black would disagree with you there, Albus.”

“He only agreed because Harry gave him an ultimatum. I think you should realize the detrimental effects it will have on Sirius’s health to be thwarted in that way, Severus. And by the child that he is helping to raise! It is very unhealthy for the both of them.”

Severus can’t help himself. He takes a step towards Albus and lowers his voice. “Unhealthy for whom, Albus? For their respect for you and your plans? Perhaps. But Harry is making the free choice for the first time. You never gave him a choice when you put him with those bloody Muggles. Now he has one. And you’re claiming that it’s unhealthy?”

“Severus…”

“Maybe you did do what you thought was best.” Severus steps back and smoothes a hand down his robes while he pretends to consider it. In truth, he thinks Albus can no longer recognize the difference between what is best and what is merely what he wishes. “It doesn’t matter. Harry is doing what he thinks is best, now. And Black is going to go along with him, because he loves his godson.”

“He hates you.”

“We will work around that.”

Albus looks truly baffled, and Severus would feel a stir of pity somewhere down the bottom of his soul if he was still in touch with that part of himself. As it is, he can look politely baffled himself when Albus says slowly, “I know the kind of hatred that you and Sirius share. It is not to be conquered by time or forgiveness.”

He truly thinks there is so much difference between a Gryffindor and Slytherin that forgiveness is impossible. Now, Severus has to acknowledge to himself that he doesn’t think he can forgive Black, more for injuring Harry than for the ancient wounds of his schooldays, but he doesn’t think it’s impossible. Unlikely, only.

And Albus thinks me invested in the hatreds between Houses.

Severus only raises his brows a little and says, “This compromise is acceptable to all of us, or Black would not have agreed to it.”

“He only did it because he thought he would lose Harry otherwise!”

“Well, he should be concerned about that after what he did to Harry.”

“He didn’t mean to—”

“This song and dance again,” Severus says, and openly rolls his eyes. “Just as he probably didn’t mean to kill me when he led me into a werewolf’s open mouth? It doesn’t matter, Headmaster. These are legal matters that Black has the power to reject or accept, and he’s chosen to accept them. If part of that comes from fear of losing his godson, well, that’s his affair, isn’t it?”

“But Harry should have forgiven him.”

“Weren’t you saying a minute ago that forgiveness between Gryffindors and Slytherins doesn’t happen?”

“I did not mean it that way.”

“Of course,” Severus murmurs. “No one in Gryffindor House ever means anything. Excuse me, Headmaster. I bring news that I think Harry will be glad to hear.” He turns away, and finds himself spinning into a crouch out of instinct when he sees movement from the corner of his eye. Albus pulls his hand back from reaching for Severus’s arm, looking vaguely hurt.

“I thought—I thought you would want to know what I really thought of Harry. I didn’t mean that he could never forgive. Only that he should.”

Severus looks at Albus, and although he can’t send his Legilimency past the Headmaster’s defenses, he thinks he finally understands. Albus is confounded by Harry. It explains why he has held back for the past few days while Harry recovered. He was waiting to see what Harry would do. Harry is a Slytherin, but he was Sorted Gryffindor first. He can apparently forgive Death Eaters and associate with their children, but he’s forcing Black into this position. He lived with the Dursleys but didn’t mourn their deaths.

Severus feels a rush of power that makes him smile involuntarily. It’s a heady thing, to know that he understands the Boy-Who-Lived better than Albus Dumbledore.

“So,” he says. “I will pass your message on to Harry.”

“Tell him that I would like to see him when he is better.”

“Of course, Headmaster.”

And Severus goes to the hospital wing, where he has time to see the article on the front page of the Prophet before Harry puts it aside to ask about the house he found.

HARRY POTTER SEEKS PRIVACY, MADAM MACMILLAN SAYS!

Severus smiles to himself, and begins to help Harry turn towards the future.

Chapter Text

"Nice to see you out of bed, Potter."

"I heard that you want to be left alone. Is that true? Something the papers said about you'd only give one interview, and later?"

"How did you get that burn above your eyebrow, Potter?"

The days when Harry can finally leave the hospital wing are filled with those questions and more. He smiles back, the empty smile that he thinks he's finally learned, and deals with them. He answers some and ignores others and gives an even more mysterious smile when he thinks he can get away with it. He doesn't really want to live with nosy Slytherins and nosier Ravenclaws and Gryffindors, but he does it. The Hufflepuffs ask a few questions, too, but Ernie seems to keep them quiet most of the time.

There's one Hufflepuff who comes up to Harry in the library when he's researching frantically for a Transfiguration essay that he only has one more day of grace on. He glances up at the bloke and smiles a little, but this one already looks like he wants to talk a lot and Harry just doesn't have time for that. "Do you need this book? I'll be done with it in half an hour."

"Oh, no. I just wanted to introduce myself formally. I know we've faced each other on the Quidditch pitch, but that doesn't really mean the same thing, does it? Cedric Diggory."

Harry recognizes him now. The Hufflepuff Seeker. He honestly didn't remember him that well since he hasn't played Quidditch in almost a year. He smiles and shakes Diggory's hand. "Yeah, Harry Potter. As you know."

"I wanted to talk about your study group that Smith and Macmillan are a part of."

Harry blinks. "Do you want to join?" Cedric is two years above them, and the oldest one in the group right now is Cho.

"No. Just want to say that whatever you're training so hard to avoid...I reckon it has something to do with you not playing Quidditch this year. I just want you to know that you can count on me to defend you if it comes down to it. The Hufflepuffs already know that, because I'm a prefect in their House, but it's for all Houses."

Diggory is being earnest and forthright and kind, and Harry feels a little creeped out. He ends up nodding. "Thanks, Diggory. I'll keep that in mind." Even though he doesn't think Diggory would stand a chance against Voldemort.

"Call me Cedric. I insist."

"Er, thanks, Cedric."

Harry watches Diggory leave for a second, and then shakes his head and turns back to his homework. He supposes that Hufflepuffs are less likely to have ulterior motives than Slytherins, but being around Zach and Ernie has taught him not to underestimate them, and he wonders what Cedric's game is.

*

It takes Remus a long, long time before he can raise his hand and knock on the door to the Headmaster's office.

"Come in, Remus."

That used to comfort him, how Albus knew everything and would always be able to tell him what he needs to think before he realized it himself. Now Remus shivers as he steps into the whirling, sunlit office. Fawkes chirps at him and flies over to sit on his shoulder. Remus manages a small smile as he strokes the phoenix's back. At least the comfort of having a beautiful creature recognize him and not be afraid of him hasn't changed.

"What do you need, my boy?"

"I need you to tell me that I haven't done something horribly wrong by agreeing to spy on Harry and Sirius for you."

"It isn't spying, Remus," Albus says earnestly. He has bright eyes when he wants to, and usually Remus gets comforted by looking into them, but now he remembers Legilimency and turns away. "It's only updates. I know that I can't keep Harry and Sirius caged, and they must do what seems good to them, but I can't help them if they keep me at a distance, either."

"Didn't you already harm them?"

Those are bold words for Remus, and he wilts when he feels Albus's soundless sigh. "My boy, they may think so, but I swear that I only want what's best for them. Harry will never be taught enough if he stays so separate from me, and Sirius won't recover if he goes to a Mind-Healer other than the one I chose for him."

That last part seems strangest to Remus. "Why, though? I mean, I did look up the Mind-Healer you were going to recommend in old issues of the Daily Prophet, and she was disgraced. Couldn't you find a former Gryffindor Mind-Healer who wasn't?"

"She was a Gryffindor, and she was 'disgraced,' as you put it, for having the same irrepressible high spirits as Sirius. Everyone else he could see will try their best to repress him. They won't understand Sirius. They'll tell him that he needs to grow up, as if that's the best advice for a man damaged by a decade of Azkaban! You wouldn't tell him that, would you?"

"I mean...I never want Sirius to change."

"Exactly! He was artificially frozen in time when he went to prison. The Dementors won't contribute to anyone's growth and happiness. Now he must have all the freedom and joy that he lacked in the past decade."

Remus hesitates for a long moment. He wants to say something, but the mere thought makes his palms sweat and his head whirl. He owes everything to this man. He thought for sure that news of his lycanthropy would become public after he attacked Severus as a student, but somehow Albus made Severus be quiet. And of course he offered Remus the chance to attend Hogwarts in the first place. It seems...disloyal to go against him.

"Speak your mind, my boy."

"Sirius was twenty-one when he went to prison. You're saying that he needs time to grow to be thirty-three?"

"Exactly. You understand so well, Remus. You would be an insightful professor, you know."

Remus bites his lip. That's another thing Albus has offered him, a job that means more than doing a day's labor or scrounging in bins. Next year, he might be the Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, and live in the castle, and keep an eye on Harry in the way that Sirius might not be able to.

"But what happens if Sirius doesn't grow up fast enough? If he hurts Harry again the way he already did?"

"You may be assured that it would be an accident. The same way this one was."

"But this one could have killed him!"

"Who told you that? Severus?"

Remus hesitates. He's honestly unsure who did, whether it was Sirius or Severus or maybe even Madam Pomfrey. "I think so."

"Severus is wrong." Albus says it with so much dignity that Remus feels his doubts melting away. He pets Fawkes again. "The burns could have disfigured Harry, and we should all be grateful that that did not happen. But they would not have killed him. Sirius would never be that careless."

"Isn't disfiguration bad enough?" Remus's voice goes bitter without him meaning to, and his fingers wander to his werewolf scar. "People have shunned me all my life because I'm disfigured."

"People shun you because they are ignorant and afraid. Just as they are ignorant and afraid for what it means that an innocent man survived Azkaban. Don't give in to that ignorance, Remus. Stand tall and proud."

Remus blinks. He thinks the subject changed, somehow, but he doesn't know how. "But Sirius is still going to see another Mind-Healer than the one you picked out."

Albus sighs. "I know. I only hope that it doesn't damage him beyond repair. That is one reason I need to rely on your updates, Remus, for times when neither of them would welcome any communication from me. I know I can trust you to tell me if Sirius seems to be going downhill again."

Remus hesitates one more time. But that does sound like a good reason to report to Albus. And he could even tell him if Severus starts to harm Harry, the way Remus half-fears he will. "All right," he says slowly.

"Good man." Albus gives him another one of those smiles that make Remus able to walk tall and proud, and changes the subject. "What do you think of this message that I received from Alastor the other day? He says that the Death Eaters in Azkaban are more restless than ever. I fear we may have to contend with Voldemort's resurrection soon..."

*

"This is perfect."

Severus relaxes. He didn't realize how much he had dreaded to hear condemning words out of Harry's mouth until they didn't come. "I am glad that you like it, but you should examine it more closely before speaking such praise."

"I don't need to."

But Harry is walking towards the house as he speaks, and Severus is glad enough to follow him. He watches as Harry walks up the three steps to the front door of the house, which is set in a facade of white and gold. Harry runs his hand around the doorknob three times before he opens it and steps inside. He seems to know the door will be unlocked.

Severus follows him, trying his best to see the grand front hall the way a child will instead of the way he does.

Harry might like the old stained glass in the windows, forming images of lions rampant and rearing unicorns; he might not notice the old spells humming in them. He might enjoy the sunlight slanting through those widows without thinking, as Severus does, how they make the house brighter and harder to hide in. He runs up the old staircase that spreads down from the first floor like a trailing robe, and laughs.

He doesn't see how easy it will be to string wards to follow the steps and naturally defend the place.

Severus walks up the staircase, made of brown wood where almost everything else is made of pale. Harry is opening doors on the first floor, making faces as some of the large dusty rooms but stopping short when he comes to the one that Severus thought might be his bedroom. There are illusions there of the furniture Severus might buy--Harry might buy, given that it is Harry's money. Severus only cast them to see what furniture would look like in the space and different arrangements, not because he thinks he can dictate what Harry would choose.

But it seems that a four-poster bed without a canopy and with bright blue sheets, a desk, bookshelves made of the same pale wood as the walls, an open armoire filled with child's robes, and an enormous seat tumbled with bright blue cushions are the things Harry could choose.

"You were thinking about this?"

Severus rapidly revises his opinions as he sees Harry's blinking eyes fastened on his face. It's not the particular colors or furniture that make this place special for Harry. It's the thought Severus put into it.

"Yes." Severus clear his throat. "This bedroom looks out over the grounds and has the largest windows, but it's also under one of the biggest wards in the house, one that would be easy to expand. You could have light while also being protected."

Harry brushes his hand over the illusion of the bed, his fingers turning sky-colored for a second as they go through the glamour of the sheets. His head is bowed. He might be rapidly blinking. Severus won't try to invade his privacy enough to be sure.

"It's perfect. Thank you." Harry turns around and clears his throat in return. "Do you think we could give that interview I have to give standing on the grand staircase? That might impress some of the reporters."

Severus responds in light jest, and the moment passes. But Harry walks close beside him as they go to explore the rest of the house.

*

"Yes, what Madam Macmillan said is true. I'm going to have two guardians."

Harry smiles and keeps smiling as the cameras flash. Honestly, he hates this. He doesn't want to have pictures taken of him, he doesn't want to stand on the steps of the grand staircase in Snape's house with the reporters in front of him, and he doesn't want to be next to Snape. Snape is tense and unhappy. Harry prefers to be away from adults who are feeling like that.

But they have to do it, and Madam Macmillan, watching them from the far corner of the entrance hall, is nodding a little at him.

"I just don't understand, Mr. Potter, why you couldn't be content with the godfather your parents chose for you. Surely they made the best decision they could. Or are you saying that you know more than Lily and James Potter?"

Harry doesn't like the woman who asked the question. She has smooth blonde hair and green glasses and a way of simpering that reminds him of Pansy in Slytherin, someone who still isn't his friend even though he knows Daphne has talked to her. He doesn't think this woman is his friend, either.

"That question was not on the approved list, Miss Skeeter," Madam Macmillan says.

"I was only--"

"It was not on the approved list," Madam Macmillan repeats, her voice as heavy as iron. For a minute Harry thinks Skeeter is going to object, but then she looks away and pouts at the floor. That leaves someone else free to ask a question that Harry knows was on the approved list.

"How do you feel about living with two guardians?"

"Excited," Harry says. They discussed possible answers, so he could sound like he was being honest and sneaky at the same time. "I get to live with two wizards who can teach me all about my parents and the wizarding world."

"Wouldn't the Gryffindor Head of House be more appropriate?"

Harry is about to answer that they must have missed he was Sorted Slytherin last year, but Madam Macmillan says, "Not on the list," and this reporter wilts like one of Aunt Petunia's flowers. Harry wants to snort. This isn't easy, but it's a lot easier when you have someone with a frown like Madam Macmillan's following you around.

"Is it true you lived with Muggles?"

"That question has already been answered."

And it has. Harry explained, briefly, that he lived with his Muggle aunt and uncle, but they tragically died last summer, and his cousin is being cared for in the Muggle world since he has no magic. It's all facts that anyone could verify if they looked things up. It doesn't really say anything very important, but Harry is coming to appreciate the fact that that is important.

They can't verify how Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon died or how Harry felt about them. That's the important thing.

"Would you be open to answering one more question about the Muggles?" That comes from the youngest reporter there, a nervous woman with a twitching nose that reminds Harry of a rabbit, or Remus. He feels sorry for her. He thinks she was sent to cover this and she didn't realize how many other people would be there or how big it would be.

Madam Macmillan turns to him. This is the kind of decision she thinks Harry should make on his own, then. Harry swallows. "That depends on what it is."

"Why were you living with Muggles at all? Why didn't you grow up in the magical world? Why didn't you know that you were famous from the time that you were very small?" Maybe the reporter is just excited, not nervous.

"He didn't know he was famous because he lived with Muggles," Madam Macmillan says firmly.

Harry smiles at her and turns back to the reporter. "I lived with my aunt and uncle because they were my only remaining relatives left and my godfather was in prison. That really is the truth."

"But there were magical families that could have taken you!"

"Oh, I know that now." Madam Macmillan advised him that he should be careful to emphasize how much more he was learning and how much better he was getting at knowing things. "But I didn't know it at the time. I didn't even know magic was real or how my parents died or about Voldemort until I was eleven."

Harry thinks at first the gasps are just because he said Voldemort's name, the way they always have been before, but then Snape's hand grips his shoulder. Harry glances up at him. Snape only shakes his head a little, in the way that means things are bad but not as bad as they could be.

"How--how can that be?"

"My aunt and uncle were Muggles. They weren't comfortable telling me about the wizarding world or my place in it because they were pretty sure they would get it wrong."

This time, Harry knows Snape's squeeze on his shoulder is for a different reason. The answer is all right, but Snape doesn't think he should have spared Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon from looking bad.

Harry keeps quiet. Maybe he's stubborn, but his abuse is his to talk about or not. And he's not going to talk about it here.

"We must know who placed you in the Muggle world, Mr. Potter! Who didn't let someone else take care of you!"

Harry feels temptation for a second, but he knows from the way both Snape and Madam Macmillan stand there that this is too uncontrolled a situation. He can't tell them about Dumbledore because of the way they would spin it. He nods slightly and says, "I can understand that," and then refuses to say anything more.

Madam Macmillan shuts the house's door behind them with a thoughtful expression when they finally leave. "I wasn't sure how inviting many reporters rather than one would work out, Mr. Potter, but your instinct was correct. This way, there are many slightly different versions of the truth available instead of only one."

"Yes," Harry says, and yawns. He's tired.

Snape immediately says, "Dinner and then bed."

Harry wants to open his mouth to object, but from the way Snape looks right now, it would be wasted effort. He tells Madam Macmillan good-bye and goes into the kitchen to eat the sandwiches that Snape made earlier. Snape watches him intently all the while, as if he thinks Harry is suddenly going to leap to his feet and dash around the kitchen and say he wasn't really tired.

But he is, and as he snuggles into the real bed that they bought yesterday at the beginning of the Easter hols and which looks like Snape's illusion, Harry thinks that having a guardian isn't so bad.

Chapter Text

"Happy Christmas-Easter-spring."

Harry blinks and turns around to see Blaise solemnly holding out a book towards him. Harry knows that it's newly-copied and bound because Blaise said so, but the leather is dark and covered with a large splotch on the front, making it look ancient. He takes it and then gasps aloud as he feels the magic tingling in his fingers.

"No wonder one person couldn't copy the whole thing," he says, when the magic relaxes enough to let him get a word in edgewise.

Blaise smiles at him. It's the kind of tense smile Harry hasn't seen in months, the one he wears when he talks about his mum. "Yeah, it would be a lot easier if copying charms worked on the contents, but they don't. Aren't you going to open it?"

Harry nods obediently and does so, blinking at the letters and pictures that climb up the first page. The first letter of the book is a capital B, and it's painted as a climbing vine with more vines branching out of it, and the whole side of the page is covered with prancing peacocks and birds that Harry thinks are doves. "Wow."

"Yes, I had illuminators work on it."

"This must have cost a fortune, Blaise."

Harry looks up at the silence. Slytherins aren't shy about discussing money and even like to brag about it in the way that most people in Gryffindor don't. But Blaise is giving him another of those smiles. "What is it?"

"The people I contacted thought they were working for my mother. Not me."

Harry tenses. "If she finds out--"

"That's why she's not going to." Blaise's mouth is calmly set, and Harry gives up, since he knows he won't get anything more out of him. "But anyway, I want you to enjoy that book. Let me know if you don't understand anything in it. Some of it is ancient Italian magic, which my ancestors changed so that wizards could use it as well as witches. But I'm determined that you'll be able to use it, too."

"Why, though?"

"For being my friend."

Harry just has to smile and nod, because he knows that thanking Blaise more would put him off. Besides, the best way to thank him is to ask those questions that Blaise is anticipating. "Who's Aradia?" he asks, flipping through a few pages. "Her name keeps showing up here and there, but there aren't any pictures."

"My ancestors thought images would be disrespectful when they were already altering the magic enough. And anyway, some of it is combined with British magic because I have ancestors from Britain, too. Let me show you..."

He could be a leader if he wanted, too, Harry thinks as he listens and begins to scribble down notes on a piece of parchment. He has the feeling that it would be a bad idea to try to take notes in the book itself. But he wants to follow me for some reason.

Well, then the best thing to do is let him help me and show other people what being a leader does for you.

*

"Okay, look, can I please discuss something with you?"

Theo watches with narrowed eyes as Marcus Flint confronts Harry in the Slytherin common room. It's odd that Flint would approach Harry after doing what he did earlier that year and being warned away so emphatically. Perhaps he's heard about their study group and assumes that he would be welcome there thanks to his pure blood.

He's wrong about that, Theo thinks. A casual glance around the common room tells him that Draco has his wand in hand, Greengrass is alert even though she appears absorbed in a book, and Blaise is absent.

"What?" Harry asks warily. He has the clockwork snake he received from Theo's father on his shoulder and Greengrass's pendant around his neck. On his lap is that dark book that he got from Blaise and has been pondering over since. A serpent carved into the couch arm near him looks as if it might rear up and defend him should he hiss to it in Parseltongue. He doesn't appear to realize how Slytherin he looks, or how princely. Theo will take great delight in telling him later.

Or perhaps not. Things like this might be a more effective defense from Slytherins like Flint if he isn't always self-conscious about them.

"I know that we haven't always got along..."

"That's a funny understatement to make."

Theo tilts his head a little, and Flint looks around and catches his eye. Theo gives him a faint smile to remind him of the knives. Flint goes pale, but carries on with what he's saying to Harry. "But won't you please consider playing Quidditch for Slytherin? I'll be gone after this year--"

Hopefully, anyway.

"But the team won't, and your skill is outstanding. We're losing to Gryffindor still even if not as badly. You should consider it."

Theo holds his mouth shut with an effort. Given Flint's taunts about Theo and his father possibly dying at Voldemort's hands, which will not be happening, he wouldn't have thought anything mattered more to him than service to the Dark Lord. But apparently Quidditch does. Interesting.

"No. Because I won't play against my friends, and I won't take a spot on the Slytherin Quidditch team away from a friend."

"What? Who--"

"Your Seeker, Flint." Draco's voice is low and furious.

Flint flushes red, but he says to Draco, "You know that he's the better Seeker," and turns back to Harry while Draco is still getting up from his couch. "Just consider it, Potter? Please? You're part of our House now."

"I've thought about it. My answer's no." Harry goes back to the book Blaise gave him and utterly ignores the next few spluttering comments Flint makes. Flint ends by throwing up his hands and storming away, muttering things under his breath that at least sound like bafflement and not threats.

Theo eases back on the couch and sees Greengrass relax in the same instant. Draco catches his eye and nods to him. Theo shrugs a little at the question he sees in Draco's eyes. He knows how to translate it.

Since when are we all part of Harry Potter's defense team?

But to Theo, the answer started with the beginning of this year. Or maybe even with the way that the Sorting Hat placed Harry in Slytherin last year. This is the way that Theo has chosen to walk. He'll make sure that the others don't jostle him off his path, and he'll work with them to learn spells and improve their positions in Slytherin and keep Harry safe.

Beyond that, he has no bond with them.

*

"I have wanted to talk to you for some time now, Miss Granger."

"I'm sorry that I couldn't come before now, Headmaster."

"Quite all right, Miss Granger! I am the one who has to make an appointment if I want to talk to you, after all."

Hermione smiles, but she's making sure that she looks at the bridge of Headmaster Dumbledore's nose so that he can't read her mind. He probably thinks she's on his side because she stopped the Aurors from arresting Sirius. That doesn't mean she is. She's on Harry's side. And he would have been miserable if the Aurors arrested Sirius and dragged him away.

Sometimes Hermione thinks that she should have let that happen. But she also doesn't think Professor Snape or Madam Macmillan or any other adults understand how miserable Harry would have been.

"What did you want to talk to me about, Headmaster?"

"Mr. Potter. I understand that he has been neglecting his Gryffindor friends since he was Sorted into Slytherin."

"Oh, no, sir. He's just expanding his friendship circle. He's even made friends in other Houses. Did you know that we have Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs studying with us now? It's great! Chang and Lovegood know so much." Even if Hermione privately thinks that Luna is, well, not so much knowing as anti-knowing sometimes.

"But you must feel that he doesn't spend as much time with you now that he's in Slytherin House?"

"We understand why, though, sir. I mean, he has to make some friends in his own House, and he has to spend some time in his common room. And there are even some Gryffindors who don't want him visiting ours."

"I'm sure you would agree that's ridiculous, Miss Granger. Mr. Potter should always be welcome in his original home."

"Oh, but he is, Headmaster!"

"Miss Granger."

"Hogwarts. He's welcome in Hogwarts. Sorry, sir, I thought that's what you meant."

Dumbledore pauses. Hermione smiles at him and tries to expand the edges of her mind into the same kind of crystalline cage that she uses when she's memorizing facts in Potions. Nothing about the office or the interview should escape her.

"You know that Harry is slipping further and further into Darkness."

I suppose he gave up on trying to convince me via subtlety. Hermione widens her eyes and shakes her head. "Why would you think that, Headmaster? I think he's finally taking some things seriously. He's never studied so hard or worked so hard on his spells! I was so proud of him!"

"Among other things, Miss Granger, he's associating openly with children of families on the other side of the war from us."

"But there's no war, sir."

Dumbledore sighs in a way that makes Hermione want to cringe. But she can't, because Dumbledore isn't actually her professor and he can't assign her homework, and she's fighting for her friends. "I know you are more astute than that, Miss Granger. You know that the war will return, that Voldemort is not dead. Or did you forget what you faced in your first year at Mr. Potter's side? When he returns, his faithful Death Eaters will flock to him."

"But why would Theo and Blaise and Draco betray Harry to do that, sir?" Hermione thinks he's talking about exactly those people, even though she has no idea if Blaise's mum was a Death Eater.

Dumbledore starts. It's not until later that Hermione thinks he probably did it because she referred to the Slytherins by their first names. As it is, he tries to cover that up by smiling at her. "Because they understand the causes of the war and the lines drawn by it even better than Harry, Miss Granger. No doubt Mr. Nott and Mr. Malfoy have received an education from their fathers in how to serve Voldemort."

"What about Blaise?"

"You know the rumors surrounding his mother, I presume."

"I know the rumors, sir."

Dumbledore sighs again. "Although there has never been evidence that would convince a court to convict, I have done my research, and I do indeed believe that Signora Zabini is a murderess seven times over. And those are only the ones that we know she married, Miss Granger. Imagine a woman like that raising a young and vulnerable child. What would you do?"

"I would get the young and vulnerable child away from her!"

Again Dumbledore starts. This time Hermione thinks she understands why, and it doesn't make her like him any better. But then, to her shock, he shakes his head and actually admits to it. "Such a thing is very difficult given the complexities of Italian wizarding law, not to mention the law that pertains to minor Italian wizards residing in Britain."

"But you said you believed she was guilty!"

"I do indeed."

"Then get him away from her!"

"As you yourself have observed in the study of the law, Miss Granger, there are edge cases and complications and precedents..."

Dumbledore goes on talking, but Hermione can't listen too closely because then she will start responding, which would be dreadful for Harry and maybe for Blaise. She just nods and murmurs and manages to leave the office without promising anything, although that's not ideal either because it means that she has no idea why he called her there in the first place. She finds herself walking out and fuming.

She has to call a meeting of the study group. Immediately. And maybe they need to discuss how to start protecting themselves in Hogwarts.

*

"I've got someone else who wants to join the study group," Zach drawls when they're all settled around the pushed-together tables in the library that have become theirs.

Harry looks up from talking to Ginny. She didn't want to join the study group at first because she said the sight of the snakes on the Slytherins' badges (including his) made her nauseous. But now she's here, and she's also said that she wants to learn how to defend herself so that she never has to suffer through something like what happened to her last year again. "Who is it?"

"Susan. Susan Bones?" Zach adds, lifting his eyebrows in that condescending way he has when Harry only blinks. "Her aunt is Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. And Justin and a few of the second-years are thinking about it, but they're not sure yet."

Harry shrugs. "If they can get along with the people who are already here and keep certain things to themselves, then they're welcome."

"Maybe not. We have something to talk about, Harry."

Harry has recognized that Hermione had something she wanted to talk about from the second they arrived in the library, but she only shook her head at him when he invited her to speak up a few minutes ago. She was scribbling away on a parchment then, so maybe she's done with that now. "What is it?"

Hermione turns the parchment around. She's written a long message that has Harry craning his neck to see it. His eyes widen when he realizes she's writing about Dumbledore and how she thinks he's plotting against Harry. It makes Harry feel a little sick to his stomach. He knew Dumbledore was upset about Snape and Sirius and all the rest of it, but it's different to have someone else talk about this.

"What are you talking about?" Cho asks, her eyes wide. "Are you saying that Headmaster Dumbledore would--"

Harry looks up sharply, but Hermione nods to the air around their table, which is covered with a softly-glowing, transparent dome, which means that no one from beyond the table will be able to hear anything. Harry relaxes. "I don't know for sure, because I don't know what Hermione knows," he says, and looks at her expectantly.

"Headmaster Dumbledore wanted to talk to me this morning." Hermione is biting her lip, and her skin has flushed dark enough to see. "I don't know for sure what it was about, because he never got around to why, but he was saying that it's a bad thing Harry is in Slytherin and making friends with the children of Death Eaters."

"Well, it could be a bad thing," Zach says, just to be a prick. He catches Harry's eye, or maybe Blaise's or Theo's or Draco's, and holds up his hands. "I'm saying, your parents will be able to hurt you when they want to. And you might be passing information on this group to them without even knowing it."

"Why are you here then, Smith?" Draco demands.

"Because I'm not an idiot. Might and will aren't the same thing as are."

"Anyway," Hermione breaks in, "he never outright said it, but I think he was trying to make me agree that Harry is neglecting his Gryffindor friends and not spending enough time in the Gryffindor common room. I think he wanted me to be a spy. Or maybe try to get Harry to stop spending time with the Slytherins."

"Did you tell him that the study group includes people from all Houses?" Ernie demands.

"Of course I did. That was part of my defense. But he didn't seem to care."

"The Boy-Who-Lived is too good to associate with Hufflepuffs, of course." Ernie folds his arms and scowls.

"The Boy-Who-Lived is sitting right here, and hates his bloody title, and is going to associate with whoever he bloody wants," Harry snaps, ignoring the way that Hermione catches her breath and says something about his language.

"But that means standing up to Dumbledore." Ron speaks up from the edge of the group, where he sits and takes notes and talks only to Harry and Hermione and ignores Draco. "Are you really going to do that? I mean, stand up to the Headmaster? You wanted to go along with him when he was controlling what Sirius could do."

Harry shivers. He feels as though someone is blowing cold air right on him. Especially because everyone else has gone silent and is staring at him.

Well, this is one of those times when I have to be a leader. "I think I have to," Harry says. "He's trying to keep me from actually helping other people and fitting into Slytherin and saving people from their parents. He should want to save them if their parents are Death Eaters--"

"That's what I said--"

"Maybe some of us don't need saving, Granger--"

"But he isn't." Harry raises his voice and talks a little more loudly. "So I have to. And I have to be able to study and talk to people and go where I want in Hogwarts. I mean, within reason," he adds, when he sees Hermione opening her mouth. "So I have to stand up to him."

There's silence around the table for a second. Harry actually braces himself to see some of them walk away. He thinks Zach might, since he keeps saying he's only in this group for his own benefit, and Cho, who looks scared. Even Neville has a troubled look on his face.

But Zach says, "Yes? So how are we going to do that?"

Harry can't keep from gaping at him, and Zach understands all his objections and rolls his eyes without a word being said from Harry. "Right now, this is the only place in the school where I'm learning something. Snape still won't give us enough instructions in Potions, Sprout thinks everyone is absolutely gasping to learn how to wrestle dangerous plants right away, McGonagall is good but too advanced, Defense Against the Dark Arts is a joke as usual--"

"Professor Snape, Professor Sprout, Professor McGonagall--"

"Professor Sprout is a good teacher!"

"What about Professor Flitwick?"

Zach ignores the chorus, keeping his eyes fixed on Harry. "You want to help the school be a school. I want to attend school. Yeah, I'm with you."

And the others start speaking up then, like Ginny who wants to defend herself and Cho who wants to pass her Defense OWL next year and Luna, who simply says, "You're my friends," and Ernie with words about his great-aunt, and Draco who says that Slytherins have always received the disrespect of the Headmaster and this is just another example.

There's also Ron and Hermione and Blaise and Theo, who just catch Harry's eye and nod.

And sometimes, Harry thinks as a new fire begins burning in his chest, that's all friends need.

Chapter Text

Blaise knows the truth now, but he still wants to test it out some more before he shows it to anyone.

So he goes to the library on a day when the study group isn’t meeting because Granger has dragooned most of them into studying for exams instead, and waits until he sees a small table of Ravenclaws getting up to leave. They’re mostly fifth-years, which will be an interesting challenge for his ability given that students older than he is may also have more practice resisting magic. He focuses on the book in front of him, and then reaches out with his Gift and tugs hard on the attention of one tall girl in a sloppy robe.

She turns around to look at him curiously. Blaise lifts his head and smiles at her. Her skin is a little darker than his, and her hair is braided around her head in rows he hasn’t seen before. He lays his book down.

Her friends are waiting for her. Blaise presses down a little harder on her will, and she makes her own excuses. “I forgot a book that I want to get out.”

“Well, just hurry to dinner, Melinda. You need to put some meat on your bones,” chides another Ravenclaw, and they leave.

Melinda, apparently, walks across the library without hesitation and sits down across from him. Blaise smiles a little more. That’s the exact chair he wanted her to take.

“Who are you?” Melinda asked. “How are you calling me? I felt this call.”

Blaise increases the pressure of his will. The victims of his mother’s Gift don’t feel that way. They only feel that they’re drawn to the beautiful woman in front of them, the most beautiful woman they’ve ever seen in their lives, as the one before Bernard said, and consorting with her is all their own idea.

Melinda’s eyes widen a little more, and then she blushes. “How is no one sitting with you already? You’re—handsome.”

Blaise sighs and gives her a winsome smile. “Alas, my mother believes in arranged marriages. Hers wasn’t, but she thinks the element of control will make me happier. And it will definitely make her happier.”

“You poor thing.” Melinda takes his hand, and promptly gasps and looks a little dazed. “Isn’t there something someone can do for you?”

“Well,” Blaise says, and looks around self-consciously. He doesn’t want to increase the pressure right now. It would take Melinda too long to recover after she goes back to Ravenclaw Tower. “I mean. There’s something one person could do. I’m sure that your family is wealthy, and it’s only Galleons that will let me escape my mother and come to live in Britain. I live in Italy right now.”

“Of course my family is wealthy! How much do you need?”

“It can’t be huge amounts at first, or my mother would notice and take it away. What do you think about five Galleons at a time? To start with? Could you manage that?”

Melinda beams at him. “Of course I can. Can you meet me at the last staircase before the one that actually goes up to our Tower at seven this evening? I can’t meet before that. You heard Elysia. She’ll notice if I miss dinner. But—please be on time. I’ve never met anyone like you before.”

Blaise hesitates. “Well, I would hate for you to get in trouble. Elysia might be too suspicious if we meet tonight. What about tomorrow? Same time and place?”

“I can do that, too.” Melinda leans over, blushing furiously, and kisses him on the cheek. “I’ve never met anyone like you in my life,” she almost hisses, and then she takes off from the library, running straight towards the Great Hall.

Blaise swallows and leans back, letting the concentrated surge of will fade. He has no desire to be like his mother, controlling people into giving him their fortunes and their hands in marriage and then disposing of them.

But he can use his Gift to protect him and those who matter to him, and he will.

*

“What are you doing?”

“Reading.”

Harry can feel the way Theo rolls his eyes from across the library. Theo walks swiftly over to his table, not the same one the study group tends to meet at, and sits down next to him. Harry looks at him a little sternly. When he sits here, he wants to be alone. Most of the study group has managed to figure that out.

Theo only smiles at him. “Back issues of the Daily Prophet?”

“Yes.” Harry hesitates once, but in the end, he does need to share this with someone, and Hermione is busy creating an immense study schedule for the end-of-year exams that everybody can use and won’t be available until tomorrow. He turns the paper so that Theo can see the photograph on the front page.

“Grindelwald. Do you think the Dark Lord’s return is going to resemble his?”

“No. I’m looking up the articles that got published after Dumbledore defeated him.”

Theo blinks hard at him, and then looks back at the article again. “So it is. But what do you think they’re going to tell you? You could hear about Dumbledore’s defeat of him from almost anyone. They’d be happy to tell you.”

“I know, but do you think that’s the real story? The full one?”

“Neither are the articles in rubbish like the Prophet.”

Harry shakes his head impatiently. “I know, but I can at least start putting things together now. And I can’t start asking people about that story until I think up a good excuse. I don’t know many people who were around at that point, anyway.” He does think of Madam Macmillan in the next second, but the fact remains that she’d want to know why he was asking.

“Well, what details do you need to know?”

“We need to know how Dumbledore fights. What kinds of strategies and tactics he uses. And how he convinces people to believe in him.”

Theo blinks. “And are you going to spread these stories around when you learn about them?”

“No. I’m going to use them to figure out how his mind works and the best ways to move against him.”

Theo studies him. Harry reads through two more articles before he finally snaps, “What?”

“You just seemed so set against being a leader for so long. I was wondering what had changed your mind.”

“The fact that people won’t stop pushing me into this position. And the way that the school isn’t functioning like a school, the way Zach said. If I want to do something about that, then I have to be a leader. But I don’t have to do everything that you think a leader should do,” Harry adds hastily, because a nasty grin is beginning to spread across Theo’s face.

“Oh, I know that. If you didn’t have a mind of your own, you wouldn’t be someone I wanted to follow.”

“Then why are you grinning like that?”

“Because you’re going to upend so many of Dumbledore’s plans.” Theo says it with a soft, almost reverential note in his voice. “And so many other adults’ plans, too. Like my father’s.”

“Why do you hate him, Theo?”

“My reasons are my own.” Theo studies him for a second more, then nods and says, “While you work on our plan from that angle, I’m going to look for material on Grindelwald himself. There are books about him in the Nott library—journals, rather, written by relatives who fought with him.”

“Will your father send them to you?”

“Nott house-elves can bring them to me.”

Harry didn’t even think about that. “Wow, you must have a good relationship with them.”

“It’s special.” For some weird reason, Theo is smiling again. “And don’t let anyone tell you that you need to stop or slow down, Harry. You’re doing things in a way that’s going to make me proud to follow you.”

Harry looks at him suspiciously, but Theo only pats his shoulder, and then gets up and walks towards the shelves. Harry has better things to do than stare after him, so he returns to reading and taking notes.

*

Severus jerks out of sleep. For long moments, he doesn’t know why. Harry hasn’t been in trouble in days. Black is acting civilly enough, and Severus has magical protections up that would make it impossible for the idiot to break into his quarters anyway. Lupin is in another part of the castle and it’s far from the full moon—

Then he feels as though a fireball has landed on his arm, and he claws at his robe to remove the sleeve. The moment the skin is exposed to the air, the fire cools.

No. The moment the Dark Mark was exposed to the air, the fire cooled.

Severus stares down at the gleaming black shape on his skin. It doesn’t look exactly the way it did during the first war—more a sort of murky black than Stygian—but any change from dull grey is cause for concern.

He stands up and reaches for the Floo powder from force of habit before he pauses and closes his eyes. No, he can no longer go to Albus as if he was simply a spy from the first war and nothing else. Albus distrusts him too much. Even if he did not, he will use the information Severus gives him for his own purposes, and he will not inform Severus of what those are.

It is a strange thing; Severus used to accept that. Now he cannot imagine what he was thinking.

He sits down and writes out his observations of the Mark, including the contrast with what it used to look like. Then he puts the parchment aside to share with Harry in the morning.

He knows he cannot treat Harry exactly like the semi-omniscient leader Albus has made himself out to be, but he can trust him, and this will be one of the first demonstrations since he became Harry’s guardian.

*

A brush against the wards brings Tarquinius springing out of sleep. He raises his hands, and the shadows boil into the shape of sleek panthers, scarlet eyes gleaming at him out of every face. Tarquinius jerks his head towards the disturbance in the wards, and they flow off.

As he dresses himself rapidly and steps out of the bedroom, another shadow takes flight over his shoulder, this one owl-shaped. Its talons are solid, however, diamond replicas that Tarquinius spent nearly a year shaping with his magic. He hopes his visitors will not try to argue.

He arrives at the front door to find the shadow-cats stalking slowly in circles around his visitors. The owl sits on the lintel, watching them.

Tarquinius, however, calls his beasts off with another wave of his hand, and bows. “Speakers,” he says. “I did not realize that you would appear before the end of Mr. Potter’s school year.”

“Why would we not?” The first figure moves forwards slowly. Tarquinius twists his hand, and a lamp set in the wall above the door flares to life. He doesn’t dare cast a spell, not right now, during the first delicate moments of negotiation. “You promised us a young serpent mage. We wish to view your memories of him and determine what his strengths are. You are the one who measured his skills with the Silver Hourglass.”

Tarquinius nods, watching the Speaker. Her face is narrow around the edges, and her hair gleams black with a metallic green shade to it. She has chosen to arrive in her half-form, so beneath the waist a long, muscular serpent’s body of the same color as her hair replaces her legs. She also has a forked tongue, vertical pupils, and a swift flicker of clear eyelids that Tarquinius finds difficult to concentrate on, so quickly do they move up and down to shield her gaze.

“Yo