Disclaimer: I do not own anything from Harry Potter.
General Warnings: AU, language, violence, not dead!Regulus, Harry-gets-a-secret-second-godfather... sort-of
Author's Notes: I reread the first two chapters, and then I literally wrote this up from the first word to the last in fourteen hours over the past two days.
"And you are?" The goblin peered up at Reg. Before Harry could scramble for a fake name, the older wizard had already cut in smoothly.
"Castor Grey," Reg replied with the ease of someone who was telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. "I own a private law firm, and I've been hired to act in the capacity of Mr. Potter's lawyer."
Harry tried to look like this wasn't news to him when the goblin glanced sharply between the two.
"Follow me," The goblin grunted at last, and led them further into Gringotts.
"You're a lawyer now?" Harry whispered under his breath.
"Hush," Reg murmured back, though he sounded amused. "Lawyer's always the best cover in a bank."
Harry rolled his eyes, and then muttered, "Why Castor Grey?"
"It's relatively close to my own name, not to mention I've used the alias before, looking exactly like this," Reg revealed mildly once the goblin had instructed them to wait before disappearing through a door on the left. "And I actually have a bank account here under that name, one I haven't used in a good long while."
Harry flicked a glance up and down the older wizard. Reg actually didn't look all that different save for the fact that he had changed his hair colour to a dark crimson. The man had opted to keep his eyes grey, though they seemed darker when matched with vivid red hair instead of his original raven black. One could never mistake him for a Weasley however; the hair was darker than the Weasley red, and there was just something far too refined about Reg – even in disguise – for anyone to put the man into the same category as people like Ron with his foot-in-mouth habit or Ginny with her – previous – constant stammering and blushing and – current – brasher personality.
"Mr. Potter," An older-looking – and most likely higher-ranking judging by the first goblin's respectful bow before he took his leave – goblin stepped out of the door, eyeing both Harry and Reg with shrewd eyes. "And... Mr. Grey. Come this way. I am Steelclaw. I understand you wished to discuss some monetary issues regarding your vaults, Mr. Potter?"
Goblins were never ones for wasting time. Unfortunately, Harry wasn't exactly one hundred percent clear on what he was doing here in the first place beyond I just realized half an hour ago that people I thought I could trust might or might not have been stealing from me for years now.
"Er, yes," Harry fumbled out as they sat down, casting an anxious eye at Reg who nodded back with encouragement. He straightened and took a steadying breath, stomping down hard on the nervousness that almost always came whenever Harry encountered something new in the Wizarding World. It didn't help that Steelclaw was currently staring at him with thinly veiled impatience.
"Earlier today," Harry started again. "A withdrawal was made from my trust vault, probably by either Mrs- I mean, Molly Weasley, or Bill Weasley. I was wondering how they managed to get in. Did they have a key?"
Steelclaw arched an eyebrow but said nothing as he rifled through a few documents piled on the desk between them. "Ah yes, a withdrawal was made at four-sixteen this afternoon from Vault 687. Molly Weasley was granted access since she was the one who had produced the key. William Weasley was not present as far as the records say. At the very least, he did not accompany his mother down to your vault." A sharp glint of suspicion entered Steelclaw's eyes when he turned back to Harry. "Judging by your enquiry, might I assume that you did not give her your key?"
Harry nodded numbly, the first poisonous barbs of betrayal seeping into his gut even as he dug into one pocket and pulled out his own key. Why would Mrs. Weasley-? "I have my key here. Whatever key she used, it wasn't mine. Or at least I didn't give it to her. I- didn't even know any other keys for my vault existed."
Steelclaw's eyes narrowed, and when he held out one long-fingered hand, palm up, Harry passed his key over to the goblin.
"This is indeed your trust vault key," Steelclaw's voice came out in a growl this time, and Harry instinctively stiffened. "...But I have no record of any orders being put in for one since you entered Hogwarts so this must be an old one. Your parents are dead-" Harry flinched minutely at the bluntness. "-so your magical guardian must have given this to you, correct?"
Harry blinked, automatically glancing at Reg for clarification. "Uh, 'magical guardian'?"
"That would be Headmaster Dumbledore since your next of kin are Muggles and an internationally wanted criminal," Reg expounded coolly. "Both of whom are unacceptable, so since your name would no doubt have been down on the Hogwarts student registry since birth what with who your parents were, the Hogwarts Headmaster would be... allowed to take up that responsibility."
He paused for a beat. "But as I told you earlier, Dumbledore is still only your headmaster. 'Magical guardian' is a misleading term; it does not mean he is your guardian in the sense that Sirius Black would be if not for his status as a convict. Essentially, Dumbledore should only have the power to manage your money with your best interests in mind. He does not have the power to – for example – withdraw money for his own personal use or have direct access to your family vaults, nor is he allowed to make copies of your key and hand them out to whomever he pleases. At least, not without consulting you, and gaining your permission first."
"Headmaster Dumbledore should not have the power to do anything with your money at this point in time," Steelclaw cut in scathingly while Harry's head still reeled from the onslaught of information. "Mr. Potter was declared an adult last year on the thirty-first of October. Therefore, all keys should have been returned to Mr. Potter's ownership, and any of his keys in anyone else's possession should have been given to them by Mr. Potter alone."
"...What?" Harry said faintly.
"I beg your pardon?" Reg said, sounding infinitely more dangerous.
When Harry swiveled around again to look at his godfather's brother, he couldn't help wincing at the glacial what-the-bloody-hell-have-you-not-told-me expression staring back at him from behind impassive grey eyes.
Problem was, Harry wasn't sure what was going on either. October thirty-first... that was when he had been chosen to participate in the Triwizard Tournament-
"When you were chosen to participate in the Triwizard Tournament, Mr. Potter," Steelclaw interjected over clasped hands, and Reg was suddenly very still in his seat. "Willingly or not, the fact that you were not withdrawn meant that both your magical guardian and the Ministry of Magic acknowledged you as an emancipated minor. From that day onwards, you have been an adult in the eyes of the law."
Harry just sat and stared. He was an adult?! Why hadn't Dumbledore told him? What was he supposed to do now?
"Begging your pardon, Steelclaw," Reg spoke up in the ensuing silence. "I'd like to have a private word with Mr. Potter. It shouldn't take more than a few minutes."
Steelclaw looked mildly annoyed by this delay but didn't seem quite as irritated as he could've been under any other circumstances. With a curt nod, the goblin rose to his feet and stalked out of the room, door thunking shut behind him.
"Now then," Reg began with a pleasant smile that didn't reassure Harry in the slightest. Almost distractedly, the wizard pulled out his wand and cast a few non-verbal privacy spells around them. "What's this about the Triwizard Tournament, Harry?"
With a grimace, Harry realized that he had told Reg about the graveyard and the ritual and Cedric and even how Barty Crouch Jr. in the guise of Mad-Eye Moody had been the one who had orchestrated the entire trap, but he hadn't exactly told the man how he had gotten there or any of the events that had led up to the resurrection of Voldemort. And he'd forgotten that Reg had been in a coma and that there had to be some things that Kreacher wouldn't have known to inform the man about once he had woken up.
"The Triwizard Tournament was held at Hogwarts last year between my school, Beauxbatons, and Durmstrang," Harry explained, and hurriedly, he launched into a summary of the events that had taken place throughout his fourth year. By the time had finished, Reg was shaking his head.
"Well, at least your life isn't boring," The current redhead remarked dryly. "If I had known, I would've dragged you to Gringotts earlier. This brings up quite a few points, such as your mother's wards – they shouldn't even be active anymore. Also, you should be able to perform magic outside of school, so either you can, or someone's tagged your wand with something akin to the Trace. The Trace is a powerful automatic tracking charm that detects magic done around underage wizards," Reg added when Harry opened his mouth. "All wands bought at most wand shops have them; it's standard Ministry procedure."
Harry nodded, leaning back in his chair and feeling exhausted. "So... now what? Apparently, I'm an adult, Dumbledore's doing I-don't-know-what with my vaults, and Mrs. Weasley might or might not be in league with him. That sounds like something straight out of a movie even to myself."
Reg snorted, getting to his feet and heading for the door to call Steelclaw back in. "First things first – we get you a new key so that the other ones floating around out there will be useless. Then we go from there."
Harry scrubbed a hand through his hair and sighed. How he was going to even look Dumbledore in the eye ever again without feeling like he wanted to punch the man in the nose, he didn't know.
Two hours later saw Harry taking his leave from Gringotts, Reg at his side, a ring on his finger, a new key in one pocket, and a wallet connected directly to his family vaults and keyed to his magical signature in his other.
It hadn't been difficult for Steelclaw to produce a new key, and while he was at it, Reg had also suggested moving the contents of his trust vault back to his family vaults for even better security, which Harry had agreed to.
Harry would've agreed to anything in the name of security at this point.
Because Dumbledore had been stealing from him.
Oh, not that much, in the greater scheme of things since the old man couldn't get his fingers into Harry's family vaults directly, but the trust vault refilled itself each year up until Harry physically turned seventeen since that was how his parents had set it up, or until Harry himself merged it back with the rest of his gold, which he was now allowed to do since he was technically of age via the Triwizard Tournament. Since Harry only withdrew money at the beginning of each year – sometimes not even, this year case in point – he would have no idea if someone else with his key withdrew anything unless he came and asked to see the records.
And while Dumbledore hadn't removed anything too significant each year if Harry placed the total sum of his family vaults under consideration, it was still stealing, and what was worse, he had no idea what the Headmaster was using the money for. That alone put Dumbledore on Harry's shit list, and it was only after Reg had told him to take deep breaths and focus on his Occlumency shields that he hadn't lost his temper right then and there.
At the very least, it didn't look like Mrs. Weasley – or anyone else – had taken anything, at least not personally anyway. That didn't change the fact that she had his – now useless but still his – key, as did who knew how many others, and he hadn't been the one to give it to them.
But then, Harry knew how personable and convincing Dumbledore could be. And it wasn't as if Harry had kicked up a fuss about it when Mrs. Weasley had gone to buy his books for him. It wasn't as if she was going to use her own gold to foot his school supplies, especially when her family was tight on money already.
Harry really should've realized that for himself.
After the meeting, Steelclaw had offered to take Harry down to his vaults just to have a look around, something that Reg had bowed out of, instead requesting to take a look at Harry's wand in the meantime just to check for tracking charms. Harry had readily given it up, only for his mentor to smack him over the head for parting from his weapon so easily. And then the man had pressed his own wand into Harry's hand, citing that it wouldn't work quite as well but it would do for an emergency. Steelclaw had watched all this with an air of disgruntled exasperation, and Harry had heard the goblin grumbling under his breath about paranoid wand-carriers as they'd departed for the cart.
Harry's family vaults had been nothing to scoff at. He had a chain of five vaults, all of them filled with gold or magical artefacts. It was absurd how rich he was. His combined wealth made his trust vault look like spare change. When asked, Steelclaw had told him loftily that the Potters were ranked right up there with the Blacks, and above the Malfoys, something which Harry had taken quite a bit of vindictive glee from upon hearing this.
Following the tour, Harry had returned to his mentor, only to find-
"Your wand, Mr. Potter," Reg drawled as he extended Harry's wand. "Trace-free."
Harry accepted it with grateful hands, blurting out his thanks even as he passed Reg's wand back to its owner.
"There was a tracking charm then?" Harry enquired as he sat down next to the former Black heir again.
"Yes, but not just the standard one," A frown creased Reg's brow. "There was an extra component added to the charm that would alert the Ministry – whoever cast it would've been able to find you anywhere whenever you used your wand, not just when there's a case of underage magic." He cocked his head. "It's fortunate that you haven't cast any magic during our study sessions."
"But who would do something like this?" Harry burst out, but even as he did, the image of a bearded old man popped up in his head.
Reg offered him a thin smile. "You have a good idea already; you don't need me to spell it out for you. Still, it is only a guess. I would advise against accusing the Headmaster of anything right now. This is a card you should only play when you can make the biggest impact and reap the highest amount of benefits."
Harry nodded mutely. He could see the sense in that. Dumbledore's name might be mud in their society at the moment but the man himself still had numerous supporters and experience while Harry... not so much.
"He'll know that the Trace is gone though, once I do magic in class and nothing pings on his radar," Harry brought up with a grimace.
Reg tapped a finger against the arm of his chair. "True. ...Well, I suppose you should just blame it on the Dark Lord."
Harry blinked. "What? How?"
Reg arched an eyebrow. Harry huffed and racked his brain.
Why would Dumbledore believe the lack of the Trace on his wand would be because of Voldemort? Sure, they had duelled (again) at the end of his fourth year, and their wands were brother wands...
"Oh!" Harry perked up. "I could just blame it on all the heavy spellwork that was going on at the graveyard last year, and that Priori Incantatem thing! Even Dumbledore couldn't tell me much about that connection, and if he asks, I could just tell him I have no idea how it happened. I haven't used any magic since June."
"Yes," Reg agreed with a lazy smirk. "And if he doesn't back off, you can also innocently ask him how he knows that the Trace isn't tagged to your wand anymore. Phrase it correctly and he'll be guaranteed to leave you alone about it."
"I swear that's some form of blackmail," Harry muttered.
"It's called a veiled threat, Harry," Reg told him airily. "Or subtle intimidation. Of course, your esteemed Headmaster won't see it that way if you maintain your naive schoolboy Gryffindor facade."
"But I won't be slacking in my studies anymore," Harry said stoutly.
Reg scoffed, leaning forward and picking up a scroll. "I should hope not; I would be rather disappointed if you received anything below an E in your upcoming OWLs."
Harry unconsciously straightened in his seat. Nothing below an E; good thing he was aiming for all Os then. Harry had asked once before, and Reg had admitted to achieving straight Os in both his OWLs and NEWTs. So come hell or high water, Harry would bring home as many Outstanding OWLs as he possibly could.
He lingered on that resolution, and then side-eyed Reg who was currently studying the scroll, all elegant poise and regal air of a king even when executing so simple an action.
It was incredibly strange, Harry mused with a sudden, almost terrifying clarity, that someone like this, someone so unlike all the people he had regularly interacted with up until now, someone like Reg who was an ex-Death Eater and a Slytherin and the complete opposite of the quintessential Gryffindor, had somehow become 'home' to him.
"Is something the matter?"
Harry blinked back into the present, and hastily shook his head when he found that Reg had caught him staring. Reg looked more than a little skeptical but the man dropped the issue without further comment, handing him the scroll instead.
"The Potter properties," Reg explained as Harry scanned the frankly ridiculously long list. "More specifically, your properties since you are now the Lord of the Noble and Most Ancient House of Potter."
"...These are all mine?" Harry gaped, stunned. "But... there are five estates in Britain alone, and more all across Europe! I have a chateau in France!"
"No, you have two chateaus in France, an art gallery, and a chain of restaurants that your family owns," Reg corrected, amusement flickering at the corners of his mouth as he handed Harry another scroll. "Of course, I believe quite a few of them have had to close what with no Lord Potter to handle employment contracts and outsourcing for the past two decades or so, not to mention keeping an eye on the profit margin and the investments in... I've lost you, haven't I?"
Harry nodded numbly, the first stirrings of panic twisting his gut. "I- Reg, I don't know any of this stuff. What am I supposed to- I don't know how to handle any of this."
"Understandable," Reg observed him for a second longer before tipping a faint smile at him. "I will teach you. I was raised to take over all the businesses and investments that the Blacks have their fingers in, you know. Being a Lord isn't just about strutting around and flaunting your wealth and power. It takes meticulous care and effort to preserve that wealth and power, and while there is such a thing as delegating, it is the Lord of the House who is responsible for the majority of the work."
"I never knew," Harry mumbled, still trying to wrap his mind around all the businesses that the Potters apparently had a share in. Even the Daily Prophet was on here, though only a sixth of it was his, and with the way things had gone with that newspaper so far, it was increasingly tempting to simply jump ship and cut all ties with the Daily Prophet.
A pale hand gently plucked the scrolls from his clutches. "For now, how about you focus on digesting what you've learned, and you can come back to these later?" Reg suggested with something that was almost sympathy.
Harry groaned and leaned back in his chair. "Looking at people like Mr. Malfoy, you'd never guess that they would ever have to lift a finger in their entire lives. And you can't possibly convince me that Malfoy – Draco – knows this stuff back to front?"
"Well, he still has both his parents," Reg's shoulders lifted in a shrug. "And the Malfoys have been financially, politically, and socially secure for years; they have no reason to rush his education. Draco is your age, yes? He would be learning the ins and outs of the Malfoy businesses right now, but he wouldn't know everything, and he certainly wouldn't know how to maintain his family's assets wisely, especially if he's as spoiled as you say he is. And in the event that someone does off Lucius, Narcissa would be regent until either Draco is ready or the boy insists on seizing full power when he reaches his majority."
"Three guesses as to what he would choose," Harry groused, only to be rapped on the head with Reg's knuckles.
"He could be a good ally," Reg reminded him by way of admonishment.
Harry made a face. "He's Malfoy!"
Reg sighed. "You don't need to like him to benefit from him. The Blacks were once one of the most powerful families in all of Europe but trust me when I say that we were not well liked. Still, there were smaller family lines that struck alliances with us so that they would come under our protection, and in turn, they prospered because of it." He tilted his head, and something darker, a ruthless sort of amusement that reminded Harry of the background that Reg had been raised with, flashed through his eyes. "Well, not all the time. Those who couldn't hold up their side of any deal with us paid for it tenfold."
Harry examined his mentor for a long moment, watching as Reg slanted a borderline uneasy glance over at him before those dark corners were carefully tucked out of sight again, as if the former Black heir was ashamed of that part of himself, or maybe ashamed that it was there at all for Harry to see.
It's okay, Harry wanted to say. It's okay if a part of you is like that. You don't have to hide it. I won't judge.
He didn't necessarily agree with all of Reg's views, but the man didn't scare him or disgust him either whenever his crueller character traits reared their heads. This was Reg, who had accepted Harry like Harry had once wished Sirius – anyone – would, teaching him and encouraging him and giving him a hand when he needed it no matter how exasperated he got with Harry's Gryffindor tendencies or unknowing naivety or all the holes in his magical education.
"Steelclaw should be coming back with your family ring," Reg carried on before Harry could phrase his thoughts into something less sentimental that wouldn't mortify them both.
"Oh," Harry cleared his throat. "Er, family ring?"
Reg inclined his head. "A mark of your station, and some of the wards around your estates, like the Potter Manor, would require the ring to bypass. It can't be worn by anyone other than the family head either. The family magicks engraved on the ring in runic form would prevent it."
"It probably wouldn't be a good idea for everyone to know though," Harry frowned, trying to remember if Mr. Malfoy went around with a ring. He did, didn't he? In fact, more than one.
"Nobody with any sense would wear something so important for the whole world to see," Reg interjected as if reading Harry's mind. "Not even my own father or Lucius would. Who knows what could happen? No, the ring stays invisible on your hand unless you will it otherwise. Most lords only wear them openly when attending important ceremonies or Wizengamot sessions."
That was good then. Harry was still uncertain over whether or not he should tell Ron and Hermione all of this, though he was mostly leaning towards not. It wasn't that he didn't trust them... well okay, that was a lie. With the way things had been going between them lately, he couldn't trust that word wouldn't reach Dumbledore or one of the Order members, especially if one of them – Hermione mostly – was convinced that he needed adult guidance in these matters. He didn't want to chance revealing his newly discovered heritage to Ron either; the redhead was already jealous enough of his fame and trust vault. Who knew what would happen if the other boy got wind of Harry's overall wealth?
He heaved a sigh and ran a frustrated hand through his hair. How could anyone's life change so much so frequently?
"Hey, Reg?" Harry sat up when a thought hit him. "You know how you said I could delegate some matters? And you also said that a regent could be appointed, right? Or, well, you didn't say that, but you said Mrs. Malfoy would be regent if Mr. Malfoy died and Mal- Draco wasn't ready."
Reg raised his eyebrows in silent enquiry, though knowing him, Harry was fairly certain that the former Black heir had already connected the dots.
"So could you be my regent?" Harry asked hopefully. "If I delegated things to you? I could just- I don't know, appoint you as my regent, right? Just until I learned all this stuff?"
Reg was silent again, a weight behind his silver gaze that made Harry want to fidget.
"If I was even halfway like my old self," The man remarked at last, voice chillingly calm, and this time, it was Regulus Black speaking, the man who would've been named the Head of one of the Darkest and most powerful families in all of Europe if he hadn't almost died. "I would ruin you, Harry."
Harry could only frown in consternation. Reg sighed, and the Pureblood persona stepped back into the shadows.
"I've told you again and again – you're too trusting, kid," Reg shook his head ruefully. "I would call you insane if I didn't know how little understanding you have in these matters. Yes, you can appoint a regent; that is your right as the family head, and a contract would be drawn up that would state how long you would hand over all authority to the regent, but you should never, ever put so much power in the hands of a non-family member. Or even a family member you don't explicitly trust. I'm a Black, Harry. If you had offered the same to my father, there wouldn't even be a Noble and Most Ancient House of Potter anymore; he would've agreed, and then he would've had the freedom to merge the Potters under the Blacks, and you wouldn't have a single say in the matter."
"Well then it's a good thing I would never offer your dad the position of regent," Harry scowled and crossed his arms. "I'm not stupid, Reg. I know you're a Black. I offered because you would actually know what you were doing, and I trust you not to do anything that isn't in my best interests when it comes to this."
Reg's eyes were like twin frozen lakes on a bleak winter day. "Then you'd be a fool, Harry Potter."
Harry stubbornly jutted out his chin. "I know what I'm doing. You wouldn't stab me in the back."
"Wouldn't I?" A sarcastic sneer curled at Reg's lips. For all that it matched his aristocratic appearance perfectly, it still didn't seem to fit his face. "You have known me for less than two months. Who says I won't betray you in the end, especially if the Dark Lord comes a-knocking? You, for my life?"
Harry snorted, and all at once, the tension leaked out of his body because that was easy. "You turned on Voldemort sixteen years ago when there was absolutely nothing in it for you. If things had gone according to your plan, no one would've ever known you had betrayed him. You would've died with everyone believing you to be a coward, or at least a Death Eater, and you were okay with that. But-" Harry squared his shoulders. "But you have me now. I know the truth. And-" He smiled a bit, stamping down on his embarrassment. "And you said so yourself – you like me. I'm your favourite godnephew. You'd never let me down like that."
Reg's features were very still; they might as well have been chiseled from marble. But his eyes came alive again, a glimmer of light warming them once more, and it was a relief because as reserved as Reg could be, this was the man Harry was used to, not the other one who hid behind unfeeling eyes and the frigid scorn and derisive superiority of a Black-moulded Pureblood.
"Don't think so highly of yourself," Reg reprimanded mildly but there was no real reproach behind the words. His statuesque mask cracked, and the academic genius who enjoyed good banter and red wine and had an old house-elf for a best friend slid to the forefront again. "You aren't my favourite anything, but since dear old Siri has his head so far up his arse that he's forgotten all his responsibilities, someone has to pick up the slack."
Harry laughed. Honestly, who did Reg think he was kidding?
"So you'll be my regent?" He persisted.
Reg's expression softened but the man shook his head. "No, I won't. Listen to me, Harry, that sort of thing, even if you trusted me completely, if word got out, you'd be seen as weak. 'Can't even control your own House', they'll think, 'Having to resort to letting someone outside the family to keep you afloat'. It's suicide in the eyes of the other Noble Houses, and unofficially, your standing would drop, you'd lose respect, and you can't afford that, especially not right now with you being the last Potter. They'll be circling you like sharks for the rest of your life, and I won't do that to you. Even if I'm a dead Black, families like Malfoy and Lestrange and Nott will remember that I was once the Black heir, and Sirius is only the head of the family now due to circumstance. He didn't earn it, he's not suitable, and no one in the Pureblood circle would respect him even once his name is cleared. They would think the same of you if I took control and repaired some of the damage that stagnancy has created before handing it all back to you."
Reg paused, surveying Harry with the air of someone reading an open book. "If you don't understand what I'm saying now, you will one day, and you'll thank me for it. The Potter dealings have held up for this long gathering dust; they'll hold up for a while longer. I'll teach you everything you need to know but I won't play regent for you."
Harry glanced down at his hands. Reg was right in that he didn't fully understand why Reg being his regent was that bad a thing. After all, did it really matter that much if people like Mr. Malfoy looked down on him for trusting a friend with his assets and gold? It wasn't as if Harry cared what they thought.
"See?" Harry said brightly just as the door swung open to admit Steelclaw. "You're looking out for my family reputation already."
Reg sighed in defeat and threw a spare quill at him. Harry caught it and grinned.
Regulus inwardly grimaced at the ache between his shoulder blades. He was getting old, and Merlin, that was a thought his inner eighteen-year-old would like to rebel against. Then again, he had just spent several hours poring over Harry's newly found worldly goods, and giving the boy an overview over everything he didn't understand.
Which was a hell of a lot. Regulus didn't know what Dumbledore was thinking keeping the kid's heritage from him. How did the old man think Harry would survive in the political world once the Dark Lord was gone for good? Without even the most basic knowledge of the Potters' influence in the Wizarding world, Harry would be blindsided when he had to take up his duties. That, or the Noble and Most Ancient House of Potter would fade into obscurity, its power base lost forever. Of course, none of that mattered if Voldemort killed him first.
Regulus glanced surreptitiously at the kid beside him, focusing briefly on the lightning bolt scar.
Could it be...?
He faced forward again. It didn't matter, either way, because – as much as Regulus hated to admit – Harry had hit the nail on the head. The kid was important to him now.
Regulus didn't have a lot of things that were important to him. There was Kreacher, of course, and Sirius, no matter how much bad blood lay between them. He could even go so far as to say he wouldn't want anything to happen to Severus either despite the fact that they had drifted apart after Severus had graduated. Cissa and Andy – no matter how much he had liked them – didn't really count anymore. So of those three ties, only the first actually gave a damn about him. Even believing Regulus to be dead, Sirius still hated him.
But there was Harry now. So Gryffindorishly naive that it sometimes made Regulus want to yank his hair out, and yet the boy had the annoying tendency to see right through Regulus when it came to more... emotional matters. For someone who had been mistreated by his relatives for most of his life, Harry genuinely seemed to trust him, which was... mind-boggling.
Nobody trusted Regulus, not really. Sirius hadn't trusted him since he'd fallen in with Potter (though to be fair, Regulus hadn't trust his brother either since the first time Potter had strung him up to the ceiling by his ankles and Sirius had only laughed). Severus had been a good friend for several years before the war had torn them apart as well.
But Harry trusted him, trusted him with his family assets, for Merlin's sake, and only after a month and a half of knowing each other. Who did that? Who could be that ludicrously gullible?
Regulus wasn't a good man; he knew that better than anyone. He had blood on his hands that he would never be able to wash off, and even now, even though he wouldn't go out of his way to do it, it wouldn't bother him either if he had to kill a few Muggles in self-defense or to accomplish his goals.
He wondered if Harry understood that. Sure, the boy knew of his distaste for Muggles in general, knew he had been a Death Eater once upon a time, knew he had once been the epitome of a prince befitting the Black House, but did he understand to what extent? Was that why Harry found it so easy to trust him? Because he hadn't yet seen just how Dark Regulus could still be despite having betrayed the Dark Lord?
The kid was lucky then. If Regulus had even a fraction less of decency, he wouldn't have turned down all that power – every single last bit of the Potter estates and investments literally handed over to him on a golden platter, and Regulus had refused. Walburga Black must be rolling in her grave.
And what the hell the idiot boy was thinking just offering all of that influence over to a Black, Regulus didn't know.
Then again, he supposed Harry wouldn't know much about this either, if at all. He doubted Sirius had waxed poetic about some of the downsides of the Black line, like how their family magicks – no matter how Light the castor proclaimed themselves to be – would always be Dark-inclined, or the madness that dogged their family's footsteps and eventually closed its jaws around every last one of them sooner or later, or even that hunger for power that manifested in all of them in some way or another. After all, most of the Blacks had been swayed towards Voldemort's cause despite the fact that the madman had no qualms killing Purebloods as easily as he would Muggleborns, but he was strong, arguably stronger than Dumbledore, and he preached blood purity – that was all that mattered.
Sirius hadn't been entirely exempt either. He had leeched onto James Potter like a sloth to a tree, and he'd never looked back. The Sirius that Regulus had known before his brother had hopped off to Hogwarts would never have allowed anyone to shoot so much as a stray spell at Regulus without retaliation, much less be one of the participants.
Harry wouldn't know any of this though, and even just thinking about all the information that the boy should've started learning years ago, information that Regulus would now have to teach him as quickly as possible, gave him a migraine.
Nevertheless, Harry was depending on him, had faith in him in a way that nobody else had ever had, and Regulus couldn't help but want to live up to the kid's expectations.
Sixteen years ago, he had walked into that Inferi-infested cave prepared to die, and that had been for himself, to prove that he could still draw the line and say enough was enough.
Now he had a fifteen-year-old teenager on his hands, a boy in over his head in this war, a target on his head courtesy of the Dark Lord, malicious defamation aimed at him courtesy of the Ministry, and a meddling old man attempting to manipulate him courtesy of the Hogwarts Headmaster.
Harry was a good kid through and through in spite of all the shite life had thrown at him, a better person than Regulus any day of the week, and he'd somehow wormed his way behind Regulus' defenses, and then refused to leave. So, if Regulus was willing enough to die for himself, then he could certainly do the same for Harry Potter.
The boy in question was a bit pale at the moment, drawn in a way that Regulus hadn't seen since the beginning of their acquaintance. Not surprising; tonight had shaken the kid's worldviews up a little.
"Would you like to go somewhere?" Regulus asked abruptly, affecting an indifferent air when he felt Harry's eyes flick up to peer inquisitively at him. He gestured at the dark-before-dawn sky. "We still have approximately an hour before sunrise; I could Apparate us somewhere if you feel you want to spare a moment to clear your head instead of heading straight back." He looked out down the street, studiously avoiding Harry's startled gaze. "My cumulative knowledge of the Muggle world isn't much even compared to Sirius but I can manage destinations, and I doubt those relatives of yours took you to very many places when you were a child, so where would you like to go? Big Ben? Westminster Abbey? Tintagel? That will take me a few jumps though. Are you even interested in that sort of thing? You are fifteen right now. But most shops are closed at this time, and it would be unwise of me to sneak you out during daytime so you'll have to settle for the sights and a Lumos if you want to see anything right now."
A long silence ensued. Regulus frowned at the horizon in the distance. Perhaps he shouldn't have brought the Muggles up; Merlin knew he didn't like being reminded of the majority of his blood family either.
"...Could we go see the ocean?"
Regulus glanced down. Bright green eyes stared back at him eagerly.
"I've never seen it," Harry clarified, a wistful look darting across his features. "I'd like to, if we could? And a beach would be nice."
Regulus quirked a bemused smile even as he clasped a hand around Harry's forearm. "It can be done. You want for little, Harry."
And then he turned on his heel and jumped, focusing on one of the private beaches owned by the Black family. The wards didn't stop either of them – Regulus had Black blood, and Harry was his tagalong.
They landed ankle-deep in the sand, and Regulus was thankful that he was wearing boots. At the height of August, the night air was cool against their skin. Harry, wearing summer robes and a simple shirt and jeans underneath, didn't seem affected at all. Even Regulus, excluding the constant chill in his bones nowadays, only adjusted his scarf instead of casting another warming charm on himself.
"Wow!" Harry breathed, lurching forward, and Regulus glanced up, following his brother's godson's line of sight.
Well, he supposed it was a rather awe-inspiring sight. The ocean sprawled out in front of them, dark and deep and ancient, deadly in its vast beauty, and the near-black white-crested tides broke against the shore in even intervals before pulling out again. The whoosh of lapping water filled their ears, along with the lazy rumble of the more distant yet significantly more formidable waves, and as Regulus gazed out at the deceptively tempered sea that seemed to extend onwards forever, it was easy to feel very, very small.
Regulus had no desire to break the silence with the jarring noise of human words, and Harry seemed equally content to simply wander the beach, staring out across the ocean as the wind ruffled his hair and tugged at his clothes. Regulus found a nearby log and sat down, taking out his wand and lighting the tip as he kept one eye on his temporary charge and another on the skyline.
It was peaceful here. Regulus didn't like water much, not after the cave, but he was out in open space with nothing but the star-studded sky above him and soft sand beneath, and the sound of the waves was soothing. Things like the Dark Lord and Horcruxes and wars and idiot older brothers didn't seem to matter as much in the face of something that had been here long before any of them had existed, and would still be here long after they were all gone.
It was with a great amount of reluctance that – thirty minutes later – Regulus rose to his feet and meandered down to where Harry was lying on his back on the sand, close enough to the ocean that the swell of waves splashed his shoes every time they rushed in, and utterly fearless despite the potential threat of being dragged into the water with the tow of the tide.
"Harry, time to go," Regulus murmured quietly.
Harry made a disappointed noise, barely audible over the muted roar of the sea, but the boy sat up and clambered to his feet without complaint, stretching languidly even as Regulus waved his wand at him to dry his clothes.
"I like it here," Harry confessed. "Do you think we could come back sometime?"
"Perhaps," Regulus allowed. "I'll at least bring you here again before you return to school." He glanced behind him at the beach house sitting on the terrace. Did Sirius know about this place? Well, even if he did, he certainly wouldn't be vacationing here anytime soon.
"I could have this place cleaned up, and give you access, at least until one of your own beach houses is in liveable conditions again," Regulus held out a hand, preparing to Apparate them away. "Perhaps, if you can get away, I can bring you here over the Yule holidays."
Harry looked surprised and delighted in equal measure. "Well," The kid smiled wryly. "It's not like I have any relatives worth visiting."
Regulus smirked back, equally sardonic. Those Dursley Muggles might contract heart failure if Harry showed up on their doorstep for the holidays. What a shame.
"Harry, you have to stop secluding yourself."
Harry didn't bother looking up from the text he was studying. "I really don't because I'm not. Can I help you, Hermione?"
An agitated huff was his answer, followed by, "I told you, Harry, you've been acting strangely. We're just worried."
"Mm-hm," Harry hummed absently as he reviewed the fire runes. He was serious about transferring to Arithmancy and Ancient Runes (after some contemplation, he had decided that while he regretted disappointing Hagrid, he couldn't stay in Care when he couldn't see himself needing it in the future, and he was only sabotaging himself if he continued taking that course just to make Hagrid happy), so Regulus had drawn up a study schedule for him accordingly, compacting all the fourth-year material as much as possible so that Harry just might have a chance of convincing McGonagall come September to let him transfer. It was lucky that he was a natural at Arithmancy; it meant that he didn't need to spend all that much time on that subject, but no matter how good he was at Ancient Runes as well, that area of study still required a lot more of his attention.
Out of the blue, a hand shot into his line of sight and snatched his book away. Harry almost went for his wand as irritation surged up from his gut. It probably didn't help that – ever since he and Reg had returned from Gringotts, and after Reg had both assured him that the Trace was definitely gone, and that even if it wasn't, performing magic in the vicinity of a magical plot of land would not bring the Ministry down on his head – Harry had spent the past four nights practicing magic and activating runes, overall getting used to drawing his wand whenever he pleased. The desire to summon back the book that Reg had lent him was almost overwhelming.
"Hermione, give that back!" He snapped instead, gritting his teeth when Hermione held it out of his reach and even began flipping through it. "Hermione!"
"Where did you get this?" A familiar bookworm gleam entered her eyes. "I didn't see this in the lib-"
Harry wasn't known as an excellent Seeker for nothing, and in one fluid motion, he rolled off his bed and swiped the book back, as careful with the spine as he would with a Snitch's hummingbird wings.
"Yes?" Harry pinned her in place with a flat stare that made her mulish glare falter. "I'm not in the wrong here, Hermione. Don't take my things without permission."
Hermione scowled. "It's not yours, you know. It has the Black insignia on the cover."
"But it's not yours either, and I'm working with it," Harry sighed, moving back to his bed. "You have no right coming in here and taking whatever you want."
"You don't even take Ancient Runes!" Hermione rallied hotly. "You can't possibly tell me that you actually understand what that book is even about."
Harry could feel a headache coming on. He couldn't understand what was wrong with his friends these days. Why were they always getting on his case, just because he had been happier than usual lately? Was that illegal now? "Whether or not I understand it is my business. Now I've got a lot of work to do; if all you're here for is to nag at me about Cedric again, I'll have to ask you to leave."
"I'm not nagging you!" Hermione retorted, bristling. "I'm trying to help! There's something wrong with you, Harry. You're even talking oddly!"
Harry threw his hands in the air. "Has it occurred to you that I might just be growing up? Look, I already explained that I've made my peace with what happened at the cemetery. I've sat both you and Ron down and told you a little about Reg. I've even shown you the crossword puzzles we did together, and spoke what little French I learned from him as proof that all your suspicions are wrong! What more do you want from me?"
"Just because that Muggle taught you a few things doesn't mean I'm wrong!" Hermione shot back defensively, and Harry inwardly groaned. Maybe he shouldn't have used that particular wording. Hermione hated being wrong.
"Just, please, leave, Hermione," Harry turned back to his extracurricular homework. "I need to get this finished."
Before tonight, Harry added silently. He had pretty much switched his hours around at this point, getting his sleep from around five in the morning to noon. Mrs. Weasley had looked like she wanted to protest when Harry started skipping breakfast but Sirius had stepped in and waved it off, citing that it was the summer holidays and Harry could do as he pleased, and it wasn't as if he was skiving off from house-cleaning either; he still joined them for a few hours in the afternoon. And after that night in the dining room, Mrs. Weasley had backed off just a little when it came to ordering people around. Or at least she no longer ordered Harry around. For now. Something about him talking back to her had startled her, as if she hadn't thought Harry had had it in him.
"I thought we were friends, Harry," Hermione's voice was almost meek.
Harry bit back another sigh and looked up again. "We are friends, Hermione, and I've tried to see it from your point of view, I have, but have you looked at it from mine? Why can't you just trust me when I tell you that I'm not repressing all my angst or something?"
He didn't want to keep arguing about this. It was pointless and frustrating and did nothing except put them at odds with each other even more. He supposed it was fortunate that Ron wasn't here to put in his two Knuts.
"But Harry, you don't-"
They both jumped when something from downstairs obviously fell over, and then Mrs. Black's painting started screeching again, throwing the entire household into an uproar once more. It was enough to distract Harry from his rising temper, as well as Hermione from her diatribe, enough that she only glanced back disapprovingly at him one more time before scooting out of the room to investigate along with a crowd of other people stampeded down the hallway.
Harry stayed put, glancing down at where the pocket watch was resting in his sweater. It buzzed once before stopping, not a call for picking up, just a notification from Reg that he had been the reason for the commotion. Most likely, Kreacher had shoved over a cabinet for him.
Harry chuckled, withdrew his wand, and flicked it at the door, closing and locking it before returning to his work. Better.
"There are wards that prevent Mr. Moody from seeing this section of the Black house, but you do realize that there's nothing preventing him from seeing that you're not in the section where he can see?"
Harry shrugged with all the carelessness of a teenager living on luck and little else. "It's alright; Professor Moody's outside standing guard."
Regulus sighed, setting aside the book he was reading before rising to his feet. "You're too careless sometimes."
Harry made a face. "Everyone else is rushing around packing their trunks but I finished last night, and I don't want to get caught up in the elephant stampede out there. Besides, it's not like you can come see me off at the train station so I'll have to make do now. You even told me to get a full seven hours of sleep for the past three nights."
Regulus almost rolled his eyes, but instead, he only moved forward to adjust the kid's slightly crooked tie. It was in such atrocious Gryffindor colours but it couldn't be helped.
"You remember what you'll say to McGonagall?" He enquired as he stepped back.
Harry nodded dutifully. "Ask her for a transfer into Arithmancy and Ancient Runes, and show her the work I've done over the summer." He shifted on the spot with nervous energy but stopped when Regulus arched a pointed eyebrow. "Do you really think I'll be able to pass the placement exams?"
"You've been working hard for two months," Regulus stated calmly. "And you're a natural at Arithmancy; I can't see you having any trouble there since I've already started you on the fifth-year material, and you're breezing through it. Ancient Runes was a bit rushed, I'll admit; I would've preferred if you'd had a few more months to catch up with the third- and fourth-year work, but you have a good memory, and memorizing runes is basically what third-year Runes is, so it's really only the fourth-year material that you'll have some difficulties with. As you are now, I believe you'll scrape by with an Acceptable, which is all it takes to skip forward directly into fifth-year Runes."
Harry scowled. "I don't want an Acceptable."
Regulus suppressed a smile. "Then study hard after you secure entrance into the course, and achieve an Outstanding on the OWL in June."
Harry straightened, flashing a grin. "Yeah, you bet. Mum had all Os, right? And so did you?"
Regulus inclined his head. The Marauders had sung Evans praises at the beginning of their sixth year. Evans had not been pleased. Mortified had been a more accurate adjective.
"Your father and godfather had good grades as well," Regulus offered in neutral tones. "Sirius obtained all nine OWLs, and only his History received an Acceptable. Everything else was above that."
Harry waved a dismissive hand. "I'm not getting an Acceptable, not even in History. I can get better grades than that."
Regulus examined him for a moment longer before tossing out carelessly, "We'll see."
The offhand challenge sparked a fire in Harry's eyes. Regulus hid a smirk.
"Besides that," He continued smoothly. "You remember the other things I told you to keep in mind?"
"Occlumency every night before I go to bed," Harry recited. "Don't look Dumbledore or Snape in the eye, but don't make it obvious either. Keep my inheritance a secret. Don't leave my books lying around even with the cover charm on them. Keep up with my language studies. Set aside Tuesday and Thursday nights for study sessions with you, and three hours each weekend for Defense because this year's DADA is going to be utter shite again. And don't send any letters if I can help it, though if I absolutely have to, write it in some form of code, and try not to use Hedwig too much."
"Good," Regulus approved. "Always keep that in mind. You never know who might intercept your mail, especially now when two sides are playing cat-and-mouse, and a third side is in denial."
Harry nodded solemnly, his brow scrunching up in thought. "Do you really think the Ministry's going to try and interfere at Hogwarts this year? I mean, Hogwarts is Dumbledore's territory."
"Which is why they will," Regulus said with certainty. "Dumbledore is a joke these days, but the Ministry knows that he's still rallying support. They want to tear him down, so they'll try to attack him wherever they can. And you know what you did last year so they'll be after you too. And not just them either; those who believe, those who don't – regardless, all eyes will be on you."
He paused, easily picking out the anxiety in the line of the kid's shoulders, and the almost habitual way he still seemed to want to just keep his head down and shy away from attention at just the very thought of having to fight against the rest of the school once again this year.
"Harry," He waited until the boy met his gaze. "Head high, back straight, and don't let anyone walk over you. You are the last Lord of the Noble and Most Ancient House of Potter, and even more importantly than that, you are right. Anyone who says otherwise is delusional. Anyone who pesters you for evidence or details is not worth your time. Have some confidence in yourself. Gryffindor you may be, but right now, doubt and indecision are not emotions you can openly flaunt in public. How you act will sway the masses, and proceeding rashly will not help you. Control your temper, and conduct yourself with a cool head." His hands came up to rest briefly on Harry's shoulders. "You'll be fine."
Harry drew in a deep breath before letting it out again slowly. His shoulders relaxed. "Right. Thanks," He quirked a lopsided smile. "Nothing's ever easy in the Wizarding world, is it?"
"Nothing worth anything is ever easy; take it from me," Regulus levelled a stern look on the boy. "Now, promise me you'll think before you act? Gryffindor boldness can be useful in some cases, but in this instance, I do believe discretion is the better part of valour. You must tread carefully. Do not make enemies when there is no need for it."
"I won't," Harry promised. "And... I'll be able to contact you anytime, right? I mean, outside of the study sessions we agreed on? Just in case something comes up?"
Regulus hesitated momentarily. "Only if it is an emergency. I will be busy while you are away at school, and I won't have time for in-depth discussions. However, if you are in danger, of course, do contact me."
Green eyes narrowed with that instinctive leap of intuition that Regulus had noticed in Harry on occasion.
"You're going to fight Voldemort, aren't you?" Concern coloured Harry's words, and he hurried on before Regulus could say anything. "Obviously not directly, but..."
He trailed off, gaze searching Regulus' face. Regulus remained unwaveringly impassive.
"You needn't worry about me," He assured evenly. "I can take care of myself."
"But what if you need backup or something?" Harry pressed, features pinching.
"I have Kreacher," Regulus reminded him patiently. "He has never let me down before. I will be fine."
Harry eyed him for a long minute. "...And you're not going to tell me what you'll be doing, are you?"
Regulus shrugged lightly, summoning a bland smile. "You have enough on your plate, Harry. This isn't something you have to concern yourself with."
Harry blew out a frustrated breath. "Of course it is. You- Just-" He grumbled a bit under his breath, avoiding eye-contact. "I'd like to have a home to return to come Christmas, alright? If you get yourself killed between then and now, I'm not going to be very happy."
Regulus stared, taken aback. Rather abruptly, words failed him. Likewise, Harry ran a hand through his hair, glancing off to the side in unspoken embarrassment.
"...I understand," He eventually managed. Unbidden, his gaze flickered around the drawing room. Well, Grimmauld Place was definitely several steps up from the Dursleys' house, and Harry certainly had more freedom. He could understand why the kid would prefer this place more.
Too perceptive eyes were drilling holes into him again. "For some reason," Harry frowned. "I don't think you do."
The topic was dropped though. The atmosphere between them was a little too awkward to continue along the same vein.
Regulus cleared his throat. "Well, I believe that's all." He stalled, casting his mind back to the murky memories of Sirius' interactions with James Potter's parents. "Have a good term, Harry. Work hard, but don't forget to take breaks in-between."
Harry grinned at him, a little surprised and a little thrilled as if no one had ever said as much to him before.
There probably hadn't been.
"For heaven's sake, act more like a dog, Sirius!" Mrs. Weasley hissed from somewhere on the right, but Harry clung on to the lean body for a few precious seconds longer. There might still be an invisible divide between them that neither of them had been able to breach so far, but Sirius was his godfather, his family, and Harry was going to miss him.
"My letters might be intercepted," Harry quickly muttered into one furry ear as he hastily crouched down so that Sirius wouldn't have to look so human in animal form. "So I'll send them through with Kreacher instead. You do the same, okay? Don't just sulk in your mother's room with Buckbeak all day. It's not healthy."
Harry had never realized that dogs could pull sheepish but Sirius managed. He woofed what sounded like an agreement before nosing a goodbye into Harry's chest. Harry rubbed the dog's head one last time before ducking onto the train after his friends.
"He shouldn't have come with us," Hermione said in a worried voice.
"Oh, lighten up," Ron rebuked. "He hasn't seen daylight for months, poor bloke."
"Well," Fred cut in, clapping his hands together. "Can't stand around chatting all day, we've got business to discuss with Lee. See you later." And he and George disappeared down the corridor to the right.
"Well I guess I'll see you two later too," Harry nodded at Ron and Hermione. "You're heading to the prefect carriage, right?"
Hermione nodded back warily while Ron seemed to have become intensely interested in the fingernails on his left hand. Harry rolled his eyes.
"It's fine," He assured them, hefting Hedwig's cage and glancing at Ginny. "We'll find a free compartment and wait for you there."
Ginny nodded agreeably, and the four of them parted ways, heading off in different directions. Harry was rather glad that he had cast a feather-light charm on his trunk before leaving Grimmauld Place.
"Harry, Ginny," A familiar voice called from behind them, and Harry turned to find Neville struggling towards them with his trunk and toad. "Hi... everywhere is full... I can't find a seat..."
"Here's one," Ginny was peering into the last compartment. "There's only Loony Lovegood in here."
Harry frowned at the nickname. Who? Lovegood? He remembered that name from one of the more recent genealogy texts that Regulus had bought for him when he had expressed an interest in seeing how all the Purebloods were connected. The Lovegoods were nowhere near as old as the Potters or Blacks or even Bones but they had still been around long enough to put down roots. He was pretty sure the most recent was a girl a year younger than him named Luna.
"Hello," Harry interjected from the doorway, offering a polite smile when the girl with dirty blonde hair glanced up with silvery grey eyes. "I'm Harry Potter. That's Neville Longbottom, and you probably already know Ginny. Do you mind if we join you?"
Her gaze roamed over them, resting on him last before nodding. He inclined his head in thanks, and then waved Ginny and Neville through first before entering himself, sliding the door shut behind him.
Luna, as it turned out, was a bit strange. She watched them over her upside-down magazine, which was called The Quibbler. She did not seem to need to blink as much as the average human, and she stared and stared at Harry, who had taken the seat opposite her and now wished he hadn't.
"Never show weakness," Regulus instructed during one of their by-the-fire conversations. "That is the first rule of Pureblood society. Some are more successful at it than others, but unless you are in the company of those you trust, never show the public anything more than what you want them to see."
("Why do Purebloods always have to put up an act?" Harry complained. "Can't they just try to get along without looking for openings to stab each other in the back? Why are they always wanting to one-up each other? Can't they just not fight over everything?"
Regulus' mouth curved up with bone-deep cynicism. "It's human nature to be selfish; you could say it's because we all have free will to want things for ourselves. And so long as free will exists, there will always be conflict, and people will always fight. Purebloods are simply more... ambitious about it.")
Harry lounged back in his seat, turning to Neville who was fidgeting in his seat, clearly uncomfortable with Luna's presence.
"So how was your summer, Neville?" Harry prompted, and Neville latched on with visible relief.
"About the same. Oh, but..." The other Gryffindor dug a hand into his schoolbag, rummaging around before pulling out what appeared to be a small grey cactus in a pot, except that it was covered with what looked like boils rather than spines. "Look what I got for my birthday! It's a Mimbulus Mimbletonia. It's really, really rare. I don't know if there's one in the greenhouse at Hogwarts, even. I can't wait to show it to Professor Sprout. My Great Uncle Algie got it for me in Assyria. I'm going to see if I can breed from it."
Harry stared for a moment, trying to think of a nice way to phrase 'how can anyone be interested in this sinister-looking grey thing'. But then, he wasn't a Herbology nut so maybe it was just a matter of perspective. He had loved Ancient Runes literally at first sight but he doubted Ron would find the basic ink sketches of single runes that Harry had started dabbling in very interesting.
"Does it have any uses?" Harry asked tentatively.
"Loads!" Neville confirmed proudly. "It's got an amazing defensive mechanism. Here, hold Trevor for me..."
He dumped the toad into Harry's lap and took a quill from his schoolbag. Luna's luminous eyes appeared over the top of her upside-down magazine again to watch what Neville was doing. Neville held the Mimbulus Mimbletonia up to his eyes, his tongue between his teeth, chose his spot, and gave the plant a sharp prod with the tip of his quill.
Even before liquid squirted from every boil on the plant, Harry was already going for his wand in the half-second before anything actually happened, drawing it in a slashing upward motion and muttering a containment charm he had recently learned that raised a wall of blue light around the plant. He wasn't quite fast enough to close off the entire spell before thick, stinking, dark green jets of liquid slipped through the closing lines of the magical wall and flew in all directions – the ceiling, the windows the floor – but at least the four people in the compartment only received splashes of the stuff that stained their shoes and the hem of their robes. Neville was the worst off with the stuff drenching his lap but Harry had managed to protect the Gryffindor's face and torso at the very least.
"S- Sorry!" Neville gasped. "I haven't tried that before... Didn't realise it would be quite so..." He ducked his head. "Thanks, Harry. I didn't mean to do that. The Stinksap is- I'm sorry-"
"It's fine," Harry waved his wand first at Ginny then at Luna with a Scourgify, vanishing the mess on their robes and shoes. "Everybody alright?"
"Yeah," Ginny pulled at her robes despite them being clean again while Luna nodded, smiling vaguely at him. "Just- don't do that again, Neville."
"Sorry," Neville repeated in a small voice, seeming to shrink in on himself.
Harry frowned a bit before nudging the other boy, distractedly passing back Trevor at the same time. "Come on, let's clean this place up. You do the windows while I do the floor and ceiling, okay?"
Neville managed a wobbly smile that steadied when Harry grinned back with a joking, "Look at it this way – we get to practice our cleaning charms before we even reach the school. We'll be all set for Flitwick's review week."
Only seconds into their impromptu cleanup, the door of their compartment slid open, and Harry blinked in surprise when he found Cho Chang, the Ravenclaw Seeker, standing in the doorway, gaze drawn to the lines of sludge still trickling down the windowpanes and smearing the floor.
(Harry made a mental note to practice that charm until he could cast it instantaneously.)
"Oh, hello, Harry," Cho dimpled a rather nervous smile. "Erm... bad time?"
Harry glanced around. "Well," Harry allowed ruefully. "It could've been better."
A flicker of surprise surfaced on Cho's face, and a giggle slipped from her lips.
"I just thought I'd come say hello," The Ravenclaw revealed. Her eyes darted around the compartment before she swayed forward an inch, features strengthening into something that made the practical part of his brain (which sounded awfully like Reg) whisper a warning. "You know, there's room in my compartment. You're welcome to join me and my friends if you want, Harry. We could... get to know each other."
Harry glanced at Neville who was staring at his shoes, and then at Ginny who was stony-faced, and even at Luna who was staring blatantly at Cho like she was some sort of never-before-seen specimen.
Needless to say, none of them were any help whatsoever.
"Er, no thanks," Harry declined, gesturing loosely around him. "I haven't seen my friends since last June so we've got some catching up to do. Maybe some other time?"
Though why she was offering in the first place, he didn't know; it wasn't like they were friends or anything. Last Harry had checked, he had embarrassed himself – badly – in front of Cho last year (and when he had told Reg about that particular incident, his mentor had laughed at him, the heartless jerk). And looking at her now, Harry was gratified to realize that the ridiculous crush he had had on her last year had fizzled out. Rationally, he knew that he had only been attracted to her on a physical level so he was relieved that he would no longer be making a fool of himself over her.
Why in the world was she inviting him to her compartment though? She should know that he had had a crush on her, but she shouldn't know that he didn't anymore, so this couldn't be anything except a roundabout way to say that his supposed intentions were welcome. But that was just bad form because hadn't Cedric been Cho's boyfriend? Even if they hadn't been going for the whole two-point-five kids and a white picket fence, two months shouldn't be enough to get over his death, right? Because that was the only reason he could come up with in this situation where Cho would want to even look at Harry right now, much less invite him into 'getting to know each other'. Unless she was cruel enough to try punishing him by doing this to remind him of his part in the Cedric debacle.
In the doorway, Cho's expression cooled a degree but she still directed a sweet smile his way. "Are you sure? We have plenty of room." Her gaze flitted around the compartment again, lingering on Luna, and then Neville, and then even Ginny who was quite popular amongst her year group, for a split second longer than strictly necessary. "And much better company, I think."
Something cold settled in Harry's gut. He wasn't the greatest at reading people, nowhere near on Reg's level, but he could get the hint when it was virtually being thrown in his face.
"No thanks," He reiterated. The smile he summoned up next was as close a replica to Reg's frostily polite 'you are so far beneath me that I don't even know what you're doing still talking to me' sneer as Harry could physically manage. "I'm fine here with my friends."
And yeah, okay, Luna wasn't exactly a friend, and Ginny barely so, but it was the principle of the matter, not to mention they were younger, and it didn't take that far a stretch of the imagination to guess that Luna – at least – was the bully victim type.
Cho faltered at whatever she perceived from his face before drawing herself up to her full height with an offended sort of stiffness. "Well okay then. I suppose I'll see you around at school."
And without another word, she closed the door and departed.
"...You could've gone with her, Harry," Neville piped up glumly in the ensuing silence.
Harry scoffed, jabbing his wand at the ceiling with more force than he had intended. The sludge erased itself like it thought Harry was planning on murdering it violently. "Why would I want to? She just insulted all of you."
"Don't you like her though?" Ginny pointed out with a sullen barb in her words that made Harry think that her crush on him wasn't all gone after all.
"Not anymore," Harry muttered, which, really, thank God for small mercies.
Neville waved his wand at one of the windowpanes. The Stinksap half-heartedly slouched into one-third-nonexistence. "But she's..." He flushed. "You know."
"No I don't know," Harry said staunchly. "And I don't plan on knowing. Drop it, Nev. I don't hang out with people who look down on my friends the way she did."
Well, he amended in his head. Maybe except Reg, but then, Ron and Hermione have been insulting him since the beginning, so he has the right. Plus, it's less 'looking down on' and more 'not caring about them one way or the other' in his case.
It seemed he had said the right thing though, because the faintest shadow of a painfully elated smile twitched on Neville's face, Ginny's shoulders lost their rigidity, and Luna stared at him with something a little sharper than her seemingly typical dreaminess.
Harry smiled, much kinder this time, and demonstrated to Neville a much more definite wand movement to get rid of all the sludge in one go.
To Harry's relief, neither Hermione nor Ron brought up Reg or Cedric after they joined them. Of course, that just meant they would needle him about it again later but at least they wouldn't do it in front of other people.
Unfortunately, Hermione and Luna – logic and faith if the Quibbler was anything to go by – got along like fire and water. They just did not mesh, especially after Hermione unknowingly put down Luna's father's magazine.
So it was almost a reprieve from the cold war being waged when another visitor swung by for a chat.
Potential political ally, potential political ally, potential political ally, Harry chanted in his head as the sight of Draco Malfoy smirking at him from between his cronies Crabbe and Goyle threatened to make him toss all his tolerance out the window.
"Hello, Potter," Malfoy drawled. "I just stopped by to remind you to mind your manners this year or I'll have to give you detention. You see, I, unlike you, have been made a prefect, which means that I, unlike you, have the power to hand out punishments."
Harry shored up his Occlumency shields and nodded back curtly. "Congrats."
He bit back the I'm sure you earned it that wanted to leap off his tongue. Better not say something that was both obviously untrue, and would be taken as such even if Harry meant it.
Malfoy blinked, clearly taken aback at the tame rejoinder, but he shook it off after a few seconds, going for another taunt. "Tell me then, how does it feel being second-best to Weasley?"
Harry shrugged. "I'm fine with it. Ron will do a good job."
Ron reddened, and Hermione shot a surprised look at him. Harry inwardly snorted. What, did she think he was jealous? Was that why they had been walking on eggshells whenever the prefect issue came up? Jealousy had always been Ron's thing.
Malfoy glowered at him, evidently displeased with the direction this conversation was going.
"Just watch yourself, Potter," His smirk returned with a vengeance. "Because I'll be dogging your footsteps in case you step out of line."
"Get out!" Hermione snapped, standing up.
At the same time, Harry threw out sharply but as flippantly as he could, "The same as always then. Still, I really would appreciate less stalking this year, Malfoy. We're getting to that age where people might misunderstand, you realize."
Ron, Ginny, and Neville laughed, especially when Malfoy rocked back on his heels, looking perplexed and infuriated that his subtle threat had either flown right over Harry's head or simply hadn't succeeded in rattling him.
With a last scowl over his shoulder, and a trace of mortified pink dusting his cheekbones, Malfoy retreated, taking Crabbe and Goyle with him.
"That was great, mate!" Ron guffawed. "Did you see his face?"
Harry made an agreeable noise at the back of his throat but most of his focus was on Hermione, leaning to the left with the pretense of picking up a Chocolate Frog and murmuring, "Don't react like it bothers you, Hermione. You're just giving him more power."
Hermione looked like she wanted to argue, or protest, but in the end, she settled for nodding jerkily, eyeing him strangely all the while.
Harry ignored it, as he had ignored all her looks throughout August. Instead, he turned his thoughts to Malfoy's words. So the blond knew Sirius' Animagus form, did he? Or had it just been a coincidence? No, he had to treat it as if Malfoy did know, and if that were true, then Harry's first order of business after the feast would be to send letters off with Kreacher to both Sirius and Reg. A heads-up was better than nothing. After all, Malfoy shouldn't know, unless Mr. Malfoy told him, and the only way Mr. Malfoy would know would be if someone had leaked it.
Wormtail then? Most likely. Or Snape? Whose side was Reg's old friend really on anyway? Even Reg had admitted that he didn't truly know anymore.
Well, it was no use stewing over things Harry couldn't do anything about right now. With a sigh, he retrieved one of Reg's Ancient Runes books from his schoolbag, already charmed to show a regular transfiguration text, and settled down to study.
He had placement exams to pass.
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