In honor of NanoWrimo, here's the first half of the next chapter. Unfortunately, I'm also participating this year. Time's a bit tight, but I hope to get the second half posted sometime this month. (The first draft of this chapter weighs in at 11,000 words. The second half still needs some cut and polish.)
The day before the Hogwarts Express left Kings Cross without me-seven days after I learned my mother knew about Pettigrew's tattoo-I found myself pacing in the living area outside Thomas's office with my research notebook and ever-present ink pen in hand. After a solid week reexamining my old theories, researching the Three Magical Earls and discovering exactly why the idea that Thomas's title might not be a recreation and that Dumbledore knowingly lied to the Wizengamot-wasn't the first time and I doubted it would be the last-terrified Fudge, piecing together the chain of events as I understood them, I still had more questions than answers. However, I also realized that unless Thomas had a direct line to Dumbledore's mind-highly unlikely given some of the ambushes Thomas walked into during the last war-Thomas couldn't answer all of them.
As tempting as it was, I didn't spend all my time researching the past. I also skimmed a few books about woodworking and furniture construction Barty left on my nightstand, reevaluated my IOWL project, and filled out the paperwork for Wenlock's December IOWLs, which I still needed Thomas and Barty both to sign off on. I also talked to Dyfi about the memories until she crawled out the window in disgust, tried talking to Hedwig who groomed my hair in the same that's-nice-dear manner I associated with Mrs. Weasley while ignoring every word I said, interrogated Sirius, and wrote down all the magical control exercises Thomas and Barty taught me-even the bean stacking exercise I despised with a passion usually reserved for Draco Malfoy and Dumbledore-for Neville, who went from nothing happening when he waved his wand to causing explosions overnight. I would've loved to see the look on his uncle Algie's face when Neville 'accidentally' incinerated his toupee. It served him right for throwing his nephew out a window. I even found a possible solution to my tinkering withdrawal.
Intellectually, I understood the reason behind Thomas's no experimenting in the house rule: a teenage Barty. But I wasn't Barty. After Alex's diagnosis I needed something to keep myself from thinking about the damage that almost cut my life span in half. Tinkering with my shoe boxes and what evolved into the wax tablets was fun, kept me from thinking too much about the diagnosis, and let me feel like I was actually accomplishing something other than sitting around and cramming my head full of information I wasn't allowed to use yet. I needed my projects just as much as I needed food and shelter. My projects kept me sane.
I also knew Alex wasn't planning on prescribing bed rest when we started the next phase of treatment, which Alex rescheduled from the second of September to the sixteenth. It didn't matter. He said absolutely no walking up and down the stairs for at least a week following each session, which was a problem seeing as I worked on all my projects in the school room, potions lab, barn, and/or garden. Luckily, I had a solution. Provided, I talked really fast and spiked Thomas's tea with a mysterious, but undetectable, substance that made him forget his precious library was above my bedroom. Instead, I planned on playing the pity card and crossing my fingers, which was much safer than trying to drug an extremely paranoid man with a well-earned reputation for cursing first, questioning second.
Nervous, I glanced at the clock over the mantle. Five 'till two. Lolly gave me his two o'clock slot when I gave her Pettigrew's memory and a terse note for Thomas. Maybe I should've written something other than 'watch', but I didn't know what else to say. The memory said more than enough.
Taking a deep breath, I centered myself. This promised to be the most difficult conversation of my life, but also the most necessary. Lolly was right. We needed to talk, but no one said I had to start the conversation with the most difficult topic. Maybe if I worked up to it, it wouldn't be so bad. I gathered my courage and stepped inside. I squared my shoulders and rapped my knuckles against the door.
"Enter," Thomas called as the door swung open.
"Wait in front of the fireplace," Thomas said the moment I crossed the threshold.
Dread pooled in my stomach as icy fingers crept up my arms. It felt like a dementor times ten, making me wonder if I was projecting or if the feelings were real. My eyes fluttered closed as I sank into my practiced meditations, conjuring the image of a solitary flame in my mind as I brought up my occlumency shields. The urge to flee disappeared and my worst memories stayed firmly locked away. When I knew I could split my focus while maintaining my shields, my eyes snapped open.
I scanned the room, searching for the dementor. No dementor. Instead, I discovered Thomas at the far end of the room near the door leading to the glassed-in conservatory hunched over a small table.
He held up a finger in warning and turned slightly, revealing a small obsidian obelisk about as tall as my arm was long hovering over the table. A flick of his wand illuminated runes around the base. Another flick and the runes wrote themselves in the air above the obelisk and then rearranged themselves.
Apparently satisfied, Thomas nodded once. "Lolly, when you've finished recording the data, return this to storage and ward it. Use your blood," he said, shooting a meaningful glance at me.
"Of course." She scribbled something on a long roll of parchment then banished the obelisk with a snap of her fingers. The dementor-esque feeling vanished. She turned a shrewd gaze on Thomas. "I'll send Nat up with some food. Please try to eat something." When Thomas started to protest, she held up a hand. "I know, master. After spending the last four hours with that thing, I don't feel like eating either, but we both used a lot of magic. If we don't eat, we'll be useless tomorrow." She glanced at me. "And you should eat before you take your afternoon potions, not after like you did yesterday."
I flushed. "Sorry, I forgot."
"See that it doesn't happen again," she said with syrupy smile that promised pain and humiliation if I didn't follow her orders.
"Call me if you need me," she said and popped out.
"What was that thing?" I blurted out. The feelings reminded me of that night by the lake. What could cause that other than a dementor?
Thomas crossed the room and sank into an armchair. His head lolled back and eyes drifted closed. "I believe," he said after meditating for several minutes, "it is an execution chamber for dementors." He twitched his fingers. Lolly's roll of parchment zipped across the room and landed in his lap. He unfurled it and beckoned me closer. "These runes here," he said, pointing to a sequence Lolly had copied off the object, "say it is, but you should never trust anything written on a magical object. We wizards are a paranoid lot. More often than not the inscription's a trap, encouraging you to utilize in the object in a manner that will likely lead to your demise."
Filing that information away for future reference, I asked, "Did you learn at Borgin and Burkes or during your mastery studies?"
He conjured his patronus, relaxing further when the silvery wolf curled up by his chair. Most people believed chocolate was the only treatment for dementor exposure, but a properly cast patronus worked just as well if not better. At least, that's what a note I found penciled in the margin of one of the real Alastor Moody's books said. Watching as the tension bled out of Thomas as he rubbed his foot against the patronus as if it was solid, I wondered if the patronus was better than chocolate. It certainly worked faster.
"Sit," he said, indicating the chair across from him. After I seated myself, notebook resting in my lap, the patronus shifted so its tail curled around my ankle. Warmth swept through me. In a way, it reminded me of the first time I felt the wards. "I apologize," Thomas said. "I should have warned you before exposing you to that."
My eyes narrowed as I caught the hidden meaning. "Why did you?"
He inclined his head towards me. "I needed to see your reaction."
"You were curious," I accused.
"That too. I needed to know if you thought to employ occlumency before or after you cast a patronus."
"Before means you've learned to think before you act. It also means you're confident in your occlumency."
"But I'm not."
At my protest, Thomas shook his head, smiling ruefully. "Your instincts say otherwise. You didn't even think about casting a patronus, did you?"
I clenched my jaw, hating everyone in that moment: myself for not reacting as expected, Barty for drilling examine first, cast spells second into my head, and Thomas for arranging this idiotic test to begin with. "I still don't understand why you needed to know how I'd react," I said.
"Severus Snape left the Order a few days after you were hospitalized. He's tenured so he still holds his job, but I lost that inside link to Dumbledore. Keeping Severus at Hogwarts is more important than him remaining in the Order, Harry. We're still in a state of cold war, but that will eventually change. When it does, anyone associated with my known followers or you will be at risk."
My eyes widened in horror. Deep down, I knew this was a possibility when I first contacted him, but I honestly believed they wouldn't go that far. They protected people like Hermione. They wouldn't hurt her, especially not when I wasn't choosing a side. "But I'm neutral."
"You are also my heir. Being neutral doesn't change your blood, Harry. Between the two of us, you are the softer target, a weakness I have no choice but to allow. Should this conflict escalate, they may target you to get to me. You are safe behind my wards. Your friends are not. Although I have serious doubts about your friendship with Neville," I glared at him, "should anything happen to Hermione I fear you will act on your programming."
"And whose fault is that? You swore you'd help me, but all you have me doing is reading books and listening to lectures. I need-"
"Healing your mind could take years. You knew this before you contacted me. There's no quick fix. No healing ritual or potion that will undo it. Your occlumency studies have progressed at an amazing rate for someone not studying under a master legilimens."
Rolling my eyes, I said dryly, "I live with a master legilimens. I should be progressing faster."
Thomas eyed me contemplatively, drumming his fingers on the chair arm. "Mind magic can be extremely stressful on the body. From the first day, you were magically and mentally ready for more intensive lessons, but we also have to consider your physical health. A heart attack, for example, would set you back months if not years, which assumes it doesn't put you in an early grave. I wanted to give you as much time to heal as possible. I also felt teaching you more in-depth mind magic would be easier if we were both comfortable around each other. That's one of the reasons I stayed with you in St. Mungo's even after Barty used novam vitum. However, we are running out of time. I patched your mind together, but it is a temporary solution we must repeat every six months until you're completely healed. Should the war escalate, which I believe it will, there is a chance I will be unable to get to you in time should the patches fail."
I nearly bit a hole in my tongue. Of course it would escalate. Dumbledore and Thomas both exorcised the phrase 'peaceful resolution' from their vocabularies years before I was born. I wanted to point fingers and yell, but I knew better. If I lost control of my emotions, Thomas would never answer my questions.
"I exposed you to that object for two reasons. One, it allowed me to simulate a legilimency attack while monitoring your vitals. Your heart rate and blood pressure both stayed within the normal range, which means you are ready for more intensive lessons. Two, worst case scenario, there may be dementors guarding the perimeter here. Using the dementors as personal guards is an extreme measure I do not believe will be necessary, but I'd rather prepare for the possibility than be caught unaware."
"What about Barty?" I asked, shooting him a concerned look. Thomas's mouth settled into a grim line. His gaze slide away. My eyes widened in horror when I understand his silent message. If Thomas needed dementors guarding his personal residence, Thomas was severely injured and Barty already dead. Clenching my fists, I nodded tightly. "I understand. You never answered my question," I said more as a distraction than because I wanted an answer. "Who taught you that runes lie?"
"Dumbledore actually. When I started Hogwarts, I was Slytherin's Mudblood. Some of my housemates believed I wasn't after a few parseltongue demonstrations, but others...They came to respect my power. Nowadays, they'll even accept me into their social circles as long as I don't do anything to remind them of my mixed heritage, but in the beginning they hated me."
"Like Malfoy hates Hermione?" I asked, curious despite myself.
"Perhaps. Tell me, Harry, does young Malfoy target every muggleborn in Hogwarts or just her?"
I started to say every muggleborn, but quickly realized that wasn't right. Dean never knew his birth father, but he presented himself as a muggleborn. "I haven't seen him the others individually," I said, giving myself some wiggle room. It was Malfoy. Of course, he targeted all muggleborns.
"He probably hasn't. Put bluntly, young Malfoy's jealous. As a first year muggleborn completely new to the wizarding world, Hermione beat him in every subject. That girl has more talent in her little finger than Draco Malfoy has in his entire body. She is also a powerful witch. In a few decades, she'll be able to match me spell for spell as long as I'm not casting in parseltongue. The same goes for you. You two are special where young Malfoy is merely mediocre. His father in a misguided attempt to motivate the boy ensured he knows it. To add insult to injury, Hermione is also quite comely where as most of the girls from older families -the same young women his parents are encouraging him to court-are one, perhaps two, generations away from being grotesquely deformed."
"So you're saying Malfoy hates Hermione because she's pretty? That's crazy."
"I'm saying he would hate her less if she resembled the Parkinson bint. Even if she weren't a muggleborn, he would still hate her. Instead of a muggleborn being better than him, a halfblood would be or, worse in his eyes, a girl. Now imagine Hermione sharing a dorm room with four Malfoys and you'll have a similar situation to my first year. They despised me at first, but they were also Slytherins. My first Christmas one of my dorm mates sent me what was supposedly a protection amulet. My head of house confiscated it and gave it Dumbledore for analysis. A few weeks later, Dumbledore asked me to stay after class and explained what the amulet actually did. It protected someone alright, but not me."
"So that thing doesn't actually imprison dementors?"
He licked his lips. "In this case, I believe it works as advertised, eventually killing them. I will need to construct one and test it to be sure. If it works, it will solve several problems."
"What sort of problems?"
"I shouldn't tell you this, Harry, but I suppose it won't hurt. Dementors were created for battle. They're weapons currently controlled by the ministry. They can be useful, but they are also extremely dangerous. In the event the conflict escalates again, the dementors will be used either by myself or the ministry. Regardless of who they side with, they will eventually be freed from Azkaban and allowed to breed, but there will also come a time when they must be caged. The ministry may be content with restricting them to Azkaban, but I am not so trusting."
Nat popped in with a tray, deposited it on a side table, and left. Without standing up, Thomas summoned a small plate of baked beans on toast and a tall glass of raspberry lemonade. He sipped the drink and hummed in the back of his throat. "I've missed this," he said with a smile. "To think I almost told Nat no when he asked for raspberry plants. Eat before Lolly hexes us both for upsetting her husband."
After fetching my snack, I slipped into the seat opposite from Thomas and laid my notebook on the floor. I took my first bite of toast. Fresh bread and homemade baked beans, I noted.
"So what brings you here, Harry? I don't mind the interruption, but you don't normally seek me out."
Pondering where to start, I sipped my raspberry lemonade. "I didn't know the lemons were ripe." Stupid. The lemon trees
"They're not. Nat's preservation charms are second to none and excellent for storing the harvest, but you didn't come here to discuss lemons."
Needing a safe beginning topic, I summoned my notebook without my wand. A smile flitted across Thomas's face. "You've been practicing," he said.
"Reading about Neville's daily disasters provides a lot of incentive," I said, removing the folded IOWL forms I stuffed between the pages of my notebook before I came downstairs. I passed them to him. "I've already discussed this with Barty. He said it's up to you."
The paper crinkled when he unfolded the forms. While he finished his last bite of toast, he skimmed the forms, eyebrows climbing into his hairline. "Four plus exams? That's ambitious." I swallowed my protest when he raised his hand. "I've seen your work ethic, Harry, and your test results. I believe you're fully capable of sitting these exams and excelling. I just want to make sure you understand the consequences. Plus exams in potions, charms, and herbology double as chemistry, physics, and biology exams respectively. As such, they are regarded as sciences. You know the exam requirements."
I did. Six subjects minimum, ten maximum. They required one exam each in humanities, mathematics, sciences, and language and two exams in magics. It was a very odd system where a charms plus exam counted as a science because it included physics, but a charms exam counted as a magic. They also renamed some courses and changed others until they were almost unrecognizable. For instance, instead of offering a Care of Magical Creatures exam, they had Magical Creatures, which covered all creatures in theory and offered an optional care practical for students who wanted to take an IAWL in a specific creature or creatures. They didn't even offer DADA, my favorite subject. Instead, each school required all first through third years to take basic magical defense, which covered stunners, shields, disarming, and magical creatures like boggarts and grindylows. Anything more advanced was covered in informal dueling clubs, which required students and their parents to sign a magical contract stating any student who used magics learned during dueling club-it didn't matter if you were caught-against another student for any reason would be automatically expelled. Barty said Gellert Grindelwald was the most famous wizard expelled by contract.
"Yes, sir," I replied.
"You just started physics last month. There's no harm in waiting another year and sitting a supplemental exam."
"I know." I paused and bit my lip. "I saw my Hogwarts record, Thomas. Hearing that all my professors thought I'd fail as soon as Barty left wasn't so bad, but Dumbledore put his expectation that I would fail the instant Moody stopped looking over my shoulder on my permanent record. I know the other schools don't really care about his opinion or even most of my grades. Between the different systems and what our own ministry says about our potions and history grades, odds are they'll skip straight to my exams, project, and interview without opening my Hogwarts transcript. I can do this."
"I know you can. I am asking if you've fully considered the consequences. Madame Umbridge has requested we publish your IOWL results and possibly even an interview on the exams in the Prophet. Parsel runes and Dark Arts with an optional parseltongue practical will raise more than a few eyebrows."
"Arithmancy plus counts as my math. Then charms plus, herbology plus, and potions plus all count towards science. History's my only humanities course, so it's required. Runes counts a language. I could drop English literature, which also counts as a language, but I might as well take it. Transfiguration is one magic. Magic makes more sense to me when I know how it interacts with the physical world. I know it doesn't work that way for everyone, but it does for me. Even though I know it will mean more work, I don't want to drop any of my plus subjects, which means I need another magical subject. It's either divination or dark arts. I don't need tea leaves or a crystal ball to know how badly I'll fail the divination exam. Besides, at IOWL level the Dark Arts exam is just theory. It's mostly about not blowing yourself up using unknown spells. The practical portion is just learning an obscure spell. Last year, they taught students how to spit shine their shoes. The year before it was how to trim nose hair. Stupid, harmless bits of magic."
You can find me on Twitter (see profile) where I tweet about NanoWrimo and try to tweet shame my puppy Dex, aka The Draft Stealing Niffler. I also lurk on WattPad, link on my twitter account.
First Apprentice (original serial on WattPad)
The last time someone arranged my life, Jon died. I ripped his soul from his body and served him up to the Ancient Gate like a trussed pig. Everyone agreed it was an instinctive kill, as if that excuses my actions. It doesn't.
Afterward, when I scrubbed my hands raw and woke begging for forgiveness, Grandfather made a promise. No surprises. If it involves me, he tells me - simple and infinitely safer for all involved. He lied.