Grazhir :: Harry Potter :: Infusion :: 02 :: Friends

02 • Friends

After a minor, secondary oath regarding the hideaway, the three men settled into chairs as a house-elf popped in to deliver a tray with various beverages and snacks. Bill had been portkeyed blind, and had no idea where he actually was.

“So.”

Salazar stared at the Weasley male until Bill coloured slightly, then said, “Gringotts is able to uniquely identify Dark Marks. That is of use to us.”

“How do you mean?” Bill asked rather tentatively.

“I am going to allow for the fact that you are surely unsettled at the moment, young man, and not assume you are slow-witted or stupid. If Gringotts can do this, I intend to duplicate that feat, and collect that same data.”

Hal looked up from his inspection of the food. “So we can track them down? Maybe even, er, graciously invite one over for tea and a chat?”

He smirked at his serpent and nodded. “Without knowing exactly which spell or ritual was involved in the making of the Dark Mark, I cannot know the most effective way to use Riddle’s magic against him with regard to his servants.”

“What about spies?” Bill asked suddenly.

“Like Snape?” The smile on Hal’s face was rather twisted. “Don’t look at me like that, Bill. Despite everything, I’m reasonably certain that Dumbledore really does trust the man. But that doesn’t necessarily mean anything good for Harry Potter.”

“Snape has helped to save your life more than once,” Bill pointed out.

“Uh huh,” Hal said agreeably. “I saved Peter Pettigrew’s life once, but somehow I doubt he trusts me. I saved him because I wanted something from him. I saved Ginny’s life once, but I certainly didn’t do it because I particularly cared for her, as I barely knew her. I did it because it was the right thing to do. Don’t make the mistake of thinking an act of good means more than it really is.”

Bill sighed and slumped slightly in his chair, nodding his head in understanding. After a few moments he said, “So, uh, how exactly is it that one of the founding four is alive and well in this day and age?”

“I restored him to life,” Hal said simply, looking awfully smug there for a moment.

Salazar would have chastised his serpent had he not known that Hal was angling for a specific reaction.

“You can’t raise the dead,” Bill said. “The best you can manage is inferi, and that’s not life. It’s a mockery and a perversion.”

“Oh?” Hal arched one brow in an almost condescending manner. “Funny, I seem to recall helping Riddle come back to life, too, though that was extremely unwilling on my part.”

Bill sighed again, a pained sound. “Touché, Ha-l.”

“It would probably make more sense if Salazar explained the technical bits. But I can tell you that I stumbled over a portrait of him in the Chamber of Secrets, not all that long after I rescued Ginny. I needed . . . to face my fear of that place.” Hal shivered, barely, then continued, “So I went back, and when I found him, there were a lot of things I wanted to say, stupid as it might seem. I had a lot of anger about the way things are at Hogwarts, and what I’d been taught was the reason for it.

“And, with like many things historical, the truth was twisted and warped. To make a very long story short, after any number of exhausting conversations, and not a few shouting matches, Salazar eventually became the one person I trust implicitly, so when he asked me for help, with a reciprocal offer to help me, I agreed.”

“And you just . . . trusted a portrait?”

Hal frowned. “It’s not that simple, Bill, so don’t you dare make it sound as if it was. That portrait wasn’t anything like what you normally see. It was a vessel, not some common amalgamation of paint and pigment and canvas.”

Bill nodded sagely. “Like Riddle’s diary?”

To Salazar’s great pride his serpent did not become furious and start shouting. Instead Hal took a deep breath before saying anything.

“Actually, there are definite similarities, but we have no idea if that was intentional or not, or even if there are more of that sort of thing out there.”

The redhead looked taken aback at the agreement.

“The point I’m trying to make is that just like a wizard can be good or evil, so can anything else, depending on why it exists, who created it, who nurtured it, who designed it. . . . Or, as one saying goes, give a dog a bad name and hang him. Just because a pure-blood named Draco Malfoy is an arrogant snob doesn’t mean you are an arrogant snob of a pure-blood.”

“Okay, okay, I get the point. So if the diary was anything like. . . .” Bill looked over at Salazar. “If Riddle could be embodied from spirit, with his mind and magic, then I suppose . . . .”

“Before I died I enchanted a very special portrait, so that upon my death my soul, my mind, my magic, and everything that made me who I am, would be kept within that vessel. With my guidance Hal performed the ritual to embody me.”

“Why now?”

Salazar shrugged carelessly. “Several reasons. As one, for Hal’s sake, though that covers any number of aspects. As two, for the sake of my family, that which has become intolerable. People like to talk at times as though the founders of Hogwarts appeared from thin air, that something in the environment simply caused us to be. Obviously untrue, but we do bear the burden of being the touchstones of our lines.

“In the bible, in Revelation, you will see ‘I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.’ And, while that is not entirely truthful for this situation, as I assure you I did have a father and mother, I do intend to make sure that the present last of my line sees its end.”

Bill nodded, then asked, “And what do you want from me?”

“You have already given it. Though, should you wish to be of further use, we would not disdain your help.”

“You’ve already tied my hands otherwise, so it’s that or sit back and pretend ignorance. I suppose I could try to figure out a way to fool aura sight.”

*

“Makes you wonder.”

“Hm?”

“Now that he’s got even more money, what’s he going to be like?”

“Ron!” Hermione chastised. “What kind of a question is that?”

“What’s he need us for?” he said sullenly.

Hermione huffed. “You really are the limit, you know that? This coming from the boy who practically pitches a fit whenever Harry has tried to share his money with you. Are you so useless and worthless that something like money defines you?”

Ron shot to his feet, red-faced and glaring. “How dare you?”

She gave him an intent look, one that most would interpret as being rather superior. “Well, are you? Tell me something. Is Harry like Malfoy?”

Ron hesitated, confusion clear on his face. “Well, no.”

“Okay. Malfoy would lord his money over anyone. He’d lord anything over anyone if he thought he could. You were just left five thousand galleons, Ron. Do you plan to lord that over people with less than you have? Your parents were left two million. Do you plan to lord that over people? Did Harry ever lord his money over you or anyone else? What makes you think Harry would change just because he has a bigger vault? And when has Harry ever based his friendships on who is rich or poor?”

Ron sank back down, his expression one of shame.

“Right. If I ever hear you talking like that again, I’ll curse you myself. You really need to get a handle on this jealousy thing. Just look at you. Back in fourth year you really screwed up, but you came to your senses and told Harry you’d not do this again. And you just did! I know you’re not stupid, Ron, so why can’t you think before you start speaking?”

He opened his mouth to speak, but was cut off before he began by Ginny dashing into the room.

“Guys! There’s a meeting or something going on downstairs.”

Hermione raised her brows. “Are we even invited?”

Ginny rolled her eyes. “Of course not! But we can try to listen in, right?” Her hand opened to reveal several extendible ears. “There’s no real door to the kitchen, so they can’t have used an imperturbable charm. C’mon!”

The trio were shortly crouching on the stairs, an extendible ear each aimed at the room in question.

“And how is he?” came Molly’s voice.

“He’s as well as can be expected,” Dumbledore said comfortingly. “He rather surprised me, actually.”

“How so? And when can he come to the Burrow?”

“Now, now. You know very well that he must stay there long enough for the wards to be secure. As for how he surprised me, it appears that Harry was adamantly against keeping any of the money that Sirius left to him.”

Ron’s eyes bugged out in surprise, while Hermione took on a look of shocked satisfaction.

“Albus?” said Arthur.

“Harry told me after he was out of the reading that he arranged for part of the money to be made available to the Order for the fight against Voldemort, and the rest was to be divided between several charities. While he did not state it outright, I can conjecture based on his attitude and what little he did say that Harry felt a great deal of guilt, even though very little of what happened was his fault. He doesn’t feel he should benefit from his mistakes.”

“That’s . . . remarkably mature of him,” Arthur stated.

“Yes. Once again Harry has risen to the occasion.”

“Does that mean we can still use headquarters, then?” Molly asked.

“Certainly. Sirius may have been struck from the family tapestry, but he was still the owner of the property and the estate of that branch of the family. Had he not made a will it would likely have all gone to his cousin Bellatrix. The house was left to Harry, but he has told me that the Order may continue to use it as their base. In any case, I should think that Harry can be moved in a few days time. A trip to Diagon Alley to purchase his supplies may help to lighten his mood.”

When the conversation switched to topics of no particular interest to the trio they slipped back upstairs to huddle in Ron’s room. Hermione did not say a word, she just stared at Ron, who eventually flushed again.

“Yeah, yeah, I know. I’m a rotten friend.”

“Be that as it may, I suggest you not mention it to Harry. He doesn’t need more tension or upset.”

“What are you two on about?” Ginny asked.

*

Harry had been gleefully sorting through a number of objects he had taken from his vaults, but the one he had just then pulled out caused Salazar a great deal of visible shock.

“What’s wrong?” he asked innocently.

“The item you’re holding is something I recognize. It’s a symbol of a particular family, one with an extremely rare gift. It is strange. . . .”

Harry immediately prompted him with, “Strange how?”

Salazar shook his head. “It’s not something I can fully tell you, actually, though I must wonder how that pendant found its way into one of your vaults.”

He shrugged, feeling mildly annoyed. “You can’t explain because you don’t know, or because there’s some mysterious rule that says you can’t?”

Salazar smirked in pleasure. “Both. So, as I see it, you have a choice. You can either put that pendant in a box and store it somewhere here, or you can try it on and see what happens.”

Harry gave him a long, hard look before he grasped the chain with both hands and slipped it over his head, the pendant coming to rest a short distance below his collarbone. The chain was fashioned from some silvery metal—he could not tell on sight if it was, in fact, silver or something else—and the pendant crafted from a sparkling black gem of some kind, framed with more of that same metal. It appeared to be a representation of a nightingale.

Nothing happened; Harry was about to remove it when he realized he was frozen in place, his limbs unwilling or unable to move at his direction. He could not even gasp in surprise or speak in protest of the invisible bindings.

A moment later the pendant began to glow, but the light it gave off was muted. Harry felt as though someone, or something, was searching through his mind and assessing what it found. The process was not painful, per se, but it was assuredly not comfortable. After a timeless span he felt tingles running through his frozen body, starting at his head and sweeping down toward his feet.

‘Well, well, well,’ said a voice in his head. ‘I suppose it is no wonder you came into possession of the talisman. It is just as well you’ve already reached your maturity, heir, and at that I can tell you’ve already been able to tap some of your power.’

Harry, halfway between curiosity and fright, thought back, ‘Er, what?’

A soft chuckle resounded in his head. ‘By virtue of blood and the awakening talisman, you are now Lord . And, hm, as you have already changed your name once, I suppose there is no particular need for you to change it again.’

‘Who exactly are you?’

‘I? I am the original Lord Phelim. Did you think the founders were the only ones capable of placing a consciousness into an inanimate object? Piffle, I say. Complete tosh. And no, don’t give me any self-pitying rubbish about wanting to be normal. Accept what you’ve been given and be grateful for every advantage you have over the forces of evil, such as your dear enemy Voldemort, self-styled Lord of Darkness.’

When Harry did not respond the voice said, ‘And speaking of founders, I notice you have one of your very own. How curious. You are one of the very few magical children of the line, but that is beside the point, I suppose.’

Harry finally got tired of waiting. ‘What is your name?’

‘Mine? Oh. Malachai Heron Phelim. I must say, though, the connotations are a bit much.’

Harry gave a mental shrug. ‘Thank you for finally telling me. Now, do you think you could explain why I seem to be frozen in place? And just exactly what it means to be Lord Phelim?’

Malachai chuckled again. ‘Well, since you seem to be handling this decently, I shall unfreeze you. And don’t worry about the necklace. It’s not coming off unless you remove it or you die. You’re rather stuck with me, young heir.’

Harry felt his body relax and was immensely grateful, then scowled at his friend; Salazar was still smirking. “Just try it on, huh? You could have at least warned me.”

Salazar shook his head. “No. And I still won’t say much of anything unless you can prove to me that you understand the significance of that jewelry.”

“I am the new Lord Phelim,” he said flatly.

“Fantastic. If nothing else, this gives me some idea of what family contains your ancestors.”

Harry frowned. “You’re scaring me, you know. This chipper thing you have going on is . . . not right.”

“Pardon my enthusiasm, Hal,” Salazar said a bit stiffly. “You being Lord Phelim explains a few things, such as how you’ve been able to witness Riddle’s meetings and possibly even know what he was feeling.”

‘Eh?’ he thought to himself. But before he could voice his questions, Malachai decided to be forthcoming.

‘Lord Phelim, Lord of Dreams. You, heir, have the the ability to invade the dreams of others, guide them, induce them, and also travel astrally. You are also, in a narrow sense, something of a seer. It’s instinctive.’

“Oh, nice,” he said sarcastically. “And if I start acting like flippin’ Trelawney, someone needs to smack some sense into me.”

Salazar arched a stern brow at him, so Harry added, “It—he—talks to me. Rather like the sorting hat, actually.”

He got a slow nod in response, then, “Well, as I said, this does tell us you are not a true muggle-born. Somewhere in your ancestry lies the Phelim family. However, unless we can track down a self-updating copy of a family tapestry, or records of the same, we would not be able to use that information in an attempt to realize the names of your birth parents. It is up to you, Hal, if we spend time on that endeavor. We do have important tasks to accomplish, but I will not leave you unsupported should you choose to investigate.”

Harry smiled; his insides were once again lurching around like an excited Dobby at another example of Salazar’s feelings for him. “It’s not essential, and I doubt it’s needful, so it can wait. There are plenty of things I need to set time aside for already since I won’t be getting a standard education any longer. And as much as that man scares me, I have every intention of helping you with Riddle and his men.”

Several moments passed as they held each other’s gaze, a plethora of unspoken words within, then Harry blinked and cocked his head to the side. “The clone is being removed from Privet Drive.”

“Hal?”

“Yes?” He wondered why Salazar looked so serious all of a sudden.

“I strongly suggest you begin to actually think of yourself as Hallam Nash, and the clone as Harry Potter.”

*

Hal was waiting inside Gringotts with Salazar, knowing that Harry intended to visit. The impression he had received was of his clone using the excuse of wishing to check into which charities were up for selection. In reality it ended up being a short meeting simply to check in personally. Harry was soon enough on his way, and as Hal and Salazar had a few things they wished to pick up, they, too, exited into Diagon Alley.

They were sitting at one of the tables outside Fortescue’s when a disturbance arose, and their dishes of ice cream (Salazar had diffidently expressed a desire for some) were forgotten when it became clear that a four-man squad of aurors was responsible. The group swept through Diagon Alley purposefully and came to a halt just as Harry and his friends came out of Flourish & Blotts.

Hal had a sinking feeling in his stomach at that moment.

“Harry Potter,” intoned one of the aurors, “you are under arrest for alleged use of an unforgivable. You will accompany us to the Ministry of Magic in order to undergo trial proceedings. Your wand will be taken and tested, and veritaserum may be used to ascertain the truth.”

After a second or two of complete silence all hell broke loose in the form of Weasleys yelling and screeching. Tonks and Shacklebolt moved forward (Hal did not recognize the spokesman or the other man) to grasp each of Harry’s arms as the spokesman retrieved a length of rope. Within moments all five of them had disappeared.

Hal exhaled noisily and stood. “I believe we need to return to Gringotts and make a few adjustments.” He knew damn well that his original wand probably still showed evidence of having been used for an attempt at crucio during the ministry raid, and that alone was probably enough to convict Harry Potter. Somehow, Hal did not think Albus Dumbledore could finagle his pawn a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card, and he had to wonder if the old man would even bother trying.

It took a full week for the trial to begin, and miracle of miracles, Fudge had not barred the public from attending. Salazar postulated that it must be because there was damning evidence gained from the wand, and Fudge wanted a full crowd on hand to watch the perfectly legal downfall of the Boy Who Lived.

Within the comfort of their silenced-to-a-fare-thee-well seats, Hal and Salazar had been discussing events in very quiet Parseltongue.

“So what do you suggest?”

“There are several options, so I suppose it depends on what sentence is handed down. If he’s there for life, we can make him disappear. It’s more a question of how he would be treated by the guards.”

“You mean they might kill him.”

“The thought had crossed my mind, yes. You know as well as I that the public is capricious, so the guardians of Azkaban I expect to be little different. And there are those who place their trust in the minister, who is orchestrating this farce.”

“I guess . . . it’ll be sort of interesting to see how many people fall in. I know, according to the laws, that what happened was a crime. It’s strange, really, that even with people breaking out of Azkaban, or being broken out, that everyone seems so against the idea of fixing the issues, or even executing the criminals.”

Salazar gave him a sidelong look, which prompted Hal to say, “I know, I know. That could be me sitting down there, possibly about to be sentenced to execution or the Kiss. On the other hand, if people did their jobs correctly, I probably never would have been in a position to try that stupid spell.”

“And where would you place any criminals you captured?”

“That’s a good question. It would never work for the ministry here because they’ve been infiltrated on so many levels by Death Eaters, people willing to break the law as it suits them, and people who are just plain bigoted and try to create laws to serve their prejudices. For me, I’d cut a deal with another country, like Canada or Japan, and pay for criminals to be detained there, and preferably have it all be very hush hush.”

“Interesting,” Salazar said, a familiar gleam in his eyes.

Things got underway, with one of the officials standing and causing a hush to descend over the courtroom. “In the matter of the British Ministry of Magic against Harry James Potter, let this trial begin. Aurors, bring in the accused.”

Harry was escorted in and pushed down into a seat Hal was quite familiar with, the aurors taking up positions behind and to each side, at which point the official said, “Let it be known that these proceedings are more of a formality due to the nature of the evidence. Mr Potter’s wand has undergone a battery of tests by the Department of Magical Law Enforcement and those findings prove that the wand in question was used to cast the cruciatus curse. Therefore, in the interests of fairness, as the possibility exists that it was not actually Mr Potter holding the wand at the time, veritaserum will be used to ascertain the truth of this matter.”

An official with an aura around him that screamed ‘flunky’ appeared, holding a small vial of colourless fluid. Harry was forced to take three drops on his tongue before the official stepped back and capped the vial.

Hal let out a soft whine as a rather pompous fellow in lime green swanned into the rather small open area, then nearly gaped as Harry began convulsing as if he was under the cruciatus curse. “The hell?” His head snapped around to look at Salazar, who happened to be chortling very quietly.

“My, who would have thought? I expected it would have no effect at all, but then it’s not as though I’ve ever had the opportunity to test such a potion on non-humans. I can see I need to accelerate my hands-on assimilation of knowledge.”

Meanwhile, ministry personnel were having a bit of a panic.

Eventually, someone had the bright idea to administer the antidote, and that was when they pulled out the only rabbit they had left, though thankfully not from Fudge’s silly hat. A skilled Legilimens was brought in and provided with a comfortable chair; the young lady sat down and aimed a cheerful smile at Harry, then raised her wand and cast.

A few seconds passed before she jerked back so quickly one might think she’d been punched. The lady blinked a few times and shook her head, then tossed her hands in the air and said, “It’s no use. The kid’s got incredible natural talent at occlumency. He can’t even open up voluntarily. The only way anyone is getting in there is to crack his mind open like an egg, and then there’s really no point, as he’ll be as good as dead.”

Fudge turned an alarming shade of purple, which coincidentally matched his suit. Hal privately wondered if that was why Fudge was so fond of the colour, as the physical effects of his temper tantrums would never leave him in danger of clashing.

A woman Hal recognized as Amelia Bones shot off sparks from her wand and cleared her throat loudly. “Thank you, Miss Flitterfrock. You are dismissed. I suppose we’re going to have to do this the old fashioned way. Prosecution, please make your case.”

Half an hour later, when many in the courtroom were trying desperately not to nod off, the man was finished, after having brought to light every possible piece of evidence that might be considered useful in shredding the character of the accused. The two most damning were the fact that Harry’s wand had been used at the Quidditch World Cup to conjure the Dark Mark, and that Harry allegedly had cast an unforgivable on the victim, Death Eater Bellatrix Lestrange, after she had caused the death of Sirius Black, the accused’s godfather. That everyone thought the man was a Death Eater himself was completely relevant, as it painted a picture of Harry consorting with known evil, and even caring about it. And, of course, it had never been proved who killed Cedric Diggory.

After that it was a foregone conclusion.

*

“I think it is time we attempted to sound out a couple of potential allies,” Salazar said.

“Oh? Like who?”

He favored his serpent with an irritated look. “Hal, I am absolutely positive that you possess a functioning brain. Please attempt to think back over some of the things you know I’ve done during your tenure at Hogwarts.”

It was a good half day later that Hal finally figured it out. On the one hand, Salazar was pleased that he had, and on the other hand, he was quietly contemplating a torture session for taking so long to do so.

“Okay. You’re sure they’re still alive?”

“It’s only been a handful of years, so yes. And if they aren’t I’m sure the letter I plan to send will come back unopened. I myself am curious to learn of their reaction.” So he sent off a missive that was a work of art in its own right, being beautifully lettered on creamy parchment and bearing the seal of Slytherin.

While they were waiting for a reply he tortured his serpent with study, of books, of mental prowess, and magic. And . . . of the bedchamber. Kissing Hal was all very well, but he had not ‘lived’ for over a thousand years to be satisfied with so little. Now that Hal had come into his majority he was an adult in Salazar’s eyes, and therefore fair game for his yearning to explore that which had always been denied him in the past.

So it was that he took advantage of his tendency to awaken earlier than his serpent and began to inflame Hal’s already tumultuous awakening to young adulthood, using his hands and mouth to bring his serpent to consciousness in a haze of desire. It always made him smile to see Hal react so strongly to him, but supposed it must have something to do with their depth of trust. Each morning he went a bit further, and lost himself a bit more to the feelings and sensations.

And then a letter arrived, a response.

Mr Nash,

We received your letter with every amount of shock and suspicion you may have imagined. If what you say is indeed true, then we must agree that we have been sorely betrayed. However, it will take much more than simple words to verify your claims, as you no doubt expect.

Therefore, you will not be surprised when we request a meeting in Rue de Quatrefoil on the morning of the 31st at ten, and we will be browsing inside Clothier LeFarge. Once you and your companion have arrived, I am sure we can find a mutually agreeable place to discuss what prompted your overture.

Nicolas Flamel

“I think that says it all,” Hal commented from over his shoulder.

“That is extremely impolite,” he said as he folded the letter and set it aside.

“I know,” his serpent said, “but it’s a bit of a habit. You know, from when people kept hiding things from me. You don’t, but. . . .”

Salazar reached back and firmly wrapped a hand around the back of his serpent’s neck, pulling his head down. A quick turn of his own allowed him to brush his lips against Hal’s cheek, and then he let go. “Don’t tempt me.”

Hal slipped around to the other side of the table and had a seat. “According to you, all I need do is breathe for you to be tempted,” he said with a lopsided grin. “And somehow, I don’t think I’d hold your attention nearly as well were I dead, so I think I’ll keep breathing, thank you very much.”

He snorted and changed the subject. “As you are feeling disgustingly chipper this morning, I should tell you I have what I think is an acceptable duplicate of the goblins’ method to record Dark Marks. We will begin our work in Diagon Alley, unless you would prefer Hogsmeade.”

His serpent shivered and wrinkled his nose. “Er, can’t we do this in the school as a test? We know that Snape is there, and didn’t you say there’s an entrance to the Chamber in the dungeons? We’ve time yet before start of term, so I don’t imagine Snape would be on the look out for children roaming the halls after curfew. There are still going to be plenty of people shopping right now at Diagon Alley, so that’s more risk than we need at the moment.

“We have the map, and your spying devices, plus a way in that only we can use. It would also serve as a way to help track down any students that are marked, assuming Riddle is that foolish.” Hal paused and furrowed his brow, then asked, “Should we do Knockturn Alley, too?”

Salazar smiled. “Very good points, and I agree. After we’re done eating I will teach you what we need to do. Once you can perform flawlessly, we shall proceed. Dumbledore and the staff will be back in the castle already, but they should not be difficult to avoid, and I can cause the portraits to sleep should they not already be so.”

They set off the next night at ten, and Salazar was pleased to show his serpent the outer entrance to the Chamber. It was not, as Hal had speculated, within the forest, but under the lake itself, much like the Slytherin dormitories were. After a fair bit of swimming, a series of small rooms which could be drained or filled at need, and charms to dry them and their clothing off, Salazar led Hal along a narrow corridor that eventually dead-ended.

Hal smirked and said, “Let me guess. Open?”

Salazar smirked right back as the wall split apart and shifted out of the way. “Yes, I was quite creative back then with my passwords.”

Hal snorted. “This reminds me of a series of books I once read. The magic users didn’t have tools like wands, they simply gathered their will and spoke a trigger word. They used ‘open’ for their doors, too. All very commonplace and logical.”

He nodded and then looked thoughtful. “Although I sincerely doubt that Riddle would ever discover this entrance, I think perhaps I should change the passwords to something less obvious. That is already the case with certain areas of the Chamber, but I should not leave this as a weak point in the defenses.”

His serpent got a strange look on his face and said, “I’ve been meaning to ask you. When I was in the Chamber and Riddle came out of the diary, he opened the statue’s mouth by referring to the greatest of the Hogwarts four, so. . . .”

Salazar chuckled. “I’m not quite that vain, Hal. Anyone who can say that password phrase with a straight face is obviously an idiot. In fact, there are two passwords for that, both of which were mentioned in the documents Riddle must have found. That he chose to use that one only proves the point.” He stared at the ‘door’ again, then abruptly changed the password to ‘contemptible descendant.’

“Wait here. I need to correct the others.” He was back within minutes and led Hal through the revealed opening, closing it behind them. From there it was a matter of showing his serpent exactly where the internal entrances were, plus changing those passwords as well. Hal had his map open, and together they spelled a number of places down in the dungeons.

Back in the Chamber Salazar gave his serpent a brief tour before the two of them collapsed into a bed to sleep off their weariness. For several days they remained, knowing that Snape would be out and about by day, and even watching him using Salazar’s devices (among other people). And before they left to return to the hideaway prior to setting out for France, the recording wards were each checked and the results carefully noted down, with copies left both in the Chamber and at their home.

*

Meanwhile: “This is insane!”

“Hardly,” Severus drawled. “Once again the boy wonder did whatever he pleased. The ministry has every right and responsibility to place him in Azkaban.”

“You would think so,” Remus snarled. “But then, you’re just a nasty little boy who can’t get over a grudge from decades ago that doesn’t even involve the person you’re persecuting.”

“Look, werewolf—”

“Oh,” Remus cut in mockingly, “my feelings are hurt. You mean, mean Death Eater. I may never recover.”

“That is enough,” Albus said firmly.

“Why exactly are we even here?” Arthur asked plainly. “I realize that Harry has frequently clashed with Voldemort and at least drawn even, but unless you’re planning to provide proof that he is the only person able to kill that creature, I’m not sure I understand why it matters. Yes, I think of Harry as an adopted son, and I am heartbroken that he’s in Azkaban, but as a parent I must wonder why everyone expects him to be the answer to all our troubles. He’s just a boy.”

Severus opened his mouth to speak, and just as quickly snapped it shut at a look from Albus.

“A boy who allegedly has made a mistake,” Remus said. “Did he even admit this crime to anyone? Or is this simply an act by Voldemort or one of his people to shunt Harry out of the way?”

“That is an interesting question,” Albus said. “Nothing was said to me, but at the time, in the state of mind Harry was experiencing, I sincerely doubt he would have confided in me.”

Severus opened his mouth again, and this time was not prevented. “Yes, of course. This is a nefarious plot by dark forces to railroad the golden boy into prison,” he drawled. “Why, I expect they all assumed that Fudge, a man with a clear grudge against Potter, would never be crafty enough to bring every weapon he could to bear against the boy. If this was a plot by the Dark Lord, you can bet that his intentions were either based on truth, or as a way to get Fudge out of office. And we all know how much sense that makes.”

“Harry was convicted on circumstantial evidence,” Tonks pointed out.

“Unless the Dark Lord had no further use for Fudge and his propensity for accepting bribes from people like Lucius Malfoy, it is my opinion that the accusation was made as an anonymous tip, knowing that Fudge would see that as a way to vindicate his past position. And unless the Dark Lord was positive that Potter could withstand questioning, that means Potter cast that spell personally. The only other option would be for him to have been knocked out long enough for his wand to be used, returned to him, and then ennervated.”

“Which, admittedly, would be next to impossible given the time frame,” Albus said. “Harry ran, I finished off the Death Eater I was battling, and then followed him in time to save him from Voldemort.”

Severus looked exceedingly smug at that and sat back, while Remus growled and crossed his arms.

“Unless evidence comes to light to prove his innocence, Harry will have to serve his sentence.” Albus paused and fiddled with his beard before saying, “We could ask his friends, but I am not sure he would have confided in them, either.”

“Well,” Kingsley said, “unless they can fill in those missing minutes and give us a lead to chase down, I doubt they’ll be of any use. If he did confide in them and said nothing about casting crucio. . . . And if he did admit it, then there’s no hope for it.”

“Then let’s ask them.”

More than a few people stared at Molly in open disbelief.

“You heard me. They’re both here, so we can ask them. If Harry said nothing to them, so be it. But if he did, and it could help him, then we ought to have made the effort.”

“As you wish,” Albus said.

Molly disappeared for several minutes, leaving them in an uncomfortable silence. When she reappeared she had Ron, Hermione, and Ginny in tow, each of whom looked confused at the summons.

“Children,” Albus said gravely, “you’re here to shed some light on a few things, and I ask that you be truthful in your answers, as this could help Harry’s case. We wish to know if Harry told any of you what happened after he left the death room.”

Hermione narrowed her eyes in thought. “You mean if he told us what happened with Bellatrix, sir?” When Albus nodded she sighed and shook her head. “He said nothing to me, not when I was being treated or even on the train, and I didn’t push him because . . . well, you know. The last person who was with him was Neville, but I don’t know if Harry would have said anything to him, either.”

Ron and Ginny were both shaking their heads sadly.

The three were ushered out a minute later, and the Order moved on to other topics of discussion.

*

“Don’t be a complete ass, Ronald!” Hermione huffed and flopped onto one of the beds. “You can’t honestly expect that the Order is going to storm Azkaban and break Harry out.”

“Oh, so you think he should be in there?” Ron sullenly replied.

Ginny threw her hands up in the air. “We don’t know what to think, you idiot. That’s the point!”

“Well I don’t bloody care if Harry did it,” Ron said defiantly.

Hermione’s head shot up. “And why do you say that? Is it because you feel guilty about before? Because you think he was justified? Or because he’s your friend and you intend to back him up no matter what?”

“Yes,” Ron mumbled.

“Do you guys think he did it?” Ginny asked quietly.

“Sirius had just died,” Hermione said, “Bellatrix was the one who did it, and Harry is very impulsive. Yes, he might have. I think. . . . Well, no matter what, it was wrong if he did, but I’m trying to see it from his point of view. If Bellatrix had just killed my father or mother, I might have lost it, too.”

“You did that one time with Malfoy,” Ron said, the corner of his mouth twitching.

Hermione flushed and nodded.

Ginny rode to the rescue with, “All of us are stupid at times, we all do stupid things, and we all act irrationally. Harry isn’t any different.”

“This isn’t really getting us anywhere,” Hermione pointed out. “Maybe once we’re back at school I can scour the library for books on wizarding law, like I did for Buckbeak.”

“Are inmates even allowed visitors?” Ron asked. “Letters? Harry has to know that we support him.”

“I’ll check,” Hermione assured him. “At least the dementors are gone.”

“Sure,” said Ginny, “but that won’t help Harry if the guards there treat him like dirt.”

“Which should be against the law!” Hermione practically shouted. “Wizards could learn a thing or two from muggles, I’ll have you know. Obviously the wizarding world is perfectly all right with subjecting prisoners to constant torture, even those who’ve committed relatively minor crimes. How is anyone supposed to see the error of their ways if they’re driven to insanity? It’s vicious! You know how Harry gets when confronted with a dementor. Just imagine what it’d be like if they were still there.”

Ron paled as Ginny asked, “Then how do muggles handle prisoners?”

Hermione adopted an expression that screamed ‘lecturer’ and. . . .

*

They strolled into the shop with casual carelessness, though Hal was still working on getting the attitude down, and browsed the racks as they slowly approached their targets. Naturally, it was Salazar who spoke for them.

“Ah, Mr and Mrs Flamel. How delightful to see you.”

The man glanced up, then flicked his gaze toward Hal for a moment before coming to rest on Salazar again. “Mr Nash. And friend.”

Hal smiled and said, “Also Mr Nash, actually. It is a pleasure to meet both of you. Please call me Hal.”

Nicolas arched a brow. “There was something of mutual interest you wished to discuss?”

“Verily,” Salazar said. “As you have chosen the meeting ground, perhaps you could suggest someplace for us to talk in more depth?”

Ten minutes later found them seated at a café with a tray of various edibles and drinks for all. Nicolas produced an ancient-looking wand and crafted several shields against overhearing ears.

Salazar created a few of his own in response before sipping from his cup nonchalantly, then said bluntly, “As the story goes, Albus Dumbledore destroyed your philosopher’s stone. I always found that to be a curious thing considering that you and your wife have been alive for centuries, and have been able to keep it safe for all that time. I found it even more curious that Riddle knew enough to send a minion to Gringotts in order to steal it from that particular safehold, and would have succeeded had it not already been removed just prior.”

Flamel’s face twisted slightly, his expression not one that Hal could readily interpret. Perenelle, on the other hand, maintained a placid demeanor. But it was time for his little bombshell, so Hal said, “I always thought it was strange, too, especially since I watched it be removed from Gringotts, and later managed to secure it in my own hand to keep it from Riddle. It made me wonder if Dumbledore actually destroyed it to get Riddle off his back, or if something else happened to the stone.”

Nicolas looked at him sharply, but was distracted immediately when Salazar said, “Of course, when it came to my attention that Dumbledore did not, in fact, destroy the stone, but rather tucked it away in his office, I thought that was exceptionally unkind of him. And, being who I am, I arranged for a little swap to occur, then an accident.”

“What exactly is it that you want?” Perenelle asked quietly.

“What we want, Mrs Flamel, is twofold. First, we wish to know if Dumbledore even consulted Mr Flamel about the alleged destruction of the stone. Second, we wish to know if you two would like it returned to you. I imagine it is very precious to you both.”

Nicolas narrowed his eyes and sighed. “No, Albus did not consult me, but rather informed me that the stone had been destroyed during the struggle of one Mr Harry Potter against Voldemort.”

He went silent when Hal gasped in outrage and frowned. “That manipulative old goat. How dare he blame me!?” He turned to Salazar and said demandingly, “Tell me there’s a curse I can use to make his own beard strangle him.”

“Hal, calm yourself. You already knew what kind of man he is.”

“Of course I know! I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t know,” he shot back, right like he should, since it was in the script.

“Aren’t you in prison, young man?” Nicolas inquired awfully calmly.

He rounded his eyes innocently as he replied, “That’s what they tell me. But really, for all we know, there’s a conspiracy afoot in the ministry and the escort for Harry Potter actually took him off deep into the Department of Mysteries to be a test subject for the unspeakables.”

Salazar cleared his throat, prompting Hal to say, “What? There is absolutely nothing wrong with having an active imagination.”

“Of course not, Hal. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

“You should spend time around Luna,” he said with a grin.

“All right,” Salazar said slowly. “Then it’s established that Dumbledore lied to you, Mr Flamel.”

“Please, call me Nicolas. And yes, he lied. Also, if you have possession of the stone I would like it to be returned to us. However, I must wonder what you want in return.”

Salazar smiled. “What I want is one thing. What I need is an oath of silence. If we can have that, you may have your stone back, and we will tell you a story. Should you find no cause to become involved, that will be the end of things, I suppose.”

Nicolas considered that for several minutes, then said, “What is your true name?”

“Salazar . . . Slytherin.”

Nicolas looked at his wife for some time before saying, “We’re going to die soon enough should we fail to regain it. I suppose we shall simply have to make that oath.”

Once the initial tension was gone the four of them got along splendidly. The Flamels were delighted to have the stone back, for one thing, and settled in happily enough at the hideaway for the promised story. As it unfolded they both displayed all the expected reactions, gasping in the right places, looking upset when warranted, and nodding understandingly when it made sense to do so. They thought it was rather humorous that Salazar had used the house-elves to enact his plan to retrieve the stone and replace it with an inferior duplicate, which was then destroyed in a purposeful accident.

Eventually Nicolas said, “So what exactly is it that you’re hoping for?”

“From you? I’m not actually sure now that we have additional confirmation that Dumbledore is not what he seems. Though, you may have some ideas in addition to Hal’s thoughts on a good way to keep any captured Death Eaters out of the way for the interim.”

Nicolas looked at his wife briefly before turning his gaze back, his expression almost mischievous in nature. “I suppose that depends on how much you fancy whimsy.”

*

Opening night at Hogwarts was more or less par for the course. The train ride had held most of its usual events, such as laughing children, misplaced pets, games, eating, and even arguments. Malfoy had stopped by flanked by his two goons, retreating only after he had made his usual ass of himself and been confronted with a compartment full of angry, wand-wielding students.

That for once Malfoy’s taunts were accurate was not something any of them wished to dwell on. Ron complained during the sorting as he always did, acting as though he would perish of starvation if things did not wind up soon, and Hermione was attentive as always as each child sat on the stool and had their moment with the sorting hat.

And beneath the fragile exterior of normalcy was fear and upset and helplessness.

Hermione was mainly focused on attaining the sanctity of the library at the first possible moment, even above wrestling together a revision schedule. Ron was entertaining the idea of becoming an animagus in the least possible amount of time so he could sneak into Azkaban, never mind that he had no real concept of where the island prison was aside from ‘north.’ He was also stressing over the fact that his sister would never be as good of a seeker as Harry.

Ginny appeared to be alert, but was in reality pondering just what her twin brothers could bring to the table, if anything, and wondering how she was going to get anything done during her OWL year while worrying about Harry’s predicament. Perhaps she was being naïve, but she simply could not believe that the boy she owed a life debt to could be anything other than good, even if he had cast an unforgivable. After all, even aurors had been given permission at one point to use them, and while Moody was hellaciously paranoid, he wasn’t an evil man.

Much later that evening the three of them along with Neville and Luna congregated in the Room of Requirement for a chat.

“Okay,” Hermione said. “First chance I get I’ll be in the library researching the laws. We need to know if people are allowed to visit prisoners.”

“Even if we can, do you really think that anyone would take us?” Ginny asked.

“Fudge might refuse to let anyone go even if it is allowed,” Neville pointed out.

“We have to try,” Hermione insisted. “Harry needs to know that we support him, whether he cast that stupid spell or not.”

*

Some distance away Hal watched as his friends discussed him, a fond smile on his face, but it faded as they made ready to leave.

“What is it?”

His serpent gave him an uncertain look. “I don’t know how to describe how I’m feeling right now, knowing that they’re behind me. The thing is, I worry a lot about how they’ll react if they ever find out about the deception.”

“You should be more worried about what might happen should Riddle decide to attack Azkaban with the idea of killing Harry Potter.”

Hal shook his head stubbornly. “Not sure why you think that. It’s not like the man can get anything out of the clone. The snake knew what might happen to it, and I can cause it to withdraw from the body at any time. Riddle might end up with nothing more than an empty shell to torture or kill. And while that might upset the public and send them into paroxysms of panic, it might also force them to finally stand up for themselves. That prophecy is irrelevant, even if Riddle believes in it. Though, it does make me wonder exactly what we went after.”

“That is one way of looking at it,” he was forced to admit, and mentally shook himself for each and every time he bought into the Gryffindor image his serpent had worn for so long, not to mention the misrepresentation of his intelligence.

“No matter what, Harry Potter is going to die. Hm, I suppose I should change my will again. What also worries me is their reaction when Harry dies, and when it is that he dies. They might take it as a signal to try even harder to go against Riddle.”

“And they might collapse into grief and remove themselves from the conflict,” he said, then shook his head. “Forget about that for now. We are not great diviners, even if you can gain unique insight into Riddle’s mind. We can only speculate based on what we know and have observed. Instead, let us consider what we have learned from the recorders. Snape was not even aware of them, nor is Dumbledore, so I think we should move ahead with placing them in strategic locations.”

“And once we have them tracked, we can start hauling them in for questioning and imprisonment,” Hal finished, then said cheerfully, “So, what are we waiting for?”

*

Severus was, as usual, in a lousy mood. While the occasional moment given over to thinking about the fate of Potter made him temporarily gleeful, the general grind of everyday life kept him angry, bitter, and friend to no one. Oh, he certainly wished for an end to the Dark Lord, an end to having to place himself in harm’s way so frequently, but he could not for the life of him imagine a world in which the Potter brat had a generous hand in that feat.

He did not even have the whelp to torture anymore, just the usual crowd of brats who thought of nothing but their own selfish desires, and never infused their lives with the seriousness it deserved. Not for him accolades for his sacrifices, not that he would have accepted them, but still. . . .

He swirled the glass in his hand around, watching the amber liquid inside as it threatened to slosh over the edges. Severus had absolutely no warning whatsoever before he found himself frozen solid on the spot. His eyes would have involuntarily widened had they been capable when a man stepped into view, a man that bore the face of his house’s founder.

“Severus Snape,” the man said sibilantly, making his skin crawl. A quick flick of a wand released Severus’s eyes, allowing him to blink—a very small courtesy. “So, you are the present head of Slytherin house. It remains to be seen if you are worthy of that honor.”

He wanted very badly to speak, though of what he was unsure. Part of him wished to castigate this intruder, while part of him was humming with curiosity.

The man quirked up a brow, almost mockingly, and conjured up a leather armchair. Another flick of his wand saw a decanter float over along with a glass, and the man poured himself a drink before settling back to pin him with a lazily intense gaze. “Not a nice man, now are you,” the man drawled. “And no, I am not some deluded fool masquerading as Salazar Slytherin.”

Severus was confused; it was almost as though the man was reading his thoughts, but that was impossible.

The man chuckled darkly and shook his head. “Not much is impossible, if you have the right mindset to approach it. I am, in truth, Salazar Slytherin, one of the four founders of Hogwarts.”

He wished he could believe that.

“You, wishing for anything? How unlike you.” The man took a sip of his drink and sighed in appreciation. “Now, the reason for my visit. You are, to all accounts, a spy. You bear the foul mark of my descendant, and you, by virtue of your employment at the castle, were volunteered to be our test subject. I’d like to know exactly what that inbred idiot used to bind his followers to him.”

And that was the last thing Severus knew. For a time, anyway.

*

“All right, Hal, let’s get started.”

They spent almost the entire night going over Snape’s Dark Mark, nearly dissecting it in their efforts to understand how it was constructed and functioned. An experiment in giving it temporary magical movement allowed them to speak to the serpent, and it, while initially wary, was more than pleased to hiss out whatever it knew.

Riddle might have created the mark itself, but even he never considered the fact that the snake was anything more than a symbol of his heritage. Therefore, it held no particular loyalty to the man in an awakened state. It made them wonder what would happen should they awaken the serpent in a Dark Mark cast in the air, though they suspected not much would come of it. The snakes in the physical marks had their hosts to draw upon, whereas the purely magical symbol had nothing.

Hal kept sending looks at Snape that cycled between curiosity, animosity, and confusion, but never voiced any of what he was feeling. He did, however, have a suggestion to make regarding the man. “Salazar, we both know it would be a bad idea if Snape talks about this. He’s only seen you, but he might be tempted to say something to either Dumbledore or Riddle. As much as I’d like to obliviate your little meeting with him, maybe it would make more sense to keep the snake on his arm aware. . . .”

Salazar gazed at his serpent with no little pride. “So it can leech off his mind, entrenched as it is, and warn him when he’s considering being indiscreet?”

“Exactly. Do you think that’d be an acceptable alternative?” Hal asked, looking uncertain.

“I think it could work out fine,” he said reassuringly. “And now that we understand how this perversity works we can add our own hooks into it, for this man at least. Let us do that now.”

An hour later Hal was bidden to conceal himself before Salazar woke the potions master from his unwilling slumber. “Good morning,” he said, smirking at the complex web of emotions Severus almost managed to conceal. “You’re going to have to choose a side, or you’ll be dead.”

Snape’s eyes widened at the sound of Parseltongue being spoken, but that was the only outward sign of any response, and they quickly regained their usual look.

“A warning, Severus Snape. Should you even consider the idea of speaking to anyone about my existence, you may be sure I will punish you for it,” he said, then smirked again when the man before him tensed up considerably, his right hand twitching toward his left forearm.

“Yes, I see you understand me. Aside from that your life can go on as usual. I have refrained from scanning you deeply out of respect for your privacy, but that could easily change, my acerbic friend.”

Salazar stood and prepared to take his leave, then paused as though hit with an afterthought. “Should you wish to speak to me for some reason, however, that is easily accomplished. For instance, were you aware that these very rooms were the ones I used all those years ago? As such the wards which protect this suite are woven into the castle itself, and therefore unbreakable unless someone should destroy all.

“This also explains why I can walk in here without your permission or even your knowledge, and why you have been protected in this sanctuary from that interfering menace of a headmaster. Should you wish to pass me a message, look to the space behind the desk in your classroom. Look closely, my acerbic friend, and speak to what you find. The message will reach me, rest assured.”

Salazar stepped away, vanished the chair he had conjured, and melted away from sight. And in the time it took for Snape to even stand up Salazar and Hal had disappeared through the seemingly innocuous fireplace, using one of the many hidden entrances to the Chamber of Secrets.

*

Meanwhile: Unknown to anyone aside from those who worked at the prison (and he had learned they were each under a forced oath of silence), Azkaban did in fact harbor a small complement of dementors. They were not long on this earth, having come into being within the prison itself, not yet formed enough to leave with the Dark Lord when he had come to break his people out. So they patrolled.

Harry was unaffected, being primarily a serpent. He was amused that the dementors seemed to be almost . . . frustrated . . . every time they glided past his cell. The human guards had been more than happy to assign the creatures to Harry’s torment, thinking that far worse than any physical damage they could cause, and never once thought to check up on the current state of affairs.

He, for his part, was generally dissatisfied. There was no patch of sunlight to bask in, no plump and wriggling animals to swallow whole (not that he could in this form, but that did not prevent the desire from surfacing), and no other snakes to converse with. He couldn’t even bite someone when he was feeling peevish, or wrap his body around anyone and slowly constrict the life out of them.

All in all, Azkaban was one hell of a boring place.