Grazhir :: Harry Potter :: Infusion :: 03 :: Slithering

03 • Slithering

His classes hated him.

Ever since he had been accosted in his suite Severus had been in a seriously foul mood, for every time he even briefly considered the idea of mentioning that visit, in any form, it felt as though the serpent of his Dark Mark was sinking its fangs into his arm, ready to fatally poison him. And nothing worked to dull or mask the sensation so he could get around that deterrent, making him wonder if it was psychological in nature. In consequence, he took out his ire on mostly innocent students.

Even so, he was almost awed that Slytherin had been able to modify his Mark. As he could not bring himself to believe that the Dark Lord himself had snuck into the school to do the deed, and at the same time cause Severus to go crazy trying to figure things out, he was left with either accepting the word of that man or speculating that there was a second dark lord gallivanting around the countryside.

And if it was the founder of his house, why had the man not removed the Mark if he could alter it? Severus had many, many questions lurking behind his forbidding exterior.

*

“So how long before he cracks, do you think?”

Salazar glanced at his serpent before shaking his head. “When he does. We may not need him in any case. The recordings alone will give us a starting point, so even those who might not frequent what we have trapped can be tagged, once we know where to look.” He paused, then said, “And what of Pettigrew?”

“The same as any others we capture. Turning him over to the ministry afterward has a high chance of being pointless, as Fudge might just cover it up. He wasn’t the minister at the time of Sirius’s arrest, but it would still go against his image considering what happened my third year, and everything else he refused to listen to. Even if Sirius’s name was cleared he’d likely end up a footnote.”

“Just checking,” he said lightly.

They spent the next few weeks haunting the recorders and gathering signatures, not to mention faces and any names they could garner. Hal’s abilities would only function on people he was aware of, so simply having a name meant nothing. And, as they could not expect to capture every Death Eater in a public setting, it might be required for Hal to invade dreams in order to ascertain not only locations, but also protections for those locations.

The records would allow them to cross-check captured Death Eaters against the number of Marks actually recorded, so they would have some idea how many had yet to be dealt with, though interrogations should reveal many names. And as the days bled into October Hal decided to give his newfound abilities a whirl, choosing to project himself into the general vicinity of Riddle to do a bit of unauthorized lurking.

They had discussed the alternatives; in theory Hal could invade Riddle’s dreams and possibly learn the identities of all his Death Eaters that way, and even his plans, but after some experimentation Hal had come to realize that not only was he not visible to the naked eye while in astral form, he could also use magic to some extent, which made it an excellent option for placing tracking spells on targets.

As luck would have it (though rational people such as Salazar simply assigned it to Riddle’s entrenched thinking) Voldemort was planning a raid on Halloween, which made for a perfect opportunity for a bit of reverse mayhem.

They arrived early and found a suitable spot to lurk at while waiting for the first of the Death Eaters to arrive. And when they did Salazar and Hal scouted out a likely squad of targets and shadowed them, quietly and efficiently disabling them the moment they had the chance. Once they were back in their secluded spot (still being able to spy out the surrounding territory) Salazar took the opportunity to gather up their names.

Nicolas and Perenelle took over at that point, portkeying the men away along with themselves, so Salazar took a moment to alter his appearance while Hal double-checked his own. And when they were ready, the two of them stalked out with every appearance of confidence, into the fray.

Salazar paused on getting a good look at the area, then shouted, “Why are all squads not present?”

A half dozen Death Eaters looked over in surprise, and one of them scurried over and bowed before saying, “My lord, we had not expected you to be here.”

Salazar snarled and crucio’d the man for thirty seconds. “Perhaps I should attend all raids, then, if it is common practice for my people to do as they wish rather than following their orders. Go back to headquarters and find out where Ferland’s squad is. Now!”

The squad leader nearly fell over himself bowing, then backed away cautiously before disapparating. Salazar turned his head toward Hal and murmured, “Let’s wander about and give the brief appearance of supervising, then retreat.”

A short time later they were pleased to see that Voldemort himself had arrived, and in a bit of a lather, directing his men in their actions with both words and spells to motivate them. He took the majority of his anger out on the innocents, showing just how creative he could be when it came to use of dark magic. But the raid came to an end when aurors began to arrive, at which point Salazar and Hal decided they had seen enough.

They joined their two friends at the holding facility for Death Eaters, taking the time to correct their appearances before glancing over their haul for the evening. There were a mere five men, but it was a beginning.

“Time to test a theory?” Nicolas asked hopefully.

Hal grinned and sidled closer to the bars. “They’re just minions, right? Nothing of any note about them?”

Salazar nodded. “Yes. They will be missed for the service they can provide to Riddle, and perhaps by their families, but otherwise they are unremarkable.”

“Should we be checking in more depth to see if these guys are actually bad men? I mean, maybe they were just stupid, becoming Death Eaters, and really didn’t understand what they were getting into.”

Salazar shook his head. “No, Hal. While I can imagine that more than one person has become a Death Eater in that fashion, it does not excuse those who have, and yet do nothing to undermine Voldemort’s regime. There are always consequences for one’s actions, and in a situation such as this, I am disinclined to be forgiving.”

“What about Snape?”

He gave his serpent an intent look before saying, “Yes, to the average person Snape seems to be nothing more than a Death Eater. We know of his duplicity due to the Order. If I understand you aright, you believe it is possible there are those also of that ilk, that are not so visible?”

“Well, maybe.”

Salazar frowned slightly and looked to their companions. “Your opinion?”

“The lad may have a point,” said Perenelle. “If I recall events correctly, was not Regulus Black killed for attempting to sabotage Voldemort’s plans?”

He shot a halfhearted glare at Hal. “I am the one supposed to be doing the torturing around here, not you. Just for that you can assist me with your own special talents.”

Hal grinned again and nodded. “I do learn, you know. Besides, we should be making a list of names they’re aware of.”

It was hours later that Salazar sat back with a weary sigh. “Satisfied?”

“Yep.”

“Splendid,” he said dryly, then called for a house-elf to let the Flamels know they were going to proceed.

Each obliviated Death Eater was stripped of all clothing and items, then placed into stasis. They could exist in that state indefinitely, which was rather the point. A glamour was also applied to each, to match . . . that of a mannequin, Nicolas having liberated a number of models for their use from a department store earlier that evening. The victims were then dressed in the outfits worn by the true mannequins and positioned much the same.

Nicolas was nearly beside himself with amusement during the entire procedure, causing Perenelle to roll her eyes every so often. When everything was set they gathered up the five men and transported them to the shop, allowing Nicolas to take the lead in getting them positioned in the correct respective places. And then they returned to Salazar’s hideaway.

“I don’t really want to think about the reaction should one of those ‘mannequins’ be sent to the chipper for recycling,” Hal remarked, his nose wrinkling slightly.

Very late two nights after his serpent returned from a scouting mission with news from an Order meeting, having projected himself to № 12 Grimmauld Place once it was obvious that certain staff members planned to absent themselves from the school for a time. Snape had been called away the night previous, presumably by Voldemort, so they expected the meeting would focus on the peculiarities of the raid.

And it was so. When Hal was firmly in his body again he laughed before saying, “I think we really pissed Riddle off if what Snape said is anything to go by. He doesn’t seem to care so much that he lost five men as the fact that someone was out there pretending to be him for a time, and had his people convinced of it. Snape can’t be sure, of course, but he wonders if Riddle can’t decide between a meddling impostor or that squad getting ideas and disappearing in the aftermath.”

“I am an excellent actor if I so choose,” Salazar stated. “But this is good, if there’s doubt. Snape was not present for any discussions, that we know of, for the raid planning or preparations, so he should not be suspect. And our actions, minor though they may be, might possibly plant seeds of doubt not only in Riddle for his own people in general, but in them for their master. Dissension in their ranks reduces their effectiveness.”

“And if Riddle uses that much more heavy of a hand, some of them might revolt, openly or sneakily,” his serpent said musingly. “Actually. . . . I wonder if that would cause Riddle to break this latest batch of Death Eaters out, as they couldn’t have been involved.”

He leveled a sober gaze on Hal. “Which brings us right back to the question of whether or not he would do anything about Harry. I think you should spend some time at least every other night spying on Riddle. I realize that you will know if anything alarming occurs, but. . . .”

Hal wrinkled his brow thoughtfully. “This would almost be easier to handle if everyone had turned against him, you know.”

Salazar frowned. “Untrue, and such statements bear the stench of self delusion.”

“All right, you’re right. I mean, I’m so happy that my friends support me, and I can live with the Order being realistic about things, but if they had turned on him then I’d be obsessing over that and a nasty thorn in your side. In theory Harry is only in for five years, which according to the general consensus is fair enough, but too many people are forgetting how the guards might have reacted, and they sure as hell don’t know about the dementors. Odds are, were that me, I’d be very damaged by the time I was released, if not insane, and probably useless except as bait or a martyr.”

“You can’t obsess over what will come to pass when Harry dies.” He paused a moment, then said, “I allow, I am curious as to what would happen if we could uncover the mystery of your origin, and released that information to the media after the fact.”

Hal cleared his throat and shook his head slowly. “I can find that out, can’t I? Just by poking around in Dumbledore’s head? Even if he didn’t know my name, it’d be a starting point. But I don’t know if we could prove it was him behind things.”

“Which would make it difficult to instill distrust,” Salazar replied. “On the other hand, releasing that information might have the effect of Riddle becoming that much more daring, assuming, perhaps, that the shred of prophecy he knows of is void.”

He was surprised when his serpent began laughing, and looked at him quizzically. Hal took a moment to settle down before saying, “I was just thinking, about the aftereffects. It occurred to me that people might raise a fuss over my will, but they can’t really, not after what Midas said about legal identities. And I can see Dumbledore being pissed off, and Riddle being that much more angry having been so neatly tricked, and really gearing up to specifically go against the old man.

“As for the people who knew me, I know some of them would be wondering if I had been in on the farce, too. I suppose I could change the wording of my will to make it clear that I had my own suspicions about Dumbledore, even though had none of this happened I wouldn’t have, and I might never have made a will to begin with, or at least not so soon. They’d still be heartbroken that I was dead, but maybe they’d have kindly thoughts for me.”

“Or pity, Hal, for you having been the object of a game.”

“I could live with that, I guess. In the end, it’s still Riddle that needs to be dealt with, and it’s still a worthy cause to fight. Harry Potter is incidental, no matter what anyone else thinks, which should become clear if we spill the truth all over the Daily Prophet.”

“Then let us prepare for that eventually. But, not before you get some well-earned rest.”

*

“This has got to be the most ridiculous plan ever.”

Fred scoffed. “You’re just jealous you didn’t think of it, brother mine.”

“Hardly. Look, let’s get on with this. If we’re going to die for this insanity, might as well be sooner than later.” George looked at their two owls and sighed. “Don’t eat us, okay? That would be bad.”

The duo hooted reassuringly, but George was not so sure he was convinced. Nevertheless, he shifted into his animagus form, that of a least weasel, and waited for his twin to do the same. As soon as they had, the owls each grasped one in their talons and took flight across the sea. It was an incredibly nervous journey for George, making him wonder if he’d have any fur left at the end. And he did not even want to think about the return trip.

But eventually they arrived, the depressing grey walls of Azkaban looming up out of a stormy sea, and the birds came to a careful stop on a window ledge and released their masters. George sprawled there panting for a few minutes, trying to regain his equilibrium, and finally dropped off the edge into the hall, his brother joining him a moment later.

A careful perusal was made of the length of hallway that could be seen before he transformed back and crouched next to the sill. “You two, wait on the roof or somewhere nearby,” he said to the owls, then watched as they fluttered away on silent wings. To Fred he said, “Well, let’s go?” Fred released a low trill and bobbed his head, so George transformed again.

And endless amount of time later they entered a section of the prison that showed not foot prints, but a peculiar sweep of the dusty floor, and the temperature had dropped sharply. He chirped in surprise, then flattened himself in the shadows against one wall as the temperature abruptly dropped even further, comforted slightly by the press of his brother’s body against his. A dementor appeared and glided by, vanishing down the other end of the corridor.

Right about then he was blessing the fact this his furry little body was largely unaffected, but his mind was awhirl with shock. Fred released a soft growl and jerked his nose toward where the creature had gone, then began to follow, keeping his body low and as close to the wall as possible. George felt he had no choice but to do the same, and did, and the two of them slinked along in the wake of the dementor, eventually coming to a stop near one of the cells.

A cell, that is, with a prisoner inside, the first they had seen on this floor, which otherwise appeared to be void of any inmates. His attention was then captured by the sound of hissing, and he crept closer, fitting himself into the same corner Fred had occupied. ‘Merlin. That’s Harry, and he’s . . . speaking with the damn thing!?’

George watched as Harry carried on a conversation in Parseltongue, his manner frequently revealing that he was both amused and coyly reticent. He had to wonder if dementors had any true concept of human body language, then dismissed the thought as being irrelevant. A half hour went by before the dementor broke off and swept back the way it had come, at which point he sank his teeth into Fred’s neck to keep him still and waited another five minutes before letting him go, then crept toward the cell itself.

Harry, despite not wearing glasses, noticed the movement and oriented on him, then arched a brow. “You’re a strange sort of visitor, but I admit, much nicer than the usual. Let me guess. You must be an animagus, and. . . .” He laughed quietly. “A Weasley?”

George did nothing, but Fred did come to crouch beside him.

Harry nodded. “You don’t have to worry. The dementors wander by on a regular schedule, so we’ve at least a few hours before one them comes back, I think. I frustrate them, so they don’t like me all that much.”

George trilled softly, received one in return, and transformed, taking a seat right in front of the cell. “Hi, Harry.”

“You make for such a cute weasel. I wish I’d had time to learn to be an animagus,” was the reply. “I guess the people in charge never did figure out how Sirius escaped, so never put in any wards against it. I guess you two wouldn’t be here otherwise, huh?”

“Well, you seem to be all right,” George observed. “And yeah, we didn’t have any problems with our forms. What in Merlin’s name are dementors doing here!?”

Harry shrugged a shoulder after a moment and flashed a crooked grin their way. “That’s an interesting little story, actually. I expect you were listening? Dementors, as it turns out, can understand any language so long as one of them has at some point Kissed a being who speaks that language. The same holds true for a special language like Parseltongue. Anyway, this lot wasn’t completely formed when Voldemort came here to break out his people that time, so they remained. Fudge knows about them, of course, and according to the dementors he’s forced an oath on every person involved with Azkaban so that they can’t let anyone know. I don’t know if it was Fudge or the guards who decided to have them patrolling my section.”

“And why don’t they affect you?” Fred asked.

Harry shrugged again. “I don’t have a clue, but it frustrates the heck out of them. Maybe it’s because I finally figured out occlumency? I’m just happy that they’ve spent all this time trying to figure it out, and not giving up and telling the human guards to deal with me. They weren’t very nice when they brought me here, but I must look all right again or you’d have said something.”

“If they can speak Parseltongue,” George said, “when it’s very unlikely this lot has Kissed a parselmouth, then are they sharing with Voldemort’s lot? Could they be telling him about you?”

“I suppose so, but there’s not a lot I can do about that. I think they have a collective mind, or something like that.”

“You do realize that Voldemort might come back to break out his people again,” Fred pointed out. “He might come after you, too.”

“I know, but I can’t do much of anything except sit here and try not to worry about what might happen to me. I mean, maybe you two have a plan to get me out of here, but even if you did, where would I go? I wouldn’t be surprised if half the Order is. . . .”

“You’re being unkind, Harry. No, they aren’t happy that you’re in here for using an unforgivable, but they are willing to understand why you might have done it. Did you?”

Harry hesitated, then sighed heavily and nodded.

“What’s done is done, and your friends support you. Incidentally, we don’t have a rescue plan. You’re right, if you were to go missing and it wasn’t thought to be Voldemort’s work, people would probably all look to Dumbledore wondering where he’s hidden you.”

“Hey, I was an impulsive idiot, okay? I’m here for cause, I admit that, but I wasn’t thinking too straight at the time. And I think that Fudge found out about what I did due to Voldemort, because of Bellatrix, which means he wanted me here.”

“Out of the way, or so much easier to capture.”

Harry looked at him steadily. “If I spend too much time thinking about that. . . .” Then he smiled weakly. “I suppose catatonia would be a change from boredom.”

Fred snorted and shook his head. “Well, Harry, what do you think?”

Harry tilted his head to the side, his gaze unfocused, then gave a little shrug. “It sounds stupid, but I don’t know. If you two were to come up with some brilliant plan to bust me out, you’d be in danger of ending up here yourselves, and probably for longer than I’ve been sentenced. I wouldn’t dare hide with the Order or anyone else connected to me, I don’t have an animagus form to hide behind, or a wand, and I don’t know if I could manage to smuggle myself out of the country. Even if I could, I’m underage. The Order would come looking, I know, not to mention Voldemort and people like Fudge. Well, assuming that the dementors bothered to tell the guards I was missing, and Fudge decided to let the public know I’d escaped. And . . . the Order . . . ought to be more concerned with Voldemort. Face it, guys, I’m not all that important.”

“You shouldn’t have to worry about being tortured or dying, either,” George said harshly. “And what about that damn prophecy they wanted? How can you say you’re not important?”

Harry smiled somewhat bitterly. “Ah, but nobody knows what that was about. It got smashed, remember? I saw the label. Yeah, it had my name on it, but for all we know whatever it said has already come to pass.”

“Uh huh. Which explains why Dumbledore has always been your advocate. I don’t buy that, Harry. I know you don’t think of yourself as anything special, but—”

“I don’t know, all right! Look, I’m scared, I admit it. Believe me, I’d much rather be dealing with a snotty Malfoy at school. I just—I don’t know. It’s too much. It’s just easier to cope thinking I’m going to sit here for five years bored out of my mind. I’m not any good at planning like Ron, I’m not brilliant like Hermione, or wise like Dumbledore, or creative like you two. I handle things best when there’s no time to think!” He let out a shaky breath. “Sorry.”

“No, it’s we who should be sorry,” Fred admitted. “If we can come up with a plan, will you let us get you out of here? Nobody has any idea we’ve come here, or that we were even thinking about it. For that matter, nobody knows we’re animagi. I mean, in theory, we could bust you out right now, but it’d take a while to find a place safe enough for you, either in or out of the country. My first thought was the Chamber of Secrets, but too many people might suspect that, and it’d mean sneaking you through a school full of students.”

“And portraits, and ghosts,” George added.

Harry studied his hands for a minute, barely seeming to breathe. “Guys, if you break me out, I’ll be a fugitive. I’ll be in that much more trouble if they ever do find me. I probably would get Kissed then. I’d be like. . . .”

“We’re still going to consider it and check into some options,” Fred said firmly.

*

Salazar waited patiently for Hal to ‘wake up’ from his unscheduled trip, relaxing only when his serpent’s breathing became less unnatural and colour returned to his face. Hal’s eyes fluttered open a few moments after, and a frown marred his brow. “What is it?”

“The twins are trying to work up a plan to break Harry out of Azkaban. The two of them are amazing, I have to say. They had their bloody owls fly their animagus forms across the sea. And I can just see them bringing along a third, having transfigured Harry into something small so he can be carried back as well. And unfortunately, they now know that Harry isn’t affected by the dementors.”

“Which means they would never believe he went mad,” he said with a slight sigh.

“Yeah. They know the dementors are frustrated, though. It’s not really the clone’s fault; he’s under Harry’s limitations, and I’ll bet he never realized the twins were there while he was playing his little game. Not like he could deny it after the fact, once they made themselves known.”

Salazar quirked up a brow and considered. “In theory, the dementors could become frustrated enough to completely go against their orders and administer the Kiss, perhaps with the hope they could solve the mystery that way.”

“I suppose so, though I have to wonder how they’d react when it didn’t work right. The twins seem really set on rescuing him, by themselves, without involving anyone else. What are we going to do if they succeed?”

“That is a very big if. Shadow Riddle, shadow Dumbledore, and see what each of them has in mind. It may be that Riddle has already planned a prison break, and if so, that presents an opportunity for your familiar to vacate the clone and return to you. Then the point would be moot.”

Hal gave him a confused look. “Return to me, from Azkaban?”

“Reticulated pythons are excellent swimmers, my dear serpent, even in the ocean. And you would know when it was safe to go collect it.”

“Oh.” Hal glanced at the clock, gnawed on his lower lip, then nodded. “I think I’ll do some looking. If Dumbledore is asleep, maybe I can kill two birds with one stone. And if he’s not, I can check in on Riddle.”

*

Hal was feeling rather melancholy. His sojourn in Dumbledore’s mind had produced results, but he wasn’t sure of the value. He had also found the time to peek in on Voldemort. “Well,” he said over breakfast, “Riddle hasn’t any plans just yet to storm Azkaban. He seems to think his people in there should be left to contemplate their failures for a bit before he breaks them out. I admit, the thought of Lucius Malfoy suffering privation makes me want to giggle in malicious delight. And he’s content for the moment to ignore Harry. You see, he does know about the dementors there. I can only figure that the ones he has at hand told him so, without mentioning the more interesting details.”

“Or he knew of them at the time, and left them because they were not yet fully formed,” Salazar pointed out.

“That makes sense. I mean, if he knows how they communicate with each other, he might have left them just in case they could be of use later, during another raid. I suppose he could be hoping that the dementors will send Harry over the edge.” He paused, then said, “Dumbledore has no current plans to get at Harry. And what I could glean of his mind supports what the twins had to say about the Order reaction.”

“And?” Salazar prompted, when he had been quiet for too long.

“He truly does wish to find a way toward Voldemort’s defeat, and not necessarily for his own glorification. He does feel some measure of guilt for not having headed off Tom’s descent into the Dark Arts, despite his suspicions at the time. And in his mind Harry Potter is a symbol, a very powerful symbol, someone for the average person to look at and think, ‘He’s just a boy, but he’s faced Voldemort several times and stood up to him. If he can do it, then maybe so can I.’ Granted, it doesn’t hurt the least bit that everyone thinks Harry Potter lived, which gives him a certain cachet.

“I think, he’s somewhat conflicted over the fact that Harry’s now in prison. On the one hand, it means it’s hard to hold him up as a figurehead, but on the other hand, it serves to prove the point that Harry’s just another person, one who loses his head and makes stupid mistakes. Voldemort does need to be dealt with. Dumbledore’s own experience with defeating a dark lord gives him rather a lot of credibility and leeway, despite that little bump in the road when everyone wanted to deny Voldemort’s return. I think  . . . that his defeat of Grindelwald damaged him, mentally. They were . . . once friends, you see.”

“Oh? Now that is interesting,” Salazar said. “Could it be that his past mistakes have made him harder? Perhaps more inclined to carefully plan something out, then rigidly maintain those plans?”

Hal pursed his lips, trying to think of the right way to explain what was only nebulous in his mind. “I think he felt betrayed. There was a man, who seemed to hold so many of the same ideals as he. He was young, and idealistic, and didn’t pay enough attention beyond the surface. And . . . he was rather smitten with Grindelwald. They parted rather unexpectedly, which hurt Dumbledore, so you can imagine how he must have felt later on, when he realized what his friend had become. So yes, I do think that caused him to become a lot more rigid. One of the things they both seemed to subscribe to was the idea of actions for the greater good, and that they were smarter than most, and therefore right in the assumption that their ideals were the correct ones for everyone.”

Salazar snorted indelicately. “The greater good. How peculiar that such a phrase brings to mind what he has done to you, and others, I’m sure.” He then pinned Hal with a speculative gaze. “I feel as though there is something you are not saying.”

He licked his lips and glanced away. “I know who I am now.”

“I will remind you, Hal, that it matters very little to me what name you were born with. But if you wish to go ahead with our tentative plan to cast suspicion on Dumbledore, this is important information.”

“I know,” he replied quietly. “I think he made a mistake, though.”

Salazar set down his fork and sat back, bringing one hand up to cup the nape of his neck. “What sort of mistake,” he prompted gently.

Hal shrugged a shoulder and gave a stilted laugh. “Hagrid brought Harry to him, but Hagrid didn’t realize that Harry died on that trip. Dumbledore didn’t realize it, either, until he’d dismissed Hagrid. And then he had a problem, or so he thought, I suppose because of that prophecy. He needed Harry Potter alive. Well, Godric’s Hollow wasn’t the only place attacked that night, and he took advantage of that fact. Harry’s corpse was hidden away at his own home while he did some checking around, and he did find a family where the adults were dead, but their child not.

“And that was me. My parents were Martin and Perrine Viator, both half-bloods. My birth name, apparently, is Peregrine.” He glanced at Salazar. “I think I’ll stick with Hallam Nash, thanks. Anyway, his mistake was in not knowing what James and Lily had done with respect to their will. All of this was going to blow up in someone’s face. Even if Dumbledore wasn’t implicated, I would have been left foundationless, and if word got out. . . .”

Salazar nodded. “Dumbledore’s golden boy would have fallen, and his reputation would have suffered collateral damage. But as I said earlier, it might have happened that Riddle would refocus his attentions, or at least not place so much importance on a boy proven to be a fake. He might have become less cautious in his attempts to kill you, simply to get revenge for all the times you frustrated him.”

“And maybe I would have lost my nerve and whatever confidence I had, making it that much easier to kill me.” He leaned forward, reaching a hand across the table, and smiled when Salazar covered it with one of his own. “I know I didn’t exactly react well then. Thank you for being what I needed, and not necessarily what I wanted.”

A most peculiar expression flitted across Salazar’s face, quickly gone. “I confess, it crossed my mind at the time that I might have been a bit heartless.”

“It’s not like you don’t know how to be gentle. And you were right. Falling apart at the time would have served no purpose aside from wasting time. Although, sometimes I wonder if it just hasn’t sunk in yet. I’ve known kids who found out they were adopted that went all to pieces and began acting out.” He peered into his cup, then refilled it from the pot, adding cream and sugar. “Still. . . .”

As though he had read his mind, Salazar said, “There’s no conclusive proof we can pin on Dumbledore. But we can still use this, Hal. My suggestion is that we visit Midas again after some wordsmithing. The money has already been moved, so it’s safe. But you can alter your will, again, to very clearly explain your shock and confusion over having learned that you are not, in fact, the son of James and Lily Potter.”

“And if the reading is open. . . .”

“Yes, or you do something staggeringly obnoxious, such as include a few final words for someone like Rita Skeeter.”

He laughed, feeling rather cheerful at the thought.

*

“We should discuss our plans.”

Hal looked at him with mild confusion. “What do you mean?”

“I mean with regard to the British wizarding world in general. Do we interfere? Or do we just try to discredit Dumbledore, neutralize the Death Eaters, and put Riddle six feet under? Granted, there is corruption in any form of government, as there is corruption in every human, or the possibility.”

“Is that our responsibility, though?”

Nicolas coughed slightly, drawing attention to himself. “That depends, lad. We, all of us, have to live in this world. And we, each of us, should bear some responsibility for making that world a better place to live, not only for ourselves, but for others. That, of course, is an idealist’s view, but that makes it no less true. Government is there to serve the people, unless it’s a dictatorship, and the people should have a say in how their government comports itself, and even an avenue for redress.”

Hal’s eyes crossed briefly, and remained unfocused for a short time. “Well, you know, I hadn’t planned on fashioning myself a Superman outfit and flying about the countryside preaching the rights of sentient beings. Though, you have a point.”

“You yourself,” Salazar said, “have expressed your thoughts on how the Death Eaters should be handled. Do you honestly feel that the current government would set aside their own personal ambitions and greed for bribery if presented with them?”

Hal shot them all a thoughtful look. “You ask me this because we should be without dissension?”

“Lad,” Perenelle said softly, “you are an intelligent young man, and your opinions should not be overlooked simply due to your age and relative lack of experience. And we happen to agree with your earlier assessment of potential issues when it comes to the justice system and handling of prisoners.”

“I also agree,” said Bill. “I have a fair understanding of how the goblin nation handles justice, and it’s far more ethical and principled, even if it can be extremely harsh. But I admit, I’m not sure how we could make things better.”

Hal licked his lips and said, “For the greater good?”

“An interesting objection,” Nicolas said evenly, which prompted Hal to share with them a synopsis of what he had learned from his last spying session. “Far be it from me to assume we must be correct, but somehow I think we have not the hubris of that man and his erstwhile companion. It is true that the British ministry is riddled with corruption. I personally might consider the Americans to be upstarts with barely any history, but they have the right idea overall, and the Canadians are very similar, while not quite the same. Europe, however, is a bit more backward, though Britain seems to be the worst. Asia, well, they can go either way, though Japan seems to have a very strict moral and ethical code. And Australia is about as different from Britain as night from day.”

“Well . . . right now I’m more concerned with Riddle and Dumbledore. Can we come back to that?”

Salazar nodded and turned to Bill. “You should know that your twin brothers are up to mischief.”

Bill let out a heartfelt groan and slumped. “What now?”

A brief explanation had barely been given when Hal looked up, a devious grin on his face. “I think I know what to do about that. I think I know exactly what to do.” He might have said more, but a snake chose that moment to slither in and begin hissing.

Masters, the acerbic one has left a message.

*

Severus was enjoying a glass of whiskey when he froze solid again; a part of him felt relief, but an equal part felt something akin to fear. A moment later two men stepped into view, one of whom was Slytherin, while the other he did not recognize in the least. The man had hair black as a moonless night and eyes that appeared dark, but he could not be sure in such low light. Before he could wonder overmuch Slytherin and his companion conjured chairs and sat down.

A twitch of the man’s wand set him free, the act of an imminently courteous man, or of one who held absolutely no fear that he would attempt to brandish a wand in their direction. Severus, in an attempt to appear more nonchalant than he felt, had another sip from his glass before saying, “I appreciate that you have come.”

Slytherin nodded and then simply stared at him.

He stifled a sigh; this would be like speaking to a demi-god. “Can I get either of you a drink?”

“There is no need,” spoke the companion, his voice husky. “You already know Lord Slytherin, so allow me to introduce myself. I am Lord Phelim.”

Severus’s eyes widened slightly in recognition as he inclined his head. “An honor.” And it was. He had not been aware that the Phelim line still existed; until that moment he had considered the family akin to a myth.

Phelim arched a brow, then also inclined his head. “Perhaps you would like to tell us why you wished to see Lord Slytherin.”

“Of course. I find myself. . . .” He trailed off, at a loss. No matter how many times he had rehearsed in his head what he wished to speak of, he realized that when faced with the opportunity, his pride was strangling his voice. So he went at it from another angle. “I find myself wondering, as it appears that you were able to somehow manipulate the Dark Mark I bear, if you know, should the Dark Lord be defeated and die, will I be affected?”

Slytherin aimed a contemplative gaze his way. “You will not die, if that is what you wish to know. The Dark Mark cannot exist should Riddle find death; I think you may already have speculated on that. And, though it is a small sliver of his power embedded in your arm, it is your own magic which sustains and nurtures it. A parasite, if you will, just like Riddle himself.”

He had another sip of his drink as he digested that, then looked up as Slytherin spoke again.

“You, my acerbic friend, truly wish to know why we altered it, and why we did not remove it. Is this not true?”

He nodded, faintly.

“That is very simple. As I said before, I did not scan you deeply. Therefore, I have no knowledge of whether or not you made. . . .” Slytherin glanced at Phelim. “How did you put it?”

“A stupid mistake.”

“Ah, yes. My sources inform me that you, Severus Snape, are considered by Riddle to be his spy against Dumbledore, and Dumbledore believes the same in reverse. But, what is truth? As for why we altered it, you were our test case, to unwittingly provide us with a certain type of data and prove that our calculations are correct.”

“Calculations?” he dared to ask.

Phelim smirked before saying, “Aye. You see, Lord Slytherin is not terribly fond of Riddle, and wished to know exactly what he had done, and to gather data on exactly how many Death Eaters are out there. Of course, the alteration also ensured that you would mind your tongue. Granted, any spy who has stayed alive for so long would understand the necessity of discretion, but we rather thought that given those you report to, it would be wise to interfere.”

Severus felt his jaw clench and quickly relaxed. It was just one more thing forced on him, all stemming from a single foolish action. “It is very effective,” he said dryly, which earned him chuckles from both men. “As to your earlier question. . . .” He had another sip of liquid courage and said, “I was young and angry, and probably no more immune to flattery and arrogance than the average male of that age.”

“And something made you change your mind?” Slytherin inquired.

“Yes.” Perhaps he was addle-brained from the sheer number of cruciatus curses he had suffered through, but he felt he could bear to explain it Slytherin. “There was a girl I grew up around, who became my friend. She was dear to me, a girl who never wanted anything from me except my company. Even later, in school, she was my friend, despite the difference in houses. She was a Gryffindor, you see. Later on, in a moment of abject humiliation, I spurned her help and was nasty to her, and things were never the same.

“A few years later I learned that she was in danger from the Dark Lord, partly for the circumstances of her birth, but also due to the man she married. And I, unwittingly, was partially at fault, though it was not until the birth of her child that I realized what I’d done. It was then that I turned my back on that foolish, regrettable decision, for all the good it did. She died anyway. I never did apologize to her.”

Phelim cleared his throat softly and said, “So, Riddle was a mistake. But what is Dumbledore?”

“The lesser of two evils,” he said promptly, then knocked back the remainder of his drink and stood. He knew that eyes were following him closely as he crossed the room to refill his glass, but he expected that. Back in his chair he said, “The headmaster is like a spider with a very large, nearly invisible web. There are countless people who owe him favors, favors he only calls in when he can wring from them the maximum value, all in accordance with his master plan. Naturally, having turned away in remorse for my actions, I somehow found myself in staggering debt to Dumbledore when he spoke on my behalf after the Dark Lord’s first fall.”

Slytherin nodded slowly and turned his head, holding his companion’s gaze for a long time. Phelim eventually nodded, and Slytherin looked back to Severus and arched a brow. “Let us get down to fundamentals. What are you willing to offer to be released from that Dark Mark?”

Severus blinked slowly. “Does that actually matter? Even with it gone I would never be free.”

“Apparently your education is lacking,” Slytherin said with a smirk. “Or is it?”

He frowned, almost imperceptibly. Was the man suggesting what he thought? “I think I have, at this point, more than compensated for my mistakes, and one of my major duties is now out of reach. I admit, I was able to convince the Dark Lord of my utmost loyalty, so I am not precisely concerned about being uncovered, but any spy is always in a difficult position, and I am not often called due to my position here. As I wish to no longer be at the whims of opposing forces, I can offer every name I’m aware of, which includes unmarked supporters, as well as possible leads on the Dark Lord’s horcruxes.”

“Ah, so there are more,” Phelim said, his voice rich with satisfaction. “How delightful.”

Slytherin said something in Parseltongue, the richly sibilant language making him wish both to shudder for the reminder of the Dark Lord, and shiver in pleasure. He was utterly shocked when Phelim nodded and responded in the same language. He bit back a sigh and had a sip of his whiskey, feeling a stab of jealousy, then glared when he realized the two men had cast amused looks his way.

After a few minutes Slytherin switched back to English. “We accept this offer with the understanding that once your Dark Mark is removed you will, within a reasonable amount of time, disappear into a new life. We expect that in addition to the time it will take for you to compile the information, you will need time to arrange your affairs to your advantage. Should you need any assistance with certain details, you are welcome to ask it of us.”

And as much as he might wish to understand why they were offering a trade, he said nothing of that. “When I have finished I will relay another message.”

“Splendid.”

The two men stood and vanished their chairs. For a split second time seemed to stutter, and they simply vanished. He sat there for a long time, nursing his drink. He was not a man to hope, but he found himself hoping. Perhaps, not so far along in the future, he could walk away from a lifetime of misery. He set his glass aside and stretched, permitted himself a soft groan, and summoned some supplies.

*

Hal was watching, there in astral form to witness the results of his dream manipulations. The clone, Harry, was already aware of what was to come, and what it needed to do. It, of course, could see the projected figure of its master, thanks to the bond between them. As one their heads turned as the sound of boots striking stone echoed off the walls, becoming louder with every second that passed. Finally, a group of guards appeared, each with grim expressions, and came to a stop before the cell. Several minutes went by before one of them said, “Look at ‘im, lads. ‘E looks as fresh as a daisy! Seems our tarnished friend in’t affected by the dementors, no how, an’ I think we should make sure ‘e suffers like ‘e ought.”

There was a growling agreement from the man’s companions, and one stepped up to unlock the door. Two more slipped inside long enough to drag a weakly protesting Harry out into the corridor, then hold him down. In truth, it ought not to have been difficult; they were robust men, and Harry was thin and sickly looking from his general lack of basics, such as decent food and even sunlight.

It didn’t take long. Hal winced a number of times as he watched his clone be brutally beaten before being tossed back into the cell, and the door locked again. The guards all had a good laugh and slapped each other in a manly sort of way, then left back the way they had come. Five minutes after silence descended, Hal observed as the clone impossibly regurgitated the python within. All that remained was the shell of Harry Potter staring sightlessly at the stone ceiling.

He shot an indulgent smile at his familiar. It seemed to be doing some sort of joyful coiling dance if he was not mistaken, probably because it was free from its confinement at last. It got ahold of itself quickly enough and after a hissed promise to meet him on the mainland, the python slithered off down the hallway.

Back in his body, which happened to be in a tent on the coast which also housed Salazar, Hal blinked a few times and sat up. “It’s done.”

His friend and lover pulled him close, wrapping an arm around his shoulders. “Then I can assume by your demeanor that it went well.”

“Yeah. Not pleasant in the least, but my familiar is unharmed. You know, I sort of wonder how Snape is going to react, first at finding out that Harry is dead, and then at finding out that he was never a Potter to begin with.”

“I wonder myself. And, Hal? I am very proud of you.”

He felt a strangely shy smile curve his mouth for a moment. “Because I didn’t lose control when it looked like Snape meant Lily?”

“Yes.”

“You know I wanted to. I know she’s not my mother, but I still grew up loving her as one, and the very idea of her and him. . . .”

“Yes,” Salazar repeated, then twisted so he could place a kiss on Hal’s lips, quickly pulling back. “More of that later, my dear serpent. I would rather not get so distracted that we are interrupted, especially by the laughter of a snake.”

He chortled helplessly at the idea. They talked quietly until the python arrived, mostly about Snape, then packed up and returned to the hideaway, where Basil was thrilled to be given his choice of several things to properly sate his hunger on.

The next morning necessitated a trip to Gringotts. Hal was beginning to think that poor Midas had seen more than enough of them to last a decade or so, but it had to be done.

“Midas,” Salazar said after the usual courtesies had been serviced, “have you had to oversee many will readings?”

“A fair amount. Why?”

“Hal and I have been discussing the remaining changes to the Potter will, and have been unable to decide if it would be better done written, or as a displayable memory.”

“Ah. Either way presents a case for me having to frequently stop to allow for sobbing and wailing. Females of your species seem to be fond of that for some reason. However, I can enforce silence. The other consideration would be how well you think you can act,” he said, looking at Hal.

“Erm, I don’t know if I’m that good, and we haven’t a lot of time for me to get it right.” He had been working on that, of course, but he wasn’t sure he could pull off a recording without indulging in the mad desire to incessantly giggle. “Are memories even common?”

“Truthfully, no. No one would consider it strange should you simply handle things just as you saw for the reading of Sirius Black.”

He nodded and fetched some parchment from his pocket. “Then I won’t worry about it. I have here what should be the final revision to the will,” he said as he slid it onto the desk. “And I’ll tell you now, Harry Potter is dead, so the sooner this is ready to go the better.”

The only sign of surprise at that statement was the brief lift of a brow, quickly followed by the goblin reading over the new copy. Eventually Midas looked up and shot them a feral grin. “Nicely done, gentlemen. Now, did you wish to retroactively enact our life force link service, or wait for someone to actually notice the corpse?”

“Er. . . .”

“If there is any chance that the death would be covered up, I advise you opt for the link service.”

“I understand, and yes, let’s do that. The collateral lines have already been searched, and there is no one out there close enough in relation to contest this.”

*

It was a typical enough start to the day. Hermione was in the common room with Ginny, reading one of the many law books she had borrowed from the library, waiting for Ron and Neville to drag their not-morning selves down the stairs so they could go to breakfast. She sighed a lot, as what she had read so far was of little consequence, and everything seemed to point to it being at the discretion of the ministry (which most likely meant Fudge) as to who was allowed to visit Azkaban. And what were the chances of that?

The boys finally stumbled down so she and Ginny packed up and walked with them to the Great Hall. The girls had their usual moment of disgust at watching Ron shovel food into his gaping maw like it could vanish at any second, and Hermione glanced up with only mild interest when the post arrived. Owls in flight did make for a rather pretty display. But they did not usually arrive with a letter for her.

She felt the first stirrings of trepidation when she noticed the seal of Gringotts on the flap, but bravely broke it and opened the envelope, withdrawing the parchment. She studied it for a few moments, her eyes flicking quickly over the words, then did something quite unlike herself. Hermione stood up, turned toward the head table, and roared, “DUMBLEDORE!” During the shock of silence following, Ron fainted.

“Miss Granger!” McGonagall scolded, rising from her own seat.

“Checked your mail yet, headmaster? Or did you not get one of these?” Hermione shook her letter, then marched up to the dais so she could toss it in front of him.

Dumbledore peered at it through his spectacles and stilled.

“I’m fully cognizant that I’m going to lose points and quite probably get at least one detention, professor, but.  . . .”

“Albus, what is it?” McGonagall said quietly, then took the letter when he pushed it toward her. A moment later she went white and seemed to age fifty years. By some strange coincidence, things went downhill from there.

A week later a sorrowful Hermione found herself sitting at another reading in Gringotts. With her were Ron, Ginny, Neville, Luna, the twins, Mr and Mrs Weasley, and Remus, all of whom shared her air of heartbreak. The final people to enter were Dumbledore, McGonagall, and Hagrid, the doors shutting with a soft fwump behind them.

The goblin cleared his throat. “Silence. We shall begin with the reading of the public portion of the will of the late Harry Potter.”

Mrs Weasley stifled a sob behind her handkerchief as her husband wrapped an arm around her shoulders. Hermione noticed that the goblin looked faintly annoyed before it said, “If necessary, I will ensure silence, as per Mr Potter’s wishes.”

She also noticed that the goblin’s human assistant, the same one from before, looked wholly bored, and for a moment she wished she could hex him for being so openly insensitive. The goblin began reading, but paused even before he finished the first sentence to do some sort of strange little ritual that seemed to quiet each of the people in attendance.

I can only hope that those I asked to be here have survived me, and I’ll try not to wander too much into the realm of morbidity. I know that nobody ever liked to hear me express my doubts as to whether or not I would survive, even to finish schooling, but I made sure when I had the opportunity to plan ahead for if that should happen. I know, surprise, Harry Potter isn’t a complete twit.

Anyway, a strange thing happened on my quest to write a will, something that rocked the very foundations of my world, not that they were particularly stable to begin with. You see, James and Lily Potter were either into certain pure-blood customs, or they anticipated that they might not survive to see their son grow up. For whatever reason they opted to ensure that no one could steal the legacy they left behind, by making it a condition of their will that any claimant be tested, using a blood ritual legal for that purpose, to be absolutely certain it was their son.

I’ve been told that more than a few people have come, claiming to be Harry Potter, in an attempt to get their hands on the alleged Potter fortune. So I was tested, just like those people, even though my scar alone counts as incontrovertible identification due to the unique dark magic involved in it.

By now some of you are undoubtedly starting to feel a dawning realization as to why I’m rambling like this. You’d be right, I’m sad to say. The boy you’ve all known as the son of James and Lily Potter—me—isn’t. The only connection I have with them is my appearance. Quite frankly, I have no idea who I am. What I do know is that someone put me through the simulare ritual, which means someone out there knows that Harry Potter died because of the attack that killed his parents, and someone got access for long enough to perform the ritual and substitute me. Things must have been crazy at the time given everything that happened.

Obviously, it worked pretty well. I don’t know if the real Harry Potter is out there somewhere, being kept hidden, but something in my gut tells me he didn’t survive that killing curse thrown by Voldemort. Maybe he held on for a while due to Lily’s sacrifice, but. . . .

I’m sorry, guys, to spring this on you in this way. But I couldn’t go to my grave without making sure that the people I cared about the most knew what I’d found out. Now, due to how things work—I confess I’m a bit muzzy on that part, but the goblins did do their best to explain it to me—I am legally considered Harry Potter. A search of the collateral lines I asked for has turned up no other potential heirs, so the Potter legacy is, sadly, mine to disburse as I see fit.

That being said, I made sure that the money was put to good use, and I’d like to think that James and Lily Potter wouldn’t be too upset with what I’ve done. Guess I’ll have found out by now, right? I love you, all of you. Each of you made my life a joy in your own way, and I’m forever grateful.

Hermione realized with a slight start that tears were streaming down her cheeks, and a quick glance around showed that most people present were in the same condition. She could not quite take in the idea that her best friend had such a terrible secret, and had managed to conceal it. She shook herself mentally, forcing herself to think clearly, and realized that he could only have found out that summer. That he had said nothing could be due to him not wanting to throw the Light into turmoil, and might have been wanting to speak with Professor Dumbledore before otherwise acting on the information. Harry always had thought well on his feet, in impossible situations.

The goblin cleared his throat again. “As per Mr Potter’s wishes, the disbursements will not be public. Each of you will have your reading separately, and what you do after that point is up to you. The first will be Headmaster Dumbledore, so I would ask that everyone else please move to the seating area my assistant is now moving toward.”

She got up slowly and did as indicated, taking a new seat next to Ron. Most of the quiet speech in their corner was along the lines of dazed, “How. . . ?” Hermione was, actually, rather surprised that no one (herself included) had begun carrying on in a loud and uncontrolled fashion. Especially Hagrid and Molly. One by one they were called to sit with the goblin, and one by one they were ushered out afterward to await the others in an anteroom. When it was her turn she sat gingerly, not particularly wanting to learn what Harry had left her, as it meant accepting his death.

“Miss Granger, you have my condolences. Mr Potter wished for you to have something he thought would benefit more than just yourself, and be more than just a simple monetary disbursement. He arranged for a trust account to be created for the sole purpose of allowing you, with proper guidance from a solicitor, to work on the issue of helping house-elves, notably those in abusive situations. The trust will give you the resources necessary to, in some cases, attempt to hire away the services of such elves, or even work toward legislation to protect their rights.”

She was stunned enough to not say a word.

“As a part of this bequest, Mr Potter requested that Gringotts assist in helping you to select a solicitor, or several. He also suggested that you take the time to research, and speak with bound and free elves alike, to gain a better understanding of their lives, needs, and desires, before you make any attempts on their behalf.”

As she was leaving the room a few minutes later she wondered if something similar had been done for Remus Lupin and werewolves.