Please proceed to the Headmaster's Office at 11 o'clock. The office is located behind the large gargoyle statue on the second floor, just beside the Charms Corridor. The password is 'Fizzing Whizzbee.'
Harry stared. Reread the letter twice. Something cold and black and heavy was filling her insides.
After everything, now this.
She opened her mouth to speak. To yell. Swear. Scream.
A faint, pained whine escaped her.
Her head was beginning to throb. The fragile dam she'd constructed was splitting.
The parchment dropped from trembling fingers.
She turned. Stumbled. Staggered back into Quirrel's quarters. The sofa was there, open and inviting, warmed by the fire, still indented on one side where he'd sat.
The room wavered. Heat haze. Her eyes watering. Blackscale was talking to her, his words far-off nonsense.
Harry dropped blindly. She missed the loveseat entirely and landed with a grunt on the floor. One arm grabbed hold of the seat, keeping her from toppling into the hearth.
Knees to chest. Head to knees.
In trouble. Probably expelled. Going to be thrown out.
Quirrel wasn't here. He couldn't protect her from this.
Breathing. Her heart aching, fast and birdlike, shaking brittle ribs.
Too fast. Too much.
Shouldn't be this panicked.
The up and down. Despair and hope and then this.
Her breath wasn't coming. It was like being legilimized again, trapped in her head as her thoughts ran wild.
Had to meet the headmaster. Going to be punished.
Would Snape be there?
The teachers had always been there when she went to the principal's office in primary.
She gritted her teeth, eyes watering, the images of past principals smearing and blurring, becoming Snape's furious, bloody face.
Look at me.
Too much. He'd done this to her. This mania.
Mental attack causes mental-
Blackscale sunk his teeth into her hand. Harry gasped, and then a shriek of pain ripped through the blockade in her throat.
The adder snarled something, the words muffled; he hadn't let go, and his fangs were digging into her.
"Stop it!" she yelled.
He withdrew, a viscous strand of blood and saliva drawn between his teeth and her hand for a moment before it snapped.
"Have you stopped panicking?" he said.
She clutched the wound. "Did you just poison me?!"
Blackscale made a noise that translated as a huff. "Venom does not harm a speaker. You were afraid. Your fear smells terrible; like old mouse and bad meat."
"So I'm not going to die from you biting me?"
He didn't deign to answer, only looking at her, yellow eyed, waiting for a different response.
Harry swallowed. She took a breath. Then another, thoughts slowly settling."I- sorry. You wouldn't do that to me. And you're right, I was afraid."
The adder's tongue flicked out. He said nothing, but he was still listening. She used the interval to jab fingers against the wound.
The bites closed. There was no sinister burn of poison, no ache in her hand. He really had dry-bitten her, then. Harry sighed and sat back against the couch.
The floor in front of the fire was warm, but the stones beneath her robes were still stone, and still chilly. The blend of temperatures was... helpful. Not cloying, but not frigid. It chilled the clammy sweat soaking her bandanna, but kept the ice in her chest from creeping out any further.
"I have to meet the headmaster." She paused, trying to speak in a way he'd understand. "He is very important, and very powerful. Probably the strongest wizard in the country, from what I've heard. And I'm probably in trouble."
Blackscale huffed again. "So strike first. Even a boar can be felled with a bite it doesn't see coming."
Harry groaned. "Too late for that. Snape probably told him everything already."
Poisoning the headmaster against her certainly felt like something Snape'd do. A very Dursley-ish move. None of her old primary school principals had ever sided with her. Hogwarts had detention, but the third-floor floor corridor was forbidden. The serious kind that went beyond demerits.
There had been delinquents in primary who got kicked out.
The thought had acid licking at the bottom of her throat.
Expulsion. After barely two months at Hogwarts.
"They will kill you?" Blackscale asked. "Then why go?"
"They're not going to kill me. But they-" Harry hesitated. "They might expel me. Throw me out of the school."
She ought to pack her bags now. It'd be easier than having to do it afterward. If they let her pack, and didn't just toss her out on the lawn like rubbish.
"So they force you from your den. We will find another."
Harry pressed her hands to her eyes. He just didn't understand. "I can't just leave! I need to learn magic."
"You can't learn it in another den?"
She could barely turn out the lights wandlessly. If she was expelled, she'd be back at the Dursleys. Hardly better than a muggle. But she couldn't go back to that life. Not now. Not having seen magic, breathed a better air.
So no Dursleys, then. She'd be, what- on the streets in winter?
A calmer, cooler part of her brain perked up at that. The voice of survival. The voice that didn't care about humiliation or shame or fear. It sounded a lot like Blackscale, and spoke up over the chaotic jumble of her thoughts.
She'd survived worse. There had been days she'd gone hungry, and times in the cupboard where she'd thought she'd go mad. A decade virtually alone. But she was here now.
She'd be on the streets. With a vault full of gold, and a famous name if she absolutely had to use it.
Harry stiffened, eyes widening. If it came down to it- would they really expel Harriet Potter, who the wizarding world seemed to view as one-part Merlin, two-parts Messiah?
"No," she whispered. "No, I don't think they'll expel me."
"Then why do you still stink like a rat in a trap?"
"Because..." She was still afraid. But why was she even in trouble? Snape had attacked her. She'd visited Fluffy tons of times. Hagrid had shown him to her! He was staff, wasn't he?
She fell silent, straightening her bandanna as she thought.
What would expulsion mean? The loss of friends. Neville, Ron, Hagrid. A home, lost again. Her room. Not just a room. Not just a dorm. Her room. Where she was just beginning to memorize the patterns in the ceiling she fell asleep to. The room where Neville's snake-vine grew on a bedside table, beside a couple bottles of wizarding nail-polish.
And Quirrel. Who made magic live up to its name, and whose magic made hers sing. Who was interested in her. Who cared what happened to her enough to save her.
Her hands closed, balling up fistfuls of robes.
"I'm still afraid because I don't want to lose this life. I don't want them to take it from me. Even the possibility is frightening."
Just because she could lose everything and keep going because she had magic, didn't mean she wanted to.
A bit of warmth had crept into the cold fear. It was not a good warmth.
"And- and I'm tired of being afraid."
She exhaled at the thought, slowly sagging against the loveseat. All the weight of the night before and the morning, forgotten in her terror, had come rushing back.
Her eyes ached. Her hand throbbed. Everything hurt.
"I hate this."
Blackscale slid up and around, coiling over her wrists and palms.
"Your sire will help," he said. He settled over her shoulders like a stole.
A steady, gentle weight. Enough to keep her grounded for now.
"He'll help you shed this skin."
It was nearly nine when she finally stirred herself from in front of the fire.
As awful as it was to wait, sitting alone with her thoughts for another hour was worse.
There were things she needed to do before she met with the headmaster.
She had to know everyone was okay.
Blackscale, still at her throat, whispering soft, almost-reassuring things to her. Nagini, still too young to talk, threading her way through Harry's fingers.
They'd met no one so far, and the hallways remained eerie and desolate. The castle felt hollow. She'd passed two floors, keeping the furthest distance from Fluffy's hallway that she could, and was just crossing into the fifth.
The hospital wing wasn't far now. Even if she couldn't quite remember where it was, the halls hadn't shifted from last night- Hogwarts wasn't doing its usual shuffling mischief – and she could follow the faint odor of antiseptic and linen the rest of the way.
The letter, read and reread, was stuffed in one pocket, and just thinking of it was enough to renew her headache.
The infirmary doors were shut. Harry paused, listening. There was a steady murmur of many voices from beyond.
None of the screaming from last night.
Just as she was about to take the handle, one door began opening. Harry, without thought, ducked behind it.
Three people emerged. A tall, regal man with pale, nearly white hair, a woman, darkly-beautiful, and dark-haired but for a blond streak, and then the boy from the owlery. Malfoy. Or would it be Malfoys? Those had to be his parents.
The trio strode away, Draco sandwiched between them.
"-straight to bed when we get home," the woman was saying. "And not a word about brooms until I've had you checked over."
Draco sagged. "Mother, I feel fine. I don't want to look weak in front of the rest of the house."
Mister Malfoy, who had one hand on his son's shoulder, made a reproving noise. "Don't fuss, Draco. Behave for your mother and I'll see about making a pensieve memory of the governors' meeting."
"Really?!" Draco shot a wide-eyed glance at his father. "You think you'll get Dumbledore sacked?"
The two exchanged a glance, and Mister Malfoy seemed about to answer, only for Miss Malfoy to clear her throat loudly.
"You're over-exciting him, Lucius."
Any more conversation was lost as the group turned a corner and went out of sight. Harry took the opportunity to peek around the infirmary door, then slip in herself.
The hospital wing was surreal in daylight. The expanded space for the hundreds of beds a bit fuzzy around the edges, and the floor crowded with dozens of adults, all knotted around various beds. The families of her classmates, mostly, though she spotted a handful of the green-clad St. Mungo's doctors scattered through the lot.
Harry, head down, stuffed Nagini in her pocket, and hissed at Blackscale, who slithered into the front of her robes.
She moved down the rows.
Who exactly she was looking for, she was still a little unsure. She… she had friends, sort of. And peers, in the other first-year girls. Maybe she just needed to know everyone was safe, that the Hogwarts she'd been growing to love hadn't been torn irreparably apart. Even Draco, who'd she'd known for all of an hour, had lessened a weight on her back when she saw him walking out.
The bed she'd taken last night was occupied by someone else now, a dark-skinned, older boy speaking rapidly to a tangle of relatives in a rhythmic, sliding language that she didn't recognize.
Down the line.
Most of the students seemed to be awake, and few bore signs of overt harm. A girl a half-dozen beds down had green-stained bandages wrapped round her mouth like a gag, and another girl a bit further than that levitated an inch off her blankets, held down with leather straps.
Just as she was beginning to be relieved, a boy heaved over the side of his bed into a bucket, retching red-black slime. The noise was enough to make her gag, and Harry had to rush to get by the adults streaming to his side.
She was just swallowing down her own bile when she saw him.
Pale, round-faced, hair mussed from sleep.
Neville smiled crookedly at her. "'lo, Harry."
Snape had said something about a poisoning. But it was another thing altogether to hear it in Neville's halting voice. The stuff of nightmares.
The Halloween Feast. Everyone talking, eating. Fred and George Weasley crowing about some gag they'd just pulled on another Gryffindor. And then someone had thrown up. Then a nosebleed. Coughing. Choking. Someone's skin blistering. Everyone starting to scream.
Neville had stopped talking for a moment there, gulping wetly until Harry handed him a glass of water from the bedside table.
"And then the lights went out," he whispered.
Harry nodded mutely. She'd seen that. And then Snape had come.
"I didn't see you there," he added. "Were you- did you get out alright?"
-look at me, you stupid girl-
Saying something would mean reliving it. She was already doing that well enough on her own. And Neville had quite enough to be getting on with.
"I wasn't at the feast. Wasn't hungry."
It was an easy lie to tell.
They had talked a bit more after that, but Harry couldn't quite find her words, and Neville was tired, full of enough potions that his eyes were drifting out of focus.
"I'll bring you that snake-vine," she promised him. "To help you feel better."
Neville smiled, eyelids starting to droop. "Thanks. Maybe..." He yawned cavernously. "Maybe you can meet my gran when she gets here. She's… she's probably getting the governors together."
"Maybe." And before she could stop herself, she reached out, tentatively, the motion stuttering, and squeezed his shoulder.
It was some time after that before she ran into anyone else she knew. Passing dozens of beds, each a scene of its own grief and worry, nearly all ringed with family, was coring her out, little by little.
Seeing Ron, one arm bound in a cast, had her almost breaking into a run, only to falter when she realized he had the largest group yet around him, a small army of red-heads, all of them within arm's reach of Ron like a protective circle.
She left them to their privacy.
Padma, silent and watchful, raw-eyed at her sister's bedside, her attention fixed on Parvati, the book in her lap forgotten.
Fawcett, brow damp with fever sweat. Sleeping. Harry left her undisturbed, stomach twisting at the sight.
Isobel, a shock of rainbow hair still lingering even a day after their sleepover. She was awake, clutching hands with her mother. Her father and older sister sat on opposite sides of the bed and talked to her in low voices.
Wan and awake, a bandage over one eye.
Her bedside was empty.
"Harry?" Su sat up, wincing as she did so, exposing more gauze around her forearms. "You're okay!"
Harry returned the other girl's smile. "I'm just fine. Are you-" Of course she wasn't okay. "-safe?"
Su lifted a bandaged hand, practically mummified with the amount of wrapping. "Better than I was. Healer Richmond was- he was here a minute ago, but he said I should be fine. No scarring or anything."
"I dunno." The other girl shrugged. "Thought a coupla scars might be cool looking."
Her own scar itched, hidden beneath bangs and bandanna. Harry couldn't quite manage an answer after that. Instead, she glanced around, checking for Richmond.
"You ah… shouldn't bother," Su said. Her voice had flattened, any vibrancy departing. "My family aren't here. Muggleborn, and all that. Dunno if they even told them, but there's no way they'd be able to come up even if they knew."
Harry's jaw dropped. "That's dreadful."
"Yeah. Didn't really think about it much till now, but there's not a whole lot my parents can do, you know?" Su grimaced. "Sorry to be so down. It's stupid, but- maybe it'd be easier to be an orphan. I-" She stiffened in bed, features suddenly a mask of horror. "I didn't mean that. What a god-awful thing to say, Harry. Sorry."
"It's fine. I know what you mean."
And the weird thing was, it really was fine. Because Su was right. Better to have never had something than to have had and lost.
They both looked awkwardly around for a moment, the tension broken slightly, but the flow of conversation also jarred to a halt.
"So..." Su scratched at one of her bandages. "You think I could make a break for it? All these sick people are driving me spare."
"I could be the distraction?"
They managed to talk for a while after that. Most of the conversation had been on similar ground as with Neville. Talking about the feast. What had happened. What Su had been doing, ("Started blistering all over, and then I kinda puked in Marietta Edgecombe's lap."), and where Harry had been.
She'd lied again, and thought nothing of it. When the other person in a conversation had three-fourths of their body covered in gauze, she was allowed to sugar-coat things.
They were just speculating on whether it was a prank gone wrong when a St. Mungo's witch bustled over. Su needed to have her bandages changed every two hours, and, judging by her walk-to-the-gallows expression, it was exactly as fun as it sounded.
Harry bid her farewell, curtains were drawn around the bed, and she departed. A tall boy sitting in a bed waved as she walked past, and Harry waved back absently, but didn't recognize him. He didn't do anything else but stare at her, so she kept walking.
Ten steps later, and she'd forgotten him entirely as all the anxiety she'd been suppressing resurfaced at once.
Time to meet the headmaster.
She found herself talking to Blackscale on the walk over. Not really saying anything, just sort of letting her thoughts flow out of her as they came. Blackscale, for his part, mostly nodded along as she poured out an endless list of worries.
Expulsion could still happen somehow, knowing her luck. Detention. Public shaming. What if they told the Dursleys? Did Hogwarts do suspensions? ...did they have caning? Or worse. What kind of punishments could one mete out with magic?
One hand found Nagini, holding the tiny serpent protectively. The faint, rapid patter of the snake's heart against her fingertips helped calm her, just a little.
A gargoyle on the second floor. The destination was deep in the castle. She sensed vaguely, like a bird finding north, that this was near the heart of Hogwarts. And the magic did seem to be converging here, not as clearly perceptible as with people, but more like an undercurrent to the vast river that was the school.
A revolving staircase sent her up and up and up. As she rose, she found her palms sweating, her grip on Blackscale more like a lifeline.
The stairway came to a halt. A door ahead, knocker shaped like a griffin's head.
She tapped it. Click. Clack. Clack. Waited, hand outstretched.
The door creaked open.
The office beyond was more keenly a magician's atelier than any of the other offices she'd seen so far. Whirring, clicking devices made of silver thrummed along on the shelves, row upon row of magical portraits of slumbering witches and wizards ringed the walls, all of it loomed over by an enormous clockwork pendulum on a landing above.
The headmaster himself, though, was nowhere to be seen.
Harry padded in, head swiveling, uncomfortably reminded of her entrance to Quirrel's chambers earlier. A cuckoo clock hanging above one of the shelves read precisely 11 o'clock, so it wasn't like she was early or late.
Careful, cautious steps carried her further in. She half-expected for Dumbledore to be lurking behind a shelf, trying to make a dramatic entrance, though why that would be, she wasn't sure. The office was empty, though not silent. The devices added a quiet rhythm to the background, and several of the sleeping portraits were snoring or breathing loudly.
When, after staring around wildly for several minutes, Dumbledore failed to materialize, Harry loosened. Perhaps he was simply busy or he'd forgotten. Certainly he had more important things to do than meet her.
...at least there was no shortage of things to look at. Dumbledore had even more books than Quirrel, though the room smelled not of old parchment or paper, but a hint of peppermint. She walked, hands folded behind her back, looking, as Aunt Petunia had always insisted, "with her eyes, not her hands."
Much like Quirrel, most of the books were ancient looking, all worn leather and iron bindings, the titles written in elaborate runes. But unlike Quirrel, there were outliers. A copy of A Midsummer Night's Dream sat in between two potions manuals, and a dog-eared edition of something called The City and the Pillarrubbed shoulders with two fat numerology tomes.
There were more, now that she looked, picking out the smaller spines, brighter colors at a glance. Muggle books.
Curious, she moved about the office more readily, taking in the vast collection of books. Books on every type of magic, shelved with no particular order she could recognize, but always interspersed, so just as her eye was growing used to grimoires, something mundane popped up. A gardening guide for the English countryside. A book of poetry. Knitting patterns.
It was… it was like going to a library and instead getting a cross-section of the headmaster's interests. If she wasn't in trouble, she'd be very tempted to ask him about his collection. It-
Harry jerked around, heart suddenly dropping then rebounding sharply.
A creature- a bird, sitting atop a perch beside the door, looked back at her. It had remained motionless until now, and she hadn't noticed it.
Perhaps the size of a swan, it was brilliant red, plumage gradating from crimson to orange to bronze, a tail as long as peacock's hanging below its perch.
It was magical. She could feel it, like it had been hiding itself until now. A ball of sun and flame. Gentle spring morning now, but it could burn like summer if it had to. The inky eyes staring from above its golden beak were intelligent, far more than the cool gaze of a normal raptor. Like a step above even the magical birds used to carry the post.
"Hello," Harry said. After a moment of hesitation, she bowed her head to the bird.
The bird tilted its head, then nodded back at her.
"I- uhm, was supposed to see the Headmaster. Is it okay that I'm here?"
"Oh. Okay then." She fidgeted in place. The bird was too smart to be a mere pet, and after glancing through his shelves, she was certain such a thing wasn't to Dumbledore's tastes anyway. Maybe it was a… what was the word Quirrel had used?
"Are you the Headmaster's familiar?"
The bird turned its head fully to one side, crested skull in profile. She could see herself reflected in its eye. And then it nodded.
Part of her was curious as to what it would be like to reach out to it, to let her magic touch the bird's, just like she'd reached out to Malfoy's bird the day before. But that was also a patently stupid idea. This bird was so blatantly supernatural and intelligent, it would be like legilimizing a person.
Oh… she should probably apologize to Malfoy's owl. Also, it was clearly aligned with fire in some way, and sticking her magic into that was probably as good an idea as poking her hand into a furnace.
Something as bright and wonderful as this creature didn't need her tainted hands on it anyway.
The bird chirped at her, turning its head to look at her with the other eye. Examining? Scolding? There were limits to bird body language.
"Um… I'm Harry, by the way." She fidgeted on the spot for a bit, not really certain of what to talk about with the bird. A glance around. "Does- does the Headmaster read any of his books to you? I do that with Fluffy. He's the uh- cerberus that lives upstairs. Do you know him?"
Nod. Then the bird shifted on its perch and jabbed at a book on the nearest shelf with its beak. Harry leaned in to read the spine. E. Nesbit's The Phoenix and the Carpet.
Stared. A double-take at the bird.
"You're a phoenix?" Another glance back and forth. "Isn't that a bit on the nose for your favorite book?"
The bird- the phoenix, gave a short, indignant squawk, and fluffed its plumage.
"Sorry. I'm sure it's very… insightful."
From behind her, there was a quiet laugh, and then someone spoke. "You'll have to forgive Fawkes. He is quite defensive when it comes to literature."
Harry yelped and spun on her heel, nearly toppling into the phoenix's perch.
Headmaster Dumbledore stood beside his desk, one hand resting atop it.
He smiled at her, not unkindly. "Good morning, Harry."
Her heart had jumped into her throat when Dumbledore surprised her, and it hadn't come down. Didn't feel like it would, judging by the rapid, frantic beat it was currently setting.
"I must confess," he said, "that our meeting slipped my mind. I was in a hurry and thought to save time by apparating into my office."
He said that, but he could very well have been there the whole time. Watching. Trying to see what she would do. Aunt Petunia had pulled that one a few times.
"May I offer you anything? Tea? A strawberry drop?"
Harry blinked, still off-guard. "I- no thank you, sir."
His lips quirked. "A shame. I switched brands after Professor McGonagall informed me my lemon drops were universally loathed, and I'm quite fond of them." He popped a red candy in his mouth. "Please, take a seat." He motioned to a chair before his desk, taking his own seat in turn.
Twice in one day that a teacher had asked her that. And her nerves here put her time with Quirrel to shame.
She sat. This much was familiar. A straight-backed chair, lightly padded, dead center before a teacher's desk.
She had seen the headmaster before, but never up-close. And meeting him face to face was… an experience. Not just because he was dressed in brilliant purple and vermilion robes, and had a band of brass holding his beard in check. But all of it. Him. The jovial smile. His magic, a sedate flow of molten gold.
That last was the strangest. Because much like the phoenix, she had not been able to sense him until she sat. Could he hide his presence somehow? Was that like how Quirrel could shift what magic was at the fore?
"How are you feeling?"
She looked up. Dumbledore was watching her over his semi-circular glasses. Not with the same intensity she'd gotten from Quirrel, but his focus, his attention was unmistakably on her.
"A bit tired." She was tired of this day. As much as she wanted to meet up with Quirrel again, her thoughts were drifting more to the bottle of dreamless sleep she had in her bag. Why couldn't things just stop for a moment?
But her classmates in the hospital wing certainly had it worse, didn't they?
"It could be worse," she added hurriedly.
"I see." His eyebrows drooped, his face contrite. "Madame Pomfrey mentioned that you left the infirmary last night."
"You're not in trouble, Harry. Considering all that occurred, all that you endured, I can hardly blame you for wanting to be away. She was not terribly pleased with you though, so I would recommend against a repeat performance."
Harry nodded, trying to keep her face blank. This felt like a situation leading up to a "But."
Dumbledore sighed. "You are not in trouble," he repeated, sounding weary. "What happened was not your fault, nor do I believe you to have any involvement in the incident at the feast."
Some of the pressure around her heart eased.
Harry swallowed. "Did they um- find out who did it?"
He looked at her. There was that careful, weighing expression again. "It is being investigated. All of Hogwart's staff are involved, as is the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. A number of aurors should be arriving… any moment now, actually."
She nodded, though she wasn't sure what that meant.
Dumbledore carded fingers through his beard for a moment. "I owe you an apology for last night. I was aware that you visited the third-floor corridor frequently, but I allowed it to continue." He read her raised eyebrows correctly. "There is nothing wrong with desiring time alone, or having an interest in magical creatures. As long as you weren't attempting to gain entrance to the trapdoor, there seemed to be little harm in allowing you there."
Trapdoor? She'd assumed it was just storage or Fluffy's toilet or something…
"However," Dumbledore said gently, "I cannot permit you to return. It is forbidden for a reason, and I fear you would only be exposed to more harm, even if only collateral, by remaining."
Her stomach fell. She wouldn't get to see Fluffy again?
But it was hardly a surprise now, was it? Stranger if he'd let her keep going, really.
And so Harry shut her eyes and forced herself to nod. "Yes, sir."
She wanted to hold onto Blackscale. Something to anchor her while she was adrift in unknown territory. But he was beneath her shirt and out of reach.
"Hagrid will see that Fluffy is well cared for. I would assume he was the one who introduced you in the first place?" When she nodded, Dumbledore smiled. "Perhaps we can channel your interest in magical creatures in a more positive direction. Would you be interested in using a free period or two every week to assist Professor Kettleburn with his Care of Magical Creatures classes?"
Harry blinked, and found herself staring at the headmaster.
"Don't tell him I said this, but Professor Kettleburn is getting on in years, and his magical limbs have seen better days. He could use a pair of young hands to help him set up. Why, I remember just last semester when he-" The phoenix squawked from across the room, and Dumbledore broke off with a cough. "I digress. It would only be on your free periods, and possibly during the weekend if he needs you, though you're under no obligation to do so."
She bit her lip. Her first impulse was that this was a punishment wrapped up like a gift, and that she wasn't actually allowed to say no, but it didn't really feel like that. But better to say yes rather than risk turning Dumbledore against her and souring what seemed like a good mood.
Also… she'd glimpsed a few Care of Magical Creatures lessons from afar, and Hagrid had spoken of them before. They sounded amazing.
"Yes, sir. I- um, that would be nice, sir."
"Wonderful!" Dumbledore clapped his hands together. "Silvanus will be overjoyed to have some assistance."
Harry nodded, shifting on her chair. The other shoe was going to drop now, wasn't it?
"Now, I know you're already out and about, but if anything changes, I would like you to go straight to Madame Pomfrey. Even if she is busy, she will make time for an ill student."
"Excellent. I did have one more request before you leave, though."
She could see it coming before he said anything. Dumbledore shut his eyes for a moment, seeming to gather his thoughts. When he opened them, his brows were knit, and the hand that rose slowly to adjust his glasses was stiff and slow.
The other shoe.
"I ask that you keep the events of Halloween involving yourself and Professor Snape confidential." Dumbledore paused, his face grim. "He acted… rashly. He was injured and not thinking clearly, and I believe his fear got the better of him. But what he did was not right. The harm he did you, no little matter."
Her eyes itched. Harry swallowed furiously.
"It is cruel of me to ask you to bear this burden, and I do not ask you to forgive him, but I believe that speaking of it will only harm the both of you more in the long-term."
Who could she even tell? Just the thought of retelling it made her queasy. Reliving it, again and again, not just in her head, but having to rip it open and tell other people? She'd lied to Su and Neville for a reason.
Look at me.
There was something in her throat.
Look at me, Potter. Who sent you?
Her breath hitched, and she shuddered, skin crawling.
The words didn't come. Would not come.
Dumbledore's blue eyes had stopped twinkling, the smile-lines around his mouth creased into a grimace. He could see her struggling.
"Harry," he said, voice soft. "Discretion, not silence. If you need to talk to someone, a trusted adult- myself, Professor Flitwick, Madame Pomfrey, Hagrid. Any of Hogwart's staff are available to you."
The burning in her eyes was getting worse. What would Hagrid say if she told him? Or did he already know? Was he going to look at her from now on, and all she'd see was pity in his face?
She managed a spasmodic nod.
Dumbledore did not smile. He nodded back, shoulders bowed. "Thank you. I-" He paused, tilting his head to one side, as though listening. "Ah, but it seems the school governors are here."
Harry stood up fast enough to scrape her chair's legs across the stone. Excuses rushed to her lips. I don't want to be a bother. Do you need to meet them? Should I leave?
But she didn't manage to get any of them out before the headmaster motioned to the door. It swung open, though she felt no magic.
"You may go."
She nodded, mouthed a thanks, and turned toward the door.
She froze, but did not turn.
"Please remember what I said. If you need someone to talk to, there are adults who have been where you are. Hogwarts protects its own. What Professor Snape did to you will not happen again."
"Yes, sir," Harry said, barely a whisper.
And then she was moving, hand already digging into her robes for Blackscale, the door closing behind her.
Down the stairs.
A crowd of men and women at the gargoyle, boiling inside as it stepped aside, nearly trampling Harry in their haste.
She barely noticed them, too wrapped up in her head to pay attention. The potion Quirrel had given her seemed to be wearing down, and her thoughts were beginning to pile up again, cluttering and jumbling.
The day had been too full. The continuation to a night that was already too much to cogitate.
Dumbledore. Quirrel. Snape.
What was she supposed to make of it all?
It won't happen again.
She wished she could believe it.
Her feet carried her, and surprised her by turning right at the stairs, not ascending, but crossing the hall to another corridor.
Occlumency was worth more than any empty promises from Dumbledore.
Were they empty though, or was she just being cynical? She barely knew him.
Barely knew Quirrel.
Had thought she'd known Snape.
Harry pressed a hand to her temple. The headache was coming back too.
Had to get into those potions Quirrel had given her. Maybe there'd be more of that… what had he called it? Invigoration draught?
Her eyes were tired too. Not just sleepless-tired, but sore in a way that gave her terrifying thoughts about Snape's Legilimency.
Look at me.
A mental attack causesmental injury.
Then why did everything else hurt so damned much?
She stumbled through the second floor.
The door was there. Locked, as she had left it.
Open. And close.
Wand in hand, just in case. Lights extinguished.
Numb, shaking hands groping in her bag for a potion.
The glass of Dreamless Sleep was cool, the liquid inside midnight-blue.
A small label on the outside read 'One small sip at bedtime.'
She took a mouthful.
Barely enough time to cork the bottle before she dropped like a stone onto Quirrel's loveseat.
Sleep obliterated her.
Waking was instantaneous. Slow opening eyes. A fireplace. A strange texture- not her bed. The blanket, also not hers. An unfamiliar ceiling.
Harry sat up, blanket falling away, blinking sleep away.
The faint scent of books and dust brought her back to reality.
She stood, wincing as cold soaked through her socks and-
...had someone taken her shoes off?
She padded out of the parlour, blanket wrapped around her like a cloak, moving with a dreamy sort of stagger. Out of sorts was the best word for it. Waking up in a strange place, wearing a strange skin to go with it, the whole world just a bit sideways feeling.
The windows in Quirrel's office were dark, the sky outside black. The interior was well-lit, candles brighter than they should be, chasing shadows away.
Quirrel was at his desk, sleeves tied back, bent over an array of small dishes and beakers. He didn't look up when she entered, but his magic, like a colorless fog around her ankles, was aware and watchful.
It was only when she moved to look over his shoulder that he stopped measuring potions into a dish.
"How do you feel?"
She swallowed. Dry mouth. A soreness in her jaw like she'd been clenching her teeth in her sleep. But her headache was barely a twinge around the backs of her eyes, her fatigue more spiritual than physical.
"Enough to bond a familiar?" Quirrel finally turned from his work, and Harry blinked in surprise, one hand to her throat, when she saw that he had Blackscale and Nagini sitting on his desktop.
What had he said about it? They would make it harder to legilimize her?
"I think so."
He smiled. "Good. Take a seat. Socks and robes off."
"What?" Harry hesitated, caught off-guard by the oddness of it.
Quirrel pointed to one of the beakers. "I'm going to be drawing runes on your skin. So unless you'd like to do it like the Sumerians did, and write it on stones that you swallow..." He cast an unimpressed look at her. "They are not small stones, and they are sharp. The Sumerians were great believers in pain."
Harry started unbuttoning her robes.
What followed proceeded with almost dizzy rapidity.
Harry removed her outer robes, rolled up her sleeves, and then put her hair up, using the bandanna to tie it back. She dipped her hands in a small basin of clear, cold water, then at Quirrel's instructions, washed her face and forearms.
She sat. He knelt.
There was a knife in his hand. Small and silver. The edges were dull, but the point was not. Quirrel took her hand in his and pressed the knife tip to the center of her palm.
"This is going to hurt. The act of sacrifice gives the ritual power."
It did sting, but the cut was shallow, and he talked to her the whole time, voice low and steady.
"Cleansing, followed by bloodletting with an athame. We mix the blood with the ink- I've already prepared it. If you do this in the future, remember that this isn't the stuff you write your essays in. It's an alchemical compound."
The ink was pitch black, and even when he tipped her hand over the dish, the mixture neither changed color nor rose. After, Quirrel nodded, and Harry episkeyed her cut closed.
He took one of the paintbrushes, cleansed the tip in the water, and then dipped it in the ink.
"By taking Nagini as a familiar, you link her life to yours. The bond runs both ways: you gain a resistance to certain types of magic, including legilimency, due to having her mind touching yours. In return, your magic will bleed into her. She will live as long as you do, become larger, smarter, greater than a normal serpent, and she is hardly that to begin with."
Harry nodded, but her eyes fell not on Nagini, but on Blackscale, waiting patiently beside the smaller snake on the desk.
She held up a hand. "Um. Sir."
Quirrel stopped, paintbrush hovering over her hand. "Yes?"
"Would we be able to include Blackscale as a familiar? I- um, don't want him to die either."
They both looked at Blackscale. The adder lifted his head.
His tongue flickered.
"I am not interested."
Harry jerked forward in her chair. "What? Why?!"
"I am not part of the endless Ouroboros. If I join with you, I will be. Instead, I will shed my skins until they are gone, and when I shed my body, I will rejoin the gods."
She stared, uncomprehending. Beside her, Quirrel was curling his lip.
"Idiot snake," he said. "What would you know of eternity?"
Blackscale shuffled his coils, resettling on the desktop. "It is not for my kind."
Harry shook her head. Just when she thought she understood him… "If you don't want to, I won't force it." She turned to Quirrel. "If he changes his mind, can I bond him later?"
Blackscale had put his head back down. "I will not."
Quirrel rolled his eyes. "Shall we begin now?"
The first strokes were ticklish, the liquid chilly. The cold stone beneath her bare feet made her shiver at first, but only until Quirrel noticed, muttered something under his breath, and the floor warmed.
They were halfway through the ritual before it really started to sink in. Harry sat motionless as the professor daubed symbols on her skin. He'd begun at her hands, but was steadily working his way up her arms.
"What I'm doing now is drawing the runes that form the body of the spell." He'd switched back to English; some of the words he was using didn't have a parselmouth equivalent. "Runes are useful in that they combine intent-based magic with symbol-based. The shape of the symbol shapes the flow of magic, but the intent gives it further latitude."
The ink was cool, and he was writing with a tiny paintbrush. It was… ticklish, but she was putting all her effort into not sighing with relief, because it was finally sinking in that this was happening. She was apprenticed to Quirrel, and he was going to teach her to keep Snape out and survival spells and- everything.
"If you'll notice, we're using mostly the Germanic derived runes for this portion. This one here." He tapped her wrist, drawing her eye to a rune shaped like… like her scar? "The sowilo. Likely the basis of the ritual your mother used to protect you from the Dark Lord. A keen choice on her part."
Harry stiffened as much as she was able. No one had ever said anything about that night except Hagrid. "Did- did you know my mother, sir?"
He didn't look up from his painting. "Only in passing."
Inked runes marked her from wrist to elbow, and he'd changed places. Odd, root-like spirals on the tops of her feet. A crescent moon at the base of her throat. And then more, slick lines drawn over the skin of her neck, climbing steadily toward her face.
Quirrel was leaning in, eyes narrowed as he focused on his work. She was getting goosebumps that had nothing to do with his magic or the weather, and everything to do with his proximity. He was close, very close. More than anyone she could remember willingly being close to her, and for longer.
Each dexterous stroke and brush had an artist's precision, and the care he was putting into it was… it meant a lot to her, if that made sense. That he would not only protect her, but that he really was willing to put in the work to teach her.
It was sinking in.
When he lifted the brush to start on her cheeks, Harry had to force away a small smile.
Hoooh boy, this one was a slog. Where the last chapter was a struggle because I needed it to be perfect and just didn't have the muse, this one was a slog because I published 3 chapters of other stuff in the interval, and had other fics I was much more enthusiastic to write, and this is basically a transitional chapter. It needed to happen, and we've got plot hooks for a lot of stuff to come, but it's a very uneven chapter, or it feels uneven to me. It definitely doesn't feel as polished as my usual stuff, but I just want to get it out so I can move on.
Went through a couple different concepts, with Harry's meeting with Dumbledore being the sticking point. I wanted to have something in the style of the rest of the fic- an unorthodox take on a situation, and just couldn't get a Dumbledore and Harry dialogue to work in unusual circumstances, and not with Harry's nerves driving her. The diversion ended up being Dumbledore being far away from her expectations, and the Care of Magical Creatures element.
This almost ended up being an Interlude chapter, running through the POVs of several different characters. It was... basically this, but running through Blackscale in a similar scene to the beginning where he bites her, Quirrel attending the teacher's conference, Harry for the hospital wing, then Dumbledore for the meeting, ending with Quirrelmort and the familiar binding.
This might get rewritten if there's something egregiously wrong I've missed, so sound off if you notice anything.
Next chapter is going to be another time-skipping one in the vein of the timeskip preceding Nagini's hatching, probably running up to Christmas.