A/N: I own nothing at all that you recognize. Everything else is mine.
Summary: Post OotP, pre HBP though with some major HBP concepts thrown in. Harry survives an unbearable summer and returns to Hogwarts to learn secrets about himself than he really could have done without. He's lost his sight, all illusions about his parentage, and now will he lose himself?
"...Choose, or that I should tell
Thy woes to come, or who shall set me free."
-- Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound
Chapter 1: The Worst Summer Ever
Harry cracked open an eye and gaze at where the window was, felt the waning sunlight on his face. Sunset. Strange how people liked to presume that sunrise was the time where the day was laid out in promises. Twilight was the time for that, when the sun finally closed its garish eye, and when one finally realized that time was short. Promises to another day, made as the stars awoke, gasping.
I am an idiot. He closed his eyes and let his breath escape, ease its way out of his parched body, through the cavity bound by his fragile ribs.
He should have known. He shouldn't have turned a blind eye to it all.
When the letter announcing Voldemort's return had come, he shouldn't have underestimated Vernon. Should have understood exactly what those wild looks, those crazy chuckles meant.
But he'd ignored them (Gryffindor arrogance), thinking that Vernon could do no worse than what he did before (Gryffindor foolishness). After all, though he definitely hadn't received any love or affection, the Dursleys had been too terrified to touch him too much. (Gryffindor blindness.)
He had been sleeping with his Potions textbook across his gently moving chest. He remembered that the windows had been open to let a breeze in. Crickets were chirping, a symphonic cacophony that trickled into the dingy room… And then hands had grabbed him before he could scramble for his wand, had handcuffed him, struck him across the face, made him taste his blood, made him watch his wand snap in half.
And Hedwig. Hedwig in those pudgy hands, flapping frantically, weakly, until the voice growled, "Write to those other freaks, boy. Make sure to tell them that you're well, and that your little owl is too sick to give them the messages they want."
By the time he realized the solemnity of his predicament, it was already too late. And he couldn't have, couldn't have let Hedwig die when he might have saved her.
Not that it mattered now anymore.
He'd written the letter, watched Vernon install the bars. Saw the grin, the terrifying, terrifying smile. He would rather have faced Voldemort. Felt the blows pelt his back, heard himself cry. Heard Hedwig's hoots and the snap of a wing. The laugh, worse than Voldemort's would ever be. Then the slam of the door.
Petunia had come in late that night and given him water to drink. He had wanted her to call the police, contact Dumbledore, but one look at her stiff, turned face, and he knew she would never.
The next day, another letter, another beating, and when Petunia came, she stared at his back with fascination. The next night, after a stinging black eye, she didn't come. Nor the night after. And two days later, she handed her husband the belt while she stayed near the door, watching with glittering eyes. And Harry had bit back every scream and shriek until his uncle cracked one of his ribs and shouted hoarsely for him to scream for Pet and he'd screamed and the high keening scream of an infant in its cradle and he'd screamed
It happened, a week later. His birthday. A little bon fire merrily burning in the yard as colorful parcels, one by one, were dropped into the flame. Vernon and Petunia sipped their wine or punch of lemonade and watched vindictively until Petunia had whispered something into her husband's ear. And then Vernon had stomped upstairs into Harry's room and took Hedwig out into the yard, snapped her neck with a sickening crack, and tossed her body into the flames.
He'd never forget the way the fire took the white feathers one by one, the limp form withering into ashes.
The next day, they took his sight as well.
They were watching television. He could hear the sounds floating upstairs. Of course, those sounds were always garbled by the ones from Dudley's rooms, the sounds of other tapes. Harry felt that he should be grateful that Dudley didn't have the same tastes his parents had.
He shifted his hand, reaching up to touch his face. Numb. At least not hurting like hell the way his ribs were. Damn it all, if only he could breathe correctly. Right now he could control his breathing, letting it go in and out, slowly, painfully, but whenever Vernon came, he always ended gasping for breath, unable to stop the convulsions even when he felt the blinding pain in his ribs tearing his mind into darkness. If only he could breathe.
If only he could see.
Tears wouldn't come, and he wondered if the glands that made tears were dead as well. Probably were, judging from the numbness and the lack of sting on his swollen cheeks. He wondered if Pomfrey could find a way to bring those tissues back to life.
But nothing could bring the dead back to life, Harry knew. Not even Sirius.
'Course, there was the little matter of staying alive until school started again…
How could they, though? Didn't they have brains? Couldn't they tell that he was sounding like a robot in those letters Dursley had made him write? (The word Dursley sounded like—like a euphemism for Death-Eater. Or maybe it was the other way around.) Wasn't he the Boy-Who-Lived, the Subject-of-the-Prophecy—wasn't he even important enough for them to send someone, anyone, to check on, once or twice?
The tears that would've been of self pity and grief were rapidly shifting to anger and despair. The one good thing about not being able to cry was that the inevitable deluge of self-pity died halfway, leaving him slightly bewildered, but calmer. Clearer.
Right now, that was what he needed. To keep calm, to survive this. He was a survivor. Briefly, he entertained himself by wondering about Voldemort's reaction after knowing that a simple Muggle had done what he could not—kill Harry Potter, the Boy-Who-Wouldn't-Die. He wondered, with faint spiteful pleasure, what Dumbledore would feel. He knew what Snape would feel—pleased as punch. Same with Malfoy. But Ron and Hermione…
Stop. There, that was forbidden ground. Because no matter how reasonable he tried to be, no matter what he told himself, their silence felt like the greatest betrayal of all.
But it was stupid, stupid. He couldn't blame them. No, and perhaps they'd be safer with him gone. Perhaps.
He snorted. Let's see how my inner eye is working, Harry thought. First, Ron'll go off on a guilt streak, and Hermione will tearfully logic it out before sobbing like a dishrag, and then they'll go full angst for a few months, and they'll comfort each other, and after about a year of making total idiots of themselves they'll move on. Only wish I'd be around to see, but I know I won't be a ghost. Mum and dad and Sirius are all there, and Voldemort isn't—seems like a good deal to me…
A groan nearly escaped his lips at the strange ache that permeated his body. Strange, he'd never felt this kind of aching before. It was as though his body was shifting, pulling itself, torturously molding itself into something new. He had felt something like that in his magic, too, when summer just began, but he now couldn't feel anything besides the pain. Wouldn't it please Vernon to know he's probably beaten all the magic out of me too…
Harry tensed and winced as the handcuffs cut into his wrist some more. Had he imagined that voice?
"Is it Hisss blood…"
Harry froze. The voice was there, unmistakable, but who could it be? And who was His? And then he realized it, and would have slapping his forehead had his hands been free. The voice belonged to a snake. He relaxed and lay very still, hearing a slight sliding sound somewhere near the window. Strange, how comforting it felt to be in the presence of a snake.
"What iss thisss?" the voice, lazy and languid, continued, closer this time.
It's me, bloody Harry Potter, Harry thought.
"Food…? Too wet to be foood…"
It's called blood, you ruddy reptile.
He froze when he felt something cool and smooth slither across his face. When it passed over his right cheek, where the bone had been shattered, he stiffened and jerked involuntarily, feeling the pain sting furiously as the handcuffs dug into his wrists again.
"A human boy… with Hisss blood, Hisss blood…"
"Who's 'He?'" Harry demanded, still shaken from the unexpected contact. The hiss that escaped his lips felt dry and rough in the air, and he was very glad Parseltongue did not require the usage of vocal chords.
Silence ensued, broken only by the garbled sounds from the Dursleys' televisions.
"You ssspeak the Old Tongue, boy," the snake stated. "Who are you to have Hiss blood and speak the Old Tongue?"
"Who is this 'He' that you are blabbering about…" Harry replied crossly before his blood ran cold. Voldemort. He should have known the moment he heard the snake. This was clearly Voldemort's snake, sent here to kill him, or spy on him, or both. I wonder how Voldemort smuggled his snake through the wards, Harry thought. Actually, I wonder if the wards work at all.
"Do you not know, boy?" the snake asked rather haughtily.
"Of course I know," Harry replied coldly. "Your master, Voldemort."
A series of spits and hisses filled the air, and Harry felt something wave above his face. "That arrogant half-blood, my massster? Where are your sensesss, boy? If anything, he owesss allegiance to usss…"
Harry felt something in him relax before bewilderment took over. "Who's us? And who's this He?"
"Ssssalazar, it issss He… and we are His serpents…"
"Yessss. And you have his blood, boy. You are his Heir."
Harry would have laughed if his ribs had allowed it. "Sorry to disappoint, but I'm in Gryffindor."
The snake did not sound perturbed. "The difference between Gryffindor bravery and Slytherin cunning is a thin line. Many do not sssee it until much later, and others do not ssssee it at all…"
Harry snorted and winced at the pain he felt on his face. "Still, you're mistaken. When I was one, Voldemort attempted to kill me with the Killing Curse, but only ended up giving some of him to me. You're probably smelling the bit he gave me. And there's no point telling me to see that fine line of yours. I am currently blind." He couldn't prevent the bitterness from creeping into his voice.
Harry heard movement above him and felt a flickering over his blank eyes. "No need too sssound ssso morbid. I, myself, cannot ssssee much… Currently, you sssay, though. Isss this blindness a temporary thing you are going through?"
Harry snorted again and coughed before he could stop himself. Taking a moment to ease himself out of the pain, he replied, "No, nothing like that, but if—once I get back to Hogwarts, there might be a way to cure my sight."
"There may be no cure."
"No, there may not," Harry agreed, shivering as he felt himself sliding into despair. "But I like to think that there is."
Harry thought he heard the snake shrug, as strange as that notion seemed. "How did you go blind, then?"
He paused, and memories swamped his mind against his will. His breathing quickened unconsciously. The wheezing sound of air in and out the battered cavity of his chest slurred and garbled upon itself as he remembered the hot-iron pain, the pain that took him as his world exploded into darkness. He swallowed and his throat, ravaged from screaming, protested weakly. "My—uncle. A Muggle, and he hates my kind." Freaks, he heard again, and darkness deeper than his sightlessness clutched him tightly. Disgusting freaks.
Harry heard the dry scraping of snake against wood. "But you are a wizard! Sssalazar's heir, even though you may be a half-blood."
"I know," Harry replied wearily. "It—I didn't think he would go so far. In the past, he was always too scared to do something—something like this, but…" Harry trailed off into silence. There was no use drudging up the ifs and might-have-beens, the perhapses and maybes. It was over, and there was nothing he could do to change it. "I was very stupid. Can you help me?"
"You are Ssssalazar's heir. We are bound to you."
"Thanks," Harry replied, though not believing for a moment that he really was the heir of Slytherin. "How quickly can you move?"
"Very quickly, if the need comes, my lord," the snake hissed.
My lord? Where did that come from? Harry wondered momentarily. It rather reminded him, a bit queasily, of Voldemort. "Then contact my neighbor. I will write a note, and take it to her, pleassse. She is a Squib and knowssss of me; she will find people to help."
"Very well," the snake hissed. "The note?"
"Take a sheet, or something, and—can you write? If you can, just dip your tail in my blood, and…"
"No, my Lord, I cannot."
"Then you'll just have to get enough blood on my finger—"
Pounding from downstairs, grumbling up the stairs—
"Quick! Leave," Harry hissed, quivering. "Go before my uncle comes—"
The second floor quivering under the massive weight. "That disgusting freak… I'll show him, I will—"
"Are you gone?" Harry demanded frantically.
The door slammed open, and Harry flinched.
"Too late," Harry heard distinctly, though from somewhere rather far off. Damn it, he'd better have gone, Harry thought shakily. He heard a heavy footstep and flinched again, huddling towards the wall as best as he could. His ribs hurt, oh God, they hurt—
"Who were you talking to, freak?" Vernon growled. "Answer me, boy. Answer me!"
Harry shivered uncontrollably. "No one, sir," he answered dully, trying to keep the quiver out of his voice.
Vernon grunted. "Teach you not to lie to me, freak…" Footsteps, heavy, and then the crack of the belt. Harry jumped at the sound, and coughed. He felt blood on his tongue. More footsteps, light and quick, those of a woman's, as the blanket was ripped from his body, naked except for his bloody boxers. So she's coming to watch, Harry thought, seeing in his mind's eye Petunia leaning against the doorway with widened eyes.
He braced himself, waiting for the whip to streak out of the air and fall across his thin body. But before any of that could happen, he heard Petunia shriek. "Vernon! Oh, Vernon—a snake, a snake!"
Harry heard a hissing, the unmistakable hiss of a striking serpent. Harry wished desperately that he could see. Petunia was screaming, her shrill, grating voice getting in the way of hearing what was going on— A clank, the belt dropping to the floor— Then Vernon's terror-strung bellow, warbling through the air like a drunken hippo—
"Get it off! Tell it to get off, freak!" Vernon roared in pain. "Get off! I'll kill you, you freak, I'll wring your bloody neck—"
Thump, the sound of a body falling—Harry jumped when he heard Vernon's voice again, much closer: "Poison, Pet—call… call the ambulance, Pet—"
"But then they'd know!" she cried shrilly. "They'd know about him!"
"PETUNIA!" Vernon roared again, but his voice was heavy and slurred. "Call… Pet—tunia… call…"
Then, the sound of snake-skin over the floor, and Petunia let out a horrified shriek that echoed through the house. The stumbling stampede of frantic over the floor, Dudley exclaiming in shock, Petunia's hysterical screams—
Harry let out a breath. "Thank you. What am I to call you?"
"You are my lord, I am your sssservant." Servant, serpent, Harry thought.
"Call the cops, mum!" Dudley was yelling hysterically. "He'll kill us, he's probably coming right now—"
"But then they'd know!" Petunia pleaded.
"Then—then we won't let them know. They can't find out if he's gone…"
Harry shifted. "Lisssten. Can you get my handcuffsss loose?"
Harry heard the snake move across the floor. The following hiss was much closer to his ear. "I know no magic, but you can free yoursssself, my lord…"
Harry paused, listening. Dudley and Petunia's voices were hushed now. He caught a phrase or two—Vernon's something, and Dudley saying that he'd get it, he'd get the gun.
"How do I do it?" Harry asked.
"Wandless magic? I do not know, my lord…"
Shit, Harry thought. Calm down, Potter, calm down now. He took a deep breath, tuning out the thumping sound that echoed from downstairs. I just have to unlock this and get rid of those bars—if I unlock these handcuffs, I'll probably be able to get a grip and get rid of those stupid bars…
He licked his bloody lips and whispered, "Alohomora." The words passed like a gust of dry wind, and nothing happened. Not even a stirring deep down where he knew his magic was. Licking his cracked lips, he concentrated on his handcuffs, conjuring the last image he had to them, and imagined them unlocking, opening, imagined himself being able to move his hands down to ease the pain in his ribs, imagining his wrists free of the cruel, biting metal…
It was more of an anguished, angered cry than a command. "Alohomora…"
This time, he felt a spark jump from the deepest recesses of his being. It surged up like a fountain, and he felt the magic bubble out through his arms, his hands—
He shuddered as he felt the magic paused, gathering in his body, before—
A thump downstairs of Dudley jumping in fright, and Petunia's shriek.
Harry lay still for a moment, hearing Dudley's not-so-furtive steps downstairs resume, and Petunia's fierce whispers about how the windows suddenly unlocked.
"Your resssstraints fell," the snake replied, a note of approval in its voice. "And the barsss… Of you window. They are gone."
For a first attempt at wandless magic, I suppose that's pretty good, Harry thought dazedly, too exhausted to move.
Thump. Thump. "Hush, Dudley-kins!"
Harry brought down his arms and moaned at the pain. Damn it. He shifted in his sticky bed, and bit back a scream as the pain in his ribs detonated like a bomb. Somehow, he got his feet onto the floor; somehow, by clutching the wall with quivering arms, he'd pulled himself into a semi-sitting position.
"My lord…" Harry heard as he pushed himself into a crouched position. His ribs hurt, oh God, it hurt, it hurt to breathe… He took a step forward, one hand on the cot. Darkness all around. He shifted his foot forward, slowly, and felt something meaty meet it. Vernon.
"Is he… dead?"
Harry nodded slightly (he'd think about it later, he told himself) and, gritting his teeth to bite back the screams, stumbled the last few steps to the loose floorboard. Pain exploded, coloring his darkness with fireworks of agony… He heard whispering in the hallway: they must've heard him move, but he didn't care. His hands groped the floor until he felt the loose floorboard. He removed it with trembling fingers and took out his father's invisibility cloak.
"Sssnake," Harry hissed softly, trying to arrange the cloak over himself as best as he could. His arms were filled with lead. "Can you still ssssee me?"
"Cover your right foot," the snake replied from somewhere close by.
"Hide with me," Harry instructed as he drew in his foot, wincing the whole time. "Don't… don't ssstrike unless they get too close…"
"As you wish, my lord," the serpent hissed, and Harry felt a cool presence slide under the watery cloak beside him.
Now, time to wait.
He hated not being able to see. He hated being in the dark, not knowing what was going on—he couldn't know if Dudley was on the clear other side of the room, or if a gun was pointed at his head right now.
Calm down, Potter, he told himself sternly.
Thump. Panting. One thing was sure though, Harry thought. Dudley would never know what it meant it meant to be quiet.
Petunia gave a little cry. "It's gone… that little freak too! What if—what if it's hiding somewhere in the house? Downstairs? Oh, Dudley-kins, in our r-rooms?"
Harry bit back his laughter as he heard Dudley begin hyperventilating.
"We—we—we'll have to hide it," Petunia whimpered. "We have to hide it, so they won't know…"
Hide what? Harry thought, but he heard footsteps approaching—he braced himself, and felt the snake tense by his side—but then he heard something enormously heaving dragged over the floor.
Petunia's voice was harder this time. "Dudley, help me. We can't let them know, can't let them find out…"
Realization struck. Perfect solution, there, Harry thought dryly. Bury Vernon's body, and pretend it never happened… More shifting, dragging sounds over the floor. There seemed to be some difficulty in getting Vernon's body through the doorway until Dudley finally recovered enough to help his mother.
Harry shivered. He had never felt so disgusted as he had right then, as he heard Petunia drag her husband, assisted by her son, to the garden to be buried, or maybe burned, so that the next day, they could say he was on vacation, or perhaps on a business trip… How could anybody do such a thing? To bury a husband in front of a son, just because the neighbors might see? The dead Dursley's abuse he could understand, if only in a twisted way, but this… He shivered.
When the thumping and sliding sounds were safely far away, he let out a slow sigh of relief. He shifted, biting back the surges of pain. A faint breeze trickled in through the window, stealing under the cloak and caressing his swollen face. His lips curved in the tiniest of smiles: the window was open, wide open, and the way to escape was clear… And he'd done it, with wandless magic he'd never been trained to do before. For the first in a very long time, he felt a flickering of fiery hope—
Then the doorbell rang.
"Can you tell who they are?" Harry whispered, as quietly as he could, in the direction he thought the snake was.
"They sssmell like wizardsss…" the snake replied softly from somewhere next to the doorway. "Minissstry wizardssss…"
SHIT, Harry thought. He'd just done wandless magic—of course the Ministry would be here. To expel him. At least Vernon saved them the trouble of breaking my wand, Harry thought grimly. I wonder what Petunia and Dudley will say to them…
Vernon is dead, Harry thought again, feeling the realization sink in deeper. He felt torn between shaking in relief and or shaking with fear. He'd never be rid of the fear, he realized. But he had to stop thinking about that. Umbridge was still alive, and Fudge was still the Minister—and if they found him before the Order…
"Ssssnake," Harry hissed. "Did you say that the barsss were gone?"
"Yessss, my lord…"
Harry took a hesitant step forward. Darkness. "Help me…"
Incessant dangling from the doorbell.
Whimpers. "We're not here, Dudley-kins, we're not here, we're not here…"
As if that'll make them stay away, Harry snorted, wondering briefly where they had hidden Vernon's body. He nearly fell with the next step he took—his ribs were still aching, burning like crazy, and wrists hurt at the slightest touch, but at least he could semi-walk.
Harry followed the voice until his knee bumped into the wall and he nearly fell out the window in pain.
He remembered that there was a tree outside the bars of his window. He knew the tree intimately well: he used to climb it, and had climbed it twice that summer. Now, if he remembered correctly…
"Ssserpent, where are you?" Harry was groping the night air.
"Here… Just reach forward sssslightly…"
Harry leaned forward a bit and hissed as a leaf brushed his wrist. He wondered how bad they really were, but, not being able to see, he wouldn't know. Last time he checked, he were bloody and chaffed, but that was two days ago…
Suddenly, he felt again the acute loss of his vision. It hurt more than ever, even though he tried to will it away, telling himself that he would be cured, that he would be able to see again… No more reading. No more seeing his friends smile and laugh. No more watching the landscape fly past in the Hogwarts Express. No more seeing the glittery decorations of the yuletide season. No more flying swiftly, freely through the air as he reached for the glittering, golden snitch…
No, he told himself firmly. I am going to see, I will see eventually, I will—
The door downstairs banged open, and Harry nearly fell out of the window again.
He clambered onto the edge of the window, making sure he did not brush his lacerated back against the window. His invisibility cloak was still draped over his shoulder, but where the cloak touched, the sensation was not of stinging pain, but rather like cool water on a hot wound…
"Lean out sssome more," the snake instructed.
Harry hesitated, hands clammy as he gripped the gnarled branch tightly.
"…Potter's residence, this is…"
Another voice. "Got him good this time… not even Dumbledore'll be able to sneak him out—"
Harry took a deep a breath as his ribs would allow, and swung his foot out, thankful that the soles of his feet were untouched by Vernon's abuse. His foot connected with the branch, and he felt around until he was in a roughly standing position—he shifted his weight, gritting his teeth and terribly aware of his loudly pounding heart—he leaned out a little more and stepped out of the window…
"Hurry, my lord…"
Another bang from downstairs, and then Petunia's shriek.
Good, Harry thought. Let Petunia hold them off for now. He gritted his teeth as he held on for dear life, not knowing how to proceed. Damn it all for being blind.
"What now, Ssserpent?" he hissed.
Slithering from somewhere below him, and a touch on his foot. "Move… thusss…"
"…Potter? Oh—I d-d-don't know. Never h-heard of a boy with such a name, nasty thing—never heard of him, no, n-never…"
Harry gritted his teeth. The world did not exist; he was hanging, suspended, above eternal darkness. Just a bit more, he told himself, trying to still his trembling body.
"Down… move your—no, my lord! Not there—left, left—"
Harry's leg swung over nothing, and not even leaves brushed his leg—his hands were slipping, he was going to fall, he couldn't hold on anymore—god damn it, where was the fucking branch—
Thump. Thump—two people climbing the stairs, muttering and grumbling—
—then his quivering hands let go. For a moment, he was suspended in space—and then his legs smashed into the ground, and his arms, struggling to find support, slashed against the rough bark of the tree trunk—tears where tears would have been, a scream if his throat had been capable of screaming—and then he was on his back, his wounds pulsing…
A swiftly falling darkness.
It felt so good to be… asleep—
Sounds… pounding up the stairs… a familiar voice, crying out…