Whew. Thank you for all your reviews! Did you know that for the most part (except for yesterday and today) both chapters had exactly 20 reviews? The Greek in me loved it. (Then Jewel Queen reviewed, but don't worry! I loved your review. You seem like an interesting person from your profile, too.) It gave me the necessary kick to actually upload this today instead of putting it off until next Wednesday. However, I gotta say, this chapter is a bit... slower, than the previous ones, as it is a transition chapter that's building to the (very big) happenings in the next few chapters. I hope I got it down.
Anyways. Onwards and upwards.
As the world pitched sharply to the left, he could hear Malfoy shouting No!; but that didn't make any sense, Harry laughed. There was nothing to fear. The necklace's magic held him in it's grasp as the world shrank to an impossible, infinitely small point and disappeared as if it had never been. He was left floating in space, a speck on a rushing tide, inconsequential and incomprehensible, before the magic drew him into a place that he'd never been yet had been all his life.
Reorienting himself, he landed upon the floor with his feet solidly beneath him. Not, however, on the floor of the girl's loo in the Three Broomsticks, as he should have been. The ground beneath him was soft and buoyant, like one of those trampolines that Dudley's friends had always had. It felt like silk of the oddest sort and stretched when he took a step. The world he found himself in was of the most peculiar brand as well; it was a land of darkness and light. In front of him lay a land of desolation- or what seemed to be. All was darkness and shadows, perfect, unfettered darkness that seemed to scream for him, to beg for him-
-and to his right and left there was nothing but pure, unsullied white. It stretched on forever, to his sides and behind him, as if the world was made only of fresh, powdery snow that had never seen the touch of pollution or filth. He spun about in a circle, awed.
It's magic, he somehow knew, some instinct, some sense that only magical folk held whispering to him in the very corners of his mind. It's magic, and it's mine.
Glancing about, he realized why he had come to be in such a peculiar land. Remotely, he remembered touching a necklace, and that it had made the world above twist and spin. He could see the necklace's power now, a dark blotch in the sky that sent tendrils of black into his magic, turning the fields of snow into diseased slush and soup.
That can't be good, he frowned. A tendril flung itself into the ground before him like a lightning strike, but thick and clouded and poisonous- and he could feel it, somewhere, on a different plane, in that peculiar different world of color, could feel the whispers of unspeakable agony, could tell that the foreign magic was poisoning him, would kill him if he did not do anything.
He threw himself at the tendril, attempting to sever it with the force of his body. Nothing happened. Harry hit the ground a few paces away, bouncing lightly; the tendril continuing to pollute, as if he hadn't existed, as if he hadn't done a thing.
Unleash me, snarled a voice nearby. Picking himself up, he found himself face to face with the darkness. The tendrils, he noticed, did not affect the roiling shadows in front of him. They shied away from it, as if they could not endure such a meal. Set me free.
He glanced at the Light of his magic, slowly decaying, slowly killing him. You would be able to restrain it? To destroy it? To stop it from ruining my magic?
Of course, the darkness hissed. It has no power against me.
Harry turned away and stepped closer to the darkness. When he reached the boundary between the Light and the Dark, the air glittered in front of him as if it had turned to water, water that stood like a wall and rippled and murmured with an ephemeral strength he could not question, water that might have lain cool and crisp upon some forgotten rock in some forgotten forest had it not wound its way into this place of extremes.
It's a fence, he realized with wonder. A boundary, a block, that keeps the darkness at bay.
Hesitant, earnest, he reached a hand and pressed clammy fingers against sparkling, rippling air. The fence- boundary- whatever it was, rippled before him, as if he lay upon the earth and stared into a pond that held more moon and stars than night in it's depths. Harry watched, rapt with helpless fascination-
And voices suddenly came from everywhere and nowhere, echoing off of empty space that wasn't quite empty space.
-to keep him safe, and protected, until he reaches his final potential of magical growth-
-to protect him from himself and others until he is of an age that he can make his own decisions-
-to ensure his continued survival by hiding that which would hurt him deep in the lower levels of his core-
-to grow as he grows, to care as he cares, and to relinquish control upon the time that he awakens-
There was something definitely interesting in his veins; there was definitely something like shock, or, perhaps, terror, that made his heart race- but he couldn't be bothered with such inconsequentials as something different- something deeper, something that rocked this peculiar land of light and dark, spoke:
Have you awakened?
It was a voice, perhaps that of his magic, or of the undulating fence, or of both. Harry stared through the ripples, into the darkness beyond, uncertain.
'I am awakening,' he replied. The poisoned magic behind him marched ever closer, sweeping through with death on the wing. Touching it would kill him: he did not need to go to Madam Pomfrey to figure that one out. 'Not awakened. But I want all of my magic, nonetheless. I need it.'
The fence rippled, semi sentient blood magic finally reaching the point where it was no longer necessary. The glittering fence began to ripple and swerve erratically, forcing him back a step as it abruptly burst into drops of what must have been water, that flew in a thousand million directions and turned to dust, to nothing, when the earth rose to meet it.
And then the magic came, roiling darkness and shadows of an impossible color and depth, of a sort he had never experienced before; and, by Merlin it was screaming with delight as it flooded forward, past him, taking the white fields by storm, a morass of wild ecstasy and abandon that caught him up as it flooded the world, flooded him, freed from its sixteen year imprisonment and restraint.
Harry spun around and watched the snow-colored and poisoned magic suddenly consumed by the Dark, spinning about in great flurries of wind and turning to nothing but blackness, blackness everywhere, a glittering cloak that spun him up in the air until he could not help but rejoice in the freedom just as vibrantly as his magic, as it celebrated the advent of its independence.
He was entirely free, now; he was himself. And there was no greater thing.
He loved himself for it.
"Where am I?"
Something within his brain was thundering like a mad bull. Pain that followed each steady thump of his heart pounded through his brain, threads of red muddling the tapestry of his mind; thought was a foreign concept of which he could only fearfully question, skirting about it with the light-footed gait of a mouse.
"By Merlin- my head hurts- why am I on the ground? Of the bathroom?" A pause. "Who are you?"
It was more the annoyance than anything that forced his eyelids open. Immediately after, he groaned, the light of a merciless vibrancy and color that held no compassion for his eyes or the sake of his head.
"Were you unconscious on the ground, too?" A suspicious glance. "Did you try and do something to me?"
Harry looked up, wincing as his eyes gave a sharp jab in complaint. The blurry form of Katie Bell loomed over him, hands on her hips and a most outraged expression upon her face. "And for that matter, what was I doing there?" Her tone suggested that the fault lay with him.
With an effort, Harry sat up. His brain gave an obstinate roil in his skull and he clutched it, feeling torn between the desire to vomit and the urge to curl up and enter a long, peaceful slumber of the sort he'd never escape. What had happened? Why was he in the middle of the bathroom, on the floor? He closed his eyes and struggled to remember- something about a... necklace?
Something gave a weak-willed clink as he moved; Harry peered down at his hand, mystified, to find a necklace clutched within. It was a rather gaudy affair, all dark and black and pulsing obsidian, ringed with a tiara of opals that glimmered with an ill, silver light, as if they had been tarnished by the impartial brush of time. Where in the world had it come from?
"Are you listening to me?"
Something in the back of his mind tickled his skull. The necklace-
As if he had breached some sort of dam, his bout of amnesia fell before a veritable flood of memories: Imperio!- a box, held in Katie's hands, holding the necklace- Malfoy's expression, one of panic, of shock- and that world of dark and light, and the fence, and then the release of that darkness- of that starless night gone material and concrete.
His stomach rolled. Harry closed his eyes, sickened: with a sense he hadn't known he possessed -or, indeed, had not held previously- he could feel darkness pulsing against his skin in tandem with his heartbeat, rushing through him as if his veins no longer held sweet, crimson life but a noxious, poisonous, corrupting miasma.
"Fine." Harry jerked himself from his thoughts and threw himself to the side, as if from reflex, as Katie drew her wand. "I'm getting a teacher. They'll sort you out- whoever you are."
"Wait!" Merlin- where were his glasses? Harry dodged a Stupefy and raised his hands. I'm defenseless! Don't attack! "Don't you recognize me?" Had the world gone mad?
She pointed her wand. "Of course I don't. I haven't ever seen the likes of you before."
All he knew was that he couldn't go with her: he didn't need the attention. When she noticed his continued reluctance she opened her mouth, as if to curse him again-
And something reacted.
It was dark, and evil, and monstrous. It was vile and horrifying and powerful. And it was him, it was his magic, existing in a way that shouldn't have been, in a way that ate at his heart and his soul and everything he stood for. The spell fizzled before him, Katie's eyes widening- fear, horror, terror plainly painted upon her face- and then the magic, the monster, flooded forward -Merlin, it would not stop, he could not stop- and swamped her.
Katie dropped like a stone.
Harry stared at her laying prone upon the floor, face slack, eyes closed; she was pale, pale as death, and Harry could not contain his cry. He ran to her, struggled to feel for a pulse: for one painful, clear, terrifying moment there wasn't one: and then it was there, erratic, slow. She needs help- she needs help- it was a mantra running through his head. She needs help- But he was frozen, frozen in the face of his own deed-
The door opened: a small girl with mouse brown hair stepped within, to find him looming over Katie's pale stillness, to find him with a hand at her throat and his own wand in his other hand-
And she screamed bloody murder.
Harry stood up abruptly, panic clouding his senses. The screaming wasn't helping- it was too close, too insistent, for him to think clearly: he pushed her out of the way and fled out of the bathroom, pushing through the crowd that rushed to the girl's loo in response to the terror. They let him through, as if they had not seen from whence he came, too intent upon the girl and the screaming and Harry ducked into the nearest door and waited, with pounding heart, as the sounds of footsteps and voices pounded past.
It did not take long for him to realize that he had taken asylum in the nearby boy's bathroom.
And, to his luck, it was as abandoned as he could have wished.
Recalling Katie's inability to recognize him-and other things; he shuddered and avoided that thought-, he approached the mirror.
A man stood in his place, a man all at once foreign and horribly familiar. Harry could only stare at the blurry form of Tom Riddle, his aristocratic features muddled into something of stress and fear and anxiety. His emerald eyes, hidden as they were by glasses, were unflinching as they held his gaze, and Harry could only stare back, throat tight, for Tom Riddle did not have emerald eyes.
But Harry did.
There was no Voldemort in the mirror. There was only Harry, who had only a few moments before almost killed one of his friends.
How had it happened? Why had it happened? He didn't understand. Didn't want to understand.
With an effort, he curbed his rising hysteria and forced his focus inward, to his memories. The barrier that had separated that world of dark and light must have been some sort of ritual that his parents, his true parents, had used to keep his heritage a secret from others and from the Potter matriarch of the time. And when he had dismissed it- when it had burst into a thousand and one pieces- it was as if, with the flood of darkness, truth was forced to the surface as well, and the changes that had been wrecking his body had suddenly happened all at once; and his magic- Merlin, and the fence had also kept the true nature of his magic a secret.
How long can a person live and not know so much about themselves? he wondered, staring miserably in the mirror. Not know their magic, or their face, or their blood?
Harry fingered his lip, his nose, his hair; he snatched his glasses off his face and stared as the world righted itself. He could see without his glasses; it was a miracle: it was horrible. Merlin. Supposedly, he had lived with these features his entire life, hidden from view but relentlessly there, like a disease or a curse. It didn't make any sense. He didn't want it to make sense. He wanted to go back to Hogwarts and Anchor his glamours and never look at the... thing staring back at him in the mirror ever again. No wonder Katie hadn't recognized him.
I hate him. I hate Voldemort for doing this to me, he fumed. For corrupting my magic- and my life- in a way that shouldn't ever have been! Merlin. It was all his fault that Harry had to hide so many things from Ron and Hermione and Dumbledore, all his fault that his magic was Dark and evil and horrid in a way he hadn't thought possible. He'd thought that magic was magic- that the only darkness or lightness to be found was in the spells themselves. Yet the darkness, roaring in his skin and blood and bones, contradicted such a thought with ease.
Perhaps it was time he told Dumbledore everything- his heritage, his secrets, about his magic. A thrill of excited anticipation went through him at the thought. He wanted to. He desperately wished that he had someone to dump his troubles on- to rant to about how difficult it was to Anchor things and to read books written by old men, to have secrets from his friends, to live with the things that he hid from his friends; Merlin, someone to tell about the truth of his blood, of his heritage; to share his deepest fears, that he'd be abandoned, that the world would find out whose son he really was- Harry's blood ran cold- that Voldemort would find out whose son he really was.
This all wouldn't be a problem if I could keep my nose out of other folks' business, he sighed. If I just hadn't gone on and touched Malfoy's necklace, I wouldn't be in this mess. Katie wouldn't be in this mess.
The sound of the door opening threw him from his thoughts. Harry flung himself into a nearby stall and hastily locked the door, Malfoy's necklace clanking loudly against the wood of the wall before he could stop it.
His heart stopped cold as he recognized Ron's voice.
"Harry? Are you in there?"
He couldn't very well lie, could he? He'd been doing enough of that lately to last him a lifetime. "I'm here, Ron."
The voice that came from his mouth wasn't his.
There was a quiet moment before Ron spoke up again. "Uh, Harry? You alright? You sound funny."
Shit. Get him out, cast a couple glamours, whatever. Now. "Of course, Ron," he replied, in that strange voice that he almost recognized- Merlin, it made the hair on his very neck stand on end, hearing it. "I'll be out in a minute- just a slight stomach ache."
"Alright then, Harry. Just be careful- there's been an attack on a girl in the girl's loo and they think she was taken out by a dark wizard."
Harry felt his heart clench: a bubble threatened to destroy his connection with his voice, but he swallowed it down, managing to ask, "is she alright?"
"She seemed pretty pale when McGonagall lifted her out. Hermione thought she said something about St. Mungo's."
St. Mungo's. He'd sent Katie Bell to St. Mungo's.
Merlin. What sort of monster am I?
"Well, Harry, I'll let you be." His tone was effectively embarrassed: "See ya soon!"
Harry waited for him to go before pointing his wand at his face with determination. Worrying any more about his magic or Katie or the necklace wouldn't do: he had to get some glamours on, and he had to get them on swiftly. Walking around, looking like a certain Dark Lord incarnate, would not be the greatest idea he'd ever lain claim to.
Focusing on the face that he desperately wished was his own, Harry murmured the spell and waved the wand over himself, changing his nose, his ears, his mouth-
-and then, with a brief tingle, they failed to take root and dissipated into the air much like they'd never been. Harry paused, rather upset, before he began again, teeth clenched. The words murmured from him took root in the spell: and it moved, it glided, it changed him, he knew it did- and then, when he left it to begin again, it fell- as if the load were too heavy to support.
Feeling ill, he thought he knew why it would not work. Previously, when he'd been casting his glamours, he'd been hiding a couple of stray changes -the slant of his eyebrows, the angle of his eyes. Now, however, he had a much larger project looming ahead: he had to hide his entire body from sight.
"What am I going to do?" He asked himself, despair nestling comfortably upon his shoulders with all the weight of an anvil. "What am I going to do?"
Anchoring. The answer came to him in a soft hiss in the back of his mind, as if the very knowledge he'd researched was exasperated with his thick wits. That's what it's for. Anchoring was used to make glamours stronger, to make them permanent; if he wanted to add more, he needed to get an anchor for them.
And yet- he didn't know how. It had never worked before, no matter how hard he tried.
However, he was not a man with the greatest amount of choice, so he focused upon anything he could think of- his shirt, perhaps?- and cast.
His shirt went up in flames.
"My Lord," a trembling, groveling man whispered, eyes carefully lowered and knees pressed to the floor as he kissed his Master's robes. "You summoned me?"
Snape couldn't help but sneer at Pettigrew. While it was a requirement for all of the Death Eaters to respect the Dark Lord utterly and completely, Pettigrew somehow made the act look like worshiping a toad; slimy, disgusting, and utterly, completely demeaning. The stupid rat.
"Yes..." Voldemort's crimson eyes pierced his own, as if knowing the path his thoughts had tread. "Severus, please. Step forward."
The Potion Master glided forward easily, as if he were in his own laboratory instead of the Dark Lord's receiving chamber. Bowing low, he murmured, "I am here, my Lord." Smooth. Precise. Calm.
Everything that Pettigrew was not. He quelled a smirk. "Severus, tell me- how does Dumbledore fare?"
With another bow, he replied, "Dumbledore has been growing the weaker by the month, my Lord. He leaves Hogwarts for days at a time before returning, usually ill due to a Dark curse or Dark potion. I have had to save his life more than once now in the past few months. However, because of Dumbledore seeing his own mortality, he's been- training the Potter boy."
The Dark Lord's face twisted into a parody of a smile, lipless mouth curving upwards. "Poor, foolish Headmaster," he sighed. "Poor, foolish Albus who can't admit he's dead." The smile on his face deepened into something ghastly, until his lipless, noseless face was as a thing possessed. "And do you, my little spy, know what the Headmaster is teaching the boy?"
"Not yet, my Lord." No pathetic excuses: no begging.
And no Crucio. Perfect. "Interesting," replied the Dark Lord. "Continue as you have until the appropriate time, Severus. I shall be contacting you when the plan is to be set into motion." Snape bowed and remained standing, not dismissed. The Dark Lord turned to Pettigrew, who flinched and made to kiss Voldemort's robes. "Get up, you fool," hissed the Dark Lord: he was kicked away. "You will be following Snape to Hogwarts, to see what the Headmaster is teaching that brat Potter." Another smirk. "If, by any chance, you are... foolish enough to be caught, you'll be spending your time in a cell with Lucius- who, I'm sure, will be most interested to... introduce you to the fine establishment of Azkaban."
Pettigrew gave a pathetic squeak that the knocking on the door could not completely hide. With a wave of his hand, Voldemort opened the door lazily, allowing a flood of light to illuminate the room from the hall.
"My lord," a nondescript Death Eater touched his head to the floor, much more graceful then Pettigrew had been. "The spider is on the move."
The Dark Lord stared at the newcomer impassively. "When did you hear of this?"
"Just now, milord."
"Crucio!" Without warning, the curse sailed for the man, singing with a palpable lust for pain; he toppled to the floor, the tendons in his neck standing out as he screamed, the primeval cry ravishing the walls like a drowning man clutches at a ladder in his terror as he is sucked down, down, beneath the roiling black mass of the sea; Snape's hair stood on end as it continued, unbroken but receding as his screaming stole his breath and his anguish contorted his limbs.
And always, always, he couldn't help but notice the pleased smirk on the Dark Lord's face, the way his eyes narrowed in pleasure as the power of the Dark roiled over him in the aftermath of the curse; he couldn't help but notice how he hadn't been holding a wand at all-
And always, always, the awe overpowered the horror. That Lord Voldemort could cast such magic without a wand was purely beyond reason.
At last, he ended the spell. "You should reevaluate the aptitude of your connections," Voldemort hissed dispassionately as the man struggled to stand, to regain his dignity. The jerking of his limbs and shuddering of his breaths as his lungs refused to cooperate effectively thwarted his efforts. "Other informants told me similar tales not a week past."
"I- I- I'm sorry-"
"Give me results, not excuses, Zabini. I'll be having a talk with your father later this evening about your aptitude, or lack thereof. Dismissed."
Snape couldn't help the widening of his eyes. Watching the figure retreat from the room, his arms twitching discontentedly at his sides as his nerves struggled to reaffirm that they were, indeed, attached, he could see the resemblance. The dark hair, the tall stature, the confused stumble of a Pureblood heir whom has had their misconceptions of their own greatness demolished. That was Zabini?
But the spider they were talking about was so much more.
"Are you simply going to let him be?" Snape dared to ask, his curiosity winning over his innate sense of caution. Some information was worth the potential pain.
Voldemort startled him by laughing. High, cold, and utterly inhuman, it tore at his guts with razorblades. "Let him play. Let him laugh and giggle and plot and spin his web. Catch a few pests. And get entrapped in his own manipulations."
Snape could only wonder what the spider would think, being considered as such an unimportant figure by Voldemort, being left alone, retribution restrained for one more day, one more moment-
"You are free to go, Severus."
"There you are, Harry!"
Hermione gave him a welcoming smile as he sat down next to them, his cloak pulled tightly about him. Ron frowned. "Cold, Harry?" He asked, looking around the crowded, sweaty Three Broomsticks pointedly.
Harry fought not to blush. "Something like that," he managed to reply with something related to composure. The true matter of it was that he thought walking around without his shirt would be a sure-fire way to attract desperately unwanted attention to himself- never mind the necklace that pulsed so dark upon his chest.
He felt as if everyone was staring. He felt as if everyone could feel the darkness the necklace was giving off, the disgusting, filthy darkness that was nothing compared to the darkness in his veins-
"Er, Harry, you're rather pale," murmured Hermione with concern, feeling his forehead. "Are you sure you're alright?"
Jerking back as if scorched, he struggled to control himself. Hermione looked briefly hurt; his conscience gave him a merciless jab. "Yeah- just a stomach ache. Not exactly feeling well. Might head back to Hogwarts." He stood and forced a smile. He couldn't deal with it- everyone was watching, everyone knew his secret, everyone knew his face's lie- "You two stay here and have fun- the day's only yet begun, after all. I'll meet you back at Hogwarts."
His two friends shared worried glances. "We can at least walk you there, mate-"
Harry shook his head adamantly. I need to be alone. "That'll take too long: by the time you get back here you won't have enough time to do anything interesting. I can take care of myself- don't worry." He smiled. "See you later!"
Free of the weighty stares and quiet tension that coiled in his shoulders at the crowd, Harry released a gusty sigh that put the wind to shame. As if to spite him for his pleasure, the chain surrounding his neck bit into his flesh as if it had a mind to grow teeth. Harry didn't doubt that it could- the necklace not only held enough power, it almost felt sentient enough to do so.
Which Harry rather hoped wasn't true, as it was currently wrapped around not only his windpipe, but his right and left common carotid arteries. But I don't have a choice, he agonized. I need it.
When he'd taken the necklace from Malfoy, he hadn't necessarily imagined that he'd end up wearing the bloody thing. But he had. Because it was the one thing standing between him and exposure.
Similar to all great discoveries, it had been purely an accident. He'd cast the glamours again, out of frustration, to suddenly find them seize and set themselves down. It had taken a moment to realize that Malfoy's necklace was more a monster than he'd thought; it would suck up as much magic as it could if he let it. But- perhaps his will, perhaps something else- had kept the spells from being swallowed by that jewelry's mighty maw: and, without much ado, he'd thrown the thing over his head.
And, as he'd half-suspected, nothing untoward occurred: he remained healthy, whole, and more Potter than one could fit into a person safely.
With a sluggish sort of pace that left nothing but the slowest of worms in first place, Harry made his way to Hogwarts castle, the air biting through his cloak and into his naked chest. It was cold, and it was beginning to rain, and Harry felt miserably frustrated. What was Malfoy doing with such a dangerous thing anyway? he asked himself with something more than irritation. None of this makes sense!
"Hey Harry," began Hermione as she lightly buttered her toast, "are you feeling better now?"
Harry nodded and managed a smile. The concern was really rather mollifying to the small strain of nerves in the back of his head that tingled whenever he felt that he wasn't treating his two best friends as he should, yet it wasn't enough to save him from a small slice of irritation. He didn't want to think of yesterday. At all. "Of course, Hermione," he replied.
Ron frowned. "Are you sure? You were really pale." He commented as he dug into his pancakes. Harry watched with morbid fascination as they disappeared beneath his fork and knife. "Right after Katie Bell was found knocked out in the girl's loo, too."
He latched onto the offered tidbit of information hungrily. "Did they ever figure out why she was there?" He asked, rather wondering -with not a little guilt- what in the world he'd done to her.
Hermione was the one who answered. "Not yet," she replied. "But the girl who discovered her said that she could identify the culprit if she saw him again." She frowned thoughtfully, fork poised over a rather syrup-soaked orange. "She did say, though, that whoever he was, he wasn't a Hogwarts student- he looked much older."
Harry blinked, interested in a way different than he had been. He looked older than he really was, when he was without his glamours? "Did she say anything else?"
When she shook her head, Harry slumped, disappointed. Ron picked up the conversation by turning it back to Katie. "Did they at least say how Katie was?" He asked.
It was Ginny, sitting nearby, that answered. "Oh, she's still alive," she announced through her orange juice. "But she hasn't woken up yet. The early tests suggest a curse of some kind."
No one noticed Harry pale: too busy with interrogating Ginny, who'd talked with a girl who'd visited Katie earlier in the morning, they had their heads turned away. A curse? I didn't put a curse on her! I just- But by Merlin, he didn't know what he'd done to her. His magic had just- attacked.
Hedwig took advantage of the following lull in conversation and alighted upon his plate, prim and proper, snowy white and pure in a way that made Harry's heart ache. His magic had been like that too, once. "Hey there, girl," he murmured, taking the scroll from her talons and feeding her a piece of bacon from off of Ron's plate, ignoring his affronted cry. "Thank you."
Pecking him lightly on the nose, she flew off and returned to the Owlery, leaving him with his mail, as disparate as it was. He had two letters, instead of the customary update on the newest attacks and gossip of Wizarding Britain.
Harry ripped open the Daily Prophet first, leaving the worst for last. Hermione leaned over with interest.
'Boy-Who-Lived Member of Wizengamot!
by Rita Skeeter
Ministry politics are often a hot topic for debate across the nation, especially in this present time and place, with You-Know-Who darkening the horizon. The question of who's on which side and what's what leaves everyone guessing. Our resident hero, Harry James Potter, the Chosen One, has decided to enter the folk and clean up the Ministry by becoming one of the elite wizards that run the ministry, the Wizengamot.
This is a great undertaking, indeed, that has been received in all sorts of ways. I interviewed one Rufus Scrimgeour about the recent development, whom deigned to respond to my inquiries. He stated that it was "good to see that young Mr. Potter has finally seen the potential his reputation gives him." but fervently hoped that it did not go to the boy's head, a matter that many politicians across the nation are concerned with. While Madame Griselda Marchbanks refused to answer any questions, Dirk Cresswell, head of the Goblin Liaison Office, stated that he thought that "the boy would soon find himself trapped in a very humiliating situation if he continued as he has been."
Apparently, the Chosen One's first meeting with the Wizengamot did not go altogether smoothly. Not only did eyewitnesses say that he arrived late, but he came covered head to toe in ashes and soot, with only his glasses clean. Indeed, those interviewed said that he didn't speak a word through the entire meeting, and looked like a fish out of water...'
"What does it say, mate?" Ron asked over yet another pile of pancakes. Harry passed it to him silently, unable to keep his face from burning. Merlin, he'd been an idiot.
Ron didn't laugh at him, nor did Hermione. "I might have to pay a little visit to Rita Skeeter," said Hermione pleasantly as she put some jam on another piece of toast. "Just to check up on her health."
Harry smiled gratefully. "That's okay, Hermione," he replied. "Let me take care of it."
"Well, just remember, we're here for you," announced Ron as he cleaned his plate. "Don't worry about a thing."
Without answering, -what could he say to that?- Harry opened up the rest of the mail, tearing through the envelope with ease.
'Dear Lord Black,
Salutations. Your presence has been requested at a Ministry function on the next Saturday, found on the Twelfth of October. It will be hosted at the Scrimgeour manor. The Floo will be open for all accepted visitors.
Wizengamot Event Organizer'
Harry sighed. Merlin.
Hermione snatched the letter from him and swept through it in a second. "A Ministry function?"
Ron frowned and read it himself. "Not again!"
"My thoughts exactly," Harry chuckled. "At Scrimgeour manor, though? I didn't know that he was so rich." People were beginning to file out of the Great Hall; it was almost eight, after all, after which they would be expected in their classes.
He looked up from observing the people shuffling by when he realized that neither Ron nor Hermione had replied to his statement. "What?"
They were staring at him as if he'd grown up under a rock. "What?" He asked again, beginning to feel disconcerted. "Do you know something I don't?"
"Harry..." Hermione shook her head. "The Scrimgeours are a Pureblood family," she said, as if it explained everything. To Ron, Harry noted, it seemed to.
"I don't know how that's relevant," he admitted. "So what if they're Pureblood?"
Ron was the one who answered this time. "When you're Pureblooded, Harry, it doesn't matter if you're rich or not- manors are always passed down through the family." He frowned. "Well, except for families that have to sell them due to money problems. I'm sure you have at least two of them, with inheriting the Black and Potter houses."
Harry nodded. "Yeah," he replied. "I have yet to visit them, though." Mundungus flashed through his head. Oh yes. It was high time he visited the estates he owned. High time indeed. What sort of Lord would he be, if he allowed some filthy thief to steal from him? To disrespect Sirius' name?
Hermione scowled. "You really should visit them. What if Mundungus steals from you again?" She asked, unconsciously repeating his line of thought. "You could be accused of using your title of Lord improperly- and then, in the worst case scenario, have all of it taken away!"
"They can do that?" Harry asked, surprised. "If I don't uphold the family honor and all that?"
Ron nodded. "Definitely, mate. My great-great Aunt Esmeralda had that happen to her. Was the Lady for the Prewitt family and she got into some drug or something- and she got displaced. Completely eradicated from the family." He nodded sagely. "It's why the Prewitt family's kinda died out. All of her children were obliterated from the family line and..." A shrug. "It only survives through my mother now."
Harry frowned, unable to stop a sense of melancholy to swamp him at Ron's story. Would that be his fate, as well? To lose everything, when he almost had it in his hands?
The day did not improve as it wore on. This was, of course, due to the fact that the first class of the day was headed by none other than Severus Snape, the bane of all things Gryffindor. A rather sallow looking man in what was probably his middle ages, he carried himself with the air of someone who was no stranger to the whims of the shadows and darkness, bearing down upon miscreants with his great beak of a nose and his greasy, moldy-candle sort of smell that followed him about like an obsessed stalker. The man's physical appearance rather befitted his temperament. A bitter, sour, and all around gloomy disposition could not completely hide, however, the sharpness that lay beneath, like a valley of knives covered by a swift and ever-flowing river.
But none of that was interesting Harry at the current moment; no, his attention was drawn to something else- the way that Malfoy's face was slowly morphing itself into a duck's bill. He and Ron snorted with laughter.
Harry blinked as Snape approached them, a dangerous smirk settling into his cheeks. Ever since he had stolen from him -and gotten away- he had been somewhat wary. Not fearful, but... He turned to Ron and hissed, "Snape's coming."
It was too late, however; Snape was there, and had caught them lazing about in the hopes that the class would end the tiniest bit early. "An F today, I think, for the both of you," he hissed. Snape, Harry noticed, only looked the least bit happy when he was giving students bad grades. His eyes seemed to gleam in satisfaction and his smirk was always more wry than bitter when he was ruining his students' days. "And... oh... twenty points from Gryffindor." And when he snapped up all the points he could from Gryffindor, he positively glowed as only a Slytherin could.
He and Ron glared mutinously under his gaze, but said nothing; their complaints against his unjust behavior would begin only after they were far away from him, where he could not hear. "Potter," he suddenly snapped. "Let's see how you've improved at nonverbal magic, shall we?" He drew his wand from the depths of his robe and held it lazily aloft. "Ready? Begin."
Ron had barely enough time to stumble out of the way before Snape sent a flurry of spells Harry's way. His magic- that darkness that coiled within him, that was more curse than blessing- told him that they were on the very line between Dark and Light, told him that if he did not move or defend himself he'd be cursed six ways to Sunday. Harry flung himself to the right, following this suddenly acquired sense unquestioningly, grappling for his own wand.
They'd begun to attract the attention of duelists nearby; they hurried out of the way and begun whispering amongst themselves, a soft rumble that washed against his ears like waves upon a shore. Snape snarled something else and, before he could think, Harry bellowed "Protego!"
The moment he released the spell he knew something was wrong. It was as if he had run water through a clogged pipe; only the most pathetic drops of disgusting, filthy mud plopped out the end. The shield before him was barely much of anything, a spider's gossamer web that carried no inner steel and that broke beneath the brunt of Snape's spell like a snapped twig. Harry found himself thrown back onto the floor, his body tingling as if he'd gotten zapped by a sharp, painful electric shock.
He sat up, dazed. What had happened? Why hadn't his shield held?
Snape gave a sharp, nasty sound that might've passed for a chuckle. "I do believe we were practicing nonverbal spells, Mr. Potter. Not that," he gave a smirk, a smirk brimming with the sour humor so characteristic of Slytherins, "your shield would have even appeared with the strength you just displayed. That was the most pathetic thing I have ever seen in my career as a professor- and otherwise."
A titter in the crowd watching; Harry felt his face burn, shame creeping up his neck and wrapping over his cheeks like cloth. He forced himself to stand and keep his expression something akin to neutrality whilst he roiled in confusion and worry within. Why hadn't his spell worked?
"I do believe that that is another ten points from Gryffindor for that pathetic display. Do come back to my class next time with some semblance of evidence that you have learned something during your years at Hogwarts- or do everyone a favor and don't bother coming back at all." Spinning away, he snapped at the audience, "get back to your practicing!" He left Harry there as if he were nothing but dirt beneath his boots.
Ron ran up to him as the crowd dispersed. "Damn Snape. What did he do to you?" He drew his wand, as if readying to null any jinxes or hexes he'd been victim to.
Harry shook his head rather numbly. "The spell that got me wasn't really much of anything." It had been weak, more tame than anything that he'd ever expect that Snape would throw at him. "An electric shock." Purposely turning his back on the class, he forced himself to smile. " Oh well. We're out of here soon, right?"
Ron frowned at him, sensing his evasion. "Well, yes. Why didn't your shield work right? You've always had the strongest shield amongst the DA."
He shrugged in response. "I don't know. Maybe I just wasn't paying attention right or something." His conscience jabbed him for lying. He did have an idea why it hadn't worked.
Yet it was an idea so odd, so peculiar, so outlandish that even he could not take a bite of the fruit it offered; was repulsed by the very idea. No; this was an idea better left for himself to deal with.
Nothing further was said on the matter. Harry told Hermione only as much as he had told Ron, and she, in her turn, was much more reluctant to let the matter go as he wished. "Perhaps you should go to Madam Pomfrey about it," she offered as Ron and he walked her to Ancient Runes. "Or even Dumbledore. Can't be too careful in this day and age."
"Yes, Hermione," he replied absently. "I'll do that." Inwardly, he sighed. Merlin; was that all he could do, now? Lie and lie and lie? Soon he'd begin manipulating people, too. Like a Slytherin.
The sight of a certain blond head immediately to their front derailed his train of thought, instead making him all the more aware of the necklace lying cold against his chest and the Harry it hid from the world. The possibility of answers -finally, for once- glittered tantalizingly close. "Yes..." he said, drawing both Ron and Hermione's attention. "I think I'll go to Madam Pomfrey. Just in case."
"Want me to go with you, mate?"
A grateful smile. "Nope, no need, Ron. I'm sure she'll just tell me I'm having an off day. Goodbye you two!" With a wave, he forced himself between two closely huddled girls and hid himself out of sight in an alcove. Sometimes it amazed him how swiftly he could disappear in a crowd, being the Chosen One as he was. Perhaps it was a lasting reminder of his time spent with the Dursleys; whenever they hadn't needed him, he'd disappeared into the yard or his cupboard, to quietly enjoy the relative peace of his invisibility. As well, for the first few years he'd spent at Muggle elementary school, he'd had to learn how to disappear in order to avoid Dudley and his gang.
Unsure if he should be grateful or not about his skill, he put it out of his mind and flung the Cloak from his bag. He'd taken to wearing it about the school with him at Hermione's insistence, and it had paid off well; not in the way, perhaps, that she'd originally planned, but Harry couldn't be bothered with that as he struggled to catch sight of Malfoy, who'd disappeared in the flowing throng.
Wary of pushing, as it wouldn't do if he were to pop out of nowhere accidentally, he kept to the walls and sidled through, feeling his heart beat a tattoo into his chest. Merlin. Awkward questions would be asked if he were found out. Especially by Ron and Hermione. He could not endure it if he were to be exposed; yet he had to march on, as the necklace that thumped near his heart held too many secrets that he held no answers for. What if it was slowly killing him?
He'd taken the danger into consideration when he'd first decided to use the necklace, as he'd needed a magical piece of jewelry for his anchoring; yet, despite the fact that he'd decided to trust his magic's instincts, he couldn't simply let the matter go. The question of what Malfoy was doing with the necklace and Katie Bell was a troubling one, an insistent burning sensation that spread across his skin whenever he thought about it. No; he had to find Malfoy.
Upon reaching the furthest end of the hallway and sidling past Ron and Hermione, who were giggling together in a most peculiar way, Harry spotted him once more and followed behind him closely. The crowd thinned out; Malfoy passed through and slipped up a nearby set of stairs. Harry followed, silent, invisible, earnest.
The new floor was an abandoned one; so high up in the school, the only people to pass through were those going to their Astronomy class, which wouldn't be for more than a couple hours.
Which made it a perfect place to ambush him.
Spotting a conveniently abandoned classroom nearby, Harry grabbed a hold of Malfoy and dragged him in.
The classroom was a dark and lonely affair. Light drifted in from a dust choked window, a sickly looking beam that painted the walls a foul orangish hue. Desks were strewn about, all of them broken or vandalized to the point of no return; it looked, for all intents and purposes, like a Muggle garbage dump. He found himself in a dirt clogged world that gave no hint of friendliness or comfort.
"Who's there?" Came the cry, a sharp bark he'd heard many times before. Malfoy only got more annoying as the years went by. "Stupefy!"
Harry threw himself to the side, the Cloak slipping off him in his haste. "Merlin, Malfoy," he snarled, unable to help himself, "calm down, will you?"
His rival's expression was one of shocked outrage; the grip on his wand begged for snapping. "What is the meaning of this, Potter?" The tone suggested that Mudblood replace his name. "Dragging me in here, through such unnecessarily vulgar means-and into such a disgusting, filthy place- what do you want?"
"I want to talk," Harry replied, forcing himself to sound pleasant. He needed answers, not the typical bickering between Slytherin and Gryffindor rivals. "I want answers."
Malfoy's eyes narrowed; there was a gleam in them that Harry could not define, but distrusted immensely. "What a place to... talk to me in. One might think you had something else planned."
Harry blinked at him. "Malfoy, I don't know what you're talking about," he said honestly. "I have questions, and you have answers. That's it. I'm not going to attack you."
A sneer. "What keeps me from attacking you? From cursing you into tomorrow and leaving you here?"
He sighed and rolled his eyes. Slytherins were so difficult to deal with. "Because you want to know some things too, don't you?" Harry said pleasantly, shrewdly; "Surely we can strike a deal of some sort." Within, his blood sped through his veins like quicksilver. If Malfoy attacked him, he might not be able to defend himself- surely could not rely on his old friend, Protego, who had betrayed him to Snape only a little while past.
Perhaps this hadn't been the greatest of ideas.
"Alright." If glares could kill, he'd have been laying on the floor dead long since. He took comfort in it and steadied himself. "You'd better tell the truth, Potter," he threatened. "I want to know how you survived the curse on that necklace," he motioned to the bump beneath his shirt, "and didn't tell anyone that I tried to kill you. Didn't tell anyone that I cast a...rather interesting curse upon one of your Gryffindors."
"Those are all easily answered," Harry lied. "But I want to know certain answers in turn."
His eyes narrowed; Harry couldn't guess why. Did he seriously think he would simply give him answers, free of charge? "Like what?"
Remembering the list he'd made up in his mind only a couple days ago, he recited, "I want to know who this necklace was meant for, what this necklace is, and why you had it." Three for three; it was fair enough.
"Simple enough. You first."
Harry frowned. "Oh, I don't think so, Malfoy. We'll go one at a time." He hoisted himself up upon a desk, running his fingers through the grain of the wood. At some point or another, someone had taken a knife to the thing, carving great, snake-like curves in it that he traced idly with a finger, waiting for Malfoy to talk.
"The necklace came from my family vault," the Slytherin replied. "I took it out."
A smirk. "Not your turn to ask questions, Potter. Now. Why didn't you tell anyone that I cast an Unforgivable on Katie Bell?"
"Because I wanted to know your reasoning before I turned you in," he replied. It was a lie- but it was something that Malfoy would probably expect from him. "I wanted to make sure you didn't need any help or anything."
He sneered. "Contrary to popular belief, Potter, not everyone wants saving- especially saving from the likes of you."
Harry ignored the jibe with the ease of practice. "My turn. Who was the necklace for?"
Malfoy stared at him. His expression told him nothing; he was a blank slate. "Who said it was meant for anyone?"
He narrowed his eyes. "You Imperio'd one of my Quidditch players, Malfoy. And ordered her to do something with the necklace. Maybe to have her touch it herself? Perhaps to give to someone else?"
"Think what you will. It wasn't meant for anyone." This was a side of the Slytherin he'd never seen before; his chin was set stubbornly and he looked like nothing would pry his secrets from him. "My turn. Why didn't you tell anyone that I tried to kill you?"
Harry frowned, successfully diverted. "But you didn't. That was an accident. The necklace wasn't meant for me."
Malfoy stared at him as if he were stupid. Or, perhaps, like he were a bug of the sort he'd never seen before; either way, it was a look he was well acquainted with. "Whatever, Potter," he snapped. "Let's hurry this up. I don't want to talk to you any more than necessary."
"Me neither," agreed Harry fervently. "Now. Tell me of this necklace."
Midnight found Harry sitting before the Mirror of Erised.
While this was nothing new -ever since he'd discovered it, he'd found himself drawn to it a couple nights a week- the image he watched so carefully, that he drank in so desperately, had changed in a manner he could not understand. James and Lily were not the sole stars that glittered in the mirror's depths; no, Ron and Hermione both stood beside them, quietly accepting, never judging, ever loyal.
He could not understand why his innermost desire had changed. His relationship with his best friends had not changed at all in the past month. They were as close as they'd ever been.
Harry sighed and shook his head. There were many, many things he simply did not understand. His magic, his mind, the politicians, the mirror. None of it made sense to him. It was as if he were drowning without water; each time he struggled for breath a new enigma was clogging his lungs. Merlin. Could one die from simply not knowing anything? If they could, he'd be struck down from where he stood.
And yet, in some cases, he felt as if he knew too much. His heritage, his duties, his responsibilities; they weighed upon him like so many bricks, each heavier than the last. He had to hide his heritage; he had to keep it a secret from everyone; he had to assume the responsibility of a Wizengamot member; he had to fight for the respect of those that disliked him without question.
He had to take care of everything he owned.
Another sigh. He had to do this. He had to do that. When will this end? When will I be able to do what I want, instead of what I should?
"Back again, Harry?"
Torn violently from his thoughts, he leapt into the air and spun about. "Headmaster. What are you doing here?"
Dumbledore approached the Mirror until he stood before it alongside him. "The same thing you are. Gazing."
Harry followed his eyes to the Mirror, where Ron, Hermione, and the Potters smiled back at him. "Did you have it returned here?" He asked. A thought came to him, and he added, "by Hagrid?"
"I did," he admitted, stepping closer. Despite the fact that he and Harry were almost next to one another, he could not see Dumbledore in the mirror's glass. "Very acute of you, Harry."
The other man took a moment to reply. "There comes a time in our lives, Harry," he finally said, "when we lose direction. When what we're doing seems useless, or ineffective, or disregarded. And at that time, it helps to have a reminder of why you are doing it, why you are striving so hard when no one else understands."
A silence descended upon them, one that was painfully uncomfortable in it's character. Merlin. Was he trying to tell him he knew of his attempts to get stronger? Or was he... "Perhaps, if you told the people about you, your actions wouldn't go unacknowledged," he said, knowing full well he was being an utter hypocrite, that it was not so simple. "Does it have anything to do with your hand?"
Dumbledore gave him a glance that was too piercing to be casual. "Would you like to go with me to the Ministry gathering, Harry?"
Harry blinked at the change of topic. "Er..."
"I've decided that it might be better for you if someone were to introduce you to the world of politics, instead of simply unleashing you upon it."
"I... thank you, sir," Harry said, slowly, uncertain. Dumbledore had sprung it upon him rather suddenly.
"Fantastic, Harry!" Dumbledore beamed at him. "As my portkey transports automatically at six o'clock in the evening, I would ask you to be there at... let's say, ten minutes before?"
"Sure. Yeah. They gave you a portkey?" He asked.
"You did not get one, I take it?"
Harry turned away from the Mirror. "No, I didn't. The letter said I was to Floo there instead."
A soft chuckle. "I think someone was making fun of you," said Dumbledore. "Most often, we are given portkeys to take us to the place we're supposed to go."
His cheeks burned. "Oh."
Before silence could descend upon them, Harry found himself beginning, "Headmaster..."
Malfoy is planning something. No, he couldn't say that. He'd be asked how he knew, and that'd connect with other questions he really didn't need. Voldemort is stirring. That didn't quite fit, wouldn't give Dumbledore the right message. I am why Katie's in the Hospital Wing! Immediately rejected. My magic is not Light anymore! It's Dark! And I think it's impacting my ability to cast spells! No; he seemed like he was complaining and whining. My father is Lord Voldemort! No.
But by Merlin he wanted to tell him. Wanted to tell him everything. Wanted someone to rely on. Wanted someone to complain to that it wasn't goddamn fair that Tom Riddle was his father and that he had to take care of schoolwork and that he had to read some thousand page book because he was a member of the Wizengamot and had to deal with Malfoy and the knowledge that he'd survived something he shouldn't have! Again!
The necklace lay heavy against his chest, pulling at him, touching both his magic and his flesh. He wanted to throw it away, to destroy it, to escape its history and its past. That such a thing was even in the same room as him-
The Devil's Hand was a legend that was found only in the most gruesome of tales. Said to have originally been property of Merlin himself, it had passed into the hands of a certain wizard of unworthy report whom kept it with him at all times, a badge of honor, a banner that demanded more respect than a whole cohort of military men could ever incite. The necklace -for a necklace it was, all opal and obsidian of exquisite craftsmanship- gained a reputation as it passed hands, often through murder and other insidious means- death, decay, and evil became the necklace's home. And slowly, as the legend went, the innate magic of it had been corrupted. What was once the most Light of artifacts became one of the most feared and reviled as it's power of corruption became clear. When held in the hands of one of the Light the necklace became as if alive; and nothing, then, could save them, as the jewelry proceeded to corrupt all the magic in the individual and absorb it, to rip the magic from their core as if they'd been scalped and leave them Muggle.
And he'd survived. By sacrificing the very thing that made him Light.
"Is there anything you wish to tell me, Harry?"
The tone- thoughtful, kind, considerate; he could not help but take a shuddering breath. "I..."
An image flashed before his eyes. Dumbledore, laying prone on the Hospital Wing bed, dying.
"I need my vault key, actually." A resounding hollowness filled him. "As Lord Black-Potter, I must begin taking over the responsibilities that come with such a title."
He could feel Dumbledore's eyes upon him and he refused to look up from the accepting eyes of his mother to meet them. "Of course, Harry. I was instructed by your parents to keep the key until you were of age, but, as you are, by all accounts, a legal adult, I see no reason why not. I'll have it sent to you tomorrow."
"And I would also like to visit the properties I own. I'll have to leave the school, so I need your permission to go."
Dumbledore was silent for a moment. "Of course, Harry," he answered. "However, as you are a major target for Voldemort, I would suggest that you go with a guard of some sort."
"That isn't necessary, Headmaster, sir," Harry replied dully. "I can disguise myself pretty well. With glamours." He paused. "Also, I was wondering... how is Katie? Katie Bell?"
"Katie is recovering slowly. A Dark wizard most likely attacked her with a powerful blast of Dark magic, for reasons the healers of St. Mungo's haven't uncovered as of yet." A small pause in the conversation; Harry stood, ramrod straight, distinctly uncomfortable, waiting. "Very well then, Harry, if that is all...?"
"Very well, Harry. Do not be afraid to come to me if you have a need for anything. My ears are always interested in new bits of information. Almost as much as my nose."
He left, shutting the door gently behind him.
Harry couldn't help but think that the door was shutting on his last opportunity to tell the truth.
Draco watched as his Godfather poured himself a glass of Firewhiskey with a sense of doom.
It was a careful, precise movement. Severus picked up the bottle smoothly, slowly: the Firewhiskey was poured in a controlled trickle that neither splashed nor spilt onto the deep mahogany coffee table set before them. His face was calm, almost reflective, as if seeing the drink in a different way than the physical.
Draco hated it.
It was something his father had often done before he'd been sent to Azkaban. After he'd done something truly stupid -destroyed his mother's rose garden, or went flying on his broom when no one was around- his father would summon him to his study. The first time he'd been sent up, he'd thought he was being rewarded: his father's study, after all, was where he did everything 'important.' It was where certain private death eater meetings were held; it was where his father took his allies for long, serious talks. Soon, however, he only came to recognize it as where he sent Draco when he was in very deep trouble.
And when he got into the study, his father would be there, standing before the fireplace. He'd invite him to sit, and he always did, because the seats were comfortable in the face of his father's wrath, and his father would poor a glass, just a glass, of Firewhiskey, just like Severus was doing, and he'd ask-"
"Subsequently, Draco, I was wondering what you were doing today."
It was always a statement, but he always answered anyway. "I did some homework, talked with some friends..."
"And at Hogsmeade."
Dread curdled in his stomach. "I went and walked through the village." A Malfoy did not shop at those mediocre stores: they walked through them. "And then I returned a bit early."
"A bit early, you say?" The tone was wry; thoughtful. Draco could feel his heart beating faster. "I wonder. Why did you leave a 'bit early'?"
"I was bored," he lied. It was useless, he knew- it often was, when his Godfather himself invited him into his private chambers. He already knew everything. "And it was cold."
His eyes bored into his own; Draco glanced away, mindful of Legilimency and his own trifling attempts at Occlumency. "Do you know what happened to one Katie Bell, Draco?" He switched tactics. "Do you know why she was found on the floor?" When he shook his head, he answered for him. "She was assaulted by a force so Dark that it took one look at her own innate, Light magic and completely shut her down."
Draco blinked. "That sort of thing is possible?" He asked despite himself.
"Possible, yet very, very rare. It takes a wizard of the Darkest caliber to achieve such an effect- and such a darkness is not attainable unless one is of a Dark, Pureblooded family."
He paused- and began to hope, very discreetly. He doesn't know! He thought victoriously. He doesn't know I lost the Devil's Hand! I still have time! "I didn't do anything to Katie Bell," he denied. "I understand why you'd think so- but I didn't. I don't attack random people I don't really know."
Yet it was peculiar. He'd left Potter and Katie laying on the floor, one of them probably dying and the other probably getting blamed for it, and yet it was Katie that was slowly slipping away. It made him wonder that- perhaps- that what he'd seen hadn't been a trick of the light at all...
That Potter wasn't really Potter...
"You are one of the few here that has the capability to do this, Draco," snapped Severus. "I know that you disappeared from your little group around this time. You don't have an alibi. Didn't Lucius teach you any better?"
Draco glared at the snub on his father. "I do so have an alibi! I was out buying quills. I forgot to get some and doubled back."
The Defense professor rolled his eyes. "As if that is going to stand up against Dumbledore's interrogation-"
"It will! I did go buy them. Go and check if you like."
"Maybe I will."
For a moment, the two stared at one another; the air between them seemed super-charged with tension. Then Severus smirked, and ordered, "So tell me about the Devil's Hand."
A carriage picked them up from the portkey point and rolled its way towards what was most likely the Scrimgeour's manor. Dumbledore was silent and serene beside him, decked out in star-spangled, purple robes. It made Harry's eyes hurt and respect to curdle in his stomach. His Headmaster would always be himself, no matter the situation. Oddly, it gave him hope.
And yet, despite the outrageous color scheme, they were of a quality far finer than Harry could have ever guessed at. His own robes, the best ones that he owned, were merely the dress robes he'd worn to the Yule Ball two years past, mended to his size. And they were made of simple fabric that did not shimmer in the carriage's light and were not charmed to sparkle on their own.
Apprehension bit at his throat with bands of steel, the flesh of his neck squeezed until the bones felt like snapping. This would not be a repeat of the Wizengamot meeting- he would not make a fool of himself again. He had studied for this. He had reviewed (most of) the self updating law book that Madam Marchbanks had given him as well as the guide to Wizengamot protocol. He would not make a fool of himself again. He had studied for this; he would not let himself panic over some issue with his clothing.
The carriage rolled to a stop, the door opened. A servant in white and green livery bowed them out and Harry couldn't help but stare, awed. The manor was a handsome affair, with four levels of windows and alabaster walls that stretched to the softly snowing, star-spangled sky. It was magic. And it was beautiful.
"How do you like my home, Mr. Potter?"
Harry turned from the sky to meet the Minister of Magic's brown eyes. Rufus Scrimgeour was a lion of a man, his hair and beard more of a mane than anything. He limped to a stop in front of him, nodding to Dumbledore beside him. "It's magnificent," he replied, waving an arm to encompass the whole of the manor. "The snow is a very nice touch."
"Been in the family since the time of King Arthur," he claimed. "But enough about that. I apologize for not personally welcoming you to the Wizengamot this last meeting, as I had not received a notice that you would be joining us."
Harry blinked at him, slowly. The Minister stared back, his gaze suddenly much different than it had been, much more penetrating, disconcerting, colder. His apology rang wrong upon his ears. Why?
He thinks that you did it for attention, a voice whispered in his ear. He thinks you arrogant and immature and a waste of his time.
"No need to apologize," Harry managed to reply. "Water under the bridge."
The advent of another carriage interrupted whatever the Minister had been going to say. Instead, he motioned them up the steps to the front door. "Both of you will surely make yourselves comfortable in the manor," he said with a smile that Harry couldn't help but think was more of a baring of teeth. "There is food and wine and music, and when everyone arrives we may begin to serve dinner."
"Shall we go, Harry?" Dumbledore asked as the Minister turned away from them. Harry nodded, confusion and worry an abscess that he felt everyone could see. With an effort he put a pleasant expression on his face. The book the goblin had given him had said, repeatedly, that the Master of a Line would soon find himself dead if he revealed himself to be weak, and confusion and worry were weaknesses that others could exploit with ease.
His breath was stolen from him as they marched through the entrance. It was as if he had stepped into another world, a world of white and green and glittering magic that bedazzled and confused the eye. The walls, a soft creamy white, were a springboard for a sensation of vibrant green decor along the walls, found in great draperies that hung like the House banners when the victor was being determined for the House Cup. There was neither too much green, nor too much white; everything blended together yet did not lose their own sense of self.
And yet, that wasn't the whole of it; the people inside the cavernous room were like shooting stars woven into a great tapestry. Harry felt he was looking into the past, with the women wearing long, flowing dresses with large puffy sleeves and their hair tied up gracefully, long and flowing and luxuriant. The men wore robes and suits of the colors of their family- someone there wore orange and red, and another wore blue and yellow; some of it, Harry couldn't help but think, clashed in a way that gave Dumbledore's robes a run for their money.
And by Merlin, all of them must have worn a fortune's worth in fabric and jewelry.
"Come along, Harry," said Dumbledore, leading the way to a table nearby. Tables covered the entirety of the cavern, circling a small rise -a stage- in the middle of the floor, where a light illuminated a rather striking woman singing a song of love and loss in a soft soprano. Hardly anyone was paying attention to her, however; instead, they seemed absorbed in their conversations, smiling and smiling and smiling.
Harry looked about him in curiosity. Everyone was smiling. It was unnatural. They reminded him of manikins in the Muggle stores, made only to display clothes with silly little smiles and silly little faces. What lay beneath? Who of them worked for Voldemort? Who could he trust?
With a start, he realized that Dumbledore was leaving him behind. He hurriedly joined him at the table and sat down in the chair beside him. "They smile a lot," Harry observed, hoping to make conversation. "Why?"
Dumbledore chuckled. "It is called the Pureblood Pastime. Everyone tries to achieve small victories against one another in hopes of furthering the ambitions of their family and themselves. Especially for themselves."
Harry stared at him. His book hadn't mentioned anything like that. "So... it's sort of like an eat or be eaten world?"
"Indeed, Harry. Exactly so."
Someone detached themselves from a group and approached them. "Albus!"
Dumbledore smiled. Harry could tell, somehow, that it wasn't a smile that was very genuine. "Ah, Tiberius. Good to see you."
A rather scruffy old man sat himself down into the seat on the other side of Dumbledore. "The feeling's mutual, Albus. How've you been, lately? Getting ready to finish a particular Dark Lord?"
Harry blinked. This man wanted Dumbledore to defeat Voldemort? "Perhaps," replied Dumbledore. "How is your nephew, Damocles?"
Tiberius snorted. "Besotted as ever with that Letty Gunthrup." He did not acknowledge Harry.
Confused, but conscious that it'd be rude to ask why he thought Dumbledore would defeat Voldemort, he let his eyes wander about the cavern, shifting from group to group. Here someone was getting food from the impossibly large buffet table; another was leaning against a column, listening to a story.
They all looked the same in their robes of different colors. How could they stand it?
"Harry," called Dumbledore. He jumped and looked up somewhat guiltily at his lax in attention. "I'm leaving with Tiberius, I'll be back shortly."
Apprehension curdled in his stomach once more, yet he swallowed down his initial protest. He could take care of himself. Right? "Sure thing, Headmaster," he said respectfully. As they left, Harry heard Tiberius Ogden say, "I feel for you, Albus, taking care of that useless, arrogant boy. Why, I heard just the other day-"
Harry's heart plummeted. Merlin, he had made a very bad impression upon the Wizengamot with his previous spectacle. How was he going to fix it?
The sound of footsteps sliced through his thoughts, and he turned, to meet the dark eyes of a wizard that made his magic sing.
He was a rather tall and regal looking man in his forties or fifties. Instead of going plump, as some men did when their bodies caught up with their age, the only thickness on him was his muscles, which seemed to stroke him as he glided forwards. His robes were a dark, crimson that reminded Harry uncomfortably of Voldemort's eyes and a light blue that, on anyone else, would not have matched particularly well. And yet the man pulled it off with such an air that made it pleasing, even desirable.
"Hello," he said, an amused smile curling along his lips. "You are Lord Black-Potter, correct?"
He could only nod, his voice silenced by the magic he could sense in the man before him. Merlin, he'd never felt anything like it; indeed, had never thought it possible to feel someone else's magic at all. It was awkward and foreign and peculiarly intimate, as if he were reading his soul.
"My name is Hugh Westerson," the man said. "If I may sit?"
With a blink Harry was drawn back into reality. "Oh- of course," he said ineloquently, motioning to the table. "Have a seat."
The man sat with a flurry of his robes that couldn't have been accidental. "So you are the new anomaly of the Pastime," Hugh stated with interest, his dark eyes watching him. "Quite."
Harry frowned at him, trying to shake off his magic, which was leaping about excitedly at meeting such an individual that was so similar to itself. "Anomaly?"
"Indeed. Surely you know about the sensation you caused? And with only one meeting, too. Quite interesting." His voice was a complex blend of emotions that could have been interpreted any which way. "You have half of them," he motioned to the gathered witches and wizards, "disliking you, the other half interested, and all of them fascinated. Everyone is asking each other; what is he doing here? Why did he decide to participate in politics?" Hugh leaned forward. "And I decided that I would be the first one to approach you."
"I am here because I received the Black title from my godfather. Nothing more, nothing less," Harry replied. "You can tell them that, too. I'm not here to be a part of some great conspiracy or anything." His own words were so much... less than this Hugh Westerson's. Merlin, he wanted to learn how to talk like that. He would. Everyone would listen to him, then.
"Yet nothing is ever as it seems, Lord Black-Potter." Hugh sent him a smile that dripped with secrets. "Everyone has their secrets that they keep- and everyone else has the job of finding out those secrets and exploiting them."
Harry stared at him. Hugh laughed, a rich, throaty chuckle. "You look so serious, as if I had threatened you." He paused, and a thought seemed to strike him. "You've never been exposed to politics before, have you?"
He shook his head. "No, I haven't."
"Would you like me to introduce you?" Hugh offered. "I would be willing to. This must seem like an entirely new world for you. I can help by giving some pointers and introducing you to people."
Despite his magic's urgings, or perhaps because of them, Harry looked at him warily. He needed someone to tell him how the Pastime was played, yes, but Dumbledore had offered himself to teach him...
Dumbledore is not here, a voice whispered to him. And this man is.
And, after all, wasn't he trying to become a bit more independent from everyone?
"Sure, thank you."
Hugh stood and Harry followed suite, the world developing a tinge of unreality as they approached a nearby table. Merlin. What was he doing, simply following this man? Was it just because of his magic, because of his appealing personality? The curiosity dragged him forward and his trepidation dragged him back.
And yet... "Hugh!"
The cry came from many throats. Harry couldn't help but stare as the wizard was received warmly, gladly, by multiple wizards and witches. It was very different from the welcomes he had gotten from anyone in this world of pretty colors and fancy lies. "How have you been doing?"
Hugh smirked. "As good as ever." He glanced at Harry significantly. Harry, taking his cue, moved to Hugh's side. "Everyone, this is Lord Black-Potter."
Harry bowed his head. The book had prepared him for this. "How do you do?"
They nodded to him politely. He felt like he was intruding upon them, if anything. It was tremendously awkward. Hugh didn't seem to notice.
"This is Lady Guley," he said amiably, motioning towards an imposing woman in her sixties that had the characteristic Asian eternal youth about her, "and this is Shelba Knupke,-" a young woman with fair, auburn hair- "Lord Gunthrup and Lord Amsel."
Harry nodded his head as each person was introduced. "It's good to meet you."
Chairs were conjured and room was made for them. Immediately he found himself the subject of attention. "So, the Chosen One has entered politics," said one of them. "Come to clean us up, have you?"
There was a chuckle around the table. Harry's eyebrows scrunched together in a frown. "You actually believe what the Prophet says?" He asked with disbelief before he could stop himself. He thought that politicians had more class than that.
A rather shocked silence descended upon the table. Harry blinked in confusion. Was there something wrong with what he had said? He mentally reviewed it. Merlin. Did they think he had said it condescendingly? Rudely?
They did. Abrupt laughter broke the silence. "You got balls, boy," said Lord Amsel. "I like that."
Lady Guley decided to stake her place in the conversation. "I, for one," she said, her mouth barely moving and her eyes boring into his own like daggers, "find it unwise to insult one's betters."
Harry frowned, reminded unpleasantly of Vernon Dursley. "I have a responsibility to a family just as you do," he replied. "I'm not sure what it is about you that makes you better than me." With an effort, he kept his voice as calm, pleasant, and as honest as he could. I'm not trying to lie to you, he mentally chanted. I'm not trying to be cocky or disrespectful or anything!
Lady Guley's eyes widened to the point where, in another situation, it might have been comical. Harry found it terrifying. "Why- I never have had someone speak to me in such a way! Angus was right- what ignorance! What arrogance!" She stood up. "Such behavior one would expect from a Black, but never a Potter. So many good bloodlines end with you. Such a waste."
The woman left, leaving an awkward silence behind her. Harry felt like sinking into the floor. Merlin. What had he done? This was not how he had wanted it to go! He wanted to inhale all the words he'd said and begin the evening again; what was wrong with him? He could hear Hermione berating him now; 'There's this thing called tact, Harry...'
The silence was disrupted by the sudden shutting of the doors. The clash silenced the soft buzz of conversation and everyone turned to look. Scrimgeour was making his way into the room, Lord Clearwater by his side. Harry narrowed his eyes at the sight. No wonder the Minister didn't appear to be altogether fond of him. He had Clearwater whispering in his ear.
"Everyone!" He called, jubilantly, the smile stretching across his face more predatory than he had most likely intended, "Now that the star of the night has joined us, we may begin the festivities!"
Star of the night? Harry scowled. So he was that well liked, was he?
Food appeared before them, a luscious array of meats, fruits, and salads. It looks almost as good as the food at Hogwarts, he thought loyally as he watched the other people daintily fill their plates.
"So, Hugh, how goes the situation in France?" asked Lord Gunthrup. Lord Gunthrup was a rather small man who seemed to have a personality to match; it took an effort to pay him the least bit of attention. Westerson, on the other hand, seemed to have no issues with attracting attention or keeping it; his magic demanded that he be looked at.
"My shops in France are going quite splendidly," he said with a smile. "I am hoping to open a new chain of them in Germany as well. Do you think you could help me with that, Lord Amsel?"
Lord Amsel smiled as well. Smiles smiles smiles. "I vould be happy to," he replied. "You need only to vrite me-"
A smooth, cultured voice interrupted him, yet didn't. "Lord Black-Potter?" It was more of a sliding between words instead of an interruption.
Harry turned in his seat to meet the eyes of a boy not much older than he. He had golden hair and sharp features; he might've passed for a Malfoy had his hair not been more yellow than platinum. He even looked rather familiar. "Can I help you?"
"My name," he replied, "is John Clearwater." The boy- more man than boy, yet too young to be considered such- watched him for his response and continued once he'd seen what he'd wanted. "Would you like to play chess with me?"
He might've imagined it, but the atmosphere on the table suddenly seemed to change; he could not have defined how. It was only a feeling, perhaps imagined or barely seen. "I guess," he responded, warily. John Clearwater- the son of Angus Clearwater? Was this a test of some sort, to see if he was really as bad as his father said?
The smile on the other's face was one meant to disarm; Harry, despite himself, was lured in. The chess board was conjured and assembled, the pieces placed about in their squares. Harry struggled to recall everything that Ron had taught him about chess, about strategy and strengths and weaknesses; what it amounted to wasn't much of anything. Ron had always prided himself as being a chess master and Harry hadn't ever wanted or tried to take the title.
"You may go first," John Clearwater said graciously. Harry frowned and chose a pawn at random. "A7 to A6."
"Interesting choice," Clearwater murmured. "Do you believe in taking risks, Lord Potter-Black?" He asked as he moved his own pieces.
Harry blinked. "Well, yeah," he said. "Risks are a part of life."
A smile. "Very acute of you, Lord Potter-Black." Harry's brow furrowed and he moved his piece rather silently. Was it him, or had his tone been rather mocking? "Do you believe in sacrifice, Lord Potter-Black?"
"The giving of oneself for the sake of others."
Harry slowly became aware that people were congregating about them, watching their game with fascination. He frowned. Watching chess couldn't be that interesting, could it? Was something amiss? Was something not quite right? He couldn't say. "I'm not sure," he opted for the middle road.
"I see." Clearwater took his knight.
"Do you think that you can kill the Dark Lord Voldemort, Lord Potter-Black, as the general populace seems to think you can?
Harry blinked at the question. "I don't see how that's important," he replied with some heat. "Why the questions?"
"Just learning a bit more about you, Lord Potter-Black." His tone was condescending. Harry tensed as he took his bishop, finally understanding what was wrong. He was being played for the entertainment of the witches and wizards watching.
Bloody hell. Where was Dumbledore? "Do you like Quidditch, Lord Potter-Black?"
"Yes," Harry replied shortly, moving his king to escape Clearwater's rook. "Do you?"
"I suppose. A very... brutal sport. Fit for those with a warlike mind." A sharp look towards him; the audience laughed. Harry felt like upending the table and challenging the Clearwater heir to a duel. Merlin, he was like Malfoy, mean spirited and unwilling to make friends. Were all Purebloods the same, then, no matter their loyalties? How was he going to gain the respect of such people? Did he even want to?
"What is wrong with a warlike mind?" Harry asked, aware that he'd been slighted somehow and eager to defend himself. "We are in a war, after all."
The Clearwater heir's answer was more baffling than anything. "Of course." It was pitying, as if soothing a rather dull child.
In swift succession, John Clearwater took out his remaining knight and his king. The audience clapped upon the end, and Harry could detect more than a few smiles that seemed more genuine than anything he'd seen that night directed towards his opponent. It made no sense. Harry could not understand any of it; he was a fish among birds, slow and stupid and gasping to their elegant wings and sharp beaks. And he hated it.
"Thank you," said Clearwater pleasantly, offering his hand. Harry took it reluctantly, struggling to keep a flush of shame from his cheeks. Whatever he was, he wasn't going to be a sore loser. "I'm sure that next time you will provide a... competitive perspective, non?" Harry blinked at him, and someone nearby laughed.
Harry glared at his back. While he wasn't sure how, exactly, Clearwater had made him look stupid, slow, clumsy, and ignorant in front of many of the people present. That meant that, essentially, he'd dishonored him, but in a way that Harry could not outright fight without appearing foolish or a sore loser.
A sigh. If only he'd researched more!
But what could he research? He'd read through every book he could get his hands on- none of it helped!
"What happened?" Hugh Westerson appeared at his side. He began talking before he could respond. "I went off to browse the food- the Scrimgeours have always been well known for their salad makings. Would you like to come along and have some?"
Time drifted slowly by with all the agony of a Cruciatus. He wasn't sure what to make of Westerson, or of anyone else he met; they smirked as if they were laughing at his expense or ignored him. He missed Ron and Hermione; he wanted them at his side, to help him with this strange new world that had such peculiar beliefs and customs.
Stop being a baby, Harry. It's time to grow up.
But by Merlin that was harder than he'd thought it'd be.
When Harry met up with Dumbledore once more, it was late into the night, high time for leaving. Westerson had stayed by his side for the duration of the evening like a hunter stalking it's prey. He wasn't quite sure what to think of this; was Westerson attaching himself to him because he could feel Harry's magic in turn? It was a worrisome thought; it developed other, more worrying questions he really didn't want to think. What if the other wizards and witches could feel his magic, and know it for its darkness?
No one seemed to notice, though. Or perhaps they were hiding their reactions under the layers of smiling masks that they all seemed to be wearing. He shook his head and sipped his drink, a sparkling cider that tasted oddly of blueberries. All these people were crazy; how did they lie without ever opening their mouths?
He turned, gratefully, at the sound of that old voice. "Headmaster! Where did you go? You disappeared!"
Dumbledore smiled in an odd way- it looked pained. Harry narrowed his eyes and roved over his form. He looked more healthy than a hundred year old man should; it was not his body, then, but something else. "I would ask you the same thing, my boy," he replied. His gaze turned to someone nearby and those blue eyes suddenly chilled to ice. "But I see."
Harry frowned, not understanding his tone or what he was saying. "This is Hugh Westerson, sir," he introduced tentatively. "He's been showing me around."
"Has he." Again, the odd tone he could not understand. He felt like a child, who could not define what was going on above his very head.
Westerson smiled a Pureblood smile. "Indeed. Charming boy, really. And surprising, too."
Harry frowned. While he may not know why, he could tell that Westerson was baiting Dumbledore for some reason or another- and that he did not like. "Headmaster," he cut in, feeling the two men gaze at him in surprise, as if they had forgotten that he was there. "It's getting rather late- and, as I have schoolwork to finish, I would rather like to head back to Hogwarts."
He suppressed a flinch when Dumbledore's icy gaze landed upon him. There was no doubt in his mind, now, that Dumbledore was the most powerful wizard he knew; not only in magical might, but in the respect he could command with a gaze. "I was getting rather tired as well," he replied cordially. "Well, goodnight, Mr. Westerson. Do have a nice night."
Westerson ignored him rather pointedly and turned to Harry with a smile that must have been ten hundred degrees warmer than the smile he gave Dumbledore. "I'll be in contact, Harry," he winked and pivoted on his heel, marching steadily away. Harry watched him go, unable to discern what he was feeling. Was it anger? Confusion? Respect?
'I'll be in contact.' He did not like the sound of that. Or did he? His magic told him that he did.
At the Headmaster's prompting, he came into step beside him. Scrimgeour bid them goodbye and goodnight, frosty and warm at the same time. The contradiction was too tiresome to rationalize; it was too late and too frustrating. Merlin. He was so tired of being confused. He'd studied, studied so hard, yet he had yet to see the results of his sessions in the library.
Merlin. What was he doing wrong? Perhaps...
Perhaps he was simply going about the problem in the wrong way. Perhaps it was time he truly took over the role of the Master of the Black and Potter lines.
Once they reached the inside of the carriage that would take them to the portkey point and then to Hogwarts, Harry turned to Dumbledore. He seemed lost in his thoughts; the youth that had invigorated him throughout the party had been replaced with a world-weary old age, had been replaced with an elder who could only ruminate over his past experiences now that the majority of his life was over. Harry's heart contracted painfully.
Dumbledore in the Infirmary, dying-
Dumbledore would not die. He would not allow him to.
Dumbledore looked up, his blue eyes no longer ice cold, but warm and friendly. "Yes, Harry?"
"Remember when I asked you if I could go and see my properties?" At the other's nod, he continued, "Well, I think that I should do that next weekend."
Harry waited on pins and needles as Dumbledore gazed at him, searching for something- he wasn't sure what- as if he were a rock of pyrite and he had to find something of true gold within. He seemed to find it, and he relaxed. "A smart idea," he replied. "Indeed, if you would wish it, you can come to my office Saturday morning -bright and early- and I'll allow you use of my private Floo."
A bright grin. "Thanks, Headmaster!"
Dumbledore gave him a smile that was neither quite happy or sad. "Of course, Harry." The carriage rolled to a stop as he paused; there seemed to be something more he wished to say on the topic, yet did not; "And now, I believe, it is time to return to Hogwarts."