Harry Potter and the Ashes of Nurmengard
The Journey to Slytherin
"I admire precision. If you ask me to sum up the causes and catalysts for the Great Wizarding Wars, I won't write you a thousand pages of indigestible text (for that, you can always turn to Mr. B. Guilhabert). Let me give you three simple words instead: Harry James Potter."
- From "A History of 21st Century Wizarding Wars" by Hecellin Artois
"There are some who are tempted (perhaps by indolence and conformism) to lay the blame for the wars solely on Harry Potter's grave. For a historian, such an erroneous verdict is both embarrassing and irresponsible. Harry Potter is but the product of his time; a time that gave birth to Gellert Grindelwald and Tom Riddle before him. Wizards have hated muggles long before Harry Potter was pulled from his mother's womb, and hate them still many decades after his untimely death. History was perhaps his lover and his executioner, but never has it been his pliant servant."
- From "Brother of Death" by Bastien Guilhabert
Diagon Alley was overflowing that day, crowded with children and animals, annoyed passers-by and excited parents escorting their offspring to buy supplies for the next school year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The air was dry and hot, pricking the skin and heavy in the lungs, filled with the stench of human sweat, potion fumes and smoke – smells that hung around every large shopping area that wizards had created over the three centuries that had passed since the signing of the Statute of Secrecy.
Inside Madam Malkin's Robes, eleven-year-old Harry Potter looked at himself in the mirror with a bored expression on his face. His bright green eyes, hidden behind a pair of elegant black glasses, narrowed at the dark-haired man behind him. Harry was beginning to suspect the existence of a conspiracy against him; it was the only logical explanation as to why he had been forced to endure an entire hour of the shopkeeper's fussing around him with a needle in her hand and telling him how much he resembled his brother, the famous Boy-Who-Lived. Merlin's beard, we're twins. What am I supposed to look like, a goblin? he wanted to ask but, as usual, kept his mouth shut. The woman stuck needles into his body, fit robes around his lean frame and then replaced them with yet more clothes of James Potter's choosing.
"Sirius and Charlie are waiting for us," he reminded his father with a voice that resembled a parent scolding his unruly offspring, but James only shrugged in answer. He grabbed a dark green robe from the rack and, with a brilliant smile, asked Madame Malkin's long-legged and golden-haired assistant what she thought of it.
Harry sighed. He was used to his father's flirting with any woman he found attractive. They usually came and went, so fast that he and Charlie didn't even bother to remember their names anymore. As far as he knew, his father hadn't had a serious relationship with a woman since 31 October 1981, the night he had become a widower. The dark wizard Voldemort had attacked their home that night and when James had tried to stop him, he had been quickly rendered unconscious. Why the Dark Lord had spared his father, Harry didn't know. Probably hadn't wanted to kill a pureblood wizard. Regardless of the reason, his mother hadn't been as lucky. Lily Potter had given her life to save Charlie.
It was another ten minutes before he and his father, finally, left the store. James had gotten himself a date with the girl and walked proudly ahead, humming an ancient song under his nose. The twenty bags of clothing he had paid for the honour floated in the air behind him.
Harry looked at his father with annoyance. "It took you an hour. You're getting old."
"She'd have said yes from the beginning," James assured him. "She just wanted to see how much I'd be willing to spend until she did."
"And you let her do that because…?"
"It was cute."
"A robbery was what it was," Harry said. "And a torture. Next time could you please buy a date in the bookstore or something? Thanks."
"I don't have to buy anything, ungrateful son of mine. Is this how you thank me for making you and your brother the best-dressed first years in the history of Hogwarts?" James asked with an injured air. It was as factitious as a goblin's compassion. "Don't complain about getting free stuff."
Harry was unmoved. "In a few months we'll have outgrown all of it anyway. When you spend a fortune for a present, at least make sure it's actually useful. A Nimbus would have been nice."
"Checking a gifted house elf's teeth aren't you?" The older man laughed. "Next time I'm buying you second-hand robes. See how you'll like that."
Harry rolled his eyes in reply.
It didn't take them long to reach the southern side of Diagon Alley. There, between a publishing house and a café, they found the best wand maker shop in Britain. Ollivanders Wand Shop had been an old, dusty but orderly place when they left it an hour ago to buy school uniforms. It was still an old and dusty place, but any pretence of order seemed to have vanished into thin air. The floor was covered with empty boxes and broken furniture, two shelves were dislodged from the walls and one of the desks had developed a nervous tick; it stamped its right feet on the ground every few seconds. Amidst all this chaos stood Charles Potter, a bespectacled scrawny kid with black hair, hazel eyes and a lightning bolt scar on his forehead.
"Merlin, what happened here?" James Potter exclaimed when he stepped into the store. He turned to his son with something between amusement and horror. "Charlie, please tell me you didn't cause this."
"I assure you, James, he did," said a familiar voice to their right. With a bloodied eyebrow and a crooked grin, Sirius Black sat on one of the few chairs that remained intact. A ward of silver air flickered in front of him. "It was quite impressive, actually. Your son whacked me in the head with one of the boxes," he said. "We should talk to Amelia Bones about him. This kid is just a pure talent, a one boy army. Dark wizards stand no chance."
"It's not like I wanted to do all this," Charlie snapped at the older man. His voice was strained and Harry could see that his brother felt horrible about what he had done to Ollivander's. The two of them weren't as close as their father wanted them to be, but that didn't mean they didn't know each other well. "Maybe there's no wand for me because wands just don't like me. Let's just give up. Harry will go to Hogwarts and I'll go work for Hagrid or something."
"Charlie, that's stupid," Harry told his brother. "If we can't find a wand here, we'll look in other shops. It happens sometimes, right? Dad?"
"Of course it does," James said and placed a reassuring hand on Charlie's shoulder. "Calm down, son. It'll just take more time, but you'll find your wand."
"It's been two hours already!" Charlie protested with childish impatience. "Harry found his in ten minutes. Two other kids came while you were gone and they both found their wands in less than twenty minutes. I'm still here."
"Not for long, Mr. Potter," said an elderly voice. Ollivander appeared from a door behind the counter. He carried a huge box in his hands. "I'm sure it's one of these."
While his brother tried different wands, Harry put his bags on the floor and leaned on the wall next to Sirius, careful to make sure that his godfather's ward covered both of them. In his hands he held a heavy book, a book that wasn't listed on his letter from Hogwarts because those he had read ages ago. He and Charlie had been six when their father had started teaching them basic spells. Charlie couldn't be bothered to learn unless someone made him, but Harry had a very special reason to devote hours and hours each day to learning spell movements and reading magical theory. He was determined to become so powerful that no one would ever be able to threaten him again, to make him feel small and defenceless.
The door of the shop opened and a family of three stepped into the store. The parents were tall and elegant, but strangely dressed – with tight-fitting clothes that resembled the things Harry's non-magical aunt and uncle wore. Muggles, he realized and his eyes narrowed. The boy was his age, tall, with curly brown hair and friendly eyes. He and his parents looked with alarm at the chaos that reigned over the shop.
Shortly behind them came a witch Harry was very familiar with. "Minerva McGonagall," Ollivander greeted. "Fir and dragon heartstring, nine and a half inches long, good for Transfiguration?"
"That's right, Mr. Ollivander," the witch agreed and nodded toward James and Sirius. She introduced the muggle family, the Finch-Fletchleys, to everyone in the shop. Harry tried not to show how uncomfortable he was with them, but, apparently, he didn't do a good job of it because he heard his brother and father sigh when he stiffly shook hands with the muggle-born boy, Justin.
Harry couldn't help it. He and Charlie had been seven when their father had decided to show them around muggle London and to introduce them to their mother's only living family, the Dursleys. Neither had gone well. The Dursleys had quickly made it clear that they wanted nothing to do with "freaks" like the Potters. To take their minds off their aunt's rejection, James had taken his sons to something called an "amusement park". The name had proved fitting, because Harry had been very amused by the tricks of a muggle "magician". Naïve and angry at his brother for something he couldn't even remember now, Harry had wandered off on his own, away from his father and Charlie and, eventually, away from the park itself. Hours later, when he had seen a group of older kids imitating the "magician", he had been dumb enough to show them what real magic looked like. His father hadn't taught him much, but what little he had had been enough to earn Harry a beating.
That experience had taught him two things. First, it had taught him to fear muggles. None of them took well to magic, from Petunia Dursley to the kids who had beaten him up. Harry still woke up at night to nightmares about that evening and the muggle kids growling fowl words at him, kicking him, punching him. 'Say you're a dumb little cocksucking freak. ' 'I am-' 'Say it, you little moron.'
The second lesson was more valuable, for it was the difference between a child and an adult. To that moment he had been just like his brother – arrogantly disregarding adult advice and rushing into dangerous situations with a child's conviction that nothing could go wrong, that he could survive and overcome any threat. That conviction had been torn apart, along with his pride. He was not, as he learned at the fists of those muggles, invincible or guaranteed to prevail in life. Every choice, every weakness had its consequences and those consequences could very well be his humiliation or death. It was an extremely harsh lesson for a young child to learn - a lesson many learned much later in life - but it was because of his youth and its harshness that he learned it well.
His conversation with his father after Charlie had gone to sleep later that night was even engraved into his memory, word for word, as a warning of an upcoming danger.
"They wanted to hurt me, dad," seven-year-old Harry had said in a quiet voice.
James had wrapped his arms around him and held him tightly. "No, son, they were just drunk. That's what drinking does sometimes – it makes you do bad things you wouldn't have done otherwise."
"But they called me a freak."
"They were… scared, Harry." His father had sighed. "And confused."
"No, they weren't scared," Harry had protested. "I was scared. The muggles just wanted to hurt me because I was weaker. And because they saw me doing wandless magic."
"Harry, I think there's something I should explain to you about muggles. Your mother explained it to me many times until I got it in my thick head," James had said. "They don't think like we do, son. We're used to unusual things because we're used to magic. If you saw a bowl floating in the air, you'd look around for the wizard who's doing the enchantment, right? But if a muggle saw a bowl floating around, he'd get very scared. Muggles don't like things that behave strangely, son. And it's not because they're bad or evil, but because they're scared of them. Muggles can't control what they don't understand and they're scared of it because it can hurt them."
"Is this why we're hiding? Because muggles would want to hurt us, if they found out about us?"
"I want to say no, son, but I… I honestly don't know." His father had run a hand through his black hair. "Your mother's parents were proud that she was a witch and her sister was jealous and hated her, but she was never afraid of her. I can't say the rest of them would react the same way. Most of them… most of them would be very, very scared. And no one can say what a man would do when he's scared, son. Fear is like firewhiskey – it makes us do things we wouldn't do if we were sober."
"But why would they be afraid of us? We won't hurt them. We'll tell them we won't hurt them."
James Potter had laughed then, but there had been no mirth in his voice. "I don't think that telling them would solve anything. Some of us want to hurt them, Harry. People like You-Know-Who, Lucius Malfoy and Bellatrix Lestrange want to hurt them and we can try to prevent it from happening, but nothing changes the fact that wizards can hurt muggles. Far more easily than muggles can hurt wizards. We're all hurting them even at this very moment. We do it for our and their safety, but we still alter their minds and memories every single day of our existence like a kid playing around with a doll. You can't feel it now, but in a few years you will see just how big advantage wizards have on muggles… Powerless, scared of the unnatural and the unexplainable muggles."
"So we can't ever let them know we exist?" Harry had asked, thoughtful.
"Who knows? Maybe someday we'll be able to tell them." Even at seven, Harry had been able to hear the uncertainty in his father's voice. "When their 'tecknology' allows them to do the same things we can with magic, maybe they wouldn't need to fear us anymore. They're already inventing all kinds of er, 'machickes' that do things we use spells for. Maybe someday we'll meet as equals."
Harry had mulled over than for a bit. "But what if they found out about us before that?" he had asked. "Or what if we're equals and they still want to hurt us? What if they're still scared of us and hate magic?"
"Let's not worry about spilling an empty cauldron, son." His father's shoulders had sunk a little bit. The silence had stretched for a long while. "I failed you today, Harry. First with your aunt and then at the park. I should have talked with Petunia first. Our previous meetings didn't go well, you see. She and Vernon didn't even come to the wedding. But I thought that, surely… you and Charlie are her nephews, Lily's only children…" James had shaken his head. "And I should have been more careful. You should have never come across those vandals… Merlin, Lily would have skinned me alive. I'm sorry, son, for being such a terrible father."
"You're not a terrible father!" Harry had exclaimed with fervour. "You're the best dad ever!"
That night he had fallen asleep to the sight of himself, powerful and as tall as his dad, but surrounded by muggles. Thousands and thousands of muggles who wanted to hurt him, to maim him because they were scared of his magic. He fought them bravely but they were too many and, in the end, they took his wand from him and began tearing at his face and body with their long claws, faces distorted with cruelty as he screamed and pieces of his flesh fell with a splash to the ground. The next morning, Charlie had found him in the library, practicing wand movements with a fake wand their father had brought for them years ago. His brother had never taken well to being ignored and, as the time Harry spent reading gradually increased over the years, his relationship with Charlie went from best friends and constant companions to what they had now.
"Does this take a lot of time?" Justin Finch-Fletchley asked Harry when Ollivander went to find new boxes for Charlie and him. Harry glanced up from his book and the other boy seemed startled at the hostility in his eyes. "No," he said coldly and returned to his reading. He heard Charlie apologizing for him and felt the curious gaze of Professor McGonagall, but he pretended to be engrossed in the book.
Justin Finch-Fletchley, his parents and Professor McGonagall stayed only fifteen minutes in the shop and Charlie was getting desperate. "I wonder," Ollivander whispered and pulled a box that was placed on a shelf in the back of the store, almost hidden from sight. It was made of holly, he said, eleven inches long and with a core of a phoenix feather. When Charlie tried it, nothing exploded, broke or crashed into a wall. That's how Harry knew that his brother had found his wand.
His father and Sirius cheered but their laughter died in their lungs when Ollivander said, "I remember every wand I've ever sold, Mr. Potter. It so happens that the phoenix whose feather resides in your wand gave another feather... just one other. It is curious that you should be destined for this wand when its brother gave you that scar."
"You can't mean… him?" Charlie asked with horror.
"The wand chooses the wizard, Mr. Potter," Ollivander said with a smile that wasn't at all reassuring. "It's not always clear why. But I think it is clear that we can expect great things from you. After all, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named did great things. Terrible! Yes. But great."
After paying for the wand, James and Sirius hurried to leave the shop and Charlie didn't waste his time either. Harry stayed behind and looked at the old wizard quizzically. "Yes, Mr. Potter?"
"My wand…" Harry began and hesitated. It was so stupid to ask. "There's nothing special about it, is there?"
"Every wand is special, Mr. Potter," Ollivander said with a frown. That's a no, Harry thought and regretted asking the question. He bid the old wizard farewell and followed his family on the street. He could feel Ollivander's pale silver eyes on his back for a long, long while.
The living room was alight with candles and wreathed in the sound of human voices and music. It was a room large enough to accommodate twice the people seated around the table at that moment; a cosy and warm parlour that was nothing like the grim home at Grimmauld Place that Sirius Black had inherited from his mother six years ago. The Black family's new home in Tinworth was one of Harry Potter's favourite places and he was happy whenever his godfather and his wife invited them over for dinner. That evening they were celebrating the ending of Harry's and Charlie's last day with their family before the start of their first school year at Hogwarts. The next time they would be able to consider themselves anything other than students of the ancient wizrading school, they would be almost eighteen – grown men in the eyes of the wizarding world.
Sirius's youngest son, Alphard, had already been sent to his bed and the two elder Black children were playing in their room. Harry and Charlie were very proud that they were allowed to stay at the table with the adults and listen to their conversation. Aunt Aurelia was discussing her favourite topic – the differences between muggle and wizarding government. She was born in an old Italian pureblood family, the Calabreses, but she'd been disowned by her father because she had applied to a muggle university after graduating from the Roman Academy of Magic. Harry was pretty sure that his godfather had married Aurelia just because such a perfect way to annoy his parents had never occurred to him.
"You can't possibly call it a representative democracy either," Aurelia Black argued, pointing at the rest of them with a fork. "If only the Wizengamot has the power to elect the Minister for Magic and the Minister has the power to appoint members of the court, then the state is clearly ruled by an oligarchy." To her left, Sirius smiled fondly, as he always did when his wife started showing her 'Moonish' side.
"The idea was to make possible the admission of capable younger officials and ordinary wizards and witches into the council," Remus Lupin said from the other end of the table. "I know that it didn't work out as planned but don't all political systems eventually evolve into oligarchies?"
"They do," Aurelia admitted. "And then, sooner or later, the country starts heading towards revolution."
At the mention of a revolution, Harry perked up. It was a word ripe with meaning and rich in imagery; it conjured in his mind pictures of legendary battles and noble heroes. Of war he knew only what he'd read in children's stories and dry history books, and Harry wasn't used to think of the stories of terror his father had told him about the Dark Lord's rebellion as a 'war', not like those in his books.
He and Charlie turned to their father with hope. "Is there going to be a war, dad?"
"You two look very excited," James noted.
Harry nodded with eagerness and felt that his brother wanted to talk about his dream to be a great Hit Wizard one day, but then uncle Remus interfered. "There's nothing exciting about war," he said. "It brings destruction and misery and leaves behind only cripples, mourners, thieves and corpses. We grew up during a war, kids. Believe me, it's nothing you'd want to see." He paused to give to his words more weight and then added, "But revolution does not necessary mean war."
"What does it mean then?" Harry asked.
"A fundamental change of government," his father replied instead. "If the Wizengamot is overthrown by the masses who want 'equality and freedom', that's a revolution. If someone very demagogic gains autocratic power – that's also a revolution."
"Autocratic power?" Charlie repeated with a frown.
"One person rules all," Harry explained to his brother.
Charlie seemed horrified. "He can do anything? There're no restrictions?"
Aurelia smiled. "Certainly not anything but, yes, an autocrat can do quite a lot.
"Then why have we chosen democracy?" Harry asked. "It's useless." All his life he had listened to adults complaining about how corrupt and useless the Ministry was, what a liar every politician in it was and how people with money were practically above the law.
He had said nothing he hadn't heard them say a thousand times, yet his father and Sirius chuckled at his words. "A fan of the Ministry, my son," his father drawled. "We should let him write Tom Riddle's speeches."
"Harry, you know what one of my teachers once told me? He said that good dictatorship is better than good democracy," said aunt Aurelia, "but even bad democracy is better than bad dictatorship."
"And since we are very, very good at making things bad," Sirius continued. "We chose democracy… Or whatever twisted form of it the Ministry has invented. You can ask Tom Riddle for full report of the destruction of our society because of the government's incompetence."
James Potter nodded. "The catch is, once a monarch has the absolute power, there's nothing that guarantees that he'll to his duty and care for his people. Absolute power corrupts absolutely or something like that. In democracy, at least, the masses give their representatives power but, if the representatives want to keep that power, the people have to be kept relatively satisfied."
"But you're not satisfied!" Charlie exclaimed, very confused. "You're complaining about politicians all the time!"
The adults around the table laughed as if that was the funniest thing they had ever heard. "And we'd have complained about any lord or autocrat, if we had one, Charlie," uncle Remus said in his usual patient voice. "I'm sure that if some deity came down in order to rule our world and create the perfect society without suffering and misery, people would still find reasons to complain."
"Like those damn angels that always take the best clouds and walk around half naked," Sirius suggested.
Harry thought about that. "But we have magical vows," he said reminded, "that can make sure that the ruling king does his duty. Then we wouldn't need the Wizangamot."
"Have you ever heard of someone in the Ministry taking a vow?" His father snorted. "They won't agree to do it. If they did, our dear council members would die like flies. Besides, vows can be twisted however it suits you. The spirit and the letter of the law, de facto and de jure and so on."
"But you can't twist an Unbreakable, dad." Charlie chipped in.
"That you can't." James admitted.
Harry grinned widely. "Being a king sounds awesome."
"Of course it sounds 'awesome' to you." Charlie chuckled. "Kings only order other people around. It's your dream job."
"There's much more to being a king than ordering people around," Aurelia said and regarded him curiously. "Would you enjoy being a king, Harry?"
"Why not?" Anyone would. "I'd be king and Charlie will lead my aurors."
His brother grinned. "Deal. There'll be no one to stand in our way."
"My little sons scheming to take over the world," their father cooed tenderly and paused as if to commit the moment to memory. Then he added innocently, "And what will your beloved father get?"
"Anything you want, dad," Harry promised with a smile. "Anything you want."
James Potter laughed. "Now there's a king I'd follow."
Harry's bond with his father had always been special. It wasn't one born of similarities, the way it was with James and Charlie, but it was special nonetheless. With Charlie, their father laughed and shared jokes and made all kinds of childish pranks, but to Harry he talked honestly, like an equal. "Charles is everything James was at eleven… Arrogant and stubborn and reckless and a little bit cruel sometimes. But noble too, and brave; the best friend you could ever ask for," his uncle Remus had told him once. "But you, Harry, remind me more of Lily. And of your grandfather, I think. James doesn't always understand you, not as easily as he understands Charlie, but he loves you just as much. Never doubt that."
That was why Harry wasn't surprised when, a few minutes after the Potters had returned from Tinworth and gone to bed, the door of his room opened and his father asked if they could talk. Harry nodded and pulled himself up with a smile. He was nervous about going to Hogwarts the next day and a talk with his dad always helped him tame his fears. James was more sombre than usual, though, and he sat on the edge of Harry's bed with a heavy sigh, as if he didn't like what he was about to do.
"Son, you know I love you, right?" his father asked and looked at him with pity and sadness in his eyes. Harry raised an eyebrow. "Yes, I know. I love you too, dad. Are you going to get sentimental about us starting-"
"And you know that Charlie is famous, right?" was the next question and this one not only surprised Harry, but confused him as well. They had had the Talk about Charlie's fame years ago, when he and his brother had been about four or five. "The Boy-Who-Lived, yes," he said dryly. "I have heard it mentioned once or twice when we go out. Why?"
James sighed again. "Well, since you two are going to Hogwarts tomorrow, I thought that I should warn you, Harry. The kids you're going to live with, the kids you'll share seven years of your life with, they have grown up with the legend of your brother. He won't be just an ordinary student to them. They will watch everything he does, they will talk about everything he does and they will tell stories about many things he's never done as if they were true. And some of the friends he makes may be his friends only because of his fame and not despite it."
"Yeah, I know," Harry said. But he didn't, not really. He was used to the thought that, in public, Charlie would always be the centre of all attention. Grown wizards and witches wanted to shake Charlie's hand, to take his autograph, to have a photo taken with him. They sometimes cried like children when his brother said so much as a few awkward words of compassion to them. Harry knew that - even if he had always been a bit bitter about being shunned aside as soon as it was found that he was only Charles Potter's twin - and he didn't care much. He didn't care because the Potters only rarely went out in public and, at home, he was just as important as his brother. His father's words, however, made him realize, with a great amount of terror, that life in Hogwarts would be life in public. In Hogwarts, Harry would never be as important as his brother.
"No, you don't know," his father said with sadness in his voice. "I already talked to Charlie about this, but I think I should talk to you as well… because you won't be just an ordinary student either, Harry."
Harry looked up at him with surprise. "What do you-" Then the realization hit him. "I'll always be his twin, won't I? The brother of the famous Boy-Who-Lived." His father nodded. "I didn't want to talk to you about this until now because it's not fair. You shouldn't have to live with something like this… But neither should Charlie and I'll do you both no favours if I don't warn you about it. People can be very cruel sometimes, son, especially when talking about people they consider famous. They will talk about Charlie, and will consequently talk about you, as if you have no feelings, as if they have a right to discuss your lives and choices and words. And you won't be able to ignore it because you will be living and sleeping and eating with those people. I think it won't be any easier for you than it will be for Charlie."
"What should I do?" Harry asked. He wasn't nervous about starting school anymore. He was angry. Angry at classmates he didn't know for things they hadn't yet said and maybe never would. His father sighed. "Just be patient, son. Most of them will always compare you to Charlie. You can't do anything about that but ignore it, the same way Charlie can do nothing but ignore what is said about him. You will, eventually, find people who think of you as Harry, not as the brother of the Boy-Who-Lived, but you'll have to be patient. Most of your classmates are just kids who are raised to think of Charlie as a hero. Many of them will be dazzled by him at the beginning and, even when talking to you, may be more interested in him than they are in you. Don't get angry, son. Answer their questions and show them who you are."
Harry wanted to argue but his father raised a hand to stop him. "I'm not saying you should be friends with people who only use you to get to Charlie," he stressed. "Don't ever think about doing that. But you should give your classmates some time to get over the fact that their hero is not living with them. After the first few days, if someone is still only asking you about Charlie, then you cut them off and go talk to someone else."
"I will try to be patient… for the first few minutes," Harry promised darkly. He had grown up without his mother so he didn't know if uncle Remus was right that he resembled her. But he knew that he was his father's son as well. Harry had too much pride to allow himself to be used by someone because of Charlie's fame. Accustomed to his family's unconditional love and attention, he thought that he'd rather be alone than a mere shadow of his brother. "I can't promise I won't curse anyone, though."
"Well, I never said I wanted a saint for a son," his father said and a slow grin appeared on his face. "I just hope you're not like me when I was your age. You make sure you don't kill someone, kid, and we're fine."
"Did you kill someone?" Harry asked, then thought of the Dark Lord and his Death Eaters and added, "While you were at school."
His father's smile withered. "I almost did."
The voice was poignant but icy and Harry knew that he wouldn't learn more about the subject, not for some time at least. So he decided to ask his father a question that had bothered him for the last few months. "Dad, what if I'm not in Gryffindor?"
His father regarded him thoughtfully for a moment, then smiled. "Are you thinking about Ravenclaw? Your brother will declare himself a prophet, you know. Hope you're ready to endure it."
"What if I'm not in Ravenclaw either?" demanded Harry.
"Hufflepuff will gain an excellent student," James said and his smile widened. "When you mature, you realize there's no one more deserving of respect than a person who works hard toward his goals, is loyal to his friends and just to his enemies."
"And what if I'm… not in Hufflepuff?"
His father laughed now. "Then Slytherin will gain an excellent student, won't it?"
Harry's surprise must have shown on his face because his father stopped laughing and scratched the back of his head. "That's what I get for joking so much about evil Slytherins, I guess," he muttered, then fixed Harry with a rather serious look. "Son, I don't think there's anything wrong with Slytherin. It's probably hard to believe me right now, considering how often your uncles and I joke about it, but it's true. Those jokes are just a way for us to return to our childhood, when things were simple and school rivalries mattered, but that's all they are – jokes. While we were in Hogwarts it was important, of course. We made a great deal of noise about house rivalries. But then we graduated, looked around the real world and realized that, in the end of the day, those things were just games. They don't really matter, not once you leave school."
Harry smiled. "Really?"
"Believe me, the only adults who aren't your teachers and care about school houses are those with arrested development," his father said. "You think I don't want my sons to be ambitious? Of course I do! You'll have to support families one day, to make something of yourself, and I hope you aim as high as you can. You think I don't want my sons to value knowledge and intelligence? Or hard-work? It doesn't matter if you're not in Gryffindor, son. You don't have to be in Gryffindor to be brave, in Ravenclaw to be smart, in Hufflepuff to be just or in Slytherin to be ambitious. In the name of Merlin, the most treacherous little coward I know was a Gryffindor."
Peter Pettigrew, Harry thought. It was the name of a man he had never met, but a man he hated more than anyone in the world. The Dark Lord had attacked his home, killed his mother and almost killed his brother, and Harry hated him for it, but everyone knew that the Dark Lord was a monster, the most evil man in the world, if he was even human. Peter Pettigrew, though, had been a friend of his family and he had sent them all to their graves the minute he had betrayed them to his master. Harry loathed him with his whole soul.
"You want to know what I think now about the Sorting Hat, son?" his father asked suddenly and Harry nodded because, really, how could he say no? Tomorrow he would have to put it on his head, in front of the whole school. "I think it doesn't care what we are. It can send cowards to Gryffindor, traitors to Hufflepuff, halfwits to Slytherin and illiterates to Ravenclaw. Bravery and intelligence and loyalty and ambition are traits we all posses, in different degrees. The hat doesn't care about the traits we posses; it cares about the traits we chose to believe are important to us."
"That practically means that… we chose which house we want to be sent into?" Harry demanded. He wouldn't have to worry about anything if he could just choose where to go. Not Gryffindor. Never.
"To a certain degree, we do," his father said. "But I think the way we've lived our lives to that moment is also important. If you've always valued both bravery and ambition, it can let you chose between Gryffindor and Slytherin. But if your whole life you haven't cared about books or knowledge, you won't get into Ravenclaw, no matter how much you beg."
Harry waited for a few moments, but then he couldn't help himself.
"Well, at least we know where Charlie won't be," he drawled and burst out laughing when his father punched him in the shoulder. "Mocking your brother, eh? Just wait until you're sorted into Slytherin with all the others evil bastards, Harry. You'll be disowned immediately."
"You're really getting old, dad. You just almost told me you won't disown me for getting into Slytherin."
"I wouldn't be too sure about that…"
"I am pleased to welcome two new members to our ranks this year. First, Professor Burbage, who has kindly consented to fill the post of Muggle Studies teacher," Albus Dumbledore announced after the sorting was done. Harry studied carefully the greying woman who waved to the hall with a nervous smile, and decided that she was harmless. While students in other houses welcomed the new teacher with applause, he was one of the few Slytherins who joined in. A tall, dark-haired girl with blue eyes and rich robes and a plump blonde with glasses were the only other first-years who dared breach the stony silence of their housemates.
"Professor Quirrell, meanwhile," said Dumbledore, "will be taking over the position of Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher." A pale, blad man stood up from his place on the dais and gave his students a reserved nod. Harry thought that he seemed stiff and cold and wondered if he would be the same in class. Not that it mattered to him; he had already gone twice through all first-year books.
Dumbledore then warned them not to wander into the Forbidden Forest and sent them to their beds. Harry caught his gaze and was given a small nod that meant the old wizard saw nothing wrong with him being a Slytherin. Harry smiled in return; so Charlie would be the only one he would have to deal with. His brother hadn't looked at him since the hat had been lifted from his head.
When the prefects called for their attention, Harry used the disorder to head toward the Gryffindor first-years. Some of them looked at him suspiciously, but none moved to stop him. Each and every one of them knew who he was and that was the moment when the meaning his father's words truly dawned on Harry. It was true that he would never be invisible to his classmates, but he would be visible in perhaps the worst possible way: he was the Boy-Who-Lived's brother. Everyone expected him to be the jealous, less talented Potter and, with him being sorted into Slytherin, even the evil one in the eyes of some of them. "We need to talk," he told his brother when he reached him.
Charlie's mouth was set in a thin line, his jaw clenched. "Is there something to talk about?"
"Obviously, there is," Harry said. "Or you wouldn't be glaring at me as if I stole your stupid chocolate frog cards collection."
Charlie didn't even smile or try to defend his collection, as he usually did.
"Why Slytherin?" he asked. "Why not Gryffindor or Ravenclaw? Why the Death Eater's training camp?"
Harry sighed. Never before had he felt more strongly his gradual estrangement from his twin. Slytherin was the house of ambition and, if Charlie knew anything about him, he would have known that there was no other house Harry could have been sent to. "Charlie, Slytherin is not a Death Eat-"
"Potter!" a voice bellowed and they both turned, startled. A thin man with greasy black hair and hooked nose was making his way toward them. Harry had rarely seen so much hostility directed toward him from a stranger. "Do you think your housemates are supposed to wait until you have finished your chat with your famous brother, Potter?"
"No… Professor," Harry said. The last word he added only because he remembered that this man had been seated next to Quirrell on the high table. "I wasn't expecting anyone to wait for me. I would have caught up with them later."
"And if you'd gotten yourself lost, the prefects would just have to miss out on some sleep to find you, wouldn't they?" the man hissed. "Your attitude will not be tolerated in my house. You might be labouring under the delusion that the entire school is supposed to function in accordance with your whims… but I don't care about inflated egos, Potter."
"Neither do I." Harry said.
The man narrowed his black eyes at him. They were filled with malice. "Congratulations, Potter. For your remarkable impudence, you're the first student who gets detention this year. Tomorrow night Mr. Filch will for you in his office." His finger pointed toward the door of the great hall. "To the dungeons. Now."
"Yes, sir. "Harry clenched his teeth, sent his brother a look that warned him that the conversation was far from over and rushed to his housemates. Only then did he notice that all the students left in the hall were giving him and the barmy git, who was now attacking Charlie, strange looks; as if there was something not quite right in the situation.
When he caught up to his year-mates, the dark-haired girl who had clapped for Professor Burbage turned to him with a frown. "What did you do to Snape?" she asked.
So that was Snape. Harry had heard of him from his father and uncles, but he had never seen him in person. Now that he had, he didn't feel like had been missing out on anything. "Nothing," he said. "I was born."
"The older students say that usually doesn't punish us," the girl informed him. By 'us' she meant the Slytherins. "To give you detention on the first day… I'd say you're not exactly his favourite student. Any idea why?"
"My father and godfather weren't exactly his favourite classmates," Harry replied, then stretched out his hand. "Harry Potter."
The girl lifted an eyebrow at him. "I know."
"Well, that was the nicer way of asking what your name is." He hadn't withdrawn his hand and she took it with a smile. "Daphne Greengrass."
"I see that at least one of you knows not to mingle with the wrong sort, Potter," drawled a voice to his left and Harry turned to see a tall, grey-eyed boy with light hair and sharp features. His hand was stretched out toward Harry. "My name's Malfoy. Draco Malfoy."
After thinking briefly about it, Harry took his hand. He didn't like other boy, but he had no intention of antagonizing him without reason. Malfoy looked like someone who could be very, very annoying. "I think we missed each other on the train. My brother said you paid him a visit," Harry said and was pleased to see Malfoy's pale cheeks tint with pink. Back on the train, Charlie had gone on at length about this boy's arrogance and the nasty jinx he had flung at him. After the first twenty minutes Harry had almost regretted not falling down the toilet.
"Is it true that your brother was trained by Dumbledore?" a rabbity looking, scrawny boy with brown hair asked before Malfoy could say another word. From the sorting Harry remembered that his surname was Nott. So another child of a Death Eater.
"We were trained mostly by our father and some of his Auror friends," he replied casually, as if he didn't realize that his answer would be copied word for word in Nott's and Malfoy's next letters to their fathers. "But Dumbledore stopped by from time to time, too."
Dumbledore had given him advice, just once, on the movement required for performing a Levitation Charm and his father and Sirius had taught him and his brother only the basics, before they even had their wands, but his classmates didn't need to know those details. Harry was confident that he could handle himself well enough in a duel for the lie to be convincing, and the more other students were wary of challenging his brother – the longer Charlie was going to stay out of trouble.
"I hope," said the dark-skinned boy who had been sorted last, "that you're tougher than you look, Potter."
"I think I'll be alright." Harry smiled. He remembered that the boy's name was Zabini. "Thanks for the concern… ah, I don't think we've met. What's your name, actually?"
"Blaise Zabini," the boy said with a scathing look. "Don't think too highly of yourself, Potter. You're only known because of your brother. Without his fame, you're nothing."
"Now, don't be so bitter, you're known too," Harry said. "How's your mother feeling with her new husband? I hope this one doesn't die and leave her rich. Isn't it just terrible when people do that?"
Malfoy snickered. He seemed like someone who could laugh at anyone's expense but his own. Daphne Greengrass was smiling too, though.
Soon they reached the common room. It was hidden behind a wall in the cellars. Because of its position directly under the lake, prefect Gemma Farley explained, the light in the room had a green tinge. Low backed black and dark green leather sofas and dark wood cupboards were scattered throughout the room, with buttons and skulls engraved in them. It was sumptuous and grand, with an air of detached coldness to it, and Harry decided that he liked it.
Most of his year-mates headed toward one of the sofas and waved to him to follow, but Harry sat on one of the empty sofas and pulled out the thick book his father had enchanted to fit into his pocket. He knew he would have to learn to tolerate them, but he was tired and didn't want to start just yet.
Daphne Greengrass sat down beside him. "That book isn't on the list."
He gave her a nod. "I already finished them. And a few others." He didn't need more than two weeks to go through one of his father's old student books, and he had had four years.
"You don't like them very much," she noted. She meant Malfoy, Nott and Zabini.
"I don't like bigots," Harry said.
She lifted an eyebrow. "I don't like them either, but… just out of curiosity, who do you consider a bigot?"
"An idiot who thinks muggles are inferior and hate them."
"And you don't?"
"I don't think they're inferior," Harry answered, quietly. A glance at her told him that she hadn't caught the meaning behind his words. He really didn't think that muggles were inferior, not in masses.
But he had said nothing about not hating them.