A procession of battered portraits with cracked paint lined the walls between millennium-old tapestries, gleaming suits of armour. Harry drifted past them, brushing the crumbs of his lunch off his robes to join the crumbs of his breakfast.
Stupid bloody Hermione. He hurled the last bite of his sandwich into the face of a suit of armour. And her stupid bloody obsession with being better than everyone. And her stupid bloody fear of not being needed.
Harry slipped his wand out of his sleeve and vanished the chunk of sandwich. ‘She’s going to have even fewer friends than me if she keeps this stupid bloody stuff up.’ He stuffed his wand back away. ‘And I still need somewhere to practice while I’m using the time-turner in the Chamber of Secrets.’
A door appeared between two tapestries.
Harry paused. ‘Well, if that’s not bloody suspicious, I don’t know what is.’ He glanced up and down the corridor, then twisted the latch. ‘There better not be another three-headed hellhound in here.’
Empty, white walls glistened inside.
Harry shrugged. Needs some targets, but it’ll do.
The dark drew together in the corners, looming into skeletal silhouettes draped in robes of tattered shadow.
‘The Room of Requirement.’ Harry grinned. ‘Salazar wasn’t just making it up, then. This is perfect.’
He slipped out, closed the door, and watched it melt back into the stonework. Absolutely perfect.
Harry hurried to the chamber, sprinting down the stairs and jumping over the bridge the moment it rose from the water.
‘I found the Room of Requirement.’ His words vanished into gasps and he doubled over the desk until his breath returned. ‘I found the Room of Requirement.’
Salazar raised an eyebrow. ‘Really?’
‘Sixth floor corridor. I was wandering around and it just appeared.’ Harry waved a hand at the small golden hourglass. ‘I can use the time-turner there.’
‘No.’ Salazar patted his serpent’s head. ‘The hourglass can’t leave the Chamber of Secrets. I’m sure I told you that already, you forgetful brat.’
‘You might’ve done.’ Harry feigned thought. ‘But perhaps you’re just going even more senile than you already are.’
‘Ungrateful little wretch.’ Salazar muttered a few choice words in parseltongue. ‘You can go to the Room of Requirement, then come back here and repeat the time in the Chamber. Prevents you from seeing yourself, too, though since you know what you’re going to be doing, it shouldn’t really be an issue.’
Salazar snorted. ‘Why on earth would the entirety of existence disappear because there’s two of you for a short while. Even you can’t cause that much trouble.’ He shook his head. ‘Time and space are flexible things, not straight lines. The time-turner just helps bend them a bit further around yourself.’
Harry repeated that to himself a couple of times. ‘I feel like it takes a considerable amount of study to really understand what you just said.’
Salazar chuckled. ‘I’d take my word for it, it’ll be quicker.’
‘I’ve used one before and I’m pretty sure I saw myself, I just didn’t realise it was me until afterward.’ Harry frowned. ‘I made a self-fulfilling loop.’
‘You will have to every time you use it.’ Salazar’s serpent coiled around his face. ‘Get off you wretched creature.’ The portrait peeled it off with its free hand and tied it into a knot. The snake squirmed round his neck, bumping his chin with its knotted tail. ‘Now, why are you here?’
‘I’ve got a list. Apparition. Mind arts. The Disillusionment Charm. Some random French girl stole my glasses, tried to interrogate me, then vanished. I’m pretty sure she disillusioned herself and it looked useful.’
‘The Mind Arts are something of a specialty of mine.’ Salazar straightened his snake out along his shoulders. ‘If you don’t stay still, you annoying piece of living upholstery, I’m going to transfigure you into a worm.’
Harry pretended he hadn’t heard that. ‘I discovered some muggle mind exercises that help you clear your mind and focus. They seem like they’d be the same as the magical ones, but I can’t easily get into the restricted section to check.’
‘Occlumency is the art of shielding your mind. It’s a bit of a misnomer, actually. What you really do is empty your thoughts so an intruder can’t see anything.’
Salazar nodded. ‘I imagine it would. My daughter was even more skilled than I was in the area. Tom was no amateur, either.’
‘Is that all there is to it?’
Salazar crossed his arms. ‘Not at all. Legilimency is only considered Occlumency’s opposite by amateurs. It’s all about seeing the thoughts of others. Mind magics are subtle, complex things. These labels, they don’t really do it justice.’ He stroked his chin. ‘Best to start with apparition. It’s very useful if you get into a tight spot.’
Harry nodded. ‘So what do I do?’
‘Focus. Concentrate on your destination. Will yourself there. Make sure you’re focused and your will is strong, otherwise you’re liable to appear in multiple places at once and die. My heir will not die because he splinched himself. Godric would wet himself laughing in the afterlife.’
Harry dragged the painting off the wall and over the bridge. ‘What about the wards? I’m sure I’ve heard someone say you can’t apparate in the school. Once. Twice. Maybe a hundred times.’
‘The Chamber of Secrets isn’t included within Hogwarts’ wards.’ Salazar waved his hands around him. ‘There was no point. It’s already more strongly warded than the school. So even if the headmaster has turned on the anti-apparition wards, they won’t affect you here.’
‘Okay.’ Harry pictured the far side of the chamber and tried to will himself there.
His stomach lurched and his vision swam. ‘Urgh.’ Harry collapsed to one knee and swallowed his breakfast back down. ‘Bloody hell.’
‘Well, that was awful.’ Salazar tutted. ‘What were you imagining? Haven’t you ever seen anyone apparate?’
Harry held his breath until his stomach settled. ‘No. I haven’t.’
‘You’ve never seen anyone apparate? Have you been under a rock for the last fourteen years?’
‘I was raised by and live with muggles.’
‘Oh.’ Salazar stared down toward the bottom of his frame. ‘Well, that explains it. You should just appear in the space. Imagine it as if instead of you moving, some impossible force twisted the world instead, so you ended up standing where you pictured.’
Harry considered it and took a few deep breaths. He pictured the tip of the forked, tongue-styled bridge and imagined the world wrenching back past him.
His magic twisted.
A loud crack echoed through the Chamber of Secrets and he found himself standing on the end of the bridge.
‘Yes!’ Harry grinned.
A wave of nausea and dizziness struck him, his vision spun and he fell. Ice-cold water smacked him in the face and closed over him.
Harry clawed himself out, shivering and sputtering.
Salazar laughed so hard the snake fell off his shoulders.
‘Shut up,’ Harry hissed, lapsing into parseltongue.
The nausea struck again as he clambered out and stood up. He doubled over and hurled his stomach onto the floor. A bitter taste flooded his mouth and burnt his throat.
‘You’ll get used to the feeling.’ Salazar wiped his eyes with the sleeve of his robe. ‘Godric was hopeless at any form of magical transportation for years. He’d fall over whenever we apparated, so if we wanted to make a decent first impression, Helga would side-long him and hold him upright. He hated it.’
‘I can empathise.’ Harry growled and wiped his lips, vanishing the contents of his stomach. An over-powered warming charm left him steaming and drove the cold from his limbs. He reapplied it several times until his robes dried.
‘You’ll be fine. Keep practising.’
‘You just want to watch me fall over,’ Harry grumbled.
Salazar’s eyes softened. ‘It reminds me of Godric.’
Harry visualised the far end of the chamber and reappeared there. He staggered, then fell to his knees. Salazar’s laughter echoed from the far side of the chamber.
It took a further ten attempts before he could manage to remain upright and an additional five for him to do it without swaying or staggering all over the place like a drunk.
‘It’s a good skill to learn,’ Salazar said. ‘If you get disarmed and have to escape, apparition could save your life. The ability to quickly apparate saved my life more than a couple of times. Was there anything else you wanted to learn?’
‘The disillusionment charm,’ Harry suggested.
My invisibility cloak is great, but has its drawbacks.
‘Not an easy one, not if you want to master it. It takes quite a bit of talent and control, the latter more than anything, to manage it flawlessly and become fully invisible.’
Harry let his wand slide out of his sleeve and into his hand. ‘I’ve time to practice.’
‘Well, you know what you should be visualising. You should be fairly adept at this spell, despite the phoenix feather.’
Harry narrowed his eyes. ‘Lay off my phoenix feather core wand alone, you senile finger-painting.’
Salazar snorted and twirled his wand tip in front of his chest. ‘The wand motion’s like that. I assume you know the incantation?’
Harry nodded and cast the spell. His body shifted to mirror the background behind it, blending hues like a watercolour. He moved his arm. Its colour rippled like a reflection on water, lagging behind the speed of movement.
‘Not a bad first attempt.’ Salazar peered down at him. ‘You look like a very inexperienced, giant chameleon.’
Harry fixed him with a flat stare.
‘It will take a great deal of practice before you can cast it well enough to move normally with it on. That’s as far as most wizards or witches can ever get.’
‘So it’s camouflage, not invisibility.’
‘You aren’t most wizards and witches.’
Another Heir of Slytherin reference is about to be made. Harry knew the proud expression on Salazar Slytherin’s face well enough. Great. If only Tom Riddle could see this, he’d probably die of laughter… Or outrage.
‘You’re my heir, not some lesser, average wizard. You’re quite gifted and you’ll do better in time. I have no doubt.’
And there it is.
He slid his wand away and sat down on the floor in front of the portrait. ‘I can practice this by myself, then. Do you know anything else about the Room of Requirement?’
‘Not really.’ Salazar threw his arms in the air. ‘Only that I knew I would win in the end! Take that Godric and Rowena.’
‘How did you win?’
‘You’re my heir. You found their secret room before anyone of their descent found mine.’
Harry laughed. ‘You do know that when I pulled the Godric’s sword out of the sorting hat I became his heir of sorts?’
‘So?’ Salazar froze mid-celebration.
‘I killed your basilisk with it. Here. In my second year.’
The smile fell from Salazar’s face. ‘Well that rather ruins the competition. If you’re heir to both of us, despite Godric’s claim on you being rather less firm than mine, then we both win and it’s all null and void.’
And now he’s sulking…
‘What was it like?’ Salazar murmured. ‘Were their portraits there? Godric’s? Rowena’s? Even Helga’s, maybe?’
‘I don’t know. I think the room changes completely based on what you desire. I’ll see if I can find their portraits next time I visit.’
‘It sounds like an amazing room.’ Salazar stared up through the roof of the chamber. ‘I should like to try it myself, but I doubt it works for a shadow of life like me. Rowena and Godric always did come up with the most fanciful, spectacular things, of course most of them ended up exploding in Godric’s face, but the ones that worked were truly amazing. Even I’ll admit that they were the finest things any of us ever made, with the exemption of Hogwarts, of course. A school and sanctuary is magic of a different kind.’
‘I’ve only seen the sorting hat and the room,’ Harry said.
‘There were several more. The diadem you might’ve heard of, that was Rowena’s favourite. She pretty much claimed it as hers, though Godric never really complained. He was rather selfless.’
‘I wonder if any of them are in the room.’
‘The diadem was lost, sadly. Rowena’s daughter stole it and lost it before she died. Silly girl.’ Salazar’s eyes darkened. ‘Rowena really wasn’t as brilliant a mother as she was a mage.’
Another sad memory.
Harry frowned. ‘What did Helga make?’
‘She tried to combine enchanting with herbology. Plants were a hobby of hers. She liked looking after plants, creatures, and people. She’s responsible for that ridiculously named species of magical tree.’
‘She took an innocent, elegant willow tree and turned into something much less admirable. She wanted to plant a whole forest of them to protect the school, but we intervened before she could cause a catastrophe. I think the species probably still exists, she grew and sold quite a few before people realised how large they would grow. I suspect they rapidly regretted planting them near their houses, or anything else for that matter. Horrible plants.’
Harry laughed. ‘The founders are nothing like I imagined.’
‘Of course we aren’t. We founded a school. I’m sure all the headmasters tell you how perfect and well behaved we were. The truth is that even at the age of sixty Godric was more a child than anyone to ever walk these halls after him.’ Salazar’s eyes misted over. ‘Rowena might’ve loved logic, but she broke any rules she thought she was better than, and Helga had a real vicious streak if you upset her.’
‘Tempus,’ Harry murmured.
‘Time to leave.’
‘Yeah, I’ll be back tomorrow.’
‘You’re not leaving before you’ve put me back up over the door in the study.’ Salazar scowled. ‘I refuse to spend any more time alone with that serpent, dead or not. You should milk her corpse, too. The venom is both very valuable and useful.’
‘At least those rituals have helped me get a bit stronger.’ He picked his ancestor’s canvas likeness up and carried it back across the bridge. ‘Carrying you isn’t quite as bad as it used to be.’
‘Carrying me is an honour,’ Salazar grumbled. ‘I’m one of the greatest wizards to have ever lived.’
‘That’s probably why this painting is so heavy, it’s your bloody ego.’ Harry ignored Salazar’s glare. ‘Do you know anything that can be used to keep the venom from your former snake in?’
‘Anything inert. It will only dissolve organic tissue or matter. There should be some crystal vials in one of the draws or lying around on the shelves opposite the ladder.’
Harry grabbed a handful out of the top drawer, huffed the dust off them, and left to wrestle with the basilisk. At least it will put up less of a fight this time.
Harry knelt down in front of its mouth and shoved it open far enough to get his hands in. ‘It could’ve swallowed me in one bite back then. It still could if it was alive.’
He reached past the teeth toward the venom sacs. This is the part when I slice the gland open too far and dissolve one of my arms. Harry cut a very small hole in the gland over the outstretched vial with his wand and watched the venom trickle into the crystal vial.
An uncomfortable, cramped series of seconds slid past until all four vials were full.
He left the venom to trickle down into the serpent and dissolve it, striding back into the study.
‘Did you get any?’ Salazar asked. ‘You’re still alive, so you didn’t impale yourself on a fang.’
Harry held up the four vials of thick, viscous, clear venom.
‘That’s a lot of galleons you’re waving around. Leave the venom here. It’s very hard to come by.’
Harry raised his eyebrows. ‘Of course I’m leaving it here. I wasn’t exactly going to leave it lying around in the dormitory for some idiot to drink by mistake.’
Neville would probably drink it, too. Harry shuddered. That would not be a pleasant way to die.
‘That would be very thoughtless of you,’ Salazar said. ‘Horrible way to go. Makes some of the more morally questionable curses I’ve seen look kind. You’d sort of melt from within, I’d imagine.’
Lovely. Harry abandoned Salazar to gory thoughts and headed back toward his bed.
Gryffindor Tower’s common room greeted him with a thick, tense silence and the soft crackle of flames. Ron, Seamus, and a handful of the others who’d decided his shadow was too much for them sat in the sofas and chairs around the fire.
He spared them no more than a glance and made his way towards the stairs.
‘Harry.’ Ron’s voice caught him with one foot on the bottom step.
They all spread around to stand at the base of the stairs.
‘What?’ He twisted to face them, letting his wand slip down his sleeve to rest on his palm.
Ron’s face contorted as if he was having problems breathing. ‘Look.’ He glanced round at the others behind him. ‘I’m no good at talking things out, so I’m just going to be frank. I know this hasn’t been easy for you and I’m not really certain you did put your name in the goblet. I’m angry with you, we’re all a bit mad, but we know it’s not really your fault. You always get dragged into this stuff and come out looking like a hero. I know you hate it, but it’s hard for us to always be overlooked when standing next to you. We want a bit of that too, you know, and–’
‘He’s trying to say he’s sorry,’ Hermione said. ‘He’s done a rubbish job of it, because he still needs some time to come to terms with things, but he means it. We all do.’ She fiddled with her wand. ‘We just want things to be back like they were last year.’
Back when you were better than everyone at everything. A smooth, high voice welled up amongst his thoughts and Harry felt a tight, cold shard of ice freeze somewhere beneath his ribs. Back when you were certain you were needed and didn’t have to worry about actually being a good friend in order to stay one.
He took a deep breath. ‘So this is an apology?’
His heart remained still and heavy. I don’t care. The little ball of cold in his chest clamped tight. It’s too late.
‘I’m not sure I care anymore.’
Hermione gasped. ‘How can you say that?!’
‘I opened my mouth, I remembered how I felt about having my entire house turn their backs on me, and I spoke,’ Harry snapped. ‘The only conversations I’ve had with any of you have been to listen to your explanations of why you’re avoiding me.’
‘We made a mistake,’ Ron muttered. ‘You must realise what it looks like and how much pressure Angelina is putting on everyone with her grudge against you. Forget about all this. Water under the bridge. You forgive us. We forgive you. Friends again. Right, mate?’
But I don’t forgive. And I can’t forget. Riddle’s whisper echoed up from the base of his skull. They left me all alone. To be nothing. Like all those empty years in Privet Drive.
Harry tried to bury his thoughts, but the ice swirled through his blood unabated. ‘Wrong, Ron. I don’t trust you lot anymore. You didn’t have my back when I needed you, I can’t rely on you to have my back next time, so I’ll make sure I won’t need you.’
‘Fine,’ Ron yelled. ‘You selfish, pretentious git. Go and bask in your glory! I hope it was worth the deaths of your parents and the loss of your only friends!’
Harry thrust his wand into Ron’s face. ‘What did you say?’ Parseltongue slid off his tongue like water off snake scales.
Ron went red and swung his fist. He caught Harry on the head in a hot flash and he stumbled back onto the stairs. His wand clattered to the floor.
Ron hurled himself on top of Harry, swinging his fists like an angry chimpanzee. Harry shoved Ron off and smashed his left fist into his stomach. Someone grabbed the back of his robes and his left arm, but he tore himself free and lunged for his wand.
White light seared his eyes and his wand shot away from his grasp across the room, slicing past Seamus’ head.
It crunched into the mantelpiece, splinters raining down onto the floor.
‘Oh no, I’m so sorry, Harry.’ Hermione stared at the pieces of his wand, her fingers pressed over her mouth. ‘I didn’t mean to. I’ve been practising the banishing spell and it was just the first one I thought of. I — I just wanted to stop the fight.’
You were practising it because you needed to be better than me. His thoughts bubbled up in a fast, smooth, high whisper, so quick the words almost slid together. Ice crept into Harry’s veins.
He strode across the room and swept all the fragments into his hand.
‘I didn’t mean to do it, Harry,’ Hermione whispered.
‘I don’t care.’ He clutched his handful of wand shards against his chest. ‘You still did it. We’re done.’ He searched for words to fit the fist of ice beneath his ribs. They welled up from the back of his head onto trembling lips. ‘I don’t need you anymore, Hermione. And I certainly don’t want you.’