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Structures in Adversity

Title: Structures in Adversity
Author: starduchess
Artist: sealcat and froggie
Other pairings: Draco/Hermione
Fic Rating: R
Art Rating: NC-17
Word count: ~67,400
Content/Warning(s): Chan, Severus and Harry are both 17 (highlight for spoilers) *time travel, Veela inheritance, language, some violence, canon torture, angst*
Summary: When Harry travels back in time, he never imagined how awkward his world would become. Unfortunately, coming back to the present contains its own hardships.
A/N: OMG, I’ve never written anything this long before, so this was a huge challenge for me. I want to thank the mods for their patience and assistance to all of us writers and to all my fellow writers in the BB comm who helped cheer me on. An amazingly big thank you goes to ashiiblack and badgerlady for the super-speedy beta job. To all my readers, yes, this has lots of angst in it, but it has a happy ending, I promise you! *hugs all*
A/N #2: One line from this story is taken directly from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

Sealcat_Star_Thumb Froggie_thumb

Structures in Adversity, Part 1

Part One: Foundations in Time and Space

Chapter One

Harry was called up to the Headmaster’s study once again on the premise of more lessons, but he knew they were going to do something different tonight. He was feeling more and more anxious with each passing day, whether from the coming Horcrux hunt or Voldemort’s increasing attacks or the continuous churning of dark thoughts in his own mind all year he could not say. Or maybe it was the yearning and restlessness he felt thinking about his old potions text. Harry had been forced — wrongly in his opinion — into hiding the Half-Blood Prince’s one away. To avoid temptation, they said. And maybe they were right, for each day without it his body grew more tense and edgy, as if in a state of withdrawal. He was almost to the point of saying, “Sod it,” and retrieving the book back from its hiding place just to find some release. According to Hermione, however, that would compound his sin from the Sectumsempra spell, so he reined in his libido and left the textbook alone. Besides, he had a job to do.

Stepping into the Headmaster’s suite late in the day, Harry saw Dumbledore busy arranging items to take with them on their mission. Several vials of different coloured liquids sat waiting next to two well-worn spell books. “I’m ready, sir,” Harry told him, feeling much like those potions, waiting, expectant.

“Ah, yes, very good, Harry. There are a few last items I need to retrieve from my stores before we can leave. Make yourself a pot of tea while you wait.” The Headmaster left in a flurry of purple fabric. Harry shook his head to dispel the sight.

He ordered tea from the house-elves and took in the state of the Headmaster’s rooms. Knick-knacks covered every inch of unused space upon the shelves, sometimes three or four rows deep. Most of them were metal and about half of them moved in some fashion. Then one caught his eye, an unusual ivory stone piece tucked away out of sight behind some small books. Harry took it down and examined it. There were reliefs all the way around depicting ancient casting scenes in very fine detail, such that he had to squint his eyes to focus on the minute images. He turned the figurine once, then twice, taking in the stories of lust and greed and envy.

As he went to place the item back, not having any use for it, a twisting, pulling sensation caught him, not unlike a Portkey but without the nauseating falling. It was very brief, and when it stopped, he hadn’t moved at all. Looking about the room, it appeared everything was still in order. Trinkets were there. Fawkes still sat on his perch, asleep. The sun was in the same position even. Did he just imagine it? Was it some magic that was supposed to affect him but didn’t? The obelisk looked archaic. Could its magic have expired? Was such a thing even possible? Harry didn’t know, and rather than risk another magical attack, he replaced the item behind the books.

At that moment, Dumbledore walked in, deep in thought and shaking his head at something. The man didn’t notice Harry standing by his shelves, instead fiddling with some spinning device on his desk, a desk with conspicuously missing potions and tomes.

Harry stammered out, “Pro-professor?”

Dumbledore swirled around to stare at his young protege, his blue eyes piercing, questioning, as if he’d never set eyes on him before. Harry thought his blue robes really brought out the colour of his eyes. Wait a minute. Weren’t his robes some putrescent shade of purple before? Maybe he had changed into something with more magical protections woven into it.

“James? What are you doing in my — no, you’re not James. Who are you?” the Headmaster demanded. His expression changed from mild surprise to wary confusion.

Bewildered, Harry said, “I-it’s me, Professor. Harry. Is something wrong?”

Dumbledore looked as confused as ever. “Perhaps, my boy.” He paused but didn’t elaborate. “Last name, if you please.”

Harry gave out a little huff and formed a funny little half-smirk in sudden nervousness. “Potter, sir. I’m Harry Potter.” He was wondering if the old wizard had finally gone ‘round the twist. It wouldn’t be surprising. The wizard was well over 100 years old; maybe the war had finally addled his brain.

“Harry Potter,“ mumbled Dumbledore, whose expression took in Harry more thoroughly, lingering on his hair and face and wide green eyes. “And what happened a moment ago, young Harry? Anything unusual?” The old man was polite, but there was a slight edge to his voice, something unbelieving, even condescending.

“Well, sir, I noticed this stone statue on your shelves, right here,” said Harry and pointed to the very object. “I wanted a better look, so I picked it up. It didn’t look unusual. Then there was this Portkey pulling sensation. Then just as fast again, it was gone.”

“Which object, this one?” asked Dumbledore as he waved his wand and levitated the trinket in question.

He examined the reliefs from all sides, noting the stories told through carvings. A series of low incantations issued from his mouth, and the object glowed a faint green then orange in the testing. “Most irregular,” he said, more to himself than Harry. Quite infuriating, that. “Did you turn the object, and if so, how many times?” he finally asked.

Harry stuttered in confusion. “I don’t know, at least, uhm, twice I think.” He didn’t know what the old man could be on about.

“And what date do you think it is today?” the Headmaster asked with a piercing gaze.

Harry felt as if he was back in Transfiguration with McGonagall watching him intently. “Why, it’s Monday, June 1st, sir.” An unease began in his belly. “We were going to have our normal lessons, but you said there was something special we were going to do …” Harry trailed off at the look of bafflement on the old man’s face. “Don’t you remember?” and that’s when he noticed it, the shock nearly blowing him off his feet, for the hand and arm that had been blackened and useless all year was fully healed, not a blemish on it.

“Something wrong?” Dumbledore asked. “You are suddenly white and look about to faint. Shall I call Poppy?”

Harry’s eyes flew up to met his. “Um, n-no, it’s nothing.” He could feel Dumbledore’s mind trying to pry his, and although he tried to block him out, Harry wasn’t any good at Occlumency, and he could tell when Dumbledore viewed his surface thoughts.

“Highly unfortunate, that,” he said after retreating from Harry’s mind. “Well, today is November 16, 1976. Welcome to the past, Harry.”

Harry was dumbstruck. Two decades! “You think that thing transported me here? For how long? How do I get back?”

“One question at a time, young Harry. Yes, this statue is a Timekey, and I’ve had it here in my possession for many decades, thinking it might prove useful someday. But as its time cycle appears in decades, I’m afraid it’s not very precise for correcting minor errors, and major errors have not really occurred, or else not that I can see. Besides, the future looks more interesting.”

Harry gulped. “Does it work like a Time-Turner? Will I have to live out two decades?” He shuddered in revulsion, hoping not to have to live hidden away from the world for twenty years.

Dumbledore’s gaze, if possible, sharpened further. “Where did you hear about Time-Turners?”

He wasn’t sure how to answer, what information he could give without screwing up something in the timeline. Hermione had lectured him on the importance of not messing with time. “From you, actually. So, does it?”

The Headmaster looked thoughtful for a moment. “No. It doesn’t. The magic in it will only keep you here for a short amount of time, but it is uncertain when that will be. Less than a year, I should think.”

Harry sighed in exasperation. “Great,” he muttered under his breath.

“I take it you are a current student at Hogwarts,” he said.

“Yeah.” Harry nodded. “I was just at the end of my sixth year.”

“Ah, yes, June you said. Well, we can continue your education for now. Wouldn’t want you to miss anything. Have you turned seventeen yet?”

Harry shook his head. “I’m one of the youngest in my class.”

“Well, then, we will keep you with the sixth years. What House would you like to be in?”

“I’m a Gryffindor, sir,” not really sure he should be telling him this.

“Hmm, but perhaps not the best place for you here in this time. There will be questions of course, but the less attention you receive, the better. I would keep that scar covered as well as it’s a little too distinct a facial feature. Someone might recognise you in the future. Slytherin House is probably out of the question, so any preference between Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff?”

Harry knew from interactions with his fellow classmates that Ravenclaws were smart and he never felt up to their level of wits. “I probably wouldn’t fit in with the Eagles, but the Badgers would have me. They take everyone, right? I’d blend in there.”

“Very wise, my boy. So shall it be. You will need clothes and books, quills and parchment, and other essentials. I’ll send an owl with a post order. In the meantime, have you eaten?”

“Yes, I’m fine.”

“Good. Let me call Professor Sprout and I’ll introduce you as a transfer student. She’ll get you settled. Now, what name will you go by? I’m not sure Potter will do.”

Harry bit his lip, unsure of anything. He shrugged. “I don’t know.”

Dumbledore had a knowing twinkle in his eyes. “You do look a bit like James, so a distant family name perhaps.”

Harry’s eyes widened at that. Shit! His mum and dad were here, weren’t they? The Headmaster was therefore correct to keep him out of Gryffindor, however much he would miss living in the tower. But it was only for a little while, yes?

“What about Peverell?”

The words brought Harry back to reality; he shrugged again. “Seems okay. I don’t know much about my family’s history.” He looked away, not wanting the Headmaster to see the sadness in his soul at never knowing his loved ones or their stories. Even in his own time people who knew his parents and Sirius never talked about them much and definitely didn’t talk about his grandparents or other relatives and ancestors. Harry felt so cut off from everyone. And now here he was in their time, and it would probably be unsafe to talk to them. Harry had never felt so disheartened.

“Under the circumstances,” Dumbledore continued, “I do believe it would be best for you not to talk about where and when you came from. Keep conversation to a minimum and don’t gossip about recent history unless it is something for Professor Binns’ class.”

At that moment, a knock sounded on the office door. “Ah, here we go. Come in!”

The door creaked open and in walked Pomona Sprout, Head of Hufflepuff House. She was a bit younger-looking than Harry remembered her, hair a little bit neater, a stone or two thinner, but she still had that cheery smile on her face and beaming, happy eyes. “You called, Headmaster?”

“Yes, Professor Sprout, we have a new transfer student from the Maryland International School of Magic in the United States, and I would appreciate it if Hufflepuff House would take him in. May I introduce you to Harry Peverell. He’ll be in sixth year.” Dumbledore beckoned Harry over to stand in front of the professor. “Harry, this is Professor Sprout.”

Harry bobbed his head a few times, not sure how to address for the first time someone he already knew, albeit not much outside of Herbology classes.

Professor Sprout didn’t seem to notice the awkwardness. She just beamed up at him. “Oh, that sounds lovely, dear. We’ll make you feel right at home. Have you turned seventeen yet?”

“No, not yet. Still have two months to go,” he said.

“I ask because all of the sixth year beds are taken up, but we do have one vacancy in the seventh years and one in the fifth years and wondered which you would be closest to. It sounds like the seventh years, then, but you’ll still attend classes with the other sixth years. Wonderful! We’ll have the house-elves bring your things down to the dormitories, and in the meantime I’ll give you a quick tour, shall I?” She beamed with pride.

Dumbledore chuckled. “I think that would be a lovely idea. Thank you, Professor. As his transfer was a bit sudden, all his things have not yet arrived, but they should be here by tomorrow evening. Until then, he can borrow a few items from the visiting stores.”

“Oh, of course,” she said, a little mystified no doubt as to why a child would have no trunk with them. “Will you need a wand as well? Should we send for Ollivander?”

“Oh, no. I have my wand,” Harry said, pulling his out from his back pocket.

“Ah, good. That’s one less worry, then. Come on. Time for that tour!” She was entirely too cheerful, but at least she was good-natured about it, unlike Umbridge, whose saccharine-sweetness was full of evil, twisted thoughts.

Harry felt very odd walking out of the Headmaster’s office, following his new Head of House around the familiar school (yet hearing new tales about it) and down into unknown territory.

Chapter Two

In the lower levels of the school near the kitchens, Professor Sprout came upon a still-life picture of a copse of apple trees, the frame of the picture carved directly out of the surrounding rock. “Here’s the entrance to the Hufflepuff common room. You can be in the common room at any time you like when not in class, but you must be inside this door by curfew at 9 pm. From inside there are two dormitories — one for girls and one for boys — and each dorm has a room for each school year. As I mentioned, the sixth year room is already full, so you’ll be bunking with the seventh years.

“Now, to open the lock, you need to press your middle finger onto the second knot of the painted tree here,” she placed her finger on the image about midway up on the right side, “and stroke the painting once here following the line of the garden with your other hand,” and proceeded to demonstrate the motion with her left hand, “and say the password ‘Fairies Abound’.” At that, the large door opened and they entered the Common Room.

It was carved all out of stone, even the large fireplace, and contained rustic wooden furniture with fabrics in warm tones of yellow, brown, orange, and deep green. The floor was covered in thick, furry animal pelts and many students were huddled together on them, studying or just chatting. It all looked very cozy and inviting.

“Nice,” Harry said.

“Why, thank you! We try our best to be one big happy family, and I hope you can share in that, too. Now, let me introduce you to a few people.” She called over the six prefects and set about introductions, explaining rules as well as roles in the process. “Harry Peverell is a transfer student and since he’s only two months from his seventeenth birthday, he’ll be sleeping in the empty bed in the seventh years’ room. Josh, please show him around the dormitory and his bed.”

“My pleasure, Professor Sprout,” answered Josh Tavershout, a seventh-year prefect.

“His things will be delivered tomorrow, and I’ll have a class schedule for you at breakfast, alright, Harry?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said.

“Good. You all settle in and have a lovely evening.” Professor Sprout waved to the assembled students.

“Good night, Professor,” they all chorused.

“Well, Harry, was it?” Josh asked. Harry nodded. “Great. Here’s the common room. Feel free to study or hang around here with friends. This way to the dorms and I’ll show you the bathroom as well.”

“Thanks,” Harry said, following the older boy. The circular door to the right led to the boys’ dormitory and it was like going down into a cave. The hewn rock flowed into steps, and the different rooms opened up from rounded doorways off the main passageway. Josh showed him where the sixth years slept and what all their names were, but Harry wasn’t going to remember all of them, not right away. The end of the tunnel took a sharp left and opened through another door onto a spacious cavern filled again with rustic furniture, animal-skin rugs and lush draperies.

“It’s like a hunting lodge,” Harry murmured, thinking of pictures he’d seen in Aunt Petunia’s holiday mags for when Uncle Vernon wanted to take Dudley on manly outings.

“Yeah, kinda like. Makes it cozy. Now, my bed’s the far left one, over there,” and pointed to one bed made up with red and yellow blankets, which made Harry feel more at home, “and that one in the middle right is empty, so that’ll be yours. Most of us are early risers, so we tend to go to sleep early, but feel free to do what you like. Just don’t stay up too late or else you’ll be dragging through classes.” He smiled, knowingly.

“Sure.” Harry nodded, then asked an anxious question. “Why don’t any of the beds have curtains? What about privacy?” It made him nervous thinking about all those eyes and ears on him all night long. What if he should have a nightmare? What if Voldemort sent him visions? Tom was alive in this time, but Harry wasn’t sure they would have a connection since he wasn’t even born yet, let alone been attacked as a baby.

“Oh, don’t worry about that. We’re all one big happy family. Nothing you do will shock any of us. We’ve all seen and done it before ourselves.” He winked at Harry before walking him over to the door at the far end of the room. “And in here is the bathroom.” Again the place was molded out of the rock. Harry was amazed that everything was so earthy.

“So, that’s all that. If you’re not tired, why don’t you come back into the common room and start meeting your classmates. I’m sure they’re all curious to hear your story.”

Harry wasn’t so sure about that as he was not looking forward to lying to his all new friends.

***

If the stares from the night before were awkward, the stares and whispers at breakfast were even worse. Harry felt like fresh meat for the gossip mongers, which happened far too often in his own time that he really didn’t appreciate it now. He tried to ignore it while eating, but he was too anxious to get much food down. He had slept fitfully last night, anxious about this new day.

“You know, you should eat more,” said a girl whom he thought was named Emmaline Courderie from two seats away. “Are you sure you’re almost seventeen?” Her tone wasn’t mocking, but it still stung that he would never have the height of his peers, thanks to earlier malnutrition.

“I’m fine,” he responded. “Just nerves.” He quickly glanced around the table, looking for anyone else up for conversation. It felt weird sitting at a table in the middle of the Great Hall instead of off to one side, and the different colours on his uniform made him feel very out of place.

“Really, there’s nothing to worry about,” exclaimed Matthew Homage, another sixth year, from Harry’s other side. “History is boring, Divination’s a joke, Charms is easy. Transfiguration with McGonagall can be tough, but she’s fair, and I’m sure she’ll give you break for the first class or two. Herbology and Care of Magical Creatures are a riot, but Potions could be difficult. Slughorn may not like you much if you don’t do well in it, and that can lead to some nasty comments.”

Slughorn was teaching potions? Oh, right, Snape wasn’t a teacher yet. In fact … Harry glanced over at the Slytherin table but didn’t see any greasy, black-haired teenager. He wondered where the git was. “What about DADA?” he asked instead.

“Oh, well, that’s the one you have to watch out for. Lancaster is a real prick. He’ll knock you over every chance he gets trying to prove his dominance over the class. Hope you have a strong Shield Charm,” Matt said, not the best endorsement.

Great. Harry would have to be watchful there, hoping not to be humiliated in it.

“Do they have Quidditch in the States?” asked Broadmere Jones, another seventh-year, from across Harry.

“Uh, sure,” he said, not very sure at all.

“Do you play?”

Keeping on the safe side, Harry said, “From time to time. I’ll pitch in if a team needs me.” Good. That should be vague enough.

“Great! We could use another back-up player. I’m one of the Beaters. What position do you like?”

Shit. This could be dangerous territory. “I’ll go in for Chaser now and again. I’m fairly fast on my broom, if I had it with me.”

“Bril’! We usually have practice on Tuesday or Thursday afternoon. Come join us!”

“I’ll think about it, thanks.” Wow, these Hufflepuffs were accepting of new students.

“Please do. We could use all the help we can get, especially against Gryffindor. That James Potter is one mean Seeker, and the rest of the team are all tight flyers. They win all the bloody time.” Broadmere pointed his fork to the table behind Harry, then went back to his food.

Harry had gone all still at the sound of his father’s name. James Potter was here! And he could possibly be meeting him soon, maybe even flying against him. It would be glorious; it would be wonderful; it would be scary. Suddenly, Harry was very uneasy and his stomach was all tied in knots. He couldn’t fly against his father. What if he was recognized? What if he won? What if he altered the timeline? No, too risky. He tried to smile gratefully. “Um, maybe some other time, yeah? This is all new to me.” It was a weak lie, but it would have to do.

“S’kay, mate. No pressure or nothin’.” Harry was relieved when Broadmere didn’t say anything else.

While finishing his meal and trying very hard not to turn around and look for his parents at the Gryffindor table, Harry noticed some middle-aged Slytherins enter the Great Hall just behind a couple of second-year Hufflepuffs. With his keen Seeker’s eye, he spotted a concealed hex shoot from the end of one of the Slytherins’ wands and land squarely on the legs of the smaller Hufflepuff, who immediately cried out in pain. The Slytherins smirked and catcalled after her, heading toward their table. Her companion stooped down to help undo the curse and several other Badgers offered their assistance as well, but no one was confronting the Snakes, except some of the Lions. Harry sided with them and, taking out his wand, stood to accuse.

“Hey, what’s the matter with you three? She didn’t deserve –” but he was cut off by Josh.

“Now, Harry, there’s no need for tirades. We’ll just help Agathe up and everything will be fine.”

“But how can you stand for it? Why not defend her?” He was giving them all a very incredulous look, not comprehending how they could all be blase about a deliberately mean act against a fellow Puff. He didn’t notice that he was attracting more attention than the original scene had warranted. Even the Slytherins had stopped to watch him.

“Look, mate, I know you’re new and all, so I’ll explain. It doesn’t do any good to fight back; it just sets them off more, encourages them to do it again just to get a reaction out of us. We don’t defend her, because she doesn’t need defending. She’ll recoup then go on with her life. No need to let them ruin it by getting angry.”

“Yet if you don’t stand up to bullies, they think they can get away with it,” Harry argued back, attempting to keep the fury out of his own speech, but some of it leaked through.

“Actually, they mostly want attention. You’ve just given it to them, so think on that. But if it makes you feel better, here …” he turned to the three still gawking at them “… you each have five points deducted from Slytherin for hexing a fellow student and laughing about it. Now hurry up to your table before I give you a detention as well.”

“That’s rubbish,” one said, astonished.

“Go on then, try me.”

The three glanced between each other and back at Josh, not sure how to act. Finally deciding on a put-upon air, the one that had performed the curse turned his nose up and said, “You lot have been in the dirt too long. The lack of air must be getting to your brains and making you think you’re above us. Fine then, we won’t spoil your notions. Come on, Lot, Carathers, let’s go eat.” With that, the three left for greener pastures.

Josh sat down and shook his head. “They never learn. Harry, sit down, please.”

Looking around at his classmates, Harry realised it was useless to call a fight. No one seemed to want it, and no one seemed to have their pride upset at the Slytherins’ antics. He didn’t understand at all. Sitting, he glanced down the table at Agathe, who was getting over the pain and starting to smile again at her friends. She wasn’t even glaring at her attackers, just brushing off the incident like it was nothing. He wasn’t used to this and wasn’t entirely sure that he and Dumbledore had made the right decision on where to place him. He wished he was back in Gryffindor. He felt terribly alone.

***

Classes went about as he expected. They had Charms and Divination first, both with Ravenclaw, and luckily Harry had already covered this material, so it was easy to finish the lessons then let his mind wander. He didn’t know how long he would be stuck here and he was already feeling antsy. Would the Headmaster in his time be missing him? Would his friends notice he was gone? How was the war going? Would Voldemort sense his leaving? Voldemort — now there was an interesting thought. He should be alive and human in this time, gathering Death Eaters and making plans for British domination and Muggle extinction. Harry wondered if his scar would still activate in You-Know-Who’s presence or when the wizard was angry. He hoped he didn’t have a chance to find out.

“Are you concentrating on the cards as you turn them over?” asked Professor Gietheinhunker of the whole class.

He heard murmurs of assent all around. Turning over his next card revealed The Devil with his two chained prisoners. Very apropos. If that wasn’t Voldemort and his Death Eaters and Horcruxes, Harry would snap his wand.

“Ah, such a trap for you, Mr. Peverell. I’m so sorry.” The teacher had no idea how close to the truth he was right now.

Continuing on that line of thinking, though, Dumbledore, who had mentioned this the week before Harry disappeared, felt Tom had already made the Horcruxes and hidden them. He had also confided in Harry that he suspected Tom tried to use all the Founders’ personal items along with the Gaunt ring, his own diary and Nagini as vessels for his soul pieces, but the Headmaster wasn’t completely sure what those were. Perhaps while he was here, Harry could use the time to do some independent investigation. That would make him feel like he wasn’t completely wasting his time. Mind made up, he settled back into class, looking forward to going to the library. He chuckled a little at that; Hermione would be proud.

He wasn’t able to go to the library, not yet, as the other Hufflepuffs dragged him back to the Great Hall for lunch. They talked animatedly about Charms and if the curriculum was any different in the States. Harry made as vague references as he could since he knew nothing about the States.

The double DADA session was set for the afternoon, and Harry found out they would be having it with Slytherin. Fabulous. The most dangerous group of students and he would be on the receiving end of their wands; he would have to be cautious. It’s a good thing nobody knew who he was in this time or he’d have hexes flown at him as soon as he stepped through the door. What he hadn’t realised was that Snape would be in this class with him. He watched as the lanky teenager sprinted through the doorway, alone and sullen, muttering about bloody bullies. Harry wondered if the Marauders had been hounding him again and thought that maybe this would be an excellent chance at information gathering, find out more about the slimy bastard as well as his parents.

The DADA classroom, Harry noted, hadn’t changed much in twenty years; fewer scorch marks on the wall was all the difference. Desks were set up on one side while an open area for dueling was kept clutter-free on the other side. Professor Lancaster briskly walked in with a no-nonsense gait much like Snape’s had been but without the added whiplash of Snape’s robes. Harry rolled his eyes at the dramatics, wondering if Snape was picking up tips. He glanced over and found the Slytherin in question deeply focused on the professor. He looked eager, excited — but not in a bad way, just happy to be learning. It was a good look for him — much better than the embittered adult he had become in Harry’s time.

Mentally shaking himself, he refocused on the class. This was Defence after all. He would need to be on his toes.

“I hear there is a new student in this class, one Harry Peverell, yes?” Lancaster addressed them.

All the Hufflepuffs, including Harry, nodded their heads.

“Please come forward with me. I need to assess how much you know. The Headmaster failed to give me any knowledge of what you might have been studying in America, so a pop-quiz is in order.”

Great. Called out first day of class. Again. He really wished he could be a wallflower like the rest of his fellow students, but he was really a lion in badger’s clothing and there was nothing to be done about that. Walking over to the open area felt like old times in the D.A., though. He stood in a calm stance, wand out, ready for anything.

Lancaster nodded his head once in acknowledgement, then assumed his own fighting position. He threw a few simple stinging hexes at Harry, who dodged them easily, then a Jelly-Legs Jinx, at which Harry put up his Shield Charm and it deflected harmlessly away. The professor sent several sharper curses and Harry deftly deflected those, too, sending a few of his own stinging hexes in offence.

“Oh, very good, young man, but this is not dueling club,” he said with some sternness.

“Sorry, Professor, bit of a reflex,” said Harry.

Lancaster narrowed his eyes at that. “And why would a teenage boy have such a reflex, I wonder. Did they make you duel at your other school?”

Harry felt a little truth wouldn’t hurt here. “Yes, they did … a little.”

“Well, we won’t have any of that here. It encourages fighting among the students. All of you, get that notion out of your heads. This is Defence only. You may all sit. Mr. Peverell, please join your classmates.” He turned back around to the chalkboard and began writing out today’s lesson.

Harry walked back over to the desks, shuffling about with the other Hufflepuffs to find a seat, and he noticed Snape watching him intently, curiosity in his face and a calculating look. He turned quickly away, as he was not sure how well developed Snape’s Legilimency was in this time and he really didn’t want anybody to learn his secrets. He would have to remain an enigma.

***

The next day Harry had Arithmancy and Transfiguration in the morning, and although he made errors in his mathematical calculations and totally botched the wooden-chair-into-a-flaming-candle practical (well, at least he got the flame part right; too bad the chair was ruined), he still enjoyed himself. Double potions would be in the afternoon, though, with Gryffindor. Terrific. He would be competing for points against his family. Well, he knew it was going to happen sometime since they were all in sixth year together. For now he could avoid them in the Great Hall and corridors, but class was an exception, especially if Slughorn paired them up across houses.

He was also not looking forward to the added stress of slaving over a hot cauldron without the use of that book, wondering if it was still in the cupboard so he could get his hands on it. It still didn’t feel like cheating as Hermione had accused, but rather like someone was actually explaining potions to him, one on one, like a real tutor. He felt so close to the person on the other side of the quill, longed for that kind of companionship and camaraderie, even if he did feel a little bit betrayed by the darker curses the owner had written. He imagined this is what Ginny must have felt like while using Tom’s diary back in her first year, someone with whom he really seemed connected, who understood him. Maybe he could have that connection again; maybe he could even learn something in the past as to who the Half-Blood Prince had been.

As unlucky as he always was, the book was not in the cupboard. He wondered how and when it got there, thinking that perhaps one of the other students might be using it. He would watch and see if anyone was doing better than expected in class. As the others filed in, Harry went up to Slughorn to ask for supplies, since Dumbledore still hadn’t delivered anything to him in the way of a potions kit or specialty charms items, as well as the necessary tarot deck and runes for Divination.

“Oh, fine, fine. I’ll just go and fetch ’em,” said the professor, who meandered over to his stores.

Harry read through the ingredients list then went to pick them up. He was reaching for the bubotuber pus when a hand knocked his out of the way.

“Oy, watch it, kid. The stars of the show have arrived,” grinned Sirius Black. His features were younger, livelier, more carefree, without a trace of the anguish from his experiences that Harry associated with his godfather.

Stabbing pain cut through him as he looked upon Sirius. He had never spent more than a few minutes in his godfather’s company while he had been alive, either running from Aurors and Dementors or hiding out in his ancestral home, and once he had fallen into the Veil, all possibilities of creating a familiar friendship with the man were cut off. Harry found himself staring openly, drinking in this stranger before him.

Sirius squinted back at him in open hostility. “And what do you mean by showing up here looking like James? You better not be good at Quidditch, ‘cause there’s only one Quidditch World Champion in this school.”

“And that would be me, squirt,” came James’ voice from behind him. Harry turned to look at his father, who had three inches on him despite them being the same age. His hair was neat, his eyes a deep hazel, his glasses were stylish and made him look intelligent and distinguished, and his physique was the best of male prowess — lean, muscular, tanned, and well cared for — in a word, perfect. Next to him, Harry felt small and scrawny and imperfect. He wanted to worship his father, stay in his presence, gain his acceptance and his support, grow to be like him, be loved and cherished by him, make James proud to call him his son; but he couldn’t do any of those things. No one, especially not them, was supposed to know of his existence.

The ache in his chest worsened a bit standing before his father, but he was used to it. It had always been there. It always would be, he knew. All he could do here was soak up enough memories of his family before going back to his time.

“I’m not playing Quidditch,” Harry hastily told them, the ache getting larger as he yearned to play a Seekers’ Game to find out if he was as good as his dad.

“Good, because you losers should stay on the sidelines anyway. This just saves us the trouble of putting you in your place.”

Harry felt like he’d been hit with a Bludger. Did his dad just say that to him? Maybe Snape’s worst memory wasn’t that much skewed after all. James and Sirius were bullies. How the hell did their adult selves turn out so differently?

Before Harry could say anything in response, Sirius slapped him on the back, knocking him into the lower shelves. “Whoa, clumsiness like that’s never going to exalt you in Quidditch. Yeah, best you stay off the field.”

“Leave off him, you two,” spoke Margaret Debussy. “He can’t help his looks nor the fact that he just transferred here, so stop it, will you?”

“Ooh, angry Badger getting all in our faces. You better watch it, sister,” said Sirius.

“Or what?”

“Something nasty will happen, probably in your soup,” piped in Peter Pettigrew, looking mousy and annoying.

Harry wanted to curse him right where he stood, not for the current insult, but for all the pain he would cause his family in the future. Strangling the rat was a hard instinct to fight against.

Margaret just rolled her eyes, saying, “If the house-elves ever let you into the kitchens, I’ll be sure to be scared,” and dragged Harry away from the menaces. “They’re just bullies. Don’t let them bother you.”

“Okay,” Harry heard himself reply. He was too shocked to hold a conversation. Looking around at their classmates, no one was coming forward and challenging this. They saw it happening out of curiosity and just appeared to shrug their shoulders, all acting as if this was routine, which he supposed it was, similar to Malfoy and his gang. Remus Lupin, a prefect for Merlin’s sake, was even smirking at his best friends’ antics instead of taking points or, at the very least, getting them to stop harassing a new student. He noticed his mum and two other girls collecting potions ingredients, who kept looking back at the altercation in mild concern. When James walked past her, however, she gave him a scathing look before turning back to Harry.

He could barely breathe as he drank in his mum’s face. He just stared into the green eyes so similar to his own, the heart-shaped face so full of earnest concern, the red hair burning like polished cherry wood in the firelight from the cauldrons. His heart constricted painfully; he so badly wanted to hug her, to have her hold him in return. Some of his anguish must have shown in his face for hers turned questioning. “Are you alright?”

Shaking his head, he said, “Um, yeah. Just having a hard day fitting in.”

“I’m sorry about that bit with the Marauders. Not all of us Gryffindors are toerags like Potter and his gang,” she told him. “Well, Lupin’s not so bad, I guess, especially when he’s alone and studying. It’s just that the others tend to drag him along,” she amended with a second thought. His mum hadn’t liked his dad until later, but maybe she’d had a little crush on Remus? Now he was even more curious about how his parents had gotten together.

“Besides them, are you handling things okay?”

“Maybe. I’m a little nervous, and I still don’t have my books and stuff.” This was so awkward talking to his mum as if she were just another student.

“Oh, it’s always nerve wracking the first days at a new school. I remember when I first boarded the train to Hogwarts, I was shaking and giddy and excited, but so nervous, too. Severus said not to worry, I’d be fine, but you never know until you’ve experienced it yourself, right?”

Harry didn’t answer; he was too busy staring at her. “Severus?” he asked, prying, but not really sure he wanted to know the answer.

Her face, which a second before had been bright with remembered happiness, suddenly fell. “Oh, that would be Severus Snape. He’s a sixth-year Slytherin, so you’ve probably seen him in class already. We …” She looked down and away, a bit saddened. “We used to be friends.”

What! Harry almost fainted. The greasy git and his mum were friends? No, she said ‘used to be.’ “So what happened?” he blurted out.

“We grew up together, back in the Muggle world. He was the first one to tell me about the Wizarding world and about Hogwarts. We used to dream about all the fun we would have doing magic, but over the years we’ve gone separate ways. Getting sorted into different houses didn’t help. He’s fallen in with the wrong sort, and I couldn’t take it anymore. I tried to persuade Sev away, but nothing I said changed his mind. I worry about him still, but frankly he’s chosen his own path. Speaking of which, you better watch it around those Slytherins. The Marauders’ practical jokes are bad, but it’s nothing like the evil doings of Mulciber and Avery. Just warning you.”

“Right. Thanks.”

Harry was so flustered by all this that he tripped a bit going back to his cauldron. All through the class he couldn’t stop thinking about the information he’d just gained. His mum had been close friends with Severus Snape! And she might have been sweet on Remus. Was his whole view of the past wrong? Were his dad and his friends class clowns like the Weasley twins or were they actual trouble makers? Did something happen to change them, or did they just mature over time? How had his mum’s attitude toward his father changed over time? And what about Snape. How many of their conflicts were instigated by the Gryffindors and how many by the Slytherin? He had to keep reminding himself that everyone was only sixteen years old here. Maybe lots of things changed between now and Voldemort’s first fall. He wished he knew more details.

***

He dreamed his first nightmare that night. He found himself in Potions class, Snape standing next to him, calmly helping to add ingredients into the water, which just kept disappearing. An odd hiccupping came from behind them, so he turned to see James and Dudley pointing their fingers and laughing uproariously at the two of them. Peter then sauntered up and threw a miniature version of Lily into Harry’s cauldron, the water immediately turning thick and green, with two little red eyes in the center. A mouth opened up and moaned, “Harry Peverell, such a freak.”

Harry screamed.

“Peverell. Hey, Peverell.”

Harry sat up, almost knocking Josh over.

“Hey, man, come out of it. You were having a nightmare.”

Harry panted. Looking about the room, he saw all the seventh-years watching him in earnest. He must have woken them up. “Sorry, sorry.” He put his hands to his forehead and rubbed his eyes.

Josh had one hand on his shoulder in comfort. “‘Tis okay, mate, but boy, that must have been some dream. Are you alright?”

“I’m fine now. Thanks.”

“I know it can be unsettling to attend a new school. You can talk to any of us, if you’re feeling that anxious.”

Harry nodded his head a little too quickly. “Sure, yeah. Sorry to wake you all.”

“Nothing doing; just a bit unusual, that’s all. None of us have had a nightmare since we were thirteen, although we get plenty of the other kind,” he said, winking. They had all heard him moaning, ‘Yes, touch me, baby,’ in his sleep last night.

Harry tried to smile reassuringly. “Oh, ‘course. Hopefully, I’ll get used to my new schedule and be back to those dreams soon.”

“Well, alright then. Let’s all get back to sleep.” The others gave their approval. “Good night, Harry.”

“Night.” Harry wished he could just choose to have those other fantasies (they would be a welcome respite), but as long as Voldemort was still out there waiting to kill him, he was sure he would continue to be plagued with terrors. He hated not having any privacy in his bed and silencing charms seemed to be frowned upon as well. He wasn’t sure how he would be able to keep the nightmares away, but he did vow to uncover some of Voldemort’s secrets. Perhaps if he worked on his goal of defeating the dark wizard now by collecting information from the past, that might be enough to ward against his darker dreams.

Chapter Three

Grabbing another book in the history section, Harry meandered through the stacks and around tables and chairs filled with students, most of them attempting to write Charms essays. Flitwick had assigned three feet on the importance of understanding logical flows in charms creation and what pitfalls there were to be had if one didn’t follow them. Since Harry had already written this paper, he simply recalled it from memory and was finished in one-third the time it took everyone else. He took this opportunity to search for information about Tom Riddle, Jr., but there wasn’t much written about Hogwarts’ recent history, and the man was only now starting to gather his flock out in the real world. There was a small article about the opening of the Chamber of Secrets — students found petrified, one even dying (Moaning Myrtle, he knew), and Hagrid’s expulsion. No mention of Riddle though and certainly nothing that sounded like a Horcrux. But maybe he had stored one down in the Chamber, Harry thought. He wondered if he should go down there and search, then remembered that the great basilisk was still alive. Shite. Though it was something to consider when he returned to his own time, for now he would leave it alone. Maybe he could talk to Moaning Myrtle instead.

Putting aside the recent papers, he reached instead for some older volumes which Riddle had borrowed during his school days. They all dated back to the Founders’ time. It seemed Tom had been quite taken with that era, probably most with his ancestor Salazar Slytherin. Harry hoped there might be something revealing in these books.

The story of the Founders’ collaboration in building Hogwarts was both fascinating and dry as bones. No wonder he hadn’t read it in his current time. Could the authors have had less emotion? Not everything was about facts and dates. Where was all the good stuff, especially the fights that were said to have been between Salazar and Godric? Perhaps in another book? Harry picked up two others and skimmed through them, but those were even sparser on details. With a sigh he plopped them back down.

“Can I help you? Are you looking for something?”

Harry looked up expecting to see an assistant librarian or Josh, who had taken him under his wing to show him about the school for the past week. Instead, he looked into a young face whose eager hesitancy was a bit of an oxymoron, not to mention the kid was wearing green and silver. Better be cautious.

“Oh, I doubt it. Just some light reading.” He almost choked on his own sentence.

“Founders’ Era stuff, eh? That’s fascinating material; I love it.”

Harry noted the other boy’s eyes were shining with enthusiasm and an inner glow that comes from the joy associated with a beloved hobby. “Do you? This stuff’s pretty dry,” Harry commented, wanting to invite discussion but not sure how to do that without suspicion. At the very least he would like to find some more interesting sources.

“Oh, those are just the basics. Gives you the facts and dates and introduces the players. But the really good stuff comes from personal journals and public newsletters of the time. A lot of pure-blood families have accounts from way back when. For example, I have an ancestor who was one of Salazar Slytherin’s prime students. Did you know that Salazar Slytherin and Godric Gryffindor had an affair? Godric was engaged to some maiden from Germany, but she hadn’t arrived yet, so after months of frustration, Godric took Salazar to bed. My ancestor wrote all about it in his diary.”

Harry stared in shock. “Did Gryffindor and Slytherin really get along that well?” It seemed to go against everything he knew about the Founders.

“Oh, yeah, they were best mates up until the big fallout over Muggles. Stupid argument, really, but it seems to have cropped up again lately.” The Slytherin became a little bit uneasy at that last bit.

“Why would it be stupid?”

The other boy straightened a little. “Well, everyone knows Muggles hate us and would subject us to every test and law and persecution they could dream up. Best to keep ourselves aloof and stay away from them. But some people are starting to believe that we should open the lines of communication between us and them, as if the Muggles are ready to accept us, but I don’t think they are.”

Harry trod very carefully. “I think some of them are,” thinking about Hermione’s parents, then remembering his relatives, “and some aren’t. But how can those viewpoints change if we don’t talk to one another, don’t try to understand each other or work together?”

The other boy looked at him with incomprehension. “You want to work with Muggles? Why?”

Harry didn’t really have an answer for that. He wasn’t sure there was anything Muggles could do that wizards couldn’t, but he’d admit, if only to his closest friends (who were not there at the moment), that he didn’t have a lot of exposure to either world apart from school and helping out in the kitchen to make a firm judgement. Hermione would be much more adept at answering that question. “Well, actually … I don’t really know. But that’s no reason to hate, is it?”

The Slytherin chuckled. “By itself, no, I suppose not. But then the prejudices kick in and they start rallying against us, and it’s just best to seclude ourselves. Speaking of seclusion, there are a number of charms in place at Hogwarts to keep it from prying Muggle eyes. Were you researching those? I’m sure it’s strange to a foreigner to have so many protections on a place as remote as this.”

Harry was grateful for the change of subject. He wasn’t sure if he liked this boy, and the conversation had been rapidly dwindling at his choice of words. “No, we have places like that, too, and I know all about the complicated spells in place here. I was more interested in the actual persons involved.” There. That should send him in the right direction. “But all these accounts are boring.”

“Oh, yeah, you’ll never find any juicy tidbits in those things. You should read some of my past relations’ personal journals. There is some gritty dirt in there.” His smile was a bit one-sided, almost roguish looking, and Harry was caught by a strange sense of deja vu, like he should know him, but he was sure he’d never seen him before.

“Um, yeah, sounds good. Do you mind copying off some of those passages for me? I’d love to read them.”

“Oh, sure! I’ve got a bunch of them in my room. Bit of a hobby of mine, reading old diaries. I keep one myself. I fancy being a journalist someday.”

Harry was a little taken aback by this sudden outpouring of hospitality. Hopefully it was just eagerness in sharing something he was passionate about, and not a setup interview as his journalism remark would suggest. “Say, I haven’t seen you in any of my classes with Slytherin House. What year are you?”

The boy’s emotions played across his features, first shock, then shame, then resignation. “Silly me. My mother would be appalled at my lack of manners. Forgive me. My name is Regulus Black and I’m in fifth year.”

Harry was completely floored. Regulus Black? “Are-are you related to Sirius Black?”

“Oh, yeah! He’s my older brother. As children, we used to be close, but ever since he was sorted into Gryffindor, we’ve drifted apart.” Regulus got a faraway look in his eyes. “Our whole family is Slytherin, see? And it was shocking that he broke from tradition.”

“Sometimes it’s good to have some change, though, right?” Harry asked cautiously.

“Being new as you are and not from here, I’m not sure you understand what that means. Your House is not only your extended family and friends, but it’s also a statement of your beliefs and who you are. Slytherins believe in traditions and the old ways. One follows in the footsteps of one’s ancestors, takes pride in the family heritage, and upholds the dignity of society. To break from tradition brings shame and a loss of solidarity. I don’t know how many nights I heard Mum crying after receiving the news of Sirius’ sorting. Especially as the heir, he’s thrown everything away!” Regulus’ face was an interesting mix of hurt and anger. It became very real to Harry how the other side of the coin looked. He knew Sirius had been a free thinker and had felt trapped in his family’s narrow-minded view of the world, but he hadn’t considered before how much his desertion would’ve affected everyone else.

Maybe the flipside was true for Regulus. “Have you thought about it from his point of view? Perhaps he thought the expectations were too much or that the traditions are outdated and need changing. Maybe the Sorting Hat put him in Gryffindor knowing that he would be the first Black to stand up and say something.”

Regulus shook his head. “Naw. He’s just a rebel. Never wanted to do what Mum said, never liked any of our family friends, doesn’t want to study business or politics. I think he feels happier with the Potters than with us.” That last was said as a quiet afterthought, so filled with emotion that it tugged on Harry’s own loss of familial contact. He didn’t want to be on this topic anymore.

“No,” Regulus continued but with more bite and anger now, “he would much rather run around this school pulling pranks instead of studying. Watch out for him and his friends, okay? You wouldn’t want to get caught in one of his traps.”

A Lumos alighted in Harry’s brain. This would be an excellent time to ask about Snape. “It seems most of his traps are set for Severus Snape.” Harry inwardly smirked. He was getting better at this leading-questions thing.

“Well, yes, he and Severus definitely have it out for each other. Don’t rightly know what that’s all about as Sirius never fancied Lily Evans, who used to be Severus’ best friend, the way James Potter did. It would make more sense for James to be rivals with Severus than it does for my brother to be. I wasn’t here that year, ‘cause it started when they were eleven almost the first day, and I was still too young to come to Hogwarts. So I have no idea how it came about.”

“What happened with Li — Evans? Why is she not best friends with Snape anymore?” He really wanted to know more about his mum and her shocking relationship with Snape.

“I don’t really understand it, just that last year they had finished their O.W.L.S. and pulled some curse on Severus, Evans tried to come to his defence, he called her a … a bad word, I’m sure you’ve heard of it, for Muggleborns, and she huffed off in a snit. Wouldn’t talk to him for hours as he sat moping outside the Fat Lady’s portrait — that’s the entrance to Gryffindor Tower. She finally came out and called off the whole friendship. Hasn’t spoken to him since. He’s been in an awful mood holding a grudge, though I’m not sure who it’s against.” He glanced down at the books surrounding them and suddenly remembered what he’d promised. “Oh, goodness. Look at me, gossiping on. Mum would be none too pleased. Anyway, I’ve got to go for my Astronomy lesson. I’ll bring you a couple of journals and we can talk about the Founders next time. They’re a much more juicy lot than these fellows.” He ended his speech with a chuckle and a smile.

“That’s great. Meet you here same time tomorrow or the next day?” asked Harry.

“Two days from now, yeah. Sounds great. Bye!” Regulus gave a little hand wave and left Harry to stew in this new knowledge from an outsider’s perspective.

***

Regulus met with Harry regularly after that to read the journals and go over interesting tidbits from other sources. Harry suggested to Regulus that he should collect the stories and publish a companion volume to Hogwarts: A History and call it Hogwarts: A Drama. There certainly was enough of it where the four Founders were concerned. What a bickering bunch they were, and Rowena Ravenclaw was a vindictive little bitch.

Without alerting Regulus to what he was doing or why, Harry slowly gathered facts about each Founder’s prized possessions. Ravenclaw had apparently made a tiara that would grant intelligence or wisdom but had refused to share its properties with others, so it was eventually stolen, then lost, and probably wasn’t a Horcrux. Godric’s was the famous Sword of Gryffindor, which Harry had touched in second year and knew wasn’t a Horcrux either. Salazar had a locket with a large “S” on the front that he wore constantly. Harry figured this was another Horcrux and that it was possible Voldemort had obtained it from his own family after killing them. Helga Hufflepuff seemed to be a collector of odd tableware, much of which was still on display in the Hufflepuff dungeons. Harry would have to go looking and see if he could spot one as the other Horcrux. These items had to be them, something special about Hogwarts that Tom Riddle, Jr., would care about, just as his diary and his snake had been. If not, Harry was running out of ideas as to where to look. Tom never seemed to own too many things himself, much like Harry in that regard.

He was back in the library in early December, this time working on his Charms essay, when he saw and heard a blur of black robes hurtle by his desk, followed by a crash of chairs and books. Looking around, he saw a fellow student huddled on the floor among turned-over chairs, books, and parchment scattered everywhere, and clothes and a satchel that were threadbare and showing their ages. Before he could even get up to help, his ears caught the nasty sound of derisive laughter.

“Snivellus,” he heard Sirius say in between huge gulps of breath, “you make the perfect desk accessory.”

“Yeah,” chimed in pudgy little Peter, “you would make a right nice parchment weight.”

“Maybe we should petrify him and leave him here; he does so love his books, after all,” added James.

“Oh, rad! And we should name it Humiliation in Rags. Put up a little plaque and everything!” Sirius broke down into more howls of laughter, clutching his side.

By this time Harry was fuming. How could they do this to Snape? As far as he could tell, Snape never hounded anybody and it was just this long-standing feud they all had with each other, not unlike his own rivalry with Malfoy, although he was sure Draco had taken the Dark Mark and was up to something evil for Voldemort. But with Snape and the Marauders, it was just childish, really. And why wasn’t Remus stopping them? In fact, why was Remus laughing with them? As a prefect he was supposed to be preventing this sort of thing, not watching it happen.

Just as Peter aimed his wand at Snape to cast more horrible jinxes, Harry leapt forward and put up a strong shield charm. “Stop it, all of you.”

“Well, well, if it isn’t a little do-gooder Hufflepuff here to stop our fun,” mocked Sirius.

James brought himself up to his full height and looked down his nose at Harry. “Listen, freak, I don’t know what’s gotten into you, but we call the shots around here. This is between us and Snape, and you have no business interfering.”

Hearing that dreaded word spoken from his own father’s mouth hit Harry dead in the chest. Pain lanced through his gut as his blood went cold and his breathing froze. No, he couldn’t be thought of like that by his own dad, and yet the man had said it to his face. A burning sensation welled up in Harry’s eyes as he realised he would be bullied by his own old man. Although crying was certainly a Hufflepuff trait, performing courageous acts was not, so Harry swallowed a lot of the things he was about to say and simply fell back on “It’s not nice.” This earned him laughter from Peter and Remus as well as some snorts from some of the other patrons in the library.

“Why don’t you mind your –”

“Mr. Potter!” screeched Madam Pince, who had come upon them while they were arguing. Both Harry and James jumped and turned to face her. “What have I told you about causing a ruckus in my library?”

“Not to do it, ma’am.”

“Then maybe you’ll remember it next time after you all have served detention with Mr. Filch this Saturday. Seven pm sharp. All six of you!”

Everyone groaned at the pronouncement.

“Now, get out. You are not allowed in here for the duration of this evening.” Her voice was cold and stern and she laid piercing eyes on all of them.

Sirius made an exasperated huff. “Come on, mates. This place is lame.” The four friends gathered their things and left.

“Mr. Snape, Mr. Peverell, I will give you a moment to collect your things, but please leave for tonight as well.” With that she walked off, leaving the two alone under the curious eyes of the rest of the students.

Wondering why he had no tears even though the urge to cry was there, Harry turned to Snape, who was awkwardly trying to stand up. “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine,” he huffed, straightening his robes. “Potter is right that it’s none of your concern.”

“I just want to help.” Harry reached for a fallen book closest to him, only to find himself at wand point.

“Don’t touch my things!” Snape hissed.

Harry backed away, a little hurt that Snape was refusing his help, but then again, Snape had always been like this, nasty and defensive. “Okay, I won’t touch it.” He raised his hands in the universal symbol of defeat.

With a flick of his wand, the books all hovered in the air and collected themselves in the threadbare satchel. Harry felt like an idiot yet again in this man’s presence and this time Snape was only a teenager. He was such a fool. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

Snape’s black eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Of course, I’m sure, and I don’t see why you should care anyway.”

Harry shrugged. “Can’t a bloke feel for you? Is there anything wrong with that?”

Snape stared at him in incredulity. It was as if the idea had never occurred to him that someone else, especially someone he did not know, would care about him. Harry had assumed Snape had friends like everyone else did, but now as he watched him in classes, he was beginning to suspect that Snape had no friends whatsoever. His mum had said they were friends but had broken it off last year. Was Snape really as much of a social outcast now as he was in the future? What a lonely existence. And Harry knew all about loneliness from his primary school days. Maybe Snape just needed … someone. He would have to talk to Regulus about it.

In the meantime the tension broke between them when Snape backed away. “I don’t need your pity,” he said, sneering, then turned and stalked away.

Harry watched him go, confused as ever about his thoughts on the man. Shaking his head in befuddlement, he grabbed his books and bag and proceeded out of the library.

***

“Mr. Carson,” began their Defence professor about a week later, calling on a fellow Hufflepuff, “what are the best defences against Dark curses?”

Carson looked befuddled. “Um, don’t get caught in the line of fire?”

The rest of the class chuckled at that, but Professor Lancaster didn’t seem to find that funny. “Mr. McAllister,” he called on a Slytherin, “care to hazard a guess?”

“To get in the first shot yourself?” the kid smirked. Harry could tell he was the wisecracker of the bunch. He was constantly mouthing off and getting into trouble.

The teacher was even less amused. “Five points from Slytherin. Class, this is not a game. You may need these skills in real life. It is blatantly obvious you all have not been paying attention the last few years. Perhaps our new student will do better. Mr. Peverell?”

Harry gulped and took a large breath before answering, “Well, sir, if you are truly fighting for your life, dodging and hiding behind things works really well, but if you’re out in the open, a good Protego Maximus is your first defence. There’s a whole host of protective charms beginning with Salvio Hexia that can be applied to both people and things. The deflection spell Defendo is especially effective as a short burst against individual wand attacks, and a Patronus works really well to ward off Dark creatures, especially Dementors. Of course, specific counter curses can be cast if you see that curse coming your way. And both Silencio and Expelliarmus can be used in both offensive and defensive ways — it keeps them from casting more spells.” Harry took a large gulp of air at the end of his speech, his palms sweaty and nervous. He knew his stuff, but he still hated being called upon to answer questions. It reminded him of Snape’s response back in his first Potions lesson, and that thought made him think of Snape again. He glanced around the room to find the teenager in question intently staring at him. It made him even more anxious.

“A decent answer, Mr. Peverell, although I still do not condone the use of offensive spells. But you are correct that taking a wizard’s or witch’s wand reduces the chance of being attacked and hit with a Dark spell, but it does not eliminate it. Many skilled individuals can cast wandlessly. Do not fall into the trap of thinking that just because you disarm an opponent, he cannot fight back. Five points to Hufflepuff.”

Harry’s housemates congratulated him while the Slytherins looked on with disdain. Only Snape showed no emotion, and Harry wondered what he was thinking. From some things his mum said, he had a feeling that Snape had already been dabbling in Dark magic. Maybe he was contemplating how that played out with Defence. Harry didn’t know.

“You mention the Patronus charm. An interesting spell and tricky to master, especially under pressure, so I don’t expect anyone in this class to perform it correctly and definitely not the first time.” Harry rolled his eyes at the condescending tone. “There are two forms: the thinner, weaker incorporeal form that just looks like whiffs of smoke, and the denser, more effective corporeal form which takes the shape of your spirit animal. I want you all to at least try for the first form.”

He went on to describe the theory behind the charm and then the specifics of its activation, all information Harry knew. One by one, the students were asked to think a happy thought and practise the spell. None of them could even get so much as a spark to fly out of their wands, except Snape who managed a few wisps. Harry was surprised by this. He didn’t think the man had ever had a happy thought, what with the perpetual scowl on his face. Watching his features soften in a fond memory was an unusual experience. Harry wondered what it was.

“Mr. Peverell, you’re last.”

Harry stood before the class, facing to the side, and attempted to bring up his happy memory. He hadn’t cast this spell since before the fight in the Department of Mysteries, and he suddenly realised that his go-to memory, the one of Sirius saying that he could come live with him, that someone wanted him as family, wasn’t going to work anymore. Sirius was dead, after all, and it was Harry’s own fault for being deceived by Voldemort’s fake vision that led to his godfather’s death. How could Harry be happy about that?

“Mr. Peverell, we are waiting. It just takes one happy memory. Surely you kids are abounding in those.”

Harry thought this professor could really use a lesson in abused children. But instead of feeling sorry for himself, he tried to go through what events in his life were happy. He decided on the one when Hagrid took him on his first shopping spree, the thrill of magic and freedom. He let the memory consume him, infuse him with happiness as he thought of the owls, the wands, the brand-new robes, the brooms, the potions equipment, the rows of books, the archaic quills and parchment, even the novelty of jumping chocolate frogs. A wonder filled up inside him, and he lifted his wand out in front of himself, stating firmly, “Expecto Patronum.”

Silvery sparks burst from his wand tip and rained down harmlessly onto the stones. Several wisps emerged and moved forward, gasps could be heard from his fellow students, he even saw a rising eyebrow on the professor. But instead of joy and a feeling of accomplishment, those reactions brought thoughts of how the Magical world had viewed the Boy Who Lived, both the overwhelming expectations and the gross ridicule, and, thus, the memory he had chosen proved not strong enough to sustain the spell.

His stag patronus never appeared. Failure dropped him into sadness, and even the few wisps that had formed faded away. He slowly lowered his arm.

“Bravo, Peverell,” exclaimed Professor Lancaster, a small smile gracing his lips. “An excellent first step. Class, that is what the incorporeal form looks like, although with practice and concentration it can be sustained longer and directed at your enemy. You’ve got the handle, young man. Just work on feeling happier. All of you.”

Happier? Merlin, could Harry feel anymore low? He’d performed this spell loads of times, maybe was even the youngest at having created a fully corporeal patronus, and had taught it successfully to many of his classmates. How could he fail now outside of combat? It was a measurement of just how much this past year and his current situation had changed him. He saw less and less of the good in the world as he became more embroiled in the war and as his circumstances forced him into a solitary role. Being thrown into the past hadn’t helped either.

He sighed and sat back down with his peers. They were all in awe, even Snape, who had a positively assessing look in his dark eyes. It gave Harry a chill.

Chapter Four

Puffs of smoke went up from all the Hufflepuff cauldrons as tentacles came alive and began grabbing at the students closest to them. Some of the girls screamed and the boys all started hexing the offending suckers. Harry stepped back and simply Banished all the contents in his station. He glared at the Gryffindors, who were laughing their arses off.

“Calm down, everyone,” said Slughorn. “Just follow Harry’s lead and banish your contents. You four,” he said pointedly at the Marauders, “detention tonight.”

“But we already have detention with McGonagall,” whinged Sirius, confirmed by nods from James and Peter. Remus just looked resigned.

“Fine, Thursday then.” Slughorn had become more exasperated with them as the term went on and Harry suspected he was looking forward to the hols just to have a few weeks away from them. Harry couldn’t blame the man; he wanted away from the Marauders as well.

“Now, gentlemen, is that any way to act in Potions?” came the calmly reproachful tones of the Headmaster. Dumbledore stood in the doorway to the classroom giving a half-meaningful look to the four troublemakers.

“No, sir,” James said, all prim and proper and privileged. Harry hated that look. No wonder Snape had hated it, too, when he thought Harry was putting his on.

Slughorn turned sheepishly toward Dumbledore. “Sorry, sir. They snuck a new charm in on me.”

“Nothing harmful, I’m sure,” agreed the Headmaster. “I actually came to talk with Mr. Peverell for a moment once class is over. Please, continue.”

“Well, class is pretty much over. Those of you in Gryffindor, bottle your potions and leave them on the desk. Those of you in Hufflepuff will have to make up the lesson, let’s say Saturday, nine o’clock.”

“But that’s the last Hogsmeade weekend before Christmas!” cried Matthew. “We need to do our holiday shopping before we go home.”

“That’s alright. You come and get your potions made; I’ll have all the ingredients lined up ready to go as I saw you all did that part well. The brewing only takes an hour, then I’ll escort you all down to the town.”

Groans and sour looks went around the room. It did not go unnoticed among the students and even Dumbledore that the perpetrators themselves were still getting a full Hogsmeade weekend, while their victims paid the price, but true to Hufflepuff tradition no one spoke up. They accepted that life was not fair and were simply content with what small joys life did give them. Harry envied them, feeling the most out of place at those times.

Dumbledore broke his train of thought. “Harry, if you please?”

“Yes, of course, sir.”

Dumbledore led him next door to an unoccupied classroom.

Harry voiced his concerns when they were alone. “Why did you let them get away with that? They should have to miss more of the Hogsmeade weekend than we will.”

“Ah, but they are still getting detention, a fitting enough punishment even if it is not the justice that you wish it to be. Also, there is a certain logic in letting kids have some free rein now. They are very creative, and I fully encourage creativity.”

Harry thought that was a cop-out. He wanted to say so, but the Headmaster continued before he could protest.

“Now, Harry, I wished to talk to you about the upcoming holidays. Most students go home to their parents, as I’m sure you are well aware. Do you wish to stay here?”

“Yes, that would be great. I really don’t have any place else to go.”

“Excellent! There are only going to be three students here during that time: yourself, Zinia Holstetter, a Ravenclaw whose parents have gone to Africa on diplomatic work for the Ministry, and Severus Snape. I do hope you all get along. If you wish to go to Hogsmeade for any of the festivities, just ask a teacher to go with you, but be back by curfew. There will be official holiday feasts for Yule in the Great Hall.”

“Yes, I know. Thanks.”

“Good. Enjoy your hols, young Harry.”

Harry sprang forward with a last question before he could leave. “Do you have any idea when I’ll be sent back?”

Dumbledore shook his head. “No idea. But you can’t remain here forever.”

“Of course not,” Harry said, but he began to think he would never return.

***

The students were all chattering while hauling trunks and brooms and familiars over to the front gates of Hogwarts where the thestral-pulled carriages awaited them. They were all fully excited about going home, and even Harry was elated within the circle of their enthusiasm. He was helping the younger years store their trunks and clamber aboard, a task which was expected of all the upper-year Puffs — but not, it seemed, of any of the other houses — and which he found enormously pleasing. He still wasn’t a true Hufflepuff and for that he felt like a hypocrite, though he tried to do his best. He found himself arguing with the upper-years more and more over what he saw as injustices, but they just argued right back and nothing ever got solved. At least they were still friendly with him.

He had finished saying goodbye to Emmaline and Matthew when another hand landed on his shoulder.

“Hey, mate.” Harry turned to look inquiringly at Josh. “Are you sure you’ll be okay staying here over the hols? I’m sure someone’s family could take you in.”

Harry immediately thought about the Weasley clan, always welcoming him with open arms, but that made him homesick, so he shoved it away. “Oh, I’ll be fine. It’ll be nice to have the dorm room to myself.” He flushed a little, thinking of all the late night communal wanks he’d participated in recently. Truly, those Puffs could get into some raunchy business.

Josh caught the meaning and he smiled big. “Well, alright then, buddy. Happy Christmas and don’t hurt yourself.” He winked at Harry, then went to make the final rounds before they left for Hogsmeade Station.

Regulus Black came up and presented a box to him.

“What is it?”

“A present, you nincompoop. Open it.”

Harry unwrapped the gift to find a copy of Malice and Deceit: How the Goblin Wars Really Started. “Homework material?” Harry chuckled half-jokingly.

“Hey, there’s lots of cool stuff in there, and you were asking about the Sword of Gryffindor, which is mentioned in a few places. Thought you might enjoy it, and it might help you from feeling stir crazy for the next couple of weeks.”

Harry was really touched. Regulus was turning out to be a really good friend, despite his pure-blood Slytherin upbringings. “Thanks.”

“Nah, don’t mention it. It’s nice to have someone to talk to about all this old stuff. Anyway, I best be off.” He started to walk off in the direction of the carriages, but then turned back around. “And keep an eye on Severus, won’t you? He’s normally depressed around the hols, but this year he seems downright sour. Maybe with everyone else gone, you can chance some alone time with him, cheer him up.” He waved without waiting for Harry’s reply, then scampered off to get his seat.

“Yeah, Harrykins, try to cheer up ol’ Snivellus,” said Sirius from behind Harry as the Marauders sauntered up to the carriages. “He’ll need all the jollies you can give!” He sounded happy for a change, which actually made Harry quite nervous, wondering what they were up to. They would be leaving in just a few moments with the rest of the students. If they were going to prank Snape — again — it would already be laid out for him somewhere in the castle.

Harry would have to tell him about the trap, whether the git was irascible or not. And Regulus did just ask him to look out for Snape, so now he felt obligated. He waved at his classmates as the carriages pulled away. After the last one rounded a corner and out of sight, he turned and walked back to the castle, vowing to find Snape and warn him as much as he was able.

It felt odd walking around like this, a bit of freedom he’d never really had before. There were no relatives to fear during the holidays, Hogwarts didn’t feel like a prison even though Harry was trapped in time with nowhere else to go, and he wasn’t constantly looking over his shoulder for the next Death Eater attack. He was just a normal kid walking the grounds of his school, not a care in the world — except for his inherent loneliness and the looming uncertainty of when he’d be forced back into war. Okay, so maybe he did have a care or two. And at least one of those he could attempt to resolve: befriend Severus Snape.

***

Walking through the castle when no one was in residence was eerie, even though the ghosts and portraits were still hanging about. Oh, sure, he’d been about at night when nobody was awake, but his mind knew they were all right there, just on the other side of a wall or a door, breathing air, dreaming, ready to wake with an instant sound. This felt very different. It was the lack of living bodies that prickled Harry’s skin. All those places that should be occupied — empty. With just a handful of teachers, himself, and two students, Hogwarts felt deserted.

One of those students he had a mission to find; unfortunately, he had no idea where Snape would be right now. Nor did he know where and what the trap was or if Snape had sprung it yet. Too little information, yet Harry plowed on anyway. He checked the courtyard, the foyer and the Great Hall. No luck. He looked in the library, the potions lab, and the greenhouses where he had seen Snape collecting ingredients before. The teenager was not to be found.

It wasn’t until he decided to head down to the dungeons for a rest before dinner that he encountered Snape brushing feathers from his robes as he strode toward the stairs.

“Snape! Wait up.”

“Peverell,” he said, nodding his head in acknowledgement. “Only an hour since they left and you are craving company? Pathetic.”

“Huh?” said Harry, confused. Then he shook his head a little and continued on. “No, that’s not what this is about. Look. I overheard Siri — Black saying something about you needing extra comfort soon and he had this wicked look on his face. I think they’ve set a holiday trap for you.”

Snape crossed his arms and scoffed. “And you expect me to cower in fear over rumors? Get lost, Peverell.” He turned back to the moving staircases.

“No, wait,” Harry called, catching up to him. “It isn’t a rumor; they said it right in front of me! You need to be on the alert for whatever they left behind. I can help you search for magical signa –”

“I don’t need your help,” he growled and took the first step down the stairs. “I can handle anything those arsehole Marauders throw my way. I know more than they do.”

Harry walked down beside Snape. “Maybe, but a jinx could come out of nowhere and bind you up, and with almost no one in the school right now it could be hours before anyone would find and release you. Please heed my warning.” He was surprised to find himself actually caring about Severus Snape, but he had seen how everyone mistreated him and was feeling empathic.

But Snape was having none of it. He stopped and turned toward Harry on the next landing. “I don’t have any inclination to jump at supposed hexes around every corner. That would be the ultimate laugh those pesky idiots could get up to, and you, Peverell, have just given yourself into their hands. Well, I won’t be privy to it, so stop following me around.” With that pronouncement, he swirled his robes (not as effectively as his adult form, but close enough) and stepped onto the middle flight of stairs. A small red spark went up from his boots.

Immediately a buzzing, whizzy sound came from overhead. They both glanced up to see tiny shivers of light raining down.

Before he could even identify the threat, Harry cast, “Protego Maximus!” over them both while readying five other spells in his head.

A thousand, tiny, golden needles pelted the shield but did not pierce it, although the tinging sound was deafening in the contained space, so much so that both teenagers winced and placed their hands over their ears. It stopped abruptly, but Harry did not lower the shield.

“It’s over, Peverell. Now will you leave me alone?”

Harry shook his head. “No, it doesn’t feel over. That was just the first attack.” He looked back at Snape to ascertain if he was okay … and yelped. “Snape, your feet!”

A dark hole was forming just below him, vanishing the stairs.

Finite Incantatem!” Harry yelled, but nothing different happened.

Snape tried to jump back, but the hole underneath him opened up too rapidly. His feet lost their footing and he fell through.

Levicorpus!” shouted Harry, pointing his wand at Snape’s descending form, only to have caught him just as he landed on a bed of vines. Vines?

Before Harry could even voice a “What the –?” the hole transformed back to stairs, cutting off his line of sight. He quickly got up, canceled his shield, and ran over to the balcony railing. Leaning over the edge, he could see Snape struggling with the vines. “Snape, hold still.”

Harry ran down the next flight of stairs, watching everywhere for a new attack while keeping one eye on his classmate. At the next landing he was level with the Slytherin, who had not heeded his advice and was still struggling with the vine. His face was turning blue from the strangling around his throat. His black eyes were wild with terror and bulged out in a helpless plea when he caught sight of Harry.

“Snape! Hold still. You have to hold perfectly still or else it will strangle you quickly! I’ll cast fire at it, and it should release you if you are still.”

He just looked back at Harry with a “You’re crazy” glare and kept fighting.

Harry cast Azurebella Pyra, blue flames leaping from his wand. The vines relaxed their hold on Snape as their attention was diverted elsewhere, but he didn’t slip down as he was still struggling.

Knowing Snape didn’t have much time left before he passed out from strangulation, Harry took a risk and jumped onto the mass of greenery. He let himself become tangled in the mess all the while keeping the flames going and his gaze locked with Snape’s, who stared at him in horror. Taking a deep breath, he relaxed and let himself go still. The vine responded and slowly glided him down to the dungeon floor.

He never looked away from Snape, and when he reached the bottom, Harry mouthed quietly, “Be still.” He saw Snape get the message, although he could see that it took a great effort for Snape to overcome his fright and still his reactions. Snape closed his eyes as he willed himself to stop moving. As soon as he was still, the vines stopped strangling him and soon let him slide to the ground. His eyes were huge with relief and he was panting from the adrenaline rush.

“Are you okay? Do you want to go to the infirmary?”

Panting still, Snape shook his head no. “I have a salve. How did you know …?” He waved at the plant now calmly hanging above them.

“I’ve encountered it before, during … um … an adventure in my old school in the States. It’s dangerous to touch, especially if you try to fight it.”

“They tried to kill me … again!”

“I don’t think you would have died. As soon as you passed out, your magic would have lashed out at it. Then your slackened body would have slid down here and eventually you would have regained consciousness, although with much more of a headache. You would have been pretty badly beaten up, between the needles and the strangling, but I don’t think they wanted to kill you. Just hurt and frighten you for the holidays.”

“Those dunderheaded imbeciles,” he muttered, incensed. Harry gave him a moment to compose himself, and then Snape said, “You are skilled at defence, Peverell. I’ve been watching you in class,” Snape said grudgingly. He looked awkward and upset at saying this, perhaps as he’d never complimented anyone before.

Harry at least took it as such. “Thanks. I think that’s going to be all of it. We should go wash up before dinner.”

“Yes. Excellent suggestion.”

Harry gave him a small smile. “See you at dinner, or should I wait for you here?”

Snape’s dark eyes pierced him for a moment, probably trying to assess how much of a risk Harry posed or how much of a risk he should take in making a new friend, and finally nodded his head once. “Here,” he said and walked off toward the Slytherin dorms.

Harry felt he’d finally made a breakthrough in their relationship.

Chapter Five

Harry and Snape did meet for meals on a regular basis over the hols. They gossiped about their peers, although it was obvious that Snape hated everyone except Lily Evans and a few Slytherins like Regulus. They chatted about classes, most noticeably Potions and Defence. Snape would sometimes traverse into Dark Arts territory and relate certain horrible spells to Harry that he had researched or heard about. Harry always took the defence stance, arguing that there were light spells that effectively produced the same results but without the inherent cruelty or evil spell casting that the dark spells had. He was a little unnerved at Snape’s discordant knowledge, but the teacher he knew had always had that air of forbidden things around him, and becoming a Death Eater had certainly added to that mystique.

Harry wondered if he could change that somehow, if he could influence Snape into not becoming a Death Eater without changing the timeline, or maybe not becoming a true Death Eater but a spy from the beginning. He sighed. He was probably already changing the timeline, and who knew what the future would look like when he got back to it.

Snape picked up on his melancholy. “You seem troubled.”

“It’s nothing,” Harry said trying to put on his best game face. “I’m just feeling a little down and lonely. The hols tend to do that to me.” He smiled a fake smile.

Snape smirked his very trademarked smirk. “But tis the season to be cheerful,” he said glancing around at all the Yule finery still adorning the Great Hall.

Harry chuckled. “Yeah, but I’ve never had a very good time. My parents … were never around much and I never made many friends.”

“Is that why you’re not home with them now?”

“Yeah, something like that. At least at school there’s ghosts and portraits and teachers to talk to.” Harry took a big breath, not entirely sure he should say the next part but did so anyway. “And you.” He looked straight into the black eyes, trying to convey how much he wanted Snape’s friendship. Maybe he could change the future. Maybe Snape could even come to like him in return.

Snape looked shocked and taken aback. He stared at Harry in confusion, then a little dawning light, and then fear. He shut himself up quickly, muttered, “Good night,” and fled back to his room.

Harry’s eyes fell in rejection. He didn’t know why Snape would be scared of him, but he decided not to give up on their tentative acquaintance without knowing why.

***

Over the next several days, Harry tried to get him to open up again at meals, even going so far as to invite him to play chess or Exploding Snap in their off hours. Snape looked warily at him every time, shying away from Harry’s wide open smiles.

It took a lot of pestering, but Harry didn’t give up.

“Come on, Snape, one game. What could possibly keep you so busy on a holiday break?”

“Some of us like studying,” he bit back.

Harry rolled his eyes. “Yes, but you can’t do that all of the time. Your brain needs a rest, too.” He gave Snape a very pointed look. “Please.”

Huffing loudly, he said , “Yes, alright, just to stop you from being such a nuisance.”

Harry’s grin lit the sky.

***

They fell into a more comfortable routine over the last few days of winter hols, spending their mornings by themselves, then meeting for tea, talking, and games in the afternoon. After brushing aside with vague answers the first few questions about each other’s home life, it was mutually decided to postpone those for some far off date. Harry honestly didn’t know how much to tell Snape without the repercussions being astronomical, so it was best not to say anything. What they did talk about was the usual teenage gossip: who was seeing whom, crack comments about teachers, bemoaning History of Magic, what they might do with their lives after school was over. Harry was surprised to find himself actually laughing at some of Snape’s comments. He had had no idea the man could be so witty. In fact, it reminded him a lot of his old Potions textbook. Funny, he had forgotten to go look for it in all this unusual camaraderie with Snape.

When school started up again, their routine was canceled. Classes and revising started in earnest, and the whole of Hufflepuff House was taken up with the coming Quidditch match against Gryffindor, which wasn’t until mid February, but the Puffs were excited anyway. Harry was propositioned once again to join the team, but he declined respectfully.

Harry waved to Snape at meals and tried to sit next to him in Defence as much as possible. Snape nodded back, although he still didn’t say much. This earned Harry odd looks from his housemates and a thumbs up from Regulus. The Slytherins began teasing Snape about liking an outsider, the Ravenclaws didn’t seem to care much, and most of Gryffindor House was markedly confused. The only real problem came from the Marauders, of course. Harry wished they’d go find someone else to pick on for a change.

“Can’t even date your own kind, eh, Snivellus?” shouted Sirius from across the room.

“Yeah,” said Peter, “little snake’s going to be eaten by the Badgers.” He laughed at his own horrible joke.

James snickered. “Maybe you should change houses, Snape. The yellow would go better with your sallow skin colouring. You might even blend in with the wallflowers.”

Everyone around them burst out laughing.

Harry had had enough. “Back off, will you? He has every right to make friends in other houses.”

“Psst. Harry, what are you doing?” Josh stage-whispered at him, but Harry ignored him. The rest of his house was glancing at him, then at each other in shock.

“Little Puff nerd getting in our face, uh?” James said. “Thinks he’s some brave little twat.”

“Yeah, I am,” Harry returned. “You four think you’re so privileged to go around and bully everyone in this school, and the teachers hold you up on a pedestal for it, but you’re just as bad as some of the Slytherins.”

“Now, Peverell, that’s not true,” said Remus.

“Isn’t it? Then why did you set those traps for him over the hols?”

“Harry, settle down. You don’t need to do this,” said Josh as he pulled on Harry’s sleeve.

He rounded on the upperclassman. “Oh, yes, I do. Snape’s my friend.”

“Boyfriend more like,” said Sirius in a condescending tone. “Maybe you should wear a skirt. Snivellus always did like Evans in those.” With that he brought his wand up and quickly transfigured Harry’s trousers into a pleated skirt. The room roared with hysterical laughter.

“Sirius, how dare you?” Lily shouted over the laughter.

Harry was beet red. “Fine! Then maybe you all would like to be the Four Stooges!” He waved his own wand and turned their outfits into overblown costumes with wild hair and mustaches. The room erupted again, this time cheering Harry on. They hadn’t had this much fun in quite awhile.

Some of the Puffs, though, looked appalled. Josh was getting angry. “Stop this now!”

Before Harry could even say, “No,” he was hit with a dozen food items, most gloppy and sticky.

“Ewww!” everyone said. Some of the Puffs on Harry’s side sent tomatoes and applesauce back toward the Gryffindor table. The Gryffindors in retaliation spilled soup all down the Hufflepuff seats. Everyone was shrieking and yelling insults.

“Gentlemen!” McGonagall stormed down the rows of tables. “How dare you start a food fight in the Great Hall? A week’s worth of detention! You will start by cleaning up everyone in the opposite house. Once done, you may transfigure your clothes and hair back to normal and off to class with you. And twenty points from each of you!”

Most of the students broke up after that, grumbling either from the disgusting mess or from the loss of points. They all helped clean up, then wandered off to class. The Marauders gave Harry a bunch of nasty grins, promises of much worse deeds to come. Harry cast a final cleaning charm on himself and set the skirt back to trousers, glad that he had magic at his disposal and could fight back, unlike all those years in primary school.

He caught Josh’s disappointed stare as he was getting up to leave. “You don’t exactly live up to the Hufflepuff code, mate.”

Harry shrugged. “I know.”

“Don’t do this again.” Josh shook his head in exasperation and walked away.

***

But Harry did do it again. Not another food fight, but arguments with his fellow students. It wasn’t always over lunch, sometimes it was in the corridors, sometimes out on the grounds, but the fights happened quite frequently over the next week. One time they even tried hexing each other in Potions, but that was such a huge safety hazard that Slughorn put up a spell-blocking wall dividing the classroom in half. And it didn’t stop with just the Marauders. Harry even started yelling matches with Josh and his dorm mates. They didn’t seem to understand why Harry would not back down. His only relief seemed to come from the brief moments he had with Regulus, since even Snape was beginning to get snippy and morose over all the negative attention he was accumulating.

Harry sighed. Maybe the Sorting Hat was wrong about him making friends in Slytherin. Relationships with people were hard, Snape even more so.

On the following Saturday, Harry progressed slowly through his morning routine to avoid confrontations with his peers, so by the time he made it up to the Great Hall for breakfast, everyone was eating and gossiping loudly. There was a certain energy in the air that made Harry nervous. What was going on?

“Hey, Harry,” called Emmaline as Harry sat down at the empty slot two down from her, “have you heard the latest about Snape?”

Harry’s eyes locked on hers. “No. What’s happened?”

“We don’t really know; I was hoping you might.”

Matthew chimed in. “We heard he was getting really grouchy, even within the Slytherins. Thought it was just an aftermath of your doing, but then yesterday he screamed obscenities and hexed several students in Transfiguration before collapsing on the ground.”

“They say he was curled up on himself, whimpering,” Emmaline added.

“Took him to see Madam Pomfrey. I haven’t heard anything since then.”

Harry just shook his head in bewilderment. Was Snape injured? Was it another hex? He would have to make a visit to the infirmary to check on his friend. Maybe Regulus would go with him. They didn’t have much to do today as it was not a Hogsmeade weekend, although the homework was starting to pile up again and Harry had to serve detentions in both afternoons.

No such luck, though. “No one is allowed to see him,” Madam Pomfrey informed them. “He’s come down with … well, he’s had a bad spell. Any outside stimulus at this critical time could damage his development.”

Bad spell? Outside stimulus? Development? Harry gave her a confused look. “I’m sorry. What’s wrong with him again?”

“Nothing that concerns you gentlemen.”

“It’s not contagious, is it?” asked Regulus, looking a little apprehensive.

“Um, no, not in the usual sense.”

“Well, then, in what sense?”

“I’m not at liberty to say, but it’s nothing you boys, or anyone else at this school, can catch, I assure you. Now if you would please just run along ….” She attempted to shoo them out the door.

“Wait! Is he going to be okay? When can we see him?”

Pomfrey sighed. “He should be okay in a few days. You’ll see him then. Now, out.” With that she herded them back out the door.

“Well, that was cryptic,” Harry said.

Regulus snorted beside him. “Yeah, completely unproductive. You want to go work on Charms homework then?”

He shrugged. “I suppose.”

Regulus led him off to revise.

***

They didn’t hear anything more from the infirmary nor the Slytherins all weekend. Harry was really concerned, but there appeared nothing he could do about it since the medi-witch wouldn’t let him in. He felt despondent the whole time, sulking in a corner, ignoring even the Marauders’ jests. Josh kept giving him angry looks, but Harry just let those fall away. His dreams, too, were troubled. He had images of blood and black hair slipping through his fingers as well as a sense of wrongness in the air that he tried to punch against but to no avail. Harry came to with a start, sweating and panting, but at least he hadn’t screamed out loud and woken all of his fellow Puffs. He wiped his face, then sat pondering his life until daybreak.

Breakfast on Monday contained much murmuring, lower in pitch than normal. A hush fell over everyone and Harry could sense all eyes turning toward the Slytherin table. He turned around as well in time to see Snape hurry over to his seat. He looked worn out, older somehow, with a scowl on his face, and he sneered at one second year who was blocking his path.

Harry could hear Regulus say, “Hi, Severus. It’s good to see you back,” as Snape passed by him.

Snape could be heard all through the hall with his response. “What’s good about it?” He plopped angrily down into his seat and began eating, not acknowledging his classmates and certainly ignoring the rest of the school.

Sirius whistled from behind Harry. “Seems Snivellus is in a real snit this morning. Perfect.”

Harry rounded on his godfather. “So that should mean you back away and give him some space.”

“Listen here, poofter, nobody died and made you their replacement prefect around here — HEY!” he called after them, for by that time Josh had gotten up, bodily grabbed Harry, who was protesting this treatment as well, and walked him down the aisle and out the door.

“What the hell was that for?” Harry asked. “Let go of me.”

“I told you not to do this again. You’re causing a big rift in this school. You have detention every day, and you’ve lost us over 100 points already. As prefect, I can’t allow you to keep on like this, and as a Hufflepuff, I’m appalled.”

Harry’s cheeks were burning red from both anger and shame. He didn’t mean to cause trouble for everyone, he just couldn’t let this injustice go. He’d always had problems keeping that particular response in check. “It’s just not fair that they pick on Snape all the time.”

“Then you let us prefects or teachers or even Snape himself deal with it, alright? Please don’t do this again, or else I’m going to ask the Headmaster to deal with you. Now, go on to class.”

Harry hung his head in misery, turned and went straight away to class.

***

Harry tried really hard over the next couple of days not to stir up trouble. He gritted his teeth and clenched his fist so tightly upon his fork that his knuckles turned white, and he focused his eyes firmly on his dinner plate, trying to block out sounds all around him. All the while his blood was boiling at the teasing Snape was getting from everyone. No one had a clue what had happened to him last Friday for he didn’t appear to be injured, but his mood had been altered by the strange ordeal, becoming testy and foul with much more sneering and sarcastic remarks, although still not the level of vitriol he would come to spew at Harry later, but Harry could see the beginnings of it. Then, it would have the effect of raising Harry’s ire; now, it had the effect of pushing everyone else away. Even Regulus confided in Harry that he’d tried to talk with Snape about it, but had gotten snapped at five different times and was rapidly not wanting to speak to him.

Harry tried to talk to him in Defence. “Hi, Snape. Are you alright, mate? We heard about your collapse last –”

“I don’t wish to speak of it, especially not with a lonely little Hufflepuff like you,” he said with such ferocity.

Many of the students’ eyes went wide, some even shifting away from the two of them, preparing for a fight to break out right there before class, especially with Harry’s known volatile state.

But Harry didn’t spit insults back. He felt unusually calm, although he was a bit hurt by Snape’s callous attitude. “It’s okay; we don’t have to talk about it. I was just worried.”

“Well, you needn’t be,” he snarled back. He refused to look at Harry for the rest of the class.

Harry, however, kept looking at him, searching for signs as to what was the matter. This wasn’t like Snape … well, maybe in the future it was, but not recently. Where was the quiet, intelligent, studious boy who only fired when fired at? Where was this sudden rage coming from?

Harry needed to know, so he confronted Snape again after class. “Severus, look. I don’t mean to pry, but you’ve been acting really weird.”

“Sod off, Peverell. You wouldn’t understand.”

“No, I don’t, because you won’t tell me. And I’m going to keep asking you until I find out what’s wrong.”

Snape gritted his teeth. “I told you it’s none of your business. Go away.”

“I wouldn’t be your friend if I did that.”

“Fine, then. Consider our friendship off. I don’t need some loud-mouthed do-gooder looking after me anyway.” He moved around Harry and began for the door.

Desperate, Harry grabbed for Snape’s robes. “Wait, Severus, can we please talk?”

Snape pulled free with a harsh yank of the cloth. “No! And don’t call me by my given name.” He turned around and collided with some third years coming in for their next class. “Out of my way, you clumsy fools!” He continued to storm out of the room, Harry’s gaze following him, agape.

***

He tried conversing with Snape whenever possible over the next two days, but all it got him were snarls and hurtful words. He didn’t give up, though. Something inside him, his conscience maybe, told him that this was important, that Snape might turn to the Dark if Harry gave up on him, although … he had gone to the Dark, hadn’t he? Damn it. Harry hated time travel with all of its warnings and possible consequences. But he couldn’t renege on his self-appointed task, so he kept at it when all the other students backed further and further away. Even Regulus shook his head in rejection and walked away from a sneering Severus Snape.

***

The next day, Harry woke feeling wretched. Everything ached. His muscles felt sore and his skin itched and his senses all seemed to be in a fog. Halfway through the day, his equilibrium gave out and the room started spinning. He reached out to steady himself, and though he tried to be subtle about it, some of his classmates — the ones still talking to him anyway — noticed and began asking him concerned questions.

“Are you feeling alright?”

“Do you wish to sit down?”

“Should we ask Professor Sprout to take you to the infirmary?”

To most of which he argued, “No, I’ll be alright in a minute,” but later his responses turned into, “I’m fine! Quit pestering me.”

But by dinner time, he was starting to rethink that assessment. His bones had been paining him all afternoon and the rest of his body was going through hot and cold spells. The itching became constant; he couldn’t even make it through supper, and he kept snapping at everyone, probably ruining what social standing he had left in his house. He made some excuses and rushed down to the Hufflepuff common room, intent on raiding the showers and washing off whatever was on his skin. The journey wore him out. His lungs were burning, his head was throbbing, and the pain in his limbs with each step he took was killing him. He collapsed just inside the tunnel to the dormitories.

Several fifth years, who had held back from dinner for an extra revising session for their O.W.L.S., put down their books and rushed over to him.

“Harry, are you okay?”

“Mate, he doesn’t look alright.”

“Somebody floo Professor Sprout. Hurry!”

A couple of the boys attempted to help him up, but their touch upon him sent agony up his arms, and he screamed and lashed out. “No! Let me alone!” He batted them away as he collapsed upon the stones again. Everything hurt from the inside out.

To his horror he felt his magic reach out to all the parts of his body, pushing against his skin, elongating his limbs, twisting his back cruelly as it pulled at tendon, bone and muscle, stretching hair. Harry screamed in pain and terror. What was happening to him? He curled in on himself to block out the pain. A ripping and tearing sensation came from his back as his magic flared outward, and he gave off a high-pitched shriek.

Just before he fell unconscious, he saw flames around him and a pair of black eyes watching him from the open common room door, where other students were walking in from dinner.

***

Harry woke to soreness. His mind felt fuzzy and insubstantial, his breathing felt so heavy, and his limbs were like dead weights. He tried to open his eyes and blink away the fog, but the light was blinding and he cried out at the unexpectedly harsh pinpricks. He could hear pounding coming his way and wondered when the giants had been let into the school.

“Mr. Peverell, I see that you are awake.”

He flinched as the sound berated his eardrums. Too loud!

The witch took a few steps back, then said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Peverell. I’m trying to talk in as low a voice as possible, but your hearing will be extremely sensitive for a few days.”

Harry finally identified the amber quality and motherly tones. “Madam Pomfrey?” he asked with some difficulty in his throat, which felt rough and parched.

“Yes, dear. Try not to talk much; your throat is sore from screaming. I’ll get you some water in a minute. Let me scan you first.”

He felt a ripple of magic pass over him, sending back information about his vitals to the medi-witch. He had, therefore, made it to the infirmary with some help from either his classmates or Head of House. Just like Snape.

“So unusual to have two such students in one week. I really wish we had more forewarning than just a vague unease the day of,” she muttered to herself.

“What …” Harry tried to ask, but Pomfrey interrupted him.

“What do you know about your families’ backgrounds, Mr. Peverell?”

He tried to answer with some information that wouldn’t jeopardise the future. “Well, my father is from a pure-blood line and my mother is Muggleborn.”

“How far back run your mother’s ancestors? Are you sure of them all?”

Harry frowned. Why was she asking about his maternal line? Wouldn’t she want to know about his magical heritage? “I don’t really know. A few generations, maybe. All Muggles. Can I have some water now, please?”

“Yes, here you go. Be careful swallowing it. Everything will feel awkward for a few days.”

“If this is awkward, I hate to see what you call painful,” he quipped at her before sipping the cool liquid. It did indeed feel odd going down.

She sighed at him. “I’m not trying to make light of the agony of transformation, but now that that’s over with, you just need time to adjust to your new body.”

“What?” he shouted, eyes flying wide open, which hurt incredibly. He closed them again and pressed his hands onto the lids. “What new body?” he asked.

“Your new Veela one.”

Harry remained baffled by that.

“It seems you have a secret Veela progenitor on your mother’s side, a Fire Elemental by the looks of you. After procreation with a Muggle, the gene stays dormant in the offspring until a descendent marries into magic. It then activates in the next child at their coming-of-age. You were just shy of turning seventeen when you transfered here, yes?”

“Yeah,” he said vaguely, not liking the sound of any of this at all.

“I don’t have a birthdate for you, but it must have been today. Happy Birthday.”

Slitting his eyes just enough to make out her image, he frowned at her. “Can’t be. They were all Muggles.”

“Oh, it can, as is clearly evident by those wings you’ve sprouted. I also suspect that’s the reason you’ve been verbally fighting with your peers so much lately. It happens that way with new Fire Veelas, from the research I’ve been doing.”

Those last statements hardly registered as the word “wings” echoed in his head. What wings? Pomfrey must be daft. He brought his hand around to scratch at the middle of his back. What he felt were two heavy protrusions coming out at thirty-degree angles from his spine.

“AAAAAHHH!” he screamed, bolting upright in the hospital bed and whipping his head around to look over his shoulder. There lay a huge feathery wing! It jutted from his back into an upside down ‘V’, large muscles running up the first line and tapering at the joint, then continuing on as a more slender part further out. And it was covered in deep red feathers.

Harry started hyperventilating as he glanced from one wing to the other, clawing at them with his hands and tugging on them, only to discover how much they ached when pulled on. He whimpered in distress.

Madam Pomfrey was already up and trying to soothe him. “Now, now, don’t go fretting. You are going to hurt yourself. Your body needs time to heal and adjust to the new limbs, and it will take awhile for you to be able to fly. You have to build up those back muscles. In the meantime you just need to rest. Lie back down, please!”

“What am I going to do? I can’t go out like this!” Oh Merlin, he was going to be even bigger news all over the school.

Pomfrey humphed. “Teenagers. Always worried about their appearance. Well, don’t fret. The wings can be drawn back into your body once you get used to them. Usually takes a couple of days, and then you’ll be quite normal.”

Normal? She called this normal? Dammit, nobody else had wings! He really was a freak!

“Okay, Mr. Peverell. That’s enough excitement for now. Here’s your meds,” she said, and she handed him a vial of Calming Draught and another one of Dreamless Sleep. “Drink those and rest.”

With a new round as an outcast thrust into his life, Harry gladly drank the potions and let the darkness take him away from this version of hell.

Chapter Six

Harry woke feeling like a dead weight. It took so much effort to even lift his hands to his face that he was tempted to sleep his life away. Unfortunately, his mind was alert and he could tell that no more sleep would come for a while.

“You’re going to have to accept reality, you know. It’s … trying, but evidence suggests that it’s getting better, at least physically.”

The sneering voice was Snape’s, and Harry opened his eyes to find the black ones staring at him. This, of course, wasn’t the first time Snape had watched him with such intensity, but it was the first time Harry saw understanding down in those depths.

“What’s going on? Why are you here?” Reality had not quite come back to Harry. He could tell he was in the hospital wing, but he couldn’t remember why.

Snape rolled his eyes at him. “To see you, of course, you dolt.”

A pleasant warmth went through Harry at the first sign that Snape cared something for him. He demurely looked down and smiled, basking in the sudden internal glow but trying not to place much stock in it. His muscles still felt sore, so he started stretching to clear out the fog, first his legs, then his arms, and finally his torso and wings.

Wait a minute! Everything came rushing back to him: the painful transformation, Pomfrey’s words, even his recent verbal sparring matches, and his new red extensions. He freaked out, flinging himself out of the bed, scrambling to tear out the offending limbs and instead getting his legs tangled in the sheets. He fell over the side with a yelp, instinctively throwing out his wings as well as his arms to catch himself, yet failing with both since everything was so weak. He landed on a Cushioning Charm upon the floor.

“You need to watch that, Peverell. Reactions such as those are dangerous in front of the wrong audience.” Snape, putting his wand away after casting that spell, was still watching him coolly. Harry gaped at him, astonished that the Slytherin wasn’t screaming for Pomfrey or Dumbledore or someone to come clear the freakish creature out of the school. His breathing was furious in his panic, but he was held immobile by Snape’s cool regard.

“How can you not be screaming in terror?” he asked.

Snape sneered. “You’re not dangerous, Peverell, just Veela. Everyone else is free to fear you, but not me.”

“Why not?”

He shrugged. “I did enough screaming last week. I don’t need to repeat the performance.”

Last week. When he was in the infirmary. Did that mean Snape was … no, it couldn’t be. That would be too bizarre. Yet an instant later, Harry’s suspicions proved true as Snape unfolded two large, black, feathery wings from under hidden slits in his robes. He just stared in awe.

“Madam Pomfrey asked me to show you how to get your wings back in. It took me almost three days to figure it out on my own without any practical demonstrations. I almost missed classes on Monday.”

“So that’s why you collapsed last week?”

Snape nodded.

Harry thought back over things, but something didn’t make sense. “If you’re Veela, how come you don’t have women flinging themselves at you?”

“What foolish notion is that?”

“Well, I met a Veela once. There was this older girl who came to our school who was part Veela, and all the guys kept fawning over her. She was really pretty, I admit.”

“Was she blonde? And seemingly good-natured?”

“Uhm, yes.”

“Then she was a Light Veela, a branch that shines golden in the sun and whom everyone adores.” There was quite a bit of disgust in his voice, leaving no doubt as to his feelings on the matter. It also meant that Snape didn’t place himself in that same category.

“And you are …?” Harry asked.

“Dark Veela. The black wings should give that away,” he said, mocking Harry’s cognitive skills.

Harry ignored the jibe. “Pomfrey told me something about Fire Elementals?”

“You are a Fire Veela, yes. The red wings, the fiery temperament. There are also Water, Earth and Air Veelas, but all of us are very rare.”

Harry was still uncomprehending of this and shook his head in the negative. “She thinks I had a Veela ancestor on my mother’s Muggle side and then she married into magic, triggering the gene. I thought you were a pure-blood, though.”

Snape snorted. “Hardly. My father was a dirty Muggle. He must have had a Veela ancestor as well. Lucky me.” He tilted his head a little and regarded Harry. “Lucky you, too, it seems.”

It was Harry’s turn to snort. “More like unlucky, to me. I mean, what are we supposed to do now?”

“That should be obvious, Peverell,” the sneer back in his voice. “You spend a day recuperating; I teach you how to pull your wings in; we go on with our daily lives as if nothing. ever. happened.”

Harry blinked. “But surely people are going to find out. They’ve already been asking questions since you collapsed last Friday.”

“No one knows the real answers, and it will stay that way. Clear?”

“Crystal,” Harry whispered, not liking keeping so many secrets and not sure this one could be kept. People were bound to see things and hear things, and if nothing else the gossip mongers would create something. They’d already been spouting the idea that Snape was a demon from Hades.

The weight of the world and his own crazy place in it settled more heavily on his shoulders. Not only was he the Boy Who Lived and the Chosen One, destined to fight Voldemort to the death, but he was also a Fire Veela who would most likely be reviled by all of the Wizarding world if they knew, so he was going to have to keep quiet about this. He could tell right now that he was likely to drown in a sea of lies, expectations and fame, and the chance that anyone would know or believe the real story, the real him, was slim to none. Harry sighed as everything became impossible for the moment. He wanted to cry but somehow couldn’t.

“You can’t cry tears, you know.”

Harry turned sad eyes on Snape. “Uh? What do you mean?”

“Veelas can’t cry tears, not after a young age, anyway.”

“So I’m denied even that release,” Harry said sadly.

“Get back in bed, Peverell, before Pomfrey has my arse. I’ll see you tomorrow for your lesson. You’d better be a fast study.” And with that parting challenge, he folded in his wings and high-tailed it out of the infirmary. As he disappeared out of sight, his charm faded and Harry found his bare bum sitting on the cold, sterile floor.

***

Returning to his dorm late Thursday evening, he found a magical bouquet of snap dragons waiting beside his bed. He went to sniff them and they playfully nipped his nose. Yelping as he pulled his face back, he eyed the flowers with suspicion, then took a more cautious approach at grabbing the gift card. It opened at his fingertips and began singing a get-well greeting. It was from his housemates.

“Hey, mate,” Broadmere said from across the room. “You made it out! We would have sent the flowers to your hospital bed, but Pomfrey refused to let us in even for a flower delivery. She claimed it wasn’t contagious …”

Harry shook his head at that. No, no one at the school could catch this.

“… but you fell down so suddenly that we didn’t know what to think.”

Harry swallowed a lump in his throat. “Yeah, sorry to worry everyone. It was rather quick.”

“So what happened?”

Harry shook his head. “Nothing, just a curse. A prank, we suspect. It happened to Snape last week.” The insinuation was that it was the Marauders’ fault. This was a lie, of course, and Harry hated propagating it, although it was the best story he and Snape had come up with to cover both their convalescences without major suspicion. If word got around to the Marauders, they would know it wasn’t true, but the rest of the population would see it as a failed prank that they feared claiming.

“Those toerags are getting meaner,” he said shaking his head. “Well, at least there’s no permanent damage, right?”

“No.” Just a permanent change, thought Harry.

“See, a good thing then. Well, you’ll have a little make-up work due, but at least you won’t miss Friday’s lessons, and this week is a Hogsmeade weekend. Should be loads of fun to help brighten your mood.” Broadmere gave Harry a cheery smile.

Harry frowned. “My mood doesn’t need brightening.”

“Of course, it does. You look dreadful, all mussed up and scowling.”

Bristling, he said, “I do not.”

“See, you’re doing it right now, mate.”

“Well, maybe people shouldn’t bother a wizard until he’s had a good night sleep in his own bed.”

“Man, back off. I wasn’t being mean and there’s no reason for you to be rude.”

Harry had to visibly relax himself to keep from biting off Broadmere’s head. He now knew where these reactions were coming from, his Fire Veela heritage, but that still didn’t make them any easier to deal with. In fact, the urge to lash out had grown more insistent since his change, Madam Pomfrey having felt most of it lately.

“Sorry,” he said lamely. “I’m just … still really tired.”

Broadmere relaxed a little and nodded. “That’s understandable. And I’d be irritable, too, which is all the more reason to have fun in Hogsmeade, yeah?”

“Sure.”

***

Harry’s mood didn’t improve on Friday. He snapped at everyone and picked fights. They all thought he was still suffering under the curse, which the Marauders had tried to deny placing on him (as well they should), and it was collaborated with gossip concerning Snape’s behaviour, which had become even more dark and rude, driving away even the sixth and seventh years. Rather than give them both more detentions, the teachers decided to revoke their Hogsmeade permissions for tomorrow. Snape scowled, but finding no ally in the professors, he accepted it and went back to the Slytherin dorms. Harry railed against Sprout with no hope of success, and she finally confined him to bed.

Saturday looked as bleak as he felt, overcast and grey. He watched as all the older students chattered excitedly about their trip to the town, but he couldn’t work up the strength to be happy for them. He was relieved when they finally left. Most of the first and second years went back to either their dorms for relaxation or the library for revising. Snape caught Harry’s eye and then promptly played as if he hadn’t. Harry frowned.

He left the Great Hall before Snape, then held back to see where the other teenager was going. Ah, the potions laboratory. Well, Harry needed some Potions revision, so he tailed Snape into the dungeons.

Before Snape opened the door to the classroom, Harry called out to him. “Snape, wait up.”

Snape turned to him and sneered.

“Are you going to be brewing something?”

“That’s generally what a potions lab is used for, idiot.”

“Then I was hoping you could help me with the Operandis Equalis potion. I’m not getting the balance down right.”

Snape gave him a partially annoyed and partially perplexed stare, but after a minute of calculation, he nodded once in agreement.

“You’ve been following me around a lot lately like a lost crup,” Snape began as they set out cauldrons and collected ingredients.

Harry snorted. “I feel very much like that.” He followed Snape’s lead and poured two cups of saltwater into the basin and lit the fire under it. “I mean, it should be obvious, right. There’s nobody else I can talk to about … this.” He gestured with one hand to his back where the wings were now tucked out of sight.

Snape scolded him. “I told you there’s nothing to talk about. It’s a horrible, disgusting secret in our families and it should stay there!”

Eyes going wide, Harry said, “How can you say that? It’s a part of you!”

“A part that I don’t want. Listen, Peverell, maybe the Puffs would accept you as you are, but I’ve worked hard to cultivate pure-blood friends in Slytherin, and I’m not letting some perverted heritage ruin that for me.”

“But you’ve done it yourself anyway.”

He narrowed his eyes at Harry. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You’ve managed to turn off everyone in the school, including most of the Slytherins. Regulus won’t even speak to you anymore.”

“I don’t need him. The only thing he managed to gain for me was more derision from Potter’s gang. And speaking of which, that’s the same negativity I’ve received from associating with you.”

“Oh, excuse me for wanting to defend a friend!”

“I don’t need defending,” Snape sneered.

“Then what about that rescue over Christmas?”

“I don’t need rescuing either.”

“Then what do you need?” Harry shouted the question at him.

“Peace and quiet, which I clearly do not get in your imbecilic presence!”

Harry couldn’t stand the filth coming out of Snape’s mouth any longer. The man needed to shut up, and if he wanted quiet, Harry could give that to him. Wanting to lash out somehow, and acting completely without thought, Harry jerked Snape’s head to his own and kissed him, if such a mashing of mouths could be called a kiss.

It was fierce and intense, hot and brutal, teeth gnashing against one another, hands clawing at his back, as Snape both fought to pull away and to rip through clothing. Harry’s senses spiraled into a dizzying whirlwind as heat and longing raced down his veins. He felt the room tilt and spin as everything changed — his relationships, his place in the universe, his destiny. For once he felt whole and grounded.

He pulled Snape closer to himself, fitting the taller man into the curve of his body, trying to deepen the kiss, needing more — more contact, more clawing, more of Snape. And apparently, Snape felt the same way, shoving his tongue into Harry’s mouth so forcefully that Harry knew his jaw would ache tomorrow. They clung to each other like lifelines, and Harry didn’t even notice when their wings came out, but he felt shivers of pleasure run up and down his back as Snape stroked the ligaments. The sensation was new and unusual, but felt completely right. Harry returned the favour, enjoying the feathery feel of Snape’s wings and the tremors that went through Snape’s body at his touch.

Snape growled, and Harry appreciated the hunger in it. He pushed Snape back against the work table and ground their hips together. They both groaned. Oh, Merlin. It felt so good. All he wanted to do was rub his body all over Snape, but the friction was not enough to satisfy.

Snape broke away first, panting, his eyes bright with intensity and lust. “Not here, you idiot. The cauldrons ….”

Harry recoiled. Oh, no, they had left the burners on! He berated himself for being so stupid. He immediately extinguished both flames, whilst Snape spelled away the contents and sent the unused ingredients back to their cabinets.

Getting a moment to regroup his thoughts, Harry wasn’t sure what was happening to him. Did he really just go after Snape in a sexual way? “Look, Snape, I’m sorry. I don’t know what …” His voice trailed off as he looked at the Slytherin, still with his dark wings outstretched, radiating sensual dark pleasures and appetites, and Harry had to swallow. He wanted him.

“I’m not,” Snape said in response. “That’s the first time I’ve felt anything positive in weeks.”

“Where can we go, then?”

“The Slytherin dorms,” Snape said without hesitation.

“But won’t the younger years be there? I know they’re all over the Hufflepuff common room.”

Snape sneered at the mention of another house. “Precisely why we are going to my house’s commons.”

Harry didn’t understand, but he tucked his wings in and followed Snape away to the dungeons.

The Slytherin common room was much like Harry remembered it. Deep rich velvet greens in the upholstery and wall coverings, enormous tapestries, oak furniture in a classical style. The opulence was still as astounding. The view out the window was more varied, since it was the middle of the day and plenty of sunshine was filtering down through the Black Lake, so Harry could see schools of fish swim by. And beyond that, the room was surprisingly empty.

“Where is everybody?”

“The younger years have etiquette classes with their parents on Hogsmeade weekends, and everyone else always leaves. There is no point in staying here when there are connections to be made out there, or so the philosophy goes.”

Harry shook his head at the oddity of Slytherin pure-bloods. And even half-bloods, he had to remind himself as he looked back at Snape. He was about to ask for the ratio when Snape interrupted him.

“Who cares about them anyway?” A flash of bitterness and lust and challenge passed through his eyes.

Harry caught the sentiment, I only care about you, and agreed with it. He let his own want take over and shine in his eyes, his wings released and outstretched, the shimmery lake glistening behind him, and he beckoned to Snape with one hand, like some Fire Prince to his betrothed.

Snape unfurled his own wings and reached for Harry. They embraced with crushing intensity, mouths open to welcome and invade each other. They fought for dominance, both stubborn and not giving an inch, and in the end neither one really dominated. They were equals, something else Harry had never really experienced before, always being the runt or the outsider, and it made him heady with the sense of belonging. Their joining was a desperation and a culmination, two lost souls on a journey through time to find each other. There was an urgency in them that was not associated with the risk of discovery, but instead was fueled by this instinct to mate, now, for no one knew what the future would hold and they needed each other to remain upright and functioning.

It was crazy. It was insane, but the joy of being with a compatible partner made it all worthwhile. When at last they were fulfilled, joined completely and forever, Harry fell asleep in Snape’s arms, their wings covering each other, the sunlight playing off each others’ skin, and the tentacles of the Giant Squid casting moving shadows like a blessing upon them.

***

Snape woke Harry some time later. He said something about leaving soon before the others came back, but Harry wasn’t listening to the message, just the timbre of his lover’s voice. He couldn’t stop staring at Snape’s unusual features, caressing his skin, kissing him. Neither one wanted to let go, which resulted in them making love again, this time switching positions. It was all glorious.

Once their breathing evened out, Snape urged him to go back to his dorm. “You can’t be discovered here. They’ll throw us in opposite detentions if you do.”

“I know, I just … how can I part from you?”

“Focus, Peverell.”

“It’s Harry, and can I call you Severus now?”

“Not in classes. Now leave before you’re found.”

But Harry couldn’t let go. Snape finally dragged him over to the entrance and threw him out bodily. The separation hurt and Harry could tell they both wished to reach for the other, but they knew the risks, so without so much as a good-bye, Snape closed and spelled the door shut.

Trembling with the need to touch his new mate, Harry stumbled back to the other dungeons. The first and second years who were in the common room gave him a quick glance. A few might have noticed his pale pallor, but most chalked it up to his recent spell-damage affliction and left him alone. He made it back to his bed and fell into it, curling up around himself to try to ease the shakes and the itch inside to run back to Snape, consequences be damned.

Speaking of which, in order to distract himself, he started listing all the stupid mistakes he’d just made in joining with Severus Snape, beginning with his own rash impulsiveness to Severus’ bad temper and ending with the dreaded timeline. Had he fucked things up totally? He honestly didn’t know and simply prayed to Merlin that everything would be all right. And then he remembered his friends back in the present. Oh, he was never going to live this down.

Chapter Seven

Harry woke up in the middle of the afternoon feeling more at ease with himself. The gnawing hunger to be with Severus was still with him, but it had abated to a more manageable level. He hoped it would fully go away with time, but at least the itching and trembling had stopped.

Looking around, he saw Broadmere sitting on his own bed, reading a Quidditch magazine.

“Hello. Everyone back from Hogsmeade already?” he asked.

“Nah, I came back early. It started sleeting — was pretty miserable. Are you feeling okay, mate?”

“Yeah, just tired … and hungry. I think I missed lunch.”

“You were … uh … whimpering a bit when I first came in, but you calmed down soon after. Still some residual from your collapse last week?”

Oh, Merlin. His collapse into his Veela heritage, all his bickering over the last week, and now the encounter with Snape — it was phenomenal how crazy his life was. He stuck his head in his hands and pulled at his hair without answering, trying to keep the panic at bay.

Broadmere just stared at him for a minute, then shrugged and said, “You’re one odd duck, mate,” then went back to his mag.

Harry didn’t want to talk to anyone else, so he slinked down to the kitchens to beg the house-elves for some food. After obtaining a pot pie, he hung out down an unused corridor, ate and studied. At least the magical material kept his mind occupied instead of dwelling on useless “what ifs” and “what nows”.

***

Near midnight Harry couldn’t stand it anymore. The hunger had turned to an itch again, and he had to see Snape; he just didn’t know how to do that. Oh, sure, he could get into Slytherin House with his Parseltongue ability, but it would be crowded with students either staying up late on the weekend or asleep in their beds. He didn’t have his Invisibility Cloak with him in this time (he assumed his father still had it now), so it would be impossible to sneak in. But he no longer cared. Maybe just being near Snape’s dormitory would help.

He left Hufflepuff House with a sneer before anyone could stop him, then quickly walked to the other dungeon. He found his sight had improved slightly from his inheritance and it made him smile a bit to think what an extra advantage that would be on the Quidditch pitch, if he ever got to play again. That, however, was looking increasingly unlikely. He sighed and chided himself to be more alert in the halls.

Nearing the entrance to their common room, Harry leant up against a stone wall in the dark. He closed his eyes and imagined the deep black ones of his mate and longed for him. It almost made the itch worse to know that the man was somewhere close by. Without warning, the door banged open and out stalked the very object of his musings.

Snape looked right at him, his eyes full of heat and lust, and Harry just wanted to throw himself into those arms. Yet Snape shook his head and went off down the opposite corridor. Harry hurried after.

Snape took them to another abandoned alcove and hesitated not at all in pulling Harry to him and locking their lips together. Harry exploded with need again, and both men groaned. No words were necessary as they discovered each other again, although the occasional “Oh, Merlin” and “Fuck, do that again” did cross their lips. They made love several times, dozing on and off in between, until the dawn filtered through a magical skylight above them. Reluctantly, they let go and Harry watched Snape walk away. He waited a few more minutes, then returned to his own dorm.

Sunday was better. He didn’t miss Snape quite so much, but the lack of physical contact allowed his mind to question everything that was happening. It made it hard to concentrate on his revising. They met again that night in the same way, the initial urgency just as great as before, but the time between sexual acts was calmer, more content. They talked for a bit about life and love and hardship. Snape talked about his lonely and poor childhood and Harry responded with some information about his own neglect in the Dursley household. It was easy to talk to Snape. In his arms, Harry felt open but safe, as if his secrets would remain secret and his experiences wouldn’t be mocked, and wasn’t that strange, with this particular wizard of all wizards. He wasn’t sure what the adult Snape would think about this, but for now Harry felt protected, wanted, even loved. He headed out to start Monday with much more ease than he had for the past two weeks.

***

Classes were good. Harry wished he could be with his lover, but the hunger had mostly subsided now during the day and it was only late at night that the urgings grew strong. They made a routine of meeting in their alcove after the other students were in bed, and they even saw each other between classes, in the library, and during Defence. Harry felt giddily happy and he didn’t even fight with anyone. Snape, too, seemed to have a more pleasant disposition, and by the end of Tuesday most everything seemed to go back to normal.

Even Regulus was speaking to them again, as was evidenced by his appearance at Harry’s side that evening in the library. “Goodness, I don’t know what you’ve done, but it sure has turned Severus around. You seem better off as well.”

“Thanks, Reg. Yeah, we both feel better now.”

“Care to tell me what happened so I can avoid such a mess in the future?” he asked with a little teasing lilt.

Harry smiled, not sure how to answer this direct inquiry. “Right. Well. It seems we both were feeling just a bit of … uh … frustration and needed to have out with it. How are you?”

Regulus wasn’t fooled by the diversionary question. “Frustration? You mean, this was all about … you know, sex?” he finished on a whisper, a slight blush forming on his cheeks, and eyes darting around to see if anyone was paying attention to them. Harry could tell the younger wizard was embarrassed by the topic, although he wasn’t much different, as the sex was still new and precious and wonderful and extremely private.

“Something like that. Crazy, isn’t it?”

“So, are you and Snape an … item now?” asked Regulus, slightly wide-eyed.

“I suppose so.” Harry knew it felt like so much more than that, as if he had found his center. “Be happy for us?” he half-asked, half-pleaded, urging their mutual friend to say yes.

“Well, yes, yes of course.” Regulus broke out into a shy grin. “How can I not? You two have been much easier to get along with the last few days. You are clearly good for each other.”

Harry smiled back, really quite happy thinking about Severus. “Yeah, we are. See you later, okay? I’ve really got to finish this essay.”

“Sure. Catch you later.”

Once Regulus had left, Harry thought some more about his feelings for Snape. He found he liked the snarky bastard, who wasn’t nearly as bitter now as he was in the future. Maybe Harry could change that, was changing that by putting more light into Severus’ life. So what did that mean for the future? Would something happen between them? Would Snape be nicer from now on? Was it all a ruse? Harry didn’t know and thinking about time paradoxes made his brain hurt. He would just have to deal with the next step that came his way.

Little did he realise said next step would come with a blow so soon.

His evening had gone rather well. He was almost caught up on all his homework and his dorm mates seemed more at ease with him. Josh didn’t have that angry glare for him anymore and even the Marauders had backed off after seeing his unusually cheerful good mood. For once, he felt like a happy, normal kid. So he was completely taken aback when, on his way to meet Snape that night, the strange twisting sensation of the Timekey yanked him away from his idyllic life without even allowing him to scream.

The corridor spun with the twisting firmness and then rematerialised as the Headmaster’s office. The sun was streaming through the window at sunset and the open shutters were letting in a warm breeze. Strange objects twinkled and moved on his desk and Fawkes flew from up above to land on his perch. But Harry cared for none of it for he had a sinking suspicion of what just happened, and all he wanted to do was run back to the past.

Dumbledore walked into the room. “Alright, Harry, I have everything we need. Shall we be going? It would be best to ride our brooms past the wards. Much faster that way.” He was wearing those obnoxious purple robes again.

“Sir?” Harry felt lost with a growing panic starting in the back of his mind. “What day is it?” he asked, dreading the answer.

“It’s Monday, of course. Our usual pre-arranged meeting time.”

“No, I mean, what date is it? What year?”

“June 1st, 1997. My dear boy, are you alright?”

No, Harry wasn’t. 1997. Oh, god. He’d come back forward in time.

The blood drained from his face as the dawning horror crept over him. He had left his mate in the past. And what else could be wrong? Had the timeline changed? Were the same people alive or dead now? Was Snape still a snarky bastard? His pulse began to race with all the questions and he felt very dizzy.

“Harry,” Dumbledore said in a concerned tone, “Sit down before you faint. I’ll floo Poppy and tell her to bring some potions.”

Harry shook his head in the negative. He didn’t want potions. He wanted Snape. The trembling started up in his muscles again as he contemplated his mate’s situation. Dear Merlin, twenty years. What had happened to him in that time? What had he thought when Harry just disappeared? Did he feel pain at their separation and, if so, how had he survived it? Was their bond still active? How in the world would he feel about Harry now?

“I need you at your best for this excursion, Harry. Please, let me direct you to –”

“I’m fine,” Harry bit out through a tightened jaw. He willed himself to push everything aside — as much as he didn’t want to, as much as he wanted to yell at the sky and fate and everything else, and as much as he wished to run from this room and track down Snape and make everything alright again — and to get back to the plan of defeating Voldemort. That’s what his life was about in this time, after all. Nothing else could be pursued until that goal was accomplished. He took a few deep breaths, then looked up at Dumbledore, and said, “It’s nothing, really. Let’s get going.”

The Headmaster’s frown deepened, but he let it slide. “Very well, then. Grab your broom and we’ll leave.”

The ride past the wards calmed him a bit, gave him a chance to reset his mode of thinking back to wartime. It did not, however, prepare him for the cave. It was a horrid place that reeked of acid and decay — small wonder with all the Inferi in the water, which was a testimony to just how deranged Voldemort had become in severing his soul seven ways. Harry was horrified by the poison protecting the locket and what it did to Dumbledore, aging the wizard’s spirit before his eyes, but he pressed onward as instructed and luckily got to the damned thing before time ran out. He was panting from adrenaline by the time they escaped. This did not reassure Harry about the other trials awaiting him at the other Horcrux sites.

They Apparated back to Hogsmeade only to find the sky above the castle sporting the Morsmordre symbol. Death Eaters had been let into the school!

Fearing for everyone, Harry turned to Dumbledore, whose face was a hard mask ready to fight but so old looking, so weary. Harry could tell his arm, the cursed one, pained him and he was still sick from the poison. Harry wasn’t sure he should be fighting, but there was nothing for it. They had to fight; they couldn’t let Hogwarts be taken.

The Headmaster led him back by flight to the Astronomy Tower. It was the best way to sneak back into school, Harry reasoned, as the Death Eaters were surely looking for the two of them. He was taken aback when Dumbledore stuck him to the wall, silenced him, and threw his Invisibility Cloak over him. Harry tried to fight it, tried to scream “What the hell?” but the spells held fast.

Harry watched with trepidation as Draco Malfoy cornered and disarmed the Headmaster and listened helplessly as Dumbledore bargained for his life. For a moment, Harry thought it was working. Draco’s wand hand shook with fear and uncertainty and he cried about wanting to keep his family safe. Dumbledore offered that to him, and Harry thought he might take it. But then the other Death Eaters came in and Draco’s resolve to carry out his mission and kill the old man stiffened.

But the biggest shock of Harry’s life came as in strode his mate, Severus Snape.

It was stunning, and not in a good way, to see the change in him from what Harry had known just hours before. Snape’s body was about an inch taller, still angular and slim, but filled out, more solid, more adult. His hair was greasier and his skin was even more pallid and sallow. Deep lines ran through his face and around his eyes, which were hard and cold with contempt, no longer containing any warmth or humour, and he snarled at all present. It was the teacher he remembered, but not the lover he had chosen.

Harry raged inside his head. How could fate do this to them? Would Snape remember him? Would he want to be with him? Were they even still mated? Dammit, he wanted his lover back! Harry fought against his restraints but Dumbledore’s magic was too strong; he couldn’t break free.

At least Snape was here and he could do something, Harry thought. So it was with even greater surprise and astonishment that he heard Bellatrix say, “Ah, Snape’s here. Good. You can finish the job like you promised, since it’s obvious young Draco here …” and at that she ruffled his blond hair roughly, causing him to wince, “… isn’t even capable of taking down one defenceless old wizard.” Wait. Take down? Job?

Harry watched with burgeoning horror as Snape took out his wand and aimed it squarely at the Headmaster. No. No. No! NO! NOOOO! Harry screamed in his own head. Severus, no! Please don’t do this! We can work this out, I promise, he thought at Snape, but it was no use. Dumbledore spoke a single entreaty, “Please.” Then Snape’s eyes grew angry as well as cold and unrelenting, and he spoke the harsh killing words and flung the spell at Dumbledore without a single sign of remorse. Harry was screaming incoherently now, wanting to tear everything apart, but the Headmaster’s spells still held even as he was thrown off the balcony.

By the time the spells faded, Harry had gone numb.

He stood in shock as the Death Eaters roared and celebrated. He heard Snape saying, “We have to leave now. The Dark Lord will want a report immediately,” and ushering them all out and down the stairs. By the time his brain fully processed what had just happened, they were three-quarters of the way down the tower.

Howling his rage, Harry ran down the stairs after them, wishing he could open his wings so that he could just charge the man that had professed to be his mate. Of course, that wouldn’t be entirely safe with the other Death Eaters around, but Harry was hardly being logical at this point. Unfortunately, there was not enough space in the stairwell for his wingspan and they were still so new he wasn’t even sure how to use them. There hadn’t been time in the past to practise. Halfway down, Harry was wishing he had risked it anyway.

“Snape! SNAPE!” he yelled as he raced them all across the courtyard and out onto the grounds. “You fucking bastard, come back here!” His legs pumped in a fast rhythm; the blood in his veins rushed with adrenaline, fueled by betrayal and his Fire Veela nature. “How could you do this? I trusted you!”

Snape told the others to hurry on, even with Bella setting fire to Hagrid’s hut. He turned around to face Harry and sneered. “Isn’t it the Boy Wonder to take me on?”

Still running, Harry raised his wand and sent off the first hex he could think of. Snape blocked it easily. Harry screamed in rage, “How dare you do this to me?”

Snape blocked another hex. “I wasn’t aware I was doing anything to you, foolish boy!”

Harry shouted in frustration. “I trusted you! I gave you myself, and this is how you thank me?” He saw Snape’s eyes widen a little at that. He tried casting several more spells, but Snape deflected them all. Harry then tried Expelliarmus, but Snape cut him off halfway through, his own return spell disarming Harry and throwing him backward to the ground.

By this time, Bellatrix came skipping over to Snape’s side. “Ah, itty, bitty Potty complaining about the unfairness of life. Ha ha!” she cackled. “We should finish him, Snape.”

“No. The Dark Lord wants Potter for himself. Leave him be, Bella. We must return.”

She hurrumphed but strolled away with a parting insult. “Not so high and mighty, is he now, eh, Potter?”

Knowing that she meant Headmaster Dumbledore, Harry didn’t rise to the bait as he was lying on the ground panting for breath. The rage inside him was calling for blood, but it wasn’t directed at Bellatrix Lestrange. It was directed at Severus Snape.

He looked at the villain before him and spat. “You’re nothing but a … coward.”

His whole body shrieked in protest at his own sentiment, crying in pain at the deliberate severing of their bond — or at least what felt like it — wanting to fight the betrayal, to fight Snape, to wring his greasy neck until he saw stars, to launch him into the sky and pummel him back to the ground.

“DO NOT CALL ME COWARD!” With a flick of his wrist, Snape hit him with a curse, sending him flying another twenty feet away to land with a smack on the stones and grass.

Harry moaned as everything inside him ached. His whole world was ripped apart again, and his soul could only lie there, raging, while his mate walked away and disappeared into the night. His green eyes burned with overwhelming despair, his center smashed into tiny pieces and scattered to the winds, and his throat seared from the wordless cries that emanated out of him, but try as he might, no tears would come.

Chapter Eight — Interlude

I walk with determination away from Hogwarts, away from Dumbledore, away from my life, away from him. The bitterness of it all sears my hidden heart, and all I can do for the moment is grit my teeth as I pull Draco and the others beyond the gates where we can Disapparate. Why? Why did it have to be now? Why did it have to be today? Why did he have to see? This is the time I’ve been waiting for; all these long blasted years in solitude should have now been justified! But instead he has to watch me kill my mentor. Why did that blasted fool allow Harry to watch? No good can come of this. He will no longer trust me, if he ever did, and he will tell the others about my murderous ways. I’ll never be allowed back into the school to protect the students and I certainly won’t be allowed near Harry. The Order will put up wards against me for sure.

Not that it really matters, though. This is the plan as the Headmaster has arranged it, Harry on the side of Light and on some unknown quest and I on the side of Dark working in shadows unknown. There is no room for us. So I walk away, hating myself, my body aching with the long suppressed need to touch my mate, my subconscious screaming that I just hurt him and I should be condemned for my actions. And I still have the Dark Lord to greet. Curse Circe and all the Fates.

We Disapparate without further incident, landing on the Malfoys’ lawn outside the gates. The Dark Lord has been ensconced here for the past year, and the place is showing signs of deterioration. I watch Draco to see if he notices the changes to his home, but he’s absorbed in his thoughts. He’s been quiet and aloof since the … confrontation. This may prove both a blessing and a curse.

“Back so quickly. What news do you have to report?” my master asks suspiciously. “And Severus, I did not expect you.” Which does not bode well for me.

Before I can voice a reply, Bellatrix answers. “We’ve done it, my Lord. Dumbledore is dead!” She acts so gleeful in her telling of the night’s events; it’s repugnant. I can barely keep the bile from rising to my throat and only my supreme Occlumency skills allow me to bury my emotions behind a cool, indifferent mask. I tense with dread at her recounting of Harry’s stalking and subsequent release.

After she finishes her tale, the Dark Lord appears pensive, no doubt weighing all the pros and cons of this news. Finally he turns to young Draco. “So, you were not able to kill one old wizard as ordered.”

Draco looks terrified, staring down at nothing, but he knows better than to not answer. “It’s true,” he swallows, “my Lord.”

“You disappoint me, child. So much potential … wasted. And a failure of this magnitude cannot go unpunished. Crucio!

Draco screams as the curse hits him. He tries to tamp down on the pain, on the urge to scream, but it doesn’t work. His nerves circumvent his brain and activate the impulse automatically. The same is true of the muscle spasms. I can only watch with a sickening stomach, for there is no interfering when the Dark Lord is in this wrathful mood.

Of course, Draco is a minor distraction and his torture doesn’t last long. The Dark Lord never really expected the child to accomplish the murder of Albus Dumbledore; it was a setup for his parents’ punishment, to either watch their son turn into a murderer or watch him be tortured for not doing so. Soon the Dark Lord grows tired of that sport and returns to inward contemplation. It is when he turns back to me that I know dread.

“Severus, my most faithful servant, you have done well in killing Albus Dumbledore.”

“I was only fulfilling my duty to your wishes, my Lord.”

His gaze turns from thoughtful to menacing in seconds. “Then why did you not stun and bring Potter to me? Bellatrix claims you had the opportunity, yet you did not. Why?”

“I understood that it is your wish to pursue Potter on your own, to take him down with your own power.”

“But you could have brought him to me so that I could duel and defeat him. You have denied me that pleasure, Severus. Crucio!

I writhe on the floor in agony, the Dark Lord probably thinking that this is the worst punishment, but the one thought in my head is that this physical pain is nothing compared to the spiritual starvation I have lived with the past twenty years and the intense piercing of my soul that happened a mere hour ago.

***

Draco and I have been placed in the dungeons for our failures while the Dark Lord and my fellow Death Eaters have been scouring the countryside in search of news of the Headmaster’s death and subsequent funeral arrangements and Harry’s movements. In the meantime, they have taken to tormenting us both, physically and magically. Draco has begged for forgiveness, a chance to make amends, anything for the Dark Lord, but he is ignored or mocked. Narcissa comes down here to check on her son, and her movements are disconcerting. They are not just those of a fearful or angry mother, but something else, something more anxious. Today is his birthday; today he is a legal adult in the Wizarding world. Perhaps that is it.

He has been shaking all day yesterday and today so far. The dungeons are chilly and damp but should not be inducing this reaction. I wonder if he is developing an illness. Narcissa returns again and watches him.

“Oh, my poor son. I had hoped this could have been better celebrated, but –”

She doesn’t finish her thought as the Carrows, that wicked brother-sister pair whose only joy in life is causing other people discomfort, come down to play with us. They take Draco out and start beating him around the corridor. Draco stumbles, as weak as a kitten, and cries out when they grab him. I look to Narcissa and see her hands wringing in the folds of her robes, her jaw clenched in anger but her eyes glistening with hopelessness. My own orbs narrow in suspicion.

I turn back to the scene in front of me just in time to see Draco fall to his knees, grab his hair and scream. His body starts to convulse and his hands claw at his skin.

The Carrows back away, unsure what to make of this. “What the bloody hell?” one asks.

“We didna’ do this,” the other insists.

“Leave us, now,” Narcissa orders. The stiffness in her voice convinces them to run off, no doubt to report this strange occurrence to our master.

“Draco, my son, I’m sorry this couldn’t have been better for you.”

“Narcissa, what is going on?” I ask just as I notice changes happening in the young man’s body, changes I remember, and I am horrified at the reality before me. Draco, it appears, is Veela, too.

As he cries out from the floor, fire burning inside as his body comes into its inheritance and slowly grows his wings, Bellatrix comes downstairs, sent by the Dark Lord to investigate her nephew.

“What is the meaning of this? Sister?” she hisses.

Narcissa looks far away, keeping her composure but shame and embarrassment colour her countenance. “He is coming into his magical inheritance.”

Bellatrix tightens her hand on her wand and sneers. “How? We are all pure-bloods.”

Narcissa lowers her eyes and whispers, “Not all, Bella,” and with that she releases her own wings, delicate cream-blue feathers that complement her blonde hair. They are regal and beautiful: an Air Veela.

Bellatrix does not take this well. She hisses through her teeth with an intake of breath. “How, Cissa?” she asks with malice.

“Mother was … unfaithful. Cygnus Black is not my real father. Have you never wondered why my hair is blonde when all of the rest of our family’s is black as befitting our name?”

Bellatrix shrieks in fury. “You are no sister of mine! The Dark Lord will hear of this and decide what to do with you.” She turns and storms back upstairs.

Narcissa simply watches her go, then turns back to watching her son.

“He will need medical care for the next few days,” I say.

She nods her head without speaking, then closes her eyes and sighs, folding her wings in once again.

“Does Lucius know?”

“He is fully aware as my mate.” Her eyes refocus on mine. “You seem to be accepting this. I thought you might be more shocked.”

“I have been in his position myself, once upon a time.”

Her eyes widen in surprise for a moment, then she nods her head again. “Can you help him? Will you?”

“I can and I will, if we get out of this dungeon.” I have been able to keep my own trembling to a minimum the last few days, my own nature screaming to be let out and go find my mate, to hold him, to make him understand what has transpired, to beg his forgiveness, and to end this loneliness. The cold from these cells is a minor nuisance, but it has not helped, so to escape would be a relief of sorts.

She nods her head before leaving to face the inquiry awaiting her.

I sit long watching over Draco. His transformation continues, accompanied by moaning until more time has passed. It is complete and he is unconscious by the time Narcissa, Bellatrix, her husband and brother-in-law return.

The Lestranges point their wands at the two Malfoys. “Snape. Pick Draco up and return him to his rooms. You are free to go; the Dark Lord is no longer angry with you.” Bellatrix is cold with her contempt, though. She flicks her wrist and the door unlocks.

I nod my thanks, step through and levitate Draco’s prone body.

“Filthy half-sister, you will take his place for now.” She motions toward the cell that had been Draco’s.

Narcissa makes no protest nor does she give off any negative signs of apprehension, but instead calmly walks into the cell and stands facing her jailors. They close and lock the door on her, and we then proceed upstairs.

I take Draco to his rooms, set him on the bed and tend to his physical needs. It is a day before he regains consciousness and I explain his situation, two more before he can get up out of bed and can pull his wings back in.

When he is well enough to be presented, we and Narcissa, who is black and blue from her own torment in the dungeons, are led back to the Dark Lord’s audience chamber. A full round of Cruciatus Curse for the three of us as a reminder of our “loyalty” and he is finished. We are dismissed. Narcissa and her son go off for a long chat, and I am free to roam as I please. I inform those who would care that I am returning to Spinner’s End. No one pays me any mind, for which I am grateful.

I am certain Harry will still be at the school, but I cannot return there. Knowing that he has reached his majority, even though it is technically not yet his birthday, I know that the blood wards on his relative’s house will be broken, so he will not find it safe to return there. That leaves the Burrow and Grimmauld Place as safe houses for when he leaves school. As I will not be welcome at the Weasleys’ hovel — as if I ever was — I decide to wait for him at the ancient house of the Blacks.

***

Strolling through the corridor at Grimmauld Place, I am assaulted by two strong spells, the first a ghostly apparition of my mentor to frighten me, and I admit to no one that it works. I fear for a moment that he will haunt my waking hours as much as he does my nights, but the specter merely passes through me and my pounding heart. The second spell is hidden in the first, and I feel the power of the Tongue-Tied Curse. I seethe at Moody’s ingenious plan. The Order has definitely been informed of my role in Dumbledore’s murder. Thank you ever so much, my mate.

I search the house, but it is empty. All traces of Order business have been erased and even that damned house-elf appears to have vacated, although he might just be hiding. I scan through the different rooms, my heart hurting for my old friend Regulus, who vanished years ago without a trace, and grimacing as I glance into Sirius’ bedroom, the garish Gryffindor colours an affront to the rest of the house’s decor.

On a whim I open Black’s side table drawer, and under some Quidditch magazines I find a single letter and photograph. The missive appears written from Lily to Sirius years ago, part of an ongoing conversation dated just before she died, and the photograph is that of Lily and James watching young Harry ride around on a children’s broom. My heart aches at the sight of my mate, so young and full of joy.

I had not known what had become of him all those years ago. No one in the school knew; there were all sorts of rumours circulating in the dormitories, but all I was aware of was that he had left me. I ached for years. And then his eleven-year-old self showed up in Hogwarts and everything fell into place. Some future version of him had time traveled into the past and, presumably, had been yanked back to his original time. For the moment, he was too young and I could not touch him, nor would it be possible in all the ensuing years of his schooling, and didn’t that just make one the most frustrated of beings. Now it seems he has made the time travel and I can finally touch him, only to have Fate play with us again. Hopeless. It is all just truly hopeless.

I look up to the night sky and burn with anger and despair. To my bitter amusement, the stars do not even dare to shine.

Part Two: Resolutions in Present Tense

Chapter One

Harry lay a long time steeped in agony on the Hogwarts’ grounds. It was finally the fire in Hagrid’s hut that stirred him to get up and go back to the school; back to the teachers, who were busy corralling students away from the base of the Astronomy Tower while trying to keep the tragedy of the Headmaster’s death from showing in their faces; back to his classmates, who were probably panicking from the sight of the Dark Mark above the school; and back to his friends, who were surely worried about him, knowing he had gone for his weekly lesson with Dumbledore tonight. They would be even more concerned for him once they saw him and heard his tale, and although he didn’t want to be the center of attention again, he knew that the rest of the world would want to know that Severus Snape had killed Albus Dumbledore.

It didn’t take long before he found Minerva McGonagall near the base of the tower giving instructions to every staff member, as she was now acting Headmistress. “Professor Binns, please lead the house-elves in clean-up, removal of that hideous sign in the air, and the appropriate preparation of the …” she couldn’t even get the word out, just nodded her head to the place where the Headmaster had landed, “… for burial. Professors Sprout and Slughorn, escort any students back to their dormitories and everyone should stay there. All detentions and other evening activities are suspended. They may have study sessions in their common rooms, but they are not to venture outside. Professor Flitwick, please inform the authorities and necessary officials of what has happened and prepare things for their arrival in our midst. I will personally meet with them as soon as I may. Mr. Filch, close the gates and the owlery. No one is to go inside or out except the authorities. Has anyone seen Professor Snape?”

Harry was seething with anger and stepped forward. “Yes, ma’am. He was fleeing with Draco Malfoy, Bellatrix Lestrange and some other Death Eaters.”

“Why in the world would he do that?”

“Because, he …” the words stuck in his throat, burning through his lungs, his mind screaming at the deceit, his soul in torment, but he pushed them out anyway. She needed to know. “He killed Dumbledore!”

The air was still with his pronouncement. No one moved. No one even blinked.

McGonagall lifted her chin. “That’s a very strong accusation, Harry.”

“It’s true. I watched him do it. Right up there,” he said, pointing to the top of the tower.

McGonagall looked at him with concern but must have seen something of the truth in him. Her face went pale and for the first time since he’d seen her in Hogwarts, she appeared old. “I would have your story, Mr. Potter, so that I may have more to tell the Aurors when they arrive.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Biting back bile and a wish to scream, he recounted the events of the evening, leaving out the trip to the cave, just saying that it was an errand that had taken Dumbledore and him beyond the castle’s grounds. When he recited the part about Snape, his lungs constricted in agony.

She had turned a sickly green by the time he was finished, but Harry could see a great rage building within her. “That man! Albus had such faith in him. He was never anything but trouble.”

Harry could not deny her words.

“The Order will have to be told. Harry, you should go back to Gryffindor Tower. You have witnessed a lot of grief tonight. You should be with your friends. Thank you for telling me.”

His vocal cords were so tight that no words would come out, so he nodded his assent and turned to go back to his room. He didn’t really want to talk to anyone; he wanted to rage and shout and hit something, but what good would that do? He slowly walked back, all his thoughts on his traitorous mate.

***

Much later that night, once most of his fellow students were asleep, Harry met with Ron and Hermione in the common room. They sat off in one corner, casting Muffliato and other such concealing spells before beginning their discussion. Harry had not told his dorm mates what had happened, as the teachers were not speaking of it just yet, though news of death travels fast. First thing in the morning everyone here would know, and the rest of the world would learn of it shortly thereafter. Harry had no doubt that the Daily Prophet would run a huge front-page article, full of half-truths and outright lies. But he didn’t want to think about that.

“Harry,” Ron pleaded, “what’s going on? It’s like they’ve locked down the whole school.”

Hermione voiced her own questions. “Was that really the Dark Mark in the sky? What does Headmaster Dumbledore think?”

Harry’s jaw trembled. “He’s dead.”

Hermione gasped. “No!” Her look was horrified.

Ron’s was, too. “You were with him, right, mate? What happened?”

“There’s lots I have to tell you.” Harry swallowed and took a deep breath to set his thoughts in order. “Dumbledore has been training me in information about Voldemort. We’d been researching things he did in the past, and one of the most important things we found out was that Voldemort created Horcruxes.”

Ron and Hermione stared at him with blank looks. They obviously had never heard the term.

“He’s trying to make himself immortal, and a Horcrux is one way to do that. You split your soul by murdering someone and one of your soul pieces gets placed in an object, so if your body dies, the soul doesn’t leave here and can be brought back to life.”

Hermione’s eyebrows scrunched together. “How horrible. And Dumbledore thinks he managed this? It must be very Dark magic.”

“It is, and yes, though not just once, but six times.”

“Mate, that’s impossible,” Ron scoffed.

Harry shook his head. “No, we’re sure it is. The first Horcrux was his diary that possessed Ginny.”

Ron’s face went deathly pale. Harry could tell he was remembering their second year. Poor Ginny, to have been touched by such a horrid object.

“Another was a ring that Dumbledore found in Voldemort’s family house. We suspect his snake is a third. And we think that there are three others, one from each founder, something significant for each of them as he seemed taken with his Wizarding heritage.”

“But there are four founders,” Hermione said.

“Godric’s sword is not one because it was infused with Basilisk venom, which can destroy Horcruxes, like the fang I used on the diary. So one item from each of the other three: a locket from Salazar Slytherin, a special magical diadem from Rowena Ravenclaw, and a cup from Helga Hufflepuff.”

He pulled out the locket retrieved that evening. “Earlier today, instead of a normal meeting, Dumbledore took me with him to a cave used by Voldemort when he was a child. Inside was a lake with a tiny island in the middle. There was a pedestal there with this shell-shaped dish on it. Inside was this poisonous liquid that one of us had to drink all of before the locket would show up and we could take it. Dumbledore told me to make sure that he drank all of it, no matter what happened. It was … evil.” Harry faltered, remember the fearful scene in the cave. “He was crying and begging for it to stop, that he was sorry, that he just wanted it to stop ….” Harry’s throat closed up and his eyes burned with the memory.

Hermione put her hand on his shoulder, which he took comfort in enough to continue the story.

“We finally got to the bottom of the dish and I lifted out the locket. He needed water badly, but when I went to get some from the lake, Inferi rose up and attacked us. We fought them off and then left. Apparated back to Hogsmeade and that’s when we saw the Dark Mark above the school. We flew back on our brooms to the Astronomy Tower. We then heard someone coming and he shoved me against the wall, placed a sticking and a silencing charm on me, threw my Invisibility Cloak over my head, and turned to meet Draco Malfoy.”

“Malfoy?” Ron asked with both incredulity and annoyance. “What the hell …?”

“He let the Death Eaters into the school, whatever he had been doing in the Room of Hidden Things. Anyway, he disarms the Headmaster and holds him at wand point. They talked. Dumbledore almost had him convinced to give up, but then the other Death Eaters showed up, along with …” Harry closed his eyes on the pain, “… Snape.”

“Snape?” Ron asked with even more vehemence.

“Shh, Ron. Go on, Harry.”

“Bellatrix said something about finishing a job and Snape raised his wand. Dumbledore pleaded for his life, but Snape just ….” Harry couldn’t go on. His teeth were clenched and his fists trembled, and he wanted to cry at the painfulness of that moment, when the one he’d pledged his body and soul to had murdered his mentor and only real father figure.

“How awful,” Hermione said, appalled.

“Where’s the bastard now, Harry?”

“He and Malfoy and the others just ran off. Cowards,” Harry whispered, shivering.

“So, do you have the locket?” Hermione asked, focusing back on the task at hand.

“Yeah, here, but it doesn’t feel right.”

She took it from him and examined it. “What do you mean?”

“I can’t sense any evil in it. With the diary, I could feel it.”

Curious as always, Hermione opened it before anyone could protest. “There’s a piece of paper here. ‘Lord Voldemort, I have discovered your secret. I have taken the Horcrux and will destroy it. -R.A.B.’ Who could that be?”

“I have no idea.” Harry sighed. “So now I have an even greater hunt on my hands.”

“You’re going to hunt them?” Ron asked in a surprised tone.

“Yes, that’s what this has all been leading up to. I’m going to find these three items and destroy them and somehow kill the snake, too. Anything else we do will be pointless until then. It’s the only way to make sure Voldemort is gone for good. I’m not going to be here next year. As soon as my birthday comes, I’ll be on the hunt.”

“We’ll come with you,” Hermione said without hesitation.

“Yeah, mate,” Ron agreed.

“No, I can’t let you.”

Hermione gave him a pointed look. “Harry, don’t be an idiot; you can’t do this on your own. We’re your friends, and we’re all in this in together.”

Ron nodded his agreement.

Harry lowered his head. He had missed these friends while in the past. “Thanks.” That of course was part of the story he hadn’t told them and couldn’t, not just yet. He wasn’t even sure he wanted to accept it anymore. His Veela nature was a curse, and it could stay hidden away for all he cared. Except that he was already feeling withdrawal. He was shivering with the itch again, but he was also determined to ignore it.

They spent some time working on details until yawning become more of an activity for their mouths than speaking.

The next morning McGonagall made the announcement of the Headmaster’s death and funeral arrangements, shortly followed by the front headlines in the newspaper. Everyone was shocked and disturbed.

Harry ached all over.

***

The next days were hell for Harry. Not only did the teachers still make everyone attend classes, but all anyone talked about was Dumbledore’s mysterious death and the lies in the Prophet. Harry had to bite his tongue to keep from incriminating himself in the events of that night, not to mention those of his mate. He didn’t understand why, but his instincts were telling him not to say anything to anyone other than McGonagall and his two friends, who already knew. The thought of what Snape had done filled him with fury, but any word he tried to speak against the man after that first night just tore through his gut and nothing would come out. He grabbed at his belly, rocking back and forth in vain efforts to fight off the pain. His classmates noticed and soon left him alone.

At night it was worse. Although he was glad to be back in the tower instead of in the dungeons, instead of feeling liberated and free, he felt trapped, caged, grounded. He longed to fly in the air with his new wings and go find his mate. The itching was growing steadily worse. He fought against himself, curled up in a ball on the bed trying to deny the need rushing through him. When he slept and dreamed, it was fitful. By the time Dumbledore’s funeral took place, Harry was an exhausted wreck.

He leant on Hermione and Ron in the funeral procession. The event was both solemn and noisy, what with everyone sniffling and bawling and Flitwick leading the school choir in a mournful dirge. Harry wanted to weep, but it stuck behind his eyes and would not come out. He trembled non-stop. His friends wanted to know what was wrong, but he didn’t answer them and figured they would see it as a delayed reaction to watching a man get killed. That was only half of it.

He went through much of a stupor for the next week until school let out. His relatives picked him up from the train station, as usual with their look of utter disdain. How much more would it have been if they had known of Harry’s creature inheritance? He would have been kicked to the pavement instantly, he was sure. Best to keep that part hidden, too, until his official birthday and he could leave.

But upon arriving at Number 4, Privet Drive, Harry sensed a change there. The wards were gone. There was no more familiar barrier that he had always passed through on the way into the house. He felt open and exposed and wondered if the trace was still on him as well. Without Petunia and Vernon noticing, he took out his wand and performed a quick cleaning spell on his room. He waited a few minutes for an owl to show, but nothing happened. He cast Alohamora on the door locks and they unlocked. A few more minutes passed by and nothing. He spent much of the evening casting small minor spells in his room, his stomach protesting the lack of dinner but he hardly noticed. A small victory went off in his brain. The magic in the world must have known as soon as he returned from the past that he had already celebrated his birthday and was now a full adult.

With this unexpected boon, Harry decided to leave the house that night. It would no longer be guarded, and if he left now, perhaps the Death Eaters wouldn’t attack the Dursleys. He didn’t fancy that they would keep to such noble intentions, so he quilled a quick note urging his family to quit the house and left it for his aunt to read. He shrank his belongings and Disapparated straight out of the house, laughing inside at the fright they must feel upon hearing that loud crack.

He Apparated to the Burrow and sneaked into Ron’s room. Casting Muffliato first on the door, Harry caused a loud sound and light to appear above Ron’s bed, startling him awake.

“Blimey, mate, don’t scare me like that!”

“Sorry. There’s no other way to wake you.”

“What are you doing here? How did you get here? Does the Order know?” Ron had a million questions for him and Harry had to stop his friend before they all came bursting out.

“Shhh! Don’t wake the rest of your family. To answer your first question I went home and the wards had already fallen, so rather than risk a Death Eater meeting, I came to see you. Is Hermione here yet?”

“No, she’s with her parents. Was going to show up the week before your birthday and the wedding.”

“Oh, right. Well, we’ll have to get her before that. I want to start the Horcrux hunt now.”

“Now?” Ron almost screamed.

“Yeah, as soon as may be, but I don’t know where to go to look.”

Ron thought about it for a moment. “We’re going to need a safe house, and here it will be too busy and too cramped. Mum already suspects something weird will happen, and she’s too nosy concerning us kids. Fred and George got read the riot act every time they showed up at home, and that was last summer. It’s going to be worse this year, mate. But how did you get here? You can’t use magic yet.”

“Actually, it seems I can. I’ll explain later. For now let’s get some sleep.” He unshrank his trunk and placed it beside the unoccupied bed.

“Uh. If you can do that without the Ministry owling you, I guess the trace is lifted.”

“Yeah.” Harry changed clothes and crawled into bed. “Good night, Ron.”

“‘Night.”

***

The next day Harry said hello to the Weasleys. Molly was very suspicious about how Harry ended up at the Burrow since no one had informed her of changed plans and she knew Harry was still underage. They had agreed before leaving Ron’s room that morning to tell a half truth, that the wards on Harry’s home had indeed been compromised and it wasn’t safe there any longer, but that Harry had contacted Ron through their D.A. Galleons to come get him. Harry made sure not to perform any magic around the Burrow so as to keep up appearances.

He and Ron Apparated to the Granger’s home to see Hermione that afternoon.

“Oh, hello! I hadn’t expected to see you youngsters just yet,” cooed Dr. Granger, her mum. “Why don’t you come in and make yourself comfortable, and I’ll send for Hermione.”

They greeted her politely and walked over to the sofa in the great room and sat down. Dr. Granger climbed the stairs to the bedrooms to summon her daughter while the boys waited. Within seconds a bounding uproar came down the stairs.

“Ron, Harry!” Hermione exclaimed, joy written on her face, her still messy curls flung out behind her. “Whatever are you two doing here?” They stood and she hugged them both.

Dr. Granger looked fondly on her daughter and her friends, then walked over to the front door. “Darling, I’ve got a 2:30 appointment today. I’ll be back in a couple of hours.”

“Okay, mum. We’ll be fine here.”

“That’s my girl. Enjoy your afternoon, everyone.”

“Thanks, Dr. Granger,” both of them said, and with that she left.

“So what’s all this about?” asked Hermione.

“Harry can do magic outside school!”

“What? That’s not possi –”

“Look, Hermione, there’s more things I need to tell you.”

“Okay.”

“First, let’s put up a silencing charm.”

“Bit paranoid, mate,” Ron said, but he didn’t really argue as Hermione cast the spells.

“It’s for our own good. Now listen, that day Dumbledore and I went to the cave to get the locket?”

“The day he died,” she said to clarify.

The sorrow of that moment was still fresh in Harry’s mind so that all he could do was nod in confirmation.

“Something else happened that day, just before we left. I … went back in time.” He paused, not sure how his friends would react.

Ron’s “What?” was very confused and Hermione’s eyebrows went up in surprise. “How, Harry?”

“I picked up this statue on Dumbledore’s shelves and it transported me two decades into the past, and I stayed there for nearly two months before it transported me back.”

“Right to the moment you left?”

“Yes.”

“But your body was still aging, correct?”

“Yes.” He knew she was a smart one and would get right to the heart of the matter.

Ron wasn’t too far behind her, either. He made out to be dumber than her in school, but he had brains, especially for tactics and planning. “Blimey. So you reached your birthday while you were there.”

“Yes, and when I came back, it seemed that the Ministry’s underage charm was lifted, so I can now do magic as an adult. The other thing, too, Hermione, is that the wards on my relatives’ house are gone. They weren’t there when we arrived yesterday. I did a few spells to check the trace, and nothing happened. No owls or Ministry officials showed up, and luckily no Death Eaters as well. It’s not safe for me to stay there, and I figured I’d start the Horcrux Hunt a little early then.”

“It’s a good plan, ‘Mione,” Ron said. “We figured we could make Grimmauld Place our headquarters while searching the countryside. I overheard Mum say its Fidelius charm is still active, but the Secret Keeper is now spread among all of us, so it’s weak. The Order is moving HQ to Neville’s Gran’s house. They’re afraid Snape’s going to show up at Grimmauld and lead the Death Eaters there, but if it’s already abandoned, they’ll leave it alone.”

At the sound of his mate’s name, Harry’s insides clenched and he closed his eyes to fight off the wave of anger and despair. He couldn’t think of those things. He had a mission to do, and he couldn’t let personal problems into it.

“That’s risky,” Hermione said without noticing Harry’s discomfort, “but we’ll work it out. Maybe put up some of our own spells. But do you want to start today?” Her speculative nature turned furtive, which Harry thought was not a good look on her.

“Yeah, tonight, after dinner. Is there a problem?” Harry asked.

She shook her head and said, “It’s just too soon. I need a little bit of time with my parents, first.” She gave Ron a pointed look and he lowered his chin in response. Harry wondered what that had meant.

She sighed. “Give me a couple of days, okay? Then I’ll meet you at the Burrow and we can go from there. You’ll have to tell your mum, Ron, that you’re leaving.”

“Yeah, not looking forward to it, but this way I’ll have a few days to convince her that the three of us have to do this.”

They all agreed this would be tough.

Chapter Two

A few days did go by before Hermione showed up at the Burrow, and in the meanwhile Molly put up a good protest against their plans to go out into the world alone. Reports were coming in, both from the Quibbler and from Order members, that Death Eater attacks had increased and suspicions were bandied about that some of the politicians were beginning to lean towards Voldemort’s side, spouting pure-blood dogma. Arthur had his doubts as well about the Ministry and things were beginning to become dire at work. He tried to keep his head down and his ears open, but he wasn’t privy to everything. Percy might know more, but, of course, no one was talking to him. Two of Molly’s arguments were that Harry was still underage and that he and Hermione would be targets with their non-pure-blood status. They couldn’t argue the first point without giving Harry’s bizarre story away, but the second they claimed as already true so why did it matter where they were.

“You’re more safe here under our wards. Besides, it’s not a task for you youngsters anyway. Taking down Voldemort is the job for Aurors and Order members together.”

“But Dumbledore sent us on this quest,” Harry pleaded for her to understand. “I need to do this.”

“And why would he send you and not tell anyone? No, dear, that makes no sense.”

The boys didn’t get anywhere with Molly, but once Hermione arrived, she had logical reasons against Molly’s objections.

“Mrs. Weasley, first off, Ron and I are of age and may go where we like. Second, you are not Harry’s legal guardian; therefore, you have no say in what he can and cannot do and within a month he’ll legally be an adult as well. Third, he and I are already targets. We are putting all of you at risk staying here. Wouldn’t it be better to take ourselves off somewhere remote and Secret kept?”

“No, you children need our protection. You must stay –”

“And fourth, the Headmaster charged Harry with finding some well-hidden artifacts that could help in the fight. The rest of you are too busy to look for them. Plus, you cannot detect them as Harry can, thanks to his mental connection to Voldemort. Ron and I are going as his backup, but if any more show up, it will attract too much attention.”

Molly pursed her lips, her eyes a bit angry. “I don’t like it. This war is not a child’s game.”

Harry got angry at that, letting a tad bit of his Fire nature out. “Well, then someone ought to have told War that before it involved me as a baby, or when I was fourteen and Barty Crouch, Jr. Portkeyed me to the graveyard so that Wormtail could steal my blood and bring back a Dark Lord, or earlier this month when Death Eaters were let into the school. I’m sorry, Mrs. Weasley, but Fate already has me in this war. I’m just lucky to have friends I can trust to have my back.” But not a mate to stand beside him, or at least not a good mate. Harry gritted his teeth again on that painful thought. Of all the things Fate had thrown at him, this seemed to be the hardest to live with. Harry was not suicidal, but he wondered if it might be preferable to die in the final battle then go on living with this agony of the soul.

Molly cast her eyes down. “I know, Harry. I’m sorry you’ve been burdened with this; we all are. That’s reason enough not to take on even more.” She wrung her hands and walked away, assuming that was an end to the discussion.

They left the Burrow anyway, barely pausing to say goodbye to the rest of the family. Ginny took it hardest, looking on with tears in her eyes. “Let us know how you are,” she told her brother.

She tried to give Harry a bigger hug. But he couldn’t stand to be touched by her now and didn’t want to leave her with false hopes, so he pushed her away. “I’m sorry, Gin. This isn’t going to work between us. Find someone else, okay?” There was pain in her eyes which seemed to match his own, a love felt for such a brief moment in time and then lost. He couldn’t stand it on her face, so he turned and walked swiftly to the edge of the wards.

Together, the Golden Trio set out on their journey.

***

They landed in an alley around the corner from Number 12, Grimmauld Place, and staked the area out. No suspicious persons seemed to be hanging about and the house itself appeared deserted but not damaged. They wondered if anyone had been here since Dumbledore’s death. Hermione cast detection spells, homino revelo and such, but nothing activated. The wards still felt intact, so they braved going inside.

The place was still as dark and oppressive as the last time they were here, but although there was a new layer of dust on everything, nothing else seemed to have changed. No break-in and no damage, at least. It seemed that neither the Order nor the Death Eaters had been here.

Walking down the corridor, however, a loud moaning arose and a ghostly image came floating toward them. Ron cast several protection spells and Hermione tried to disenchant the spectre, but it still passed through them. They all felt the Tongue-Tie Curse wash over them.

“What the bloody hell was that?” roared Ron.

Hermione was panting. “I think Moody must have put that in place, to frighten Snape if he showed up here and keep him from talking about the headquarters. Constant Vigilance and all that.”

“Well, it certainly frightened me,” Ron said with a huff. “Hey, Harry, are you alright?”

Harry was doubled over in pain, not from the curse, but from his own grief. He had loved Dumbledore like a grandfather, and to have been witness to his death was unbearable, multiplied tenfold by the knowledge of who his murderer was. Harry clutched at his stomach, fighting back nausea.

“It’s alright, mate. Breathe,” he heard Ron say. Eventually he was able to push enough items away in his psyche to go on functioning, but it wasn’t without effort.

Licking his parched lips, Harry murmured, “I’ll be fine. Just start checking the house.”

The other two gave each other an unreadable look, and Harry was afraid they were going to argue with him about staying here, but instead they just nodded and went further into the house.

It was abandoned. Dirty cups still sat in the sink. Books lay opened on tables and a lounge chair. A few cloaks were still on the racks, which Ron thought might prove useful. Harry got up and joined them. “I wonder what happened to Kreacher?” he asked.

Instantly, the old house-elf Apparated next to them. “Nasty blood-traitors and Mudbloods be sullying Mistress’ house.”

“You little piece of shite, you –” ranted Ron, but Harry cut him off.

“This isn’t Mistress’ house anymore, Kreacher, you know that. It passed to Sirius, my godfather, and then to me.”

“It should have been Master’s, not that filthy, no-good blood-traitor son.”

“If you don’t stop criticising Sirius and us, I’m going to have to order you to punish yourself.”

“Harry!” screeched Hermione. “How could you? You know my feelings about this.”

“Hermione, don’t. We can work on freeing him later; right now I need some answers. Kreacher, who is your Master?” He needed to know if the creature was loyal to Voldemort.

“He is being Master Regulus, a good and noble member of the House of Blacks.”

Harry’s heart ached anew. He had left his friend in the past as well. Had he wondered what had happened to Harry? Unfortunately, there was no way to ask the man, as a conversation with Sirius came back to him. “But Regulus is dead now, isn’t he?”

Kreacher looked sad at this, then shook his head at them, his long, wrinkled ears flopping back and forth. “No, Kreacher is not to be telling you.”

“Kreacher,” Harry said with force behind his words, “If Regulus is dead, then the house passed to me, thanks to Sirius’ will. And so do you. So tell me, what happened to Regulus?”

Kreacher wrung his ears in both sympathy and punishment, looking ashamed at his answer. “Master Regulus drunk some poison and is dead, Half-blood Master.”

He sat down in a kitchen chair and dropped his head on the table. Sirius had suspected his brother was dead, but he hadn’t known how it had happened.

“Poison? Why?” Hermione asked. She and Ron had sat down near the pair and were listening.

“Kreacher is not sure, but Master Regulus asked Kreacher to Apparate us to this lake and Master drunk the potion.”

Harry was filled with dread at the implications of this. “Did the cave have a little miniature island in the center?”

Kreacher stared at him. “Yes, Half-blood Master, that is the cave Master took Kreacher to.”

“And was there an item underneath the poison, a locket perhaps?”

“Ay, Master Regulus handed the locket to Kreacher and told Kreacher to be destroying it, but …” He trailed off when an anguished look overcame his face. He then started pounding his head on the floor.

“No, Kreacher, stop!” Harry ordered his house-elf. “You are not to punish yourself. Why are you doing that?”

“Because Kreacher is a bad house-elf and not destroyed Master Regulus’ locket. Kreacher tried and tried but it won’t break! It is evil,” he moaned pitiably.

“Where is it now, Kreacher?”

“Kreacher should not be telling you,” he said and began kicking himself.

“Stop that! We can help you destroy it; wouldn’t that be nice? You could fulfill your duty to Master Regulus and get that evil thing out of the world, yes?” asked Harry.

“You would do that for Kreacher?” There was a sudden light of hope in his eyes.

“Yes, we would.”

Kreacher nodded his head, then.

“So where is it?”

“It is stolen, Half-blood Master.”

“Stolen? By who?” asked Ron.

Kreacher started wringing his ears again. “That nasty, little thief stole Master Regulus’ locket along with other of Mistress’ stuff.”

“Mundungus,” Ron said with confidence. “That little mousy man …”

“Do you know where Mundungus Fletcher might be now, Kreacher?” asked Hermione.

“Mudblood wench,” he muttered.

“None of that; she’s my friend and you will respect her as a witch. Do you understand me, Kreacher?” Harry raged. He really didn’t like people or house-elves insulting his best friends.

Kreacher’s eyes fell a little. He looked both upset and ashamed. “Kreacher understands, Half-blood Master.”

“Good. Now answer the question. When did he take the locket and do you know where he is now?”

“He took the locket a week ago …”

“Blimey, so it was here the whole time,” interrupted Ron.

“… and he’s been in and out for months, but Kreacher knows not where he is. Kreacher could find out, if Half-blood Master wishes it.”

“I do. Thanks, Kreacher,” Harry said with feeling. Kreacher looked at him oddly at those words. Maybe the Blacks had never praised or thanked him for his service; maybe only Regulus had. Harry would be sure to correct this injustice, too.

Kreacher Disapparated to go in search of Mundungus. The others were left to continue their investigation of the house and put away their traveling items.

The basement held the kitchen and cleaning rooms. The ground floor held the dining room in which many of the Order meetings had taken place, a front foyer and a small living room. The first floor had another meeting room, the library, and the empty family tapestry room. The second floor held the smaller bedrooms. The third floor held the Master suites, which they all avoided like the plague, and above that was the attic room where Buckbeak had been housed. Harry missed those more innocent days.

Hermione took the front room on the second floor that had a beautiful view of the street and park outside and was clearly set up as a guest room. Sirius’ room was in the middle, still painted with garish reds and yellows as befitting a Gryffindor and exuding a melancholy of lost playfulness. Ron was prepared to share the room with Harry, but Harry insisted on him using it solely. Regulus’ was the back room, one most of the Order had never bothered with, but Harry suspected the twins had used it from the couple of Extendable Ears found under the bed. The room was bathed in deep emerald greens highlighted with beige trim, very elegant, and it soothed Harry’s soul a little. He decided to take this room to be closer to his old friend, and he did not miss the questioning look that passed between Ron and Hermione at his decision.

He could tell they were uncomfortable being in a Slytherin’s bedroom, so they all went back to Sirius’ to discuss their plans.

“So, what are we going to do now, Harry?”

“It looks like we can stay here and rest up, use it as a base. Since Regulus found out about the Horcrux locket, he might have written something down. I’ll search through his room and see if I can find anything.” Harry noted this was a good excuse for having Regulus’ bedroom as his own and he noticed his friends relaxed at the news.

Ron spoke next. “In the meanwhile, we wait for Kreacher to find Mundungus and get the locket back, but then what?”

“I don’t know. We’ll have to destroy it, but we don’t have the Sword of Gryffindor or anything that will work.”

“Well, I brought these,” Hermione perked up. She opened a little beaded bag she’d brought with her and started lifting book after book from it. Ron’s eyes grew wide and Harry suspected his own were the same. After glancing at their faces, she shrugged and said, “Infinite Expanding Charm. Anyway, I borrowed these from Hogwarts before we left. Many of them are Dark, so be very careful handling them.”

“How did you get them?” Ron asked.

“Yes, I don’t recognise these at all,” Harry said. “I looked for books like this while I was in the past. I didn’t know how long I’d be there but thought it would be a good idea to get some research in.”

“You did research?” Ron asked, even more surprised than with Hermione’s bag.

Harry looked a little sheepish. “Yeah.”

“I’m not surprised you didn’t find them,” Hermione said. “When I summoned them, they flew out of the Headmaster’s office, not the library. He must have already confiscated them, probably after the first Chamber of Secrets incident, not wanting other kids to have such black magic available.”

Harry had a thought. “Do they still have their library marks of who borrowed them?”

Her eyebrows went up. “Yes, probably.”

Harry started looking through the tags. “Yeah, look here. ‘T. Riddle – 16/10/43. Voldemort must have borrowed this book while he was a student. And this one, too,” he said handing her another book. “And this one, which, Merlin, feels really evil.” The one he handed her did indeed feel wrong, crawling with Dark magic.

“I’ll probably read through all of them –” Ron and Harry exchanged a glance that said they knew she definitely would “– but I’ll skim through these first. I’m hoping they will tell us how to destroy those things. We know the Basilisk fangs and the Sword work because of the venom, right?”

Harry nodded.

“We don’t have either of those, so we’ll have to find something else.”

“What about the other Horcruxes and the snake?” Ron asked.

Harry shook his head. “We’ll have to do more research about where to find the Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw items. I’m not sure how to lure the snake away from Voldemort long enough to kill it, but it’s got to be done. Anyway, let’s get some rest. We’ll have time to come up with some plans in the next few weeks.”

Ron huffed a little. “And I thought we’d have a chance to not study for awhile.”

“Ron, grow up,” Hermione said, rolling her eyes.

“You could always find something of Sirius’ to entertain you,” Harry quipped.

“Yeah, not a bad idea, mate,” Ron said, opening the side table drawer. “Hey, what’s this?” He picked up some parchment and a small ripped square. “Harry, this looks a lot like you.” Ron’s eyes narrowed while studying the papers, and then he passed the small square over to Harry. It was a Wizarding photograph torn down the middle. His dad stood in the picture laughing and smiling while a small version of himself flew past on a toy broom. It was a piece of happiness Harry did not remember, and all he could feel now was a pain in his chest. “Look at this, too. It’s a letter from your mum to Sirius.” Ron passed that over as well, and Harry’s hand trembled at his mum’s handwriting and signature on the second page.

“How odd,” Hermione exclaimed from over his shoulder. “It says here that Dumbledore was friends with Gellert Grindelwald. Do you think that’s true?”

“Don’t know. I suppose we could find that out, too, if we ask around. Does it matter?”

“Probably not. It would have happened a long time ago in any case. I wonder why the rest of the picture is missing. Do you think your mum was in it, Harry?”

Harry didn’t answer. He didn’t know, and all of his insides were aching anyhow, too much so for him to respond to her query. He gave her a dull look and left the room in silence, his friends watching him leave with concern on their faces, and he curled up on Regulus’ bed, shivering.

Chapter Three

Harry’s sleep was disturbed by more nightmares, images of his mate, wings outspread, flashing green spell light at him, that had him thrashing and screaming in Regulus’ old bed. Luckily he’d remembered to cast a silencing charm before falling asleep and, as such, had not woken Ron or Hermione. Not willing to go back to sleep, he sat up and rubbed his eyes. He needed something to distract him from the horrors in his mind and the constant itch in his bones. Since the books were in the other bedroom and he wasn’t about to disturb Ron’s sleep, he decided to search Regulus’ room.

The wardrobe was only filled with clothes and shoes: Regulus’ plain dress shirts and trousers, his Slytherin school robes, several pairs of everyday working robes, two very fancy dress sets, and a thick winter coat. In the side table drawers there were some business papers and periodicals. Regulus had appeared to be interested in banking and historical restoration works, not surprising based on his heritage and love of history. The desk held more contracts and lists of endeavours and “things to do” along with quill and ink. At the back of one drawer, Harry found a secret compartment. It was spelled closed, but opened upon his touch. He lifted out an old, worn book.

Sitting back on the bed, Harry touched the book’s lock and magic washed over him. Again, the lock opened for him and he turned to the inside cover. Words formed on the front page: The Personal Journal of Regulus Arcturus Black of the Ancient and Noble House of Black. It was his diary, and Harry found himself skimming pages of his friend’s life.

The early entries were about his family life as a child. He had been happy playing with his brother until Sirius had been sorted into Slytherin. Harry flipped past the next few years while Regulus was in school, knowing it would just have trivial passages of his schoolboy activities. He paused and read a little bit from the December days they had spent together.

… a new kid named Harry who keeps to himself mostly. His eyes are both friendly and distrustful. I’ve never met someone who’s so wary of others except my father and his colleagues, certainly not a student. What does he know? What are his secrets? He was studying the Founders in the library, not so unusual, but he was avidly looking for something. I offered to help him with the research. Maybe I’ll find out what’s so strange about him.

and another

Harry’s so odd. He’s very friendly and lively with me, but there is much that he keeps guarded. I do not think he’s from an American school as he claims; he seems to know too much about England, some of the little things he lets slip from time to time. He’s interested in Severus, too, which is a very strange thing as most people avoid Severus if they can and try not to make his acquaintance. Severus is harsh, I’ll grant him that, but mostly he’s just had a bad time of it. He complains about going home every summer, and he’s always filled with eagerness to get back to Hogwarts after that. His family is poor, too, I know, and it doesn’t help his attitude. Of course those damn Marauders don’t help either. Just the other day …

Harry didn’t want to read more about them, so he jumped ahead to January.

… Severus acting so strange. He snarls at everyone! I just don’t know what’s gotten into him. And Harry, too, is starting fights all over the school. It’s like they’ve both gone mad. Maybe that attack over the Christmas hols did more than just scare them. I don’t know.

and later

Severus collapsed in class and was sent to the infirmary. We have no idea what happened.

and a few days after that

Damn it. Severus won’t talk to me, except to snarl in my face! This is starting to get old.

and another

Great. Now Harry’s been taken to see Pomfrey as well, and she won’t let me see him. I’m really scared for my two friends. And it’s got to be the Marauders’ fault.

and a day later

Yep, it’s their fault. Harry and Severus practically confirmed it. We’ll have to devise a plan to get back at them, but they won’t talk to me. It’s like I don’t matter anymore. And they are both grumpy as hell.

and then the day after Harry and Severus’ joining, he read this entry

Well, this is new. My friends emerged from their dorms today smiling. So far they’ve been nice and easy-going and much less antagonistic. It’s as if they’ve been hit with a personality reversal spell — such the oddest thing. I might have to investigate and find out what I can.

and a later

So Harry confirmed it; he and Severus are dating. No wonder they both look happy. And I’m happy for them, but it strikes me as strange that they would go from hateful to joyful in the span of one evening. Snogging might be nice and all, but it couldn’t have altered their outlooks so drastically. Unless it countered whatever curse the Marauders placed on Severus to begin with. Yes, that makes more sense.

Harry then skipped another few pages in the diary to just after he had vanished.

No one knows where Harry is. He vanished from his bed in Hufflepuff one night and hasn’t been seen since. Reports from that house say the Headmaster had his stuff removed from the dorm he was in and there is no word from any of the teachers in our classes.

Severus is beside himself with absolute fury. He’s knocked over antiques and broken some furniture. He scowled at all of us today, including the professors, and even went so far as to slam his book closed in History and storm out of the classroom. I’ve never seen him so irritated.

and about a week later

He’s gone. We are all certain that Harry has left England. No one’s seen him or heard from him; there’s no mention of his family anywhere. It’s like he’s just vanished into thin air. And Severus is not taking this well, which I don’t blame him, seeing as they had just started a romantic liaison. One just doesn’t up and leave one’s boyfriend with no notice. Severus finally confided in me that he had been meeting Harry every night after curfew, and that they were supposed to meet again that night, but Harry never showed. Some suspect he was spirited away. Normally I would refute such a claim — a silly Muggle idea, really — but one just doesn’t leave like that. Severus has gone off to sulk, and I feel sad, too. I miss Harry. He lit a fire in this school.

Harry was a little taken aback by this last, which hit so near the truth of his nature that he wondered how many people already knew or suspected his Veela heritage. Sighing he wondered how long he could keep it a secret.

Returning to the journal, Harry thumbed through several more pages, but most of it centered on his upcoming O.W.L.s. Then this passage captured his attention.

By now, dear diary, you know that Severus has been in a foul mood ever since Harry went missing. Well, it seems that foulness has led him to hanging around those dirty little buggers, Mulciber and Avery, again, and I suspect he’s been playing around with Dark magic. Not that I’m opposed, mind you, as my family uses it enough, but I never thought the loss of a single love interest could turn someone so completely cruel. All traces of prior humour in my friend are gone. A stern, cold look has replaced the guarded curiosity. I fear this may be a change for the worse.

Harry was upset by these words. Had he caused Snape to become an arrogant bastard? Had his departure pushed the man into the Dark? Harry began hurting more. He closed the diary and lay back down on his side, curled up and holding himself while shivering from the possible repercussions of his actions. He didn’t sleep again that night.

***

The following days were spent touring the house, reading books, examining all the facts about Horcruxes Harry knew, and outlining plans of attack. Since they were almost sure that the locket Regulus had recovered was Slytherin’s, they concentrated their efforts into further research about Rowena Ravenclaw and Helga Hufflepuff and their prized possessions.

“The Black family is really old,” Harry told them, “so they might have some recollections from a thousand years ago about the Founders.”

“Oh, good thinking,” Hermione congratulated him. “It would be wonderful to find some sources that dated back that far.”

“Maybe we can find more info about the Headmaster and Gellert Grindelwald, too,” Ron added.

“Yeah.”

So they all searched through the library as well as all the bedrooms for books, journals, newspapers and any other pieces of paper that might provide insights into the past. Although Harry had a great source of material in Regulus’ diary, he was reluctant to share it with his friends for fear that Hermione would confiscate it and pore over every entry, harking on the ones that mentioned ‘Harry Peverell’ and confronting him with those. No, best to keep it to himself for now and continue reading it on his own. If there were significant passages pertaining to the Founders or Tom Riddle or the Horcruxes, then and only then would he even consider letting the others know of its existence.

They did come across several ancient volumes on the Black lineage and their political and economic dealings within the greater magical community dating back to the fall of Rome. It seemed pretty dry just like their History of Magic courses, but Hermione was determined to catalogue every possible lead. Ron did find a few journals in the master bedrooms, one that belonged to Cygnus Black and the others from older generations, which looked promising.

“What say you and I take these, Harry, and leave the bank accounts for her?”

“Sounds good. I’ll take Cygnus’ and one other and you can have those three.”

“Afraid of a little research?” quipped Hermione from her place at the table, already surrounded by piles of parchment.

“No,” Ron said sweetly, “Only afraid of burning my eyes out or my brain exploding from overload.”

Hermione shot him a scathing look.

Harry burst out in a grin, the first one he’d had since the past.

***

“It says here that Helga Hufflepuff was very fond of her pottery and china, scouring lands on holiday looking for the most unique pieces of glassware or porcelain in existence. She brought many a treasured item back to Hogwarts that were put on display year-round and then used for special occasions or when state or foreign dignitaries visited. She seemed to covet beautiful items and even offered to buy some …” Ron looked more closely in the journal he was holding “… Czeckpolt? chafing dishes from the Blacks, if this diary’s to be believed. Huh. So, maybe this cup we’re looking for is at Hogwarts.”

“That makes sense, Ron,” Harry said. “I was placed in Hufflepuff for the duration of my time in the past and saw many items like that on display in the common room. Haven’t you ever noticed that big display on your way to the library? Those were all her things as well, but none of them felt evil.”

Hermione looked thoughtful. “I hope it’s not somewhere in a dorm room, especially one of the girls’, but it might be.”

“I’ve passed by all the boys’ rooms and nothing unusual was there.”

“Did Helga have another residence?” Ron asked.

Harry shook his head. “Not that I can tell. ‘Mione?”

“Actually, the Blacks mention a cottage in the Highlands. A modest estate with goat farming. We should check that out.”

“Okay, let’s go.”

They Apparated out to the Highlands and scouted the area for her summer home, as it was assumed that she would have gone here when school was not in session, even if that may not have necessarily been in summer. They found several private estates that gave the same impression as the descriptions Black had given, but upon checking with their current owners, the trio was able to rule them all out.

Near the end of the day, they came across a small farming village that bore the name ‘Huffledon’ and decided to investigate. Sure enough, the Hufflepuff family had resided here centuries before and had left several landmarks about the town and their great house a little further up the mountain. Everyone was buoyed by this news. Hermione insisted that they examine historical records first, much to the annoyance of Ron who wanted action and Harry who was feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders more and more every day, but she pushed for thoroughness and caution and they caved in to her resolve.

It proved fruitful as well. Helga was mentioned as the proprietor of the estate and had brought family from Holland to settle there. It did not list a birth date but did give a death date, which was consistent for the time period just after the building of the school. Hermione got directions to the cottage and they left for there.

The place was fairly large, but no wards, not even a low fence, guarded it. Harry thought that was strange, not to protect one’s property, but this did seem like a nice, rural community. When no one appeared to be home, they let themselves in. Harry called for a house-elf, but none showed. He shrugged to his companions.

“Can you feel anything?” Ron asked.

Harry shook his head.

Hermione turned to him. “Maybe we should just do a quick walk through the house, alright?”

Harry nodded his head to her, then turned and proceeded down corridors and rooms, checking for any magical signature, especially an evil one.

“Oh, how pretty!” exclaimed Hermione about twenty minutes later. She pointed the boys to a whole set of tableware that shone with gold.

“Wow,” Ron said with both appreciation and a bit of greed in his eyes. “That is a nice set. But one cup seems to be missing. Do you think it’s the one we’re looking for?”

All of them examined the pieces.

“Oh, yes, maybe. These three cups have etchings in the metal — of eagles, griffons and snakes. The one for badgers is not here.” Hermione took notes as she pointed this out.

“Could she have taken it with her to Hogwarts?” asked Harry.

“Quite possibly.”

“So we’re back to searching the dorms or the teachers’ quarters, because there’s nothing here. Great.”

“No one said hunting was easy, mate,” Ron said in reassurance.

They took their leave quietly once they had finished circling through the area outside the house. Nothing evil touched his soul from without, but it was already roiling with anger and betrayal from within, which had festered for almost a month now. It scared him. He wondered if he would go as dark as Snape seemed to have.

Chapter Four

Harry had been reading through Regulus’ diary, skipping over boring school business and landing on more mentions of Severus.

… looking forward to the coming hols, but Severus grumbled and sneered at the suggestion. He’s getting worse every day. He hates everyone and everything, except potions. Watching him brew is the only relief any of us get from his spiteful words. The pain from Harry’s leaving does not seem to have abated; in fact, the opposite appears to be most true. Harry has taken happiness with him, and there is none left for Severus.

and then the following June

… found him studying for his N.E.W.T.s. The ever present scowl is there, and if you get too close, he will snarl and hex you, but at least he seemed calmer than last term. Hopefully, once he leaves Hogwarts, he will be more at peace.

The next full year’s entries didn’t mention him at all, probably because Snape was out of school and on his own, while Regulus still had his final year to wade through. There was one brief mention that Snape had gotten into a Potions Mastery one-year course that would lead to an apprenticeship and then full-on acceptance into the Guild of Masters if his work was acceptable. Harry knew he’d been found worthy of the honour, but this did not make him feel better about his mate, so he skipped ahead to other entries.

He was mesmerized for a while with Regulus’ discussion about various Death Eaters he met after leaving school, some from his parents’ contacts, some as get-togethers with Snape, and some from meetings he himself had proposed individually. It was both interesting and horrible to read about their pure-blooded biases, how they talked about Muggles and magical superiority. If that was the basis for them joining Voldemort, Harry was beginning to understand why even though he did not agree with them.

Several passages did mention Snape’s potions work and both their growing interest in the Dark Arts. Even Regulus was finding it fascinating in a way his earlier self had not.

Then we encountered a curse to induce stomachaches. Originally it had been developed as a way to cause vomiting in children who had ingested harmful potions, but altered a bit, it could be very useful against one’s enemies. I watched Lucius Malfoy use it against a political rival who could not present his arguments the day of the proposed legislation due to the effects of this curse, and thus the law was passed unimpeded. Such discreetly placed ingenuity ….

Harry was sickened by his friend’s change of heart, but he could see the pattern now, a slow slide into Darkness, inch by inch with each new discussion, each new spell. He put the diary aside for a day. His insides had knotted themselves tight with grief and he needed to distance himself from his ‘old’ friends.

He did return to the book, quickly scanning pages for any mention of the Horcruxes, skipping details about Regulus’ acceptance into the Death Eaters and some of their earlier exploits. He figured any notes about the Horcruxes would be at the back, set to parchment just before he went to die. Sure enough, he found them near the end of the journal.

The man is utterly mad! He thinks to make himself immortal — not that he’s the first to try, mind you, but no one’s ever succeeded. He’s asked Severus to invent some potions, but it would be hard to test their resiliency. Oh, sure, you could administer the potion to a crup and see if you could kill it, but the long-term effects would not be known for years, decades, maybe even centuries. Some of the others have been tasked with finding ancient spells or making up new ones to extend life. I’ve been asked to look into magical artifacts. Not sure what I’m going to find, if anything.

then a later entry

He’s managed it, I know he has. Although the rest of us have come up with nothing, he has been very smug the last few weeks. I wonder what he found.

and then the passage most important appeared

A Horcrux! He has found a way to make a Horcrux, an evil artifact that houses one’s soul. I have read comments about them in my ancestors’ diaries, but no one knew how to make one, and it seemed to be dangerous. A great uncle mentioned something about two of his friend wizards killing themselves in the process — live forever or die trying, apparently. Well, the Dark Lord has no qualms about killing anyone else, but he thinks he can get away from Death? Not if I have anything to say about it. But I must discover what that artifact is first.

and the last entry

Dear diary, I think I’ve solved the mystery. A Horcrux houses a piece of the soul, which is broken off during a murder and kept safe within an object close in importance to the one whose soul will be kept there, and I believe I know what that object for the Dark Lord is: Salazar Slytherin’s locket. I remember Harry doing research in the library about the Founders, and Slytherin’s locket came up as his most prized possession. I’ve also witnessed the Dark Lord wearing such a thing over the last month. Astonishing. It’s been right there up until a day ago.

I asked Kreacher about it and he told me the strangest story. The Dark Lord took him down into a fearsome cave and made him drink some poison from a basin in which, once the poison was gone, the Dark Lord dropped a metal object. I believe it was the Horcrux. Kreacher’s elven magic kept him alive, although he was left there to rot. How dare he do that to my servant! Luckily, his magic allowed him to come back to me when called.

Well, I’m going to do something about this. I’ve long been growing displeased with the course on which events are unfolding. He is not the man I had hoped would lead Wizarding England back to our pure-blooded ways. He has his own agenda and surrounds himself with murder and torture as if that should be commonplace, and it’s not right. I keep coming back to Harry’s statement about working with Muggles, trying to understand them, and I’m beginning to agree with him the further I tread this path. So I’m going to stop the Dark Lord. I’ll have Kreacher Apparate me to the cave and drink the poison myself to obtain the Horcrux. And before I die, I will entrust it to Kreacher to be destroyed.

Merlin, help me.

and that was it. All the pages after it were blank. Harry felt his lungs constrict and an intense burning start in his eyes at the fortitude and bravery of his friend, who had renounced the Dark Lord in his own mind before the end. Why couldn’t Severus have done that, too? Was Severus so blinded by grief that he couldn’t see the evil he was doing? Harry was so mad at that man he could barely think straight, and he ached at all his losses.

***

Hermione confronted them both the next afternoon as to their progress. It was then Harry brought out Regulus’ diary.

“I found this in his room. There’s mention of the Horcrux in the last couple of pages.”

He handed the book over to Ron, knowing he wouldn’t be as interested in the rest of the passages as Hermione would be, and he pointed out the beginning of that section. Ron read them aloud with Hermione looking over his shoulder.

“Blimey, Harry! So Kreacher was telling the truth.”

“Yeah,” he confirmed, nodding his head as well. “Sorry it doesn’t have more information, only that he ordered Kreacher to destroy it, who wasn’t able to.”

“Who’s Harry Peverell?” asked Hermione. Of course, he knew she would pick up on that.

“That’s me,” he said a little sheepishly. “I befriended him while I was there.”

Ron looked confused. “Why would you do that, Harry? He was a Slytherin.”

Harry knew his friend distrusted everything about that house. He would not understand if Harry had launched into a familiar acquaintance with any Slytherin. Ron didn’t know Harry was almost sorted there, and it made Harry wonder how Ron would feel about him then. And Merlin could only imagine the uproar Ron would make if he learned Harry was mated to one, so Harry kept all that secret.

At least he could answer truthfully without revealing too much. “He was into history, saw me studying some ancient material, and introduced himself. Said there were some juicy stories about the Founders his family had in journals and was excited to share those with me. That’s how I know about the locket and the diadem, and now the cup makes sense as well, as there were references to her special collections.”

“Yeah, I read some of those,” Ron said. “Some interesting other facts in there. About that diadem, did you know that her daughter stole it?”

Hermione and Harry both looked shocked.

“Yeah, her mother and she had some big row over using the diadem’s wisdom to get ahead in school or business or something — the author wasn’t clear on what — and so in defiance, it’s suspected that she stole the diadem and went far away.”

Hermione asked, “Did they say where?”

Ron rummaged through some books and parchments. “They didn’t know for certain, but a short few days later, the Bloody Baron left for Albania. Really bizarre, as there’s some speculation that he was in love with … ah, here, Helena. Helena Ravenclaw. Then neither of them returned.”

While Hermione was busy scribbling notes of her own, Harry had gone cold, the blood draining from his face. “Albania …” he whispered.

Ron heard him and looked up. “Mate, you are as white as a sheet!”

“Albania, that’s where Voldemort went during all those years. We think that’s where he got the snake, too.”

“Then maybe he found this out and went to get the diadem. It might still be there.”

“But that’s a huge forest. It will take forever to search through it all.” Harry was becoming increasingly distressed with the level of hunting this was requiring. He wasn’t good at solving puzzles, and the added tension in his body from missing his mate was making him extremely irritable. “Dammit, why couldn’t this have been closer to home?”

“Cheer up, Harry. You can’t talk like that,” admonished Hermione.

“Why not! That’s the way I feel right now. Are you belittling my feelings, ‘Mione? Is that it? My emotions aren’t good enough to voice?”

Her eyes became wide and she took a small step back. “Harry, no! What’s gotten into you?”

Harry felt chagrined and on edge. He shut his eyes and pulled at his hair. How could he have snapped at his best friend like that? “Sorry. Just … sometimes it all seems so pointless and I just want to hit something.”

“We know you’re frustrated,” she said, “but fighting about it’s not going to help.”

At that moment, a crack of Apparition made them all jump, grabbing at wands and whirling around. Kreacher was now before them, holding a struggling, mousy wizard in a large, tattered leather coat and bell-bottomed robes.

“Hands off me!” shouted the notorious Mundungus Fletcher.

“No! Half-blood Master is needing to see you,” Kreacher proclaimed then pushed the man forward. “Here he is, the little thief.”

“I ain’t no thief!”

“You are and we know it,” Harry said, not taking any liking to this runt. He may have been an Order member, but he certainly wasn’t trustworthy. Added to the general unease about the man, Harry could now sense an evil presence. “We know you’ve taken several things from this house which belonged to the Blacks, Sirius in particular, which now belong to me. Most of it I don’t care about — you can keep it, and if you cooperate I’ll let you take some more — but I need the locket back.”

Mundungus tried to smile and lift his hands in a calming gesture. “What locket? What are you talking about?”

Harry was having none of it. “An octagonal silver locket about this big,” and his finger showed something like an O shape, “and has a big S on the top. Give it over.”

“Look, man, I don’t have it.”

Before he could prattle on more, Harry sent two stinging hexes to his shoulders.

“Ow! Hey, what gives?”

“I know you have it on you. Give it over and I’ll let you live. You can even have that whole curio of trinkets behind you.” He knew there were some Black family heirlooms there, but those were not important. If he had to give up this whole house to get the damned Horcruxes, he would. What did he need a house for anyway, when there was no chance of building a family within it? His grip on his wand tightened a bit at that thought.

Mundungus looked over to the back wall. “That whole thing, eh?” He turned back to Harry. “What makes you so sure I have this locket you want?”

“For your own sake, you should give it over. It’s evil.”

“Uh, then why do you want it?” Mundungus asked, puzzled.

“That’s none of your concern. Just hand it over.” Harry’s voice was steel.

“Nah, I don’ think I want –” he said, but he couldn’t finish as Harry blasted him back against the curio. Ron jumped. Hermione gasped and put her hands over her mouth.

“No more games, Mundungus. The locket … NOW.”

With trembling hands, he slowly reached into the coat’s inner pocket and pulled out a heavy chain on the end of which dangled a 2” diameter locket. Harry could feel it pulsing with something wicked inside, almost like a heartbeat. He flicked it out of the other’s hand and caught the chain with his Seeker’s skill, though he was loath to touch the little box itself.

“Now, get out.”

Looking slightly torn, Mundungus said, “But you said I could just take –”

“Get out! Kreacher, make him leave.”

“As ordered, Half-blood Master,” Kreacher confirmed and hurried over to take the mousy man by the arm. His smile was wicked. Harry could tell his house-elf was pleased by the prospect of throwing the thief out.

“Don’t touch me!” Mundungus yelped, then Disapparated all on his own.

“Should Kreacher go after him, Half-blood Master?”

“No, Kreacher, thank you. We got what we needed. You may go back to your other duties now.”

“Duties … wait a sec,” Ron interjected. Harry and Hermione turned to him. “What if we sent Kreacher out to Albania? He was able to find Mundungus in all of London, why not this diadem thing?”

“That’s a good idea, Ron,” said Hermione, congratulating him. “What do you think, Harry?”

“It would save us time. Kreacher, we have a new assignment for you, something else to take down the man who murdered Regulus.”

He saw a new light shine in the house-elf’s eyes. “Anything for that.”

“Okay, we’re looking for Rowena Ravenclaw’s diadem. That’s a circlet or small crown worn on the head. We think it may have been placed in the forest in Albania were Voldemort visited for a while, but we don’t know exactly where. It’s another evil thing like the locket, so we hope you can track it by feel, yes?”

Kreacher nodded. “Kreacher knows how the locket feels and can search for that.”

“Yes, that’s what we need. Thanks.”

With a slight bow, Kreacher Disapparated.

Ron spoke up next. “Well, that’s one less chore for us, yeah? So, the cup may be in Hogwarts and then calling out Nagini and killing everything; that’s the next part of the plan, right?”

“Ron, those are still big ‘if’s’, finding the cup and the diadem, and we still don’t have anything to destroy them with. I’ve read through the main books and there’s lots of information about Horcruxes, but to destroy one it says you have to put them beyond even magical repair, so normal spells don’t work. Only something really dangerous like Basilisk venom or Fiendfyre can do that,” said Hermione. She turned to Harry. “You’re sure that’s the Horcrux?”

Harry looked at the horrible artifact in his hand. The evil in it had not abated while they stood there, and the pulsing of such vileness was making his stomach queasy. “Yeah, I’m sure.”

“Well, let’s put it away until we can locate the others. We may have to go back to Hogwarts for that. Perhaps Professor McGonagall can let us in over the summer; that will be safer without the students. I wish we knew where the Sword of Gryffindor was. Harry, do you know what happened to it after second year?”

Harry thought back to that time. “It was in Dumbledore’s offices last I remember. He had taken it back after I killed the basilisk and I think it was just on display. I guess it just disappears from there and reappears when someone needs it.”

Hermione sighed. “Well, perhaps we can beg for an audience. In the meantime, I think we should pursue another avenue. You said Voldemort was using items of importance to him or to Wizarding society. Why not use places of importance as well?”

Harry’s eyes lit with understanding. “What do you have in mind next?”

“He grew up in an orphanage, right? Let’s go look there.”

“Yeah, ‘s a good idea, ‘Mione,” Ron said and Harry agreed.

They placed the locket in a secure chest in Sirius’ room, casting all manner of locks upon it. It would take all three of them casting at once to unlock it, thanks to Hermione’s knowledge of complex charms. No one was going to steal it again.

***

The next day they went to the orphanage in London where Tom Marvolo Riddle grew up. There wasn’t much left of the old place; instead, there was a high-rise office building on the property.

“Great, we’re going to find a lot in here,” Ron said with a bit of sarcasm.

“So much for heritage sites; this is all modern Muggle architecture. I doubt he would have returned here after all. What do you think, Harry? Sense anything?”

Harry felt with his magic around and through the building, looking for anything out of place or a magical signature concealing an artifact, but there was nothing on the lowest level. He shook his head then went over to the doors and peeked in. A few people walked by and some cars honked at each other. The place was disappointingly normal. “I see a receptionist and a security guard. It doesn’t look brand new, but it’s not old either. Should we go in?” A man in a business suit glared at them as he opened one door and walked in.

“I think this might be a dead-end, Harry, but we should be thorough.”

“We just plan on waltzing right in?” asked Ron.

Hermione just rolled her eyes and dragged them into the adjacent alley so they wouldn’t be seen, quickly casting a Disillusionment charm on each of them as well as a Muffling charm on their feet and then throwing Harry’s Invisibility Cloak over all of them. “There? Happy?”

They followed the next person into the building, holding their breath so that they wouldn’t be seen. When the people paid them no mind, not even noticing the door staying open a little bit longer than usual, they hurried to the back corridor. Ron cast spells to notify them of anyone coming and Hermione cast Muggle repelling charms. Harry continued to search for an evil presence.

They decided to take the stairs, as fewer people used them and they were located in the back corners of the structure. It took them an hour to go through all the floors, only to come up empty-handed, not that they expected much anyway.

“This is rubbish,” Harry stated when they were at the top floor. “Voldemort would never come here, let alone leave one of his precious artifacts here.”

“That’s all right, mate. Now we know for sure. Do we have to go back out the way we came in?”

Hermione shook her head. “No. There should be a stair to the roof, then we can Apparate straight from there. No one will hear the crack, and we’ll be gone even if they do.”

Harry followed behind his best friends to the roof and then back to Grimmauld Place. He felt awful and weak. The trudge up those stairs eroded his stamina and intensified the itch, so that by the time they returned home, he was shaking from muscle spasms.

“Harry? You okay?” Ron asked, looking very concerned at him.

He collapsed in a chair. “I think I just wore myself out today.”

Ron gave him an exasperated look. “Mate, you would say that even if you were on Death’s door. Let me find you something for the shaking.”

“Ron’s right; you look dreadfully pale. I’ll make us all some tea.” She took his Invisibility Cloak and draped it over his form, leaving his head visible so they could watch him.

Harry only gritted his teeth against all of it.

Chapter Five

They spent the next few days at home reading through the rest of the diaries. They found confirmation of the Hufflepuff cup and Rowena’s diadem, but no indication where those items might now be. Kreacher returned empty handed — no sign of the Horcrux at all. They sent an owl to Minerva asking to visit Hogwarts and discussed ways to invite Nagini out to for a chat without her master, but everything was proving fruitless.

“Look, Harry, nothing is coming of our efforts here. Your birthday is in two days and then Bill and Fleur’s wedding is the day after that. Molly wants us all back to help out and she doesn’t want to worry about us while dealing with last-minute wedding preparations. So let’s just take a few days’ rest and head back to the Burrow.”

The realisation of his birthday on the horizon, a time when he should be celebrating with his mate even though he’d already reached that age in his body and magic and bloody inheritance, tore through his heart. He was shaking with emotional pain. He didn’t want to go, didn’t want to face all those people who were his family and yet not, didn’t want to pretend to be something he was not, a happy young man.

“Harry,” Hermione said, coming over to him and placing her hand on his arm in a comforting gesture. “What’s wrong? You haven’t been at all yourself.”

He yanked his arm away and stood up. “Don’t touch me!” He found himself panting; her touch had burned.

“Mate, what’s gotten into you? She’s only being a friend.” Ron’s look was both alarmed and annoyed at him.

“I’m just feeling bad. Is that alright with you?” he spat back at Ron. Without waiting for a reply, he charged past them and back up to Regulus’ bedroom, just barely catching Ron’s next statement.

“Something happened in the past ….”

***

He was better able to control himself an hour later. Ron and Hermione looked up from where they had been staring at the fire, both deep in thought. They had worried expressions on their faces, but before either could start in on him, he said, “Look, something’s not been right since I got back. Maybe it’s something with the time travel and the fact that my body’s out-of-sync with reality.”

Hermione dropped her head with a slight huff. “Harry, we don’t have the resources to investigate this. I would need access to a medical library and case files. You could go to St. Mungo’s or maybe the Department of Mysteries to –”

“I don’t think there’s anything to be done,” he interrupted her. “Let’s just go to the Burrow, like you said.”

Ron and Hermione shared a look that made Harry’s jaw clench. They’d been talking about him. He hated when they did that behind his back, but it seemed even worse done right in front of him.

“Mate, if you pass out on us, we’re rushing you to St. Mungo’s,” Ron said in a voice that brooked no argument.

Harry felt cold trepidation at that. No one could find out, and he doubted that the healers could help him with his condition since it was brought on by missing his mate. Besides, Voldemort was on the loose. St. Mungo’s would be warded, but not with the level of an unplottable. He knew his friends meant well, and without telling them details they would draw their own conclusions. “Voldemort might come for me there. I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“Then we’ll find a private healer, if you can’t control this.” Hermione pled with her eyes for him to agree to this.

He wanted to fight her, but he knew it was pointless, so he simply nodded once in small defeat.

“Okay. Are we packed?” she asked them.

They both rolled their eyes and produced their rucksacks for her to place in her bag of holding. With that they left for the Weasleys’ house.

***

Molly was excited to see them and greeted them with hugs and kisses on cheeks, relief coming off of her in waves. They found out that Fleur and Bill had been here all week, that her parents and sister were coming today, and Charlie would show up tomorrow for Harry’s birthday. With that the house would be overflowing. Harry cringed away from any touch but couldn’t escape Molly. He just gritted his teeth into a fake smile and endured the searing pain. Thankfully, she let go quickly. The others just gave him verbal greetings, although Arthur slapped him on the back in a fatherly way that left his wings aching, even folded into his body as they were. He was actually glad for the chores Molly gave him in order to keep him occupied, a good excuse to leave the gathering.

Mr. and Mrs. Delacour were generous people and Gabrielle was excited to see him again, but even those who did not know him well became aware of the tension in him and gave him a wide berth the rest of the day.

He slept fitfully in Ron’s room that night, sensations of fire burning him disturbing his rest. He clawed at his skin and whimpered, a silencing charm the only reason he did not wake up Ron.

Worn out, he got up early and went down to the kitchen for some black coffee. He was officially seventeen today, but he felt ancient. Molly had tried to ask him what he would like for the big day, but the only thing he wanted he couldn’t have. After she’d pestered him all day, he’d finally made up something so she would leave off. He’d have to pretend to like it, whatever it was he had told her.

Everyone wished him happy birthday as they saw him, one after another in a long litany. He smiled and thanked them and wished they would leave him alone. Dinner was a huge outdoor event, the crowd growing with Remus and Tonks, Hagrid, Minerva, Flitwick, Pomona, and Poppy, as well as a few other Order members. Luna and Neville arrived as well. They were all jovial and rambunctious, especially with Fred and George showing off their latest products, and the giant Snitch cake Molly and Ginny had made loomed over the table, like a sun about to fall and incinerate them. A big stack of presents sat at the far end. Harry hated it all.

After dinner, the younger crowd took to the skies for some impromptu Quidditch. Harry’s heart wasn’t in it. He wanted to be flying with his wings, soaring with Severus. Dreams of burning wings plagued him that night as well.

The next day was bright and warm, a bit too much for a wedding full of dress robes, but at least it wasn’t raining. Harry, along with Ron and his twin brothers, was roped into escorting guests to their seats, Aunt Muriel being the most old, which translated into being the most vocal. They had tried to disguise Harry as a distant cousin, but the potions and spells reacted badly to his physique (no small wonder, as he wasn’t completely human anymore) and the hair came out a bright red instead of coppery orange and his irises turned completely black like his mate’s. One look in a mirror startled him, so he avoided those after that. They finally settled on saying he was a friend of Charlie’s from Romania.

The wedding was lovely, he had to admit to himself, but that just made his own circumstances at odds with his peers’. He would never have a wedding, would never say vows in front of people, would never kiss to a clapping audience. As such, he fell further into depression.

At the reception, he stayed in a back corner, trying not to attract attention. Unfortunately, the elderly also decided this was a good place to go to get away from the music and dancing. He ended up sitting with Great Aunt Muriel and Elphias Doge, who argued about Rita Skeeter’s upcoming book, The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore. Harry was surprised and unnerved by the story of the younger Dumbledore, which just confirmed the suspicion his mother had told Sirius in that letter they had found.

“He would never have harmed poor Ariana,” Elphias was caught saying.

“I think if he was carrying on with that Gellert boy, then it’s not out of the realm of possibility,” said Muriel.

“But that was never proven,” rebutted Elphias.

“It was if it came from Rita’s source, Bathilda Bagshot. She was friends with the Dumbledores for years as well as being a great historian.”

“That doesn’t mean she knew everything. And I can’t believe she would say anything negative against Albus. Has to be that damned Skeeter’s doing.”

“Well, I’m glad of it,” Muriel continued. “It’s about time we had some truth around here.”

Harry sat stunned as more puzzles pieces came into view. He didn’t know what to do with them; he wasn’t even sure it was the same puzzle as Voldemort’s Horcruxes or that it even needed solving at this late date, although it was obvious Skeeter seemed to think so. He didn’t understand anyone’s motivations anymore, so he filed the information away for later when he could tell Ron and Hermione and turned away from the conversation and back towards the dancing.

Right in the middle of a song, a silver lynx flowed in amidst the crowd. The Patronus opened its mouth and said in Kingsley’s voice, “The Ministry has fallen. Death Eaters are coming.”

Everyone began panicking. Wands were drawn just as popping sounds of Apparition occurred outside the wedding tent. Harry went on high alert, looking around frantically for either his best friends or the nearest Death Eater threat. People were now screaming and running around, there was total chaos in the air, and dueling spell light began flashing across his vision. Harry started maneuvering through the throng but was jostled on all sides. He could hear Aunt Muriel raising her voice against the noise, complaining loudly at the rudeness of interrupting a wedding reception.

It was all he could do to keep from screaming himself, when suddenly an arm grabbed his. “We have to get out of here, now,” said Hermione with a tremble of fear in her voice but also a steel underlining that insisted he follow her lead. He looked over to see Ron behind her, and not having other thoughts in his head besides fight or flight — and wasn’t that last so very apropos now as his wings quivered under his skin — he nodded agreement.

She Disapparated them back to the safety of Grimmauld Place.

“Damn, that was inconvenient,” Run muttered once they were inside the house.

“Actually, it was probably perfectly timed,” she said. “They probably knew the wedding was today and that the Burrow would be opened to visitors. They came looking for Harry, I imagine.”

“Well, maybe they should have found me and we could get this whole thing over with,” Harry grumbled. He was trembling with the adrenaline rush mixed with his anxiety over missing his mate. Gods, it was getting worse. Had Severus had to live like this all these years? Regulus had indicated in his diary that Snape had become very surly after Harry had vanished. If this was what it had been like, then no wonder. Holding this in was making him bitchy, too.

“Mate, you can’t talk like that. We’ve still got the Horcruxes to get rid of, ‘member?”

Harry clenched his fists and gritted his teeth. “Yeah,” he said with some aggression.

“Don’t worry, Harry,” Hermione tried to soothe him. “There were lots of Order members there. The guests will be okay, and most of them didn’t know you were there, so there’ll be no need to torture them in questioning.”

“‘Mione! Don’t say things like that!” Ron looked horrified.

She just shrugged. “Well, it’s true. You have to face up to the fact that we’re in a war and those are some of the possibilities.”

“Well, don’t. ‘S making me sick.”

Harry agreed but didn’t add to the point; instead he changed the topic. “So, what now?”

“Get some rest today and then back to the hunt tomorrow.”

“I’ve got something new,” Harry said, remembering the conversation just before all hell broke loose. “Great Aunt Muriel and that older Order member, Elphias Doge, were talking about Skeeter’s new book. Apparently she interviewed Bathilda Bagshot, who was friends with Dumbledore’s family back in Godric’s Hollow. Did you know he lived there, same as my parents?”

Both Ron and Hermione shook their heads in the negative.

“Anyway, they both agreed that Dumbledore was friends with Grindelwald, and that something, too, happened with his sister, Ariana, way back then.”

“Sounds like we need a copy of that book,” said Ron.

“You, wanting to read a book?” Hermione said skeptically. “That’s new.”

“Stuff it, Hermione. I don’t mind reading if it’s actually interesting.”

Hermione bristled. “Mine are interesting, if you want to learn anything.”

“I can learn plenty, thanks,” said Ron

“The book’s not even out yet,” said Harry a little forcefully. He was annoyed at his two friends fighting. That was his character trait, wasn’t it? “What I was thinking was that we should go to Godric’s Hollow. Maybe we can talk to Ms. Bagshot.”

“I don’t know if that’s such a good idea, Harry. I mean, Voldemort’s going to be looking for you, even more so now than a week ago. He knows you’ll be out from your relatives’ house since it’s past your birthday, and with the Ministry fallen, he could try tracking you through the Floo network. In fact, we are going to have to be careful about that and stick to Apparition.”

“But it’s a good idea, ‘Mione. We were looking for places of historical note to Voldemort; I imagine Godric’s Hollow is pretty important. And maybe he left something behind when Harry killed him as a baby.”

“He didn’t die, Ron,” Harry argued.

“Something happened there, Harry. And I’m just sayin’ maybe he dropped a Horcrux as he was blasted by … whatever.”

“That’s still risky,” Hermione said.

“Yeah, but Ron’s right. We should check out any possibility that comes up. Skeeter’s book comes out soon. We can wait till then, let things die down, read through the book for any clues or details, then go visit the town. Okay?”

Ron nodded his head with enthusiasm, though Hermione acquiesced more reluctantly.

“Good. Let’s get some rest.”

***

They all took a kip, though Harry’s was far from restful. He shivered for ages before falling asleep, only to be thrown into a dream in which everything was reversed: Dumbledore was the enemy, Order members were hexing him, Voldemort was offering him sanctuary and Snape was enfolding him in loving wings. Harry juddered awake, panting and longing for a comfort he’d only experienced for a few brief moments. Not wanting to go back to bed, he splashed cold water on his face and went down to the foyer to sit and stare at the fire. It was the only place he felt calm anymore; the flames seemed to fill up the lonely places inside him. If only he could step into them and be consumed, made one ….

“I don’t recommend the pain,” came a sardonic voice from behind him that he knew all too well.

Acting on instinct and honed attack skills, Harry slid his wand out of his pocket while turning and cast Expelliarmus at the black figure, who dodged to the side and returned with an Incarcerous spell. Harry dodged and screamed, “Stupefy”, too angry to realise he should take cover first. “How dare you show yourself here!”

Snape blocked the spell with ease, sending it crashing into an antique sideboard that splintered. “Still haven’t learnt to fight, have you?”

“You bastard!” Harry screamed. “You wouldn’t ever teach me properly and now I see why, ‘cause you were working on his side!” Harry sent out a stinging hex, but Snape blocked that as well.

“Think you know so much, do you? You fight me with all the gusto of a Fire Veela, all pretense and no tact,” Snape spat, his own face contorted in rage. “Foolish boy.” With that he sent a bludgeoning spell at his mate.

Harry cast Protego but failed to stop it, his shield only dampening the blow to a non-lethal level, but it still threw him back against the bookshelves. His head beat against some heavy spines, his arms knocking over others. He distantly heard pounding footsteps that echoed the heartbeat inside his skull. He knew he was vulnerable in this position, so he threw himself behind the sofa, not noticing that his wings had unfolded when he’d lost control of them. He was close to crying at the emotional pain, but his eyes were burning with dryness. “Why! Why did you have to ruin my life!”

“I ruined yours?” Snape said with incredulity at the accusation. “Insolent brat!” He threw Reducto at the sofa, which exploded next to Harry. “You ruined mine first when you left me!”

A gasp was heard to the side and both of them turned to see Hermione and Ron’s shocked looks, wands pointed at Snape. Ron recovered first, his own hatred of the Potions Master reasserting itself. “Drop your wand, Snape.”

“Not to you, Mr. Weasley,” he said, flicking his wand in a non-verbal spell.

Hermione recognised it as Expelliarmus and blocked it as Ron cast his own Stupefy.

Much to their dismay, Snape deflected that with ease. “I haven’t come to play dueling master with the likes of you.” He cast a quick non-verbal spell over the both of them which froze them in place, then turned back to a recovering Harry, who was glaring at him out of the settling dust and debris.

“Oh, then why did you come, if not to take out your enemy while he slept?” Never mind that Snape couldn’t have known that they were all sleeping.

“If I wanted you dead, Potter, you would be dead, believe me. That is not my wish.” He made the claim with such calmness that it had the weight of truth, although Harry couldn’t fathom how that could be and his own rage didn’t agree with it.

“Then why did you betray us? You killed Dumbledore!”

“Because he asked me to!” roared Snape in utter frustration.

Sudden quiet filled the room. The three young adults stood there with dumbfounded expressions on their faces, not comprehending what that really meant, while Snape continued to stand before them, pain and fury in equal measures set in his face.

A long moment passed before Harry finally stated, “What?”

Trembling, Snape told all. “He was dying anyway. The bloody fool had touched a cursed ring and it was slowly killing him. He tasked me, in his service, to euthanise him when the time was appropriate.”

Harry’s eyes grew wide as he recalled Dumbledore’s blackened hand. “Oh, Merlin,” he whispered. He lowered his wand as puzzle pieces fell into place — the Gaunt ring, the Horcruxes, Dumbledore’s recent urgency in their lessons, his constant mentioning to trust Snape.

“Don’t listen to him, Harry,” Ron said next to him, still not able to move his body. “This slimy snake’s full of tricks.”

“Because you’ve never before listened to my reasoning,” Snape said. “Why should you start now?” With a flick of his wand he released the two teenagers and turned back to Harry. “I had hoped to find you here after the unsuccessful attack at the wedding and reconcile our differences; instead, I find you contemplating suicide!”

Harry looked at him with intense agony in his eyes. “It would have been less painful than this … horror,” he said, not sure if he meant his existence as a Veela or his existence without his mate. Both were burdensome at the moment.

“Um, yeah, mate, about that,” Ron said tentatively. “What’s with the red wings?”

Taking stock of himself and finally noticing that his wings were out and quivering, Harry reddened in embarrassment. He hadn’t wanted to reveal this to them, at least not yet.

“Still think our existence is a blessing?” asked Snape, mocking him.

Harry closed his eyes at the sudden ache through his whole body. “I thought it was when we were together.”

He heard Ron squeak out, “What!” and even Hermione tried to question him, “Harry, what is he saying?” But none of that registered as he was drowned in memories of the happiness they had had together in the past and the curse of what it was like now.

“I guess I was wrong,” he finally conceded.

“At last you begin to understand. Although what you have experienced in the past fortnight or two is what I’ve had to live with for twenty years,” Snape said, his own pain evident in the shaking timbre of his voice.

Harry put his hands to his face, trying to hide his sorrow there. He moaned. “I’m sorry, Severus. I never meant to leave. It’s just that the magic –”

“You could have stopped it! Or you could have left me alone!” All his years of loneliness washed over his face, the years of pain feeding his bitterness.

Shaking his head against reality, Harry muttered a mantra of “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I couldn’t … I didn’t know. I’m sorry.”

Snape cut him off. “It’s too late for that, Harry. We have a war to wage.”

At that all of the current problems came crashing down around him and Harry groaned in defeat.

Chapter Six

“It’s too much,” he said. “There’s so much we don’t know, and I feel time running out on me.”

“Harry, are you sure you should be saying this?” Hermione asked. She was staring, puzzled, between the two of them. Harry could see her mind working, but he knew she didn’t have enough facts to fit it all together just yet. She could probably guess though.

Ron, on the other hand, didn’t move his eyes away from Snape. “You can’t just give it up, mate, not on his word alone. He’s a vicious little snake, Harry.”

At that Harry shook his head, it dawning on him how much he already trusted Snape’s word over what he had witnessed in the Astronomy Tower. When he thought back to that night now, he saw Dumbledore’s calm visage and heard again his plea, “Severus, please.” He looked back at Snape. “He pled with you to do it, didn’t he, to kill him?”

Snape’s dark eyes bored into his own, and Harry momentarily thought he would take over his mind, yet after a moment, Snape merely inclined his head in a ‘yes’.

Horror welled up inside him. “How awful. How could he ask that of you?” He clutched at his stomach in revulsion.

With remarkable cool, Snape said, “It’s the same he is asking of you, to kill the Dark Lord. A simple necessity in war.”

Harry was shaking again, and he saw that Snape was shaking a little, too. “But it’s still murder,” he said, still unbelieving that Dumbledore would have trapped them both in such promises. “Is that really all we are, his pawns?”

Snape snorted. “I play more of the Bishop’s role and you the courageous Knight, but yes. He has been using us to win this chess match against the Dark Lord, and there are still many turns left to play before the game is decided.”

“The game can be won dozens of moves before the end,” said Ron, bringing the focus back to himself and Hermione, still standing by the doorway. “One or both of the opponents may not know it yet, but the choices are already set out.”

“Then let us hope this path has the best outcome. There are not that many moves left.” Snape sneered at Ron, but Harry felt it was more about the whole situation they found themselves in rather than at Ron’s chess abilities.

“But Harry did see you use an Unforgivable and then run off with the Death Eaters. How can we ever be sure you’re on our side? I don’t trust you.” Hermione’s voice was firm and insistent, showing no fear and only a trace of anger.

Snape turned his sneer on her. “Ever the brave lioness, Ms. Granger. Think what you will; I am used to mistrust, even expect it around every corner … except one.” He pivoted his gaze back to Harry, pinning him with betrayal-filled obsidian eyes. “I had hoped for more from my mate.”

Harry keened at the pain he could visibly see in him, the misery he had caused by not believing foremost in his mate, rather than in his mentor. “I’m sorry!” he shouted. “I’m still learning, still so new to this, and there’s no one to guide me! I sense now that you wouldn’t lie to me, but I had nothing that night to go on, only an instinct that screamed at how wrong everything was!” Harry was on his feet, fists balled up, arms and wings tense with frustration.

“You feel sorry for yourself for dealing with it alone for a few bland weeks,” Snape said coldly. “I’ve had a lifetime of questions and second guessing, then I had to console myself to the fate of the mateless, of drowning the itch and distracting the shakes.”

He shook his head. “Severus, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you, to hurt us. I didn’t want to leave, but I couldn’t control the magic that brought me back in time. Dumbledore said it would just happen on its own and it did.”

“Then maybe you should have left me alone and not mated us together!” Snape was screaming at him by the end, the others in the room forgotten until they both gasped, fully understanding what had taken place back then.

“Oh, don’t play innocent, Snape, you wanted it just as much as me! If you thought it was such a bad idea, you should have mentioned it, but there was something between us that wouldn’t be denied. I want you! I need you, even all through this past month when I thought you’d betrayed us. Please.” He didn’t know what else to say; he just held his hand out to Snape, as he had once done in the Slytherin common room.

Snape stared at the hand for a long moment, not moving, barely breathing, but Harry could sense the emotional turmoil underneath his impassive veneer.

Neither said anything and nobody moved.

Harry feared that Snape would reject him after all this time, so he gave a little more of himself. Raising his other hand to match the first, he said in a low, contrite voice, “Please, forgive me.”

The dark eyes flicked up to his face, gauging the sincerity writ there, and suddenly the air was clear and Snape gently laid his hands in Harry’s. Both men moaned at the contact, and Harry’s stamina gave out at the release of so much tension that he found himself falling forward into his mate’s chest. Both of them shivered uncontrollably in the embrace of the other. It felt so good after such a long drought. Harry didn’t even notice when Snape’s own black wings came out, but he felt them caress his skin.

He did register Ron’s squeak, however, and the shocked question, “He’s one, too?” He looked up at his best friends’ faces and nodded.

“Perhaps you’d better tell us what happened in the past, Harry,” Hermione said, her tone saying that she was a bit put out that he hadn’t confided in them sooner.

He pulled away from Snape just far enough to allow them to sit on the undamaged sofa that had been across from the other one Snape had incinerated minutes earlier. “I wasn’t ready to tell you this. I doubt I ever would have felt ready, actually. You should sit down.” They took his advice, and over the next hour he recounted all of his interactions in the past, with the Hufflepuffs, with Regulus, with Poppy and the revelation of his Veela status, and his actions with Snape.

Hermione listened in silence, though Ron weighed in with expletives a plenty.

It was Hermione that asked the burning question. “Why didn’t you just tell him, Professor Snape? Why have you let this go on for over two months?”

Snape looked away, almost abashed by her directness. “I have a role to play, am still playing. I had to leave with the Death Eaters to avoid suspicion and then spent the next week housebound at Malfoy Manor. Once released I did come here looking for Harry, but the place was deserted, and upon reflection circumstances appeared futile between us.”

“So why come back now?”

He was quiet for a minute. He didn’t say anything, just looked at Harry, finally pulling Harry’s hand to his chest. Harry knew that Snape had been feeling as lonely as he.

Snape glanced back at Hermione to answer her question. “Once the Ministry fell, it seemed like a likely choice of hideouts, one of the few places Harry knew of that was still under Fidelius protection. I knew the Order would not meet here any longer, as Mad-Eye Moody is quite a bit more paranoid than myself.”

“So what do we do now?” asked Harry from his position next to Snape, who then turned bitter eyes on him.

“Now you will tell me all that the Headmaster refused to disclose to me concerning your mission. I have three tasks that I still must fulfill to appease him, but I will have the whole of ‘why’ and ‘what’ first.” Letting go of Harry, though keeping one thigh touching his mate’s knee, he crossed his arms and gave Harry his best teacher’s stare. “What are you searching for?”

Harry looked away and licked his lips in nervousness.

Ron interjected before Harry could speak. “You don’t have to explain this, if you don’t want to, Harry.”

Snape turned his death glare onto Ron, but it wasn’t needed as Harry began to talk, “We’re hunting Horcruxes.”

Gasping, Snape whipped his head around to look at Harry with revulsion.

“What?” Harry asked with some alarm.

“Dangerous does not even begin to cover the level of Dark magic in those items. He couldn’t have asked that of you!” Snape seemed truly terrified of the prospect on Harry’s behalf.

“It doesn’t seem any more dangerous than what he asked of you,” Harry returned in imitation of Snape’s earlier sentiment. “Anyway, yes, he did, and yes, we are. There are six, we think.”

“Why six?”

Harry furrowed his brow in concentration. “While still in school, Tom asked Professor Slughorn if it was possible to break a soul into seven pieces. I’m not sure why that number, though. Hermione?” He looked to her in question.

Still looking between Harry and Snape, Hermione licked her lips and visibly went into lecture mode. “We know from Arithmancy that seven has sacred properties. Not only is it important in many magical spell creations and potion making, but it also has significance in many Muggle religions. Seven is the perfect number representing wholeness and infinity. He wants to make himself the ultimate being, immortal and all powerful, so it makes sense that he would break his soul into six little pieces to place in various containers for safe-keeping — the Horcruxes — and save the larger seventh piece for his current body.”

“That does reason out,” said Snape. “Do you know what these items are?”

Harry answered this time. “We know for sure the diary I destroyed in second year was one. Remember, his spirit took over Ginny and opened the Chamber of Secrets. And I remember how evil it felt, how it screamed when I stabbed it with the basilisk fang and it leaked ink like blood all over the floor.” He shuddered at the memory.

Snape reached out and put a hand on Harry’s thigh.

He looked back again into his mate’s eyes, seeing reassurance and concern there, buried in the deep pools. Before he could drown in them, he looked away and carried on with the explanation. “The next was the Gaunt family ring. Volde –”

“The ring? The one Albus put on last summer and –” he stopped speaking and abruptly stood up. Pacing, he began muttering to them. “That thing was vile, unstable. It had a curse on it.”

“That blackened his hand, yes,” said Harry.

“That’s why he was dying, why he asked me to –” He cut off again, clearly not able to talk about Dumbledore’s death, and Harry didn’t want him to either. “He destroyed it with the Sword.”

Ron piped in this time. “Yeah, ‘Mione read in one of those books that only certain powerful items or spells could destroy one, basilisk venom being one option, which the Sword of Gryffindor is infused with. Also some horrible fire spell will work.”

“Fiendfyre,” Hermione said, “but none of us knows how to cast it.”

“I do, but even so, it is very dangerous. It takes immense control or else the conflagration spreads everywhere without stopping.” Snape rubbed his face and the back of his neck in agitation, beginning to pace again. “What else?”

“We’re pretty sure Nagini is another, but we don’t know how to get her alone or how to attack her.”

“I might be able to help with that one. Next.”

“Then the other three, we think, are items owned by the other founders of Hogwarts: Salazar Slytherin’s locket, which we now have, Helga Hufflepuff’s cup, which is missing from the rest of her set, and Rowena Ravenclaw’s diadem, which is nowhere to be found.” Harry sighed at how desperate the situation really was, at how little they knew and how little Dumbledore had told them. He ran his own hands through his hair.

“You have the locket?”

“Yes. Here.” The trio trekked up to Sirius’ bedroom and retrieved the locket from its protective box, then Harry brought it downstairs to show Snape, touching it as little as possible. The evil aura still radiated from it, making his skin crawl.

Snape’s eyes widened in shock, quickly narrowing into horror, not daring to touch it himself.

“We have to destroy it immediately.”

“We know that,” Harry said in frustration. “We just don’t have anything that works. We were hoping to ask Professor McGonagall to let us into the school and get the Sword, or barring that, for me to go back into the Chamber and get some more basilisk fangs.”

“If you know that fire spell, you could destroy it,” said Ron, still a bit unnerved at Snape’s presence here.

Snape thought for a few seconds. “Yes, I could, but it’s too dangerous to perform here. We would need a warded room to cast in — there are some in Hogwarts — yet it would be better to obtain the Sword. In fact, it was one of my tasks, although Dumbledore refused to tell me why you need –” Again, he stopped, only this time he froze, staring at Harry as his face went deathly pale. “No,” he whispered. “No, it can’t be …” He said nothing else, just stared, mouth agape.

Harry’s eyes darted to the side and back, wondering what he’d missed. “It can’t be what?”

Putting one hand against his mouth, he pivoted away from the group and froze again. Harry thought he might be shaking, but he didn’t know why.

“Severus? Is something wrong?”

“Nothing, Potter,” he snarled back at his mate, Harry’s eyes enlarging with shock at the sudden bitterness and anger he heard there. “I have no say with Minerva at present, but I’ll do what I can.” Without looking back, Snape fled from the room.

“Severus, wait!” Harry raced after him, only to hear the front door open and a pop of Disapparition occur. He stood in the entryway for long moments, staring into the vacated space in front of the house. A chill wind blew, though it was the middle of summer, and Harry’s heart turned cold. Snape had left him. He shivered for what seemed like an hour, until Ron came to bring him back inside. All of him felt numb.

***

Harry raged for two days after. His magic flared, igniting books and furniture which Hermione and Ron raced to put out before all of Grimmauld Place burned around them, but he also took to physically throwing things, sweeping trinkets off shelves and swinging coat racks at any mirrored surface, everything shattering upon impact. His friends repaired what they could and, more important, tried to calm his spirit, but nothing worked, and instead they got caught up in yelling matches with him. Finally, his fury died out when he collapsed near the hearth on the evening of the third day, his body spent, his soul in tatters.

“Mate, maybe you should go lie down, yeah?” Ron asked.

Harry just shook his head, falling back into numbness, the ache in him all-consuming.

Hermione ventured into the room. “Well, I braved a Wizarding bookstore in Manchester and bought a copy of Skeeter’s new book. It’s a good thing I went today; they were almost sold out. Shall I read it?”

“Make it out loud,” Ron said. “I don’t think Harry’s in any mood to read such high literature.”

Hermione snorted at that. “Right.” She began reading and made it through the first chapter before dinner and another two that night. It was exaggerated writing and none of them could tell truth from fiction, but it distracted them all from the present atmosphere.

“Do you think we should head over to Godric’s Hollow then?” Ron asked after listening to the tale of Ariana and Grindelwald. “It would be nice to interview that old hag.”

“Ronald,” Hermione scolded. “She’s probably a very nice old lady whom Skeeter tricked into divulging neighborhood gossip. Don’t judge her until you’ve met her.”

Ron had that nasty habit of pre-judging people, and Harry could tell it irritated the hell out of her. He wondered if they were ever going to get together or if they even should. There were lots of days that they seemed to feed off each other’s negative energy, but now he wondered if that was due to his own Veela influence. It seemed his fate to never have peace around him.

With a sigh, he said, “I would like to finish the book first, have all our facts and questions laid out before we go. And I really don’t feel up to traveling just now.”

Hermione nodded in agreement. “Okay, Harry. We’ll wait a few more days. Let you get your strength back.”

“I wish Severus was here,” he said very quietly with soul deep yearning. Both Ron and Hermione’s faces changed to pitying looks. It was then that he knew they understood his situation.

***

They’d made it halfway through the book by the next afternoon when the front door suddenly opened. All three teenagers sprang into action, ducked for cover, and pulled their wands before the intruder had even closed the door.

Snape stepped into the foyer and paused, eyeing their drawn wands with disgust. “Still playing at spells? A competent wizard would have changed the locks by now.”

Harry’s face heated up at the insult. “How dare you, Snape? You know we don’t have that kind of magical training, but you hold it over our heads anyway! Why the fuck are you here?!” he screeched.

Snape gave him a long bitter stare before saying, “I came to deliver news that the Dark Lord has appointed me Headmaster of Hogwarts for my stellar performances of late. That actually feeds in nicely to my third task, which is to keep the student population relatively unharmed while they are in attendance. It also dovetails nicely into getting you the Sword and in finding a warded room to cast Fiendfyre.”

“But you hate me! Why would you help me now?” Harry’s eyes blazed in hurt as well as anger.

“What, pray tell, gave you the impression I hated you?”

“You just walked away from me with a sneering comment and more spite than I’ve heard from you all last year! And let’s not forget how you’ve treated me the previous five years, although you had to know I was your mate! How could you?” Rage overflowed from Harry, his magic swirling around in sparks that threatened to ignite all the ancient wood in the house.

Utter stillness came from Snape. He was not moved by Harry’s fury and was not intimidated in the least. Instead his own dark eyes hardened in bitter sentiment. “Oh, yes, I knew, from the moment you stepped through the door with the other eleven-year-old students in your class, ready for your sorting. It was only then that I understood what Fate had done to us … to me.”

Harry shook his head. “Then why be mean to me?”

“I am a Dark Veela, Harry. I felt bitterness and hatred at your abrupt leaving twenty years ago. How do you think I would respond at the prospect of seeing you again but having to watch you grow up, unable to touch you, to hold you, shackled from even speaking to you about our future, Occluding at all hours of the day from both of my masters, and burying my feelings as deeply as possible until the day you would come back from the past!” Snape’s voice had risen in volume, finally allowing his resentment to surface.

Harry felt a sharp twist in his chest at these facts. He hadn’t fully grasped how desperate was Snape’s position on this matter. There was nothing he felt he could do to make it up, either, except physically go to him, but when he tried to move forward and embrace his mate, Snape held up warning hands. “Why not?” Harry asked with confusion.

“It’s too late, and we have other matters to contend with. Go and fetch the locket and we can proceed to Hogwarts.”

Harry shook his head firmly. “No. It’s too dangerous to travel with the locket. None of us like to even touch it, and something else might happen along the way. Can we do it here?”

“I don’t think it wise. This house is not as well warded, and it has its own Dark magic inherent in its walls that might mix with the Fiendfyre spell.”

“I was thinking you could do it in the locked box we already have it in. Can you cast Fiendfyre in there?”

Snape thought for a moment. “Possibly. Let me see it.”

They walked up to Sirius’ bedroom, Snape sneering at the horrid choice of decor. For once, Harry agreed with him on his tastes, much preferring the more elegant greens, browns and creams of Regulus’ bedroom to the garish reds and yellows that were splattered all over here.

Snape zeroed in on the box, casting magical detection spells to check the wards for effective blocking of the cursed fire spell, adding two extra spells of his own to seal the container. “Take out your wands and be ready to run if this does not go to plan. Pack what you need now.”

Ron and Hermione, who had been silently watching the exchanges between Harry and Snape, suddenly blanched at the unexpected order. They had not considered that their sanctuary might be breached. With a snap from Snape, they hustled into action, forcing everything they had brought to fly in a haphazard order into Hermione’s sequined bag. When everything was settled, they nodded to Snape.

“Stand back. Do not try anything foolhardy.” He gave them his worst teacher’s stare.

Focusing all his might on the box, he cast. “Fiendfyre.”

As the box began to glow red, then yellow, then white, and finally blue, a horrible shrieking emitted from it. “NO! YOU COULD HAVE BEEN GREAT! YOU COULD HAVE TAKEN YOUR MATE AND HAD GREATNESS UNDREAMED OF!”

But Snape ignored it and continued concentrating on the spell.

“YOU COULD RUN! YOU COULD HIDE! NO ONE WOULD BE ABLE TO FIND YOU! IF YOU STAY, YOU WILL LOSE EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING! HE DOES NOT THINK YOU WORTHY, BUT YOU COULD TAKE HIM, MAKE HIM SEE REASON!” The box started shaking, the vibrations moving through the floor and walls so violently that knick-knacks fell off shelves and Ron lost his balance. Harry’s scar flared and he screamed. Suddenly the box exploded with energy, knocking everyone to the ground.

When the dust cleared, Harry, still panting from the ache in his head, got to his feet and looked around. There, where the box had been, was a charred mess of ashes. Ron and Hermione got up unharmed, but Snape was on his knees, wheezing.

Harry couldn’t hold back any longer. He went to his mate, wrapping his arms around Snape’s chest. “It’s okay. You did it.”

Snape could only nod in assent.

***

After Snape took a welcome kip in Regulus’ bed, the four of them reconvened in the downstairs parlor. “Tell me what you know of the Hufflepuff cup,” he started without preamble.

Hermione answered. “We know that it’s made of gold, shaped in a goblet like this –” she said, marking out a customary shape in the air with her hands, “– with the Hufflepuff badger engraved on it. We found three others, one for each house, in her home in the Highlands, but that one was missing. Harry says that he looked in the Hufflepuff dungeons and didn’t see or feel anything strange located in her display cabinets.”

“That will be difficult to acquire. I know of no one who has ever spoken about it. And the Ravenclaw diadem?”

Harry spoke this time. “Legend has it that it was lost, and we found reference to it in some old Black diaries that possibly her daughter stole it and took it to the forest of Albania. I know he stayed there for some time.”

Snape nodded his head. “Yes, with Pettigrew for a while until the ritual with your blood. You believe the Dark Lord found it there?”

“Yes, but we sent Kreacher there to look for it, and he couldn’t sense it anywhere in the forest.”

“It’s possible he brought it back with him,” Snape mused.

“Yes,” said Hermione, “but when and where did he put it?”

They sat there in confusion until Ron said, “Perhaps Peter knows. I mean, if he was with You-Know-Who all tha’ time …”

“Ah, yes. And I know just how to lure him to Hogwarts.” Snape’s face gleamed with action. “Give me two days to get settled as Headmaster and set a trap for Pettigrew. I’ll send my Patronus when I’m ready to receive you.”

“You can cast a Patronus?” Ron said in amazement.

Snape just sneered his worst and strode out of Grimmauld Place with renewed purpose.

Harry watched him go with renewed longing, which he failed to hide from either Ron or Hermione.

Chapter Seven

Two days later, alerted by a silver doe carrying Snape’s voice, they walked through the hallowed halls of the school up to the Headmaster’s office, not having expected to be back here so soon. Harry gave the password “green and gold” to the guardian gargoyle and they went up the spiraling stairs.

Fawkes was on his perch, cleaning his feathers and seeming to be well, while Snape attended to paperwork on his desk. “I had no idea being Headmaster came with so many … forms.” His tone informed them of his disgust for the Ministry-induced red tape.

Behind him was a large portrait of Dumbledore sitting in a high-backed chair, who greeted them upon arrival. “Ah, Harry, Ms. Granger, Mr. Weasley. Good to see you. Severus told me you found the locket.”

All three were taken aback, Harry most of all, having last seen this man falling from on high. “Hullo, sir. Yes, we did and it’s destroyed now.”

“Splendid. Any luck with the rest?”

Harry shook his head. “No, sir.”

“Ah, well. You’ll get there.”

Snape cut in with some heat. “He’d get there faster if you actually gave him answers.”

But Dumbledore had the audacity to chuckle. “Oh, my dear boy. How little you know.”

Harry could have punched him for that.

“Regardless,” Snape continued, “you need to make yourself scarce. Pettigrew will be here momentarily.”

Dumbledore gave a short nod, stood from his chair and walked out of the portrait. Harry had no idea where he was going and frankly didn’t care. The man had kept enough secrets from him; what was one more?

Snape turned to the three. “You all will need to be hidden as well. Cast Disillusionment charms and then hide under your Invisibility Cloak in that corner.” He pointed to a shadowed area off to the side, away from the door where anyone entering would not immediately see them.

The three complied just as the stairs began their grinding turn to let in the next occupant. They listened as a shuffling noise hastened to the door outside, then watched as a twitchy little rat scurried into the room.

It transfigured back into its human form, a very nervous-looking man with unkempt hair and roving eyes. “You sent for me, Snape?”

“Indeed,” he said, pinning Pettigrew with a cold stare. “It has come to the attention of Our Lord that attempts have been made on his precious valuables. You were around one of them, so I thought to engage your help in keeping it secure.”

“Oh, well, that would be such an honour coming from you, Snape –” Harry could tell Pettigrew was mocking his mate “– if I knew where it was.”

Snape’s eyes remained flat while he asked, “You traveled with him from Albania. Surely you have some idea. He did bring it from there, correct?” Harry had to admire Snape’s silver tongue; the man certainly knew how to lead on a witness.

Pettigrew shifted nervously from foot to foot. “Yeah, he wouldn’t have left it there if he was coming back, now would he. So?”

Snape sneered. “Since I have been made his second-in-command, it falls under my jurisdiction to look after such artifacts.”

“Well, good luck, because I don’t know where it’s at. He never told me such things.” Pettigrew sounded bitter at being left out of Voldemort’s plans for all the betrayal and sacrifice he made for his master.

“I take it, then, that it was already well hidden by the time he returned to us,” Snape said, trying to pinpoint a more specific time frame.

Pettigrew’s eyes shifted to Snape’s face and away again, beginning to turn nervous at the continued subject. He shrugged his shoulders. “Yeah, that’s right. He was so proud to reside in that forest where it came from — ggrrgrlglgrg!” Without warning, he put his hand to his throat as he started hacking and gurgling. At first, Harry had no sympathy for this worm who had betrayed his family, but he saw Snape’s eyes widen in astonishment, stand, draw his wand, and cast Finite Incantatem on Pettigrew.

Nothing happened, except the rat continued to hack in a strangling noise, both his hands now up at his throat. It dawned on Harry that something was wrong.

It was Hermione who finally saw it. “He’s not breathing.”

Indeed, Harry could not see his lungs expanding and he eyes were beginning to bulge a bit as he frantically looked to Snape for help.

Snape, for his part, tried casting Heimlich maneuvers and anti-asphyxiation spells, but nothing seemed to help. Then something like comprehension broke upon his face and he cast a very familiar curse, Sectumsempra, severing off the silver hand Voldemort had given his faithful servant.

Harry stared at him. It was the same spell he had used on Draco, that he had gotten from the Half-Blood Prince’s textbook. How did Snape know that spell? Thinking back over his own usage of that spell, it suddenly dawned on Harry that Snape had sung a counter-spell over Draco, one that seemed tailor-made to negate the curse. How had he known it? Had he … made it? Suddenly, Harry had a nagging sensation that Snape knew who the Half-Blood Prince was.

As lightning quick as these thoughts flowed through his mind, actions were happening fast in Snape’s office. Although the silver hand was now cut from Pettigrew’s arm, it continued to choke him. It seemed Voldemort had not trusted his servant to remain faithful and instead put a curse in the hand to turn on him if he switched sides again. Snape was trying a battery of spells to disengage it to no avail, while Hermione had stepped out from under the Invisibility Cloak and was spelling oxygen directly into Pettigrew’s lungs. Unfortunately nothing worked, and within minutes, the rat lay dead at their feet.

Everyone stood stunned for a long time.

Severus finally closed his eyes and growled. “Another annoyance, but truthfully … good riddance.”

Harry couldn’t agree more.

He had no more chance to think of that, though, as the silver hand released Wormtail’s neck and began skittering around the room toward them. They all jumped and screamed, aiming their wands at it and firing off spells. Cutting and bludgeoning spells just glanced off it, and fire spells only managed to spark harmlessly into the stones of the castle. It decided to run after Hermione, who cast a banishing charm with no luck. She skittered backwards as Ron cast Protego in front of her and bumped her head against the wall next to Dumbledore’s portrait, which swung open a little.

Harry was busy trying to cast some sort of containment field around the hand, when Hermione charged up to it and smashed it with a big silver sword. The hand screeched and howled as she sliced it to pieces, and she didn’t stop until all the fingers were hacked to bits and it stopped moving. She stood there panting as they all gaped at the spectacle.

“Is that what I think it is?” asked Ron.

Hermione turned to look at him and raised the object in her hand. The light glinted off the ruby-encrusted hilt of the Sword of Gryffindor. “The portrait swung open and it was just there, wanting me to take it.”

“That’s brilliant!”

“Thanks, Ron. What do we do now, sir?”

Snape pulled himself up straight and said, “We dispose of the body and I’ll report back to the Dark Lord, should he ask, that I sent Pettigrew on a long errand and he has not returned. You all need to think of where next to look for the diadem and the cup.”

“Severus,” Harry said in a small voice, still a bit shaken by all that had just happened. “How did you know that curse and its counter?”

Snape folded his arms and mocked him in his best authoritarian voice. “You mean the one you foolishly stole out of my potions text and used to slice up my godson? The one I created to fight against my enemies?”

Harry’s eyes grew huge as he took in everything Snape had said. It was his potions text. They were his spells. He was the Half-Blood Prince. Harry’s insides churned with the wonder of discovery, the lust of finding his dream prince, and the disgust of what Snape implied had been done with that curse. He had no doubt that Snape had used it during his early days as a true Death Eater, as well as against Harry’s father and godfather. Rage boiled through his system as he thought of all Snape had done.

“How could you! You’re a monster no better than him! One little hurt and you run to the Dark side so you could inflict your pain on others. I’m glad I left when I did!” Harry hurled the insult as hard as he could, his magic flaring out and slamming into the desk, flinging it back with a blast of flames.

Snape dodged to the side without effort, probably expecting this outburst from Harry, while Ron doused the fire. “Yes, I thought to inflict pain back upon the world that had left me with nothing. What was to give me any other pleasure in life? Only, I was naive to think that the world actually worked that way. Their pain was nothing compared to mine.”

“So you kept on doing it? That’s sick, Snape.”

“No!” Snape sighed. “The small satisfaction I received in the beginning did little to assuage my sorrow and only managed to drown me in guilt.”

Harry stilled at this admission. “Is that why you came back … to the Light, I mean?” He prayed that the answer was yes, that Snape had some conscience not to do those vile things anymore, that he had repented of his sins as Regulus had, or else Harry wouldn’t be able to forgive him.

Snape looked disturbed with remembrance. “Partially. I could not simply renounce the Dark Lord, as he had already bound me to his side.” His right hand moved to cover the inside of his left arm where the Dark Mark was. “But I began looking for a way out. It wasn’t until I heard the prophecy that I found the solution, that a mere babe would destroy him and set me free. Only, it turned out to be Lily ….”

Harry’s hands clenched. “What about my mum? You were no longer friends with her by then.”

Snape’s jaw hardened as despair entered his eyes. “He was going to hurt her, kill her. She had been my only friend as a child, even at Hogwarts, until Regulus and then you came into my life, both of whom I had already lost. I couldn’t lose her as well.”

He remembered his conversations from the past. “But you had already had a falling out; she had rejected you. Why care about her then?”

Snape looked out the window at the cloudy evening, hues of orange filling the sky as it darkened to night. Darkness seemed to descend on his figure. “I’d never stopped caring,” he spoke in a quiet tone. “I fled to Dumbledore and begged him to hide her, never realising how much I was condemning you all.”

Harry wasn’t sure he could forgive all that Snape had done, but his heart ached for the hurt he could sense within his mate. He knew that feeling, of having inadvertently caused so much grief in others’ lives. He and Snape — they were certainly cut from the same cloth. Suddenly he longed once again for his potions text, to feel connected to his prince. This man before him was so much a stranger. He thought about where he’d stashed it — in an old armoire on which sat an old bust of some unknown wizard wearing a wig and a battered tiara. A tiara that he had felt both drawn to and repelled by. A tiara that had whispered to him.

“I know where the diadem is!”

Ron and Hermione both turned, startled by his enthusiasm. “What?”

“When I hid the book, it was right under a tiara that I felt disturbed by. And it makes sense,” he continued as puzzle pieces fell into place in his mind. “Voldemort would have loved to have stored a piece of himself here at Hogwarts, and we know that he came here seeking the DADA teaching position which Dumbledore denied him and he therefore cursed the position. And he must have felt superior to have located other rooms like the Chamber of Secrets that the Headmaster had never discovered. It makes sense he would have found the Room of Hidden Things, too. We should go get the diadem right now.”

“Perfect,” Ron said, “and now Hermione has the Sword, so we can dispose of it right away.”

“An excellent suggestion, Mr. Weasley,” Snape said, gaining their attention. “I will see you all back here shortly.”

Harry nodded at his mate, not yet ready to forgive him but knowing that now was not the time to settle things. “Okay. We’ll be back soon.”

***

It took no time at all to gain entrance to the Room of Hidden Things, but it took longer to locate the exact armoire where Harry had hidden the textbook, as the room was massive. Once in its vicinity, however, he had no trouble detecting the diadem. It did indeed feel evil and whispered into his mind, pulling him right to the spot. “It’s over here.” The three of them gazed up at the battered tiara.

“Are you sure, Harry?” Ron asked.

Harry nodded. He opened the armoire and took back the potions text, hugging it to himself as Ron and Hermione exchanged another concerned look between them. That was really growing old.

Hermione waved her wand and floated the diadem down into her hands.

“You shouldn’t touch it, ‘Mione,” Ron said. “Remember how much trouble we had with the locket?”

“But this is the legendary diadem of Ravenclaw! Luna always goes on about how much wisdom it can bestow its wearer if it could only be found, and we found it! We can be smart, Ron. We can win this war. It would tell us the right things to say and do and it might even help us figure out where the other Horcrux is!”

Hermione’s talk had grown more and more animated, and dread pooled in Harry’s belly. “No, Hermione, we can’t use it. It’s cursed; it’s a Horcrux.”

“But it should still work! It hasn’t been damaged. Maybe a little old, but still ….”

“Hermione, it’s not a good idea.” Harry saw Ron, fearing the worst, inch toward their friend as he kept her talking. Harry could tell Ron was going to tackle her if she didn’t let up soon.

“You just could never see logic, Harry. Admit it; you never cared about studying or getting good grades. You two never had the desire for learning, so I see how you wouldn’t appreciate this, but I do!” She started to lift circlet to place it on her head.

“No, don’t!” Harry said to keep her distracted. At the same moment, Ron grabbed her around her shoulders and tugged her to one side just as the tiara was dropping. It missed its target and clattered to the floor, a high-pitched clanging that rang in their ears.

“Ron! What are you doing?” She struggled in his arms. “Let go of me!”

“Can’t do that, ‘Mione; ‘s too dangerous.”

“You have to destroy it, Hermione,” Harry said, his eyes and hands gesturing down to the Sword she was holding. “That diadem caused more trouble for Rowena and her daughter than it was worth. You’re smarter than that.” His eyes pleaded with her to understand.

She stared back at him for a minute, then looked down at the tiara lying askew on the floor. Her breathing had accelerated and he watched the debate happen in her eyes. At long last she nodded her head in slight acceptance. Ron gently released her, and she straightened, taking a firmer grasp on the Sword. Harry gave Ron a look and they both stepped back from her and the diadem. Taking one step forward, Hermione raised the Sword over her head … and hesitated.

“Do it, ‘Mione, just like the hand,” Ron urged.

With a shaking arm, she quickly brought the Sword down onto the tiara, slicing it in half.

A powerful screech, greater than the one they had heard come from Wormtail’s silver hand, rent the air, and they all clasped their hands over their ears. Large sparks shot out of the Horcrux as a black ooze spread over the floor. Pieces of old furniture caught fire and the three of them worked at putting those out until that part of Voldemort’s soul finally died. Relief washed through all of them as another piece was eliminated.

Just two more Horcruxes left to go.

***

They reported their success to Snape and Dumbledore, Harry noticing that Wormtail’s body no longer lay in the Headmaster’s office and the mess had been cleaned up. He wondered briefly if Snape had done it or ordered one of the house-elves to the job, but he shrugged off the thought. They had more important matters to discuss.

Snape sat at his desk in thought. “I have watched for Nagini at the last few meetings, but she has not been around lately. Having been sent on numerous excursions for the Dark Lord before, I assume she is on another such mission. It may be awhile yet before she returns.”

Harry and his friends nod in agreement. They all felt she would be the hardest to destroy, being a living entity and all, able to fight back and think for herself. “Any ideas on the Hufflepuff cup, then?” Everyone shook their heads.

“For what its worth,” Snape said, “I could collect the Founders’ personal diaries and read for mention of the cup in there. If the Ministry hadn’t fallen, you could have gone through the official records of the Daily Prophet for any talk of the cup or the Dark Lord’s doings all those years ago — not that I expect too much from that media circus, but it would be another lead.”

Ron spoke up next. “Actually, sir, we were reading Rita Skeeter’s new book ….” He trailed off as he realised that the subject of said book was sitting in the portrait behind Snape, so he left the title lingering in the air.

And Snape caught it. “The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore? What could you possibly discern out of there?”

Hermione licked her lips and flicked her eyes over to the old headmaster before answering him. “Well, it’s not exactly what’s in the book that interests us, but maybe something that was left out of it, something that Skeeter wouldn’t have known to investigate.”

“We wanna interview Bathilda Bagshot,” Ron cut in. “She wrote Hogwarts: a History, so maybe she knows something else about Helga Hufflepuff and her cup.”

Snape raised one eyebrow in evident surprise. “That is a consideration. When will you go visit her? I understand she still resides in Godric’s Hollow.” His eyes took on a pained expression at naming the town where Harry’s parents had died.

Harry felt a twinge of anger at that thought. Here was another person who had known his parents and told him nothing of them, had known of all the links they had had in Godric’s Hollow and yet never offered to tell Harry about it or take him there. It seemed silly and irrational even to his own senses, but he still couldn’t get over the pain of how much information had been kept from him.

“We planned on taking a few more days to finish reading the book, just in case there was something in there, and then go. Maybe three, four days,” Hermione said.

“Good. Return to Grimmauld Place, finish the book, and visit the old woman; then I will come by the house in a week for a report.” He turned away from them, gazing out the window at the darkening sky.

Harry couldn’t take it anymore. “What? You’re just dismissing us? Like we’re your good little followers?”

“It is not safe for you here, Potter. The Dark Lord could stalk through those gates and into my office anytime he pleases, and he will most likely send other minions here as well. In point of fact, I am informed that the Carrow siblings will be the newest additions to my teaching staff. They must not find you here.”

“So it’s ‘job well done’ and pat us on the back as we walk off to face the next problem?”

Snape’s eyes narrowed in irritation. “That is exactly what I’m saying. Where is the concern?”

“So you don’t care about me? You don’t want us to stay together, to work together like we did back then. Why not?” Harry had walked forward and now laid his hands on the desk in front of Snape, bent over to place his face mere inches from his mate’s.

Snape sneered. “You are an arrogant brat who thinks everything revolves around you, but really you are a distraction from the tasks at hand. History is hanging in the balance and all you can be arsed about is your libido? I think not, Mr. Potter.”

“Damn you, Snape! You’re my mate. I’m supposed to care about these things with you!”

Snape stood, incensed. “We are in the middle of a war, you imbecile! We do not have the luxury of flings and bedroom rendezvous. The sooner you understand, the better your chances of survival.” He stopped cold, and a hardness came into his features that pierced Harry’s chest.

The man sneered, this time bitterly so, which turned his scowl disproportionate and ugly. “Get out, Potter,” he said in a low, menacing voice. “I have no more time for you.” Without letting Harry have a chance to retort, he billowed his robes in a quarter turn and stomped off toward his bedroom, slamming the door shut.

Dumbledore’s portrait looked puzzled, his eyes glancing over his spectacles to Harry. “What was that all about? Mate, you say?”

“Harry?” Hermione asked in a softer tone.

He screamed out in frustration, his magic swirling violently, exploding the desk and forcing Ron and Hermione to take cover. He then shut his eyes tight and reined in his temper; he wouldn’t hurt his friends. When his magic had quieted, he shook his head at the world before hanging it in defeat. “Nothing. Forget it.”

That was all he could say. He didn’t want to talk about his relationship, not with them and certainly not with Dumbledore. He was almost certain the old Headmaster had never known about his Veela nature and mating with Snape in the past, and he wasn’t even sure he wanted the portrait to know now. Besides, it hurt too much to even breathe at the moment, rejection and betrayal piercing his insides until he was utterly sick with it. He wanted to scream. He wanted to cry. He wanted to hit everything, most especially Snape. But the man was right. There were other things at stake, bigger things, like the fate of the whole world.

Still, it was painful walking out of Hogwarts, away from Snape and back to the loneliness of the abandoned Black residence. Somehow that was fitting, as he felt lost and abandoned again, too.

Chapter Eight

They spent the next few days holed up in Number Twelve, reading and listening to tunes on the wireless Ron found in Fred and George’s old room. Harry fidgeted and constantly itched, his manner angry one moment and sullen the next. Ron and Hermione both kept an eye on him, which was infuriating as well. He took to hiding out in Regulus’ room, though that only served to make him miss his old friend. Truly, he had few precious things in his life. Why did fate seem to want to erode even that little bit away as well? It was stupid, and when he caught himself in a self-deprecating stupor, he became angry at himself, and that managed to start the whole cycle over again.

Finally they finished the book, the last of which was a bunch of nonsense about Dumbledore being his own Dark wizard and deceiving the whole world against the rightful pure-blooded ways. Harry incinerated his copy and for once Ron and Hermione let the fire burn, halfway agreeing with him. They got some rest and ventured out to Godric’s Hollow the next day.

Harry wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, but the town was a quiet little village, probably not more than a few hundred Wizarding families and about twice that in Muggle residents. The place was quaint and it was hard to imagine Death Eater activity disturbing the countryside. They walked through the main square, admiring the shops and beauty of the flowers and shrubbery in bloom with late summer colours. The air was hot for August, but not oppressive. They passed an obelisk on one corner and it morphed into a statue of a man, a woman, and a baby. Curious at the magic they had felt around it, they walked up and read the transcription — In Memory of the Potters.

“Harry,” Ron said with some awe, “it’s of you and your parents.”

Harry felt another pang of sadness. These were more people taken from him, some of the most important people, and even before he could remember them. Sadness, anger, fear and despair all crowded for dominance in his being. He had no idea what to feel or say.

Hermione moved first and led them off the beaten path, using her wand to point to Bathilda’s house. It was run-down, overgrown with weeds, and looked like it had been abandoned awhile ago. The trio were about to go knock on the door when a hunched lady in tattered robes came ambling up to them on the street.

“Hullo,” Ron greeted her. “Do you know if Bathilda Bagshot lives here?”

The old woman didn’t respond, but she looked over them with intense scrutiny, gazing for an extra long moment on Harry’s face. The three exchanged worried eye contact, but before they gave up on getting a response from her, she pointed at Harry, turned, and began walking up the path to the house. After a silent discussion, Ron shrugging his shoulders and Hermione gesturing to go on, they followed her into the house.

It was dark inside. No candles were lit and very little light filtered in through the curtains. The air was stale and smelt funny. Bathilda, for that’s who she must have been, led them through a maze of furniture in the front rooms till they came to the stairs leading up to the first floor. She pointed to Harry and then cut a line from him up the stairs.

“I think she wants just me to go. I’ll ask as many questions as I can. You two stay here, alright?”

“Yeah,” they both said.

Harry turned and climbed the stairs after the old woman, who was already halfway up waiting for him. They finished the climb to the top in silence, and she continued to not speak as she led him into a bedroom. There was still very little light and the place was covered in dust. Harry had a hard time picturing her living here, but maybe she was so old now that cleaning charms were beyond her ability. It seemed sad and lonely. He hoped that, even though Skeeter was a right bint, she had been able to bring this woman some excitement in what must otherwise be a dull existence.

“So, Ms. Bagshot, we were reading Rita Skeeter’s new novel and wanted to ask you more about Albus Dumble –” but he didn’t get a chance to finish as Bathilda opened her mouth … and hissed, sending out a forked tongue in Harry’s direction.

Harry yelled and dove for cover beside the bed as a large green snake burst out of the woman’s body, shedding it like a skin, launching itself in Harry’s direction.

Harry dropped his wand into his hand, but he didn’t have time to fire before the snake struck again. He dodged, just barely avoiding being bitten. “Incendio!” he shouted, putting all his power into the spell, but watched as it bounced harmlessly off the great beast, only managing to infuriate it. “Shite,” he said while rolling away from the attacking jaws.

Confringo,” he tried, followed by “Stupefy” and “Reducto,” but nothing worked, and Harry was rapidly getting tired from jumping all over the room. The snake would beat him soon just from exhaustion.

Petrificus Totalus,” cast Hermione as she bounded through the doorway, Ron right behind her. All three of them cast hexes and curses at it, which helped in diverting its attention between them, but none of the spells made one knut of difference to the snake.

As it slithered and attacked Harry again, its massive length slammed into Hermione, throwing her back into Ron and the two of them landed on the floor, her beaded bag jostling out of her hands and landing next to him.

Harry continued using his wand as a flamethrower, trying to set the snake on fire, and although it wasn’t burning, it didn’t like the flames much, hissing at Harry and trying to strike at him from all angles. All of a sudden a flash shot through the air and the great snake let out a tremendous scream as blood poured out everywhere. Harry lifted his arm to shield himself from the worst of it, but it still managed to soak his clothes.

When he didn’t feel any more wetness, he looked up to find Ron wielding the Sword of Gryffindor and standing over the snake, breath coming hard. “You alright, mate?” he asked Harry.

Harry nodded. “Yeah, think so. Hermione?”

Hermione moaned, but picked herself up off the floor. “I’m okay. Just had the wind knocked out of me.” She looked around and summoned her bag back to her. “Nice job, Ron.”

It seemed that his accomplishment finally registered in Ron’s eyes, which glowed with joy. “Yeah! Thanks.”

“Well, that takes care of Nagini. Only one more Horcrux to go, but we still don’t know where it is. Do you think the real Bathilda is still around here?” asked Harry.

Both of his friends shook their heads.

Hermione gestured over to the body. “That appears to be her, Harry, or at least what’s left of her. And we checked out downstairs and found nothing but rotting food, possibly for over a month now.”

“Then that’s when we heard you scream and came running,” Ron finished for her.

“Right. So that lead’s dead. What are we going to do now?”

“Go back to Grimmauld Place. This place gives me the creeps,” Ron said.

Hermione quickly nodded her head in agreement, Harry agreeing a second later.

“Yeah, let’s get out of here before Voldemort decides to come check on his snake. He may even know she’s gone already, as their minds were linked when she attacked your dad at the Ministry and in the visions I saw of her watching Crouch and Wormtail in the Gaunt’s house.”

“Bloody hell,” Ron said in disgust. “I feel sorry you had to go through all that, Harry, although I’m bloody glad you saved my dad.”

“You’re welcome.”

Suddenly they heard pops coming from outside. Harry looked to Hermione. “Do you think some Muggles are setting off fireworks, or could they be gunshots?”

Ron was shaking his head. “It sounded more like the crack of someone Apparating to me.”

The trio brought their wands up to the ready.

“Maybe we should just Apparate out. No one would –”

Spell light shot through the bedroom window and hit Ron in the legs. “Shite!” he yelped as he toppled over sideways and dropped the Sword, bands of rope already starting to twirl around him.

“Ron!” squeaked Hermione while Harry sent a Stupefy out the window at their attackers. It missed, but that gave Hermione time to cast Finite Incantatem on Ron.

A red spell flashed through the room and hit the ceiling, erupting in a fierce siren’s wail. All three placed hands over their ears to block out the sound, diving for cover at the same time. Ron dodged the Petrifying charm and tried to cast Protego; however, it went up too late, and an orange spell hit Harry, causing his lungs to burn with cold fire. He couldn’t gasp. He couldn’t breathe, and his friends had fallen on the other side of the bed away from him, not yet aware of his plight.

Hermione cast Stupefy out through the window, and Harry waved his arms to gain her attention before she could sit back down. “Dammit, Harry, we have to get out of here! Finite Incantatem. Take my hand!”

But before they could grab each other, an Expelliarmus came from the hallway outside the bedroom and pulled Ron and Harry’s wands out of their hands. Hermione only had time to cast a quick pestilence hex on Harry before she was made immobile herself. Their attackers cast Incarcerous on all three of them and then lit the room to get a good look at their prizes.

“Ooooh, a nice little ginger-haired one! I want me some Irish arse.”

“Three o’ them! We hit tha’ off early. And you, Scabior, did’na think it was worth puttin’ a trace abou’ his name.”

“Yeah, well, I didn’t think there was too many folk who’ll say it. But I can be proved wrong.” The one called Scabior walked around them. “Especially for a nice wench like this. Hullo, luv!” he said to Hermione, reaching up with a finger and stroking her cheek.

“Don’t touch me,” she said, shifting to get away from him, but the ropes gave her little movement.

“You can have that one while I take the ginger one once we get them all sorted. Gotta get paid first.”

“I’m not sure I want to give this pretty one up to those wankers, Selwyn.”

“Ma’be not, bu’ wha’ we gon’na do wi’ the ugly one?” the third asked. “I don’ want ‘im, an’ I doubt he’d bring a good price a’ the market.”

Scabior thought about that, while the three struggled in their bonds to escape. “I guess we should go get paid, then we can negotiate for their use. Search the place first.”

They did, only coming up with Hermione’s handbag and, of course, the Sword. “That’s some big snake they killed,” Selwyn stated. “This sword’s might powerful. We’d get a handsome price for it, you think, Flagston?”

“Yeah, we can live good on tha’ gold.”

“Alright, then, let’s go.”

The scruffy men crowded around the trio, each taking one of their arms and Disapparating out of Godric’s Hollow.

***

They landed awkwardly in a large marble foyer decorated with only a few silver vases, one large gilded mirror, and floor-to-ceiling velvet curtains in a deep hunter green. Harry barely had time to register the large oak front doors behind them before they were turned in the direction of the grand staircase. Coming down the steps was none other than Lucius Malfoy.

Harry’s heart sank. They were in Malfoy Manor, the very center of Voldemort’s camp. He struggled more to get away, hoping to ignite the ropes with his fire magic, but they wouldn’t burn and their attackers cast stinging hexes to stop them.

Lucius, looking haggard and slightly mad from his recent stay in Azkaban, stepped up to their group. “What do you mean by bringing those to my house?”

Scabior hitched up his trousers. “Well, we was just watching the countryside for Potter supporters and found this little group in Godric’s Hollow.”

“You were supposed to take them to the Ministry,” Lucius said with disdain.

“Right you are, gov’ner, but we thought about making a trade and thought we’d come to you first.”

“Trade? I don’t see what you have to bargain with.”

“The ugly one isn’t worth anything to us, but this maiden here … she’s quite lovely, yes?” He stroked Hermione’s hair, which made Harry and Ron bristle at the indignity, and then he ran a finger down her jaw, which made her shiver. “I don’t really want to give her up, but we’d like to be paid. So I thought you could accept this,” and he held up the Sword, “along with the other two for her and a bit more Galleons.”

Lucius eyed the sword skeptically. “It’s probably a replica. Where did you find it?”

“They had it on them. Used it to chop up some big snake. It’s obvious it’s pretty powerful.”

Harry watched as Lucius’ eyes went wide at the pronouncement. “A big snake ….” He glanced at the three of them and finally took in their appearance. “Three teenagers on the loose, one girl, one clearly a Weasley and one …” he stared fixedly on Harry, which made Harry’s heart beat faster with fear. “Come, does that look like a scar to you, on his forehead?”

The captors looked more closely at Harry. “Tough t’ say. He’s right ugly.”

Lucius put his cane under Harry’s chin and lifted his head up for a better view. “What’s your name, boy?”

Harry knew better than to answer truthfully, so he gave a false name. “Dudley, Vernon Dudley.”

“A ridiculous name. It’s got to be Potter.”

“Harry Potter?” the rag-tag team said in surprise.

“Yes, I believe so. Bopsy!” A small house-elf popped into existence. “Bring my wife and son here. I have need of them.”

The little one made a curtsy and Disapparated away without a word. In no time at all she returned with Narcissa and Draco Malfoy, both of them looking the worse for wear.

“What do you want, Lucius?” she asked coldly. She eyed the six intruders with displeasure and sniffed at her husband in disapproval.

“We suspect these three are Potter and his gang. Draco, do you recognise your classmates? Isn’t this the Weasley who’s always bothering you?”

Draco eyed them all suspiciously. He gave no outward sign of acknowledgement and certainly didn’t act gleeful at the prospect of having his enemies at his mercy. Harry didn’t know what to make of that; it wasn’t the Draco he remembered. There was a sadness about him that Harry couldn’t place. His eyes fell away from the trio and he said, “I don’t know.”

“But this,” his father insisted, pointing to Harry, “isn’t this Harry Potter?”

Draco looked again, scrunching his eyes up as he searched more carefully over Harry’s face, but still he gave no sign of acknowledgement. “I can’t be sure.”

“Well, isn’t this the Mudblood you’re always going on about, the one with the fuzzy hair?” Lucius was getting more frustrated with every non-answer his son gave.

But something odd happened next. Draco looked at Hermione and his eyes widened, not in recognition or anticipation, but in shock as if he didn’t expect whatever he saw there. Harry turned his gaze to her, wondering if something had happened to her, something the snake or Scabior had done to her in the past fifteen minutes, but he could see no difference. She was just Hermione. Surely Draco knew that, but instead he whispered, “No.”

Lucius was exasperated. “Fine. You’re dismissed. Go back to your rooms. Scabior, I’ll pay you for the sword and the snatches. You may take the girl and leave the boys down in the dungeon. I’ll send them to the Ministry tomorrow.”

“What sword?” came a higher pitched voice from off a side chamber. They all turned to see Bellatrix Lestrange taking in the scene, her black hair a tangled mess and her robes as black as her soul.

“Tha’ one,” said Flagston, gesturing with his head over to Scabior, who was still holding it.

Bellatrix took in the sight of the Sword and immediately started hissing and running over to it. “Let me see that!” She yanked it out of his hands and peered very carefully at it. “Where did you get this?” she shrieked.

“They had it on them,” he said, glancing back at his charges.

She stalked over to Harry, thrusting the sword into his face. “Where did you get this?”

“We found it,” Harry said.

“Rubbish! This was supposed to be in my vault! How did you get this?”

“We didn’t; we found it.”

Bellatrix stomped on his foot. “Liar!” Harry grimaced in pain.

“It’s true!” Hermione said. “Leave him alone; we just found it.”

Lucius asked her, “Bella, what’s so special about this sword? Why would it be in your vault?”

“The Dark Lord gave it to me for safekeeping. Why is it here now? Did you break into my vault?” she shrieked again at the trio.

Hermione was shaking her head in terror. “No, we just found it.”

“Mudblood liar!” Bellatrix yanked on Hermione’s hair and pulled her away from them. “I need to find out what she knows! Put those two in the dungeons.”

“But what about our money? And she’s mine!” Scabior said.

“This is more important than you, filthy mongrel.” She pulled Hermione to the middle of the room and threw her down. “You will tell me everything you know!”

Whilst Bellatrix threw Hermione on the floor, Scabior and the others manhandled Harry and Ron down to the dungeons. The teenagers kicked and fought and struggled even under stinging hexes, Ron shouting obscenities all the way. They could hear Bellatrix laughing with malice as she began to torture Hermione, whose screams echoed in the hall and down into their bones. Harry knew that sound. His own soul screamed that each day he went without Snape.

Harry looked back one last time at his best friend before they were hauled downstairs, and what he saw, besides Hermione’s tortured face, was a very scared Draco Malfoy watching the proceedings. He looked ready to sick up at any moment, staring in horror as Hermione writhed under the Cruciatus curse.

The Snatchers pushed them into a dungeon cell, closed the door, and locked it. “What fun you’re going to have once they take you down to the Ministry!” They laughed while Harry and Ron seethed at their tauntings. Soon, they tired of the sport and went away.

The cell was dingy with grime and Harry refused to touch any of the walls. Ron, on the other hand, had no problem pounding at the stones, yelling, “Hermione! Hermione!”

For his part Harry gathered up his fire elemental magic and tried assaulting the door’s lock. The metal hissed but wouldn’t melt or ignite no matter how much power he put into it. Harry clenched his hands in his hair in frustration.

All the while they could hear Hermione’s cries, muted but still horrific, and Bellatrix’s interrogation.

“Now tell me where you got this sword!”

“Nowhere. We just found it.”

“Little Mudblood liar! You stole it from my vault!”

“No, we didn’t. I swear!”

“You had to have been inside my vault. When?”

“We weren’t!” Hermione screamed again as another curse hit.

“You were!” Bellatrix screeched. “What else did you take?”

“Nothing!” Hermione sobbed. “We were never in your vault!”

“You had to have been. This is the Sword of Gryffindor!”

“No, it’s a fake. A fake!”

Bellatrix refused to believe her and another round of screaming began.

Ron was beside himself with worry. “We have to get out of here. We have to go to her!”

Harry nodded his head in agreement. “I know, but they took our wands and nothing I’ve tried is working. There’s nothing down here that will catch on fire.”

“There must be something, mate!”

Just then a figure ran down the stairs and threw itself on the floor, sicking up all over the stones. The small amount of light shone on platinum blond hair.

“Malfoy, what the hell?” Ron asked, surprise and confusion writ on his face.

“They’re torturing her,” he said with anguish, still kneeling and holding his stomach in pain. “I can’t …” he said, gasped, then heaved more bile upon the floor.

Bellatrix could be heard shouting again. “You’re a filthy Mudblood. And all the world shall know it.”

“No!” Hermione screamed through more pain.

Draco clutched his head and began rocking back and forth. “Save her. Someone please save her. Make it stop!”

Ron and Harry stared dumbfounded at this other side of the normally composed Malfoy, but Harry saw this as a chance to escape. “Malfoy, let us out and we’ll go save her. Just help us, please. Malfoy!”

He wasn’t looking at them, lost in a world of terrible imagery inside his own head.

“Draco, please! You have to help us. If you want to save her, then let us out!”

At the plea for saving her, Draco looked up and into his eyes. Harry could see the unmasked heir to the Malfoy fortune, and it broke his heart. Draco, who had grown up spoiled and entitled, was now lost, watching as his world crumbled around him. He was terrified, alone, and didn’t know where to turn. He was forced to watch horrific violence and be trapped in his own home. And he’d experienced physical pain. Harry could see it all in his grey eyes.

“Draco,” he said quieter, squatting to bring himself to Draco’s level. “We can help you, we can offer you shelter, and we can save Hermione, but you have to open these bars.” He prayed that Draco would take him up on the offer.

“Yeah, and maybe help us get our wands back, too, else this’ll all be for naught,” Ron said.

“You would … how … no one wants me,” Draco stammered. His eyes were scrunched in pensive thought, trying to work out the riddle.

“We have a safe house the Death Eaters can’t get to; we just have to get out of here. Come on, Draco, please. Help us.”

“Harry, are you sure that’s safe with him?” Ron whispered in his ear.

He answered back, also in hushed tones. “Yes, he’s not faking this. He doesn’t want to be a Death Eater.”

“Well, I don’t like it. And why this sudden interest in ‘Mione?”

“I don’t know, but if it helps us get out of here, then I’m all for it.” Harry turned back to Draco, who had been considering his options. Bellatrix was still busy asking Hermione impossible questions, and they could hear Lucius and the Snatchers bellowing suggestions for more torture as well as threats of bringing the Dark Lord along.

At the next loud shriek from Hermione, Draco finally snapped into decision. “Alright! Just go and help her.” He drew his wand and aimed it at the door. “Alohomora!” The lock clicked and opened.

Ron raced to the stairs, bounding up them two at a time.

Harry called after him. “Ron, wait! We need a plan.” He glanced back at Draco. “Come on. There’s still more to do.” When Draco didn’t look like he would follow, Harry clutched his wrist and pulled him along. Draco came easily.

They climbed the stairs and surveyed the room before them. Most of the adults were still in the same position as they had been, gathered in the center, the one exception being Draco’s mother, who was staring off into space at the bottom of the grand staircase.

“We need a distraction,” Ron said. “Then Draco can Accio our wands and we can start hexing the bastards.”

“We’ll need to protect Hermione, and after that much torture I’m not sure she’ll be able to walk right away. We have to get out of the Manor to Disapparate.”

“No, you don’t,” said Draco from the side. “I can Disapparate straight from here.”

Ron looked suspicious, but Harry was excited at that small measure of hope. “Can you take all of us with you? Have you ever side-along Apparated people?”

“Yes, Potter, I’m not a worthless minion. I have plenty of magic for that.” It seemed that the prospect of escape was returning some of Draco’s pride and arrogance, but for the moment Harry didn’t care. In fact, he was glad for it; it upped their chances.

“Are you particularly attached to those curtains?” Harry asked with a grin, gesturing at the floor-to-ceiling draperies.

Draco gave him a dark look. “What are you planning?”

Harry smirked. “A distraction. Everybody ready?”

They nodded yes.

Harry concentrated on his magic and aimed it at the far curtains. Within seconds the velvet caught fire and began burning, crackling as it was consumed. Narcissa noticed first and screamed. Everyone else turned to examine the flames. Draco took this opportunity to Accio the confiscated wands and a second later Harry caught them. He passed Ron his wand while aiming his own at Bellatrix and screaming, “Stupefy!

Bellatrix was fast in recovering and had already dodged the spell, firing back a blasting curse at them. Ron, however, had already cast, “Protego,” and the three were running towards and firing at the adult wizards. Two of the three Snatchers jumped aside and ran for cover, while Scabior returned curses. Lucius had raised his wand into attack mode, but no spell escaped his lips as he noticed who was attacking. He stared in open shock as his son ran to help the witch sobbing and bleeding over his marble tiles. Harry belatedly thought he might never recover from the shock, but then Ron’s Stupefy landed, and Lucius dropped to the floor unconscious.

Harry cast Confringo at Scabior, which burned through his shield and blasted him back ten paces.

“Blimey, mate!’ Ron said as they dove next to Hermione, casting another Protego over all of them.

“Okay, Draco, get us out of here! Doesn’t matter where, just somewhere remote!”

Harry grabbed Ron, who grabbed Hermione. Draco took her other side, but he hesitated and looked up. Confused, Harry glanced in the direction Draco was looking and saw Narcissa watching her son. A silent communication happened between them and then she nodded her head once. Draco looked back down and turned. Harry felt the tug on his insides and relaxed into freedom, only to be hit in the leg with a curse from Bellatrix as Ron’s shield dissolved. He screamed into the void.

***

They all landed with a thump, Ron on his knees, Draco on his back cradling Hermione, and Harry in a heap on his side. His leg seared in pain as acid burned his skin. He was barely aware of what was happening around him, panting and whimpering through the pain. He heard Ron say, “Dammit, she got Harry!” and then Draco, “I don’t know the counterspell. We have to go to a healer or library. Hermione needs treatment, too!”

“Give me her handbag.” Ron snatched it from them, which had somehow still been on her person, and opened it up. “Accio Dittany.” The bottle flew into his hands. He uncorked it and dribbled some on Harry’s leg. The pain ebbed some, but didn’t abate completely.

“Still hurts,” he panted. “Get Severus,” he whispered to Ron.

“Good idea. Malfoy, we can’t stay here. Can you Apparate us to Grimmauld Place in London?”

“Yes, I know where that street is.” He eyed them speculatively. “My mother’s family has a place there, but I’ve never been.”

“Yeah, ’s the old Black residence. Your face is on the tapestry wall even.”

Ron grabbed Harry, seeing as Draco was clinging to Hermione, who was still sobbing and trembling. Harry was aware of the tug and the spinning, and mixed with the pain, he sicked up as soon as they landed on the pavement.

“Lovely, Potter, I’m not sure I should be accepting sanctuary from an invalid. Your promises of protection are lacking in collateral.”

“Well, you don’ have to stay here then,” Ron rounded on him. “You could always return to Volde –”

“Shhhhh!” Draco hissed at him. “Don’t say his name. That’s how you idiots got caught before. Now that they own the Ministry, they’ve put a taboo on the name.”

“Oh,” Ron said, mollified. “Well, the house is right over here. Let’s get these two inside.”

Draco picked up Hermione and carried her bridal style. Ron helped Harry limp along the street and up to the house, followed by Draco. Harry had to take Draco’s hand to pull him through the wards while reciting, “Our hideout is Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place.” He was certain Draco would recognise the Fidelius charm, and sure enough, Draco’s eyes widened in surprise.

Ron gave Harry another ‘I don’t like this’ look, but Harry shook his head at him. Something was up with Malfoy, and for once it appeared to be something good. Harry just didn’t know exactly what yet.

Once they were inside the house, Draco laid Hermione on the foyer’s chaise longue and Harry fell into a nearby chair. “Ron, send your Patronus.”

“What good will that do?” Draco asked, straightening up.

“We can send messages with them,” Harry said, closing his eyes against the ache in his leg. “Just hurry, Ron.”

Ron calmed himself and brought forth his terrier Patronus. “Tell Snape Harry and Hermione are hurt and to come to the hideout right away.” With a flick of his wand, the Patronus ran off through the walls.

Draco looked even more confused than before “Snape? Why would he help you?”

“Long story,” Ron said evasively. “But turns out he’s on our side.”

“So he’s a spy.” Draco was quick to put the pieces together. He thought about it a minute longer. “It makes sense. He’s well suited for it. The old headmaster certainly trusted him, and as a Death Eater, he was involved in the Inner Circle.”

“I was indeed,” came the deep voice of Snape from the doorway. He scanned the tableau before him before his dark stare landed on Ron. “What happened, Mr. Weasley?”

Swallowing, Ron answered him all in one quick breath. “We were in Godric’s Hollow and got caught. They tortured Hermione; Draco helped us escape; and Harry got hit with some curse from Bellatrix as we were Disapparating.”

“It’s acidic, Severus; it really burns,” Harry whimpered.

With two strides Snape was kneeling before Harry and examining the wound. He spoke the counterspell, “Neutralis,” and the curse was lifted. Harry’s leg still looked raw and angry. “I have a potion to heal the skin in my quarters. Let me examine Miss Granger first.” He moved to the lounge, running a diagnostic spell over her.

She tried to speak. “S-sir, it was … it was terrible,” but that’s all she could get out before sobs overtook her again.

“She has been subjected to multiple applications of the Cruciatus curse as well as general cutting and bludgeoning curses. If you have any Dittany, that will heal the cuts, or you can cast Episkey, while I go fetch the potions to heal her nerves and Harry’s leg.” Without waiting for a response from them, he got up and left in a flourish of robes.

Ron rolled his eyes. “Typical bastard. I don’t know what you see in him, Harry.”

Sighing, he muttered, “I don’t know anymore either.”

Draco was looking back and forth at them, confused even more. “What do you mean, ‘see in him’? And why is Potter calling him Severus?”

Ron rolled his eyes. “Another long story. Save it for later, yeah?”

They didn’t have long to wait before Snape returned with the promised potions. He slathered one on Harry’s skin, cooling and healing it within minutes.

“Thanks, Severus,” Harry said quietly.

Snape didn’t return the acknowledgement, just went to Hermione’s side and had her drink the nerve-healing potion as well as a pain reliever.

Finished with that, Snape took the seat across from Harry, crossing his legs and steepling his hands together, dark eyes blazing with equal parts anger and fear. “Explain in detail.”

The trio recounted all that had happened in Godric’s Hollow and how they’d come to be captured. Hermione began twitching at the mention of her torture, so he took pity on her. “Skip ahead.”

When they got to Draco’s entrance to the dungeons, Snape turned his eyes to read his Slytherin charge. “What possessed you to do something so foolhardy?”

Draco looked away, clearly uncomfortable answering this line of questioning. Harry wasn’t sure if it was the insult from his godfather or just embarrassment from his own actions, but he suspected it was something deeper than either of those things. He sensed he was correct in this assumption when Draco whispered, “You know what I am.”

Snape narrowed his eyes at him. “You get persuaded in whatever way the strongest wind is blowing, yes, I understand, but why should that be Potter?”

He shook his head. “It’s not Potter, exactly.” He didn’t elaborate, but his face turned toward Hermione.

Harry recognised the open longing there. “You fancy her!” he blurted out.

Ron chimed in. “No way!”

Snape gave him a single look that said he should know better. “It’s quite a bit more than fancy, if I’m reading the signs correctly. Draco, are you saying that she is your mate?”

All of their mouths dropped open in astonishment. “Mate?” they asked in three-part harmony. “She doesn’t even like him!” Ron added just to clarify things.

“Be that as it may, Veelas will recognize their mates once they are of age. I dare say it was traumatic for Draco to have found his mate as she was being tortured. Am I correct?”

Draco said, “Yes. It was horrific watching it happen and not be able to protect her.” He hugged himself in a lonely mood, for protection, for comfort.

“You’re another Veela?” Ron asked incredulously. “But Hermione isn’t, so how could she be your mate?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Snape told him. “All that counts is that they are compatible on many levels.”

Ron exploded. “Compatible? ‘Mione and Malfoy?”

“That has a nice ring to it,” Harry said flippantly.

“Blimey, Harry, ‘s no time for jokes! Seriously. Have you watched these two at each other’s throats in school?”

Hermione spoke up. “Actually, Ron, Snape may be right. Malfoy and I do suit in many ways — power levels, intelligence, fast wit, proficiency at academics. But it does seem a bit far-fetched.”

Snape looked away. “Not so far from where I’m sitting, Miss Granger.”

Harry could tell he was talking about his own insane relationship, a relationship that seemed to be going nowhere.

Nowhere …

“Did any of you catch what Bellatrix was after?”

They all stared at him in confusion. “Yeah, we all heard her taking his grievances out on Hermione. What are you getting at, Harry?” asked Ron.

“She kept asking where we’d gotten the Sword –”

Ron yelled out, “Blimey, the Sword! We left it!”

They all stopped and looked around. Sure enough it wasn’t there.

“Shite,” Harry said. “This makes the next step even more important but at the same time harder.”

“What step?” asked Draco, thoroughly confused. “What are you talking about?”

Ron looked at Harry and gave him a little shake of his head, still not trusting Malfoy with any real information, afraid the git might turn on them again and go running back to the Death Eaters. Harry knew this was a possibility, but something in Draco’s demeanour said that he wouldn’t betray them, or at least wouldn’t betray her, something about that innate sense of mating in the Veela heritage. Harry looked over at his own mate and realised he still trusted him too, even though they were not truly together at the moment.

“Just tell us, Harry,” said Hermione quietly, bringing the war back to the front of Harry’s mind.

He ran a hand through his hair. “She wanted to know what else we might have taken from her vault. I think that’s where the last Horcrux is.”

“Horcrux! That’s horrible dark magic. Not even my dad would let me read about something like that.” Draco stared around at the four of them, taking in their sober faces. “You lot aren’t joking. What Horcrux?”

“We’re sure it’s a cup that once belonged to Helga Hufflepuff. Voldem –”

“Don’t say it!”

“Sorry. We know he made several of them, most of which we’ve already destroyed, and we need to find this last one in order to defeat him once and for all. And it makes sense, right?” he asked, turning to his friends who knew the whole story. “Gringotts is the Wizarding bank. He would believe it to be a prestigious honour to house it there.”

Ron and Hermione agreed.

“Well, we need to get it soon, before Bellatrix decides to place the real sword in the vault and realises the fake one is still there. I can’t believe we forgot it,” Ron muttered, looking away.

“So you two are going in? What’s your plan then?”

Hermione perked up. “Two? I’m going as well. You can’t discount me just because you claim I’m your mate.”

Draco narrowed his eyes. “This has nothing to do with Veela mating and has everything to do with the fact that you just took multiple rounds of the Cruciatus!” His voice had risen to shouting by the end, his finger pointing at her.

“Oh, believe me, Malfoy, we’ve all been in a lot worse. I’m not going to sit at home while everyone else goes out and fights.” She stared at him long and hard.

Draco clenched his teeth and snarled. “Then I’m coming with you.”

Ron and Harry both looked at him in amazement, then at each other. Ron said, “Maybe this mate thing is stronger than I thought.”

Harry nodded his head in silent reassurance.

***

After much deliberation of plans, they finally decided to go for the vault the next day. Hermione had managed to pluck several of Bellatrix’s hairs off her person and was going to Polyjuice into her. Draco would go along as her escort for additional validity and as a real family member with access, and the two others would follow along under Harry’s Invisibility Cloak.

Snape had seen the necessity in the whole affair, but was greatly opposed to it, admonishing them time and again not to do anything foolish. He left in a huff once he saw he was no longer getting through to them. Harry looked longingly after him until he noticed Draco watching, so he pulled his emotions back under his heart, where they continued to bleed.

Seeing Hermione turn into her tormentor the next morning was disturbing to say the least. She trembled looking at her own visage in the mirror, until Draco turned her away from it. He worked with her for an hour on his aunt’s mannerisms — her voice, how she walked, and the way she tilted her head when she felt superior, which was most of the time.

“Remember, Granger, she feels entitled to the whole world, so you have to feel the same. Everyone should bow down before you because you are a Black, and you will hex anyone’s balls off who challenges you. You enjoy others’ pain. You worship the Dark Lord and have made it is your personal mission to see him succeed.” It was a good summation of the crazy witch.

Hermione rolled her head to the side and glared at him. “So I’m to be a total bitch, is that it?”

Draco gave a small, amused smile. “Essentially. But put more heat into it. And say it like you mean it. Try again.”

She did the movement again, only with a little more menace. “I am a total bitch then.”

Ron whistled. “That is wicked scary! Don’t do that again, though.”

Still in character, she rounded on him. “Blood traitors better be scared. We will hunt you down and ….” Here she faltered.

Ron held up his hands in a stop gesture. “Hey, ‘Mione, cut that out. It’s too bloody awful.”

“But close. You need to keep in character at all times while we’re out. She would say ‘make you pay for your Muggle-loving ways,’ just so you know.”

Hermione nodded her head. “Right. Thanks.”

Harry felt uneasy watching the whole affair, but there wasn’t much he could offer as far as advice or criticism. It was a desperate ploy they were making, but it was essential to the task. What was far more disturbing was watching Draco’s interactions with Hermione. He could see all the little touches and yearning looks in his eyes, while Hermione had none of those things. She wasn’t a Veela, so Harry figured she wasn’t feeling any of the mating urges as Draco obviously was, as he and Severus had in the past. Harry ached for those brief days again.

When they were all ready, about an hour before noon, they headed out to Gringotts, Apparating to a side alley first so that Ron and Harry could get under the cloak. Hermione set off in character, striding up the street like she had a bone to pick with it. Draco put on his haughtiest stare and followed after her. Ron and Harry brought up the rear.

Gringotts was a large marble building that looked impressive and intimidating, the goblins going to great lengths to instill awe and respect in their customers. The two ‘Blacks’ refused to show any fear and briskly walked straight ahead to the main goblin’s desk.

Harry prayed this would work.

Draco spoke first. “I wish to get into the Lestrange Vault.”

The goblin looked at him in disbelief. “And who might you be?” he asked with some gruffness.

“Draco Malfoy. I’m the heir.” He sneered down at the goblin.

“Do you have your key?”

Hermione stepped forward beside Draco. “It’s my vault and we don’t need a key. You can open it for us.”

The goblin looked unhappy. “We require that you have your vault key –”

“Look, little man,” Hermione spoke with derision, “you cannot deny us access to our own vault! Take us down there and open it now, if you know what’s best for you.” She put forward her best attempt at intimidation.

The goblin was upset at this treatment but simply said, “Then I will need a wand for identification.”

Shite. The trio hadn’t thought about that, but luckily Draco had. “Here is my wand,” he said, handing it over. The goblin checked it against their records, confirmed his identity, and handed it back. After that, he waved them on to the elevator, barking instructions to the footman there. The five of them shuffled into a cart, Ron and Harry scrunching up in one corner so that it looked like appropriate spacing for three people. A few seconds later, they were racing through the underground caves toward the Lestrange’s vault.

They made it safely down to the lowest level where the largest vaults were kept and stopped before a great iron door. The five got out, the two under the cloak shuffling as quiet as they could. The goblin fixed a key into the door and it opened, revealing a huge space, lit from within and containing piles of gold and jewels. Ron almost whistled at the sight, but Harry cupped his mouth shut.

The goblin turned back to them. “Just close the door when you’re through. It will lock on its own and call for a carriage. Next time, don’t forget your key.” He then traveled back up by himself.

Taking off the cloak, Ron said with amused sarcasm, “Right friendly, those goblins. I guess money does entitle one to being an arse.” He was looking pointedly at Draco.

“Whereas being poor somehow entitles you to beg us for what we’ve worked hard to earn.”

“Oh we work plenty hard –”

“Stop it. We have no time for this.” Hermione glared at them, and in her present persona, it was terrifying. “Let’s go look for the cup.”

Draco spun and walked into the vault, followed by the others. “Do we know what it looks like?”

Hermione brandished her wand and produced an image in the air. “There were four cups, one for each house. We are looking for the Hufflepuff one.”

“Okay, but nobody touch anything else. Who knows what curses my family placed in here,” Draco said.

“But aren’t you the heir? Can’t you touch this stuff?” Ron asked.

“I am. That doesn’t mean I have free rein. Besides, I know my aunt and I wouldn’t want to touch any of her belongings.”

“Good point. And the Horcrux itself is cursed. So no touching that either,” she added.

“Right,” Ron said, nodding. “No touching.”

While the other three were intently searching each pile for the cup, Harry was aimlessly wandering around the cavern, not using his eyes but his mind and magic. His senses were all open to the place, and he could feel dark curses on various artifacts. But mostly those were weak. He was searching for a more powerful presence, one that would call out to him as the other Horcruxes had.

At some point, Ron bellowed, “I think I found the fake Sword of Gryffindor. D’we want to take it?”

“Yes, Ron,” said Hermione. “We don’t want her to find out we had the real one, or that Professor Snape gave them a fake one. If she comes here to investigate, I want her to think we were lying and had actually broken in and taken it. Be careful, though. It could be cursed as well.”

Ron nodded. Harry could see him performing some spell over the fake sword, shrinking it, then putting it in a pocket. He wondered how cautious Ron really was. Best not to let him deal with the Horcrux once they found it.

About three-quarters of the way down the room, he sensed it — a cold, slimy ripple along his magic. It hissed and whispered evil desires in a low register that he couldn’t make out, but it still managed to send shivers down his spine. This was it. The last Horcrux.

Harry glanced back and saw Hermione not far from him. She remembered that he could sense Voldemort’s essence and had followed him. “It’s here, ‘Mione,” he told her, pointing to a gold cup with two handles sitting amongst a pile of other cups.

“Levitate it into my handbag,” she said, opening up her beaded bag. “It will be protected in there and none of us will have to touch it.”

As Harry did that, Ron looked up at them. “D’you find it?”

“Yeah, it’s right here,” Harry said. Ron and Draco strode up to them and watched as Harry finished lowering the cup into the bag.

“I can feel evil there,” Draco whispered, surprise and horror in his voice.

Harry nodded his head. “Yeah, nasty stuff.”

A bang sounded from outside the cavern. They all jumped and turned toward the entrance.

“Who is in my vault?” came a familiar shriek. “Nothing but blood traitors!”

“Shite.” They barely had time to register that it was Bellatrix, probably come to check on the sword, before curses were flying at them. They all dodged for cover in different directions, Harry casting Protego as well.

Ron knocked over some gold statues, which clinked and then multiplied. The new ones clinked and then multiplied again. “Damn! They placed a Gemino spell on everything!”

Meanwhile Harry had brushed up against a marble chess set, which woke up all the pieces, and they began advancing on him. Draco and Hermione were having their own troubles, having disturbed some bags of Galleons, all of which started croaking like frogs. The volume rose each minute until it was maddeningly loud. Bellatrix was still firing curses at them, and the goblin was activating the alarm system. “Thieves. Thieves in the Lestranges’ Vault.”

“We have to get out of here!” yelled Ron.

“Duck and run!”

They managed a fast run down the side aisles, multiplying gold and attacking chessman pursuing them from behind, Bellatrix in full force in front. Shield charms only did so much. Luckily there was four of them to only one of her, but she was good, strong, and quick. Avada Kedavra narrowly missed Harry’s shoulder and Ron was almost struck by Petrificus Totalus.

When she finally could make out Draco’s features, she screamed, “How could you turn on us, you filthy half-creature?” She sent a blasting curse their way that broke through the shield and hit him square on the chest. It knocked him backward hard enough to concuss him, and he groaned. Harry covered Draco as Hermione shot a volley of hexes in Bellatrix’s direction.

Bellatrix dodged and stepped and flung back spells in an elaborate ballet. None of Hermione’s spells landed, yet she did manage to force the crazy witch into taking momentary cover behind a large bronze statue. In turn Ron levitated some of the Gemino-infected pieces over to where she was hiding, causing more pieces to rain on top and around her. She shrieked in frustration, which gave Harry and the others time to scuttle forward, Hermione never letting up on the spells she was casting.

Bellatrix recovered from the downpour and surged forward again to block their exit. She saw Hermione and lunged. “You dare to wear my face? Scourgio Faciem” Her spell caught Hermione on the arm, who then started to scream as her disguise began to melt away, burning her actual skin in the process.

Harry quickly cast the same spell on her as he’d seen Snape use on him. “Neutralis.” The relief on her face told him it had worked, but her visage kept transforming.

Rage entered Draco. “Never touch her again!” He cast Mutate Sensia, which forced her to stumble back and clasp her head as if woozy. Harry would have to ask him later what that spell actually did.

“Mustn’t let you …” she said before blasting pure lightning bolts in every direction. Everyone ducked for cover, which resulted in Ron pushing against some priceless artworks that activated another disastrous spell, this time rope vines.

“Help!” he cried as his wand arm was tied up.

Finite Incantatem,” said Hermione, but it didn’t work. Harry cast Protego on them to give Hermione time to think of a counter spell. Draco rolled out of the way and under a shelf where he seemed to have a decent amount of protection. Harry didn’t focus on freeing Ron, until Draco slithered his way back in.

“Move, you lot. I’ve got this.” With flashes of light bouncing off the metal, Draco swiped along the vines, cutting them. They gave off low moans, but retreated.

“Blimey, I thought I was a goner.”

“Don’t mention it,” Draco returned with a dark look that said he wasn’t joking about that.

Harry turned back and finally got Bellatrix with Stupefy. She sank to the floor in a heap.

“Thank goodness. Let’s get out of here.”

They raced out of the vault, only to find a contingent of goblins waiting for them. “Thieves!” they shouted.

The four ran in the opposite direction, Harry saying, “Get around a corner and hunch down, then I’ll throw the cloak over us all.”

Ron and Hermione agreed, but Draco spoke up. “Are you daft, Potter? They will still see us.”

“Not under my Invisibility Cloak,” he said back, a little smugly.

They rounded the next corner and hunched down in a recess in the wall, Harry pulling the cloak over them all. Sure enough the goblins all ran by without seeing them. Once out of earshot, Ron said, “It won’t take them long to figure out we didn’t go that way and double back.” They quickly got up and went back toward the Lestrange vault.

“How are we going to get out of here?” Hermione asked. “I’m guessing we can’t call for the lift.”

“Too bad you don’t have your brooms,” Draco said a bit wistfully. “I could probably carry Hermione and fly with my wings, but you two …”

“Can go by the same method, only my wings aren’t strong enough yet,” Harry finished for him.

“Feather light charm,” Ron suggested. Hermione concurred.

“What wings?” Draco asked, taken aback.

“These.” Harry released his wings and stood back a pace so Draco could get a good look.

“Merlin’s balls, you’re a Veela, too. Fire by the looks of it.” His eyes were wide with shock and awe.

“What are you, anyway?” Ron asked, mildly curious.

“Air.”

“So can you make air currents, like Harry can perform fire magic?” asked Hermione with more interest.

“Yes. I’ll have to con –” but shouts from the back corridor interrupted him. “We’ve got to leave.”

Hermione cast the feather light charm on herself and Ron. The two Veelas, wings now extended, clasped them around their waists. Draco concentrated on creating a breeze and as they felt it, they took off. More shouting came from behind them along with several dark hexes. One of them clipped Draco’s left wing and Draco grunted. Hermione tightened her grip. Harry flew over to assist, but Draco shook him off. “Just keep going,” he said through gritted teeth.

They surprised everyone by flying through the lobby and blasting the front doors open. As soon as they were out in Diagon Alley, they landed and Hermione Disapparated them all back to Grimmauld Place.

Inside, Harry rang for Kreacher. “We need help getting Draco healed. Go find Snape and bring him back here, then make lunch for everyone.”

“I hope that was worth the trouble,” Draco said, relaxing.

“Yeah, the Horcrux is in the bag,” Harry was smiling at him, “and you managed to recover the Sword.” His smile turned teasing “Whoever thought a Malfoy could become a true Gryffindor?”

Everyone stared at Harry.

“That’s true,” Hermione said at last. “It did come to him under conditions of valour. And I think he should be the one to destroy the cup. It even makes sense, symbolically, as a cup is usually used for blessings of wealth and position and Draco has abandoned those things.”

The three stood in silence, gathering their thoughts around them. Harry looked at Ron and said, “Will this be enough for you?”

Ron turned thoughtful and eventually agreed.

Draco’s eyebrow had risen with that exchange, but he didn’t ask for clarification. “So what’s this entail?”

Hermione opened her bag and levitated the cup out of it and onto the floor. “Not much; just stab or slice into the cup with the Sword. It may shriek or moan or explode, but it will die.”

“Of course, he shouldn’t even be attempting such an act without healing first,” said Snape from the doorway. “Why is it every time I leave you all to a task, you manage to inflict damage upon yourselves?”

Harry bristled. “Maybe ‘cause all our tasks involve war, Snape.”

“Don’t get cocky with me,” he warned, his voice low.

“Why not? You sure haven’t given me any reason to play nice with you!”

“You little fool! There are so many more important aspects to focus your attentions on than me.”

“Please stop fighting, you two. It’s getting old,” Hermione pled. “At least let’s heal Draco’s wing and have him destroy the final Horcrux. Then we can all get back to bickering.”

Both of the men looked contrite and nodded to her. Snape stepped over to Draco, healing the wing and giving him a small pat on the back, and although it was clear it was just fatherly, Harry felt jealous at the sight. His mate wouldn’t even touch him. It seemed they had drifted apart with the passing of time, only Harry was feeling it more directly now, whereas Snape must have experienced it more back in the past. He remembered Regulus’ words on the matter, how Snape had become so sullen in his despair. His anger left him then and he just felt sad and tired.

Draco stepped over to the cup, peering down at the seemingly innocent dinnerware. Hoisting the Sword up, he paused to think through the swing, when a whisper came from the cup.

“You cannot lose me.”

“What?” Draco and Ron both asked.

“No, you cannot afford to lose me. You need me. You cannot live without money. You would feel the loss of power every day and regret it. You have position in the world; don’t throw it away.”

“Don’t listen to it, Draco,” Hermione said. “It’s just trying to trick you into letting it stay alive.”

“What does she know, the Mudblood witch? She has no sense of social value. You are everything high society wants, needs. You need to keep me.”

“It’s wrong.” She placed her hand on his arm and looked into Draco’s eyes. “You don’t need that power and position. You can build your own. And I can help you.”

Everyone stood there watching them stare into each other’s eyes, the cup making more and more desperate pleas, until Draco’s resolve hardened. He lowered his mouth onto hers and they partook of a heated kiss. Ron muttered, “Blimey,” and Snape closed his eyes in a semblance of privacy. Harry just looked on, longing to have that same touch from his mate.

Draco broke apart from her lips, panting, took one more look at her, then shifted his gaze back to the Horcrux. Ignoring all that it was now hissing at them, he brought the Sword down onto it, slicing it in half. The thing screamed. Noxious fumes and vile liquid poured out of it, causing them all to turn away. But within moments, it was gone.

“Morgana’s tits, we did it!” shouted Ron in celebration. Draco and Hermione hugged each other in relief and triumph. Even Harry sighed as a weight lifted off his shoulders, as at least this task was done. But Snape still stood rigid, cold, unhappy.

“Blimey, Professor, can’t you be happy we finally got them all? That makes us so much closer to defeating You-Know-Who!”

“Not all,” he said quietly, closing his eyes.

“What do you mean, sir?” asked Hermione. Worry crept up on her features as she watched the new headmaster.

Harry got the uneasy feeling he wasn’t going to like this much.

“You recall I told you I had several last tasks entrusted to me from the former headmaster, yes?”

The trio exchanged quick glances with each other and all nodded. Draco’s eyebrows had gone up in surprise, but Hermione reassured him with a look.

When their attention came back to him, Snape continued. “One of them was to deliver pertinent information to you, Harry, once most or all the Horcruxes were destroyed. I suspect Albus didn’t want the Dark Lord to read your mind and find out this last bit of information until it was too late.”

Silence filled the space, ripe with anticipation.

“Go on,” Harry said.

“He said to tell you that on the night the Dark Lord came to kill you, the Killing Curse rebounded off you and struck him, whose soul was already fractured from so many other killings. A shard broke off from the rest and took refuge …” Snape faltered, his face scrunching up in hurt lines, “… elsewhere, creating an inadvertent Horcrux.”

Several eyes widened at that. It was Ron who spoke up. “A seventh one, Merlin! Well, where is it then? We’ll go get it.”

Harry was still watching Snape and dread was pooling in his stomach, turning his whole insides cold. He held his breath in anticipation, somehow knowing he didn’t want to hear the answer, that it was not good news.

Snape’s eyes opened and fixed on Harry’s. They were not cold with hatred or anger, but they were unreadable, emotions trapped behind a wall. “His final soul piece … is in you.”

He heard Hermione gasp and Ron shout, “No!” as Harry’s world fell out beneath him. No. Oh, gods, no. He couldn’t have that monster inside him. He would feel tainted and dirty and … able to talk to snakes … and able to have a mind connection with Voldemort … and able to hear the other Horcruxes. He started hyperventilating as the knowledge sank in. He was the last Horcrux.

Chapter Nine

Watching the truth dawn on my mate’s face is a horror akin only to killing my mentor. The knowledge that he is one of those vile artifacts had become obvious to me days ago when I traveled back to this house to claim him, and it makes our situation that much more hopeless. I fled, attempting to distance myself. Fate already spat on us once, drawing us apart for twenty years. Then it stabbed us in the back as we were drawing close together again. Albus told me of Harry’s need to die for the damn cause, that there would be no chance for him to survive the Dark Lord. I had thought we might still have some time alone between his return from the past and his encounter with death, but Albus’ murder and Harry’s quest put a stop to that. Now Fate twists the knife in deeper as the exact nature of his Horcrux complex comes into focus.

“So I have to be destroyed,” he says a little too calmly.

“Yes, and it is vital that the Dark Lord eradicate you himself.”

I stare into my mate’s green eyes, watching the hurt and the pain and the revulsion wash through him, and I do nothing, for there is no comfort I could bring to either of us. It is too late for sentimental nonsense, and as Ronald Weasley has said, there are still a few keys moves left to play in our deadly and dangerous game.

Emotions flit across his features and finally land on the one I am dreading, but expecting.

“How can you just stand there and act like this means nothing to you? Are you expecting me to walk away just like that?” He blazes like the sun, hot, emotional, all-consuming, and immense, as befits his heritage. His hands are clenched into fists and his magic begins to crackle in the air surrounding us. It is no surprise that he seems most upset over the effect this news has on our relationship. He has always dwelt a bit too much on emotions.

This bit of immaturity always draws out my dark loathing for the subject. There is a reason I’ve always been mean and nasty around teenage students. I would never have become a teacher but for Albus asking it of me in penance to gain forgiveness.

As such, sarcasm has always been my means of defence. “And what would you have me say, Potter? Plead with you not to do it? That we should run away together and be happy on a deserted isle, while the rest of the known universe falls under the Dark Lord’s regime? Shall I attempt to cry buckets of tears over the loss of our mating? Those are all childish fantasies and we cannot afford to indulge them.”

His anger erupts. “You fucking bastard! My life’s been nothing but pain and sadness, but I thought there was some hope of a future. Now I learn that never was the case, that you’ve known all along, that you couldn’t be arsed to give me one moment of compassion that would make this any easier –”

“Compassion only makes this worse, you sentimental fool! It leads to attachment and co-dependency, and crushes the soul when it is gone, as it is wont to do. It is fleeting and leaves only a raw open wound. Best to be rid of it now, Mr. Potter. There is planning yet to be done.”

I know my words are cold and heartless and break something inside of my mate. A shudder of betrayal goes through him, and my own soul screams in utter misery. I have hurt him and I will pay for that in my mind as time moves on, but it is better that small external hurt than the internal one I will bear for the rest of my life if I give into temptation now and hold him, kiss him, make love to him, and then release him into Death’s hands. That cruelty I’ve lived with already, and it is too horrible to experience again. No, I must block my heart against it.

Silence reigns in the room as Harry accepts the hardships of his life. His magic dies down as I watch him fold into himself. He sits, cradling his stomach and stares into the fire. I wonder if he wants to be consumed again as he did when I found him here last time, my reckless mate.

It is the courage of the other Gryffindor male present that dissolves the awkward moment. “So the only way to stop You-Know-Who is to get him to destroy his own soul piece in Harry and then the rest of us to take him out, right?”

I nod my head once.

“Then we need to call him out, lead him and his Death Eaters into a trap.”

Miss Granger pauses in her sniveling for a shocked moment to stare openly at Mister Weasley. “Ron, are you … you want to use Harry as bait?” Even Harry picks up on this and turns to listen to his best friends debate over battle tactics.

Weasley’s eyes are firm and determined, yet still retain humanity. I can see that he cares for my mate, but he also understands the situation at hand. “Harry has to be … k-killed. We know this; we might as well use it to our advantage. The second You-Know-Who and the Death Eaters think he’s dead they will be at their most vulnerable to a surprise attack, and that’s the only way we’ll get a good shot at old snakeface.”

“But you can’t casually toss Harry’s life out like this!”

“It’s a good strategy,” Draco speaks up. “Sometimes a general has to sacrifice a pawn or bishop or knight for a chance at checkmate, and by all accounts Potter is a walking dead man anyway.”

Granger turns and pounds on his chest. “How can you be so cold about this? Do still hate him that much? Is that what you wish for him?” Tears are streaming down her face in a most pathetic display, which I hope Draco will put a stop to.

On the contrary, he shakes his head no, wraps his arms around her, pulling her close, and lets her cry. The scene nauseates me, not just because of the openness of the emotions but also because I cannot permit myself to partake in the much-longed-for embrace.

“So what is our best battle strategy?” Weasley asks.

Over the course of the next few hours, we brainstorm, hash out and detail several different plans. Granger halts her tears and she and Draco join in the discussion with many useful suggestions. Harry continues to listen, but he remains aloof from the group and from me, which is just as well. The growing distance is what he needs to complete his destiny, but it opens up a festering wound inside of me, a hurt that poisons my veins and turns all, even a victory against my hated master, into ashes. Life is not fair nor should we expect it to be, yet the sheer amount of what we both have been denied is reprehensible.

The plan is fairly simple. Harry will call out the Dark Lord and his followers to the field out beyond the Forbidden Forest, away from Hogsmeade and the castle. Order members and Aurors will already be waiting just inside the forest. I myself will take my usual place among the Death Eater ranks, as he will surely call me to his side, or barring that I will notice something going on from Hogwarts and come to investigate. Either way, I will be there to watch my mate fall, to see all of my happiness end before me, and then to deliver the final blow. As soon as the spell leaves my wand, the Aurors will set up an anti-Apparition zone and the fight will begin, even though the fate of the world will already be won.

Some contingency plans are also discussed and tentatively put in place. The hour grows late and the three say their good nights, leaving Harry and me to contemplate our own goodbyes. It is a long and painful silence. I want to go to him, but I cannot. Must not if I am to keep my heart intact over the next century.

And, of course, he refutes this. “You can’t leave me like this.”

I flick my eyes from the fire to him. “That is exactly what I intend. Should you and I give in to our base urges, it would ruin us. We must maintain objectivity and fortitude to march ahead.”

He shakes his head. “I can’t do this without you. Everything hurts. And I doubt I can put one step in front of the other knowing that …” his voice hitches on the agony and anger down deep inside himself, “… that you don’t love me!”

I close my eyes against this onslaught, which weakens my resolve not to take him and crush him to me. I would never let go and all the world would be doomed because of it. “I must go.”

But leave it to my mate not to let things settle there. “No,” he growls and I hear his wings unfold. “I won’t let it end like this, Snape.”

“Foolish boy,” I snarl back at him.

“If I’m to walk to my death tomorrow, I’ll need the memory of us being together to take with me.”

My eyes fly open and look at him mere inches away. “And you would condemn me to that memory for the rest of my days.”

“Then let’s make it a good memory,” he says as he leans in, puts his arms around me, and kisses me.

It is hopeless and desperate and everything I want. My resistance shatters instantly, replaced by crushing need. My own wings come out and engulf him, my hands pulling him closer and kneading through his black hair as we attempt to devour each other. My soul soars high with his as I take him to bed and ravish him fully, skin touching skin, hearts all a-flutter, bodies merging as one. But the joy is bittersweet, for we both know that the dawn only brings death.

***

I wake in the early morning to find him still asleep beside me, so young and perfect in form yet old and troubled in spirit, as even in repose his face is lined with tension. The sight of him breaks my heart and I cannot bring myself to stay with him these last few hours. He will have to take strength from our joining, not my presence at his side, as he meets with fellow resistance fighters and begins the final process to eliminate my evil master.

For my part, I Apparate back to Hogwarts and start the day as routine as ever. I am to meet with the Heads of House to go over new discipline rules and techniques and will have to act surprised and put out that Minerva, Filius, and Pomona do not attend the meeting, as they will be at Grimmauld Place discussing the best methods of attack.

I order fried eggs, toast, and tea at breakfast, only to have them go cold since my digestive tract no longer wishes to consume them. I stand and stare out the window of my office, reciting potions recipes to keep my mind occupied.

Lunch comes and goes and I eat none of that, either. I manage a bit of paperwork for the Governors, not even sure what the point is anymore, but it is a distraction. I wonder what my life will become. I snort. No more than this, I suspect, the drudgery of a lonely, boring, taciturn administrator. Unless, of course, I choose to follow my mate into death. For once, that option holds some appeal for me, which is one indication of how low my spirit has sunk.

Minutes before the afternoon meeting, I feel the burn on my arm signaling the Dark Lord’s summoning. I am relieved not to have to play the part of annoyed headmaster in front of the Carrows, but there is no succor in that. The part I play as spy is much more rife with hazards, and now there is the added prospect of concealing my emotions while watching my mate die. I must steel myself against it, and the prospect ties me in knots.

I leave the school and Disapparate, letting the magic pull me to evil’s side. I think back to last night and how gruesome it looked in contrast to my mate’s beautiful body, how I had tried to hide it and yet how Harry had brought it forward and accepted it. It makes me yearn for that acceptance once again. But that is dangerous to contemplate, not to mention a fool’s hope, and so I bury those thoughts deep within my Occlumency shields.

The Dark Lord is filled with glee. “I have a message from Harry Potter that he wishes to meet with me, to have our prophesied duel and settle the score once and for all. I will go out to meet the boy and crush him soundly, showing all the world my rightful place in Wizarding society.

“I want you all there as witnesses to this glorious day. But do not interfere until Potter is vanquished. If any of his followers are also there, leave them be until afterward. Then you may do with them as you wish.

“The Light has fallen. The Ministry has fallen. And today my nemesis falls, too.”

A raucous cheer rises from the assembled herd, hundreds of Death Eaters who were called for this momentous occasion. Enthusiasm is high and I feign my own delight at the news. Last minute preparations are handled, and everyone sorts themselves into ranks. The Dark Lord leaves first, knowing the destination, and then everyone Apparates to his new location.

We are indeed in the field outside the Forbidden Forest. I watch my fellow confederates and all their attentions are focused on the Dark Lord. None even bother to check the surrounding areas for traps or ambushes — idiots, the lot of them. Without letting on, I search the forest cover for our allies, but find no evidence of them. This could be very good or very bad. I am hoping for the former, but in all honesty, it hardly matters. My mate will die. Voldemort will die. It is highly probable that I will die as well, either directly from one of the Death Eaters or from a stray curse in the ensuing battle, and perhaps that is for the best, as I will not want to go on existing after this.

Speaking of which, Harry walks out from behind a group of trees into the field. He is wearing a stained T-shirt and jeans, worn out trainers and socks, and looking every bit the Muggle orphan that he is, not the Saviour the papers always make him out to be. His hair is a mess and his face holds a determination that belies his weariness, but I can see the signs, the tightness around his mouth, his gait, the haunted look in his eyes. This is hard for him — as it would be for any man — to walk passively to his death, especially one who has been so active in keeping people alive in the eternal struggle between good and evil.

The Dark Lord waits until Harry comes to a stop about twenty paces away. “So, Potter, you have come to face me at last.”

“Yes,” he says, voice steady and even, not showing a hint of fear. For that I am proud of him. “I am an adult now, and I thought it was about time we finished this, nice and easy, just the two of us. What do you say, Tom?”

The Dark Lord bristles at being addressed so informally, but instead he taunts Potter with his winning move. “Either way this duel between us goes, the war is not over. When I defeat you, all my hordes will conquer England and Scotland.”

“And if I defeat you?” he asks with confidence.

My master chuckles. “Then my hordes will crush you and bring me back and we will still take over this land.”

“Ah, but to bring you back, they will need a soul piece, and you have none left.”

This bombshell is dropped squarely on Voldemort’s head and he suddenly knows what Potter has been doing with his spare time. “NO! You cannot have found them all!”

Harry looks very smug now. “Oh, but I did: the locket, the diary, the snake, the cup, the crown and the ring. We’ve destroyed them all, and now it’s your turn to be destroyed.”

“Wretched child! Avada Kedavra!” Without pause, he sends the green spell light toward my mate. I hold my breath and so does everyone else, though I hardly notice. All my attention is now on Harry.

He does not move, does not react, and his eyes never leave my master’s. They appear locked in time and space. The Killing Curse hits him and becomes absorbed into his body, and for a moment I see it enhance his green irises before it drains the life from them. A sudden shriek rises up in the air as his scar bursts with red and black ooze. His knees give out and his body starts to fall, but the shrieking continues in a crescendo. Everyone jumps and points their wands in Potter’s direction, but it is obvious that he is not moving.

A black whiff of smoke rises in the air, and I take my cue from that. Altering the angle of my wand, I utter the curse that will end it all. “Sectumsempra!” It hits my master square in the back, and he rages in pain and betrayal as the curse strikes him over and over again on his body, and no one knows the counterspell. It brings me some small satisfaction in watching him writhe, as he deserves every minute of agony.

The place explodes with chaos as spell light flies out of the trees around us and the force of the anti-Apparition shield is felt going up. My fellow Death Eaters start to scream and shout obscenities at their attackers, and sure enough a battle ensues. I have no idea who all is involved or what they are doing as my world is reduced to two solitary figures.

Voldemort slithers on the ground like a snake, blood pouring out of him and muscles spasming as flesh is torn. I have no sympathy nor feelings of pity for him; he brought this on himself.

In comparison, Harry lies motionless and empty on the ground, like an old toy discarded and forgotten, the life snuffed out of him completely. I fall to my knees before him, the only being I will ever willingly perform that action to again, and stare. I stretch out my hand and touch his cheek, still warm from his body’s latent heat, but without the movement of blood or breath. His eyes do not blink, and his magic is gone.

Searing pain shoots through me and I unleash a cry of bitterness, the finality of the moment crushing my soul. This is it, the moment I’ve been dreading since Albus first mentioned it last year, but nothing could prepare me for the complete loss of hope. It is worse than anything I have ever imagined, a hundred times worse than when he disappeared so long ago. Back then I must have believed there was still a chance for us, and then I did believe it when I encountered him again as his child self at Hogwarts. But now … now that it’s happened, all dreams have been smashed.

I scream over and over, the agony not abating as I release all my frustration and bitterness out at the world. I am so busy hurting that I never notice the tears welling up in my eyes. All I feel is fire as I double over my mate. The tears fall down and land on his face, in his lifeless eyes, his still mouth, his ebony hair, but it means nothing as I am unconscious of the world around us.

So unconscious that the gasping breath near me does not register. So unconscious that I never hear a hoarse whisper, “Severus?” So unconscious that I do not sense the movement beneath me, until soft lips steal against my own.

I shudder and reel back, expecting it to be someone else taking advantage of my vulnerable state, only to find green eyes searching hopefully into my countenance.

“You’re alive,” I say, gasping for breath. “How?”

“I don’t really know. I felt the Killing Curse enter me and separate my soul and Voldemort’s soul piece from my body. The world went dark. Then I was floating, like in space, cool liquid running all around me … and then the world just came back to me. What happened?” he asks, looking around. He sees the Dark Lord’s broken form near him and shies away from it. I look around, too, and witness pockets of on-going fighting.

“It’s going according to plan,” I say, still gobsmacked that he is alive and here before me.

He grins and the sight is more precious than anything I could imagine. “Looks like we’re winning.”

“Cheeky brat.”

He looks back at me and his grin turns contemplative. “You are crying.”

“No, I’m not. Veelas do not cry.”

“Then what’s this wetness?” he asks as he lifts one hand to brush aside a tear.

“Veela tears,” I hear Draco’s voice say from off to our left. I turn and look at him holding on tightly to Granger’s hand. “But I thought that was impossible.”

“As far as I’m aware, this should not be.” It confuses me that I am indeed leaking fluid from my eyes.

Harry catches my sight and says, “Perhaps Fate decided to reward us for once.” His mouth gently curves into a warm and loving smile. “Will you now accept me into your life?”

“Indubitably, there is nothing I want more.”

In joy and triumph I crush him to me, never to be parted again. He holds on tight, never to let go either, and together we face a new life, a new future, with our arms and wings and souls wrapped around each other.

-The End-

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