The room hadn't changed much from the brief time Harry had spent there in his fourth year. The only noticeable difference in fact was a chair placed in the middle of the floor with a familiar old and very battered hat on top of it.
"This, Mr and Miss Himura, is the sorting hat," McGonagall proclaimed as she strode over and lifted it off the chair.
"Every year we sort the first years into the house best suited to them and their needs with this. All you need to do is put it on your head. Oh, not you Miss Himura, just your brother."
Lily had peered curiously out at the room but had buried her face back in Harry's neck with McGonagall's explanation.
Harry nodded and tried to put Lily down, but she clung to him like a limpet and whimpered.
"Would it be alright, Professor, if I do this with Sayuri on my lap? She's tired and stressed."
McGonogall looked a little bemused but then nodded.
"I don't see why not, she shouldn't affect the outcome in any way."
Harry managed to shift Lily around, so when he sat in the chair she was planted comfortably in his lap. If anything once Harry was seated, Lily tightened her grip even more.
"It's alright, nothing bad is going to happen," he whispered to her soothingly while running a hand up and down her back. She simply shook her head and buried herself even deeper into Harry's robes.
"Ready? Right then."
Harry expected the hat to slide down until it completely covered his eyes, just like it had last time, and while it did slide down a little too far he found he could still see. Well, even if it wasn't by much it was a little heartening to see that he had grown since he'd been a first year.
-What's this? My goodness, what's this? I was thoroughly unprepared to meet you again so soon.-
'What?' Harry responded, more than a little startled. 'So you expected to meet me again?'
-Oh yes, yes,- the hat murmured distractedly. -When you awakened, but I thought it would be something that would happen to you when you were much older. Oh, your Inheritance, of course. I should have considered that.-
'Right,' was all Harry could weakly respond with.
-Oh dear, you're quite a mess aren't you. There are huge sections of your mind completely locked away. I can't get to them at all, although I have to commend you on your Occlumency skills for the rest. Turning like you did can't have been easy. I was concerned about it when I first met you, but alas I could not warn you.-
'Why couldn't you?' Harry asked, anger rising. He felt the gentle presence of the hat in his mind pull back in some alarm.
-Goodness, please be careful! With your power you could incinerate me with a simple thought!-
'Really? Sorry.' Harry drew in a deep breath, let it out, and then ducked his head a bit to bury his nose in the calming scent of Lily's hair.
He felt as though his words were insincere. He knew his powers had grown, but no matter how much the Malfoy's, Severus, Abunai, or Kurai had tried to explain it, he hadn't been able to bring himself to believe that he was as powerful as they seemed to think. He felt it was more smoke and mirrors, showy but not that much different from what they used to be. He hadn't blasted desks apart like Ron (ignoring that rather… explosive experience down by the lake at the manor,) nor had he woken to find all of the furniture floating like Katie Bell did. There hadn't really been anything that he could put his finger on. Yes, his spells were all noticeably stronger, and he could do wandless magic, but apparently that was a given when becoming a vampire. He guessed that that was the real problem: he couldn't tell what differences were because of his increased magic, or were because of his new vampirism.
-Quite a conundrum indeed. It's fine, dear boy, but it will probably take you a while more to get used to your new strength. Be careful with your emotions as you will probably be prone to random magical outbursts when you're feeling something excessively.-
'Great,' he couldn't be more sarcastic if he tried.
The hat laughed, which felt strange echoing around the inside of Harry's head.
'So why couldn't you tell me then? A little heads up would have been nice.'
The hat sighed.
-While I have become more sentient over the centuries due to being constantly saturated in magic from the students, teachers, and Hogwarts itself, I am still merely an animated object and so what I can and cannot do is strictly bound by the parameters of the spell that gave me that first spark of life. I can see a person's potential and the different facets of their personality, but I cannot tell them directly, I can merely put them in the house that I feel will best help them grow into that potential. I wanted you to go in Slytherin because I knew that Professor Snape was the Head of it, and that Draco Malfoy would be in your year. Of course it was only after I sorted you that I found Blaise Zabini would have been with you too. They would have helped you acclimatise when you learned that you weren't human, but I must also abide by the person's wishes if they don't want to be placed somewhere; something which has caused me much grief over the years.-
'How so? Surely if someone really didn't want to go into Hufflepuff for instance, then it wouldn't do them any good going there?'
-Ah, it's complicated, and sometimes a student being placed in a different house than the one they should have been in can work out, but more often than not it doesn't. They either don't fulfil their true potential, or they deny their true personalities and end up miserable. Usually a child won't want to go into a particular house because of prejudice they've been taught or simply because their friends have gone somewhere else. Tell me, why were you, who only learned about the magical world a few days before you came to Hogwarts, so set on not ending up in Slytherin?-
The question startled Harry and his mind spiralled back to a scared eleven year old entering a world he knew next to nothing about.
'Well I guess it was because Hagrid told me that the man who murdered my parents was from Slytherin, and that Draco, who told me he was going to become one, was a bully.'
-Merely that you were so quick to negatively judge a group of people based on the childish actions of one and the hearsay of another. I mean, you had no way of proving that what Hagrid had said to you at the time was even true and you'd always doubted the word of an adult before, so why were you so quick to believe him?-
'Hey, c'mon, I was a kid.'
-Indeed you were, and yet you more than most knew what it felt like to be hated for something you can't control.-
'Yeah, and I didn't want to experience that again.'
-But you have, haven't you? Any time you did something that didn't fit with the 'Golden Gryffindor' image they had of you.-
Harry remembered the times almost all of the school had turned on him and treated him as though he was a leper.
-Ah, yes. Those were hard times for you. So scared of being hated for something you couldn't control again, just like your childhood. I hate to say it, but you would not have experienced that in Slytherin. While the rest of the school may have turned on you, most, if not all of the serpents' house would have rallied around you, even if they didn't personally like you. They protect their own, because no-one else does.-
'Enough,' Harry warned.
-I am not saying that your want to stay with your new friend, Ronald Weasley, as well as wanting to stay out of the house of the man who killed your parents was wrong, but I have to wonder if your intense prejudice towards the Slytherin's that you so easily fell into was displaced from something else?-
The returning anger bubbled away to confusion and the hat continued.
-You have a lot of anger towards your muggle family, the muggle neighbours who knew something was going on with how your 'family' treated you and ignored it, the muggle children at your primary school who refused to even speak to you out of fear of your cousin but then would laugh and egg him on when he attacked you, and the way the muggle teachers knew what was happening and looked the other way. Indeed, I don't think you encountered a single muggle, unless it was in passing, who treated you fairly when you were growing up. You have so much rage towards them, so it would be easily understandable for a child given a chance at a new life to turn that rage to hatred towards them in their entirety – to become a 'muggle hater'. For all you knew back then every muggle was like that. Instead though you took that blind hatred and directed it at the Slytherin's, yet you must have been smart enough to realise that not every dark witch and wizard came from that House. Why, Pettigrew came from Gryffindor, and without him switching sides your parents could very easily still be alive. So why just Slytherin? Why?-
'I'm a teenager,' Harry snapped, automatically on the defensive and trying to make light of his terrible childhood. 'Teenagers are supposed to be angry.'
-Ah, yes, sixteen. So young. So very, very, young. Yet you have taken on the burden of another life. All of your feelings around her are… complicated.-
'I'm of age,' Harry was a straw's width away from panicking as he was reminded yet again of what a mess bringing Lily into his life had become.
-Yes,- the hat sighed. –And that law was enforced around the time Hogwarts was built. It has long been outdated, doing more harm than good, and yet another thing in this world that needs to be shaken up. Our world has become stagnant, Mr Potter, never changing. Always the same tired old laws and rules, the same outdated mind-sets, because no-one seems to be up to the task of tackling it. It's comfortable for most, if they stay within those narrow lines, and it's easy, it's what they know, and so they're too scared to even consider doing what needs to be done.-
With everything else going on this was not something Harry wanted to analyse now. It was too big and he felt as though he wouldn't like the answer. He could feel Lily shifting uncertainly in his lap, and McGonagall muttered something about it taking an unusually long time. He had bigger priorities to worry about then how he had once thought. As for the wizarding world …even the concept of it being thought of as the 'wizarding' world was outdated. He didn't even know if he could do anything there. He had a war to fight.
-I can understand that,- that hat chipped in, annoyingly reading his every passing thought.- I just wanted to give you something to think about. Be careful you don't fall back into that way of thinking when you've made so much progress.-
'Fine, I'll think it over,' Harry agreed. 'Now can we please move on?'
-Of course!- The hat sounded positively gleeful. -So are you finally ready to go where you should have?-
'I am,' Harry thought unequivocally.
-Excellent. Well, I have a feeling this will not be the last time we talk. I wish you all the luck in the world, for you have a hard path ahead of you I think. I hope you can find some sense of peace in- "Slytherin!"
Harry all but wrenched the hat off his head and thrust it towards McGonagall, but then was distracted by Lily cooing as silver and green stipes streaked their way across his formally blank tie, and the Slytherin crest appearing on his robes. So that was it then, he really was back and a Slytherin to boot.
McGonagall was a little tight lipped as she congratulated him, her house pride clear to see as she informed him that his new head of house, Professor Snape, would escort him and Lily to their new quarters after the welcome feast, and that his cat (who was still in his cat box, apparently fast asleep although Harry knew better) would be sent on ahead.
"Now then, if you would please follow me I will take you into the Great Hall. I'll show you to your table and then I must go to get the first years as I'm already late in collecting them. Honestly, I haven't seen a sorting take so long in many a year."
Feeling more than a little chastised, Harry got up with Lily still in his arms and followed McGonagall who was striding quickly towards the door that led straight into the Great Hall. She paused only long enough to pick up a stool waiting beside the door to go along with the hat, in which time Harry saw a house elf appear and gently pick up Griffin's cat box. Then Harry was stepping out into a room full of so many memories he felt overwhelmed for a second.
They'd come out, as he knew they would, behind the staff table, and so few people had noticed them yet.
McGonagall stopped at the staff table only long enough to murmur something to both Dumbledore and Snape, the former of whom Harry could only see the back of the head and shoulder of, while the latter twisted around to meet his eyes and give him a small nod. Harry nodded back, feeling a strangely deep sense of relief in seeing Severus again.
As McGonagall led Harry and Lily around the staff table and over to the Slytherin's more and more people noticed them. By the time Draco and Blaise rose to greet them and to sit them between them both, Harry on Draco's side and Lily on Blaise's, over half the hall was staring and whispering curiously.
When no explanation was forthcoming, what with McGonagall hurrying off to set up the hat on the stool and then stalking swiftly between the tables to go and get the first years, most of the students went back to their own conversations, although they would keep glancing over at him.
For Harry himself it was an increasingly strange experience to be in a place he knew so well and for it to be, at the same time, utterly new to him: he'd never sat at the Slytherin table before and so was fighting the strong impulse telling him that he was on the wrong side of the room. Combined with that was that he'd not been to Hogwarts since his turning, so he was now taking in the room with much sharper senses: he could smell the polish used on the tables, the almost overwhelming scent of new clothes coming from practically everyone, and the way more than a few people were sweating along with almost visible clouds of perfume and cologne that made him want to gag. He could make out the faint pattern of the rafters beyond the spell showing the night sky and see strange gouges in the stone higher up that spoke of violence. The most difficult thing he would have to get used to however was the way everyone's voices bounced off the walls, amplifying them to his already sensitive ears.
"Don't worry, you'll get used to it."
Harry blinked open eyes he hadn't been aware he'd shut and lowered the hand he'd been pressing against his ear. He looked over Lily's head at Blaise and saw an understanding smile.
"I don't see how you can," Harry grumbled. Blaise in response subtly waved his fingers, casting a privacy spell and slightly muffling the sounds around them, then leaned in a little more.
"You will, I promise. We weren't prepared for it last year, were we, Draco?"
Harry looked back and forth between them.
"Last year? But you've-"
"Been vampires the whole time? Yes, we have," Draco finished for him, putting an elbow onto the table and dropping his chin into his hand before sending Harry a lazy smile. "But if our kind is to attend school outside of any of the vampire-only cities as children then we have to take a suppressant, to dull our speed, strength, and senses to a more 'human' level. Kids will be kids and they can't hide what they are all the time. Accidents will happen and so we have to take it. Last year was the first year we were allowed to attempt to stay in control on our own, but we still had to take the potion a few times, like I always had to take one before a Quidditch match because you pushed me so much I couldn't help giving it my all."
Harry couldn't help smiling at that, glad that Draco hadn't been purposely holding back on him (not that he thought that Draco could) during their previous matches. It would have soured any memory he had of Quidditch, especially now he was under strict orders not to fly since his style was so recognisable, if he'd found out Draco had been letting him win on purpose.
Draco grinned back and nudged his shoulder.
"If it is too much I'm sure Sev will be happy to get some of the suppressant for you, but you'll just be in exactly the same situation every time you come off it. Give it time and your body will adjust."
Harry thought about it for a second and then nodded.
"You're right. I think it's best to just let myself adjust."
Blaise must have dropped the spell because the sound fully came back, sharp and grating.
"You know," Harry said while trying not to wince. "Even if it takes some adjustment, doesn't it seem a little too loud?"
Blaise and Draco looked around and Harry wondered if they were realising the same thing he had.
While the welcoming feast was always pretty noisy, what with friends reuniting and catching each other up with what they'd done that summer, or bemoaning being back at school, there had always been a cheerful, relaxed edge to it. Now however there was tension; people were speaking more shrilly and then darting their head around in apparent agitation, few looked happy or relaxed to be back and most people were frowning or looking around worriedly while some sat in solemnity.
"You're right. I thought it was odd when I came in, but I figured it might be because I was stressing about where you would end up," Draco agreed turning back to him, a slight frown creasing his otherwise unblemished forehead. "I guess it could be more of them worried about the war, but most are usually reassured to be behind Hogwarts defences," he mused.
"Well it's not too hard to figure out why, when you think about it," Blaise intoned as he crossed his arms and leaned back. When Harry and Draco stared expectantly at him he sighed and jerked his head towards the other tables.
"Have a look at the other tables and see if you can work it out by who's reacting the worst. That's all I'm giving you."
Harry looked and now he finally had the time to really pay attention as his body started to gradually adjust to the sensitivity overload he could start to work it out: the Ravenclaws, nearest the Slytherin table were predominantly talking quietly but emphatically amongst themselves. Every now and then one of them would stand, facing away from the Slytherin table, and would crane their head as though they were trying to make something out. Then they would sit and tell their findings to the group they were with, which everyone for some reason seemed displeased by, and then someone else would stand and the process would begin again.
The Hufflepuff table beyond the Ravenclaws was practically humming with concern. The House seemed split between worry and attempting to comfort whoever they thought needed it, resulting in a disorganised but heartfelt mess.
It was easy to see however that it was the Gryffindor table that was the worst off: people were arguing up and down it fiercely, some were making threatening movements towards the Slytherin table, while some were too caught up in prying their fighting friends apart. Several people in the younger years were crying, and others looked as though their world had ended.
In the midst of all the chaos the sixth year, along with a few fifth and seventh years, sat in a large huddle at the end, the shimmer of a privacy spell glistening in the air around them.
Harry could see Hermione, who was repeatedly gesturing at the staff table, Seamus, who was sitting quietly for once with his head buried in his hands, and Neville, with his hands raised in a calming gesture. He could also make out the backs of Ron, Ginny, and Dean's heads, but before he could make out anyone else Ron slammed his fist down on the table. It was slightly surreal to see such a violent movement, which made all of those around Ron jump, done silently. Then Ron was standing and appeared to be shouting, and the others were all but cowering away from him. Ron turned his face enough for Harry to see his profile, to see his mouth opening and closing almost comically without sound, and to be able to make out his own name on Ron's lips.
"Oh," was all he could say.
"Yep," Blaise agreed.
"Ah," Draco must have just realised too.
"I know," Blaise sighed. "We're in for one hell of a storm."
The door to the Great Hall suddenly swung open and the first years entered to a hall full of people who, for once, were almost completely oblivious to them.
Harry, like most of the other students it seemed, ignored the procession of bewildered first years. Instead he focused his attention on the one house he hadn't studied yet – his own.
The Slytherin table were silent. Eerily so. Most seemed to be focusing an almost alarming amount of attention on their empty plates. The tension was palpable and it made Harry's hackles rise. He'd expected at least a few of them to be jeering, or stirring up the other tables anxiety. However, instead almost all of them were hunched over, some whispering cautiously to each other, all deliberately avoiding eye contact with the other tables.
A Ravenclaw just behind the Slytherin table suddenly pushed himself to his feet, and the Slytherin behind him actually flinched away. It was only after that that Harry realised that the Slytherin's he could see with their backs to the other tables all had their wands visible, some rolling them between their fingers, or had them resting faux nonchalantly on the table in front of them, as though at any moment expecting an attack.
As McGonagall actually had to call for silence and attention, Harry realised with a jolt that that was probably what the other houses would do: Harry Potter was missing so any blame or anger was to be brought down on the 'slimy' Slytherin's, because of course they must have a hand in it somehow.
Much to his shame, Harry realised that that was exactly the sort of thinking he would have had before the summer. If something was suspicious blame the Slytherin's. Why hadn't he ever been bothered by or really looked at that horrifically prejudice way of thinking before?
He was so lost in his depressing thoughts, and silently cursing the sorting hat for bringing it to his attention, that he entirely missed the sorting hat's song and only came out of it when the first round of half-hearted clapping began.
Harry looked up in time to see a little girl tottering uncertainly over to the Gryffindor table.
Just as he was watching another girl get called up to the stool he felt a tugging on his sleeve. Lily was looking up at him questioningly.
"Why did the hat sing, nii-chan? He didn't sing for you."
"Well the hat sings a song about the four different houses every year to welcome the new students. It's a nice way to introduce them to Hogwarts I suppose. It must be quite scary standing up there."
"Were you scared?" she asked, eyes huge. Harry put his arm around her and hugged her close.
"Nah, you were there with me so how could I be?"
She seemed happy to hear that but another thought occurred to her.
"Why do you have to put the hat on?"
Blaise took that one and leaned forward with a gentle smile for her, making her blush again, and Harry tried not to mentally bemoan having to deal with her first crush already.
"The hat can see into our mind and finds which house would best fit with what we can do."
"The hat sees into your mind?" Lily quavered looking half fascinated half horrified. Draco leaned around Harry with a smirk more suited for a devil affixed on his face.
"That's right," he leered. "It can see every naughty thing you have ever done, and if you've been too naughty it won't put you into a house and send you to live at the bottom of the lake forever!"
"Draco," Harry sighed, but kept his eyes on the sorting. So far no-one had been placed in Slytherin.
"Oh but it's true," Draco continued, his grin if possible growing even wider. "All you have to do is watch the lake long enough and then you'll see some of the students who have been forced to live down there. Their skin turns green and gets all scaly."
"I don't like this. You're mean, Draco!" Lily protested
"Yes, Draco," a drawling voice from across the table joined in. "You're too mean. For shame."
Pansy Parkinson smirked across at them. It had been a couple of years since Harry had had a direct interaction with her and he registered the changes in her that had taken place in that time: her dark hair was a little longer but still cut into that sever bob that she liked, however now her face was losing the last of its puppy fat her emerging sharp features finally suited it. She wasn't much changed beside that, although there was a more settled way in which she moved herself, showing that she was falling comfortably into the woman she was becoming.
"And how rude of you not to introduce me to our newest classmate," she continued. Draco sent her a glare before gesturing to Harry.
"Mitsuho, this is Pansy Parkinson. Pansy, this is Mitsuho Himura and his sister Sayuri Himura."
"Well I'm glad you introduced both of them. Japanese aren't you? I've heard that Japanese people introduce themselves with their last name first, so I wasn't sure which one it was."
"Himura is our surname," Harry clarified, watching Pansy carefully. There was a strange, almost zealous energy about her that he hadn't seen before, and although she was sitting there calmly she seemed to be almost vibrating in her seat. Maybe she'd had too much caffeine? Harry had heard once that the Slytherin table went through four times as much coffee as any other house, although Ravenclaw apparently challenged that title in exam season.
"Well it's nice to meet you I'm sure," Pansy said airily, as though her leg wasn't jiggling up and down under the table so hard it was making her whole body bounce slightly.
"Thank you," he said politely back, determined to keep on civil terms with his housemates for as long as possible.
She sent him a grin like a fox and he was struck with the fact that, although she was excitedly nervous to the point she couldn't sit still, she was the only Slytherin he could see on that side of the table who seemed unaffected by the threat of the other tables behind her.
"And you've joined us at such an interesting time too: a war going on and the hero, potty Potter, in the wind."
"Pansy-" Draco started warningly.
"Potty Potter?" Harry couldn't help asking faintly and Pansy's grin, if possible, widened.
"Oh, I'll explain about that nut job later or we'll be here all evening. What I'm more interested in is that you've come here, as I said, while there's a war on. So, I find myself asking what sort of person would willingly put themselves in such a dangerous position and bring a kid along too?" her gaze slid all too clearly over the scars on both Harry and Lily's faces.
Draco leaned forward, eyes sharp, but Harry beat him to it.
"While Britain may be the frontline for this war, given that He Who Must Not Be Named typically resides here and was born here, you are a fool if you think this war has not touched other countries."
Pansy's face flushed with anger, Harry however didn't give her a chance to speak.
"There are many witches and wizards around the world who follow the same beliefs as him, and now they simply have an excuse to be even more fanatical. Many have started committing attacks in his name or forming groups themselves that follow the same principles. By him doing what he's doing he's tipped the balance for the entire magical world. My sister and I weren't safe in our own country and we paid the price for thinking we were just because we were on the other side of the globe, and so out of his reach. There we would have been hunted by people like him, intending to finish what they started, so we came to this country where we have other relatives. Here, hopefully, shall be different. We are prepared this time and this school is one of the safest places in the entirety of Europe."
He was so grateful to Lucius for explaining that to him. He didn't know why he'd never considered that Voldemort might have sway outside of the UK, or Europe at best, and so he'd been depressed to hear about all of the other prejudice assholes and groups who had used him as an excuse to come out of the shadows. It had been one of the days where he'd been more than tempted to join the vampires in their misanthropic views towards humanity.
"So you haven't come here to join the Dark Lord's fight?" Pansy asked, her anger at being called a fool temporarily forgotten. Harry resolutely shook his head.
"No, that man is a monster."
Pansy narrowed her eyes and leaned forward.
"So you've come to side with Dumbledore," she announced, but then blanched and leaned back at the look Harry sent her.
"You really are an idiot," screw being on polite terms with his housemates.
Her face twisted and with a flick or her wrist her wand was in her hand.
"You better think twice about calling me that again, you pompous little-"
Whatever insult she was going to throw at him she was interrupted by the whole table as they all started to clap. Harry looked around to see a white-faced first year walking stiffly towards their table.
As the boy sat down it seemed to be the reminder that Pansy needed of where they were and she put her wand away again.
"We'll finish this later, Himura," she promised darkly and for a moment Harry could almost fool himself into thinking things had never changed.
Although there were only a handful of first years left to be sorted the Slytherin house ended up with seven more students, three of whom were identical triplets and with the devious grins they sent each other Harry knew that Fred and George's fame as Hogwarts greatest pranksters was in for a test.
McGonagall, blatantly relieved to finally be done, removed the stool and the hat before taking her seat at the staff table, whereupon Dumbledore rose and the hall finally fell completely silent.
"Welcome, for some of you the first time and for most of you in your return, to another year at Hogwarts. As usual the Forbidden Forest is strictly off limits, so I ask you to abide by that rule unless you want to die a terrible death," he paused for a moment as a few of the first years giggled through their nerves before realising that no one else was laughing and settling into embarrassed silence. Periwinkle blue eyes moved around the room before settling on the Slytherin table, or rather on Harry, who tried to keep his face neutrally blank.
"Along with the first years we have a sixth year transfer student joining us from Japan. He, along with his little sister who he is the guardian of, will be made to feel most welcome, I'm sure."
There was the low rumble of movement as people turned in their seats, or stood to crane over heads, as the halls focus wholly shifted to the Slytherin table. Lily all but vanished beneath Harry's robes and Harry himself remained staring fixedly at Dumbledore, whose penetrating gaze had yet to move from him. He thought he felt the lightest brush on his mind for a moment, but he'd been prepared for something like that and his Occlumency pools were already warding the rest of his thoughts. Dumbledore blinked as something like surprise passed across his face so quickly even Harry couldn't be sure. Then the old man turned his focus back to the hall and raised his hands to get everyone to settle.
"Now, I know these are dark days, but I ask you to place your trust in the protective magic of Hogwarts so you can instead focus on your studies and having fun with your friends. However, even with that I also ask you not to deny the truth: be sensible when going to places like Hogsmead, ensure you keep regular contact with your families as I'm sure hearing from you will give them comfort, and be respectful towards each other. Focus on the positive aspects of each of your houses and try to put that into practice, rather than the negative. This is a time for us to come together, rather than to split apart. Remember the individual strength of the Hogwarts founders had to unite to build this school," he smiled out at everyone. Well, almost everyone.
His words were good – exactly what one would expect to hear from a man in his standing – but Harry spied the way the headmaster remained slightly turned away from the Slytherin table, and he hadn't once looked at them during his speech. It was subtle, only really noticeable from the Slytherin table itself (and from the looks on his housemates faces this wasn't a new thing), but it was something he'd been entirely oblivious to in all his years at the Gryffindor table.
"If you want us to come together then where the hell's Potter?" a voice suddenly called out from the other side of the hall, but Harry couldn't say which table exactly. A murmur went through the hall before other people started to pipe up too.
"Yeah, is he off training somewhere?"
"Why isn't he here?"
"We have a right to know!"
"Where's Harry Potter?!"
"Where is he?"
Dumbledore clapped his hands together and the noise reverberated, much louder and sharper in the huge space then it ought to be. Harry, Draco, and Blaise were hard pressed not to clamp their hands over their ears in pain. As quickly as it had begun the sound mercifully trailed off, leaving a ringing silence. Harry let out a soft sigh of relief, which was matched by the other two, then he caught sight of Severus cautiously lowering one hand from under his hair, his face a little more sallow than usual.
"I can understand your confusion," Dumbledore all but boomed, his voice thick with magic that stank to Harry of barely contained frustration. "All I can promise you is that I am looking into the matter and will let you know when I myself know more."
"So you didn't send Potter off to a training camp then?" the first voice that had called out stubbornly pushed.
"No, I did not send Mr Potter anywhere. If any of you," and at this he shot a sharp look towards where Harry knew Ron and Hermione were sitting, "hear anything from him, or have any form of contact, you are to come to me immediately."
As he spoke, Dumbledore seemed to grow larger, his voice taking on an ominous echo, and the tips of his hair started to dance in a breeze of his making. The aura coming off of him was overwhelming the hall to the point that even the ground was starting to tremble ever so slightly, making the plates and cutlery rattle. This was Dumbledore's true power, not the kind, eccentric old man he made himself out to be, and since it was being let loose through anger it had a dark, heavy tone.
Harry could feel it all and marvelled that he was the cause of such a loss of control, but he didn't realise that others were having trouble until Lily let lose a strangled gasp and Harry looked down to find her struggling to breathe.
Most of the students in the hall were showing signs of slight discomfort at the increasingly uncomfortable pressure but no actual pain or distress like Lily, and it took Harry a frantic moment to realise that they were being protected by their much more matured magic, whereas Lily still had next to none. The younger years, for instance, were noticeably more affected than the older.
Frantically, Harry tried to push his own magic out around Lily, but he just couldn't seem to quite manage it and it kept collapsing. While enough of it remained that it helped ease the pressure for her somewhat, the colour still failed to return to her face and she seemed disorientated, taking in great sucking breaths as though she had been running.
Harry glanced up again, seeing that some students were rubbing their hands on their chests as though they couldn't quite get enough breath, whilst others had bowed their heads and curled in on themselves, fearful at the sight and feel of Dumbledore's anger. Even some of the teachers looked to be struggling, and all looked deeply troubled. McGonagall, unaffected but her face pinched in worry, was tugging ineffectively on the long sleeve of Dumbledore's robe.
"If anyone hears even a rumour about Harry Potter from outside of the school it is to be reported to a teacher immediately," Dumbledore thundered on, apparently oblivious to the situation. The magic continued to increase in weight and almost all of the students were struggling now. On the Slytherin table only Harry, Draco, and Blaise were still untouched by the oppressive power. There were a couple of Ravenclaws, including Luna, who was frowning at Dumbledore, and a surprising amount of Hufflepuffs still wary but unaffected, while at the Gryffindor table, Neville and Ron along with Hermione were in the best shape. Hermione was in fact standing and forcing herself slowly through the dense magic that made the air feel like treacle towards the staff table.
Harry took all of this in at a glance and then Lily gave another desperate gasp, eyes wide and scared, and he was done.
He could feel the collar around his neck heating, as his other half sucked away the majority of his boiling anger at Lily being harmed and left him clear-headed but determined. For a moment he was almost grateful; his anger in the past had blinded him, making him lash out when it was needed, but also ensuring he didn't think beforehand which ended up taking a heavy cost. Like Sirius.
A little unsure how to go about it, Harry went with his gut and used his hand as a focal point. He slapped it firmly down on the table, visualising and pushing his intention into what he wanted to happen. His magic responded perfectly. It leapt out, free of the anger that was making Dumbledore's so heavy, rushing in all directions in a refreshing wave, effortlessly washing away Dumbledore's own magic and leaving everything clear and calm.
Hermione stumbled and almost fell when the force she was using to move was suddenly no longer necessary, then stood there, glancing wildly around her in shock. McGonagall and the other staff members who had been trying to get Dumbledore's attention slumped back in relief for a moment before realising that the headmasters magic, however gently it had appeared, had just been forcefully dispelled. They fell to questioning each other before quickly ascertaining that it hadn't been one of them, then wands were drawn and were waved in the direction of the stunned students. Harry knew thought that since he hadn't used a wand they shouldn't be able to figure out it was him. It would never occur to them that someone, never mind a student, could have done such a powerful piece of magic windlessly, since accidental wandless magic was never on that scale.
As for Dumbledore himself…
The man had rocked on his feet when Harry's magic had hit him, forcing his magic to halt like a cork being pushed into the mouth of a bottle stopped the flow of liquid. The man had then gazed around him dazedly for a moment, finally realising what he had done, before his eyes had narrowed, the sparkle gone from them leaving them frigid.
He lowered his head to the still stunned hall.
"I must apologise for my lack of control. It has been many a year since I've lost my composure like that. My worry for Mr Potter must be even greater than I thought. I'm afraid that magic users of my level must always keep strict control on their power or what has just happened happens, and that usually is caused by extreme emotions," he then fully bowed towards the speechless students. "I must ask for your forgiveness at my lapse and for your understanding. It is my dearest wish to ensure that Mr Potter is safe and well. I have to admit I am terribly fond of the boy," he gave a warm, grandfatherly chuckle that didn't fool Harry for a second. Not when the man's eyes still looked like shards of ice.
There was silence as he straightened, started to turn away and then appeared to remember something, turning back hurriedly.
"My goodness, in all of this kerfuffle I completely forgot to introduce our new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher. Please welcome Professor Nilda Cipriani!"
A black woman, made even more slight in appearance by her sitting next to Hagrid, nodded to the hall but remained seated and silent. Dumbledore appeared almost disappointed at such an anti-climactic introduction and didn't have long to wait before the smattering of half-hearted applause died away.
"Well, since I believe that is now everything, please enjoy the food."
The food appeared in front of everyone, but it took a while for people to actually start helping themselves to it and conversation was slow to begin.
From what Harry could pick up everyone seemed more shocked at Dumbledore apologising to them rather than his lapse in keeping his power contained.
"I don't like it here," Lily sniffed, ignoring the food in front of her. "I want to go back to the manor."
Harry wanted to go back to the manor too. It wasn't perfect but at least things were a little simpler there.
"We'll be going back for Christmas and the Midwinter Ball, remember?" Harry tried to sooth while wrapping an arm around her.
"No, I want to go now. It's scary here."
Harry sighed, shuffled back a little and pulled her onto his lap. She leaned back against him, still sniffing and he pulled a packet of tissues from the pocket of his robes that he'd soon learnt to start carrying once Lily had come into his life.
"Here you go, blow your nose."
She did it rather quietly, so Harry had her do it again, ignoring the disgusted looks on some of the faces watching them as he took it from her and vanished it.
"I'm afraid we can't leave, pumpkin. It will get better I promise you. You're even going to make some new friends tomorrow, remember?"
"New friends?" Lily sounded more curious than wary and Harry internally breathed a sigh of relief. One huge difference between them was that she was always interested in meeting new people. Harry guessed that what had her so on edge now, combined with what had just happened, was the sheer amount of people, no one her own age, and the change in the environment. The idea of her meeting some other children put her back in her comfort zone a little.
"Yes, at the school in the village. Kids your own age. How about you give that a go tomorrow and see how you feel afterwards?"
"And if I still don't like it we can go?"
Harry didn't want to lie to her.
"Then we'll talk about it again then. It's always scary going to a new place at first. Hogwarts has lots of fun things too, I promise. There's the lake, with the giant squid. Oh, and there's the ghosts too. None of them seem to be here right now, which is a little odd, but I'm sure you'll meet them soon."
"I haven't seen a ghost before. How many are there?"
Harry paused, ignoring the fact that more people were pointing them out now. Draco and Blaise sedately continued to eat food they didn't need on either side of them.
"You know, I'm not sure. How about we find one this weekend and ask them?"
"But how about we eat something first? I can see they've got roast potatoes."
Lily craned her neck but couldn't spot them amongst the plethora of other dishes.
"Roast potatoes are my favourite," she conceded.
"So you want some then? Draco also says there are more desserts than you could ever imagine, but you're going to have to eat some vegetables if you want any."
"I don't know," Lily drawled, side eyeing Draco distrustfully. He looked down his nose at her in response. "I can imagine an awful lot."
"Well, you'll have to see then won't you, squirt," Draco huffed before returning to his food.
Lily huffed too in response and Harry tried not to roll his eyes in hopelessness at the state of the relationship between the two of them.
"I would like some roast potatoes, please," Lily said stoically, as though she was taking on a heavy burden.
Before Harry could move Lily so he could reach for them, Blaise's long arm stretched out and came back with a bowl full of perfectly crispy slices of goodness. After Harry had added some to his and Lily's plates and had Lily thank him, Blaise put it back.
"Anything else?" he asked.
"How about some carrots, Lily? You need to have more than just potatoes."
Lily conceded on the carrots, some cabbage, a little chicken, and some gravy. Harry realised after Lily had moved back to her seat and had tucked in that his own meal was the same size as hers, far too small really for someone his size. But he could barely force himself to eat at all and so had to hope that anyone who thought to question it would put it down to nerves. And he was very nervous, so it wasn't like he was lying.
As promised, as soon as the main meal was done with the food vanished, only to be replaced by all manner of decadent desserts moments later. Lily cooed over the spread and took her time deciding, a little overwhelmed by choice. After she finally settled on a piece of warm pie with a scoop of ice cream melting indulgently over the top, Harry, who wasn't having anything, appeared to be focusing on her not making a mess when in reality he was turning his attention fully onto the conversations around him.
Most of what he could hear wasn't pertinent to him and so he blocked it out (something that was getting easier as he began to adjust to the acoustics of the hall) and moved on, however he did keep on catching snippets of conversation that were of more interest.
Quite a few people were still talking about the disappearance of Harry Potter and conjecturing where he could possibly be. The suggestions were only growing more outlandish as the evening wore on. Currently the most popular theory was that Harry was training on a mountain with a senile but genius old hag.
Others were trying to work out how the tide of the war was going to change now that Harry was gone, and Harry found he couldn't listen to them for long without his gut clenching in shame. Some people were very scared and were talking about sending their families an owl before they went to bed to tell them to go into hiding. The hero of the wizarding world was gone, no one knew where he was or if he would be coming back, so it was time to jump ship.
There was a small group at the Ravenclaw table who were talking about setting up a betting pool: 5/1 on Harry returning before the end of the year, 3/1 on Harry having left because of his Inheritance, 6/1 on Harry having been kidnapped, and 9/1 on Harry being dead. They were debating on whether to add any more and at that point Harry had to turn away or he wouldn't be responsible for his actions.
Sadly, what else he heard wasn't much better. There were still people gawking over 'the new guy and kid', which Harry had hoped they would have got out of the way with the main course because he knew they would be talking about the one thing that made Harry's teeth grind together and the collar around his neck warm warningly: Lily's very obvious scar and blind eye.
The glare he sent a few Slytherin's further down the table, who were talking about it loudly enough that Lily might be able to hear them, sent them cowering back in their seats before they tried to act as though nothing had happened and started talking about Quidditch instead.
Harry avoided the Gryffindor table entirely, but he could still feel himself being pulled towards it, every part of him saying that him sitting where he was, with the people he was with, was wrong, since the last time he'd sat in this hall it had been on the other side of the room with his best friends.
He couldn't help himself and glanced up, only to see McGonagall making a beeline for the table, or to be more accurate, for Ron and Hermione.
Harry straightened, tuning himself in on what he knew he needed to hear but keeping his eyes drifting up near the ceiling. It wouldn't do for the new Slytherin to be seen staring intensely at two-thirds of the Golden Trio.
"Miss Granger, Mr Weasley," McGonagall greeted briskly.
"Professor," they answered back, both sounding more than a little downtrodden.
"After you have completed your prefect duties you are to report to the Headmaster's office. He'd like to talk to you about Mr Potter."
"Called it," Ron mumbled.
"What was that, Mr Weasley?" came McGonagall's sharp voice. Ron coughed nervously.
"Er, I said 'on it', Professor."
"Right. Very well then. Have a good evening."
"Good evening, Professor," Hermione returned, along with another mumble from Ron, which this time even Harry couldn't make out.
McGonagall headed back to the staff table and a few minutes later the desserts vanished and the prefects were rising to guide the first years to their new dormitories.
Draco had to shoot off, saying in a slightly rushed way that he'd see Harry in the common room, before expertly (and with a touch of preternatural speed, but not enough for anyone to notice unless they were looking for it) catching the collars of the triplets, who had been creeping after the Hufflepuffs with matching, devious smirks.
Harry was just helping Lily from her seat when he felt a presence behind him and tensed instinctively.
"Mr Himura, Miss Himura, if you would follow me, please."
Harry relaxed but managed to stop himself from giving the relieved grin he wanted to when he turned to face Severus.
It was still a little strange to see the man's older face again. To see Professor Snape, instead of the Severus he had come to know over the summer.
"Of course, sir."
Lily, who had been nodding off by that point, had been told that Severus would have to act like he didn't know them and thankfully she followed quietly along, yawing with increasing severity and gripping Harry's hand tightly as she distrustfully eyed the scrum of students pushing and shoving to get out of the doors. She needn't have worried, Severus cut a corridor through the students so effortlessly Harry had to wonder if he'd charmed his sweeping cloak to project some sort of physical barrier.
Once out into the corridor, Severus steered them down towards the dungeons, and Harry tried to push down the instinct that was telling him he was supposed to be heading up the stairs.
Ahead he could see Draco and Pansy guiding the first years, Draco in the front leading, Pansy behind pushing along any stragglers.
Severus sped up a little more, meaning Lily was having to trot to keep up, and they soon passed them. The man nodded at Draco as they passed and Draco returned it, much to the awe of the first years. Harry could practically feel Draco preening as the kids started gushing over how familiar the Professor Snape was with the blond as they left the group behind.
In no time at all Severus, Harry, and Lily were halting in front of a stretch of wall between two of the many arches along the corridor, and Severus pointed out to a sleepy Lily that the small torch brackets on both of the arches in that particular section were made to look like snakes wrapping around each other, whereas for the rest of the corridor they were non-descript iron. It was subtle, effortlessly overlooked, but once you knew they were there it was easy for any confused first year to find the door to the Slytherin common room.
Harry had to lift Lily up for closer inspection before she was happy, and by that point a few of the older years were gathering behind them.
"The current password is 'the Bloody Baron comes'," Severus sighed and the wall slid open. "We change it every couple of weeks so look out for the notice on the communal notice board," he led them inside and gestured at a small alcove immediately to the right of the door where Harry could indeed see a large board, ostentatiously framed in black gilt, with a few pieces of paper already stuck on it.
The older students who had entered with them spread out through the spacious room, conversing quietly, and finding a seat in one of the many groups of comfortable sofas or chairs.
It was quite different from what Harry had remembered from his second year, or rather he had only taken in the negative aspects of it back then, he realised.
Yes, it was darker than the Gryffindor common room (in which it was difficult to find a corner that wasn't brightly lit), and many of the lanterns that were used in place of open torches were made with green glass, but while they did give off a slight green light they were pretty much overwhelmed by the warm light of the two large fires that crackled away merrily at either end of the long room.
That was another difference, but not necessarily a bad one. The Gryffindor common room was round, and at times that could mean it felt like everyone was always in everyone else's space.
Privacy in the evenings in the tower was pretty much unheard of, and all of the chairs were crammed in together to the point that in a couple of places you actually had to climb over a chair or person to get to a specific seat. It was impossible to walk through the Gryffindor common room during its busier times without bumping several people along the way. It had always reminded Harry, once he'd experienced it, very much of the Weasley household: everyone always good-naturedly in everyone else's space, loud, chaotic, warm, but also difficult to deal with if anyone was upset with you. Easy for others to pull spiteful little sneak attacks in the disorder, horribly isolating to have that small but very intended amount of space around you while everyone else was pushed up against someone in some way around you.
The Slytherin common room had to be twice the size, long and roughly rectangle, with much more spaces between the sets of chairs and tables, and there were many alcoves branching off from the main room, some with work tables and chairs, others with sofas, and even a few just filled with cushions on the floor. Privacy and space was something that was obviously much more respected here.
There was one thing Harry had noticed and hadn't liked in his second year that he still didn't like now: no windows. They were in a dungeon after all.
There was a small gasp next to him and a tugging on his robe. He looked down at Lily, who was open-mouthed and pointing up at the ceiling.
Harry followed her finger and what he'd initially dismissed as a simple ceiling encased in shadows was discovered to be something else entirely. He was looking at the bottom of the lake.
It was easy, at this time of night, to mistake it for stone, but the moon must have come out from behind the clouds because suddenly he was looking at a shimmering surface, the ripples splitting the moon apart and bringing it back together effortlessly over and over again, causing iridescent, hypnotic ripples to dance across the room. The charm, for them to see the surface so clearly, must have been cast on an embankment near the shore, rather than deeper in the lake where the surface was a distant memory, and Harry suddenly found himself eager to see what it looked like on a sunny day.
"This way, Mr Himura, Miss Himura."
Severus was waiting for them by a doorway to a set of stairs further along the room. As they drew closer he indicated two larger archways on the far wall on either side of one of the fireplaces.
"The arch on the left leads to the boy's dormitories, while the arch on the right leads to the girls, you though are getting separate rooms due to your situation."
Harry could see some of the older students looking curiously at the stairs Severus was about to lead them up and found he couldn't recall if they'd been there during his rather tentative adventure into the Slytherin dorms in second year. It wouldn't surprise him if they hadn't been there though, given that this was Hogwarts.
They followed Severus up a gently curving flight until it stopped at one solitary door of dark aged wood with black iron studs.
"There is a separate password to get into your room," Severus announced as he turned to them. "The portrait to the immediate left of the door is who you need to talk to when you want to change it, which I would advise you do, but for now it's 'pumpkin'."
There was a little snick and Severus reached out and turned the door handle, opening the door without any problem.
The room within reminded Harry a little of the Gryffindor tower and he felt a pang of wistful longing. It was surprisingly large, and circular, with huge windows on one side curving out a little further, breaking off from the main circle of the room to form a smaller half-circle of their own around a large, comfortable looking window seat. There was a huge fireplace with several armchairs and one sofa in front of it. More into the centre of the room there was a table, clearly meant for studying, and the remainder of the wall space was taken up with empty bookcases, tapestries, and paintings.
There were four doors, two on either side of the fire, that caught Harry's attention next.
He moved over to them and starting with the nearest opened them to look inside. In total there were three sizable bedrooms, complete with the Hogwarts standard four-poster bed and en-suite toilets, and one bathroom that reminded Harry of the prefects' one. Thankfully there was no mermaid painting in this one.
As he turned back to the room at large he spotted something he'd missed on his first sweep, which was Griffin, lounging on his back indolently on the sofa in front of the fire, fast asleep and snoring softly. How adorable.
He pointed Griffin out to Lily and she couldn't resist going over to coo over him in a sleepy manner while Harry cut back across to Severus.
"I'll spare you the introductory 'Welcome to Slytherin, it's us against everyone else so stick together' speech," Severus mused with a slight smile. "However, just say to anyone who asks that I did, but did so privately because I wanted to give you a chance to get Lily to bed earlier than you would have the chance to if I had given it to you along with everyone else. There's always questions."
"Thank you, sir," Harry said gratefully, smiling back.
"Before I forget," he continued. "As Lily will be returning to the school from her own lessons before you are done with yours a house elf is to be assigned to her to keep her occupied and safe until you are finished. I'm afraid only having Griffin with her won't cut it. Do you have any preference as to which house elf?"
"Yes, actually, I'd like it to be Dobby. Lily's meant to have tea with him three times a week anyway as punishment. This'll give me a chance to enforce that without tipping him off as to who I am."
Severus sent him a dry look.
"I won't even ask. Very well, he'll be with you in the morning. And now I had best get back down to everyone. Is there anything else?"
Harry thought for a moment before nodding.
"Yes, I'll be putting Lily to bed straight away and then going to bed myself, so can you please tell Draco that I'll see him in the morning? I know he was hoping to speak to me again tonight. And tell Blaise the same?"
"I will pass on your message. Good night, Harry."
"Good night. Lily, say good night to Severus!" Harry called, and Lily stood from where she'd been crouching on the floor next to the sofa Griffin was sleeping on, watching his chest rise and fall in a way that suggested she was on the verge of falling asleep herself.
"Good night, uncle Sev!" she called cheerfully if sleepily, much happier now there were only familiar faces around her.
"Good night, Lily," Severus called back before giving Harry one last nod and exiting the room.
"Alright, trouble, now it's time for bed," Harry announced, turning back to a yawning Lily.
She offered no protest beyond taking a moment to pick a bedroom (the one with the view looking over the rose garden and down to the lake), and in no time at all she was passed out, snuggled up under the covers.
Harry shut her door quietly behind him and found Griffin stirring.
"The kid in bed?"
Harry slumped down onto the sofa next to the familiar.
"Yeah, fast asleep. It's way past her usual bedtime and with the stress of the day I'm surprised she lasted this long."
"She's a tough one, that's fer sure."
Harry yawned, more than a little tired himself.
"So what are you planning to do tonight?" he asked, knowing Griffin liked to gain his sleep by napping every now and again throughout a twenty-four hour period, rather than sleeping for one extended period of time.
Griffin paused in licking his paw and rubbing it delicately over his face (honestly, he'd got behind the whole 'being a cat' thing almost too well) and considered.
"Think I'll have a fly over the grounds an' get myself familiar with the place. It's a right maze. Then I'll 'ave a wander of the castle. Yerself?"
"Think I'll catch up on my sleep then go over my lessons until it's time for breakfast."
Griffin gave him the side-eye in a way only a cat can.
"Why don't ya try jus', I dunno, relaxing fer a while. You can't make everythin' about ya lessons, mate. You'll burn yaself out, see if ya don't."
Harry leaned forward, letting himself briefly enjoy the warmth from the fire since it was always chillier in the dungeons, and scrubbed his hand over a face that felt unnatural to him.
"I realise that, Griffin, but what else can I do? One slip, that's all it'll take for this all to fall apart, and I won't be the only one brought down by it. The Malfoy's, the Zabini's, Severus, Lily, I won't risk them because I want to take it easy for a while."
Griffin shook his head and laid a paw on Harry's arm.
"Ya won't let 'em down if you give yaself an evenin' here an' there to rest."
"Then you're not listening to me," Harry said firmly but not cruelly.
Griffin sighed and withdrew his paw then jumped down onto the floor.
"Alright, I won't push, but ya know where I stand on this matter."
Harry nodded, and leaned back into the worn but comfortable sofa.
"Yeah, and thanks for telling me, Griffin."
"No problem, Harry," Griffin's thick south London accent always clearing a little when he got particularly serious. "Have a good night, I'll be there ta go with Lily to school in the mornin'."
"Night!" Harry called after him as Griffin trotted over to the window, used a paw to open the catch, and then with a shimmer like the air over a hot road Griffin the raven was standing in Griffin the cat's place. The bird gave a sharp nod back to Harry then dropped out of the window and into the night.
Harry stayed where he was for a while longer, just enjoying the silence, before guilt over doing nothing started to niggle at him and he forced himself to rise.
He picked a bedroom at random, the layout the same as all of the others but the view showing a couple of lower rooftops and the mountains beyond, and placed his trunk (which had been left in the main living area) at the foot of the bed.
Slowly he began to change, yawning with increasing severity, and once done he only just remembered to wave his hand to cast a time reveal charm on the canopy of the bed, meaning when he woke up he'd be able to see what time it was straight away.
It was currently just gone half past eleven, and so even if he overslept he'd likely be up around four.
As he started to drift off his brain oh so helpfully reminded him of the mysterious package Lucius had given him earlier. Well, he'd have to look at it once he woke up.
His sleep went unbroken apart from being woken just before one by Lily, who had been roused by her need to go to the bathroom and then had been too unsettled by the new surroundings to want to go back to bed alone.
Harry could barely remember shuffling over and lifting the blankets, and by the time Lily had finished snuggling up to him he was already falling back into a sleep too deep for dreams.
Sally Greene had never been so hungry.
She'd heard, of course, about people for one reason or another having to go days without food and she had always thought it terrible. She'd never tried to imagine what it actually felt like though. Well, now she knew.
One of her colleagues, who had been starved for longer than her, had told her that after a few more days her body would stop feeling hungry as it would turn its depleting energy on other more important things, like keeping her organs functioning. She was finding herself wishing that her body would hurry up a reach that point already instead of the horrible, nauseating pain that left her weak and struggling to focus. Her lack of focus was what had caused her food to be withheld in the first place.
She tried to ignore the faint feeling, and how her stomach felt as though it was wrapping around her spine, as she pushed another book to the side and drew a new one close. As she opened it she absentmindedly wiped the sweat from her brow and wondered what hour of the day or night it was. The hot, windowless cavern of a room gave no indication of passing time, the guard seemed to change sporadically, and Sally and the other prisoners were expected to sleep at their desks, so they had to work until they dropped.
It felt as though it had been a long time since she'd been forcibly brought here, weeks at least, but she didn't have any way of being sure. Her wounds had been healed on arrival and any injuries gained since had been swiftly taken care of (it was a small mercy that Voldemort had put a ban on the infliction of any injuries/physical torture on the scholars besides starvation as it would hinder their work) so she couldn't even use them to estimate the passing of the days.
Time wasn't important anymore though, because only one thing was definite, but it was something Sally didn't want to acknowledge. It seemed though that the harder she tried to deny it, the more it pulled at her. She could feel its malevolent presence whispering along her back and she bent over her work more, as if making herself small enough would make it unable to sense her anymore and leave her in peace. It was not to be though.
She knew if she turned her head even a little that her eye would instantly be drawn to the Book on an onyx plinth in the centre of the room. She and her colleagues had been stationed at tables in a wide circle around it and thankfully none of the Death Eaters guards had protested when, one by one, they had moved their chairs around so their backs were to it.
The Book was easy to open, and that had fooled some of them initially; their thirst for new knowledge temporarily taking precedence over their situation and causing them to ignore the dark magic seeping from it. Surely, they reasoned, a truly evil book would be terribly difficult to open, with all sorts of nasty enchantments and curses? None of them had come to the conclusion that of course the most wicked of books would want to make it easy for people to read them until it was far too late.
Even without physical torture, besides starvation, inflicted on them, the stress of their imprisonment and the impending threat of what would happen to them took its toll mentally on Sally and her colleagues. The Book latched on to that in a way they hadn't yet been able to ascertain. Anyone a little worse off than the others would start to show alarming symptoms of mental instability that started small but grew into full blown insanity the longer they were forced to remain near the Book. The first of Sally's colleagues to approach the Book had also been the first to fall, and it took Voldemort himself investigating to discover that if the afflicted person was removed from the presence of the Book fast enough then they could go relatively back to normal, although they would be more vulnerable to the Book in future. It had still be far too late for the first few scholars and Sally had considered it almost a mercy when the Death Eaters had killed them, although the agony they had gone through beforehand when Voldemort had ordered their memories forcibly removed in case they could prove useful still gave Sally nightmares.
Sally tried not to despair as she flicked through the heavy book before her, comparing it tiredly to her notes as she didn't want to go near the Book again until she absolutely had to. She reminded herself of Bill's promise, even though a dark part of her reminded her she had no way of knowing if he'd survived his injuries. Her gut told her he had though and that was what kept her going.
Her stomach gave a long, bitter rumble and her eyes unfocused as a wave of dizziness took over her. She dropped her notebook and clutched at the sides of the desk, focusing on controlling her breathing as she waited for it to pass. Thankfully it did, although it seemed that the dizzy spells were coming more and more frequently.
With a sigh she turned her attention back to the book, only to find that the notebook had fallen half across one of the pages. She moved to pick it up and then froze.
It was small, and far from complete, but there were some similarities in the notes she'd taken from the Book and the alphabet on the page of the reference book peeking out from underneath. She'd probably have completely missed it if the pertinent characters weren't practically next to each other.
Excitedly she sat up straight and compared the others, but apart from those few nothing else came close to matching. For the ones that did though, the similarities were so close they couldn't be denied. It showed how much her confinement and the stress was affecting her because she hadn't even considered that the translation for the symbols would have to be found in more than one language.
For a second she felt elated at cracking the start of such a complex puzzle, but then reality hit her. Whatever was in the Book was horrific and giving Voldemort free access to something like that could easily spell doom for the entire magical world. She couldn't let him know what she'd learned.
"Found something?" a monotone voice sounded from behind her. It was Archer, one of the main guards, and quite how the man could always look and sound so bored with the world, even when he was torturing someone, was beyond her.
"Ah, oh no," she tried to reassure, letting out a nervous laugh that was so unlike her she cringed internally. "I thought I had but I was wrong. I'd best carry on."
"I'll be the judge of that," he said, and his tone was so dull it took Sally a second too long to register what he'd said, and by then it was too late. "Imperio."
Once Sally would have said she was strong enough to resist the Imperius curse, but those days were far behind her now as her imprisonment took its toll. She told him everything as her colleagues halted their work around her and looked on miserably. No one would blame her, but their despair was undeniable as they listened to what she had achieved.
As soon as Archer had heard everything he'd needed he sent one of the lower ranked Death Eaters to inform Voldemort of the findings and released the curse. Sally slumped over the desk, panting and loathing herself with every breath. She felt the heavy weight of a hand on her head before it gave her a condescending pat.
"Well done, Greene. Be sure to update everyone on your findings. Looks like we're finally getting somewhere."