Grazhir :: Harry Potter :: Infusion :: 01 :: Semantics

01 • Semantics

“I think it’s time, Hal.”

Harry glanced down at the portrait next to him and cocked up a brow. “What, and you think they won’t come looking for me? That I can just disappear and no one will notice?”

The figure in the portrait shook its head. “Of course they will, and I will provide the answer to that, as I promised. Besides, I cannot properly teach you while I remain in this form. You know that.”

Harry gave the portrait a considering look before saying, “Yes, and you’re proposing I sink myself into one of the darkest rituals there is in order to bring you to me properly. Shouldn’t I be concerned for my soul?”

The figure snorted and shook his head in amusement. “You know better than that, Hal. Creation isn’t wrong, and sometimes intent is everything. Creation is an affirmation of life itself, a tribute.”

Harry sighed, knowing he would not win any arguments with his companion. And besides, he knew the man was right, and that teasing him would result in the same as if he were actually serious. He sighed again, that having brought to mind his godfather. “I wish he hadn’t died. I never got the chance to really know him.”

He got the impression his companion would have smacked him if capable. Instead the man said patiently, “I understand. You will go through life always wondering what he might really have meant to you, and you to him. The best you can do is honor his memory, and his desire and determination to keep you safe. And if I must say it a thousand times you will come to believe that it wasn’t entirely your fault.”

“I know. I will know, I mean.”

“So, will you follow my advice? Will you help me?”

Harry gave a half shrug, knowing it would irritate his companion, then smiled. “Yes. You know very well that you’re the only person I implicitly trust.”

“Are you sure that’s wise?”

He shrugged again, fully. “So I’m more of a Gryffindor than you’d like. Stop teasing me and tell me where I need to go, to take us.”

“Cambridgeshire, Hal. We need to go to Wisbech.”

‘Now why hadn’t anyone else once thought to do this?’ Harry mused to himself much later on. ‘Then again, I suppose he’s not that damn stupid, right? Just imagine if Tom had found his way here.’ He took in his surroundings with wide eyes as he considered what he had already accomplished that day.

Escaping Privet Drive had been almost too simple. Why the old man insisted on keeping Dung as part of the rotation was unfathomable, but it did allow for an easy time slot in which to scamper off unnoticed. His visit to Gringotts had gone equally unnoticed; the goblins were more than willing to remain silent given that they concerned themselves little with the day-to-day affairs of humans.

They had also been more than willing to provide, for a generous fee, a temporary alteration of Harry’s appearance. Not quite what wizards would call a glamour, but close enough, and certainly something that would not provoke curiosity as one of those might. After shopping quickly for the supplies his companion insisted upon Harry had slipped out of Diagon Alley and into London proper, then made his way to the National Rail station on the Strand to arrange for transport to Wisbech.

He was made to walk quite a distance from there, guided by his companion’s somewhat vague instructions, until at last he found the entrance to their destination. From there it was a simple matter to get inside; any parselmouth with the right password could have done it.

“You’re sure about this?” Harry asked again.

A slight sigh was followed by, “Yes, Hal. I did not do this to myself in the hopes that I would forever remain trapped in a two-dimensional world.”

“Yeah, yeah, and if I do this, I’ll probably end up tortured for my part in things.”

His companion smirked. “I certainly hope so, Hal. I would love to torture you.”

Harry flushed and looked away. “His obsession with immortality is your fault, you know.”

“To a degree, yes. It is not, however, my fault that the family line managed to inbreed itself into insanity. You seem irritable. Do you wish to rest first?”

He ran a rough hand through his hair and sagged against a handy wall. “I want to get this over and done with, but I am tired.”

“Fine. See that corridor over there? Down it, second left, third door on the right.”

*

Salazar hauled himself up off the ground, his teeth gritted against the almost painful stiffness he felt. Harry was passed out cold from his exertions and the portrait was solid black, no longer holding anything of his essence as it had for centuries. He was alive once more!

He was also very grateful for the fact that Harry had set up a number of potions on a small table against one wall and strode over as quickly as he could to snatch them up and knock them back. His nudity did not bother him so much as the chill that had begun to set in, so as soon as he was ready and could move more easily he stooped down to pull Harry into his arms and cart him off to one of the bedrooms.

They could clean up the ritual room later, after they had rested. He was quite sure that his little serpent would be unconscious for hours after the masterful performance he had managed in not only creating a new body for Salazar, but also transferring his soul, his consciousness, and magic from the portrait to that vessel. He awoke a timeless span later to the sensation of a soft touch at his cheek and opened his eyes to see an expression of wonder.

“You’re real,” Harry whispered. “I didn’t imagine it.”

“I’m real, Hal,” he responded softly. “You succeeded.”

“You’re not like him.”

Salazar furrowed his brow in mild confusion, though he doubted that Harry would be able to see his expression clearly. “Hm?”

“I was worried, about the snakes. He used one, and. . . .” Harry trailed off, looking like he was at a loss for words.

“And ended up looking like a hybrid monstrosity?” he asked archly.

His little serpent smiled at him faintly and nodded. “Yeah. He scares me, a lot.”

“You should be more frightened of me,” he said seriously.

“Because you’re going to torture me?”

“Naturally. I will make you beg for mercy, Hal. I will make you scream.”

Harry shivered and half closed his eyes, then said, “Were you like this back then?”

Salazar reached over to smooth the hair back from Harry’s face, enjoying how his serpent shivered again and pressed closer. “No, but only because it wasn’t accepted. I did what was expected of me, like any other, and I did not enjoy it.”

“Will it really hurt so much?” Harry whispered.

“I expect so. For the moment, however, I find that I am feeling quite desperate for food. It has been, after all, just shy of a millennia since I’ve last eaten.” As he had hoped, his little serpent snorted in amusement. “And you look like you desperately need to be fattened up. I have every intention of correcting a few problems along the way as well.”

“Do you know how to cook?”

Salazar arched a brow, then let out a snort of his own. “Yes, Hal, I do. But if I catch you sharing that information with anyone, I will be forced to consider skinning you alive.”

Harry laughed; it was a quiet sound, but pure in its delight.

He reached over to brush the pad of his thumb over Harry’s lower lip as he said, “Get up.” He ignored for the time being how his serpent’s pupils dilated at the touch and how Harry pressed closer again. “There are many things to be done.”

And so they did, but not without Harry flushing at the sight of Salazar stepping from the bed still naked. He simply ignored it, instead heading for a wardrobe pushed up against one wall. Inside was a selection of clothing spelled against the ages, and he made his choices with care despite the fact that it was just the two of them.

He also retrieved the wand he had secured so very long ago and used it to cast a few quick spells over his serpent to temporarily correct the issue of the rumpled and wrinkled clothing Harry was still wearing. Food was not an issue. It was also not an issue who would be cooking; house-elves had been bound in service to his hideaway since before he died and they were still there, patiently raising crops—to feed themselves if no one else—and reproducing enough to keep their numbers steady during their master’s absence.

Salazar led Harry through a maze of corridors and eventually into a dining room, though that was ignored in favor of moving deeper, into the kitchen, and settling his serpent into a seat at a small nook. The moment he sat down a house-elf popped into view and bowed deeply. “A meal for two,” he said.

“Immediately, master,” the elf murmured before scurrying off.

The look on Harry’s face denoted surprise so he asked, “What is it, Hal?”

“You forgot to mention a few things.”

“I suppose I might have. In any case, given that we are now able to hold an actual face-to-face conversation, I believe it is time we begin discussing what needs to be done.”

Harry shifted in his seat, easily distracted by a house-elf arriving with glasses and a pitcher of juice, and did not look back at him until after he had thanked the servant.

“First, I intend to correct your eyesight. More dark magic, of course. Somehow, though, I find myself not very concerned with what your ministry might attempt to do to me for practicing the arte.”

His serpent snorted in amusement again and nodded as he poured for them both, then took a sip from his glass.

“Speaking of which, how do you feel?”

Harry chewed on his lower lip thoughtfully before saying, “I feel fine. A little tired, hungry, but basically fine. I certainly don’t have any sudden homicidal urges. Well, except for the one.”

Salazar smirked and sipped his own juice. “I told you, Hal, intent is sometimes nearly everything. Do you remember what you told me about that night at the ministry? The spell barely worked because deep down inside you simply do not desire others true harm. It has nothing to do with how powerful you may or may not be. And you, like that damn fool Godric, are more inclined to desire justice. Not revenge, or vengeance, or any of the other darker sides of intent.”

His serpent quirked up a brow and replied, “And what does that say of me being so close to you?”

He flashed Harry a smile. “Such an impertinent little snake.” He paused to nod his approval when a house-elf scurried over and unloaded a tray, then lifted his spoon to scoop up some of the soup awaiting him. The first taste nearly had him swooning in sheer pleasure. It had been so damn long since he had last been able to experience the fulfillment of such a base need.

Salazar was a third of the way through his soup when he noticed an offering of crusty bread and fresh butter and nearly swooned a second time. How on earth he could maintain his façade with such delights awaiting him. . . . Harry was already giving him quietly amused looks from beneath the minor safety of his fringe.

He didn’t say a thing, even though he did entertain notions of chastising his little serpent. Harry, on the other hand, felt no such constraint.

“How long do you think before someone notices I’m missing?” Harry didn’t seem to expect an immediate answer, though, and went right back to eating. Salazar was almost done when his serpent added, “I wonder how this will affect my friends.”

At that he snorted and sat back. “I expect with a great show of upset. They will no doubt accuse you of all manner of things, most of it untrue or made up on the spot, and try to make you feel guilty for your choices.”

Harry gnawed on his lower lip. “I guess it depends on how long I’m missing for, right?”

“Hal, either way is the hard way. If I send you back to those wretched people now that I’m whole again, our plans will be set back for a very long time, and we’ll all have to deal with that. On the other hand, if I keep you with me people will become alarmed, and begin looking, and you will have to face up to their scrutiny later on. And even so, no matter which, people will not easily accept me in your life.”

Harry sighed and averted his gaze, reaching out to help himself to more bread and butter.

“Of course, I could simply provide a substitute so that your absence is unremarked.”

“Huh?”

Salazar wanted, for a split second, to use his tongue to clean away the sheen of butter that glistened on Harry’s lower lip. “All right, I shall ask you a pertinent question. What happened to young Malfoy during your fourth year?”

His little serpent looked confused. “Many things?”

Salazar sighed faintly. “What is your Mr Lupin, Hal? What about your godfather? Your father? Pettigrew, even?”

“Um, Remus is a werewolf. . . ? Is that what you mean? The others were all animagi.”

Salazar nodded. “Very good. Now, is it not logical, given that a man can become a beast, that a beast could become a man? Or at least, the semblance of one.”

“Okay,” Harry said slowly. “What are you trying to tell me?”

“We go back in time and provide a false you, and if necessary, then arrange for your death, either at the hand of your fat muggle uncle, or by Riddle himself.”

Harry went rather pale at that suggestion, but did not immediately protest the idea, so Salazar continued to eat, trying to keep his expression guarded against the sheer bliss he was feeling. Much as he hated to admit it, at that moment food seemed almost more pleasurable than sex.

“What about my friends?” Harry asked softly.

“Only you can decide your priorities, Hal, and what is more important to you. For example, were you to be thought dead, you could still be friends with them under a different name, and with none of the stress that comes with having been the Boy Who Lived.”

“But they’d be heartbroken.”

“I’m sure they would be. And no matter what decision you make, they will still be in danger, so do not let that influence you. No doubt, a proper Gryffindor would remain himself, and attempt to shield others from pain, danger, and emotional upheaval. A Slytherin, however, would consider the value in being able to move about largely undetected, without the interference of well-meaning old men and his associated minions.” Salazar knew he had scored a point when Harry’s expression turned thoughtful.

Several minutes later Harry said, “I do trust you implicitly. And I understand the point you’re trying to make. You’ve destroyed one of the arguments I could make for changing my identity, though.”

He laughed softly and nodded. “And in doing so, I prove myself.”

“Yeah.” Harry shot him a mildly reproachful look. “Doesn’t change the fact that I’m underage, or that I’d have to find a way to secure what belongs to me.”

Salazar leaned forward before saying, “I assume you do not so much care about any money as you do items.”

His serpent nodded. “I know you have plenty of money hidden somewhere, though I don’t know the worth of it for then versus now.”

He shrugged. “I am not concerned, Hal. If I desperately have need of coin, I’ll make some.”

“Oh, right.” Harry sighed and stared into his glass for a few moments. “I am kinda tired of people always expecting stuff from me.”

“Think on it. For now, however, we have some things to take care of.”

*

The correction of Harry’s eyesight had gone well. The young man had described sensations of peculiar pulling and shifting, which was exactly what ought to happen. With that out of the way his serpent was much better able to help him in the making of a golem, Harry having capitulated on that point. Neither of them wished to upset the wizarding public more than necessary, not when the final decision had yet to be made.

The golem itself was fashioned from a reticulated python, one of the more intelligent non-poisonous species, and the process left Harry unconscious for another day. Blood, saliva, tissue, semen, and breath all were used to construct the duplicate, one which would be able to pull on its master’s knowledge and behavioral patterns to assist with the deception.

There was but a single thing he need do before placing the creature, but it must wait in favor of something more pressing. And yet before that, Salazar decided to see about one other detail—a new wand for his serpent.

“This is the last one,” Salazar said with a slight sigh, then held out the box. He had, during his original lifetime, collected a great number of wands, and all had been stored in his hideaway.

“I’ve got a horrible déjà vu thing going on here.” Harry chuckled and removed the lid, then reached in to pick up the smoothly tapered cylinder. Almost instantly a haze of indefinable colour surrounded his hand and the wand, and his little serpent grinned rather foolishly.

“I should punish you for making us spend so much time on this endeavor.”

Harry turned that grin on him before saying, “You’re already going to torture me. Don’t be so greedy.”

He sighed again and shook his head, getting up so he could begin putting the rejected wands away safely. There was the odd drawback to his serpent having become so comfortable with him; intimidation was much more difficult, not that it truly upset him. “Now that you have this extra wand, we should go to Gringotts and investigate your finances. And it would not hurt for you to write a will, Hal.”

“Expecting my golem to die?”

Salazar shrugged. “Anything is possible. While I realize that being prepared is not something you’re overly familiar with. . . .”

His serpent huffed.

At Gringotts they were ushered into the office of a goblin named Midas, which, had Salazar not been as composed as he was, would have been cause for open amusement. As it was, Harry nearly did laugh, but managed to keep it down to a slight shaking in his shoulders. After being waved to seats they took them, and Salazar decided to be fairly blunt.

“Harry Potter wishes to make a will, therefore he must be made aware of the extent of his holdings.”

Midas nodded, shot them a feral grin, then said, “We of Gringotts would be delighted to do so, but not until Mr Potter’s identity has been proven. After all, this would not be the first time a claimant has falsely appeared.”

“Really?” Harry leaned forward in interest. “How nice. Not only do they think I’m a delusional, attention-seeking brat, but also worthy of stealing from.”

“Precisely how,” Salazar said, “will you handle this verification?”

“The proper way, of course.” The goblin reached down and opened a drawer, retrieved several items, and placed them on his desk. “We will use a blood ritual.” Midas shot Salazar an intent look, as though daring him to protest. When none was forthcoming the goblin stood and approached the back wall of the office, ran a finger down one section, then stepped back as a panel popped open.

Midas spoke something in his native tongue in a commanding tone, then reached forth to pick up two vials that appeared. A minute later he was seated again at his desk. “These vials contain samples of the blood of James and Lily Potter, left in the care of Gringotts along with their wills. The ritual will verify that your blood, Mr Potter, is that of these.”

Harry nodded; the reaction was something Salazar expected after their many talks about the nature of magic. Fifteen minutes later, after his serpent had provided his own sample, they were awaiting the results.

And then Midas frowned.

“What is it?” Salazar asked.

“We have a problem, gentlemen.” Before anyone could question that, Midas looked up and said, “According to this, you are not directly related to James and Lily Potter. The blood resonance is faint in comparison to that of a true child of their union.”

“What!?”

Salazar frowned at his serpent. “That sort of reaction does not become you,” he chastised.

“But—” Harry leapt to his feet and started pacing. “I’ve spent nearly fifteen years as a house-elf in that hellhole of muggle insanity based on the promise of blood wards to keep me safe from Voldemort, and I’m not even who I’m supposed to be? How is this possible? Dumbledore is the one who placed me there. He gave Hagrid my vault key to pass on. He even gave me dad’s invisibility cloak. Remus and Sirius have never questioned my identity, either.”

Midas cleared his throat. “You do, however, bear the curse scar, and I can sense the dark aura that surrounds it. I admit, this is a quandary.”

“I bear all the scars of my existence!” Harry yelled, then slumped into his chair.

Salazar, of course, was thinking furiously. That Harry might not actually be Harry Potter was irrelevant to him. But if there was a way to show that the boy had been raised as Harry Potter, then. . . . He turned to Midas and inquired, “Do you have what is necessary to test for an adoption ritual?”

The goblin’s face smoothed out in thought briefly. “It could not have been a blood adoption. I do see your point, however. Even so, it is only the presence of that curse scar that has prevented me from evicting you both, or worse, for an attempt at identity theft.”

“Is it really that unique?” Harry asked softly.

Midas let out an odd chuckle. “Mr Potter, that scar of yours was defined the very first time you stepped into this bank in the company of Hagrid. We can as easily identify it as we can the Dark Mark.”

Harry frowned and sat back. “So you mean to tell me that even though you can verify the scar, you had to go through with that blood ritual. And did so even when false claimants tried to steal the Potter money?”

“Yes, it is procedure in cases where samples are provided. That is simply how it works.” Midas turned to Salazar and said, “There is only one adoption ritual I can think of which would cover this situation—the simulare, or ectype, ritual.

“I am unfamiliar with this,” Salazar admitted, more for Harry’s benefit than his own, as the very name gave rise to understanding.

“It is very rarely performed, and when used, a note of it is made so that an inheritance is not barred.” Midas said vaguely as he again rose and went to the back wall of the office. A minute later he had returned to his seat and fetched a few more things from a drawer.

“Mr Potter, I will need something other than blood for this. I need a sample of your flesh or hair, preferably both. I would advise that you have your companion here perform a numbing charm so he may yank some of the hair from your head.”

Half an hour later they were provided with new results, at which time Midas said, “This is positive. The simulare ritual is regulated by the ministry and must be approved, as it is classified as a type of dark magic. However, given how easily many secrets are divulged by those inside those walls, I suspect the ritual was done illegally.”

“What exactly are you saying?” Harry asked.

“Mr Potter, this ritual is normally performed when the heir of a family dies. A child is chosen as a replacement and adopted via this process, which gives the child the physical characteristics of the subject. Though, generally speaking, a blood adoption is also performed at that time.”

“So there may or may not be a real Harry Potter running around out there?”

“Doubtful,” the goblin said with a shake of his head. “I would not be the least bit surprised if Harry Potter died that night, and someone decided to cover it up.”

“Is there even a point to me making a will now? I mean, they couldn’t have known about this if they provided blood samples, so it couldn’t have been them. If I’m not Harry Potter, then I don’t really have any claim. I can’t possibly be the child James and Lily Potter had and cared for for nearly two years.”

“And yet,” Midas said, “you are, based on that scar alone, the person legally recognized as Harry Potter, child of James and Lily.”

Harry moaned and hid his face in his hands.

‘I shall have to investigate that scar far more closely than I anticipated,’ Salazar thought, then said, “Hal, pull yourself together. This is a mystery, I agree, but you still have things you must take care of.”

His serpent raised his head, the lost look on his face enough to make Salazar’s chest tighten painfully, and asked, “And is there any way to reverse the effects of this adoption?”

They left a bit later on with two files of parchment and spent the next two days discussing the provisions of Harry’s will. They also had a long talk about the trustworthiness of goblins.

Back at the bank Harry entered into a deal with Midas. For a very generous gift on his part, Midas would become the soul of discretion. In fact, the goblin swore a binding oath just as soon as the authorization for a transfer of funds was signed. This was, naturally, above and beyond the usual client confidentiality afforded to vault holders.

A half dozen or so more wards were thrown up around the office, tea was conjured, and a serious talk ensued about not only Harry’s will, but about Harry’s future. An understanding was reached within a reasonable amount of time, money was shifted about, keys made and bonded so that his identity could never be in question, deeds tucked away, heirlooms tossed into a bottomless trunk, and so on and so forth. By the time all that was done Harry had a nice new friend. Or, as nice of a friend as any goblin can be to a human. Harry even gifted Midas with a few goblin-made artifacts from the Potter vault, just as a further token of his appreciation.

At that point it was time for a little side trip into the world of Sirius Black’s will. Harry was the primary heir, and immediately shifted all new funds and items to his shiny new vault. In consequence, all that was left were the bequests to be handed out at the official reading of the will, which Harry would very likely not be attending. His golem might, but since all the details were taken care of, it would be mostly for show, and that assumed that Dumbledore would even let him go.

*

Salazar took care of the golem’s placement while his serpent was out cold, using one of his many devices to send it on its way, both in space and time. Should they ever choose to retrieve it, it could become a true bonded familiar for Hal, though even then it could be considered one. It needed to be given that it borrowed so heavily, and must be trusted to properly play out the deception.

When Hal awoke Salazar was right there, smiling in fond amusement at the sleepy actions of his little serpent, who blinked at him repeatedly before sitting up and rubbing his eyes.

“Why do you look so smug?”

“Because, Hal, your replacement is safely ensconced at your wretched excuse for a home, and it has all of your normal belongings. Oddly enough, it arrived approximately one hour after you left.”

Hal furrowed his brow and nodded slightly, reaching up to rub his forehead. His expression underwent a rapid change from confusion to enlightenment.

Salazar sighed and shifted. “Yes, your scar is gone. A funny thing, that, considering all that you had been led to believe about it.” His serpent stayed quiet so he continued, “There was no connection.”

“Huh? How can that be?”

Pleased that Hal did not unthinkingly protest the impossibility, Salazar said, “I’m not entirely sure yet, but I have my suspicions. Your scar was placed there and it was anchored with dark magic, which forced me to use dark magic to effect its removal. But there was no connection to Riddle via that marking.”

Hal remained silent for a long time, his brow furrowed. Eventually he looked up and said, “Yet I had visions. If that scar was not a pathway, then does that mean I’m something I’ve so far been scornful of?”

“As I’ve said in the past, anything is possible,” Salazar replied. “The golem now bears that scar. The magic I used simply transferred it over. And you, my impertinent little serpent, slithered your way out of being tortured because of that.”

“Okay,” Hal said slowly. “What now?”

“Now? Now you get up, bathe, and get dressed, and we will go have something to eat. After that, we work out a few details.”

*

“So, who exactly am I?”

“I have no idea, and I don’t think I care. As far as I’m concerned, you are Hal.”

“Uh huh.” Hal rolled over, allowing Salazar to see his serpent’s face clearly. “There’s no spell or potion or ritual that could give us some clue who I used to be, or even who did that ritual on me?”

Salazar reached up and slid a finger down the side of Hal’s face, smiled at the expected shiver, and said, “Assuming your true parents are still alive, perhaps. For the original ritual, I’m afraid not. And as for that scar, enough time has passed that it’s pointless to even wonder about it. It had a very long time to integrate with your own magic.”

“You realize. . . .”

“Yes?”

Hal crinkled his brow and said with reluctance, “Dumbledore is the most likely culprit. I told you about that stupid prophecy. If Harry Potter died that night, then I’ve been told a pack of lies about what happened in the aftermath, and a number of people probably had their memories altered. I mean, if I—if Harry died, someone had to see that and have the resources to not only gain control over a child of the same approximate age, but also be able to perform a ritual illegally, all without someone noticing. I know that Dumbledore can seem pretty clueless at times, but that’s a huge deal.”

He nodded and brushed the tip of one finger over Hal’s lower lip before saying, “Very true. And, had we not already made that golem, I would have insisted on it after our visit to the bank. If that prophecy you were told is true, then you have been in danger for no cause, though it is more likely the prophecy is a fake, in which case it is still true you’ve been used. I think you should consider looking very closely and carefully at those you have been exposed to all this time.”

Hal sighed and nodded. “You’re probably going to want to smack me for asking this, but you really don’t care who I might be? I could be a muggle-born.”

Salazar smirked wickedly. “I care, Hal, that you are the person I’ve been speaking with for years. I care that you are the person who helped me regain my body. I care that you are the person you are, and the person I still have every intention of torturing.”

“Okay,” Hal said softly, then pressed closer, daringly touching their lips together.

He was still for a moment, then increased the pressure, sliding his tongue out from parted lips to glide over Hal’s. His serpent’s breath hitched and his lips parted, so Salazar took advantage of the momentary expression of surprise and weakness to invade Hal’s mouth and begin to make his claim. Several minutes later the young man was struggling for breath so Salazar backed off, privately amused at how intensely Hal felt things.

“In answer to your much earlier question,” he said smoothly, “there is no way to remove the results of that ritual.”

It took a minute for Hal to respond, between finding calm and making sense of what was said. “Not remove. Does that mean it can be altered?”

Salazar waited patiently to see if Hal would continue that thought through to a logical conclusion.

“Can the ritual be done again, with a new sample, or samples combined?”

He smiled and nodded, very pleased that his serpent was not hiding behind the bulwark of average intelligence with him. “Yes, it could. But to do so would be an indication that you have chosen to forever step away from the role of Harry Potter, with all that entails. If you like, we can scout out possible archetypes toward that end, though we would still need to track down an actual copy of the ritual itself.”

“Well,” Hal said slowly, “that golem is either going end up dead because of circumstances, or it can be reverted, right? And when that happens, Harry Potter can finally be laid to rest, like he should have been over fourteen years ago.”

“Also true. It is a question of when, Hal. For so long as that golem exists as Harry Potter, it will be drawing on your own magic, which means you will feel the effects as though you cast the spells yourself. Unless you are absolutely certain you wish to take that step, I would recommend waiting. Then again, you might miraculously be a metamorphmagus, which would make all of this somewhat moot.”

“I think . . . I want to see if Harry is allowed to attend the reading of Sirius’s will. Sometimes I think my friends would be better off without me, for a number of reasons. I know me being gone wouldn’t make them any less of a target, but I also think I overshadow them in a way, even if it is mostly the fault of the media and other factors. And in a way, no matter how unfair it might sound, I still wonder just how much of my friendships revolve around the Boy Who Lived.”

“Then we will wait, but be prepared. I think another trip to see Midas might be wise, and possibly visits to some of the darker merchant areas.”

“What about Riddle?”

“That requires a great deal of preparation. And we also must consider that you are nearing your sixteenth birthday. A room must be prepared for that as well.”

Hal nodded, then frowned. “You glossed over that part, you know. If we all go through a type of maturation on our sixteenth, then what will happen to the golem? Maybe I can understand why no one ever bothered to tell me aside from you, but surely Dumbledore will be curious as to the maturation of Potter?”

“That is entirely dependant on who made the substitution. Someone knows you are not who you appear to be, and they must surely be curious as to the strength of their choice. I think, now that I am alive, I will activate my own personal devices built into the school.”

“And you said the clone’s mind will be closed to anyone but us, correct?”

“Yes. Dumbledore, should he check, will be forced to assume that you gained the ability on your own, due to shock, a concerted, desperate effort. . . . I am sure he will manufacture an explanation in his own mind as to how it could be possible.”

“What if I am a metamorphmagus?”

“It would still be a consideration to perform that ritual. You would then have a new base appearance. Depending on the strength of that gift and the strength of the wielder, it is possible for it to be difficult and draining to hold a façade, or even lose it while unconscious.”

Hal grinned. “Okay, I get what you’re saying.”

“Good. Now let us get ready for the day, as I am hungry, and will shortly become irritable should I not obtain sustenance in a timely manner.”

After breakfast Salazar left his serpent in the library while he went to Hogwarts, using the outside entrance to the Chamber to get inside and quickly make his way to a place he knew no one else had ever entered. It had been sealed at his death, and not even a direct descendant of his bloodline would have been able to get inside, nor even know it existed. He was, after all, a somewhat paranoid man, and with good reason.

It took him a good few hours to ensure that all of the devices planted throughout the school were in good working order and could be activated safely, so naturally he did so. And while he was there he strongly considered moving his base of operations to the school itself. Riddle had not broached even a tenth of the magnitude of his private territory, and with a few tweaks he could be doubly assured the man never would.

He shook his head in disgust; a perfectly good bloodline reduced to such ignomy.

For the meantime, Salazar decided to detach one of the larger, sectioned mirrors from the wall and called a house-elf to deliver it back to his hideaway. Should he and Hal relocate, it could be given its rightful spot again.

*

It wasn’t quite two weeks into July when Dumbledore made a move. Harry was aware via the connection to his golem that the headmaster had arrived at № 4 Privet Drive, to remove him from the premises, though the information was conveyed only as impressions. Naturally, he alerted Salazar immediately to this strange change in routine.

Prior to that Harry had spent much of his time immersed in tomes and scrolls, and finally being able to practice potion making without fear of ridicule or sabotage. It was a freeing experience all told. There were no expectations beyond using at least half of his day for study, and having come from a more ‘normal’ summer situation of playing the role of beleaguered house-elf, the few things that Salazar insisted on were trivial in comparison. Besides, Salazar was more inclined to kiss him if he cooperated.

He flushed lightly at the thought. But he enjoyed them, and he wanted them, and this was one thing he refused to let others influence him on. Even as Harry Potter he deserved joy in his life, and not the joy others, deemed by themselves or society as being older and wiser, thought best for him. The fact that nearly everyone made their choices for him based on their willful blind spots was regrettable, but expected.

That Salazar made it very clear to him how he felt about most everything was refreshing. He did not expect perfection, and knew it to be a fool’s game to even attempt, but he did expect that Harry do his utmost to live up to his potential, for his own sake. He allowed Harry his mistakes, as it should be. He was blunt to the point of pain when necessary, which was surprisingly comforting.

It had taken time, to be sure, for Harry to ease into a friendship with the man, then portrait, but if there was one thing he craved above most all else, it was honesty, and Salazar was honest to a fault. Certainly, one sometimes had to listen carefully to the underlying, unspoken words, and to extrapolate from the given, but Salazar did not lie, even to spare his feelings.

And on top of that, he was really quite handsome. However, a sharp prod to his ribs hauled him back from his wandering thoughts to focus instead on his companion, who looked to be frustrated with him.

“We will need to keep a closer eye on the mirror, Hal. If the old man is the one behind things, he may be moving you early due to your impending maturation.”

“In other words, if he’s setting up for that now it means he’s aware that my birthday really isn’t on the thirty-first, and we, too, should be prepared for whatever happens.”

“Yes. Of course, the golem will experience nothing. It ought to be interesting to see the old man’s reaction.”

“Um, you will let me see a memory of it, right? Though, I guess that won’t be needed if my actual maturation isn’t all that . . . significant.”

Salazar nodded. “His reaction may give us valuable clues.”

Harry cocked his head to the side, then said, “They’re at Hogwarts now. Can we watch?”

Salazar’s response was to rise and lead the way to the mirror display.

“Not that I mind, professor, but why are we at Hogwarts so early into the summer?” the clone asked innocently.

“Harry,” Dumbledore said in that dry, dusty voice of his, “each witch and wizard goes through a magical maturation at the conclusion of their fifteenth year. I have brought you here to Hogwarts for that reason, as it would not be safe for you to experience it elsewhere.”

“Oh.” The clone looked puzzled briefly. “But my birthday isn’t until the end of the month, sir. Is there something wrong? Should I be worried?”

“No, no, of course not, Harry. Consider this a treat, if you will, as I’m sorry to say that after your birthday you will need to return to the Dursleys in order to ensure that the wards are properly renewed for the year.”

The clone scowled fiercely, then seemed to remember who he was standing next to and wiped the expression off his face. “I see, sir. Where will I be staying? The tower?”

“Ah, no, Harry. It seems a bit silly to place you up there alone, don’t you think? No, I have a special room set aside for your stay.” And with that he led the clone to a small suite, shared the password, then wished the boy a good night.

*

It was several days later, just prior to midnight on the thirteenth, that Salazar noticed some peculiarities in Dumbledore’s behavior. He immediately ushered Hal into a protected room, and gave his serpent a quick explanation before sealing him in. And as it was an offshoot of the room the mirror was placed in, he could easily keep an eye on both for the duration.

Dumbledore, of course, had his own way of spying on the transition room the clone was staying in, which meant Salazar had an excellent vantage point all around. Nothing happened to the clone.

Hal, on the other hand. . . .

It was a bizarre thing to see a metamorphmagus come into their power. His serpent’s features, build, and other characteristics cycled randomly through thousands of possibilities and combinations, the sight enough to make most people queasy or actively ill.

Dumbledore looked incredibly disappointed, but not surprised.

Salazar snorted and flicked his gaze over to see a coruscating aura of visible magic erupt around his serpent. It made him wonder exactly what might have happened had Harry Potter lived, and what he would have been witnessing a fortnight hence.

Dumbledore’s expression had become somewhat crafty.

Whoever Hal was, he was certainly not a run of the mill wizard, and the old man had chosen well a child of power. It remained to be seen if Dumbledore had had any real idea of Hal’s potential, or if he had simply chosen a magical male child unlikely to be missed. Salazar shrugged and continued to watch.

The next day Hal was more or less his usual self . . . if you didn’t count his complete lack of control when it came to his appearance. Salazar never knew from one moment to the next what face would be staring back at him, which made conversations a bit peculiar, not to mention how the possibility of waking up next to a total stranger frayed his nerves ever so slightly.

It actually took him a while to catch on to the fact that his serpent was gaining control, but was deliberately shifting to see if he could catch Salazar in an outright expression of surprise or shock. Once found out, however, Hal settled down, though expecting a look of true contrition would have been pushing it.

“So, disappointed?”

“Yes, and then shifty. The reasonable conclusion is yours, that he is responsible for your stint as Harry Potter.”

“Then I want to perform the ritual. If absolutely necessary I can make myself look like him again, but I don’t see the point otherwise. I agree with you that there’s risk involved in trying to maintain a façade.”

And having already obtained a copy of the ritual and a selection of samples, that wasn’t a problem.

When the thirty-first rolled around Dumbledore was observed spying on the clone again, and was disappointed for a second time. The clone was packed back off to Privet Drive the next day after having been assured by Dumbledore that his inheritance was spectacular and the sheer pain of it must have blocked the memory.

Salazar and Hal snorted.

The public reading of Sirius Black’s will was scheduled for the fifteenth of August; Potter had been informed. That, of course, necessitated another trip to see Midas.

“What can we do to minimize any damage?” Hal asked after having proven his identity via the bonded Gringotts keys.

“You are referring to the possibility that Dumbledore may attempt to gain control over the Black assets prior to Harry Potter’s majority?” Midas inquired.

“Yes. I might already have claimed what is definitely mine, but he doesn’t know that. It’s possible that Dumbledore might figure out he’s being had during the reading. So I’m curious, since the legalities have actually been serviced, is it possible to play a little prank against the old man only?”

Midas aimed a unnervingly intense stare at Hal. “You would not seek to interfere with other allocations.”

“Not at all,” Hal assured the goblin. “Whatever Sirius left people is theirs by right and law to receive. I just don’t want Dumbledore to know the true extent of what was left to me. He can’t get at the Potter estate, so if he was going to try something, this would be it.”

Midas arched a brow and said, “As Dumbledore is not named in the will, he has no right to attend the reading. He can wait in an anteroom. What I am willing to do is have you present in disguise as a Gringotts employee, an aide. After the others are sent out, you can impart whatever instructions you wish to your double before he, too, is released.”

“I think that’d be perfect, actually.”

Salazar led a smirking Hal away.

*

Harry was comfortably seated at an angle to Midas when people began filtering in for the reading. He stiffened slightly when he heard Dumbledore’s voice out in the corridor, the sound of it no longer something to inspire comfort in him. Instead it made him think, bizarrely perhaps, of a slithering snake, and hardly in a good way. It had an oily undertone that made Harry wish to shudder.

Within a minute the clone walked through the doors to the office accompanied by Remus Lupin and Nymphadora Tonks. He took the center seat, flanked by his companions, and the clone’s eyes immediately sought out Harry’s. After an almost imperceptible nod the clone looked down, seemingly lost in his own tragic thoughts.

Harry was very glad he no longer had much reason to give Lupin cause for concern. He neither looked nor smelled as he once had; he was simply an employee of the bank, there to be of assistance. He watched with feigned disinterest as several more people filed in, this time revealed as Narcissa and Draco Malfoy. And moments after that came Hermione Granger and a selection of Weasleys.

Midas signaled, causing the doors to shut with a soft fwump, then cleared his throat loudly. “Silence. We shall begin with the reading of the public portion of the will of the late Sirius Black.”

Harry tuned out the words of the introduction, already having read them, and instead kept a careful eye on the people listening. The Malfoys looked to be barely tolerating the procedure, and while Narcissa kept her gaze steady on Midas, Draco kept sending poisonous looks at everyone else; Ron sent back a few of his own.

“Mr Malfoy,” Midas said, catching Harry’s attention, “the bequest for you comes with certain conditions. Mr Black has left instructions in his will that disclosure to you can be done privately. What is your preference?”

Draco hesitated for a second, then said firmly, “Privacy.”

“So be it. The same applies to you, Mrs Malfoy. What is your preference?”

“Privacy.”

“So be it. In that case, we shall move along for the time being. The disbursements are as follows: to Mr and Mrs Weasley, two million galleons; to Fred and George Weasley, twenty thousand galleons; to Ron and Ginny Weasley, five thousand galleons each; to Hermione Granger, five thousand galleons; to Nymphadora Tonks, one million galleons; and to Remus Lupin, five million galleons.

“If those named would please approach my assistant, he will get your signatures and provide you each with a copy of the applicable portion of the will so that you may see exactly what Mr Black wrote aside from the monetary amount.”

Harry was busy for the next few minutes playing his role, but managed to complete that task with a minimum of fuss.

Midas then said, “If you will now exit the room so that I may continue with the private portions of this reading?”

They shuffled toward the doors as they opened, most of them casting anxious or worried looks over their shoulders at the clone, but were quickly enough outside and barred from re-entry.

Midas then looked at the clone and said, “Mr Potter, I need for you to step away with my assistant while I deal with the Malfoys.”

“All right, sir,” the clone said softly, then rose, looking at Harry for what to do.

Harry produced a faint smile and stood as well, then gestured and walked to a small seating area off in a back corner of the room. As they were taking new seats a series of privacy wards sprung up around Midas and the Malfoys, which Harry ignored. He already knew exactly what was going on over there.

Sirius had specified that if either Draco or Narcissa were marked they would be automatically disinherited. If they were not, they would be told that in order to receive their bequests, they must each swear a binding oath to never serve Voldemort, be it by taking the Dark Mark, funding him, spying for him, etc.

Harry rather figured that his godfather had a very good reason to give Narcissa a chance, and was inclined to give Draco the chance to step away from his past, much like he had broken from his own, though he had had the help of James Potter to do so.

If Narcissa agreed, she would inherit a portion of the Black estate monies, plus a home for herself. And, should Lucius have violated any of the terms of the marriage contract, she had the option to dissolve it. If Draco agreed, he would inherit the same, plus recognition as the new head of the Black family, as he was the closest remaining male of the blood. Should they refuse, they would get nothing and the status of the Black family would be considered dead.

Harry blinked away his thoughts and focused on his clone instead, casting his own selection of privacy wards before saying, “I trust things are all right.”

“Yes.”

“Good. Now, here’s what we’re doing. Whatever is left over is supposed to go to Harry Potter. Because we are concerned that Dumbledore might attempt to gain control over that portion, most of it has already been transferred. What you will ‘publicly’ gain is a pittance, but since Dumbledore has no way of seeing exactly how much, or of knowing how much the Malfoys might get, he can’t catch you out in any lies.

“With that in mind, you can tell Dumbledore that you felt . . . guilty about your part in the events that led up to Sirius’s death, so you decided to split your inheritance, okay? Part of it can be handed over to the Order, while the rest goes to charities, such as a fund for wolfsbane, to magical children in orphanages, stuff like that.

“He’ll probably be disappointed that he didn’t get his hands on more of the money, but think you’re firmly under his control, malleable, and other such silliness. After the Malfoys leave, we’ll show you the paperwork. He can’t touch the Potter estate. If he mentions it, you should probably tell him you asked about it but were told you must be seventeen for that reading to occur, as the trust vault was created solely for your expenses until that point.”

“I understand,” the clone said with a nod.

“Now, has he attempted to get into your mind yet?”

The clone shook his head. “Not that I’m aware of.”

“If he mentions it. . . . If he wants to test you personally, let him, though I’m not sure he would. Perhaps if he attempted to get into your mind and failed, he’d bring it up. Whatever makes sense for a story, such as the trauma of Sirius’s death kickstarted your determination to learn, so that, er, nobody else could get hurt by false visions. Maybe you heard a passing reference to muggle meditation and winged it, and it worked. After all, all Snape ever said was ‘clear your mind’ so it made sense to try in a bizarre fashion.”

The clone nodded slowly. “The less said the better, to allow for him to warp it to his own satisfaction.”

Harry grinned. “Yes. Keep a close eye on what you say to everyone. Now that I’m reasonably certain that Dumbledore is not what he appears to be, I want you to be careful around the others. I don’t particularly suspect the Weasleys or Hermione of anything bad, but it’s better to not be too open. If you suspect anything, there are a couple of places in the castle you can loiter in to pass on a message. Preferably in Parseltongue.”

He gave his clone instructions on the locations of a few of Salazar’s more out of the way devices, then said, “Also, you’ve realized that certain items were not given to you. Should anyone ask, make something up. They went missing, you were in a hurry and left them behind by mistake, or—” Harry stopped and furrowed his brow. “I suppose you could claim that you brought them with you to the bank and handed them over to Midas to be placed in the Potter vault.”

A flash of light drew his attention away from a nodding clone; Midas was ushering the Malfoys out. “Right, let’s go handle that paperwork.”

A bit later, as he was being escorted out of the bank on his way to meet up with Salazar, Harry was spotted, though he was not aware of it at the time.

*

Bill Weasley had a slight problem. He was at Gringotts, for once, having returned to present a report in person regarding a curse breaking job he had been on, when he noticed Harry Potter being escorted out by Albus Dumbledore. Except, there was no way that boy was Harry. It wasn’t even human. And then, before he could decide exactly what to do, he noticed a young man walking with, of all beings, Midas.

At first surprised glance, mainly for the fact that any goblin appeared to be semi-friendly with a human, there was nothing to remark upon, and the man’s appearance was foreign to him. However, the aura was very nearly a perfect match to the one he recognized as Harry Potter.

It did not add up. Not at present. Dumbledore had not seemed concerned with the stand in, but was that because he had no idea, or because he did? And why would Midas be so cozy with a human?

He shook his head in confusion, then began striding forward as he realized that Midas was about to disappear back into the depths of the bank. He caught up to the goblin fairly quickly, getting an intense glare for his troubles, but doggedly stuck with him until they were within the goblin’s office.

“Mr Weasley,” Midas said flatly.

“There is something I would like to speak with you about. Privately. I’ve just seen something extremely peculiar, and as a loyal employee of this bank, it’s my duty to report it.”

Midas arched a brow at him and waved one hand, causing the doors to slam shut. “I see. Sit.” The goblin sat down behind his desk, his face the usual expression of feral disdain for a human. “And what, Mr Weasley, have you noticed?”

“You know that one of the reasons I’m a curse breaker is my ability to see auras,” he began, then explained what he had witnessed in the lobby.

Midas said nothing for a time, then reached out to gather up parchment and quill. By the time five minutes had gone by a letter had been sent off via Gringotts owl. “We shall wait.”

*

Harry and Salazar were just exiting Flourish & Blotts when an owl swooped in and hooted softly at him, then settled onto the sill of the shop window and extended a leg toward him.

Harry blinked, glanced at Salazar, then shrugged and accepted the letter; it was addressed to Hallam Nash, his new name. He checked it quickly for spells, then opened it and read, very quickly passing it over to Salazar.

“Well, Hal, I suppose we should return to the bank,” was all the man said.

A short time later they were let into Midas’s office and offered seats, and Harry gave Bill an openly curious look. “You have aura sight?”

“Yes, it’s a very rare ability,” Bill replied rather stiffly.

He nodded, then sighed. “Well, that sucks.”

Salazar cleared his throat irritably and stared, so Harry flashed a grin at him.

“Mr Nash,” Midas said patiently, “if we could please get on with it?”

“Oh, fine. Could you tell me your opinion of Mr Weasley’s trustworthiness?”

Bill looked mildly affronted before Midas said, “Considering that Mr Weasley acted first on his loyalty to this bank, in the interests of helping to bring to light a possible case of fraud, I would say the chances are high that he could be trusted. And in any case, a binding oath would ensure it.”

Harry nodded and looked at Salazar questioningly.

“We require an oath,” Salazar said tonelessly.

Bill’s expression morphed to a combination of confusion, curiosity, and something like anger. “The only reason I’m not shouting right now is because Midas isn’t up in arms over what I told him, and there’s not a squadron of security goblins in here leveling pikes at your heads.”

The goblin growled softly, something that Harry took as an alternate way of rolling his eyes, and said, “Mr Weasley, you will take the required oath. The person you have called into question, Mr Nash, is well known to me and has done nothing illegal, despite the evidence which prompted your concerns.”

Bill’s jaw clenched for a moment, as though he wished to protest, then he sat back and drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair.

“Let me put it to you this way,” Harry said. “I know what you reported, and I understand why you did so, and why you’d be confused. But it is not your duty or responsibility to interfere with regard to certain meddlesome old men. And, if I were to find out that you soured what I’ve worked for. . . .”

“You’re threatening me?”

“Of course,” Harry said with a grin. “This isn’t your business, but you’ve made it so. You pay the consequences, one way or another.”

Bill shook his head in seeming disbelief. “I barely know you, but I do know you. I can’t mistake that much. If you’re willing to threaten me over this finding, and if Midas is backing you, then I guess I need to trust in what I have known. What’s the oath?”

Salazar smirked and turned to Midas, who produced a piece of parchment and handed it over. After glancing at it, then nodding, Salazar offered it to the redhead, and once that was taken care of, he said, “I must wonder just how many people know you well enough in that respect, Hal, to have recognized you. For that matter, I wonder how many people are gifted with aura sight and may pose a serious threat because of it.”

“Will somebody please explain to me now what’s going on?” Bill asked impatiently.

Harry grinned. “My name is Hallam Nash, though you’ve known me as Harry Potter. The problem is, Bill, that Harry Potter died, or so we think, back during the attack on the house at Godric’s Hollow. The person you saw earlier with Dumbledore is my. . . .” He turned to Salazar questioningly.

“Yes, you can claim him as a familiar.”

He nodded and looked back to Bill. “I came here originally to write a will, and to do that I needed to know what assets I actually had, so Midas, in accordance with the requirements of the Potters’ will, attempted to verify my identity. He—”

“Your aura is different,” Bill interjected. “Is that because of something you’ve done to change your appearance, or what?”

Harry shrugged and looked at Salazar again. “Do you think it has anything to do with that curse scar?”

“Possibly. As I told you before the dark magic anchoring it had integrated with your personal magic having been there for so many years. Its removal might be responsible, in part, for the change. You must also remember that you did go through your maturation, which might also have had an effect.”

Harry turned an inquisitive look on Bill instead; the man looked sort of bewildered.

“Is Hallam Nash your birth name?”

“We have no idea,” Harry said cheerfully. “But since Salazar here has been calling me Hal for years, we stuck with it.”

“Salazar?”

“Oh, I have horrible manners. Salazar Slytherin, allow me to introduce William Weasley. Bill, Salazar is my friend and mentor, among other things.” Harry blithely ignored the expression on the redhead’s face and continued, “So, Midas recognized the curse scar and the magic in it from the first time I’d been to the bank. It was recorded, you see. The thing is, James and Lily left behind blood samples. The test failed.”

A half hour later Bill was filled in on what they knew, even if he was having trouble with the alleged identity of Salazar. “Okay. I guess I can understand why you’re doing this.”

“If I’m not Harry Potter, the prophecy that Dumbledore told me can’t possibly be correct. So either it was false to begin with, manufactured, broken, or fulfilled by what happened that night. Either way, I am not Harry Potter, and will not continue to be that man’s pawn.”

“And the only thing you know is that your birthday is approximately the fourteenth of July.”

“Approximately?”

Bill smiled faintly. “You’re forgetting to adjust for leap years. 1980 was a leap year, actually. So is this year, with three more between. In other words, four extra days have been added since you were born, so your birthday might actually be the tenth of July, based on you maturing on the fourteenth. The fact that you did mature just recently says you were born in 1980. As far as I’m aware of, even a potion that alters someone’s apparent age wouldn’t affect that milestone.”

“Hal, I think we have taken up more than enough of Midas’s time. Should you wish to continue this conversation, I suggest we bring this man home with us, assuming he is free to do so.”

“Oh. I’m sorry, Midas. Salazar is going to have to work on my manners, it seems. I suppose that would count as torture, huh?”

Salazar snorted quietly.