A/N: This has been in the works for a while, actually; I've long wanted to write about how CR!Harry came to be. To quote 13thadaption, "...I like what I like, and what I like is inflicting maximum trauma."
Also, STOP REPOSTING MY STORY TO WATTPAD. Take it down you miserable cunts, it's not yours to upload in the first place. One of these days I'll put CR on AO3, but that's it.
A/N June 2023: Yes, I know. It's been awhile. Since I last updated, Rowling has outed herself as a blatantly transphobic piece of shit, the world has gone to hell in a multitude of different ways, and somewhere along the line, I got a bit burnt-out on writing.
And then my dad died, and my life cratered around it.
I think I've surfaced? Maybe. I never know when it's going to drag me under again.
But it's gnawed at me that I never completed Circular Reasoning. This is the one story that I've never put an ending on. So, what the hell? Here's to making it to the finish line. I'm sure you'll notice my writing style has changed, which can't be helped as I'm a much different person in 2023 than I was in 2017. Not a bad thing either – part of refining your craft is learning what to leave in and what to leave out. A lot of what I wrote in the early chapters of CR wouldn't make it into the final draft today. Because, yikes. I'm proud of some of the things I've created here, but some... have not aged well. My betas were amazing and I did them dirty. I should have listened to them more often. I guess we can consider CR a practical example of hubris at play – when they say 'kill your darlings,' they also mean your ego.
That said, I am not rewriting this story again. I'm taking what I've got to work with and I'm wrapping up plotlines. CR had an absurd number of chapters planned with a bittersweet ending. Now, with my current storytelling skills, I can cut that by over two-thirds. Also, I think the ending will be rather hopeful. Maybe not as cheery as some of you might like, but definitely hopeful. I'm not making an abrupt tone-shift – for one I think that runs counter to the themes of corruption, consequences, and identity in CR – but I can see room for Harry to grow. So much of his adult life has been ruined by his own anger and self-hatred. I think it's worth it to excise that wound, explore the growth, and finish this story.
Thanks for sticking around.
Led Zeppelin – No Quarter
Lorn – Weigh Me Down
Puscifer – Potions
Bill Buchanan – Beware
Perturbator – The Uncanny Valley: Bonus – Church
W.A.S.P. – Lake of Fools
Character, like a photograph, develops in darkness.
Harry dreams of prophecy orbs, glass moths, and crows. Of ghosts with spite in their veins and a vengeance contract writ in their souls. Of cracked mirrors and the smooth sheen of serpent's scales. Of fog, choking and chemical in origin; trees gone skeletal in the grip of an eternal winter while a cold black ocean laps at a desolate shore.
Death, decay, and destruction. These are the things that have ruled his life.
There are a thousand different ways in which things could have gone wrong. Alternative time-lines, those 'what ifs' of alternate universes – the endless possibilities of a thousand different choices for a thousand different situations in a thousand different lifetimes.
Damned if the devil isn't in the details.
Fifteen was a year-long trainwreck, the end of it grinding to a quiet, stifling halt. That invisible barrier between himself and the rest of the world had only deepened since his screaming fit in the Headmaster's office. Still raw inside, the wounds not yet scabbed over, Harry felt alien and strange, trapped within the rigid contours of Privet Drive's suburban canons. There was no room for him here, no purpose. Not that there'd ever been, really.
On the other side of that disconnect lurked the reality of his grief. The smothering claustrophobia didn't help.
He'd zoned out again, this time at the kitchen counter. A plate and two slices of bread sat in front of him. The telly blared in the other room. Vernon's grumbling rolled along with it – something about cars, Harry thought.
Petunia bustled into the room, dressed in a profusion of powder-blue ruffles. She wasn't paying attention and Harry, brain still tripping over the pause button, watched her rearrange the fruit basket for no real reason at all. Why she bothered, well, it wasn't like anyone else in the family ate it anyway.
Looking up, Petunia let out a muffled yelp. "What are you doing?" she hissed, hand pressed to her chest.
He shrugged. "Sorry."
Harry opened the refrigerator and poked his head inside. Privet Drive was an exercise in monotony. The only change these days seemed to be his appetite. Might as well finish last night's leftovers – if Vernon wasn't going to eat it, Dudley wouldn't either.
"Eating your feelings?" she said, apropos of nothing. Like usual, Petunia was incapable of being in the same room as him without making commentary.
"No," Harry replied.
"I know," she said. "I know."
Harry rolled his eyes, the refrigerator contents giving an ominous rattle as he slammed the door. "Right."
"I went through it too, after my sister's death," said Petunia. "But I took control of the habit and I've ended up just fine."
Harry twisted round to stare at her. Petunia wore a self-satisfied expression and Harry wondered how he'd forgotten just how fucking petty she could be. She smiled like she'd done something nice, done him a favour.
"Everyone mourned her, you know," she continued. "She was smart, and beautiful, and magical. Well, we all know how that turned out."
Magic twisted inside Harry, sparking bright and sharp. The plate with the two slices of bread flew off the counter and shattered against the wall.
Petunia shrieked, covering her head from the flying shards of porcelain. From the other room, Vernon roared out, "What in the devil is going on in there?"
Harry didn't stop to think, slamming the front door shut on the sight of his uncle heaving his red-faced bulk off the couch. His feet pounded a drumbeat through the streets, slowing as his anger burned down into ash.
The sky overhead was a flat Payne's grey, dark enough to be dim, but not dark enough for the streetlights to come on yet. What was once a drizzle opened up into sheeting rain. Harry didn't want to go back, but better sense told him he was a long ways away from the protections of Number Four. Rain soaked his clothes, weighing them down enough he needed to cinch his belt tighter just to keep his jeans from falling off his skinny arse.
The rows of houses gave way to the playground. Most of the equipment was in shit shape from Dudley and his gang's rough use.
Nobody was here. Of course nobody was here, it was cold, wet, and muddy. If Death Eaters were waiting in the bushes, they could have him. Harry sat in the remaining swing and kicked against the ground, creaking back and forth in the rain as his feet scraped weals into the mud. He sat there for ten minutes. Then twenty, then thirty. It was past dinner by the time Harry stood and stretched out his stiff limbs.
If he was lucky, Vernon would have ensconced himself in front of the telly again. Channel 4 was running a special on criminal types, Harry thought, and Vernon loved banging on about Harry's dead-end career path. Besides, that charms essay wasn't going to finish itself.
Beyond the grasp of the dreaming, Harry stands in the Baron's dungeons on a low wooden box, arms still chained behind his back. They'd hooked his bonds over a tall bar running the length of the room, another loop of chain pulling taut around his neck. Harry stretches up to balance on his tip-toes to keep from choking himself. If he falls, he'll dislocate both his shoulders before choking to death.
Water, well out of reach, drips to the floor in rhythmic plops.
They leave him in the searing light. It swallows up everything. Can't count the hours, only the strain – arms shaking, legs cramped and trembling. His toes hurt and the little bends where the joints come together are the worst. Bouncing on the crate doesn't help, not when each time the chain cinches that much tighter. His throat burns with thirst. Reality takes on the taffy-stretch elasticity of passing time.
At some point, his body stops sweating.
Drip-drip-drip plinks the leak by the door.
He never did finish that essay.
One afternoon of aimless wandering was enough for the wrong person to spot Harry at just the wrong time. It didn't take long for black cloaks and white masks to sneak through Privet Drive's front garden. After an assault that left three of the neighbours dead, Harry supposed it was inevitable.
The Dursleys kicked him out. End all, that was final. Not even Dumbledore could convince them otherwise. For a brief span of thirteen hours, Harry was homeless. And then a different solution presented itself: Grimmauld Place.
Claiming Sirius' inheritance ended up surprisingly mundane. Dumbledore led him to a magister's office off of Vertic Alley, the décor all that minimal, understated elegance favoured by the uber-rich. Harry signed a handful of papers with a blood-quill and received in turn another Gringotts vault, a set of heavy brass keys to the Black properties, a handshake, some well-rehearsed condolences, and a signet ring he resolved to lose as soon as possible.
Harry's acquisition of the Black Family assets should have been a tangled bureaucratic nightmare, said the solicitor. When he'd been disowned by his mother, Sirius still qualified as the designated heir of the Black Family due to some archaic law governing inheritance. The conditions of the entail designated the inheritance of the Black properties and assets to a male descendant of the direct line. Women could only inherit if they retained the Black surname, which due to the mess of other inheritance laws, could only be maintained through the death of their spouse. Which in turn allowed them to impose their maiden name upon their progeny if said progeny wasn't due to inherit a "greater" surname than that of Black.
Given that Regulus Black was deader than a doornail, the minor lines of inheritance went to Sirius and his heirs. Since he was also deader than a doornail, all of the Black family inheritance went to Harry, being of both Black blood and Sirius' designated heir. And hadn't that been a surprise? Second cousins, in fact, through a cadet branch of the Blacks. It didn't matter, of course. All of those lengthy legal processes had been averted through the maternal graces of Walburga Black, who'd reclaimed her eldest the day he'd entered Azkaban.
A shame that the family tapestry wasn't nearly as amenable to repair as legal documents.
Dumbledore apparated them to more familiar territory before Harry could lose his temper with the solicitor.
The ring was a heavy weight in his palm; an ugly piece of tarnished silver and blood-red stone with 'Toujours pur' written across the wide band. Harry hesitated to put it on. Something angry and muttering lurked about the ring, weighted with the intent to snip his finger off like a cigar cutter if it got anywhere near his flesh.
Grimmauld Place loomed out of the night, its front door as narrow as a coffin and about as welcoming.
"I know this is the last place you want to be," said Dumbledore as they approached the property. "This is the last place I want to leave you. But I cannot guarantee your safety anywhere else."
The last twenty-four hours were a whirlwind. Harry wasn't sure what he felt about living at Grimmauld Place. Dread? Nausea? Relief that he'd have some tangible piece of Sirius to cling to that wasn't a broken mirror and a handful of letters? Harry tightened his grip on the ring, edges digging into his skin. A lightning-spark jolt of magic shuddered through the house as he stepped inside the doorway.
It was official, the Black wards recognized him as master of the house.
Within, Grimmauld's silence was almost as stifling as the grey felting of dust still hiding in the corners. Harry had a home now, but it was as empty as a tomb. And it wasn't where Sirius died, but Harry knew it might as well have killed him.
It would get him too, if he let it.
Four o'clock in the morning found Harry tangled in sweat-soaked sheets, legs aching from a restless night spent thrashing and nauseous.
Everything in this damned house was painted one shade or another of Scheele's Green. Maybe it wasn't just grief driving him round the bend, but the arsenic bleeding out of the fucking wallpaper. It'd been a long time since he slept through the night. Small flashes of light glinted in the corner of his vision if he moved too fast. He'd hit the exhausted stage of insomnia, hyper-aware and hyper-vigilant, but in no condition to actually rest.
A stack of envelopes sat on the floor by his desk. Most of them hadn't been opened. The first time he'd read 'I'm sorry for your loss' he punched a wall. Then another wall. It'd felt good, felt like he was exorcising his ghosts alongside his anger.
The sound of wailing guitars lured him into the kitchen. Harry stumbled down the stairs, still mired in that lingering strangeness between dream and reality. Padding into the room, the too-short hems of his pyjama bottoms floating around his ankles, Harry braced himself on the doorframe against the blare of music.
Sirius caught sight of him and dialed down the sound on the turntable. "Morning!"
"Morning," Harry muttered, the bright kitchen lights stinging his eyes. "What is this? It doesn't sound like wizarding music."
"It's Zeppelin," Sirius crowed in reply, a grin on his face as he fried eggs in the iron skillet hovering close to the gas flame stove. "Like it?"
Harry raised an eyebrow. "At this hour?" He turned and wobbled out of the room, intent on finding shoes and a warm hoodie as his body woke up enough to realize it was as cold as Satan's balls in Grimmauld Place.
Later, when he'd shaken off the grogginess, he came back. The kitchen stood silent and empty, the stove long-cold and rusting, Kretcher's housekeeping at work.
Harry was slipping.
Already, he was slipping.
Grimmauld Place hid a solarium on the top floor.
Harry discovered the door much by accident. Tripped over a bit of rug and went through the wall, which turned out not to be a wall at all. Harry landed on his arse in a short hallway leading to an age-clouded glass door. Moisture dripped down the panes on the opposite side.
He pushed it open and found himself set on by humidity and an overwhelming sense of green. The gardens had overgrown their beds and some of the plants seemed disturbingly sentient, but it was a treasure trove of potions ingredients, rare blooms, and poisons. Bioluminescent colour glittered as the deepening of night took over. A bare handful of mounted lamps were still intact. Harry tapped the brass cages with his wand, illuminating a small circle of the garden in dim, cool hues. Half-buried in the garden beds were the small bones of vermin remains.
As it turned out, the solarium was already inhabited.
Hidden in the purple vines hanging from the ceiling panes was some kind of half-mutated dragon thing – its tiny, translucent wings too small for actual flight though it could glide with ease. It was the colour of a squished plum and about the size of a quaffle.
It was also about a cuddly as a chainsaw. The little fucker dropped down from the ceiling claws first, savaging the back of Harry's neck. He yelped, grabbed the thing by its lashing tail and swung it against a decorative support post. It yowled, hind legs kicking out, slicing the hell out of his right hand and forearm. Harry freed himself from its needle-sharp teeth and talons, but not before leaving a splattered trail of red following him to the door. It shrieked when he slammed the door shut, jumping up and beating its wings against the glass.
It was loud. Harry was surprised it managed to stay hidden for so long without something agitating it. The tiny wretch spent half the night making angry, nails-on-a-chalkboard screeches that sounded like a fucking car wreck. The racket set Sirius' mother off and the two spent the night in a screaming duet from opposite ends of the house.
He came back the next morning, armed with dragonhide gloves and a platter of raw meat. The spiteful little thing latched onto his thumb – teeth sharp even through the heavy dragonhide – hind-claws shredding great reels of old leather as it kicked out. But Harry wasn't stupid. He'd sprinkled the meat with one of the twins' experimental allure potions. More to the point, he'd sprinkled the meat with the allure potion and some of his own blood.
Gold eyes glazed over as the potion took effect. Jaws lolling open, all those ugly crooked fangs spilled outward in a yawn as a long black tongue licked its muzzle and began to groom Harry's arm like a cat.
A couple weeks later found it still feral, but increasingly attached to Harry. He watched it jump off the top railing of the stairs and glide down to his shoulder. He'd taken to wearing one of Sirius' old leather jackets to keep from getting his neck and shoulders shredded by the little bastard. He carefully avoided thinking about how well the leather was starting to fit.
The creature was all teeth, claws, and spite. It had a long neck and tail and a mouth like a lantern fish, which was a scary sight to wake up to when it slept on Harry's belly at night. The little fucker had a habit of winding about his ankles like a cat and shrieking at the tops of its lungs when it was hungry.
"I think I'm going to name you after good old mum," he told the creature. Struck by a fit of mischief, Harry decided to introduce the two.
"Little Walburga," he said, holding the squirming creature up to inspect the portrait. "This is Dead Walburga. Dead Walburga, Little Walburga."
Sirius' mum lost her shit. Little Walburga screeched back and tried to bite the painting.
"It's a common drake actually," Sirius commented later when he saw the thing draped over Harry's arms like one of those ridiculous teacup mutts rich people liked to carry around in fancy purses.
Sirius looked young. Younger than Harry could ever remember him being, save for old photographs of his parents' wedding. His face was fuller, his smile brighter, easier, more himself if that was possible.
"Nasty little buggers," Sirius continued. "I don't know how you managed to get it to like you. The only time you ever encounter them is in a zoo somewhere if it isn't wild."
"Wizards have zoos?" Harry asked, feeling stupid as soon as the words left his mouth.
Phinieus Nigellus' portrait snorted from his position near the dreamy landscape on the wall. "Mudbloods."
A quick flush of shame warmed Harry's cheekbones. Stupid, everyone had zoos. Five years was more than enough time to fix his ignorance of basic cultural norms.
"Who were you talking to?" Phinieus asked in a slippery drawl that reminded Harry of Draco Malfoy and his Old Money cronies.
"I – " Harry glanced at the empty hallway around him. "Nobody, I guess."
The Slytherin Headmaster's stare followed him down the hall. He watched Harry a lot after that.
Harry cleared as many portraits out of his room as he could, but the house – Kretcher – someone – kept moving new ones into the empty frames. He blasted holes through the hallways in an attempt to hex off the cursed portraits and spent the next twelve hours waiting for an underage magic notice.
It never came.
He wakes in the chair again. The old druid is back, Harry's chin grasped in a firm hand as they bend to peer into his face. Beneath their hood, Harry catches sight of dark glittering eyes not yet touched by the rheumy haze of age. Baron Phrixus watches over their shoulder.
"Well?" asks the Baron. "Is he sound?"
The tree priest snorts. "You do like to tenderize your meat before you cook it," they grunt out, twisting Harry's head back and forth as they check his pupils. "Healthy specimen – for a half-breed."
"'M not a pet," Harry slurs, the bruises splitting his lip and covering his face making it damned hard to talk.
He'd twist away from their hold, but the collar rubs a welt against his neck each time he moves. The skin of Harry's neck is raw. Small change in comparison to the rest of his hurts. But it's the implacable, dehumanizing nature of the collar, like he's a disobedient dog, that bothers him the most. Already he's becoming docile to the threat of pain. By the end of it, the Baron and his interrogator will have scrubbed out every last scrap of personality that they can.
"No," rasps the druid. "You're a Sharr. Which is a great deal worse to have on the end of a leash." The druid releases him. "He's ready."
Harry would guess that he'd always been oddly unfinished as a human being.
Most eleven year olds had enough sense of self to dream of the future; what they wanted to be, who they wanted to become. An archaeologist, a marine biologist, a doctor, an actor, a dancer, an astronaut.
But not him. At his core, he'd always been small, half-finished and unassuming. It was like he couldn't see beyond the narrow confines of surviving the present day long enough to imagine something more definite than escaping the Dursleys. And then Hogwarts happened. Suddenly he'd been a hero. He'd been an icon of desperate victory in the midst of fear and smothering darkness. It was an intimidating pair of shoes to fill for an eleven year old.
Harry was nothing if not stubborn, though. He was a Gryffindor, a Quidditch star, and not half-bad with a wand. Time and time again, he managed to come out on top. Basilisks, dementors, dark lords, fascist ministry workers – Hell, he was good at the heroing business. It wasn't something he'd have chosen for himself, but he'd always been a bit shit at planning ahead. He'd blathered on about joining the Aurors to McGonagall and for a while, it sounded pretty appealing.
Right then? He gave even fewer fucks than usual. Joining the Aurors was just something slapped on a piece of paper to get the others off his back. Truth was, each time he thought about his impending future, it felt like a black hole waiting to swallow him up. It felt really fucking bleak, the thought that he'd be struggling through catching dark wizards his whole life.
He would be Harry Potter when he grew up. And Harry Potter could never be a researcher, a shop keeper, or a mere Quidditch player. It was a weighty name, laden with weighty expectations.
Harry wandered down the stairs sometime during the wee hours of the morning. Outside, the stars were choked out by the constant rain. A part of him half-expected tattered robes to flutter past the windowpanes. Rumour had it that Voldemort was breeding dementors, which was why it was so damned cold even in the middle of summer.
Downstairs was empty. He was the only person in the house. Most of his guards had left him alone. Something about his "friendly disposition" Tonks mentioned once, her hair gone the colour of faded denim. They checked in every couple days or so, no real regular schedule – most likely for security reasons, now that he thought about it.
Nobody told him much. Maybe if he hadn't fucked up and gotten the Dursleys attacked in their own bloody garden, maybe they would have brought him in on the meetings, maybe Dumbledore would have started to teach him. Or maybe it was moot point. Harry was a liability. No training, no Occlumency skills, no sense of responsibility – no wonder they weren't holding Order meetings at Grimmauld Place any longer. They were banking on their own capabilities and the possibility of the prophecy giving Harry a lucky shot at the Dark Lord.
By now, he was going stir-crazy. His homework was long done, his textbooks thumbed through so often that the pages were crumpled, and there was only so many times he could play chess against himself before he joined Wally in chewing on the fucking walls.
All of the dark magic books were gone, as were the poisonous potions ingredients (though the solarium begged to differ), dark magic artefacts, the weapons hanging on the walls, the more obvious traps throughout the house, everything – anything – remotely interesting. They'd stripped everything useful out of the library, too. Leftover was a great swath of bone-dry histories with a rather biased outlook, a series of genealogy books, an intimidating selection of outdated tomes on wizarding tax law, dog-eared potions books, a handful of wizarding novels written in Ye Olde English, banking ledgers, and enough other boring extraneous shit to serve as kindling if Harry ever needed to outlast a prolonged winter.
That was the terrible thing about boredom – it was so damn easy to get into trouble.
It only took one spell.
It was a silly spell, a nasty little hex that caused his keys to bite anyone who tried to steal them. The keys gleamed with deep violet light, rattling about in the onyx bowl Harry used to contain them. Jagged mouths etched themselves onto the brass surfaces, shining teeth pulled free of the metal.
It was such a small thing. Inconsequential, really. Something scribbled into the margin of a banking ledger, a reminder to remove the curse from a vault key which was how it had slipped beneath the notice of the purge. But with that one single whiff of dark magic, Grimmauld Place shuddered all over. Doors and rooms began to appear in hallways that hadn't existed when Sirius was still alive.
The water wouldn't stop dripping in the downstairs sink.
But each time Harry went to check, he could find no sign of the errant pipes. Just a small bedroom with a bare cot and an old rocking chair covered in dust.
The trees kept tapping on the windowpanes, rain pattering against the eves. A storm had blown in during the night; the normal kind, not the lingering mists of the dementors. It wouldn't be so bad if he wasn't damned certain Grimmauld Place had no trees outside. The house was feeling bored, he supposed, like a kid that kept tapping their pencil against the desk during lessons.
"All right fine," Harry muttered, shivering as he climbed out of bed. The fire had gone out during the night, leaving the room chilled.
The door swung open as he reached for it, the hall beyond flickering with dim candlelight.
"Thank you," said Harry. He felt silly as soon as he said it, half operating on the automatic politeness Petunia had lectured into him: Yes, please and thank you, sirs.
The house was...interested. Maybe in the wizarding world, people didn't thank their house-elves or their houses for a reason.
Doors swung open before he touched them, a staircase unfolding itself out of the hall leading to the musty drawing room. Odd, because he could have sworn it was a couple floors below him. He wandered through the room, running a hand along the carved wooden back of the settee. It was green, made of dark wood and a patterned brocade that had seen better days. Across from it, the fireplace flared to life, warming the austere colouring of the room.
As he passed beneath the spiral staircase leading to the mezzanine, the house dropped a book on his head. Harry cursed, rubbing the sore spot. A child's giggle echoed through the halls. From between the banister rails, a pair of grey eyes glittered in the candlelight. The child's hair was as black as Harry's own, his face familiar.
Harry blinked. "Hello?" he asked.
As soon as Harry set foot on the stairs, the kid jumped off, robes flapping behind him. He landed with a solid enough sounding thud and disappeared out the door. Harry gave chase, catching up to him just in time to watch the child dissipate in mid-air. Poof, gone.
He sighed and headed back to the drawing room. The book lay harmless in the middle of the floor, Wally flaring his crest in curiosity as he sniffed it. Harry nudged the ugly wretch aside and picked up the book. Irritated at being deprived of his prize, the little bastard sank his teeth into Harry's shoe. Harry swore and swatted him with the book.
"Damn it, Wally," he muttered, trying to detach the sodding creature from the end of the book. "Let go."
Harry swung the book around until the drake lost his grip, ripping part of the tattered cover off. Little Walburga made his 'cack cack cack' call and skittered off down the hall. The damned ghost giggled and that time Harry could see the shine of the apparition's smile as it crouched in the shadows. Harry shuddered. There really weren't enough candles in this part of the house. While he knew ghosts weren't unusual in old wizarding homes, this one didn't seem as restrained as the Hogwarts' ghosts.
A quick glance through the pages of the diary told him it had once belonged to a witch named Edith. Harry tucked the journal into his pocket and left, carefully sticking to the dim light of the hall as he walked back to his room.
Harry kept his wand lit that night; grateful for Little Walburga's company when the drake curled up beside him, kneading at the duvet with his oversized claws. He watched the shadows move on the wall until sleep claimed him.
And he'd swear on his life that just before his eyes slipped shut, a small dark-haired child stared back at him from the lone chair in the corner of the room.
He dreamt of Sirius' last Christmas again.
"I'm going to teach you the animagus transformation," Sirius announces suddenly one morning at the breakfast table.
Harry glances over the top of the Daily Prophet at the determined cast to his godfather's face. "Why?"
Sirius' lips pucker into an exasperated moue, giving him a cat's ass for a mouth. "Because there are better ways to spend your day than throwing kitchen knives at the house-elf heads."
"Really?" says Harry, with sardonic amusement. "I thought Professor Lupin made you promise not to give me any funny ideas."
"Professor Lupin," Sirius mocks. He draws out the U sound so it became a nasal -ooo sound. Professor Loopin. Loopy Loopin."Isn't stuck in a dreary old mausoleum with an increasingly dreary teenager."
The lessons are a resounding failure, but the faces Sirius makes are entertaining enough to make up for the disappointment.
Harry woke in the morning, face damp. Maybe having a family just wasn't in the cards for him.
Grimmauld Place made for a shitty consolation prize.
The diary was written in a looping hand rendered almost indecipherable by age.
Great Aunt Edith, as Harry had taken to calling her, had a whole slew of personal journals with nasty curses written in between her various sexual escapades. Great Aunt Edith had also died at the grand old age of thirty-two while mid-coitus with a some kind of half-breed centaur according to the genealogy books. Very obviously, Great Aunt Edith was a bit fucked in the head.
As it turned out, Great Aunt Edith's diary ended up being a wonderful map towards other handwritten booklets and dark magic implements concealed in old trunks. He found hidden rooms covered in dust and hollow floors in the closets, more false panels hiding staircases to the creaking dimness of the attic.
He should have been more wary of the house's eagerness to coddle his boredom.
One evening, late enough it was almost early, Harry followed the little ghost's trailing robes down thirteen flights of stairs before he cottoned on to how many levels the house was spitting out. Cautious, he glanced over the railing. Below him, the staircases wound away into nothingness. Above him the gas lamps winked out, one level at a time.
Harry fled, clattering down the stairs loud enough to drown out the little ghost's laughter. From the darkness came the sound of heavy panting and running footsteps. He spent the rest of the night in his room, wrapped tight in his covers with the fire stoked high enough he almost felt warm through the cold sweats.
Grimmauld Place is being affectionate, Harry thought, in the only way it can express itself.
The Blacks were home again, the house must have believed. The Blacks were home again and dark magic was once more practised within their halls. And Harry, as distantly related as he was, qualified as Black enough, dark enough, that the house was going to sink its claws in and never let go. It too, he supposed, had learned something of loss.
Sometime later, when Harry is dragged from the labyrinth of his mind back to consciousness, he asks the Baron, "What's your stake in all of this?"
The Baron smiles. It's not a kind expression. "You know nothing of your own history," he says. "Many years ago, one of your ancestors stole my daughter under the guise of marriage."
"And you're angry because she married outside the family?"
"No, little darkling," says the Baron. "I'm 'angry' because he tricked her into trusting him. I'm 'angry' because on their wedding night, he lay her across an alter and slit her open from cunt to crown."
Harry inhales. Jesus fucking wept.
"The Sharr are a disease," continues the Baron with unwavering conviction.
"But you can't touch me," Harry replies. "You said yourself, killing me would be an act of war."
"The rest of your relations do not fall under the Winter Queen's protection."
"The rest of my relations are Muggles."
"I cannot take that chance. The Sharr are a weed that thrives even in rocky soil," says the Baron. He stands, his chair disappearing as he turns towards the door.
And isn't that a disconcerting thought? Tubby cousin Dudley is considered a 'Sharr' to the Summer fae. Poor bastard is going to get his head lopped off for the misfortune of being related to Harry.
The enforced idility didn't last.
An old trunk of dark arts artefacts hidden in the attic held what looked like a small bat skull. It popped open when his wrist brushed it, revealing tarnished silver fangs. Harry froze in mid-motion of reaching for a book, wishing he'd put on his dragonhide gloves for all the good they'd do him against dark magic.
For a moment, nothing happened.
Then the book – the fucking book – slammed shut on his fingers, sharp teeth biting down right to the bone.
Three days later, the skin under his fingernails was black as pitch and the rest of his wand hand wasn't looking so good. The odour of rot clung to his skin.
Harry was fucked.
Great Aunt Edith's diary left him a winding trail of breadcrumbs, each more unhelpful than the last.
His fever climbed. Soon he'd be useless, his brain boiling in his skull. The veins of his right hand had darkened all the way to his shoulder.
He pieced together a recipe for a cure, an off-hand mention in Edith's diary leading him to an account of when Osiris Black's youngest son decided to play in his father's office. The son survived. With luck and the right ingredients, Harry could too. Wormwood negated some of the worse effects of the curse, but the garden had hardly enough to fill a jar. Some kind of fungus had infected the plant, leaving whole swaths of it dead and brown.
The house must have realised it was losing him. Because when he dragged himself inside from searching the solarium, he found a serving tray topped with a filigree spoon, a dish of sugar cubes, and a glass of chartreuse green liquid smelling of spice and aniseed at his place at the table.
Well then. The only thing missing after that was the dementor's blood.
Death Eaters swarmed Knockturn Alley.
A raid had spilled over into the adjacent streets around Diagon, the new recruits damn near howling in their frenzy. The narrow walkway between an apothecary and a closed hat shop in Knockturn Alley was just big enough for Harry's skinny frame to slip through. Somewhere nearby, a building exploded. The ground shuddered under his feet and he stumbled, bumping into the rubbish bins. Fever painted the alley in disjointed splashes of fire and green light.
One of the masks lingered over his hiding spot. Harry crouched, ducking down behind the bins and an old rain barrel. He couldn't tell what made the noise – dirt and glass scraping the ground beneath his shoes, maybe. But the Death Eater heard it and looked right at him, close enough Harry could tell he was blue-eyed and young.
The Death Eater raised his wand.
A word slithered through Harry's mind, scales as cool as stone brushing against his neurons. The spell left his wand before his mouth could form it, a soundless arc of purple light.
The Death Eater dropped, split open like a peach, his insides red and pulpy. It would hit Harry later, the finality of what he'd done. But not here, not now, not with that heady cocktail of adrenaline and panic keeping him on his feet. Someone shouted down the street. Harry shrank into his hiding spot, back scraping against the dirty bricks. And then a hand clamped down on his arm and dragged him further into the alley, shoving him up against the wall.
"Well," murmured the man, pupils gleaming orange in the dim light. "Don't you smell like trouble."
"I – " Harry began, before coughing up a mouthful of black phlegm.
Fangs gleamed in the light as the man smiled. "Trouble and desperation."
White masks and black robes ran past their street and Harry's breathing hitched despite himself.
The vampire, because Harry could fucking well recognize that he was a vampire, laughed and said, "So somebody is looking for you."
"Don't," Harry rasped, not sure where he was going with the rest of that statement.
"Oh? And what would I get for saving your worthless hide?"
Harry bared his teeth, black mucus dribbling down his chin. "I'm not sucking your cock."
The vampire eyed him and grimaced. "I'd be frightened to put it in that mouth. And you'd make a poor meal for even the starved and hopeless."
Harry wiped his face on his sleeve, ichor glistening in the light. "I need dementor's blood," said Harry. "I'll pay you back if you can point me in the right direction."
The vampire raised an eyebrow. "For what?"
Harry pulled the book from his knapsack and peeled back the wrappings. A noxious odour wafted away from the pages.
Flinching, the vampire swore and covered his nose. "How the fuck are you still alive?"
"Good question," said Harry. "I doubt I'll last long enough to answer it."
"You're too trusting," the vampire muttered. "You're damned lucky I'm the one who found you."
He led Harry on a winding route through a shifting maze of back alleys and quiet roads to a run down pub called Tartarus. Strome, as he introduced himself, gave Harry an underwhelming series of tiny vials, large enough for only a few drops worth.
"You owe me," said Strome, as Harry slipped away.
Of course he did. But Harry had access to the home of one of the darkest pureblood families in recent memory. Surely there was something left behind worth his own skin. After all, a deal was a deal.
"Where are the Sharr?" the interrogator demands, his voice not so much a sound as it is a rockfall tumbling down a mountainside. "What is Mab planning? Who are you to her? What task has she assigned you? When will she strike at Summer?"
"Buddy," Harry replies. "You'd have better luck answering that question with a crystal ball and a tab of acid."
It's not loyalty that keeps his mouth shut, but ignorance. He doesn't know enough himself about Mab's plans and the importance of the Families to offer useful insight.
"Why didn't you eat it?" asks the Baron on one of his rare visits. "Was it a farce? Play-acting to make me believe you are somehow more civilized than the rest of your kind?"
Harry spits out a wad of blood onto the floor. "No, I just didn't want to eat it."
"Sure, a part of me would have licked the plate if I'd given it free-rein, but I didn't. I don't want to."
The Baron studies him. "How have you not starved?"
Harry shrugs. "I've never met a Morrigan, so I don't have any easy answers." Blood drips from his nose and Harry turns his head to wipe it on the bruised flesh of his shoulder. "Best I can tell, they're an omnivorous bunch. Blood, sex, violence, flesh, I don't know – pheromones, maybe? Some call the Morrigans a psychic predator, too. Or maybe it's none of that and you have a half-rabid group of shitheads running around gnawing on people for the hell of it."
"You say 'they' and 'them' as if you are not one of them," says the Baron. "Perhaps you have been starving. It'd be commendable if it hadn't been done out of ignorance."
"Right," Harry replies. "Would it kill you to give me credit for the choices I've made that haven't ended badly?"
'To maybe believe I'm not always trying to be a malicious asshat?' Harry doesn't say.
It doesn't matter, because the Baron's calm regard never wavers. "Dragons don't fear much," he says. "They have little reason to. But I once watched a hungry Morrigan pluck a dragon from the sky when it flew too low to the ground. The dragon outweighed and outclassed the Morrigan in every way. The Morrigan tore its wings, broke its neck, cracked open its rib cage and ate the heart from its moorings.
Do you understand now why I regard your story as unlikely?"
The Baron left. And then the interrogator came back, dragging in a rattling cart of tools behind him.
"It's your witty dialogue, I think," Harry says to the ugly fucker. "That's the most charming part of your personality."
Fugly balls up a meaty fist and slugs him across the face.
Harry chuckles, blood pooling in his mouth and dribbling over his chin. He spits it into Fugly's eyes. It spatters wet and red over the interrogator's forehead and eyelids, before lighting up like a magnesium flare. The giant fae topples like a tree and his heels drum on the floor as it eats into his brain.
Before the spell can chew through the collar, the ring of runes flicker green-gold. Harry's vision goes dark.
When he wakes, it's to the druids' tender care and Phrixus' watchful gaze in the background.
This time, they've fitted him with a muzzle.
Harry returned to Grimmauld Place dirty, sleepless, and uncomfortably aware of how much he stank of his own fever-sweats. He'd just enough money left for a Muggle bus ride to get back to the right part of London. The people on the bus side-eyed him with wary regard. Not surprising, given that he looked like he was coming down from a bad trip.
Harry had only the time to finish the potion and measure out a dose before the downstairs Floo came to life, spitting Order members into his kitchen. The potion tasted weird and gamey, leaving a thick, waxy film over the inside of his mouth. He'd brewed it right though – a talent that surprised even him.
Understandably, the Order was in an uproar about his disappearance. They'd worked themselves into a frothing fury when they discovered why he'd left the house. Harry thought they were a bit late to be so hacked off about his actions.
"You would never even have known I was gone if it weren't for tattle-tale Kretcher," he muttered to the crowded kitchen, ignoring that he'd been stupid enough to cast magic outside of Grimmauld Place with a trace-locked wand.
"Bring me the book, Harry," said Dumbledore, disappointment writ across a face that already carried too many lines.
Harry shrugged. "Not much left of it, but sure."
The book was rotting from the spine outward, a green tinge running through the pages and Harry belatedly understood where the stains on his fingers came from. Acid green slime discoloured the insides of the old knapsack he'd carried it in and a brief flicker of revulsion crossed Snape's face when he saw it. Harry might have laughed at how similar he and his godfather looked if he hadn't been so tired. The apparition was a teenager today; the house's last memory of Sirius Black before he'd run away.
"You are damned lucky you didn't get sicker from this than you did," Sirius growled. "What were you thinking?"
"I want to win!" Harry hissed in reply. The vehemence of the words leaving his mouth startled him and it certainly took Sirius back a moment.
"What?" said Snape.
"My chances of defeating Voldemort are slim to none," said Harry. "The best I can hope for is to surprise him when he least expects it. The more I know about the magic he uses, what magic the Death Eaters use, the better off I'll be. My chances aren't improving by just sitting around here."
Snape's lip curled in derision. "And this is your clever plan?" Something wary lurked in his expression, as if Harry had gone slavering rabid.
"No. This was a mistake. And I assure you, I won't be making it again," said Harry.
Sirius shook his head. "Why would you go out of your way to play with dark magic?"
Harry crossed his arms, drawing his robes closer around him against the constant chill of the house. "I didn't set out to find the damned thing, if that's what you're asking."
"You are vastly unprepared to tangle with Death Eaters if a biting book has gotten the better of you," said Snape, eyebrows climbing his forehead.
"Harry," said Dumbledore.
He glanced over at the Headmaster.
The man's expression was troubled, his gaze searching the air around Harry before finally landing on him. "Who are you talking to?"
"Sirius," he replied. Harry gave a grudging expression before adding, "And Snape."
Dumbledore frowned. "Sirius is dead, Harry."
"I know," said Harry. The sky was blue, grass was green, Sirius was dead. Of course he knew.
In hindsight, that probably wasn't the right answer.
No, Harry assured them, Voldemort wasn't sending him visions again. It was all the insomnia's fault, really. That and boredom. One of the Order members made noises about the inability to sleep being the culmination of Harry's grief and how these old houses were just awful to vulnerable young souls like his own, what with their bad auras and lingering remnants of dark magic.
Harry rolled his eyes. Out of the corner of his vision, he caught Snape doing the same.
He didn't know why he kept the house's secrets. A part of him chanted, it's mine, it's mine, you can't have it, it's mine. Grimmauld Place was the last thing his godfather ever gave him, even if it was a posthumous gift.
"I would have taken you with me to see an old friend," said Dumbledore, well after the rest of the Order had left. "But your health is still too tenuous to risk."
"Sorry for ruining your plans," said Harry, trying not to sound like a sulky child. "My options weren't...very good."
"Why didn't you tell anyone?"
Harry shrugged. "Not enough time." It wasn't entirely true and he suspected the old headmaster knew that, but explaining his lack of trust in the Order was dangerous territory to wander. Dumbledore probably knew that as well.
"Make no mistake," said Dumbledore. "I'm disappointed you left the safety of this house. You knowingly put yourself in grave danger with no guarantee of success." He rested a hand on Harry's shoulder. "Yet I feel a great measure of pride that you cured yourself of a very potent poison. For that, well done."
Harry knew the other shoe had yet to drop. "But?"
Dumbledore's smile was tired. "But I am worried for you. If you could find it in yourself to indulge an old man, I'd like for you to take up your Occlumency lessons again."
Again. As if he hadn't failed bad enough the first time, a part of Harry wanted to protest. He knew Dumbledore was aware of his anger and could see the headmaster waiting for the inevitable explosion.
But fussing wouldn't do much good anyway – he'd still have to learn the skill and his other options might be worse than Snape. Harry bowed his head and acquiesced.
They met in the drawing room, Grimmauld Place being kind enough to merge the room into something with a fireplace. It still did nothing for the chill.
Harry stayed silent and seething throughout the time Snape derided him for his failures. He'd dosed himself with the antivenin again that morning and it was taking longer than usual to kick in.
Snape's theme of the day was arrogance and another comparison to his father. Odd, how much resemblance Harry held to a man he'd never met. Everyone had something to say on the subject of James Potter, but it was all just stories to him. It was like toting around a cardboard cutout and trying to introduce it as his father. The man was dead, no matter matter how hard Snape tried to resurrect his ghost through sheer vitriol.
Harry cocked his head at a thoughtful angle, spittle flying from Snape's mouth on mute.
What was it about himself that made the resemblance so uncanny? Personality-wise, Harry was nothing like his father. The late James Potter had enjoyed life with a vitality he'd never been able to match. James had been loud, with a strange sort of openness that baffled Harry – so expectant that the world would conform itself to his wishes, that he could blithely forge ahead with no care as to failure or pain. And from what Sirius had told him, James never met a challenge he'd back down from. The man had been a fighter, an instigator. He'd never take Snape's shit lying down.
Maybe just once Harry should give Snape exactly what he thought he saw.
He dug down deep and pulled. A thread of anger, white-hot and searing, answered back.
That strange psychic twist unspooled itself, as if something had attached strings to his brain and tugged on them. It was almost a migraine, just hovering on the precipice of pain, but not quite tipping over; a heavy pointed awareness. He caught a furious black flash of Snape's eyes. An image unwound like a cinema reel behind his eyeballs.
That was disgusting.
His face ached and Harry realized that he was grinning ear to ear, teeth bared in bitter mirth. Snape stopped talking, watching him with that wary expression peeking around the edges again.
"What are you grinning about?" said Snape, dark eyes narrowed. "What about your absolute failure to control yourself is so humorous?"
The words emerged from Harry's mouth low and satisfied, almost purred. "When you rub one out at night, do you ever find yourself hoping that maybe, maybe, just once Lily might have accidentally screamed your name in bed instead of my father's?"
A hard, aching force slammed into the side of his face, knocking the chair Harry sat on backwards. His head hit the floor, noise reverberating deep from within his chest and crawling out his mouth before he realized he was laughing like a loon, mad and loud and free.
Snape had backhanded him out of the goddamned chair.
A fresh bout of mirth came rolling out of him, frayed at the edges like an over-tuned bass note; Harry's head tipped back, the sound loose and wild in his throat.
"Your head is even more fucked up than mine," Harry rasped.
Grimmauld Place slammed the drawing room door behind the dark swirl of Snape's robes.
Triumph burned bonfire-bright beneath his ribs. Harry relaxed into his sprawl across the floor, running a hand down his belly where his t-shirt had rucked itself up under his arms, loving the feel of his own skin and that bad-wrong sense of elation rippling over his flesh.
So that was Legilimency. Harry laughed and laughed and he knew the sound followed the thump-thump-thump of Snape's boots down the stairs.
"Oh yeah," said Harry, voice gone whiskey-rough even to his own ears. "I want me some more of that."
The next few lessons were cold, dispassionate lectures on the theory of Occlumency and the common techniques to defend against Legilmency; the tempo of Harry's heartbeat throbbing through the blood-dark bruise across the left side of his face. Harry almost missed Snape's usual contentious nature.
The lessons were effective, though. While the house had by no means ceased the attempts on Harry's sanity, its influences were diminished. Harry never saw Sirius again. The doors opened and closed without Harry ever laying a hand on them, but with his mind shut tight, all the ghosts of Sirius Black were gone forever.
Lupin caught him wandering through the house, a sandwich in one hand and an overlooked book of arithmancy in the other. It was peripherally related to the theories of magical engineering, golems, and ward-making which was how it'd escaped notice, but its practical applications were all violent and rather messy. Little Walburga had stuffed himself into Harry's collar for a snooze, tail wrapped up under his armpit for stability.
Lupin eyed the tableau as Harry passed him in the hall.
"Aren't you cold?"
Harry blinked and pulled himself out of the book. "What? You lost me."
The werewolf pointed to Harry's bare feet. The house had been warming the floors where he walked. To be honest, he'd stopped noticing Grimmauld Place's little personality quirks. From the picture frame beside them, Phinieus Nigellus raised an eyebrow, a knowing smirk on his face.
A sudden flush of embarrassment warmed Harry's cheeks. "My shoes don't fit any more and when I tried using magic to make them bigger, they, erm..."
"Fell apart?" Lupin's mouth curved into an almost smile. He'd been reserved around Harry since his run in with the Death Eaters. It was an accident, he told them. Some of them might have believed it. Moody hadn't. Lupin hadn't either.
"Yeah," Harry agreed with a nod. "And I can't get new ones while I'm under house arrest."
Lupin frowned. "Why not?"
Because I can't leave, Harry thought. The urge to start clawing at the walls crept up on him again. Grimmauld Place shuddered beneath his feet, the house feeding off his unrest.
The werewolf felt it. Harry knew, because it was the same wary expression Snape wore during his Occlumency lessons. 'Something's not right with Harry,' it said. None of them had the foggiest fucking clue it was the house they needed to worry about.
"I'm already in trouble," he replied instead. "No need to make it any worse." Besides, in another few weeks, the fervour would have died down and he'd be free to acquire his own.
"Let me see what I can do for you then," said Lupin, that guarded look buried under false cheer.
Harry shrugged. "Don't bother. I'll figure something out as soon as I get the transfiguration right."
He looked up at the stern note in Lupin's voice.
"Don't be obstinate," said Lupin. "Sirius had some old boots you can use until you get the opportunity to replace them with something better."
Harry wasn't quite sure what was happening, but he thought it might be related to the pained expression that lingered on the man's face whenever he thought Harry wasn't looking. "Alright then."
Over the course of the summer, Lupin never got all that close to him. A part of Harry wondered if Remus Lupin blamed him for Sirius' death. He wouldn't be entirely wrong, if he did.
One morning, not long after the Knockturn Alley incident, Kreacher got handsy trying to push Harry out of the kitchen. Unthinking, save for the bloody red rage pounding in his head, Harry struck him over the arm with a serving fork.
The wide-eyed, silent obedience was far more unnerving than Kreacher's passive-aggressive hatred of before.
Harry moved rooms a couple of months into his stay at Grimmauld Place. The door to his old room disappeared one day, swallowed up by the wall like it was never there.
He lived on the top floor now, a suite of rooms furnished in pale creams and fragrant cedar, which opened into the solarium. It was almost enough to make the ubiquitous wallpaper tolerable. The walls were spare and clean, no landscapes or portraits for unwanted eyes to wander into. He'd torn down the heavy curtains covering the wide picture windows, the ivy of the solarium grown up over the glass so that the light filtering through was tinged a dreamy, jewel-like green. A stout wooden table crouched under one of those windows, large enough for Harry to spread out several projects at once.
Bookshelves lined the far wall, half taken up with books, the other half filled with the salvaged items Harry collected on his wanderings through the house and gardens. They spilled over the shelves: animal bones and bloodstained books, onyx ritual bowls and knives to accompany them, tarnished jewellery and jars of floating potions ingredients that gleamed in the dark like nightlights. And if he tapped the side of the shelves with his wand, they'd vanish into the wall, a series of false windows popping up in their place.
He'd kept the house's secrets, so the house kept his. Good, because every so often Moody dropped by to poke his nose through Harry's projects.
"Be careful what you play with, lad," he warned Harry one day as the old Auror looked over a book on defensive hexes. "Some of these things will eat on you until it makes sense to gut your friends from stem to stern."
My friends no, Harry thought to himself. But enemies are fair game.
"You're becoming as dour as this house," Ron commented on one of his last visits before they left for Hogwarts.
"I wonder sometimes," Harry replied, hunching over his reading. "If this house infected the Blacks or did the Blacks infect this house?"
Ron gave him a wary side-eye. "Should I be worried?"
Harry let out a rough huff of laughter. Ron had no clue half the shit he'd gotten up to this summer. If Harry had any say in the matter, it would stay that way.
He left an odd reflection in the mirror these days, a dark halo only he could see. He began to wonder if the poison fucked with his head in more ways than one. Certain objects shone in the corners of his vision; others vibrated in a key that set his teeth on edge. Smells were stronger – he'd tracked Kreacher all over this damned house just by the sheer stench of him alone.
Something's wrong with Harry, he thought, biting back a laugh.
His dreams grew stranger.
He sits at a banquet feast, the long table stretching away into darkness. The food is rotten, crawling with maggots; the chairs overturned and crockery broken. Shattered glass glimmers in the faint light from the single candle still alight in its holder. Wine stains the tablecloth in an ever widening spill of red.
In front of him is a dish piled high with white mushrooms baring wide caps and flared frills around the base. Beside it sits a basket of fruit sprinkled with datura and tiny black berries that could only be Atropa Belladonna. Something slithers through the fruit; a flash of venomous patterns and rasping scales. Harry reaches out and plucks a round fruit from the top of the basket.
Grasping it between his hands, Harry twists the pomegranate open with a short, sharp movement. The crack of splitting fruit sounds like bones breaking. Only the rich arils inside aren't sweet and red at all, but a cold corpse-flesh white; ghastly grey and milky green.
He eats them all, one by one. First the Destroying Angels and their delicate musky flavour. Then the belladonna berries with their mild sweetness. The white datura flowers follow next. Then finally, each fleshy little aril until the pomegranate skein is picked clean.
He was hungry when he woke in the morning.
He was always hungry as of late.
"Should I have known then?" he asks the Butcher.
As if Pryce were Virgil and Harry the curious wanderer travelling the levels of the Inferno.
The man snorts low in his throat, spitting a wad of phlegm to the side. "We never know for certain until long after the fact. You got a warning and you didn't pay attention to it." Pryce wipes his chin with a bright white handkerchief, black tar staining the pristine fabric. "You are your own Cassandra."
The crow on Pryce's shoulder laughs.
Just beyond the safety of dreaming lurks brutal reality. The muzzle pinches at his face, carefully designed to allow air and speech, but nothing else. They'd learned that lesson. The tree priests – the druids – have done something terrible to his feet. He doesn't know the details, only that they've brought in maggots to eat the dead flesh so his wounds won't take septic.
If he starts screaming, he won't stop until the tether binding his mind to his body has all but snapped.
He swallows down the sound and drifts back into dreams.
August thirty-first rolled back around. With it, came the beginning of the school year. Harry hadn't expected to dread it.
Harry pushed the messy curls out of his face for the fourth time that hour when he realized that not only had it gotten long, but he also needed to shave, patchy growth on his chin no longer quite so patchy.
He took his glasses off and noted the amount of gunk they'd managed to collect since he last cleaned them. Less than an arm's length away, the room blurred, his hazy reflection staring back from the windowpane.
He was older. What's more, he finally looked it, his face gone sharp and angular. And it was a different face from Harry-the-Child's, a different face from James-Potter-the-Father's, or Lily-the-Mother's. It was a different face from even Sirius', though he was aware of their similarities. 'Black blood will out,' as the saying went. It had in James and it had in Harry as well.
His wrists stuck out from his sleeves, leaving him in more and more of Sirius' old cast-offs rather than Dudley's, because his cousin had only ever gotten larger in increments of 'wider' instead of 'taller'. His reflection was whipcord lean, skin too-pale and stretched tight over his bones. Harry felt like a St. Bernard puppy, with paws like boats and the knowledge that he wasn't done growing yet.
It was a sign that time hadn't actually been passing him by, that the world stretched further than the confines of grief and bad decisions, that life hadn't been put on hold simply because the scope of his focus had shrunk down to the walls of this goddamned house.
Harry narrowed his eyes at the monitoring cuff on his ankle.
'If you're going to act like an irresponsible child, you're going to get treated like an irresponsible child,' his mind chanted at him in Moody's voice.
His stroll through Knockturn Alley incurred severe consequences. The cuff was tuned to the house's wards. He'd tried to walk outside a few times before finding himself wandering much further into the house than he last remembered. By the time Harry finished kicking the sitting room furniture into splinters, he'd yet to find the end of his rage. He hated Moody a bit for turning Grimmauld Place against him.
Moody might have meant well. But these days, tough love smelled more like tough bullshit. He hadn't asked to get gnawed on by some long-dead dark wizard's idea of a joke – the old Auror himself hadn't even caught the cursed book.
Harry flipped over the official Hogwarts letter detailing his classes for the upcoming year. McGonagall had added her own notes on what he should take as a potential Auror-Apprentice and that was very kind of her and all...
But somewhere along the way the signal had dropped out. He didn't care about being an Auror. He didn't care about the Quidditch captain's badge rolling around on the desk. He didn't care about the prophecy. He didn't care about the looming expectation that he was supposed to take out Voldemort one day any more than he cared that he would probably die in the attempt.
He was a student, for fuck's sake. Just once, just once, he wanted a normal school year.
Four floors beneath him, a knock resounded off the front door. Walburga's portrait began shrieking. A pair of male voices yelled back. By the time Harry made it downstairs, it was a goddamned cacophony.
Moody was there, along with a handful of other people Harry didn't immediately recognize.
"Got your bags packed?" Moody growled out.
"You're a day early," Harry replied. "Did something go wrong?"
"Not yet," said one of the unknowns, someone who looked like forty had hit him like a fucking freight train. Snug jeans, dragonhide jacket, and a haircut trending in a younger generation. Sirius could have pulled it off. Sirius could have pulled off a paper-bag and a reverse Mohawk. This bloke looked like a walking advert for a mid-life crisis.
Harry disliked him on the spot. It was all he could do to keep his lip from curling.
"Why?" he asked Moody, who gave him a knowing look.
"The Ministry is worried that the Death Eaters will attack the train if you're on it," said Moody.
Harry raised an eyebrow. "So you," he said, gesturing to the crowd. " – are Aurors."
"Off duty," clarified Bad Haircut. "We all volunteered."
"Right." Because that clarified absolutely nothing. "Whose idea was this?"
Harry made a face. "The Minister-elect?"
"You're a bit behind the times – Scrimgeour's already been sworn in. After the attempted murder of Amelia Bones, nobody is taking any chances."
"I'm sure it was all very discreet, this discussion about moving me early," Harry muttered, leaving the room.
"You know why," said Moody as he followed Harry into the sitting room where his trunk was waiting. A flick of his wand and the cuff around Harry's ankle clattered free.
Harry nodded, not meeting the man's mismatched stare. "You want me to be bait," he replied in a low voice. "Without the potential for collateral damage."
Moody snorted, a sound that reminded Harry of when nine-year-old Dudley put rocks in Aunt Petunia's fancy blender.
"You'll make a hell of an Auror one day," said Moody, clapping him on the back. "Need a bit of work on following orders though."
"I think I've learned my lesson," said Harry, eyeing the cuff.
He had. He'd learned a lot. He'd never been very good at following the rules.
The trick to lying, Harry found, was to hand people a tiny measure of truth to validate the shit being shovelled down their throats. And with that tiny measure of truth, they'd do half the lying for him.
"I'm sorry," Harry said later when he saw Ron before the Sorting.
Ron shrugged. "S'okay. People do weird things when they grieve."
It wasn't just grief. But Ron didn't know that and Harry had no plans on enlightening him. It wasn't that he didn't trust Ron, it was just...personal. Something he wanted to hoard close and private.
Harry remembered almost nothing of the welcoming feast, only that it was loud and crowded. At breakfast the next morning, he handed Ron the Quidditch Captain's badge.
His best friend frowned. "What is this for?"
"You're better at strategy than I am," Harry replied, matter-of-fact. "I think McGonagall offered it to me because I have seniority and Katie doesn't want it interfering with her NEWTs."
And it was true, mostly. Harry didn't want the weight of yet another responsibility dragging him down.
"You're not giving me this as a consolation prize, are you?" asked Ron.
Harry rolled his eyes. "For what? If you don't take it, I'm going to offer it to Creevey."
"The younger or the elder?" asked Hermione, turning a page in her book.
"The younger," said Harry. "His first flying class with Madam Hooch, he asked how many bludgers could be added to the game and still be legal."
Ron pinned the badge to the front of his robes. "Right, tryouts will be next Tuesday at four."
It was after dinner and well after his last classes of the day, when Harry finally returned to the common room. The younger years had cleared out, vanishing off to bed or in the rare case, off to detention.
They'd taken over the comfy armchairs and desks by the fireplace, all the sixth and seventh years and a handful of people Ginny's age. They'd become the upper years, the 'elder elite' of Gryffindor. Some of them he could hardly remember their faces, let alone their names. For all the years of attending Hogwarts, he'd never realized how isolated he'd been from his own housemates.
Harry stewed in his bad mood. Between the history essay requiring at least three feet of parchment on yet another goblin war, the charms review which had lasted well into the lunch hour, and McGonagall's anger with him in class, about the only positive thing he could say was that he hadn't had potions yet.
McGonagall's unusual ire at him rankled. He hadn't meant to curse the poor animal, but there was no other culprit and his excuse had been flimsy at best. It was an accident, the curse sounding almost the same as the incantation for transfiguring the marmot into a leather glove. He'd gone through the proper motions for the spell and even said it out loud. But the words slithering through his mind had been the incantation for the entrails-expelling curse. Save for a single syllable, they were the same.
Accidental silent casting? Accidental mispronounced silent casting? McGonagall had been sceptical and Harry didn't dare tell her what he'd mixed it up with. It was a review of previous years material, same as she always did at the beginning of the year. A strange mistake for something he should have perfected already. Half of his marmot had been very glove-like. The other half...?
The other half had ended up slopped all over the back of Malfoy's robes in front of him.
McGonagall hadn't thought it was an accident. Neither had Malfoy.
Harry sighed and collapsed into one of the spare armchairs, feeling resentful and restless. He missed Little Walburga, who'd be quite tickled to terrorize the Common Room. As far as company went, Harry could do worse.
From the middle of his audience by the fireplace, Cormac McLaggen's voice bounced off the walls to a series of groans and then raucous cheers. McLaggen had a low, nasal drawl that carried well across the common room. It was the sort of voice Harry couldn't help but hear: Look at me! Look at me! Mummy, mummy, look at me!
McLaggen hadn't seemed to realize his audience wasn't as enthralled as his mates. Katie Bell looked ready to spit fire and Parvati wasn't much better. But surrounded by his group of hanger-ons, he'd clearly missed the fucking clue bus.
"She was practically gagging for it," said McLaggen, elaborating on his encounter with one of the giggling help-witches in Vertic Alley's retail district.
Harry rolled his eyes. "McLaggen!"
Heads swivelled to stare across the common room. McLaggen looked a bit irked by having his story interrupted by Harry, who was by far a more fascinating piece of interest. Too bad. So sad.
"Timing is everything," said Harry. "Save it for your mates – they're the only ones interested in who you've shagged."
"Why? Feeling sore you haven't gotten any yourself?"
Harry rolled his eyes. "Yeah, McLaggen, I want your sweet arse all to myself."
McLaggen gave a flippant sort of shrug. "A shame you'll have to share it with everyone else," he replied.
"Much like your venereal diseases I'm sure," said Harry.
"Wanker!" McLaggen called over the common room's laughter. He seemed to have taken it in good spirits though and laughed with the rest. No harm, no foul apparently.
Eh, not a bad bloke, just an ass – self-absorbed at worst. Harry could work with that. He grinned and made a rude gesture in reply.
But it was like a bubble had popped. During his meals, he found himself surrounded by people he was only just beginning to know. It wasn't bad, actually. Sure, some of them were only there for his fame. But most were there because he'd proven himself to be interesting.
Apparently being mean and funny made for popularity. Who knew?
Harry never claimed to be socially savvy. He could hardly claim to be social.
Maybe that was why it caught him by surprise.
Harry knew sex was a thing that happened at Hogwarts. Hell, he'd cottoned on in his second year when one of Oliver's mates had been caught with his trousers around his knees in the team locker room, the lush curve of the Slytherin Head Girl's bum mooning the ceiling. Difficult to remain oblivious after that, what with half of the sixth and seventh years regularly disappearing into Hogwarts' nooks and crannies to fuck.
He'd just never expected to attract that type of attention himself. Stupid, because there'd been people panting after his fame long before he became old enough to know his dick from a hole in the wall.
His first was something of an accident, mired in alcohol and the post-game high. The common room was crowded. She was a seventh year, older, hotter, and more experienced than him. He'd drunk more than he'd intended and hadn't protested when she'd seized his hand and pulled him away from the party. Harry remembered McLaggen's smirking toast as he left, the Fat Lady's snores as the portrait door closed, and the sly smile – Elizabeth? Elaine? Eleanor? – had thrown over her shoulder.
He remembered the taste of her throat, that soft stretch of skin and the thrum of her pulse beneath it. The way her thighs had fit into his hands – and how damned easy it was to lift her up onto the desk and follow her down.
It was new – fun even.
He didn't know why Ava Smitts wanted to fuck him, especially when he knew her boyfriend was a beefy prick who'd happily pluck off his arms and legs and put them back on in new and interesting ways, but he was up for it.
These days, he was always up for it.
And she was kinky too. Tame, compared to some of the stories he'd heard from Bill (and Sirius, his subconscious whispered), but hey, he didn't mind being on this side of the blindfold.
She ran something light and soft down his chest and belly, his stomach muscles clenching as he flexed upwards. It tickled and he laughed. It was probably just a quill, but the tease made him hungry enough to drive his hips up in the air, before dropping back to the mattress as she skimmed it over his cock as well.
He let out a shuddery breath.
Goddamn, but handcuffs were fun. He wondered where she'd gotten a hold of them. Harry pulled on them a few times just to feel the unforgiving tug of metal on the tendons of his wrist.
"Enjoying yourself?" she purred.
Harry grinned. "I'd enjoy myself even more if you came down here with me."
Her boyfriend, said beefy seventh year, cornered him after class in one of the busiest hallways of the school and laid him out with a single punch.
Harry laughed, sprawled on the floor with the taste of blood filling his mouth from his split lip. "I wondered when I'd be seeing you," he said.
"You slept with my fucking girlfriend," the seventh year bellowed.
The hallway filled with laughter and fervent whispering: sibilant and predatory. Because nothing said fun like a fight.
"I did," said Harry, picking himself up off the floor and cracking his neck. The adrenaline flowed like lightning-sparks in his veins, sinking right down into a low curl of arousal in his belly.
"Did a way better job of it than you, too," he purred, low and velvety enough it was almost a croon. "She wouldn't have been so enthusiastic if you'd been pulling your weight, you know."
His audience whistled and jeered. The corridor echoed. It sounded like it a mob and it only egged the seventh year on.
A fist smashed into the side of Harry's face again and he stumbled, laughing to himself. He spat the blood at the older Gryffindor. "I wonder how many times she's faked her way through an orgasm and you never noticed!"
"Sod off!" the seventh year yelled. "You sleep with anything that looks at you!"
"Feeling sore about it?" Harry grinned, not even bothering to brace his arms in a ridiculous boxer's stance like the seventh year was doing. It was like he'd forgotten he was a fucking wizard. Everything seemed very funny, right then. So stupid, so pointless.
What was his name anyway?
Pete? Petey? Peter. Peter, peter, pumpkin-eater. One of McLaggen's crew. Yeah, he remembered now, the bloke's name was Peter. Harry was sure he had a thing against people named Peter. As far as prejudices went, it was a fairly reasonable one.
Before Pete had time to understand what was happening, Harry jabbed a hand out, striking him hard in the diaphragm. Bone gave beneath his strike with a sharp crack. Pete wheezed, mouth gaping open for breath that wasn't coming. Must have been a rib.
"You must have something special in the bank because you're definitely lacking something special in the pants," said Harry.
"Fuck you," Peter gasped out, an arm clamped over his left side.
"Your girlfriend likes to play games and not just the bedroom kind. She's going to toy with you, with your feelings – make you break your face on somebody else's fist just to prove you love her."
Harry looked down and blinked up through his lashes, coy and mocking. "And just between you and me," he said, knowing it was going to stick in Pete's craw, a fucking cliché repeating in his head long after he'd laid down in bed. "No matter how hard you hit or how hard you fuck, you're never going to be man enough for her."
Later, when Harry sat in the hospital wing waiting to get his broken nose set back into place, he wondered what possessed him to stir up shit like that. If he was honest with himself, and he rarely was these days, he'd think it was pure boredom.
It was so easy to be cruel.
"This isn't like you," said Hermione, from her seat next to him.
Harry raised a brow. "It isn't?" He wasn't trying to be mocking, but it felt a little disingenuous to her concern.
"I've seen you angry, but never so petty. When did you become such a bully?"
"That's ridiculous. How is what I did bullying? This was me poking a bear and getting away with it."
"Wasn't that the same kind of behaviour you hated in James Potter?"
Harry rounded on her. "I told you that in confidence. And unless you mean to justify Peter Toller as some hapless victim – someone you've gone off at for picking on the younger years – you can sod off with the self-righteousness."
Hermione watched him with a distant, inscrutable sort of look. It wasn't an expression he recognized. "Who are you angry at?" she asked. "Do you know? Do you even care?"
She stood and left. And for a moment, Harry worried he'd said something irreversible, something he couldn't take back. But then he wanted to laugh at himself. Because really, it was just silly teenage drama, same as all the rest.
It didn't mean anything.
He'd left Grimmauld Place for a few hours sanity and wandered off into the rougher edges of London. Harry tucked his nose down into the collar of Sirius' battered leather jacket, jeans stuffed into his boots to keep the hems from soaking up the muddy slush. The wind had a bite to it, spitting sleet into his eyes. He thanked his lucky fucking stars that Moody hadn't seen fit to replace the cuff and leaned into the mess.
The Christmas hubbub wasn't quite so pointed here – at Hogwarts, people clung to the festivities in a white-knuckled grip, desperate to ignore the arrests, the disappearances, the numbers climbing the front page of the Daily Prophet. Kinda put a dampener on the 'festive cheer' portion of things.
But lo and behold, who did he run into but some half-remembered classmate from his primary years?
She stared at him from across the street as she loitered outside a corner shop wearing an apron with the store's logo, hunched over a hot thermos and looking pretty possessive of it in the face of the icy drizzle coming down right then.
Nettie, he thought her name was. Short for what, he didn't know, but she looked like she'd grown up well.
She caught his eye and smiled.
Sure, why not?
"We never knew where you disappeared off to," she breathed into his neck, hands shoved up under his shirt.
"Oh you know," said Harry, getting a nice handful of her bum and rolling her down onto the hot line of his dick. "Saint something's incurably criminal facilities."
Nettie, Nell, Natalie? Whatever. She laughed, showing the line of her throat. "That's a load of shit. Everyone knows that story your uncle's been banging on about is rubbish. Of course Dudders went to some posh academy with those silly fucking uniforms so nobody could ask him – "
Harry smiled. He let out a breath following the slope of her neck, giving her chin a soft nip before rubbing her nose with his own and laughing. "I'm ashamed to admit then, that I go to some posh academy up in Scotland."
She sat back and studied him, light brown curls springing free from her ponytail. She was the sort of pretty who didn't need much in the way of makeup and didn't really wear it anyway. NellNettieNat had fine, small features and an upturned nose, her eyes large and blue-grey.
Harry looked up at her from his sprawl on the bed and smiled. It was easier this time, some of that awful tension having dissipated. "No real mystery."
She grinned as she yanked his belt free of its loops.
There was something relieving about her, NellNettieNat who only knew him as "just Harry." No prophecies, no titles, no burdensome expectations. He dragged a hand up the sweep of her spine as she dumped his belt over the side of the bed. Her skin was warm, flushed. Sitting astride him, she was taller, enough so he had to look up to meet her eyes. Harry propped himself up on his elbow and smiled at her.
"Well?" she said, more than a little coy. "What now?"
Harry traced the line of her sternum down to her navel, marvelling at how soft she felt. Her breasts – NellNettieNat – were high and small and cupped in light blue satin. They'd be sweet, like she was sweet, he imagined. He bent his head and inhaled, smelling her skin beneath the faintly fruity perfume.
"Ah-ah-ah," she said, putting a finger in the centre of his forehead and nudging it back. "I'm thinking a little reciprocity here."
Harry raised a brow. "Mm?"
"Mm-hm. That shirt's got to go."
He laughed and obliged, yanking the thin cotton up over his head and leaving his glasses askew. This close to her, he didn't need them anyway, so he let her take them and drop them onto the bedside table. It was easier afterwards, to press his mouth to her skin, to taste the salt of her sweat and the faint chemical tang from her body spray.
He pinched the hooks of her bra together and let it pop open. NellNettieNat laughed, "Aren't you smooth?" and shrugged out of the straps.
She hissed as his stubble scraped the stiff peak of her nipple, letting out a throaty moan when he closed his mouth over it. NellNettieNat's knees tightened on his hips as she shuddered. The seam of her jeans where it ran between her thighs was hot and damp and she ground down on his hand where he pressed it to her.
"Shit," she panted. She took his hand from her hip and licked a hot line over his palm before sucking down three of his fingers. Harry's brain shorted out. He jolted, biting down a bit harder than he'd intended on the flesh just beneath her nipple, right on that soft sweet curve. She moaned, scraping her teeth over his fingers, and rolled her hips.
Well, if she was into it...
He sat up, shifting her weight just enough to roll her over with himself on top. She stilled, knees coming up to frame his waist. A flicker of an expression came and went, too quick for him to catch. He hummed a soothing note, waiting for some of the tension to leave her body.
NellNettieNat blinked back at him. She still had hold of his hand, spit drying on his fingers. Harry skimmed the edge of his thumb over her jaw, where it ran into the vein beating hot and vibrant down the side of her throat. She shuddered. A peculiar mix of dopamine and adrenaline shivered under his skin and he ground the hot line of his erection into the dampness between her thighs. His jeans pinched, but it was a distant thing. NellNettieNat squirmed against him, fingers scratching deep welts into his back as he clamped his hand over her mouth.
She bucked up, head thrown back and Harry had never been harder, scraping his teeth over her breasts. She pulled at his hair, a short sharp tug at the roots before he caught her arm, pinning that hand down by her side. God, he'd always wanted to try this. Her breasts were so goddamned soft against his mouth and face, their textures different, smoother than the rest of her skin, the weight and give of them lush on his tongue. He was close. So fucking close. He hadn't even gotten all of their clothes off and he was already leaking into his shorts. The ragged edge of NellNettieNat's nails dug into the skin at the small of his back, and fuck, he could feel the blood welling up in her wake.
The salt of her sweat smelled like iron, burning hot as he bit down, her ribs shifting under skin as her breath hitched. He fit his teeth up over the protruding edge of her ribcage as she inhaled, goosebumps rising across her skin at the scrape of his stubble.
NellNettieNat gave his shoulder a weak push and he obliged, nipping at the soft shape of her belly. Harry opened his eyes and looked up at her, wondering if she wanted him to go down on her.
Everything was red.
Blood welled out of the deep impressions of his teeth across her breasts. Red and viscous, it beaded up, dripping down the swell of her breast and puddling in the concave hollow of her abdomen. Each gasp of air set it rippling, dark against her winter-pale skin. Little red flowers bloomed on the sheet where it ran over her ribcage. The tang of metal and salt burned in his nose. It was like a dream, painted in heady surrealism. Just once more, just one little taste...Harry fit his mouth to the where the pooling red lapped against her hipbone, where that vein running down to her groin beat a tattoo against his tongue and bit down. Flesh parted, slick and easy. And then his dick emptied itself into his shorts. Harry jolted hard enough to rock the bedframe into the wall, plaster crumbling, teeth bared, head tossed back, red running over his chin and down the back of his tongue.
The sound rumbled out past his throat and made the windows vibrate in a strange, tinkling key.
Beneath him, NellNettieNat whimpered. The bones of her wrist ground together within his grip.
Sanity filtered back in bits and pieces. Bite marks littered NellNettieNat's stomach and breasts. His hands and arms were smeared with blood. Her sheets looked like something out of a slasher film and his face felt wet.
Oh shit oh shit oh shit...
Harry reeled back from her, hands pulling free of where they'd pinned her to the bed, bruises welling up dark and unmistakeable. She clutched an arm over her breasts and half-slid, half-staggered from the bed.
If she told anyone...
He caught her, one arm around her waist and another twisted into her curls, slinging her across the bed. She screamed before he could cover her mouth, high and loud. Harry dropped down on top of her as she tried to squirm away.
"Shut up!" Harry hissed, hardly recognizing his own voice. "Shut it – please! I'm sorry!" His throat closed up over whatever else he might say leaving him with his mouth flopped open and no sound coming out because 'I'm sorry' was really fucking insufficient.
She flinched, whimpering, eyes squeezed shut as if she couldn't even look at him.
Terror riding high and bright in his veins, he shook her. Harry didn't have a single fucking clue what he was doing. Twin slivers of blue-grey peered up at him as she shook beneath him.
It was instinct, had to be instinct, that strange psychic twist of Legilmency reaching out and sinking into her brain. Like Snape again, but different. He could see how she regarded him, cloaked in fear and the sort of despair that said, No, please no, not like this, she shouldn't have gone for it, he'd always been a quiet kid just like her, just as shy and lonely and she'd wanted, god had she wanted because two lonely people were better than one, she hadn't known what she was doing, not really, she'd had a boyfriend before but not like this, not passionate and aggressive and wanting to put his mouth on every bit of her body, and she should have stopped him sooner because the way he'd looked at her was too distant, too alien, like she wasn't even human, like she was a doll, she'd known he wasn't right but she'd wanted anyway because she was curious what it would be like to be wanted, hungered for, and why her, why her, why her, pleasenonononononono...
For a moment, he saw himself as she did, and it was more than the blood smeared across his mouth and chin – her blood, her own blood – more than the faint shape of sharp teeth – all of them, every last one of them stained black and dripping at the roots – something more seen out of the corner of his eye than head on...
There was a strange film coating the back of his pupils. Car lights flashed on the street behind NellNettieNat's flat, reflecting off that funny shine in his eyes.
Harry flinched, still mired deep in the poor girl's brainpan. It felt like something being torn, like threads popping and meat pulling apart under the crush of his teeth – the memory pulled itself free, spun out like candy floss. He blinked.
Nellie Ashwell stared at the ceiling, eyes glassy, her body limp and unresponsive.
She was breathing.
Thank fuck, she was still breathing.
Harry had to get out.
He had to deal with the body, first.
Harry tapped out 999 and let it ring. Someone answered. No, he didn't know the address, he replied. Harry dropped the phone and ran into the kitchen, fumbling through a stack of mail spilled across the counter. He grabbed the first letter he saw, eyes skimming over the photos on the wall of Nellie Ashwell and an older woman that had to be her mum... He picked up the extension by the small corner desk and rattled the address out, barely aware if it was even in English.
He hung up. A tinny voice shouted on the other end of the line back where Nellie Ashwell lay sprawled across the bed. Red dotted a trail from her sheets to the kitchen. He swiped at the blood dripping off his chin and onto his bare chest. It covered his hands too, too red and unreal. Harry tore through the flat looking for his clothes, finding only Sirius' jacket and his boots by the door.
The door slapped against the wall as he left, hitting the stairwell at a dead run.
Sirens went screaming past as he turned the street corner, zipping the leather up against the sleet slipping down the back of his collar. He was halfway to Grimmauld Place before he remembered his glasses on the bedside table.
Later, he sat in the bath, hot water stinging the welts on his back as he cleaned the last bits of red from beneath his fingernails. Harry listened to the water slosh against the sides of the tub. Rain drummed against the windowpanes. Grimmauld Place's weatherproofing charms were starting to fail, water dripping down the wall from the sill and pooling out across the floor. It glittered in the candlelight, throwing a faint impression of his reflection back at him.
The bathwater was still tinged pink.
Guilt tasted like bile, sour and thready in the back of his throat.
It bubbled up at the most inopportune times. Like when an older Hufflepuff peeked around the corner and gave him a wink, her blouse entirely too low to be decent. He'd hooked up with her a few times before, but now?
Something inside him recoiled. Harry found his breath shrinking in his lungs and a cold sweat breaking out across his skin as he followed his classmates down the corridor. He ducked into the Transfiguration classroom as if he hadn't seen her.
The lesson was a complete failure. His wand heated against his palm every time he attempted the spell. Not warm like a phoenix's feathers, but warm like the red-hot heating unit of an electric stove. Harry wrapped the edge of his sleeve around the base of the wand and guided it through the proper motions of the spell. The resulting explosion left ash-marks on the ceiling and a smoking ruin that used to be his desk.
Harry stormed out of the classroom a full half hour early, heedless of McGonagall's stern voice behind him. The holly wand spat a few sullen sparks and subsided. At that moment, Harry wanted nothing more than to snap it over his own knee.
He wished he could blame it on his own shot concentration. But the wand had been doing this more and more often, enough so that Harry was beginning to rely on his knife and the few spells he knew could be performed with something other than a wand. A bit of amateur hedge-witchery, really – trilling incantations, spilt blood, and buried tokens in the earth.
It wouldn't be enough to take on Voldemort and it terrified him. For the first time since he'd waved it through the air in a shower of golden sparks, Harry hated his wand for leaving him hanging when he needed it the most.
His wandering feet turned him towards the Great Hall when the bells chimed, his stomach reminding him it'd been awhile since breakfast. It didn't take long for the hall to fill up, the cheerful chatter grating on his already shitty mood.
Ron clapped him on the back. "Alright?" he said, sitting beside him.
Harry nodded and forked another bite of beef stew into his mouth.
"Narked McGonagall off, you walking out like that."
Harry sighed. "I know."
Across the Hall, Jacqueline Tasseltoff gave him a smirk from her group of Ravenclaw friends. Harry had a sense-memory flash of how tight and hot she'd be around him, the little breathy gasps she'd make at just the right angle. Within the span of a heartbeat, that heat turned into the sticky iron tang of blood.
He shook his head at her and tried to concentrate on his meal. It was the second time that day he'd turned down one of his regular bedmates.
Ron hadn't missed a damn thing. "Good to see you're feeling more like yourself these days."
Harry gave him a flat stare. "What."
"It was a bit, well – to be honest, I thought you'd spend more time knocking Malfoy's teeth down his throat than sleeping around. But that didn't seem to stop you from wading into it with everyone else."
Harry made a face. "Are you calling me a slag?"
"Well, yes, but... we knew you were grieving," Ron said with a shrug.
Harry smiled. It felt more like a grimace. He grabbed his bag and left the hall before the conversation could devolve any further.
Don't think about it don't think about it don't think about it...
Harry passed a small fourth year on his way up to Flitwick's classroom. She hurried past him, head ducked down as she scrubbed the tears from her eyes. He recognized her, vaguely. A fourth year Gryffindor whose sister was a first year Hufflepuff. It wasn't unusual for siblings to be divided across houses – the Weasleys were rather odd in that regard, what with the whole lot bleeding red and gold to the core.
He knew more people these days, across a wider strata of houses and years. He'd heard things about her, this particular Gryffindor and her little sister, who was so shy as to be almost mute. She jumped at loud sounds and eyeballed the male staff with wariness.
Harry found himself stopping, racking his brain for the girl's name.
"I'll see what I can do," he told her. Her name was Mary. Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow? With silver bells and cockle shells, and little abused girls all in a row.
"Thank you. Thank you," she kept repeating, a glossy sheen of tears in her eyes.
Harry felt almost guilty for how much faith she put in him, how much she'd put herself out there to be disappointed yet again. She really shouldn't have. He didn't deserve that much trust. All those ridiculous rumours the Prophet printed made people believe he was some kind of destined saviour, somebody who could save others. What bullshit.
It nagged at him though. It would be almost too easy. The way everything came together, it was almost as if the universe was asking him to do it.
Mary's uncle came home.
His name was Robert. His friends called him Bobby. Bobby was middle-aged, his waistline beginning to lap his belt-line, blue-eyed with receding blond hair. He worked as a liaison for the private sector – just high enough to be affluent, but not significant enough to notable. It left him the funds to fuel his appetites and the influence to keep them hidden. It must have been a dream, having such vulnerable children fall into his lap.
The man whistled as he went through his evening routine, snapping his fingers to the Warbeck hit on the radio. Confident – blithely so. It belied the oddity of his status as a confirmed bachelor – nothing to see here, just a hard-working ministry man looking out for his young charges. Nobody looked any deeper because on the surface, there was nothing else to see. Trauma, as an excuse, went a long way towards explaining the sisters' behaviour. Wasn't it just awful how they'd lost their parents? They were so young. How kind of their uncle to take them in.
Harry waited for him to take out his wallet, his keys, his wand, and toddle off into the kitchen in search of tea. He picked up the man's wand and followed. The man was distracted, comfortable in his own home and sure of his security. Bobby never saw the stunning spell.
After tying the man's limp form to a chair in front of the fireplace, Harry disappeared up the stairs. Mary's room was on the left. Her sister's, judging by the more juvenile selection of toys and bedding, was right next to her uncle's. Further down and further away, an array of silencing charms laid over the door frame to prevent sound from escaping.
Harry picked through the pile of stuffed animals atop her bed. He didn't know much about young girls or the things that they liked, but it seemed like an unusual amount of toys. Now that he noticed it, the room was stuffed to the gills with toys. They weren't like Dudley's either. These were never used, a fine patina of dust coating the shelves. Whatever the personality of Mary's little sister, she didn't like these toys. Didn't want to touch them.
It struck Harry as odd that her uncle would lavish such attention on her, when he was the one hurting her. Uncle Vernon had only ever wanted him out of sight and Harry knew he hadn't been raised right.
Innocent little girls should be safe in their beds, not having that space invaded by a monster who hurt them.
Nellie Ashwell's bloodied sheets flashed before his mind's eye. The chill it left behind was hard to shake.
On top the pile of stuffed animals sat a massive teddy bear in the crowning place of glory. It was big, plush, and ostentatious; a cheery pink bow pinned to its ear. But crammed into the wedge of space between the headboard and the wall lay an old, worn rabbit, the ears hanging on by threads, its stuffing thin and tamped down. Harry carefully tucked the rabbit inside his bag and went downstairs.
He dragged another chair over to the man's stunned form, dropping his bag on the settee out of sight. Flicking the stolen wand, Harry muttered the counter-curse.
Bobby awoke with a great gulp of air, wheezing as he took in the walls of his own home, Harry's dark form leaning towards him.
"Mary had a little lamb, its fleece as white as snow," Harry murmured. The man couldn't see him, not with his heavy hood and a concealment charm covering his face. "Well, not the purely driven snow, you've seen to that."
There seemed to be a shred of recognition nonetheless. Bobby had a habit then, of meeting with shady, hooded entities. Unsurprising, given his appetites.
Bobby's eyes went wide. "Wait, no!" he begged. "Is this about the raid last week? I didn't know the Aurors would be there! I was told the shifts hadn't changed."
The raid last week?
"Oh?" said Harry. "Is that what you think this is about?"
"You know how it is," said Bobby. "The upper levels might have Basil on our side, but getting any communication out of them? You'd have better luck booking The Weird Sisters during holiday."
"I'm a bit more curious about your nieces, actually – and why you can't seem to keep your hands off them at night."
Bobby sputtered, face twisting in confusion. And then like some kind of internal reset button had been hit, he laughed.
"You? A good Samaritan? While impersonating a Death Eater?" Bobby laughed, hoarse and hacking. "Are you taking the piss?"
Harry gritted his teeth.
"What do you think you can do to me, boy? Yes, that's right, boy. I can tell how young you are. You're a young fool. I have so many friends in high places, you're going to be lucky not to get time in Azkaban when I'm done with you," Bobby taunted. "Try me, boy. Try me."
Harry jabbed the wand into Bobby's neck, digging at the soft flesh.
Bobby sneered. "Now what kind of hero would that make you," he said, licking at spit-dry lips. "If you went around threatening people – "
The hex slithered free of Bobby's wand so smoothly Harry didn't quite catch on until Bobby convulsed with a howl, loud enough to strain the silencing charms over the room.
Didn't Bobby understand how guilty he should feel? He should want to peel his own fucking skin off for even laying a hand on her, want to purge himself after every scrap of food at the mere sensation of skin rasping under his tongue...
Oh, now that was insidious.
Because really, Bobby's transgressions were so much worse than his own. Bobby hurt children, vulnerable targets who could hardly fight back. His abuse went on for years, Harry had one little slip where things in his brainpan decided to take a sideways trip south. Bobby was a sick freak and at least Harry would never lust after a child.
'But Bobby also never took a fucking bite out of his victims.'
Bobby wheezed, shuddering under the lingering grip of the curse.
'Because what did you even do to Nellie?'
Sense-memory bites filtered in – a haze of red, hunger, and skin shivering pleasure.
Bright, blinding rage burst inside Harry, tasting of blood-salt and hot iron and the urge to dig his fingers into the soft meat of Bobby's flesh. Something spiked in Harry's head, the sharp twist of an oncoming migraine.
I can't help it, Bobby thought.
It wasn't like he wanted to desire children. He wished he could be normal, it would be easier. But it was just the way he was, and he couldn't help it. Couldn't stop it.
He felt guilty every time he touched her, every time he couldn't resist her angel-soft hair and meek, downturned eyes. It was the reason for the toys, the lavish gifts, the fancy foods she never seemed to want to eat. He'd give her some wine to sip in her juice and wait just long enough for her to get drowsy, too drowsy to fight back. She'd lay in his lap limp as a doll, her expression slack, eyes glazing over.
Harry kicked the chair out from under him. Bobby hit the floor hard enough his head made a sound like a splitting melon, his robes darkening down the front.
The spike of pain jolted Harry free of Bobby's mind, muddy murk clinging to his thoughts like a psychic residue. Harry heaved. The ammonia stink of Bobby's piss suffused the room, strong enough it damn near crawled down his throat. He'd felt as if he'd run a flat-out sprint, hitting that frenetic point where his muscles locked up and the only thing he could do was bend over and hurl.
"Please," the man begged, beginning to cry. Blood dripped steadily from his nose, Harry's less than gentle emergence having done some real damage. "Please. I'll tell you anything."
"Anything?" Harry rasped. "Then maybe you could tell me who the fuck 'Basil' is..."
Later after he'd washed the blood off, Harry found Mary near the Hufflepuff common room. He pulled the rabbit out of his bag and handed it to her.
Mary stared at him wide-eyed and clutched the rabbit to her chest. She was small, small hands, small feet, small wrists and arms and legs, smaller than her peers who by fourth year were already beginning to sprout up into more adult shapes and sizes. She had the kind of petite frame that would never get much larger and never be all that womanly – fragile, like the china dolls that lined her sister's room.
Mary was a small sad girl who looked at him – looked at the world – like she was always holding back a flinch or a whimper.
Bobby had known what he was doing when he chose his victims. Now, Harry did too. Once those vulnerable fault-lines lay exposed, Harry could no more un-see it than he could shake the new knowledge of how easy it was to destroy someone.
Harry swallowed, mouth dry despite himself. "You'll be getting a visit from Children's Placement Services soon," said Harry. "Since minors are involved – "
And your name isn't Harry Potter, he thought to himself. The story would die a quick death. Bobby was high enough up in the Ministry that those who'd claimed him as 'friend' wouldn't want to be tarred with the same brush. Motivation was everything.
" – the DMLE will likely slap a moratorium on the case. The press won't be getting a hold of your names. Past that, all I know is your uncle won't be seeing daylight for a very long time."
And neither would Harry if he didn't uphold his promises to Strome. Favours were more expensive than gold.
The hug took him by surprise.
Mary's arms tightened around his waist, her silent tears dampening his shirt. For once, he didn't feel like shying away from touch. It was okay. This was okay.
He'd done something good. And for the first time since Nellie Ashwell – don'tthinkaboutitdon'tthinkaboutit – he felt good too. It was worth it, right? Maybe there needed to be people like him to save little girls like Mary.
Harry let himself hug her back.
The Hall of Prophecies is a night-sky glitter of light.
Stopped like a film halfway through, the diamond-bright glow of the prophecy orbs hover in mid-crash. Shards bite into the pads of his feet as he wanders down the halls; bloody prints following his winding path through the shelves that stretch up, up, up and away into darkness, all those prophecies naught more than starlight.
Himself, fifteen and stupid with it, stares back from the other end of the Hall. His face drips sweat, a ring of dampness staining the collar of his shirt, the prophecy orb gleaming through his white-knuckled grasp. Here stands Harry Potter: young, dumb, and scared shitless.
He's in over his head and he's only just now beginning to realize it. The older he gets, the more he realises that naming a baby as your saviour, your chosen one is a terrible idea. A teenage student versus a seventy year old Dark Lord was always going to be a bad match up. It should have been predictable how inconsequential he'd be to Voldemort's ambitions. Harry Potter was only ever a hiccup along the way.
Between them, the gleaming shards of the prophecy orbs begin to shudder, all those pieces coming back together; a starburst in reverse. Glass moths form out of the fragments; razor-edged wings slicing through the air.
Pryce's crow caws its scratchy laugh, crunching down on one of those glittering moths.
Lingering near the peripherals of this dream is the awareness that he's still trapped in the Summer Baron's dungeons. It's distant though. Much like everything else; like the loss, the rage, the looming edge of pain when he wakes.
Harry watches himself watch himself.
"You're screwed, kid," he murmurs to that long removed version of himself. "You're screwed and you don't even know how."
Mary's uncle had been a goldmine of information. A series of recruitment drives clogged up Knockturn's backstreets near the old potioneers' district. Sponsored by the affluent elite of Voldemort's supporters, Knockturn's residents flocked to the campaigns, lured in just as much by the promise of a free meal as the politics. Harry hadn't understood that looking into it meant long hours watching people disappear into buildings that he himself couldn't enter, having conversations that he couldn't hear. All the while skirting the edge of wards he was only just learning to detect, the hum of hair-trigger spellwork buzzing against his skin.
Frustrating, but he had no better idea what to do.
The stench of rotting potions ingredients made Harry feel light-headed, his legs cramping under the strain of staying crouched in one place for so long.
Light spilled out across the cobblestones as the door swung open. A hulking silhouette flanked by two tall, thin wizards in dark robes appeared in the open doorway, Greyback's yellow eyes glinting in the light.
Harry froze, pressed against the wall of the neighbouring flat, hoping the bins piled up along the back were enough to deter Greyback's nose. The massive brute looked over his shoulder as he left, taking a long, heart-stopping glance at the alleyway. One of the Lestrange brothers held out a portkey and the group disappeared soon after. This wasn't the first time he'd seen them at a recruitment drive. For some locations, they used a young pretty witch only a few years out of Hogwarts. For others, they sent the old crowd to stir up paranoia and anger. It wouldn't be the last place Greyback and the Lestrange brothers would hit up tonight, either. More locations dotted the countryside, a handful of wizarding-only villages too small to be proper towns.
It rankled, all these people gathering together out of a mutual hatred for people like Hermione – 'dirty blood,' they said, 'muddy blood,' as if a fluke of genetics made her less than human. The truly cretinous never cited actual people as the problem, hiding it instead in a host of proxy issues like "the erasure of traditions in favour of pandering to the intruding Muggleborn population" who didn't "act like wizards" or "conform to the culture of magic" and leave behind "the backwards Muggle world."
Harry swallowed back a pang of emotion, wishing Hermione were here for all that she'd probably never agree with this vigilante bullshit to begin with. Her logic was more reliable than his random leaps of intuition at any point. His friends felt distant from him, drifting further and further away since – NellNellNellienodon'tthinkaboutitdon'tthinkaboutit – since before. His hands shook at odd moments, his focus waning. Someone should have noticed. But he'd isolated himself too well, shored up too many walls between him and those who'd pick up on his distress. He hadn't meant to, but wasn't that just the nature of things? People grew apart, friendships fizzled out – it was normal.
Somewhere along the way, the spaces close to him had emptied of anyone who knew what crawled around the inside of his head.
Harry shifted in his crouch, the long muscles of his thighs twinging in pain.
A new recruit came stumbling out of the building next. Not drunk, just young and stinging with fresh pain and adrenaline. By the light of Knockturn's gas lamps, the baby Death Eater was a skinny slice of acne scars and greasy hair, his fingers stained with robemaker's dyes; some nobody so green he hadn't even earned his mask and robes yet. He teetered into the bins, knocking off one of the lids and sending the pungent aroma of rotting ingredients into the air.
The recruit made a sound of disgust as his shoe skidded across something sticky. Harry, distracted by the mess, didn't notice how close the recruit had come until he stumbled right into Harry's hiding place.
The baby Death Eater squinted. "Wot chu doin' downthere?" he slurred out. He stepped back, skidding again on the scattered rubbish. "You hungry mate? Thur's a kitchen by Shoemaker's that'll give ya a bowl if yer – "
He stopped, face brightening with recognition.
"Harry Potter," he mouthed, the words a mere exhale. He recognized Harry past the shitty disguise, the hood over his head and the shadows around his face.
The knife slid in slick and wet. Blood dripped down his wrist. It was funny, because the recruit was almost happy to see him, before the shock and confusion set in.
It was so easy. So quick. The blade slid through the recruit's abdomen. Ropey loops of intestine bulged out from the gash, slippery and stinking. Hands grasped at his robes and arms, growing slack as the recruit's breath hitched. Harry released his grip on the man's arm.
The body slipped off his knife and dropped amongst the bins. He might have been breathing. Harry didn't know, he couldn't tell.
Sweat beaded Harry's hairline. It wasn't like Mary's uncle. It wasn't like Mary's uncle at all. For one, Mary's uncle was still alive. Curious, Harry reached out and dipped his fingers into that hot, wet wound.
It was so warm.
He didn't remember getting back to Hogwarts. Only that he had and that his legs ached as if he'd spent hours running the labyrinth of Knockturn Alley's mazes.
Harry buried his face in the papers the next morning, combing franticly through the Daily Prophet. No bodies. Nothing. Not yet, at least.
The breakfast bustle was beginning to grate on his nerves. Someone fumbled a serving platter and Harry winced at the metal clang against the tabletop. His leg bounced under him without his permission. He'd lost the trick of stillness, learned from long hours trapped within the confines of Grimmauld Place. Now he just wanted to run, skin shivering like it'd jitter right off of him.
Harry flipped through the pages of the paper again, certain the section he was looking for had already been taken.
"You okay, mate?" said Ron.
"Fine," Harry replied, distracted. "Have you seen the rest of the paper?"
"I think Hermione has it." Ron gave him a strange look. "Why not ask her for it?"
Harry refolded the paper and tossed it to the side. "She doesn't want to hear from me."
Ron's eyebrows climbed. "And you know that for certain?"
Harry scowled and made a short gesture at the rest of the table with his fork. "Do you see her?"
"Yes, actually," Ron replied, nodding at something over Harry's shoulder.
His fork clattered off the table as Harry spun around, wand half-drawn in defence. Hermione stared back at him, her expression startled.
"I – " he started.
"I'm sorry." She held the missing pages of the Daily Prophet out to him. "I'm sorry, I know you're worried about the attacks, it's...I'm not angry at you, Harry, I never was. It's understandable really, you've been under such stress. I'm sorry I made you think I was avoiding you."
Harry took the papers, not sure at first what she was talking about. Newsprint crinkled under his fingers. Had the man lived? Had he talked? Gods, but Harry hoped he'd died before he had a chance to spill his guts to the press – warmwetbloodyandstinking – and bit down on the nervous urge to laugh, it was so ludicrous, Hermione thought this was about Peter fucking Toller –
Harry smiled at her. It felt more natural than it should, easier than it should. "That's all right. Things just got out of hand. I'm sorry too actually; it took awhile to get my head on straight."
He glanced down at the paper, but couldn't discern anything from the words, some celebrity's picture making a rude gesture at the camera over and over.
" – you know I'll always be there for you," Hermione was saying.
Harry looked up and gave her another smile. "I know. And thank you, it means a lot to me." He shoved the papers into his bag and stood. "I gotta go – Slughorn wanted to see me early. Gods help me if I make the mistake of being competent in potions again. I'll see you in class?"
She smiled and nodded, eager like she was going to say something else, and Harry left before that laugh could crawl its way out, the inky stain of newsprint blackening his fingers.
Harry dreamed of unfolding that newspaper, over and over again. Each time, it was his own face that stared back at him, dead-eyed and distant, shoulders held firm despite the Auror's cuffs pinning his arms behind his back.
"It doesn't get you anything, you know," says Harry.
"I beg your pardon?" replies the Baron.
"The deaths, the vows of vengeance. It doesn't get you anywhere. It doesn't bring them back. It doesn't heal your pain. It doesn't stop that sense of loss from eating you alive. Killing others to fill that hole inside yourself doesn't make you hurt less, it just makes you hate more."
"I've no use for your condemnation Sharr, and even less for your advice."
"Who else can you talk to who'd know what it's like?" said Harry.
"You would speak to me about loss?"
Harry snorts. "Just because you think of me as a monster doesn't mean I lack empathy."
"Your kind lies as easy as you breathe," says the Baron. "However well you might mean, I do not trust you. And I do not trust your words."
Harry's lip curls. "You talk about the monstrosity of my forefather, but I wonder what you must have done to drive your own daughter into the arms of a Sharr."
"What," says the Baron, low and dangerous.
"Because you didn't teach her better," Harry continues. "You coddled her and sheltered her and protected her too well. You smothered her. She was naïve, all tender and ripe for the taking."
A vein throbs in the Baron's forehead. "My Iphigeneia was no paltry sacrifice."
Harry watches him from under heavy lids. The light in his cell is dim, but after being in total darkness his pupils are sensitive, flared wide and dark. It happens like a lightening strike, his eyes rolling back under the power of the vision unfurling itself.
A man, dark-haired and smiling, his eyes black as coal, stands arm in arm with a young women who shares the Baron's colouring. She looks at the man with worship on her face, adoration and admiration. She wants him; in her bed, in her home, by her hearth. And it isn't a false want either, hasn't been rendered through potion or spell. His Sharr ancestor all these millennia ago has charmed her through the sheer force of his own personality.
"He was handsome, wasn't he. A charismatic smooth-talker," Harry murmurs. "Saying all the right things, singing all the right songs. You were taken in by him as well, couldn't recognize the predator beneath his skin. And then one day your daughter disappears. No word, no warning. He just takes her. And the next time you see her, she's stone-dead and hardly recognizable.
"You pulled her from the alter," says Harry, closing his eyes as the room swims around him, the strange magic of the rune circle straining his grip on reality. "I bet you cried. It's a classic fucking tale. You've played your part as much as the stag beast did when he died – the changing of summer to winter, the passing of power from the old buck to the new. It's cyclical, never-ending."
"Yes," the Baron rasps. "But you are mistaken, Sharr. I was no monster before my daughter died. I was not even a Baron. I held no titles nor military honours. I was a farmer and those were my fields you were captured in."
Harry hums as the world lists like a boat in high seas. "So they were." He rolls his neck to try and relive the strain from his shackles. "It must have been idyllic, your eternal summer of plenty. Does anyone remember it but you?"
The Baron's mouth thins, his expression hard and distant. "Why does it matter? I remember, and I'll extinguish your line as surely as you have extinguished mine."
Phrixus calls his line extinguished, but that's as much a choice as vengeance. He could have mourned and started over. New wife, new child, new life. Callous? Maybe. Harry isn't delusional enough to ignore his own hypocrisy, that letting himself move on would almost certainly have been better in the long run.
"Why does it matter? At the end of the day, they're still gone," Harry replies. "And you still have to live with that."
The interrogator comes back into the room.
They start on his fingers this time.
The problem with having a famous face was that it was a famous face. Somehow, current pictures of himself had turned up in Witch Weekly despite Harry never seeing any hint of a camera. When the little second year had handed him a copy to sign, Harry felt as if he'd missed a step seeing his own face turn and scowl at something out of the frame. People were watching him. People were watching him and he'd no idea when, who, or how.
It was late enough that his dorm-mates had dropped off into sleep. Harry was the only one still awake, his insomnia carrying over from Grimmauld Place.
He climbed out of bed and went to the washroom. In the mirror over the sink, he looked like something out of a black and white film, colouring stark against the brilliant red tiles. They were learning illusions in charms class. One of the books he'd stumbled across for an assignment also mentioned glamours. He pointed his wand at his face and murmured the incantation.
The holly wand fought him, but slowly his hair turned a dark brown and his skin took on a swarthier cast. A couple of simple changes later, Harry looked radically different.
Harry turned his face to the side, examining the thin beard he'd added to his cheeks and chin. It added at least five years to his appearance. Old enough to apparate at the very least, if he could figure out how. It wasn't something he could learn from a book, not with the likelihood of leaving body parts behind.
Or, he could make a Portkey. He'd seen people make them before. The image of Barty Crouch Jr. pointing his wand and muttering 'Portus' flashed before his mind's eye. Couldn't be that hard. And if he could break into the Restricted Section in his first year, he could certainly manage it in his sixth. Looked like he had his project for the next week.
Harry cancelled the glamour charms and went to grab his invisibility cloak.
In hindsight, Bobby's list overlooked quite a few major players. Harry knew the names of Voldemort's inner circle, but how all of the foot soldiers, informants, and sympathizers fit in left him uncomfortably aware of how large the Death Eaters were as an organization. Phineas Nigellus was right – Harry was little better than a Muggleborn given his lack of knowledge about the wizarding world.
The L'Vreys were bottom feeders, willing to take advantage of the chaos rather than die-hard fanatics. Bobby's list said they were sadists, while the society papers said they were darlings - famous for their wild parties that pushed the bounds of propriety. The Daily Prophet did love a good scandal.
Stalking the L'Vreys wouldn't have been half so easy without Strome's mark giving him an excuse for hanging around unsavoury places. Strome's flair for the dramatic even gave him a reason to practice breaking and entering. Not for the first time, Harry found himself scrawling dripping red threats in sheep's blood across walls and furniture, a final warning to repay the vampire's favours.
Harry slipped through the back window, avoiding the runes etched into the sill just as the key clicked in the lock downstairs. The owner had returned early. Mr. Bowers had skipped his last three scheduled payments, so Strome's property was tucked in a null-pouch in Harry's left pocket. The little gadget dug knobby ends into Harry's hip as he hit the adjoining roof and slid down the steep pitch of the roof tiles to the alleyway below.
He landed on the cobblestones and disappeared down a vanishing street, this one bathed in humid mid-morning sunlight, as the Shifting rebuilt the architecture of Knockturn around him. The alley seemed to be holding its breath – Knockturn was no stranger to violence, but the relentless trail of bodies turning up kept everyone on edge.
One of the shops near Tartarus spilled a loud brawl out into the street. Most of them sported a mandala pattern of eyes tattooed onto the back of their hands. The crowd surged into the alleyway and swallowed up the onlookers. Someone squealed as a crackling hex bit into the side of a street stall, cursed talismans scattering onto the ground like glowing caltrops.
Harry tried to slide around the crowd, only to find himself wheezing for air as a much heavier wizard stepped back into him, crushing him against the side of a dirty shopfront. The wizard eyeballed him with a curled lip, recognizing that Strome's mark on Harry's hand wasn't the same as his own. He jabbed his wand at Harry.
The thug's spell splashed off a weak circle of light.
The holly wand shuddered in Harry's grasp and his shield flickered out. What a fucking joke. An alleyway opened behind him, shoving the shop with its ruined stall aside. Harry fled. The tattooed thug chased him, cursing the narrow confines. Three of the thug's friends broke off from the scuffle and followed.
The street spat them out in a small courtyard beside Tartarus. Harry spun, putting his back to the wall, breath high and tight in his lungs. The stonework hummed with magic, but nothing more. Knockturn wasn't going to help him any further.
"What choo doin' round 'ere?" said one of them. "Look a lil' green to be one of the vampire's – "
"So clean he's practically squeaky," said another, who wore a stained butcher's apron from the markets. In fact all of them had the heavier builds which came with physical labour – not uncommon for less skilled wizards. "I don' think you belong round 'ere, mate."
Harry really didn't. The only wizarding thing he had on were Sirius' old boots. No robes, no hat, wrong fabrics, even his casual clothes weren't cut right.
He eyed the tattoo on the worker's hand. "I don't think you belong around here either. A little out of your territory don't you think?"
"Well," said the fellow in the butcher's apron. "We like to think of ourselves as the generous sort, so we'll make a deal with you."
"A deal," repeated the fat one, whose robes smelled like shoe polish. The robes were too small for him around the middle, giving him the appearance of a sausage trying to escape its casing.
"Empty out your pockets," continued Butcher's Apron in a cajoling tone. "And we'll drop you off, nice and shiny, back on Diagon."
Harry's wand flared to life with crackling electricity, the holly searing hot against his palm. But the spell coughed out, leaving a twist of ozone-scented smoke behind. He tightened his grip as the group descended into chortling hysterics.
"Oh look, he's angry now," said Butcher's Apron.
"Lookee that – maybe he does belong around here." Snickering, Shoe Polish dug an elbow into his companion's side. "Too bad Mummy didn't suck enough cock to buy him a real wand."
He lunged at Harry.
Harry slapped the too-hot wand across the fucker's cheek. The thug's skin sizzled like bacon fat. Shoe Polish howled, clutching his head. Someone cast a sulphur-yellow rib-cracker into the scuffle, spell almost kissing Harry in the face. Grabbing hold of Shoe Polish, Harry fell to the side, his own weight spinning the unlucky fuck right into the path of another rib-cracker. Shoe Polish went down with a wheeze.
His hand scraped against the brickwork as Harry caught himself, a blasting hex spiking into the wall above him. Chips of stone peppered his face and neck. The third fellow moved forward, light blossoming at the end of his wand, and Harry took the opening. He barrelled full tilt into him, holly wand crackling with the incomplete lightning spell. Another rib-cracker splashed off the cobblestones as he wrestled with the beefy fucker, the man straining to hold Harry away.
"Mason!" yelled Butcher's Apron, grabbing Harry from behind. He wrapped an arm around Harry's throat and dragged him backwards off his heels. A wand dug into his stomach. Harry kicked out, catching Mason in the head. Butcher's Apron hissed a word and a sickening twist of smoke passed through Harry's insides. Harry vomited over the man's forearm and his own front.
Light-headed and straining against the arm over his throat, Harry jabbed the holly wand over his shoulder into the man's face. The broken spell acted like a taser, dropping Butcher's Apron onto the cobblestones.
The last of the tattooed gang members spun on his feet and sprinted for the shrinking gap in the alleyway.
Harry closed his eyes against the swimming cobblestones beneath him. Bile squirmed up his throat and Harry vomited again. Butcher's Apron had done some real damage. But so had Harry. Shoe Polish moaned from his sprawl, still clutching his face. The other fellow, Mason, wasn't moving. He'd kicked him too hard.
The brickwork shuddered beside him and Knockturn split open, a new sidestreet running alongside the pub. Clutching his stomach, Harry climbed to his feet and hobbled around to the front of Tartarus.
He sniffed back blood as he trudged up the stairwell to Strome's rooms above the pub.
"You say you don't find trouble," said the vampire, not bothering to turn around as he sorted through a pile of parchments covered in runic formulations. "But that certainly doesn't seem to stop you from embracing it with open arms."
The window opened directly over the street below, which meant Strome had seen the whole fight. Despite Strome's lack of a wand, Harry suspected he was the one to fling the first curse into the melee.
Harry shrugged as best he could. "What was with the rib-cracker?"
"It's a favourite of the Three-eyed Dogs," replied Strome, neither confirming nor denying his involvement. He pointed to a small series of potions on the corner of the table. "You'll want to take those soon unless you enjoy the prospect of shitting out your own intestines."
The potions were the colour of pond scum and cloudy. Harry's guts lurched as he gripped the table to keep his feet. He didn't need much more convincing.
Harry wiped his face against his sleeve when he was done, sweat dampening his hairline. He looked up in time to catch a wad of fabric to the face. Harry unfolded it revealing a shirt, faded and old fashioned.
"You smell like vomit," said Strome.
Harry rolled his eyes and peeled off his damp jumper and t-shirt, replacing it with the tunic.
Strome flicked his hand at the window in a casual dismissal. The sash slid shut, obedient as a dog. "Are you hungry?"
"Not after that," Harry replied.
A smirk curved across Strome's face, dark eyes glittering in the reflection off the glass. "Wasn't what I was asking."
The vampire sighed, dropping the sly expression. "I forget sometimes," said Strome. "How young you are. How new you are. You have an absurd amount of skill compared to one of the Dogs, but you have no idea how to use it – not yet, at least."
"Great pep talk," Harry replied in a flat tone. He collapsed into a chair. "I'll be sure to do better next time."
Strome finally faced him. "You seem to believe I'm unaware of your...hunts. The L'Vreys are a bit beyond your current reach, don't you think?"
"Are you going to stop me?" said Harry, tucking his chin down. He wasn't sure who had told Strome he was asking questions about the L'Vreys, but he wasn't giving up without a fight.
Strome's smile grew the faint, pointed suggestion of fangs. "The Americas are home to a phrase I've grown quite fond of," said Strome. "You don't shit where you eat."
Harry clenched his fist beneath the table. "Meaning?"
"I don't like Death Eaters for more than one reason." Strome's expression sobered. "But if you're going to tangle with dark wizards, you need a better wand."
Harry jerked back. "But it's..." The brother wand to Voldemort's, he almost said.
Strome shook his head. "That wand might have suited you when you were a snot-nosed child, but not now. Can't you tell? It's rejecting you. I thought it was stolen at first given how ill-suited you are to each other."
No. No no no.
No, he hadn't noticed his wand was rejecting him. "But it's mine," he choked out, a helpless sense of despair welling up. If he didn't have the wand...if the wand wouldn't work and couldn't be fixed...
Strome raised a brow. "Be that as it may, don't let sentiment hold you back."
"Fine, " he replied, almost managing to sound normal. "I'll think about it."
Harry fingered the familiar wood of his wand. It didn't sit right. It was as if he'd followed the stairs in Grimmauld Place downdowndown past where light would reach, a chill biting at the pit of his stomach, foot missing that last stair that should have been there. Where would he be without the shades spat out by Priori Incantatem, without the holly wand that was kin to Voldemort's own?
It was a funny thing to be bothered by. But the lack of symmetry to Voldemort's wand left him unmoored and he couldn't quite understand why.
Harry stood, pulling the pouch out of his pocket and dropping it onto the table.
"Keep it for now," said Strome. "You may have need of it."
Harry eyed the vampire and then the pouch. "What is it?"
"A loan," said Strome. "And I expect it to be returned."
It turned out to be a gadget fitted with rings that slipped over the middle finger, thumb, and wrist, which anchored a flat metal disk to his palm. The device would act as a wand of sorts, far sturdier than a core-less temp wand. It was also cursed to burn a hole through his hand if Harry used it too often and Strome didn't seem the least bit inclined to try and remove said curse.
Given that he still had a number of hours before classes began, Harry picked up one last task from Strome: a simple transport of illegal ingredients from a Somalian smuggler to semi-reputable apothecary in Vertic Alley.
"Child, you vex me," Strome muttered as Harry left the room.
The hour of the evening was so late as to be almost early. Not that it mattered much in Knockturn. Vertic Alley was different, an affluent neighbourhood. Harry took to the backstreets just to keep from setting foot along the main thoroughfares. He wasn't supposed to be there and it showed. If he looked out of place on Knockturn, the effect was magnified on Vertic Alley.
The delivery was a fifteen minute walk from the L'Vreys' flat. They owned the whole building, of course, renting out the top floor to the wizarding public. On paper, it gave them breaks on property taxes. In truth, it was a lie.
Ever since Bobby coughed up those names, he'd been having dreams. The shrill voices of their victims pursued him as he wandered from room to room, following a phantom trail of bloody footprints only he could see. They chased him into his waking hours, swallowing up the drone of his teachers in classes he wasn't paying much attention to anyway.
The building sat dark and silent. The L'Vreys were attending a gala tonight and their usual habits said they wouldn't be home for hours yet.
The wards surrounding the flat set his teeth on edge. The windows were hexed, as were the doorways and chimneys. But the walls of the neighbouring flat were made of simple wood framing. Harry silenced the saw and the surrounding walls, and then cut a ragged doorway of his own. By the time he was done, a glimmering sheen of magic hung like a curtain in front of him – the raw framework of the wards. He dug his fingers into the base, humming a trilling murmur under his breath to fool the wards into thinking he was naught more than persistent rat, drawn by the food smells. It was almost child's play to pry up the edges and wiggle underneath, belly down to the floor.
That was the thing about cats, rats, and owls. Like a raccoon's love of human rubbish, they were an urban phenomena, drawn to magical dwellings and wizarding communities. The L'Vreys would note the intrusion and update their pest charms without a second thought.
The rat-feet charm was an amateur bit of hedge-witchery at best, but it wouldn't put a strain on Strome's device like the Disillusionment Charm or set off the wards like any of the other magic Harry knew. It certainly wouldn't hide him in plain sight. But the invisibility cloak wouldn't hide him from the wards either. Considering his debts, Harry didn't want to think of what Strome might ask for in payment if he knew about it.
And Strome would know. Somehow, he always found out. Harry wouldn't be surprised if the device was watching his every move. Strome's gifts had price tags.
Holding his palm to the shrinking hole in the wards, Harry repaired the wall and settled in to search before the L'Vreys returned home.
Harry crept through the flat. Dim light shone through the heavy drapes, giving him an awareness of dark mottled walls and animal hides, horns and heads strewn about like a rather morbid curio collection. Bits of taxidermy took the centre stage. An eight-limbed pranghorn with scaly withers stood next to a low couch covered in a sunset red hide spotted like a cheetah's. A glassed-in collection of tarantulas made up the entire length of the dinning room table, its teak frame matching the alligator hide chairs.
The wards cycled through their next array. Muddy green whorls buzzed over the corridor floors, prompting Harry to hum the rat-feet charm as he slipped through the flat.
'Just going to the kitchen,' he thought, weaving the notion into the spell. 'Tasty, tasty food smells.'
Dreaming of this place for damn near a month – about the rooms, the equipment, vague hints of the occupants – left him with a strange sense-memory map that guided his feet through the flat, stepping over the traps and jinxes he knew were there, but had never seen before. He scanned the titles on the bookshelves, looking for some secret proof of the L'Vreys allegiance to the Dark Lord, their status within the Death Eater ranks, access to their torture dungeon, something – anything.
Bobby's information led him here, to this bizarre fucking funhouse with its zebra-striped wallpaper. There had to be something here. Harry let his eyes slip half-shut, tilted his head back and listened. A mirror gleamed in the corner of his vision, vibrating at a key that left him feeling as if he'd scraped his fingernails down a chalkboard.
The feeling shuddered up his hand as he skimmed over the outer layer of magic – not enough to trigger it, but more than enough to get a measure of it. It felt just like the remains of the linking mirror in the bottom of his trunk, but more, bigger, with a sense of layered space. The mirror was a fucking portal, a doorway hidden in plain sight.
Harry bared his teeth at it. "There you are," he murmured. Unthinking, he reached for the mirror.
The mirror let out a hiss. And then the shelves beside the mirror vomited their contents onto the floor in a great jumbled clamour. In the following stillness, he heard bedsprings squeak down the hall, footsteps hitting the floor. Harry's guts clenched tight. Fuck. Fuck.
The L'Vrey's were still fucking home.
And now the wards were aware of him.
Harry hopped over the mess on the floor and skittered back down the corridor he'd come from. He didn't know what the fuck was going on or when he'd gotten turned around because the looping green whorls in the corridor were gone. In their place lay an unfamiliar hallway. The first door opened into a study, dead-end, no windows. The second was a washroom. The third door was already open and occupied.
Vanessa L'Vrey turned over in bed, the strap of her nightgown slipping down her shoulder. She smiled. "Darling," she said, warm and intimate. "Did the cat get in again?"
Backlit by the low lamps of the hall, he must have appeared as nothing more than a silhouette, a streak of male-shaped darkness. She expected her husband, so she saw her husband. She was beautiful in a hard, older sort of way. A part of him itched to slink closer and fit his teeth over the heavy sway of her breasts, to lap at the lines of her collarbone and see how hard he could bite down until bone splintered –
Heart in his throat, Harry backed away from the open door. His ribs felt too small, breath too loud, his heartbeat droning in his ears. Fuck. Fuck. If she was here, where the fuck was Tobin?
"Toby?" Vanessa called out.
"Yes?" replied a male voice from down the hall.
The wards, it had to be the wards fucking with his perceptions. Harry ducked into the study. The area was dominated by a large desk and yet more of those strange taxidermy creatures. Crouching, he crawled behind the desk.
Shadows passed through the gap under the desk as Tobin's form crossed the lamps in the hallway. Tobin meandered back and forth before his footsteps disappeared down the hall, shadow slipping away after him. Harry darted for the open doorway of the conjoining room. The study opened up into a lounge of sorts – all high granite counters and tall stools, faint lamplight from the hallway beyond the study gleaming off an array of glass bottles lining the back wall.
The granite seemed lit from within, tiny copper chips guttering like candle flame. Light fluttered against the ceiling as he moved and he had the sinking notion that it was reacting to him. A bowl of lemons sat next to a full knife block and a silver tray of glasses on the counter.
"Doesn't seem to be anything out of order," said Tobin, still out in the hall. "All of the mirrors are still intact. Are you sure you weren't just seeing things?"
"Tobin," warned Vanessa, curt and flat. "If you dare imply that I am going the way of my mother, I will string you up next to the Allen's girl."
Tobin chuckled. "It's been a long day, dear. Exhaustion can play tricks on the mind."
Footsteps sounded in the study, the heavy tread of someone with a solid build. Harry froze behind the curve of the counter.
"Or we've acquired a poltergeist," said Tobin, voice getting louder. "Not out of the range of possibilities." The footsteps wandered through the study, getting fainter, then louder again before pausing in the doorway. Harry held his breath, blood beating in his ears.
A blasting curse picked him up and hurled him into the far wall. Harry wheezed, scrambling to his hands and knees. Tobin seized him by his tunic, flinging him against the counter. Harry choked against the thick forearm braced across his throat, Tobin L'Vrey's handsome face from the society papers twisted in a snarl. A wand dug into his ribs. Tobin opened his mouth – eyes alight with rage – and Harry frantically directed a summons to the knife block.
Strome's device surged blistering hot on Harry's palm.
Tobin jolted against him, wetness spattering Harry's face. The sharp edge of a boning knife dripped red through Tobin's slack mouth. His jaw trembled, wand clattering to the ground. Harry shoved the body away from him. It sprawled against the floorboards in a messy jingle, the fancy toggles on Tobin's houserobes ringing like fucking pocket change.
"Toby?" The woman's voice was coming closer.
Harry whirled around. There wasn't a single goddamned window in the study. "Fuck," he cursed, taking off for the hallway.
A trip jinx caught his ankle at the doorway. Harry stumbled, bounced off the wall, and kept running. The wards twisted in on themselves, skewing Harry's perception of the hallway's length. Behind him, Vanessa snarled out a spell, her rage rippling through the wards around him. He flinched, ducking on instinct. A spray of projectiles peppered the wall like bullets, biting into the meat of his shoulder. Harry clutched the wound, plastering himself against the wall around the corner. Blood dribbled over his fingers around a pair of rigid points.
Teeth, he thought to himself. It was a set of goddamned teeth from one of the fucking taxidermy nightmares around the flat. He was lucky she hadn't banished the whole crocodile at him. Harry strained to hear movement in the hall behind him, the zebra hide walls giving the place a tilting, psychedelic throb, black stripes receding into deep space while the white bits jolted forward as if viewed under a blacklight.
Harry peeked around the corner at the sudden silence. Nothing. No trace of Vanessa L'Vrey, just the rising tide of those muddy green whorls again. This time, they licked at the floor and slurped at the baseboards with a malignant awareness Harry could only describe as hungry.
The zebra-striped room contained a curio cabinet adorned with birds, glass eyes winking in the faint lamplight. A tall mirror and a prowling bobcat with a strange ridge of spines along its back crouched in the corner. And finally, a fucking window. Harry pried his fingers into the sill, arms straining to lift the sash against the wards hexing it shut.
In the reflection behind him, the bobcat's ears twitched.
It pounced and Harry jerked out of the way, claws scraping the floor as it followed him. Murky green lines, same as the wards, shone through the stitches where the taxidermist's work strained under the spell. The feral marionette of the house's ward growled, lunging forward and Harry flinched back, thudding against the mirror. Claws raked across his arms as he blocked the bobcat from his throat.
And then someone yanked him backwards through the mirror. A quicksilver rush of cold and Harry landed on a bare tiled floor, Vanessa looming over him.
"Where's Tobin?" she snarled.
Harry caught sight of the bodies hanging from the ceiling right before blinding pain jolted through his right shoulder. A hook the size of his hand jabbed straight through the teethmarks and popped out by his collarbone. Harry had enough time to taste bile before magic dragged him up off the tiles and dangled him from the ceiling. Dazed, Harry bumped into cold bodies swaying next to him.
It was cold. Cold, cold, cold, and blue.
Blood pattered against the tiles beneath him as it dripped off his dangling arm. Fuck, what the fuck? Harry jerked against the hook, not enough breath to scream. Something gave way, bone cracking and his eyes rolled in his head, black spots washing over his vision.
"Where's Tobin?" Vanessa hissed into his face.
"Sss..ssstudy," Harry gasped out, shivering as his brain tried to restart.
She left, mirror rippling. One, two, three seconds later, Harry grabbed the hook with his good hand – Strome's device still strapped to it – and blasted the top off a finger's width from his shoulder.
He crumpled. The end of the hook sizzled where it hung from the chains criss-crossing the ceiling. Shards of metal glowed like tiny coals in the dim lighting of the freezer. He dug his cheek into the icy tiles, skin surging hot and cold as he counted the hanging bodies. Frozen stiff, they made him think of half-butchered cow carcasses in a meat plant.
A face from a missing poster stared back at him, the man's expression slack and dull unlike the vibrant laughter in the picture posted by his muggleborn wife. Nine, ten...eleven bodies total. Fuck.
The floor shuddered beneath him, an echo of Vanessa's scream tearing right through the mirror-room. Harry grabbed the poor bastard dangling in front of him, bad arm pinned to his side as he stumbled upright. He slipped further into the hanging bodies, stilling when he saw Vanessa's bare feet stride through the mirrorway.
She stopped when she saw the destroyed hook.
Tears streaked Vanessa's face, honey-blonde hair crimped with blood like she'd pulled at it in distress. Oh, she'd fucking found Tobin alright. She swung her wand wide searching the room for him.
"I don't know who you are," said Vanessa, voice raspy with tears. She spun to her right, wand slashing through the air. Silver-white light arced through the air and bisected the hanging bodies, which clunked to the ground like the goriest fucking ice cubes Harry had ever seen.
"Or who you're working for," she ground out. "But there is no version of this where you come out alive."
On the far side of the freezer, an orphaned torso finished sliding down the swaying body of an old woman, frost dotting her brows. Attention caught by the movement, Vanessa turned away from Harry just long enough for him to reach out, just close enough to slap Strome's little gadget right over her face when she spun back around.
Vanessa caught the blow with her rising wand hand. Splinters flew. Splattered chunks of blood and bone misted Harry's face. The meat of Vanessa's hand split open to the elbow, wet and pink underneath. Impact from the blast jolted Harry's collarbone. The device sizzled in his palm, too hot, too overloaded, curse rendering it the next best thing to useless.
She screamed, high and breathy. It sounded like the rush of wind in his ears as he pulled out of a dive. He cupped the back of her neck, other palm coming up to clamp down over her throat. Vanessa choked. Her uninjured hand scratched at his grip, red weals running up and down his arms. Harry bore her down to the ground. She bucked under him, hips grinding up into his own, her fingers scrabbling at his face. The whites of Vanessa's eyes were red, red as her cheeks, slack mouth going pale and bloodless.
She stilled, an imprint of Strome's device stamped into her neck.
His collarbone hurt. His shirt was wet all down the front. Each blink felt momentous, time slipping away. The room swayed, first to the left, then right, his head feeling like it was ready to roll right off the edge. Harry listed sideways and straightened himself with a jolt, jarring the goddamned hook still sticking out of his collarbone.
"Mother of fuck," Harry half-screamed through his teeth.
The mirrorway wouldn't respond to him. Harry kicked his boot against the mirror's surface, blood dripping merrily onto the tiles around him. It was locked and it intended to stay fucking locked.
A spark of inspiration had him summoning Vanessa's corpse. He picked up her hand and slapped it against the mirror's surface. Silver rippled and parted.
"Right, brilliant," Harry muttered, shoving the body through the mirror. The mirrorway parted around her and hung open, the edges pooling like mercury over the rim of the frame. The tangle of blonde locks hiding her face rendered Vanessa as featureless as a doll. Hanging in the freezer behind him were the ruins of at least eleven different lives. Harry folded away his misgivings about how the shitshow had played out, stepped over her splayed legs and through the mirror.
Stillness hung over the flat, the hum of the wards deadened. Beyond the zebra-striped room, the shifting hallway had resolved itself into a corridor of mirrors, mismatched and hanging in uneven rows. Not all of them showed his reflection. Harry eyed an ornate Victorian piece the size of his palm that reflected only the wall opposite no matter how he waved his hand in front of it.
Were they security measures? Or were they more rooms, hidden in wizardspace away from prying eyes? This whole venture would be fucking pointless if he didn't at least explore the possibility.
Harry aimed a severing charm at one of Vanessa's outstretched arms.
Silver puddled at the baseboards by the time he was done. Some of the mirrors stretched high overhead, some no bigger around than a cantaloupe, leaving metallic drippings down the wall as he attached fingers and palms to the mirrorways with a sticking charm. The hallway looped back around to the study and Tobin ended up donating more body parts for the adventure. Harry stopped exploring the mirrors after the third freezer he found. It was simpler to just open the mirrors and walk away. Nothing was linked to the outside world anyway.
It was somebody else's problem now. He'd done the heavy lifting –
Harry stumbled to halt by the Floo and realized he'd made most of the hallway only by leaning against said wall. A red smear at shoulder-height followed him all the way from the study, a Pollock splatter dotting the floors around him. The hazy padding of adrenaline drained away, leaving him nauseous with pain. He wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed and let the darkness take him. But the sun was already creeping up over the horizon.
Strome might still be awake. If nothing else, he'd relish the opportunity to tell Harry 'I told you so.'
Next time, Harry carefully scouted out the home before entering. He lay for hours sprawled out under the bed, waiting for the owners to come home, eat, and disrobe for bed, settling quiet into the clutches of sleep.
Harry reached up and placed the cursed device against the underside of the bedsprings. He blew their heads off right through the mattress. First the wife, then the husband, gore slopping wet and muted onto the ceiling.
In and out, easy-peasy.
The first of March dawned wet and grey.
Two months after Vanessa L'Vrey's bloodstained blonde locks were first splashed across the Daily Prophet's front pages – a rare colourprint edition – a din of hysteria descended over the wizarding world. None of it rang close to the truth. If Harry had thought the streets of Knockturn were spooked before, it was like a fucking graveyard now. People didn't speak, hurrying past with their heads down, eyes locked onto the ground. Shops closed early. Knockturn had picked up a funny habit of isolating her pathways too, where he could walk and walk and never see another soul.
Harry's grip crinkled the pages of the paper. The morning clatter of the Great Hall turned into a smear of sound, voices becoming the brassy clamour of bells. Blood rushed in his ears as he read along.
'Who's Next?' shouted the headlines beside a picture of the smiling L'Vreys posed together on their antelope-horned fainting couch. The second picture was of the Danver house, a black silhouette against the flames. The third photograph was still, two bodies draped in sheets, the only movement in the picture from the Aurors' feet milling around the remains. Every week found a new body, a new crime scene spawning a fresh reel of sensationalized mania. Speculations stretched further into the paper, pages upon pages wondering who and why? Op-eds accused neighbours and ex-lovers, describing strangers in places Harry knew he'd never been. Most called him a murderer.
The Bloodletter, they called him, turning him into another boogyman with one damning sobriquet.
The Prophet failed to mention that each body bore a Dark Mark, including the Danvers' children who were in fact, old enough to have finished Hogwarts last year. Pure fucking hysteria. Nobody knew. Nobody knew anything.
"Excellent," said Ron as he passed his copy of the Prophet to Ginny. "I love starting the day off with a bit of doom and gloom."
"I don't get how the DMLE can still claim the deaths are unconnected," said Ginny. "How dense do they think we are?"
Ron snorted. "Fat lot of good it's done them," he replied around a mouthful of eggs. "Everyone knows they were sympathizers."
"Chew with your mouth closed, Ronald," admonished Hermione. "Listen to this, one Mrs. Catchspire says she saw someone in Leeds leaving the Danvers' house moments before it burnt to the ground, cloaked and hooded like a Death Eater." She threw the paper down in frustration. "That's ridiculous, why would Voldemort go after the Danvers? They were purebloods. The Prophet is just printing rubbish to capitalize off of the chaos."
"Worse yet," said Neville. "The Danvers were blood purists through and through. Went so far as to endorse a bill earlier this year that would make it mandatory for Muggleborns to be added to a separate Hogwarts list," he added.
"That's right," said Ron. "I keep forgetting your gran is part of the Wizengamot. What do they make of all this anyhow?"
"They're not pleased." Neville stirred circles into his porridge rather than eating it. "The murderer's focus seems to be on blood purists and You Know Who sympathizers, but most of the Wizengamot are purebloods from old families. It's not a stretch to wonder 'who's next'."
Harry grit his teeth behind the protective cover of the Prophet. Someone had done a damned good job of keeping real Death Eater activity out of the news.
"Old families," Hermione mused. "Old families, old grudges?"
Ron shrugged. "Maybe."
"Gran says the Aurors haven't found anything to link the families together yet," said Neville. "They were sympathizers, sure, but that's not enough to go off of."
So. The DMLE was covering things up. But why? And to what purpose? Were they worried about the public finding out, the masses enacting a little witch-hunting of their own? Were they worried that everyone would begin accusing each other of being Death Eaters? Or was that not it at all? Moody's recollections of the last war spoke of how no-one could trust each other, how the Death Eaters had infiltrated the highest levels of the Ministry. The Death Eater trials of '83 decimated the ranks of some departments, not counting how many had been accused of merely practising dark magic before they outlawed it altogether.
"The Death Eaters wreck havoc while a murderer runs loose," said Hermione, shaking her head. "This maniac is taking advantage of the fear and confusion and making it worse."
Maniac. All of his efforts reduced to the Prophet's least pithy byline. The fucking 'Bloodletter.' Anger roiled within and Harry felt like he'd pulled up with halt right where he'd been at the start of the summer, putting holes in Grimmauld Place's walls with his fists.
"Aren't you glad they're gone?" Harry said, cutting over the murmur. He bent the edge of the paper down and stared at the startled faces before him. "Don't tell me you're feeling sympathy for them."
Ron and Hermione exchanged a look that Harry couldn't quite decipher. They'd done that a lot lately.
"The L'Vreys have been accused before of kidnapping and murder," said Harry. "But then, the witnesses either stopped talking, or they went missing. Sometimes, they did both. This goes back for years. I'm not making this up – we have decades worth of the Daily Prophet stored in the library. The L'Vreys were practically untouchable. And they were never all that subtle about their blood purist beliefs because people like you and I might as well not even be human to them. They were nasty brutal people with nasty brutal beliefs. Good riddance."
"But what about Colleen and Colette Danver?" asked Hermione. "They were our peers. They went to school with us. We saw them every day and now they're gone. They never did anything."
Harry raised a brow. "Do you really think that makes any difference?"
Hermione stared at him, aghast.
"Just think," Harry continued, knowing he had the attention of the table fixed on him. "How close they've lived to you all these years and how one bad day for them, could have meant harm – or worse – for you. They had the same fucking ethics as the L'Vreys. If you ask me, whoever took them out did us a favour."
He held up the paper, those damning words scrawled across the front. "Because it sounds to me like they had it coming," said Harry. "Given what little they could print in the Daily Prophet, it seems like they got exactly what they deserved. The Danver twins, the L'Vreys, the Coxfields – they were loyalists marked in blood to a cause that wants nothing more than to eradicate people like you. They don't think of Muggleborns as human, they think of you as vermin, over-running the larders of your betters."
Hermione swallowed, her eyes glassy, but not spilling over. "Harry..."
"Doesn't that make you angry?" said Harry. "Doesn't it make you just a little bit happy that they're gone?"
Ron pursed his lips around an inhale that was almost a whistle, eyes darting back and forth between him and Hermione.
"My Gran says the Aurors can't identify a lot of the L'Vreys' victims because they're muggles," said Neville, breaking the silence. "The DMLE doesn't exactly prioritize them over the magical victims either."
Hermione wiped at her face with her sleeve and sniffed to clear her nose. "They're still people," she said. "People don't just go missing – not even in the Muggle world! Someone has got to be looking for them."
Neville raised his hands. "I know, I thought so too. The Aurors are struggling to put a case together because while everyone knows it's You-Know-Who's fault, they can't... well, it's hard to turn isolated incidents into a conviction. Least not something that would stand up in front of the Wizengamot."
"Isolated incidents," Harry muttered, folding and twisting his copy of the Prophet together. "Aurors are still dragging corpses out of the L'Vreys' hidey holes and you're telling me nobody else has managed to link them all together?"
It was almost as if the Death Eaters were arranged in cells, each cell leader guiding their subordinates in a specific series of instructions. Clever. Take down one cell and only one faction of the Death Eaters would fall. Bobby's information certainly seemed to support it.
"Good riddance," Harry repeated. "Good fucking riddance."
"But how can they be held accountable now?" said Hermione. "Who's going to stand trial in their place? They're dead. That's not justice, that's vigilantism."
It was such sanctimonious bullshit. None of them had any fucking idea what was happening and –
It wasn't entirely their fault. The truth clearly wasn't going to turn up in the Daily Prophet, not while its pages raved about the unravelling of law and order under the mere spectre of the Dark Lord. Harry exhaled and let go of the poor mangled paper, resting his head in his palm. The sounds of his friends' voice washed over him, their conversation all the louder for him not seeing it.
"You really think they'd see justice?" said Ron. "Azkaban isn't all that secure either – everyone's been a bit narked about Scrimgeour's little catch and release program. What's the point in locking them up if they're not going to stay?"
"And how's it any different from the Order?" said Ginny. "Aren't they a group of vigilantes? I can't see Scrimgeour suddenly legalizing them as a 'duelling club', either."
Harry could hear Hermione's hair swish through the air as she shook her head. "It's not the same. These people – "
"Hang on," interrupted Ginny. "'These people?'"
"I don't think it's one person," said Hermione.
A small silence descended. Harry waited, unsure if Hermione's theory would excoriate or exonerate him.
"Think about it," Hermione continued. "All these people claiming to have seen multiple individuals at the same time. If even a handful of these stories are true, that's a lot of work for one person."
A pleased feeling washed over Harry. She hated what he was doing, that much was evident. But a part of him felt a bit jazzed by the idea that Hermione would be impressed by his work ethic if she knew. Harry propped his head up against the closed curl of his fist and watched her.
"There has to be a better way," said Hermione, frowning at her uneaten toast. "This can't be the answer."
"It might be the only one we've got," said Ron. "Besides if there really is only one vigilante pulling this off, that's actually pretty impressive."
It was hard not to feel a bit of satisfaction at his best friend's words. Like it or not, a part of them approved of what Harry did. And it was nice, knowing that his work was appreciated even if it wasn't entirely understood.
The Great Hall swelled with noise as students began to leave for their first classes of the day.
Harry grabbed his bag and trailed along behind them. He reminded himself that he wasn't hunting Death Eaters for the righteousness of it, but because the wizarding world's broken justice system couldn't see past its own inherent prejudice long enough to offer succour to its victims. Because the L'Vreys would never have seen trial for their crimes. Neither would the Danvers, the Coxfields, or any other name on Bobby's list.
Not for the first time, Harry wished he'd slit Bobby's throat and been done with it. He wished he'd never left Grimmauld Place, torn between wanting to lock himself away as the world burned down around him and craving being the one to help burn it down.
Burn it down and salt the earth.
Self-delusion is a terrible habit to cultivate.
Pryce smiles. "You ever hear the term 'dry-drunk'? You didn't master your hunger, didn't manage to overcome or ignore it in the slightest. You just shifted it to a different substance, something a little less tangible and a hell of lot more permanent. More powerful. Murder is a hell of a drug." Pryce's crow lifts off his shoulder with a raucous caw. "Souls," he muses, black dripping down his chin. "...are going cheap these days."
"Caveat emptor," says Harry to the Butcher. "Buyer beware."
"You're a peculiar one," says Phrixus, eyeing the space around them.
"Makes you say that?" asks Harry, closing his eyes as his head lolls against the back of the chair. The lights are bright again, painful and unforgiving.
"You don't enjoy eating people."
"Oh I wouldn't go that far," he mutters."I guarantee you I wouldn't mind taking a bite out of your buddy Oleastro if he's slow enough."
"Children then," the Baron amends.
"Children are where I draw the line. But even then there's a cut off point."
"Oh?" The word is lightly inflected, but Harry can feel the weight of the Baron's focus.
"If a kid picks up a sharp object and tries to run me through, I'll happily slit their throat and sleep very well at night. If they're mature enough to come at me with the intent to kill, they're mature enough to deal with the consequences."
"I'm a discerning monster," says Harry, not bothering to open his eyes.
"I wonder," says the Baron. "Just where would they have gotten the impetus to try and run you through with a knife?"
Harry goes quiet. The words swirl in his mind, a whirl-a-twirl of guilt and pain and desperation. They want out. They've been swallowed back for so many years it's like they've sunk teeth into the soft give of his throat and mouth as they claw free.
His name was Leeland Moore. I didn't know it, but his children were there when I was hunting down his wife. She'd hidden them, of course, and they saw the whole thing. I was looking for leverage against him. A Death Eater attack on the Ministry had killed someone close to me. Again, as it turned out." Harry laughed. "Her name was... well, that's not important. She hated her first name though – insisted on being called her surname by everyone who knew her. We weren't dating or anything of the like, but we'd found solace together and it was easy to care for her."
The Baron says nothing, gaze unwavering.
"Leeland Moore was the architect of the Death Eater raids, one of the top masterminds of strategy within the ranks. When I captured him, I wanted to make him hurt as much as he'd hurt me. I had no idea he had children. So when I killed his wife, his children saw the whole thing – she'd hid them in a false panel designed to serve as a cabinet for storing wine.
"The youngest was furious with that sort of helpless rage. She, uh, ended up stabbing me in the leg with a corkscrew. I...acted much on instinct. Didn't really know who or what she was until it was over. I'd cut her neck open so deeply, I'd damn near taken her head off. She was nine. I don't know what I was thinking afterwards. I don't remember much of this to be honest. I do remember I was so angry that I ended up taking her sister with me back to where we'd set up a temporary sort of headquarters. Before anyone could stop me, I dragged her into the room where we were storing Leeland – "
"And?" prompts the Baron when Harry is silent for too long.
"And I skinned her alive in front of him. Or started to, at least." Harry stares at his knees. "He talked. We were able to foil years worth of Death Eater plans with his information.
"Truth be told, I'd lost control." Harry licks his lips. "She died from shock. I think, if she'd gotten medical attention in time, she might have lived. She was eleven years old." he says meeting the Baron's eyes. "Just old enough to start her first year at Hogwarts." He eyes one of the names on his forearm. "They called her Tessa."
He smiles at the Baron. "And look at you now, trapped in a room with another daughter-murdering asshole and you can't do a damned thing about it without starting a war that would swallow Summer and Winter whole."
Matthew Wilkenson was a tall, skinny motherfucker with watery eyes, a weak chin, and a mouthful of funny little squared-off teeth. He was also the son of Basil Wilkenson, Bobby's high-ranking informant.
He'd been following Matthew for weeks.
Harry skipped his potions class again to sit in front of an off-shoot of Fortescue's on Vertic Alley. No matter how many classes he missed, Slughorn had nothing but fawning praise for him, constantly pushing invites for his infamous 'Slug Club' meetings. Which were less meetings and more parties to schmooze with Sluggy's celebrity guests.
Harry stirred the melted dregs of ice cream in the bottom of his bowl as he glanced at Matthew Wilkenson out of the corner of his eye. His current glamour was brown-eyed with lank mousy hair long enough to brush Harry's shoulders. Surprising how many people overlooked him, particularly Matthew Wilkenson even when Harry was sitting two seats away from his own. Following him for little over a week left him certain that Matthew's schedule wouldn't vary much.
Matthew wiped his mouth with his napkin and left for the washroom. Using a discrete hovering charm, Harry levitated a mild sedative into his glass. It set in slow, taking just long enough for Matthew Wilkenson to finish his meal, pay, and walk past Harry before slumping into himself. Harry caught him, slinging one arm over his shoulder before he could hit the ground.
"Oi!" bellowed a large man as he stood from his spot a few tables over. He was heavyset, gut beginning to set in over the beater's build. His robes were plain and nondescript, something that did nothing to hide the dragonhide vest and Auror-issue wand holster.
"Sorry," said Harry, giving the man a bland smile as he pulled Matthew towards the alleyway Portkey. "But my friend has a medical condition – "
"The fuck he does. Matty's never met you in his life." The man drew closer, shoving chairs out of his way. "And believe me son, I'd know."
The babysitting club was new. Harry hadn't anticipated bodyguards. Hadn't even noticed them.
People were starting to look up. Fuck.
Harry raised a brow, hitching 'Matty' a bit higher as he picked up the pace. "You sure of that?"
A curse sailed over his shoulder, wind raking fingers through his hair. Brick shattered on the building ahead of him. Blood dripped a thin line down Harry's forehead. Somebody screamed, shrill and choked off.
"Shit!" Harry gasped, erecting a shield just in time for orange flames to lick at the edges. Matty's guard-dog didn't seem to give a rat's ass about the consequences of open duelling in public spaces. And then a rapid series of pops echoed through the alley.
Pockets of three or four masked black robes apparated into the wizarding district. Distracted, Matty's guard-dog blocked a curse from a nearby group of Death Eaters, patrons scattering with a scream. The man shouted something into a flat tin charm held to his mouth and Harry knew reinforcements were on the way. Harry lurched forward, grip turning sweaty on Matty's robes.
Heat striped across Harry's back from ricocheted spellfire. He stumbled, Matty starting to slide from his shoulder.
A narrow gap appeared by the ice cream shop, shoving its neighbouring building aside. The cobblestones shook beneath them, combatants losing their footing, dust and debris rattling free of the old townhouses. Down the new alleyway lay night sky and gas flame lamps. Somehow, Knockturn Alley had wedged itself up through the cracks of Diagon's protective barrier. Harry fled, leaving the chaos of the street behind as he slipped into the space between buildings.
Some things really were too good to be true.
They were waiting for him. A group of five Death Eaters – no, six, given the last member of their party cutting off the exit behind Harry – stood ranged before him, wands outstretched. The noise of Diagon Alley vanished behind him as Knockturn sealed up the gap. Harry froze, heartbeat drumming away in his ears.
"Leave the boy."
Harry started, confused, before he realized they meant Matty, who had to be at least ten years older than him. He laughed, caught off-guard by the sudden flush of adrenaline. They had no idea who he was. Magic hummed in his veins, lightning-bright and reeking of ozone.
"Why?" asked Harry, eyeing the dark street beyond them. "What's he to you?"
"Leave the boy," the leader repeated and Harry realized it was a woman, a smoker's rasp deepening her voice. "This will go easier for you if – "
Harry's curse landed on the street between them, toppling the Death Eaters like bowling pins. The cursed device burned ember-hot in his palm. Matty slid off his shoulder and flopped on the ground near his feet. Harry didn't care. He swung around and blew a hole clean through the chest cavity of the Death Eater behind him, catching the man's curse with the device and lobbing it straight at the rising Death Eaters.
Flesh melted, the acid-based spell eating right through robes and porcelain masks. The last Death Eater flung up a shield, sparks flying where the acid spell hit.
"Just hand him over," said the Death Eater, his wand unsteady as he pointed it at Harry. "Just hand over the boy and we both walk away."
Harry raised his hand, that silent purple curse arcing through the air. The curse passed through the shield and into the Death Eater. Blood misted the mouth of his mask. The man crumpled, wand clattering to the ground.
Matty still lay flopped over himself like a rag-doll. Harry bent to search his pockets. And then Matty uncoiled, dagger in hand. He nailed Harry across the face before burying it in the meat of Harry's thigh.
Harry cursed, grabbing Matty's wrist and yanking him close enough to slap him upside the head with Strome's device. Matty went down again, this time Stunned. Bright heat dripped down Harry's face, the blade sticking out of his goddamned leg. Harry stared at it stupidly until he recognized that the thin line of blue-green tarnish near the handle indicated poison.
"Fuck!" Harry bit out through gritted teeth. He punched Matty again for good measure before getting hold of himself. It was hard to tell if it was adrenaline or the potential poison making the world vibrate around the edges.
Numbing the area with what little healing he knew, Harry staunched the wound as he pulled the knife from his thigh. It wasn't large, but it definitely put a hole in him. Harry tucked the knife away and turned Matty over. A quick search of his pockets turned up a wand and a tiny gold swallow charm. Tossing the charm onto the pile of bodies, Harry disillusioned the whole mess.
Hoisting Matty back over his shoulder, Harry thrust Matty's wand into the air. The knight bus popped into existence damn near on his toes.
"Coventry," He told the conductor, Matty's arm draped over his own like they were a pair of mates back from the pub. He got off at the first stop the conductor rattled off, following a stout witch out the door. They were somewhere near Leeds.
It didn't make any sense. Why were they waiting for him? Had they discovered who he was? Impossible, because unless they'd seen through his glamour, then it meant they were here for some nobody...who'd just abducted Basil Wilkenson's nephew. That was a suspiciously well-timed coincidence.
Harry vanished the red seeping down his leg, ignoring the faint tremor in his hands. Thank fuck the glamour hid the gash on his face because it stung even through the flush of adrenaline.
A quick check of both his arms left Harry certain that Matthew wasn't a Death Eater. Harry tugged Matthew Wilkenson's arm back over his shoulder. Somehow he made it out into a more muggle area and waved down a cab, lugging Matty around like an old drinking buddy sleeping off his overindulgence.
"Mate, e's pissed," grunted the muggle cab driver.
"No shit." Harry shoved a crumpled handful of notes at him, not giving a damn about the change. The knife bumped against his hip as he practically rolled Matty into the cab, reminding him that he had no idea what poison it was coated with, the world beginning to swim at the edges now that he didn't have adrenaline driving him forward.
The taxi dropped him in Sheffield and Harry rigged up a series of Portkeys to Leicester, Norwhich, Colchester, Margate, Croyton, and finally, a few streets away from the bus service that took him back to Grimmauld Place. Harry's arms felt limp from carrying Matty by the time he closed the front door behind him.
He dumped Matty in a grated cell next to the wine racks in the cellar.
"Ennervate," said Harry pointing Matty's own wand at him. The wand acted like it was going to bend in his grasp like a fucking straw before responding to the command.
Matty's eyes blinked open.
"You can either cooperate," said Harry. "Or you can rot in here until you die."
Matty's funny little face twisted as his hand went to his pocket and found it empty.
"Don't bother," said Harry. "I left your tracking charm back with your Death Eater vanguard."
"What?" Matty struggled to sit up. "Billings isn't a Death Eater."
Harry struggled not to roll his eyes. "Not your babysitter – the Death Eaters who were more than happy to take you off my hands."
Matty shrank back from him, giving Harry much the same look he'd imagine a squirrel might have after darting out into oncoming traffic. "But I don't know any Death Eaters!"
Heat seeped out of the wound on Harry's leg again and he grit his teeth against the sound that wanted out. "Funny, because they sure seemed to know you."
Matty's gaze darted over the dim confines of the cell. "I – I dont,"
"I don't really care at this point," said Harry, pulling out the knife. "What has this been cursed with?"
"I, I don't know. It, it was," Matty stuttered out. "Given to me – Billings said to use it if necessary..."
Harry's stomach sank. "God, you don't know anything, do you?"
He turned and staggered up the stairs, locking the cellar door against Matty's protests. Harry's face felt numb.
Great Aunt Edith's diary once again saved his ass. After dripping a bunch of counteragents onto the blade, Harry finally puzzled out the poison. The poison was common enough, the antidote even more so. It was made from a bunch of basic shit he could easily find in the solarium or the old potions lab in the east wing. But one of the main ingredients in the muck was diced drake heart. Fresh diced drake heart.
Some days it just didn't pay to wake up in the morning.
"Sorry buddy," he murmured, stroking Wally's spines. "It's me, not you."
The knife parted the drake's neck like butter. Little Walburga's back leg twitched, then stilled.
The antidote went down cold, freezing the back of his throat.
It was silly how much he'd gotten attached to the pest. It didn't stop the gnawing edge of loss from welling up, Grimmauld Place all the more empty. Dust crept up in the corners, the house folding in on itself as he trudged up the stairs. The clock downstairs tolled the last hours of the day as Harry curled up in bed, face uncomfortably damp.
It was easier, he thought, to mourn a pet than a person. Cleaner, less complicated. Honest, in a way that Harry rarely was these days.
"What happened to him?" Harry asks, curiosity getting the better of him.
The Baron pauses, one hand raised to open the door. "Of whom?"
"Him. The one who took your daughter."
"Cnaeus Aemilius Ianuarius of House Sharr. He told her his name was Iah." Phrixus looks away. "He was killed."
Harry can fill in the blanks. "But not by you." He lets out a bitter huff of laughter. "God, that's got to eat at you."
"I didn't end him," says the Baron. "But I will end the threat his heirs pose to the world."
"I wasn't raised a Sharr, you know," says Harry. "I didn't even know that was my name until a few months ago. And ever since then, all I've heard is how much of a monster that makes me. Not my choices, not my actions, not my thoughts, but something that was an accident of biology, an accident of birth."
Phrixus steady gaze doesn't waver, waiting for him to continue.
"I've been called savage, mad, every kind of bastard imaginable. But no matter what I did, no one ever called me a monster until Mab slapped the Sharr name on me. Now everyone does.
"And you know," says Harry, giving the Baron a conspirator's grin. "It made me realize something. No one ever accused me of being inhuman before all of this, but the way they used to say my name? It sounded an awful lot like folks do these days when they say 'monster.'
People like to say that your actions make you who you are," Harry murmurs. "And maybe mine have made me a monster. But you? You're not much different than me. You're not any better than me.
I wonder, Phrixus, what you think people mean when they call you the Baron?"
"You are cruel," says Phrixus.
Harry shrugs as much as his bonds will allow. "I told you I have empathy. I never said I wasn't harbouring a grudge."
The door slams behind the Baron, leaving Harry in that too bright light.
Alone, there's nothing to distract Harry from the sting of his own words; truth was a weapon that cut both ways. He'd raged enough, hated enough, made all the wrong choices to bring out the very worst of himself.
All that he was, Harry had chosen to become.
Harry wandered through his classes caught in a daze. His heart raced at funny moments before feeling like he'd been dropped into a still cool lake, a preternatural calm stealing over him.
Matthew Wilkenson knew fuck all about his father's dealings. It only took him breaking down once into drippy hysterics to drive home just how screwed Harry was, Matty's abduction draped around his neck like a fucking albatross. Lockhart must have been some kind of idiot savant because Harry's experiments with Oblivation charms lasted all of about four hours before Matty's hysterics started up again.
Matty was able to confirm one thing: Sympathizers were worse than Death Eaters. Harry stared at Matty's snotty face on the other side of the bars, wondering how this snivelling lackwit could still be so convinced that he was superior to Harry because of fucking blood.
Basil Wilkenson might not have borne a Dark Mark himself, but he ranked high enough up in the DMLE to approve or disprove raids, as well as the arrests made in those raids. Which affirmed the rumour amongst the lower Death Eaters that Basil made the difference between incarceration and freedom. Half the cases that crossed his desk got thrown out, records erased.
The information was damning. It stuck in Harry's mind, needling him through his classes and barging in on his sleep. How the hell could he get to someone that high up, that engrained into the system? It wasn't like he could do to Basil like he'd done to Bobby. No way would the Aurors overlook him disappearing – not with Basil's semi-public profile and notoriety amongst their own ranks.
Add in that he had Matty fucking Wilkenson stuffed into Grimmauld Place's cellar... He had to stop himself at times from turning to Ron and saying something really fucking batty like, "I've got a man in my basement and he doesn't want to be there."
Harry turned over in bed and kicked the covers off. His room-mates' snores droned on in the background. Despite leaving the window open for a bit of fresh air, Harry's pyjamas clung to his skin, sweat-sticky and smothering. Dim light from the washroom shone through the bed-hangings, red velvet lit up like he was stuck inside of a giant lung rippling with every wheeze.
If only he could get rid of Basil somehow while exposing his corruption, maybe he'd feel less like he was ready to crawl out of his skin, swallowing back panic with every new headline blaring across the Daily Prophet's front page.
Basil was a lynchpin, the whole reason why the Death Eaters and Aurors cooperated so seamlessly. Hell, most of the force had no idea why they were as ineffective as they were. No wonder the last war had been plagued by infiltration at the highest levels. If Harry could pull this off, he'd be less of a priority, the Aurors and Death Eaters wouldn't be working together, and Harry would have room to lay low.
It'd have to be a lure. Some way for him to draw Wilkenson out and trap him. He'd have to get him alone. And the only people Wilkenson would trust were his closest lieutenants or Death Eater buddies.
Or Matthew Wilkenson.
Harry sat up.
Matty was a pampered politician's kid who was neither clever enough, nor talented enough to become anything meaningful. He'd been coddled as a kid and ignored as an adult; babysat even as a grown man because he was too useless to look after his own ass. He was little better than human baggage, a waste of time, money, and air.
Matty was a fucking idiot. Which was perfect, because Harry needed a fucking idiot.
'Matty' was going to infiltrate a Death Eater party. All Harry needed was a portkey.
It was never one little thing, something he could point at and say, "Yes, here. Here is where everything went wrong." Bad decisions have a habit of gaining their own momentum. Hell, they're an addiction all of their own.
They drag him back to his cell, the muzzle digging into the sides of his face, the sound of the Butcher's laughter grating at his ears. Harry surfaces mid-way through them skinning the flesh from the back of his knees. His mind tugs on its tether, thoughts pulling at their moorings; his brain muddled in candy-thick molasses.
"Where are the keys?" the shrivelled old druid demands.
"What keys?" Harry slurs out, the words losing their hard consonants.
"The Sharr keys."
Harry thinks in circles around the memory of putting two jagged shards of violet crystal into a mokeskin bag and put up a memory of Mab from Arctis Tor in front of it. Just in case.
Just in case.
"Lost," Harry rasps. "And good riddance."
He sinks back under, a scream lodged raw in his throat.
This had to be the shittiest plan he'd come up with yet, concocted off of a potent cocktail of sleep deprivation and desperation.
It was easy enough to charm his face into Matthew's own. Any discrepancies hid under the Death Eater mask he'd found buried amongst Regulus Black's belongings. The mask was heavier than he expected, squeezing Matthew Wilkenson's borrowed face in a way it hadn't with his own. Harry hadn't known the masks were intended to fit so close. Enough familiar features between himself and Regulus Black, he supposed.
Strome said an Auror raid would be taking place in Devon at a private residence. Some small scale Death Eater party was being hosted by a sympathizer, no muggle torture this time, thank fuck. His Portkey dropped him off at some countryside manor, a summer home that had once belonged to the Burkes family. Someone of Lucius Malfoy's affluence might have called it 'quaint' or 'rustic' for all that the main gathering was being hosted in a ballroom with wall to wall gold-on-black floral wallpaper.
Harry appeared in the foyer amongst the other party goers, clad in featureless black robes. Bone-white Death Eater masks spread as far as the eye could see. The party was entirely anonymous. He strode forward despite the churning in his stomach, nodding to those who greeted him in turn. It was too fucking easy to waltz right in – either he couldn't be the only interloper or there was something on Regulus' mask that allowed him to pass.
No infiltrators here. Or maybe they were luring him into a sense of complacency. He grimaced beneath the mask.
Harry tried not to hurry his pace as he followed the sounds of the party down a hallway cluttered with portraits of the Burkes family. The portraits murmured to each other, going silent as he walked past. His knees felt loose and rubbery. The hall was dim, cold light shinning from above causing the black on black fascia of the walls to seem both too small and much, much too large. Someone had broken off from the group in the foyer, footsteps following Harry down the hall, their white mask hovering in his peripherals like a ghost.
Harry waited for the jab of a wand in his kidneys the whole trot down the corridor, feeling as if he'd a knife in his back anyway from the Death Eater's focus behind him. Did they recognize the mask? Harry didn't know what he'd do if they did. Strome's device had a limited shelf life and he couldn't spend it here. The blade he'd taken from Matty? Or the iron burl he'd scavenged from Grimmauld Place, its needle-sharp point designed for ritual bloodletting? A bit on the nose, perhaps. A break in the corridor showed an unlit hallway leading away from the sound of the festivities. He could surprise the Death Eater, turning, grabbing them, shoving the burl up into the soft hollows of the throat –
The footsteps overtook him, unhurried as the Death Eater passed by, black robes fluttering around their clicking heels. It was a woman's boot, the arch high and dainty. She turned to him, blank eye holes of the mask swallowing up the light, before ignoring him as unimportant. Vanessa L'Vrey's snarl ricocheted through his head as Harry stared after her.
He made himself start walking again.
The heavy doors at the end of the hall swung open, erupting with sound and golden light. Muted laughter flickered through the air before being snuffed out. Harry slipped through the doors after the female Death Eater, pulse beating a tattoo in his throat.
He took in the room in splashes of colour and shape. The dark wooden panelling made it look smaller, more intimate than it actually was, all that ostentatious wallpaper gleaming in the candlelight. Huddled knots of black-clad bodies spilled into each other like ink-blots. It was a ballsy move, holding a social fete like this, not just for the host but for the party-goers as well.
Harry leaned against the wall by a small cluster of revellers, near enough to be counted as part of the group without having to participate. As discrete as he could, Harry pressed Strome's device against the wallpaper and burned a rune array into the busy design.
"The Bloodletter took Wilkenson's boy," one Death Eater muttered to another. "Abducted him right beneath the noses of his minders. Basil's been looking for him for weeks now. No bodies, no ransom demands, nothing."
"Bit out of character, isn't it" came the snippy reply. "What with the lack of gore ground into the carpets. Are they sure it's the same bloke?"
"No, but Basil's still riled up something nasty."
The other Death Eater snorted. "You wouldn't know it to look at him. Almost makes me feel sorry for the boy though. Here he is, ambling along in his cushy little life only to end up as some serial killer's collateral."
Harry swallowed, skin going cold despite the swaddling depths of Regulus' robes. Beneath all his convictions, beneath the adrenaline keeping him upright and moving forward, lay the prickling awareness of just how fucked he'd be if they discovered him here. Worse than waiting behind the bins for an overheard word – all he had now was a stolen wand, Strome's fucked up device, and a piddling portkey that might not even make it through the wards.
The Aurors sure were taking their sweet time to show up.
Harry broke off from the group, weaving his way through the crowd. He circled through the fete as he burnt tiny runic arrays into the wallpaper. The Death Eater robes and mask might have leant a measure of anonymity, but they were terribly obvious in every other way. Without them, Harry realised, this could have been any random dinner party between friends. The Aurors would have no reason to arrest anyone without any indication of the Dark Lord's followers.
It also indicated anonymity between members – some of Voldemort's loyal Death Eaters did not know each other's identities. Smart, because it made for independent agents within his own ranks. The Aurors could take down individual members, even cells, but not the entire group because only the inner circle had any idea how large the Death Eaters were as an organization.
Harry paused by the roaring fireplace, the high mantel framing the portrait of someone's unfortunate ancestor. The vial slid out of his fingers and clinked off the stone, rolling with a clatter through the grate. Under the added heat, the glow of the Salamander's Breath changed from red-orange to blue-white. Turning, Harry wove through the crowd, hellbent on putting as many bodies as he could between him and the fireplace.
The tinkle of glass was just audible over the gathering. And then a crushing blast of pressure and debris rolled out over the ballroom.
The mantle crumbled in its wake.
Harry aimed Matthew Wilkenson's wand into the milling crowd and let off an explosion hex. Bodies fell. Somebody screamed. Then the killing curse surged past his face. He spun in the direction of the curse only to find a slim form already pointing at him.
"It's him!" she yelled. "It's the Bloodletter! He's here!"
More killing curses came his way, a fucking wave of green light, and Harry swore he heard the world whisper at the edges. He flung another hex into the milling crowd. Blood spurted as it caught a tall Death Eater in the neck, fat arterial spray gouting out. Harry fell into step with a group fleeing for the exit.
They couldn't tell who he fucking was, but they knew he was there.
The crowd surged up to the double doors, to the balcony, to the side exit that led to the kitchens – Harry clenched his fist over Strome's device – and broke upon the barrier like a wave. Bodies shoved him forward as they crushed up against Harry's barrier, someone stepping on his feet, and Harry, like the rest, threw his hands forward to push people out of the way. He jabbed Matthew Wilkenson's wand up under someone's ribs, didn't know who, just that they had the misfortune of being in the wrong time, wrong place, wrong fucking costume.
This time, Harry's blasting curse burst through the Death Eater's chest cavity. It pulverized half their fucking torso. Bone and organ slop misted the crowd in front of the doors.
Someone had the bright idea to apparate out. It was like watching someone walk into a glass door. A sudden thump and they stopped short, wobbling in place. The warding sigils on the wall burst into flame under the strain. And then the balcony doors blew inwards. Red robes flooded the room.
Harry could fucking kiss the Aurors, every last one of them, for their timing.
Finding half the ballroom already throwing spells at each other must have been a godsend.
Harry's barrier spell heaved under the strain of so many bodies and broke. Death Eaters and Aurors spilled into the gardens. Spells flew, searing the air with ozone and smoke. How much of this was artifice and how many were genuinely fighting for their lives? Harry swatted a hex from the air and aimed Strome's device into the crush. It lit up like a lightning strike and arced outward, his hand numb from the backlash.
He hesitated to throw himself too far into the melee. How much was too much? And how the hell was he going to get "Matty" captured if he fought too hard to get free?
The spell struck him from behind.
Harry hit the ground, the Auror's spell dropping him like a fly as his stolen wand flew out of his hand. Binding cuffs clamped down on his wrists and Harry lay breathless for a moment, a solid weight pinning him chest-first into the ground. Harry twisted under their boot to no avail. Then a firm grip seized his arm, hauling him to his knees.
The spells holding Regulus' mask in place gave up the ghost as Harry's hood fell back and the Auror holding him swore under his breath.
Rough hands dragged Harry up off his knees and spun him around. The man was heavy-set and built like a farmhand gone to seed, slabs of muscle hidden under a pudgy beer-gut. It was the same Auror from before. Billings, Matty called him. He stared at Matty's wand in his hands, then peered into Harry's eyes with a grim expression. "Matty?"
Remembering Matthew Wilkenson's body language, Harry imitated one of 'Matty's' slope shouldered shrugs and weird baby-toothed smile.
The Auror's moustache twitched, eyes looking him over head to toe. "No, you're not Matty." He jabbed his wand into Harry's neck, tip digging into his carotid. "It's you," he growled. "Where's Matty?"
Red robes swarmed the gardens around them, paying them no attention. Harry didn't pause his mimicry of Wilkenson's son even when the Auror dug his fingers into the wound crossing his shoulder. Enough adrenaline pounded through his blood that the pain made him feel almost euphoric. Someone had nailed him with a hex and he couldn't remember when.
"If you don't start talking," the Auror whispered. "I'm going to blast your fucking head off and damn all the paperwork afterwards."
That giddy feeling bubbled up inside him and Harry felt his mouth stretch into his real smile. Matty knew this man, which meant there was a good likelihood Basil also knew this man. If he was wrong though, he'd have a hell of a time getting out of this situation.
Harry took a gamble.
The laugh spilled free, the one that made Snape look at him sideways. It painted the air around them with a strange echo, like stone scraping on stone. Billing's face went pale.
"Oh," Harry crooned. "But what would happen to Matty? I wonder what Basil would think?"
A muscle ticked in the Auror's jaw.
Harry sensed a new spell washing over the cuffs, twice as strong as before. "Smith," Billings called out into the darkness, not taking his eyes off Harry. "I'm taking this one directly to the holding cells."
Another Auror straightened from his tussle with a hissing, spitting Death Eater busy spilling profanities everywhere despite his chains. Smith's expression flickered with alarm when he saw Harry's borrowed face.
"Is that – ?"
"No," said Billings. "I think this is our new little friend who's been making such a mess." He shook Harry hard enough his teeth clacked together.
The other Auror's eyes widened, moustache twitching. "You – think that's the Bloodletter?"
Billings smiled, hard and gritted. "Oh, I know it is. After all, he went through all this trouble to get us here."
Smith glanced around at the chaos winding down. What bullshit. Basil probably had the raid scheduled on his fucking calendar.
Billings spun Harry around and dragged him over to where he could sense another Portkey drop. Amazing how easy it was to pick up on them once he crafted a few himself. The world twisted and turned into a smear of colour, dumping them inside a well-lit corridor lined with cells.
"Alright, you wanted an audience with Wilkenson, you got it," said Billings, tugging him over to the door. He rapped Harry on the head with his wand and the cold, cracked egg feeling of a disillusionment charm spilled over him.
The Auror desks were surprisingly full given how many of them were out on a raid. Billings pulled him past the disorder and towards a hall leading to a series of private office suites. Basil Wilkenson had a sturdy brass plaque nailed to his door, engraved with his name and DMLE position. Billings pushed open the door and shoved Harry into a chair without knocking.
It was an office, plain and unremarkable, dominated by bookshelves with a large sturdy desk and a false window showing the Thames at night.
"This one wants to speak with you," Billings announced in a brusque voice.
Basil Wilkenson looked nothing like his son. He was short and spectacled, with a round face, an easy smile, and a well-trimmed beard. He had grey hair, dark glittering eyes, and wore a grey tie with a suit that might have passed for muggle if it hadn't been for the caped cut of the jacket and dragon-scale buttons. He presented himself like a modernist, a moderate with few political leanings or prejudices.
Harry's lip curled.
"Truly? And who might you be?" asked Basil Wilkenson. "Wearing the face of my son, I might add."
"The Bloodletter," growled Billings. "Gracing us with his company, finally."
Basil gave a thin smile. "Oh my," he said. "Do you have a name beneath that weighty title?"
"I don't care what you call me," Harry replied.
"I think you do." Basil's smile had the polished sort of artifice that didn't convey an ounce of sincerity. "I think there's a part of you that's quite pleased with your little moniker."
Needling bastard. "I would like to make a trade with you," said Harry. "Information for information."
"It was damnably hard to come up with a suitable name for you," said Basil, idle, as if picking up a previous conversation. "I knew I could weed you out – if only I could give you a name."
What the fuck.
"My name isn't important – " Harry tried again.
"I think it is."
Harry stayed silent, coming up hard on the sinking feeling of being out of his depth. Basil wasn't biting the bait, wasn't showing a shred of misery, let alone interest, over his son's disappearance. Hell, Harry might have done him a favour in removing a political dead-weight.
In taking him, Harry had turned Matthew Wilkenson into a goddamned martyr. What a fucking boon for Basil.
Basil's expression took on a self-satisfied cast. "Names are such grievous things. Name a horror and you'll take away half it's teeth. If I could name you, I could follow the shape of you through the hysteria."
The Bloodletter. And all the fervour it generated. Fuck. Fuck.
"You are, of course, correct. It doesn't matter what your name is under that face," said Basil. "I have you here and that's good enough for me."
Given Harry's lack of reply, Billings clamped a hand over the back of his head, his meaty paw damn near wrapping temple to temple, and slammed Harry's head against the desk. On instinct, Harry activated his Portkey.
"Who are you working for?" asked Basil, as if commenting on the weather. "Who put you up to this?"
Nobody knew he was here. Nobody was coming for him.
Basil's smile was as benign as a plastic saint's. "Robert mentioned you were young."
Billings gave his head another solid thump and Harry carefully checked that all his teeth were in place when he was done.
"Naturally, that was through all of the other bits, with the pissing and babbling and being a frothing nuisance," said Basil as he shuffled through the papers on his desk. He looked up and made eye contact with Harry's borrowed face. "You don't play very well with others."
"You know about Bobby," Harry rasped.
"There wasn't much Robert could do that I wasn't appraised of."
Harry laughed, hoarse and hacking. The lights in Basil's office flickered. Billings grabbed the back of his neck and shook him – hard. A 'stop that.'
"He owed you favours," said Harry, enjoying for a moment the brutal hilarity of scrawling death threats across the walls of Strome's debtors at the same time Basil was issuing them to his own through the post. With quill and parchment, like a proper gentleman wizard, and not things that left Harry's hands smelling like raw meat.
"Hell," Harry continued. "The children were probably your doing too. A reward maybe? For a job well done? Or blackmail, so he'll keep doing a job well done."
Billings bounced Harry off the desk again and the lights took on a speckled appearance for a moment. Impending concussion, most-like.
"And you?" Harry said to Billings. "What has he got on you?"
"I known which side my bread is buttered on," muttered Billings from behind him.
"Who's pulling your strings, little murderer?" asked Basil. "You aren't doing this alone, not with the kind of information you've had your hands on."
"Who are your associates?" rumbled Billings, hand tightening in a warning on the back of Harry's neck.
Harry tried to twist away on reflex, but Billings' grip wasn't going anywhere.
Basil chuckled. "I have far more time than you do. Polyjuice has a finite shelf life." He nodded to Billings. "Search him."
Harry writhed in the chair as Billings stripped his pockets of the iron burl, Matty's knife, and the useless fucking portkey. "Why the Death Eaters, Basil?" he gasped out, trying to buy some time. "Their eugenics philosophy can't possibly benefit you as a politician."
Basil shrugged. "I like my job. I'd like to keep it through the coming regime change. Besides, I don't disagree with their philosophy, merely their methods. Perhaps I could cite tradition, or lost magic, or any other grievances against the intrusion of Muggle blood. But mostly, mostly because it serves me and mine and I like things that serve me and mine."
"No flask," said Billings, dumping Harry's shit on Basil's desk. "No potions."
"No Polyjuice?" replied Basil. "Don't tell me you infiltrated my office with something as flimsy as a Glamour."
Billings tore off the glamour. Skin stinging, Harry snarled at Basil, shit falling apart faster than he could keep up with. Magic surged under his skin and dissipated against the cuffs, his pupils reflecting as flat, moon-coloured discs in the false windowpanes beyond.
Basil's eyes roamed over Harry's face, that smooth politician's smile widening into something Harry could only call ecstatic.
"Harry Potter," breathed Basil. "Harry Potter is the Bloodletter." He inhaled, clearly fucking relishing the words. "How precious."
Unthinking, Harry kicked out against the desk. Heavy oak jolted up onto two legs and into Basil's lap, pinning him in his chair. Sharp red light jetted from Billing's wand and scored the side of Harry's face as he collided with the Auror's knees.
Hands still bound behind his back, Harry lunged across the desk at Basil. He'd take him out with his fucking teeth if he had to –
The tell-tale sign of a portkey twisted beneath his navel. Magic spun Harry around like he was caught in a washing machine, the unwilling passenger of Basil's own emergency portkey.
It spat them out in an unfamiliar bedroom. Harry stumbled back across the bed as Basil lunged at him, hands pinned under his own weight. He jerked a knee up into the shorter man's chest much on instinct. Space opened up between them just enough for Harry to kick out at Basil's knee. Gasping the man crumpled, a curse darting from his wand to singe a line across Harry's collarbone. The smell of burnt fabric hung in the air, too much adrenaline keeping Harry from the edge of pain.
His wife burst into the room. Harry briefly recognized her from the society papers as Charlotte Wilkenson raised her wand.
A twist of Harry's wrist and Strome's device heated like an ember. The chain linking the cuffs shattered. Harry dropped under Charlotte's hex, catching it with the device. He slid in under her guard and slapped the glowing curse right up over her ear.
"No," gasped Basil.
Her head fucking vaporized.
Blood sprayed hot and stinging right into Harry's eyes. Strome's device shattered, metal fragments edged in hellfire orange sizzling against the floor. Basil turned, tears streaming, teeth bared and his eyes wild – Vanessa goddamned L'Vrey's face all fucking over again – and raised his wand. Something rolled under Harry's foot as he stepped back, green light blossoming at the end of Basil's wand, and he had enough time to identify it as another wand before it was in his hand and through Basil's eye, shattering the lens and popped like a fucking grape.
Basil jerked, mouth working.
Harry let go.
Basil slumped back on the floor, his wife's wand jutting from his eye socket.
Blood was splattered like ink over the plush textures of the bedroom. It dripped from his wrists, from the broken links of the cuffs and pooled from the bodies crumpled on the bedside rug. His blood was spattered there too.
Billings saw them leave. Probably knew where they were going. No way did Harry have time to cover up the fucking massacre in front of him.
Harry pulled out Charlotte Wilkenson's wand with a squelch. The clock on the bedside table became a portkey. Downstairs, the floo began to spit out angry voices.
The darkened bedroom swirled away as feet pounded up the stairs.
He landed in the front hall of Grimmauld Place. Walburga's portrait was silent, but her curling sneer spoke volumes.
Harry sneered back and left the room, Regulus' swaddling black Death Eater robes sweeping behind him.
The cuffs were made of solid iron and etched with dancing runes, the ends beginning to spark firefly bright. He didn't think they'd respond well to a cutting charm. And aside from trying to melt them off with a muggle blow-torch, that left few options.
There was however, a bottle of olive oil in the kitchen and a series of pain relieving potions hidden in the cupboard above the sink.
"Where there's a will," Harry muttered to himself. "There's a way."
Harry coated his hands liberally in the oil, glossy yellow-green running slick over his wrist and dripping into the sink. The cuffs were being less than obliging. Each time Harry attempted to slip them up to where the curve of his thumb met his palm, the cuffs would tighten to the point his fingers began to feel numb and swollen.
On the fifth attempt, Harry lost his temper. "Fuck!" he snarled, banging the cuffs against the metal rim of the sink. Impact reverberated up his wrists and forearms, some fucked up combination of magic and rage humming under his skin. The house picked up on it and the glass faces of the cabinets shattered, diamond-edged splinters raining down onto the counters and floor.
Kreacher's reflection appeared in the dark window over the sink. Harry felt his lip curl back.
The little wretch must have been feeling bold though. "Young Master seems to be having trouble."
"Young master is not in the mood for your shit," said Harry, wrists throbbing. The oil dribbled down his arm, the next best thing to useless.
Kreacher's expression went sly. "Does Young Master know his shackles have a tracking charm?"
"Well isn't it wonderful that it's this house they'll track me back to!" Harry roared. The stove flared to life with sudden surging fire, blue after-images seared into his vision.
Kreacher cringed, shoulders hiking up around his ears. "Young Master," said Kreacher, wringing his hands. "...but only has to ask."
Harry bared his teeth. "Please."
It didn't take long.
A boom shuddered up through the floorboards, a bass note rumble. It was like lightening had struck the house. Grimmauld Place might have been hidden under a Fidelius, but Harry was not and the cuffs were a fucking homing beacon.
And god, how much fucking evidence had he left behind? First at the L'Vreys and now at Basil fucking Wilkenson's? Whose son was still locked in his fucking wine cellar?
He was done for.
'Oh Johnny boy, the Reds, the Reds are coming...' sang Harry's shitpan of a brain.
He could've held out for weeks – months even – and the house would've helped him, defended its master, the last of the Blacks. There was no point. Eventually, they would get in, or worse, tear the house down to its foundations.
He should run. He could run, keep portkeying away until he was out of their reach. Until he was in another fucking country and however long it took for a foreign magical law enforcement to run him into the ground.
Dust fell from the ceiling as the house groaned under the assault.
Maybe it was some lingering shred of honour, that foolhardy Gryffindor spirit shining through. Or maybe he was just tired, ground down beneath the wheels of bureaucracy and his own fucking impotence. Truth be told, he'd gotten away with a remarkable amount of shit. He'd gotten arrogant; stupid, really. Thought that he could do the same shit the Death Eaters could, forgetting all the while that he hadn't a shred of the support network the average Death Eater did.
Life was a zero sum game. The bubble always burst, the bill always came due. He was fucked and it was entirely his own fault.
Harry placed his wand, Charlotte's wand, his daggers, the remains of Strome's device, and the cuffs in neat line across the table in the formal dining room. Naga venom glinted milky white along the melted edges of the cuffs. The lamps shone with witchlight, burnishing the room in stern blue hues. Sitting at the head of the table, Harry placed his hands upon the wood. Blood lined the underside of his fingernails in little red smile lines.
Harry exhaled and nodded to Kretcher. "Let them in."
The dream unfolds from the point of view of the victim, Harry a captive audience to somebody else's thought processes. It's like legilimency, but with no control. Someone else is behind the steering wheel this time, Summer's shackles rendering his skills all but useless.
He watches the acolyte slip into a room that is little more than a storage cupboard. She's young, nobody special, a non-entity too low on the food chain to be of notice. He has no grudge against her, no ill-will. Her touch is more gentle than the others' when she tends to his wounds, stitches him back in place for the next session of pain and uncomfortable truths. A shame then, that Civah of the Wells is also the most curious of the bunch.
'Mistress Trevane had said not to touch the Sharr scion's things, nor to linger near his prison,' she thinks.
She'd never met a being from lands of Winter, nor one of their court. It's all Civah can do not to gape at the poor wretch when she delivers gruel to him. No utensils to eat with as he'd been dubbed far too dangerous for the simple tools. It seems odd to her that everyone is be so wary of this broken, bleeding creature gulping directly from the bowl through the holes of that wretched mask. The resulting slop is washed away with buckets of water poured over him.
Under the blood and bruises, his skin is tattooed with fierce beasts and strange sigils, names marching in black lines down his arm like an army of ants. Are all beings of Winter marked in such a way? Some of the older druids have marks that curl like tree roots over their skin, but it isn't the same. Those were symbols of power, gained with mastery over esoteric magics. These look more decorative. Like art, painted on flesh instead of canvas.
The young acolyte circles the table piled with the scraps they'd taken from the Sharr. Nestled amongst his things is a small glitter of silver light. She pulls it free. A bird's skull made of silver and glass swings on the end of a broken chain. It's pretty, she thinks, in a morbid sort of way. Civah supposes Winter's ilk and their like are attracted to that sort of thing, being creatures of ice and death.
There's a long, wicked scratch down the beak. Unthinking, Civah reaches out and taps it with her fingernail. Within the pendant, comes the hollow clangour of deep bells.
Something has tapped back.