This chapter ends up being mostly dialogue, which I absolutely detest but which is necessary for the plot to continue. I am sorry if it is not as exciting as you may have hoped. It has also not been beta-read, so if you come across any really tragic typos or grammatical mistakes, let me know and I'll fix them.
It was so much worse at Hogwarts than it had been on the train. The second he was back on school grounds, Harry could feel the unabashed stares of the student population. There was a constant whispered hum of conversation, from which he could only reliably pick out his own name. People looked at him, paused, blinked nervously and looked away again. It was maddening.
Upon finally arriving at the castle, Harry found himself immediately confronted by the looming shadow of Professor Snape. He stood head and shoulders above the students - and many of the teachers, actually - and they split and streamed around his implacable form like a brook meeting a boulder.
"The headmaster wishes to see you," he drawled, looking at Harry like he was something that had recently crawled out from beneath a rock. That ongoing murmur of furtive gossip grew briefly louder.
Harry sort of preferred it when Snape had just been pretending he didn't exist at all.
"You can't be in trouble already," muttered Draco quietly, nudging him with one elbow. "We've only been back on school grounds for five minutes!"
"Did you have something to add, Mr Malfoy?" Snape asked. His flinty eyes flicked from Harry to Draco and back again. They were being left behind by the other students.
Draco shook his head. "No, sir." He spared one last glance at Harry before taking himself off to the Great Hall.
Snape said nothing. He just watched Harry continue to the stairs and toward the headmaster's office. Harry could feel his eyes on the back of his neck right up until he turned a corner and left the professor's line of sight.
The office was unchanged: polished wood, stone floors, rugs and portraits, brass models and heavy leather-bound books. It had a sweet, comforting smell of old books. On its perch, the phoenix blinked sleepily at Harry.
Voldemort was still angry to be here. It was astonishing how Dumbledore could make the Dark Lord lose his composure just by, well, existing, basically.
Harry only had a few moments to ponder the weird assortment of knick-knacks the Headmaster had collected over the years before Dumbledore interrupted him, appearing in a swish of heavy blue and red fabric.
"Ah," he said, "Mr Potter. Welcome back to Hogwarts. Sit, sit," he gestured him into the seat on the opposite side of Dumbledore's desk.
Harry perched nervously on the edge of his chair. He didn't need Voldemort's sharp reminder to keep from meeting the man's eyes.
For a few long seconds there was silence. Dumbledore looked very weary.
"Er," said Harry, when the pause had stretched for what seemed like whole minutes. "Sir?"
Dumbledore heaved a sigh. "Harry," he said, peering intently at him. He clasped his hands on the polished top of his desk, leaned forward attentively. "I called you here today because I owe you a very great apology."
Whatever he'd been expecting, it wasn't... that.
It even cut through the throb of Voldemort's anger in his head.
"Erm," said Harry. "Sorry?"
The headmaster sighed again. "It was I who placed you with your mother's muggle family when you were a baby," he said pensively. His attention was not really on Harry anymore. His gaze was lost in some private middle distance. "I knew that your relationship with them wasn't ideal. But I never for a moment thought -" he paused. He shook his head. "I am extremely disappointed in Petunia and Vernon, and I want to extend to you my sincerest apologies."
"I... see," said Harry. Politeness said he ought to thank the man, but he wasn't feeling very grateful. It had been Dumbledore, then, who had delivered him to the Dursleys.
Asinine, to think that muggles could raise a wizard without succumbing to their own pathetic fears and fantasies, hissed Voldemort.
They couldn't really be expected to understand a Wizarding child, Harry agreed bitterly.
And to think, whispered Voldemort's insidious voice, you could have lived with your cousins.
Narcissa. And Draco.
What a different life that would have been.
Harry rubbed his scar.
Dumbledore sighed heavily. "I am truly sorry, Harry," he said, and the weight of the sincerity in his voice made Harry's chest ache. Dumbledore, after all was said and done, was nothing more than an old man trying his best.
Idiot boy. Voldemort made a noise like a kettle boiling over. If you think that, you haven't been paying attention!
"With that in mind, I have something for you - something which was left in my possession to give to you, and which I ought to have relinquished to you some time ago, I think," he produced a cloak of some light, silvery fabric and passed it across the desk to Harry.
Hesitantly, Harry reached out to touch it. It felt almost alive. Soft, but not furry.
That... Voldemort's voice trailed off. That's not demiguise hair, he said after a second, curiously.
Harry had no idea what he was talking about. "What is it?" he asked Dumbledore instead, peering at the strange fabric.
"I think, Harry, that you are very likely to find that out on your own," he said with a small, muted smile. Some of the twinkle had returned to his eyes.
It's an invisibility cloak, Voldemort supplied, impatient with Dumbledore's oblique explanations. They're usually made from demiguise hair. I've never seen anything like that before... his voice was full of that same nagging curiosity that Harry had mentally labelled "trouble incoming".
Harry rolled the cloak up and dropped it onto his lap. He could play with it later. "Sir," he said, interrupting what looked like Dumbledore gearing up to broach an unpleasant topic. What could be less pleasant than that much-belated apology, Harry didn't know. "Can I ask... on the train, Weasley - that is, Ron Weasley," he clarified, remembering that there were, somehow, Weasleys all over the castle, "he mentioned that you... you told him I was lying about the Dursleys. For attention."
He didn't meet Dumbledore's eyes, but he didn't have to see his whole expression to feel the man's weariness. "I think under the circumstances it's not unfair to ask." He paused to reflect for a few moments. Then, carefully, he went on: "I believe Ronald has misinterpreted a conversation I had with his mother."
There was another one of those long, considering pauses. Harry couldn't tell if Dumbledore was just tired or if he was trying to judge how much information to trust Harry with.
He knew he definitely didn't want it to be the latter.
I don't imagine he suspects anything, Voldemort said, but his voice was tense. Even if Voldemort didn't want to acknowledge it, Harry knew that the only person by whom he really felt threatened was Dumbledore.
"...Sir?" Harry prompted, examining the wire rim of his half-moon spectacles. It was about as close as he could get to looking him in the eye.
Dumbledore smiled faintly. "When Ms Skeeter published her account in the papers some weeks ago, Molly Weasley was... very distressed. She sent me a howler." He coughed. "Several howlers, actually. She wanted to secure your immediate release into her custody."
"Into her custody?" Harry blinked.
I wouldn't have picked the Weasleys as having that kind of political acumen, Voldemort mused. Certainly not the Prewett girl.
Does it have to be politically motivated? Harry wondered.
Why else would some muck-dwelling, poverty-stricken muggle-lover want to adopt an extra child? Voldemort asked scathingly.
He probably had a point.
"She has many children of her own. I believe she considers herself something of an expert on raising young wizards at this point," Dumbledore commented cheerfully. "I went to visit her to explain the situation better than the papers might have - I am not, of course, your legal guardian, so I have no authority to hand you over to Mrs Weasley."
"I'm a ward of the State," Harry nodded. He knew that much, at least, from the many newspaper articles. "But what does that have to do with -?"
"I'm afraid I expressed my view that facts may have been exaggerated for the benefit of the reading public," he admitted, adjusting his glasses with one hand. "I meant, of course, that Ms Skeeter is famous for, er, putting her own spin on certain matters when she writes." For a second he looked slightly annoyed, but just as quickly the emotion vanished.
That, Harry could believe. Rita Skeeter was a menace.
"I hadn't considered that I might be the subject to the interpretation of an eavesdropping eleven year old, but I'll be sure to take that into consideration in future," he added with a certain twinkling good cheer.
Do you think he's telling the truth? Harry asked cautiously.
He's a good liar, Voldemort admitted, with something like a mental shrug. It's hard to say.
Harry nodded. "That makes sense," he agreed aloud. It also corroborated what he knew about Mrs Weasley acting so strangely on the platform.
"Now," sighed Dumbledore regretfully. "There was one last thing I did mean to discuss with you, Harry. It's about your place of residence."
"Sir?" Harry prompted, although he had a sinking feeling he knew where this was going.
"It would be completely unconscionable to ask that you remain with your mother's family at this point," Dumbledore began.
At last, thought Harry. Something we agree on.
He felt a flash of annoyance from Voldemort, however, that he wouldn't get to make a better study of the wards. It was very nearly lost in the general anger Voldemort experienced just being close to Dumbledore.
"We will need to arrange somewhere else for you to stay during the summer months." He held up one hand to forestall Harry when he opened his mouth to interrupt. "I am very aware that the Malfoys have offered to allow you to stay with them," he said. Then he heaved a heavy sigh. "Harry, you must understand: I'm sure it seems difficult to believe, but the Malfoys were some of Voldemort's staunchest supporters, and they lost a lot when you defeated him that night."
"You're saying they're dangerous," Harry murmured. It was basically what Mrs Weasley had said to him at the train station.
"I'm afraid so, Harry," Dumbledore said gravely.
There was a hole in the headmaster's argument that Harry could see: if the Malfoys were such a danger to him, why had they not taken the opportunity to hurt him while he'd been under their roof? It would have been a perfect time to claim he'd been driven crazy or become crippled by abuse. It could even be spun to forward their campaign against muggle rights in general.
Harry frowned thoughtfully. He wasn't sure how much of that he should say. It might not be good for the headmaster to learn how much he understood about the political situation. "They haven't hurt me yet," he said slowly. That, at least, was relatively safe.
"I'm very glad to hear it," said Dumbledore, smiling gently. "However, for the time being, I think it's best that you reside somewhere else when you're not at Hogwarts."
"You just said yourself that you're not my guardian, sir," said Harry as politely as he could. "If you can't release me into somebody's custody, you can't prevent me from returning to somebody else's," he pointed out.
For a moment there, Dumbledore looked very old.
"I understand that you don't want to be separated from your friend Draco, Harry, but you must understand that the Malfoys are very dangerous to any wizard of your background, and you in particular."
It was infuriating that everybody seemed so certain that the Malfoy family was, at best, a bad influence. At worst they seemed convinced that the family was out to murder him.
The worst part was that Dumbledore was probably right, at least up to a point. Harry was a half-blood wizard with a muggleborn mother. It wasn't as bad as being a muggleborn himself, but it was hardly the sort of lineage a respectable wizard would boast about.
But they'd done nothing, really. They'd taken him away from the Dursleys, helped him make his report at the hospital, taken him in...
If they had wanted to murder him, any one of them had been given ample opportunity.
At this point, I doubt their goal is to kill you. Lucius is more of an opportunist than a long-term planner. Such an elaborate murder plot isn't his style, Voldemort mused. Although I wouldn't beatify any of them just yet, he added cynically.
But Harry's sense of fair play was roused and he clenched his jaw. It was extremely unfair, in his view, that the whole family was supposed to be some kind of terrible threat to him when they'd never done anything to suggest that might really be the case.
A flicker of memory, prompted by Voldemort, brought the image of the diary to mind, and Harry had to revise his assessment: they hadn't done very much to suggest that might really be the case.
Harry was aware that he'd been silent for too long, contemplating the various injustices that popular opinion had wrought upon the Malfoy family. Dumbledore was examining his face as though he might find a clue to his thoughts in his expression.
"He's my cousin," said Harry flatly.
The old man blinked. "Pardon?"
"He's my cousin," he repeated. "Draco's not a friend. He's my cousin."
"Ah." Dumbledore looked at Harry without speaking for a few long moments with an expression on his face indicating that Harry had done something very unexpected all of a sudden. "I see," he said slowly.
There was a hint of some terrible sorrow in his blue gaze when he said: "It is a sad fact of life, Harry, that even family can pose a danger. Sometimes even the greatest danger."
At least ten viciously sarcastic answers to that comment presented themselves. Harry held his tongue.
"It would be my advice to seriously reconsider your options," said Dumbledore finally, when it had become evident that Harry wasn't going to talk anymore.
"I will," agreed Harry. He could agree to that, at least. "If it's possible," he went on, "could I please have the key to my Gringotts vault? The goblins said you had it."
There was no hesitation when Dumbledore said, "Certainly, Harry. I'd quite forgotten I had it."
Harry doubted it. So did Voldemort.
But there hadn't been any indication that he was unwilling to hand it over. I wonder why he kept it?
Control, Voldemort suggested, sounding very certain. He wanted you to have to ask him for it.
Harry wasn't entirely certain. Sometimes Voldemort's interpretation of people's behaviours was spot on, but other times... well, it sometimes just revealed more about what motivated Voldemort.
It took Dumbledore close to ten minutes to find where he'd stashed the thing, and Harry sat in silence while he wandered around the office, looking under the random assortment of bric-a-brac and murmuring things like: "It's just like socks, Harry, always in the last place you look..."
Finally, though, he produced a tiny key made from some kind of bronze-coloured metal. Harry glanced at the vault number on it, popped it in his pocket, and rose to thank the headmaster.
Dumbledore smiled and released him back into the corridors of the school.
Harry quickly stuffed his new cloak into his book bag. It seemed like a bad idea to let any of the other students see it.
He just wants to remove you from the Malfoys and put you with a family he trusts to influence you in his direction, Voldemort commented as Harry headed down a flight of stairs toward the dungeons.
That was Snape's voice. Harry froze. "Sir?" he said, stopping to review where he was and what time it was and if, somehow, he'd been doing anything wrong.
"Come," he said, and his hand closed like a cold vise on Harry's shoulder, just long enough to spin him around.
"Where are we going, Professor?" he asked carefully. There were so many places in the castle he didn't want to end up. The Defence office, for example.
Actually he didn't really want to end up in Snape's office, either.
Snape, however, didn't answer - he just swept through the corridors like a huge, menacing shadow, sucking the joy from a few jumpy students as he passed.
Like a dementor, murmured the younger voice, sounding very far away, and Harry thought that if Snape was part dementor, that would explain a lot of his behaviour.
As they walked, however, it became clear that they weren't going anywhere dangerous, but rather up to the infirmary.
"Severus?" Madam Pomfrey looked them over. Her expression turned sympathetic when she saw Harry, and Harry's gut did some angry flip-flops.
People, he thought, were going to be looking at him like that for a while.
You brought it upon yourself, said Voldemort.
"Poppy," Snape said. His voice, when he wasn't addressing Harry, was actually rather pleasant: deep and velvety. "I need you to cast some diagnostics to confirm the statement from St Mungo's regarding Potter here," he said baldly.
Pomfrey looked surprised. "You do?" she looked at Harry. "Are you feeling unwell?" she asked in a voice that was a little bit confused. Feeling unwell wouldn't usually necessitate the presence of his Head of House, after all.
"Not especially," Harry hedged uncertainly.
Pomfrey turned her attention back to Snape. "Hasn't the boy had enough attention in the past few weeks?" she asked drily.
"That," said Snape, "is precisely the point."
"Are you saying I'm lying?" Harry blurted indignantly, stunned into talking.
Snape didn't even glance at him. He seemed to be regarding Harry as a kind of obnoxiously talkative furniture.
"I would by no means put it past Potter to go along with some puerile little plot to manipulate the political climate," hissed Snape. The hand that Harry could see was white-knuckled, clenched tightly over his biceps. "I'm sure the publicity and the outpouring of public sympathy would appeal to his character... such as it is."
"You don't even -"
"Mr Potter," growled Snape. "Hold your tongue."
Harry shut his mouth with a click. He clenched his jaw. This was ridiculous. He doesn't even know me, he complained. He never even talks to me.
He knows Lucius very well, though, Voldemort's cynical amusement washed over him.
Pomfrey looked dubiously down at Harry. "We've already received notification from Healer Lancelot at St Mungo's," she said. She hesitated, like she wasn't quite sure how to continue the topic with Harry standing right there, glowering between her and Snape. "The evidence of abuse is very sad, but there's nothing to suggest that it's been fabricated."
"People lie, Poppy," said Snape with a bitter twist in his voice. "Confirm it. Perform the diagnostics."
"You're wasting my time, Severus," she said in a voice that was warm with the beginnings of anger.
"Yes," he drawled, "I can see your time is so precious that you'd rather loiter here arguing ineffectually instead of simply casting the spells. We'd be done by now if you weren't set on being recalcitrant."
Pomfrey eyed him as though the idea of Snape accusing somebody else of recalcitrance was too ironic to contemplate. "Very well," she sniffed.
She made some obscure gestures with her wand with a fierce expression of concentration and muttered an incantation. A dull glow obscured Harry's vision for a moment, and then Pomfrey was holding onto a scrap of parchment that seemed to have written itself.
"There. You see? The results are perfectly consistent with Healer Lancelot's. A few weeks of good food and proper healing should look exactly like that." She patted Harry gently on the head and showed Snape the parchment.
Snape grunted, which Harry took to mean that he was incapable of refuting her diagnosis. From the supercilious little smile she gave him, Harry thought that Pomfrey had probably come to the same conclusion.
"What's this?" Snape asked in a voice that was suddenly much sharper. One of his long, white fingers tapped the parchment.
Her smile faded and she shook her head. "Residue in the curse scar. It's not unheard of, as a phenomenon... although obviously there's never been one quite like that before."
"Very well," said Snape. "Come, Potter," he added, sweeping away.
Harry considered telling Snape that he was not, in fact, a dog, and required more than simple,peremptory orders to ensure his obedience.
Let it slide, said Voldemort. If Snape's going out of his way to make your life hard I'll never get to the Stone.
Harry felt the strongest urge to roll his eyes.
"You're welcome," said Madam Pomfrey as they exited the infirmary. Snape ignored her.
That was how Harry found himself in Snape's office. The chair on the students' side of his desk was unmercifully uncomfortable, as though he'd chosen it specifically to ensure that nobody stayed longer than they were welcome.
The room itself was dank, dimly-lit, and lined with shelves of glass bottles. Their contents were mysterious and ugly: bits and pieces of animals, floating plants. Harry found his eyes wandering over them, wondering about their contents. In one corner was a fireplace, but it was cold.
Harry was not entirely certain what he was doing there, but since talking just seemed to make Snape angrier he decided not to ask. He supposed he'd find out anyway.
Snape finally approached the desk, holding a pile of dusty... something. He loomed over Harry for a few moments.
"I am in the unfortunate position of having an obligation to ensure the safety and well-being of students under my care," he told Harry flatly.
Deep inside his head, Voldemort snorted softly.
"To that end, I am required to provide a degree of support to students in your circumstances." With a thump, he dropped what he was carrying onto the desk. Harry was surprised to find that they were largely piles of pamphlets.
Snape moved quickly and efficiently with deft fingers, sorting out bits of parchment and shaking some of the dust off them before dropping them in front of Harry. The last item was a slender book with a bright blue cover that read: "The Law And You: Minors Living Out of Home."
Harry peeled open the front page and found that it was a guide to the legal issues he might encounter while either navigating the problem of custody or trying to have himself emancipated.
That could be surprisingly helpful.
Among the other things were pamphlets about where to go for free counselling, who to write to for advice, and even one about what Hogwarts could do to help children in his situation. There was a note on the back of that one that suggested he could receive counselling from his Head of House.
Harry could not see that ending well.
He glanced up at Snape. The man's dark eyes were flinty. "Do you have any questions, Potter?" he asked in a voice that indicated that he'd better not have any questions.
"No, sir," said Harry.
If he had, he wouldn't have asked Snape.
"Then why are you still here?"
Harry jumped up and scrambled to collect the pile of parchment he'd been given.
Snape put away his stack of pamphlets and turned back to class schedules like Harry wasn't even there anymore. It was probably for the best.
"That man hates me for absolutely no reason," he grumbled as he stalked toward the Slytherin common room.
It's astonishing you're even passing Potions, Voldemort agreed serenely.
When he entered the common room, there was a brief hush as people paused to turn and look at him. It was probably at least half paranoia that made him feel like everybody was staring at him, watching his every tick and twitch, passing constant judgement. He took a deep, resigned breath. It was only natural to turn to see who had entered the room.
From the enchanted windows, he could see that the sky outside was already dark - and had been dark, probably, for some time. He'd taken a long time to make it from the train to his common room.
Pansy waved at him from a leather couch. "Harry! Come here, I need you to help me with my Charms homework," she said, batting her eyelashes in a way that looked very silly on an eleven year old girl.
"Do you mean the Charms homework you had two weeks to do?" wondered Nott, glancing over her shoulder to see her book.
"Holidays are for relaxing, not studying," she said with a sniff.
The conversation in the room resumed, and only a few students turned to eye Harry as he picked his way across to his friends. Draco was curled in a high-backed armchair like a little prince on his throne and only waved lazily. The blond was chatting with false amiability to Zabini, who looked distinctly unimpressed with the situation, but who wouldn't dare not to answer him. Especially not with Crabbe and Goyle hulking around.
Harry made a good effort to actually help Pansy with her homework, but he quickly determined that she wasn't actually interested in doing it - in fact, she'd done most of it already. Instead she seemed to be more invested in discussing her holiday and asking Harry strangely specific questions about Rita Skeeter.
"My mother works in PR for the Ministry," she said casually when he asked. "I think nothing would make her happier than Skeeter going suddenly missing."
"I think," said Harry, eyeing the paper that some third year across the room had produced, "that a lot of people feel that way about Skeeter."
More than one head nodded in response to this comment. Quickly after, Tracey Davis launched into the story of Skeeter's horrible newspaper campaign to discredit one of her favourite Quidditch players.
"Absolute rubbish, of course," she said fiercely.
Harry tuned her out, looking blankly at the Charms text balanced on Pansy's knees. He felt tired and wrung out, but also not quite as bad as he'd been expecting. Maybe the term wouldn't be as bad as he'd predicted.
We still need to get the Stone, Voldemort said, rather cynically reminding Harry of how very much could still go terribly wrong.
Comrades: I'm two months (or so) late to the party so I have no idea what kind of reviews I even need to respond to at the moment. I've been making an effort to PM the people who asked questions, but I've probably missed a few. This update brought to you by a friend who guilted me into updating 'because we need an update' and 'even if you hate the chapter and you don't want to think about it you have to move the plot along' and 'it's BEEN TWO MONTHS' and 'JUST POST IT.'
I do, however, remember that any number of reviewers were concerned about how I was characterising Dumbledore and some were distressed that he'd be a maniacal cardboard villain. To which I say: oh, ye of little faith.
Edit: thanks to Comrades Bassclone13 and stay-stark for pointing out some typos. I fixed it. Good work guys! :)