Disclaimer: Harry Potter belongs to J. K. Rowling, Scholastic and Bloomsbury. No copyright infringement is intended and no money has changed hands.
A/N: Thanks to everyone who has continued to review this story and ask me to keep going. You've been a driving force in keeping me doing just that. To Myrtle, your concerns are valid, of course, but the house is being built right next door to Hagrid's, and he will be immediately available if Harry needs him. That, and Snape lives at Hogwarts year round. Why will be explained, but not for some time.
Given certain facts in Books 5 and 6, which I won't spoil for anyone but you can guess if you've read it, I will be flying way off into AU territory after "The Tournament". (Book 3 is titled "The Escape".) So that should answer anyone who wants to ask if I plan to kill certain people off. The answer is no.
So, now that all my yammering on is done with, welcome to another year at Hogwarts.
As A Bat: The Heir of Slytherin
Harry Potter smiled slightly as he listened to his friend, Richard the garter snake, go on about the younglings which this year's mate had recently birthed. "All thirty-four of them were healthy, though I was worried about one of the little males for a time. He had a hard time finding any crickets which were small enough for him to eat."
"You and your lady friend have warned them about the magical plants and creatures in the greenhouse and the Forest, haven't you?"
The snake flicked his tongue nonchalantly. "Of course. It wouldn't do to have them running into something like that from ignorance." Contrary to Muggle opinion, most snakes did at least give their children a few pointers before letting them wander off into the world alone, and for the little Muggle garter snakes which were trying to make a home amongst the magical environs of Hogwarts, this was doubly necessary.
Sighing, Harry thought about his owl, Hedwig. She hadn't left the school grounds for weeks. Richard, astute as ever, noticed where his human friend's attention was focused. "They still aren't writing?"
"Richard, I don't know that they haven't sent me any letters. Hedwig comes back looking harassed every time. I can't believe that any of them would harm her. That's just not the sort of people they are. I just don't understand this."
All summer long, this had been going on. Harry would send Hedwig out with a letter for one of his friends from school, and every time she would only come back ruffled and angry, never carrying any responses. She had begun refusing to go, and Harry couldn't honestly blame her. Richard was the only one he'd gone to with his concerns just yet, though. The snake said, "Perhaps you should speak to the Professor. He might have some ideas."
Harry nodded. "You're right, of course. I hate to bother him with my problems, but I've got to figure this thing out. Someone is stealing my mail and mistreating Hedwig, and I want to know why."
Having decided, Harry took his sunglasses off the bedside table and put them on, then stood and grabbed the ebony cane he had transfigured last year from a bit of rope from beside it and walked out of the room. Professor Snape would be in the Potions lab at this hour, as during the summer months he indulged in his own experiments. It was not a good idea to disturb him, but it was also not a good idea to let the situation of his mail's theft go unchecked. Something needed to be done, and that something would require the help of an adult.
Students weren't allowed to use magic outside of Hogwarts. Harry was still in the school, but that stricture applied to him as well, with the notable exceptions of activating his bat pendant and using the translation charm. The pendant emitted the sonar of bats, and just like the winged mammals, Harry could use the echoes of the sound to navigate by. They created a picture of the surrounding world that only someone so in tune with their non-sight could interpret so well. It was like sight to him. And with the Translation Charm he was able to translate his texts into the only language he could read. Due to his blindness, Headmaster Dumbledore had appealed to the Ministry of Magic and gotten him those two exceptions. Apparently, Harry was not the only Hogwarts student to ever need a small concession due to disability, and he'd had to sign a couple of forms and the exceptions were granted.
But that wouldn't help him here. And he'd already been told that wandless magic would be detected by Ministry officials just as easily as wand magic.
Harry reached the lab that doubled as the Potions class room during the school year and went in. The door was not closed, so Snape wasn't putting something private together. Harry sat down at a desk close to the door and waited for the professor to acknowledge him. He was aware that it might be a while, but he had left a gardening book there for the purpose of reading in his spare time when he didn't want to be in his room. There were only so many places he was allowed to go inside the castle, and he liked to read in there when it was raining. Much as he enjoyed the rain, he wouldn't risk the paper of the books.
After about thirty minutes, Snape tapped on the desk to give Harry a bit of warning. "Can I help you with something, Mr. Potter?"
Harry closed the book that he had been running his fingers across. "Yes, I think you can. Someone's been harassing my owl and stealing my mail. I can't believe that it's any of the people I've been writing to, not only because of their personalities, but also because it happens every time, not just at one address."
Snape was silent for a moment. "What do you need from me?"
"Advice, for one. Who or what could be doing this?"
"I don't know, but I do know how to find out." His voice had taken on an oily tone.
Harry raised an eyebrow. A test, then. Snape seemed to be worried that Harry might be taken in by some disreputable character and taken advantage of, so he had played that role a couple of times to see how Harry might react and to keep him on his toes. Harry did that as a matter of course, but Snape was still feeling him out. Cautiously, Harry asked, "How?"
Quickly, Snape said, "It is possible to set a trap for this person, spelling the nest letter you have to bring them directly here, where we could question them personally."
Harry pondered. What might that mean? "Will it hurt either them or Hedwig?"
"No, it's perfectly safe."
"Is it legal?"
There was a grin in Snape's voice as he answered that said Harry had passed the test. "Not really. It could be considered kidnapping to send an active Portkey in the mail. But Aurors have been known to do it to catch a perpetrator." Aurors were the policemen of the wizarding world, enforcing the laws of the Ministry of Magic.
Harry thought about if for a moment. Did he want to do this that much? Was it that important? He had to answer himself, yes. "Would you be willing to help me, Professor?"
"You could just file a grievance with the Ministry, you know."
"And have them ignore the problem. I read the Daily Prophet, Professor. Ignoring problems is what they do best."
Snape chuckled. "Smart lad. All right, I'll help you, on one condition. You will write a six foot essay on the advantages of using the other four senses in Potions work, and should it be satisfactory, I will post it in Potions Weekly under your name."
Harry grimaced. Snape had been after him to do that all summer, but Harry was such a private person, he didn't like letting other people into his life. Still, if it would get him what he wanted, he could do it. "Done."
"And done. Write a short note to one of your friends and bring it and your owl down here tomorrow morning at ten o'clock. The trap should be ready by then."
Morning came quickly, and Harry wrote a quick note to Hermione Granger on his English type writer. He told her that it was a mail test, but he couldn't say anything else. If she was pulled here by the Portkey, then so be it, but he doubted that would happen.
Snape took the letter and held his wand over it, saying "Portus absque nocturnae". He then tapped the letter with his wand and gave it to Hedwig. The owl made a reluctant cheeping noise. Harry told her, "I know, Hedwig, but this will bring them into our claws, and they you will be able to fly without worrying about it." She danced around the table a little, her distress showing, but finally she took up the missive and flew out the window.
It wasn't long before the Portkey was activated. There was a sudden swirling, howling wind, and then a dull thud and a squeak. Wanting to know the face of the person he would be facing, Harry touched his bat pendent and whispered "Insonui." Hating the intensely high pitched sound, Professor Snape had put a mild silencing spell on the thing at the very beginning of summer which ensured that only Harry could hear it, which the young wizard was now grateful for. It gave him a distinct advantage in an uncertain situation. The person they had just kidnapped would more than likely be very unhappy at having been caught.
The sounds revealed to Harry a creature as tall as a large dog, but which walked like a human. He had large pointed ears and bulging eyes the size of tennis balls set in a round, wrinkled face with a long tapered nose. He still had the letter Harry had just sent in his hand, as well as a number of them in his other hand, tied together with a bit of twine. He was cowering in a corner, obviously very fearful of Professor Snape. In a high pitched voice, the creature said, "No! Professor Snape is not to know anything! Bad Dobby!" And then he suddenly started to bang his head against the floor in front of his feet.
Harry shouted "Stop that this instant!" This was a house elf, a creature bred for centuries by the pureblooded families to be slaves. He had read about them in passing while researching his own bloodline. They could not disobey a direct order from a member of their family, nor anyone they attached themselves to. Many families even bred them to punish themselves when an order was even accidentally disobeyed. He hoped that the little being would listen to him, as this self-castigation was getting them nowhere.
Thankfully he did just that. "Good. Now while you are in my presence, you are not to injure yourself for any reason. That is an order, and I expect it to be obeyed. Do you understand?" Dobby nodded, looking fearfully at both Harry and Snape. Harry thought carefully. "Professor Snape, would you mind leaving us alone momentarily? I think I'll get more answers out of him if he isn't disobeying any direct orders. Oh, my cloak is in the bedroom closet. I believe you were looking for it?"
Snape grinned. "Yes, I was. Thank you." He left the room, leaving the boy and the elf alone.
Harry said, "Now, Dobby, you will answer my questions to the best of your ability, is that understood?" The small creature nodded. "Good. What is the name of the family you belong to?"
"Dobby belongs to the Malfoy family, sir."
Draco. That was no real surprise. Still, somehow he doubted that it was the twelve-year-old wizard's fault that this had been happening. What would he want with Harry's mail? "Why have you been stealing my mail?"
"Harry Potter must leave Hogwarts! There is great danger coming, very great danger!"
"What has that got to do with my mail?"
Dobby hedged. "Please sir. Dobby was only trying to help Harry Potter."
He bared his teeth at the creature. "Answer me, elf."
Dobby gulped. "Dobby hoped that Harry Potter would think that his friends had abandoned him and not want to go back to school. Please! Harry Potter must leave the wizard world! It is too dangerous. There is a plot, a plot to make horrible things happen at Hogwarts this year!"
Grinding his teeth to keep himself from raising his voice, Harry ripped off his sunglasses, the boiled-egg eyes boring into the elf, who squeaked in fear. "Look me in the eyes and tell me that I can't face danger! Now, what is this plot? Who is making it?"
"Dobby can't say! He has been told not to say to anyone!"
Thoughtfully, he asked, "Does this have anything to do with Voldemort?"
Dobby squeaked and put his hands over his ears. "Speak not the name!"
He barked, "Answer!"
The elf was shaking as he said, "It has nothing to do with He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named." His voice had taken on peculiar emphasis, making it clear that he was trying to give Harry a hint.
Harry grimaced. He didn't have all the pieces, so there was no way he could solve this new riddle. But he filed the clue away for later reference. "Very well. Do not tell anyone that you have spoken to me, especially your family. Is that clear?"
Professor Snape whipped off his student's invisibility cloak, startling the elf with his sudden appearance. "Now, elf, you will not punish yourself for my having listened in to your conversation. You will leave and you will never tamper with the owl post again. And you will never come near this school again unless accompanied by someone in your family. Am I understood?"
Dobby nodded frantically and tearfully. "Dobby understands!"
"Good. Get out." And as soon as Snape had said it, the whiny little creature popped back to wherever he'd come from.
Harry sighed and sat down on a nearby chair, thinking hard as he massaged the bridge of his nose. He didn't want to disregard Dobby's warning, but he had no intention of leaving Hogwarts. All he would have to go to in the Muggle world was the Mung Street Orphanage, and the only reason he would ever return to that place would be to shut it down. What could have frightened the elf so badly that he was willing to disobey orders?
Professor Snape sat down on the sofa across from him. "Sickle for your thoughts?"
"I'm not leaving, but I'm not going to ignore this either. House elves are so loyal, I can't imagine what one would think was so horrible that he had no choice but to disobey his master."
Snape shook his head. "I don't know. You will simply have to be careful." He sat back, making the leather of the sofa creak. "Now, why don't you go ahead and write some letters of explanation to your friends? I'm sure, given that most of them are Gryffindors, that they've assumed you are pickled and labeled in my potions stores by now." The distaste for the members of that house was plain.
Harry grinned and put his glasses back on. "They're good people. A bit naive and very brash, but not a one of them snubbed me because of my house. I don't know if that started because of who I was, but I know it didn't continue that way or they wouldn't have accepted Blaise."
Snape just snorted. "Enough. Go on and write your letters. And let us hope that this faith you have in Gryffindor is well founded." His tone of voice left no doubt of his opinion on the matter, though Harry still had no idea where his distrust of Gryffindor came from. The man might not hate him any longer, but he trusted no one, including Harry.
My goodness, but it's good to hear from you. As you can see, my mum bought me a Brailler so that I could write to you during the summer, and I must have written ten letters just waiting for you to answer. When you didn't, I was so worried that something had happened to you, especially given your adventure this past school year. I'm glad that you were able to complete your assignments and that your garden is doing so well. I do hope that you didn't have to do anything illegal to get this information, but I don't think I'll ask. You're too good at lying when it suits you and I don't want you to have to.
I've been busy with school work, of course, and I've also gotten all our summer assignments done. My parents are taking me to London next week to get my school books. Why don't we meet on Diagon Alley? Then you can tell me all about it. If you can, anyway. Well, I'll see you there. All my love,
Harry chuckled and set that letter aside. Trust Hermione to worry about the law and rebuke him for his skills at warping the truth. He would never take offence at it, knowing that she relied on rules for structure, and he tried not to take advantage of it either. Besides, he was almost sure that she would be able to tell if he was lying. She was the most observant person he knew. He reached across the table and picked up the next letter. It was from Ron, and of course he'd had it translated into Braille by his mother.
Glad you're okay, mate. We've all been a bit worried around here since you'd never write to us. Don't know why a House elf would be acting like that, but I'll bet it's something Malfoy's doing. He's just trying to rattle you. You should give him a good thrashing when he comes back to school.
Fred and George got into trouble yesterday for taking off with Dad's flying car. They could have gotten Dad into trouble because he's in the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts Department, and that's the very sort of thing he's supposed to stop from happening, but he was still happy that the thing actually worked. Mum's been ranting at him the whole two days about it.
Mum and Dad wanted me to ask you if you wanted to join us here at the Burrow for the rest of the summer? Mum's been worried about you just like the rest of us, and now that you've been able to write, she wants to blubber over you and stuff you full of her cooking. She's a good cook, you won't go hungry. Not that you would at Hogwarts anyway.
Write back and let us know if you want to stay. It'll be loads of fun, I swear. 'Course, you'll have to deal with Fred and George teasing you about Ginny. She's about convinced herself that the sun rises and sets with you. See you soon!
A trip to Diagon Alley made a lot of sense, as he had to get his books and supplies for the next year anyway, and he wanted to check out Geoffrey's Greenhouse, a garden shop that Neville swore by.
And then there was Blaise Zabini's letter. It was a scrap of old parchment that had been meticulously washed, and once written upon, it has been rolled into a tiny scroll, tied with a bit of string, and mailed off. This set off alarm bells in Harry's head. It hadn't been translated, which meant that there had been no one over the age of seventeen to do so for him. Why hadn't Mr. Zabini—oh. He'd been a follower of Voldemort. The man probably wouldn't have been pleased to find his son associating with "The-Boy-Who-Lived". Worried, Harry pointed his wand at the unrolled parchment and said, "Reddo in Braille," and the page sprouted ordered embossments, bumps on the page which formed the Braille writing system.
The note said, Harry, don't write me here. Be more cautious! Meet me at Geoffrey's Greenhouse in Diagon Alley on August 12. We'll talk. Blaise.
Harry frowned. How bad had he made Blaise's home life by writing to him? Damn-it! He had to be more careful about that! There was no use getting his friends in trouble just for being his friends. And he would have to ask Professor Snape and the Headmaster if he could go to the Burrow and to Diagon Alley. He didn't perceive any problems, but he still had to have permission.
Thinking about his friends made Harry think about school. Last year had ended with an appearance of the supposedly-dead Lord Voldemort. The evil creature had nearly gained a Philosopher's Stone, which could have returned him to full life from the half-life he had been living. Harry was under no illusion that Voldemort would not try again to return to life, but when was a matter of pure speculation. Had he found himself a new follower? Would he try once again to come into Hogwarts? Would there be so compelling a reason for him to do so as the Stone had been? Or would he lay low for a while and gain strength so that he could come upon the wizarding world full force?
Harry sighed. There was no way to predict it. And there was no reason to allow the monster who killed his parents to rule his life through fear. Resolute, Harry shook off the memory. He took his cane and left his room, headed for the Headmaster's office. He had some manipulating to do.
Well, there we go. It has begun. Let me know what you think.