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Sheets of yellow parchment floated around him, shrouding him from Salazar’s piercing stare. Colourful, careful-penned illustrations of muscles, bones, tendons, and tissues drifted over one another as the sheets drew together into a single flying stack. The black-inked curves of the human rib cage hovered at the forefront, stretching from Harry’s waist to just above his head.
‘I think I’ve wrapped my head around all this anatomy stuff now.’ He tapped it with the tip of his wand and the piece of parchment faded from sight to reveal a red-penned diagram of the muscles connecting the bones. ‘Can’t remember all the names, but I can picture it in my head.’
Who’d’ve thought the human body was so complex? Good thing I’m not trying to mess with my brain.
Harry flicked his wand at the floating paper and watched them fold back into the cover of the book on the desk. ‘What do you think, Salazar? Time to actually do some magic?’
Salazar peered down at him from the wall. His serpent wriggled up from his shoulders onto his neck. ‘Transfigure your thumbnail into something different first.’
Harry shot the painting a flat stare. ‘It’s only just started growing back.’ He poked the small sliver of nail growing on the top of his thumb. ‘See?’
‘So nobody will notice if it’s still missing.’ The founder sighed and pushed his snake’s head down out of his line of sight. ‘You’d best learn to reverse the effects of transfiguration upon yourself before you start tampering.’
‘Can’t I just transfigure something else? It seems a bit unwise to test things on myself…’
‘It’s a general counter-spell to revert a botched transfiguration upon a person.’ Salazar plucked the snake from about his shoulders and dropped it into the bottom of the painting. ‘Wretched reptile, will you not stay still for even a few minutes!’
Harry pictured smooth, gleaming metal and tapped his half-returned thumbnail with the tip of his wand. It turned cold as ice and to bright steel.
‘Shiny,’ Salazar muttered, poking his snake’s head back down when it tried to climb back up. ‘Because that doesn’t completely defeat the whole point of choosing the part of you that was already missing so people wouldn’t notice you’d been experimenting with magic.’
‘What’s the incantation?’ Harry asked. ‘February’s already started, there’s not long until the task. I need to get started if I don’t want to watch Fleur Delacour win again.’
‘Redeo. Don’t focus on changing anything specific, we’re relying on your intent being your own subconscious self-image, so your magic reverts you to how you normally are.’ Salazar leant forward and tied his serpent into a complex knot with satisfied grin. ‘It’s not a fix-all by any means, but it could save your life if you really botch it.’
Redeo…’ Harry watched the painted serpent struggle and curl up into a ball between Salazar’s feet. ‘I think your snake is sulking.’
‘Good.’ Salazar poked it with his toe. ‘Damn thing hasn’t stayed so still in about a century.’
Harry snorted. ‘If I were a suspicious person, I’d say Godric sabotaged the enchantments on your portrait.’
Salazar’s eyes flashed. ‘Of course! Oh, it all makes sense now. Damn that over-sized, red-bearded baby. He’s probably been giggling to himself in the afterlife for the last thousand years! Forget that nonsense about that Finger of Keres, Deathstick wand, I bet he really died laughing at my expense.’
Harry chuckled and pictured how he usually looked. ‘Redeo.’
His nail faded to a healthy pink. Harry tapped it with the tip of his wand and frowned at the ring of steel. Not quite.
Salazar smirked. ‘At least it’s less conspicuous. Try again. Make sure you’re thinking about reverting and not about what you want yourself to be reverted to. You need to let your subconscious fill in that part of your intent.’
Revert. Harry fixed the word in the middle of all his thoughts.
‘Redeo.’ He tapped his metal nail with his wand.
The nail spread to fill the whole void on the top of his thumb.
Harry poked it. Success.
‘That’s more like it.’ Salazar waved his wand at the book on the desk. ‘Now you can have a try transfiguring yourself.’
‘Good. There’s only a week and half left to master it, remove any teething problems, and get used to breathing so differently.’
‘You’ll need water to breathe afterward.’ A broad smirk crept onto Salazar’s face. ‘That means it’s time for you to get reacquainted with the pool…’
Not this time. Harry hauled the painting off the wall and strode out of the study and across the bridge. He poured magic into a warming charm until the pool of water steamed.
Salazar’s face fell. ‘Spoilsport.’
‘I’ve decided not to jump headfirst into things without at least a bit of thinking first.’ Harry pulled off his shoes and socks, then dipped a toe in. ‘Bath temperature. Excellent.’
‘Try not to drown yourself,’ Salazar said. ‘That French girl will win if you do.’
‘I don’t need any extra motivation to beat her.’ Harry stripped off his robes and sat on the tip of the forked-ended bridge, then lowered the bridge with his wand until the water reached his jaw. He took a deep breath.
They’re going to see me win. All of them. Fleur Delacour. Ron. Hermione. Katie. Dumbledore. Even Malfoy. I won’t just disappear whenever they fancy. I’m here to stay.
‘Are you ready?’ Salazar’s green eyes softened. ‘This will probably feel very strange and uncomfortable. Just make sure you don’t panic, if you panic, you might not manage to cast the counter spell well enough.’
Harry placed the tip of his wand over his chest. He pictured the small sacs that were his alveoli lengthening into long, wavy filaments, transforming his lungs into something he imagined resembled the tendrils of an anemone.
He took a deep breath, sucking air into his lungs.
No sense of relief came. The urge to breathe rose like the tide.
Harry ducked his head under the water and inhaled a lungful of lukewarm liquid. The urge faded and his thoughts cleared. It works!
He tried to exhale but the water hung heavy in his lungs. Shit. Harry strained them until his chest burnt and a metallic taste crept onto his tongue. It doesn’t work. Black spots swirled before his eyes. Definitely doesn’t work.
‘Redeo,’ he croaked, spluttering water everywhere.
Harry coughed up several mouthfuls of liquid and drew in huge gulps of cool air. His lungs and throat burnt and stung like an open graze.
‘I take it that it didn’t work?’ Salazar’s brow creased. ‘Are you okay, Harry?’
‘I can’t get the water out of my lungs once I’ve breathed it in. I’m using up all the oxygen in the water I inhale and then running out because I can’t get the old water out and new water in.’
Salazar’s frown deepened. ‘You’d best return to the library, then. I can’t help you here. You need to alter the muscles between and below your ribs to help move the water in and out, but without detailed study you could end up pinching an important blood vessel near your heart or something like that.’
‘Back to the library,’ Harry grumbled. ‘Hermione’s probably in there still. She and Viktor Krum seem to have taken up permanent residence.’
Salazar grinned. ‘Don’t forget the French girl. Didn’t you say she visits a fair bit, too?’
I’ve not forgotten her.
‘She sticks to the enchanting section, which is on the far side of the room.’ A little ice crept into his heart. ‘Probably just to avoid me. Even Viktor Krum and Hermione at least say good morning.’
‘Can’t be helped,’ Salazar murmured. ‘You’re in a competition, Harry. Not everyone will fight fair. If you want to win, you’ll have to fight fire with fire from time to time.’
With water. Harry pursed his lips. If there was any truth in anything she told me, her magic might be hindered in this task.
‘You should probably get dressed before you leave,’ Salazar added. ‘You’re unpopular enough as it is without scarring an entire generation of children. Even my basilisk wouldn’t be able to drive everyone out of the castle as fast as seeing you prancing mostly naked through the corridors will.’
‘At least I have a body.’ Harry glowered at the portrait’s smirk. ‘And I’m much less skinny now I’ve done that ritual.’
‘Are you sure you don’t want to try it again?’ Salazar quipped.
‘Are you sure you don’t want me to bring Sir Cadogan down here to keep you company?’
Salazar shuddered. ‘Gods, no. I’ve heard enough about him from you.’ He plucked his knotted serpent up from the base of his painting. ‘Not unless he’s coming to take away this useless creature.’
Harry pulled his robes back on. ‘I think, if it came to a fight between the two of them, the snake would win fairly comfortably.’
‘Actually.’ Salazar waved his armful of snake around until Harry turned to fully face him. ‘Before you leave, I should teach you a very useful charm. There’re plenty of things that you don’t want or need others to discover and this piece of magic can be enormously useful in managing that. Just make sure not to use it on anyone innocent or important until you’ve mastered it.’
‘What’s the spell?’
‘The memory charm!’
Lockhart’s sole talent. Harry quirked an eyebrow. I wonder what happened to him.
‘I know the incantation and wand action,’ he said. ‘I’ve seen it used to great effect, too.’
‘You need to know exactly what you are removing, otherwise, you could end up doing significant damage,’ Salazar said. ‘It’s almost impossible to remove events that have great meaning or importance on a permanent basis, Harry. The mind forms many connections and associations to them, so they eventually resurface. Once an idea is ingrained, it can be very hard to get rid of, so the sooner the charm is performed the better. Focus on wiping something clean, a board, a window, any such visualisation will work. Mastering it will take some time, but once you’ve mastered removing, we can move onto modifying memories. That allows you to work around some of the problems I just mentioned.’
‘How exactly am I to practice this?’ Harry asked. ‘I’m not testing it on myself.’
Salazar’s eyes turned distant and he stroked his goatee. ‘I wonder what would happen?’
‘Significant damage, I’d imagine…’
Salazar shrugged and spread his hands. ‘Progress comes hand in hand with risk.’
Harry raised an eyebrow. ‘There’re plenty of things I’d like to forget. Naked Dudley. Half-naked Aunt Petunia. Completely naked Uncle Vernon. That time you went off on a rant-tangent last week and thought it’d be fine to tell a fourteen year old about Godric’s experiment with self-transfiguration in a brothel. In far more detail than anyone should’ve ever spoken aloud.’
Katie. Fleur. Harry shivered. Tearing my soul apart.
Salazar coughed into his hand and studied his fingernails. ‘Well, once you’ve grasped the idea and method, you can ask someone to let you test it once for a small memory and then do it over and over again.’ Salazar chuckled. ‘They’ll never notice.’
Harry hefted the painting back over the bridge and onto the wall above the door. ‘I’ll head to the library, then. I may have to raid the forbidden section, so I’ll probably come down here to practice.’
He swept through the empty corridors, taking the long route round the quiet top floors, and slipping through the lunch crowd into the library.
‘Harry.’ Viktor Krum glanced up from his books. ‘Back again.’
‘Viktor.’ Harry shot him half a smile. ‘Still hoarding all the transfiguration books, I see.’
Hermione glanced between the two of them, chewing her lip. ‘Harry—’
‘I’ll see you around, Viktor.’ He gave Hermione a short nod and picked his way along the shelf on magical water creatures until he found a few that mentioned anatomy.
‘Y-you’re looking at water creatures, too,’ Neville muttered.
Harry whirled, slipping his wand from his sleeve.
Neville squeaked. ‘S-sorry, Harry.’
‘I am looking at water creatures.’ Harry tucked his wand back out of sight. ‘Sorry, Neville, I didn’t mean to startle you.’
Neville’s face crumbled. ‘I’m e-easily startled.’
‘What are you doing here?’ Harry studied the bags under his eyes and the creases in his shirt and robes. ‘You look like you need a nap. A long one.’
‘Returning a book. Or I was, until I saw you over here.’
‘And now?’ Harry flicked through the pages of the small stack of books he’d found until he discovered a diagram of a grindylow’s lungs. ‘I’m kind of busy, Neville.’
‘I was g-going to m-make you an offer.’ Neville squirmed. ‘I thought it might b-be the best way to s-speak with you.’
‘What kind of offer?’
And what can you offer me?
‘H-hermione’s been checking out and reading books to do with water creatures and transfiguration in her attempt to help Viktor Krum.’ A touch of anger coloured Neville’s tone.
‘The second task’s underwater.’ Harry threw a glance through the bookshelves toward the far side of the library and caught a flash of silver a dozen rows away. His heart lurched. ‘I’m fairly sure all four of us know.’
‘What do you know about Gillyweed?’ Neville asked.
‘I assume I might find it useful.’
‘It would let you breathe underwater with ease. I don’t know where you’d find any on such short notice, though. It grows in the Mediterranean and isn’t normally harvested until summer.’
‘I have a way of breathing underwater,’ Harry said. ‘I just need to perfect it.’
‘Oh.’ Neville’s eyes dropped to his shoes. ‘S-sorry, Harry. I thought I m-might’ve found something useful for you.’
You don’t seem very happy, Nev. Harry ran his eyes over the muscle diagram and slipped the book into the pocket of his robes. And I’ve stumbled across something that seems useful earlier than I expected.
‘That doesn’t mean I can’t help you, Nev,’ he said.
Nev shuffled his feet. ‘Y-you would?’
‘Within reason. I do have the tournament to consider.’
‘Of course, I understand. I was h-hoping you’d h-help me with, w-well, e-everything,’ Neville muttered. A deep flush crept up his neck onto his face. ‘E-everyone calls me a s-squib and I c-can’t ever seem to g-get anything right. You improved so m-much since last year and I hoped you’d help me, too. I w-won’t end up really good at anything, I never am, but I don’t want to be the worst anymore.’
‘Everything,’ Harry murmured. ‘Have you asked Hermione? She likes helping people.’
Well, she likes it when people ask her for help. She feels needed.
‘She’s too busy helping Krum to speak to anyone in Gryffindor outside of classes and the other guys are all into quidditch and stuff.’
They left you on your own. Harry saw, for a brief moment, a shadow of himself in Neville Longbottom’s face. I wonder, if I leave you to drown alone, too, will you end up a bit like me? His lips twisted into a grimace. But that would be cruel beyond words, to knowingly feed another person to the emptiness. I’m not Fleur.
‘I’ll help you,’ Harry said. ‘Weekends, between lunch and dinner on one day, for however long you like. Meet me on the seventh floor at the top of the stairs after the second task. I’ll help you, Nev.’
‘Thanks, Harry.’ Neville straightened up a little.
He’s as tall as I am when he’s not all hunched over.
‘I’m only helping you help yourself,’ Harry said. ‘I’ll be there, but you’ve got to try. Things don’t just happen, you have to make them happen.’
‘At least you’re helping,’ Neville muttered. ‘Ron, Seamus, and Dean; they don’t care. They just laugh at me when things go wrong. It’s like we’re not even friends.’
‘You can find new friends, Nev. You’ll find equals, people who understand you.’ Salazar’s words slipped from his tongue and Fleur’s bright, blue eyes shone before the eye of Harry’s mind. ‘Just be careful, them understanding doesn’t mean they’ve got your best interests at heart.’
‘That’s what you’re doing. You’re being yourself.’ Envy burnt in Neville’s eyes like an open flame.
‘There’s nobody else we can be.’ Harry chose his words with great care. ‘If you try and be someone else, because you think that’s what you should be, or you want to be what they want you to be, you’ll end up miserable.’
‘Thanks, Harry.’ Neville straightened his robes and tie. ‘Seriously, mate.’
A small grey ball of feathers squeezed through the narrow crack of the window and plunged into Harry’s chest. Sirius’ owl.
‘I’ll catch you later, Nev.’ Harry plucked the letter out of the owl’s grasp and released the tiny ball of damp feathers.
He watched Nev’s back retreat down the row of shelves, then unfolded the letter. The Shrieking Shack. Today. Black ink smeared the folds and stained Harry’s fingers. He balled the letter up and stuffed it into his pocket with the book on grindylows. One solution’s enough.
Harry replaced the other books and checked the Marauders’ Map. His godfather’s name hovered beneath the picture of the Whomping Willow.
It must be important if he’s already there waiting.
He hurried out of the library and down the corridor overlooking the greenhouses, scattering second years on their way to Herbology. He paused before the tree. Its branches were still as stone.
Either Sirius has already pressed the knot, or it’s lying in wait.
‘Papilionis,’ he murmured.
The black-winged, delicate butterfly fluttered toward the tree. A branch the width of Harry’s body hammered it into the ground.
Lying in wait, then.
Harry levitated a small piece of wood from underneath the trunk of the tree and pressed the button, slipping into the passageway. Sirius stood just inside in clean, plain black robes.
‘Harry!’ His godfather grinned and wrapped him in a tight hug.
Harry grimaced at the sudden warmth. He’s put on some weight.
‘I managed to return to my family’s awful old home.’ Sirius stepped back. ‘I’d offer to show you, but it’s under the Fidelius and really not very homely. Perhaps in a year, when that miserable house-elf has managed to restore the place to as close to a liveable standard as it will ever get.’
‘Is it safe? A bit of dirt’s less trouble than dementors.’
‘Fidelius Charm,’ Sirius said. ‘There’s few things that are safer.’
‘Who’s the secret keeper? Someone trustworthy?’
Sirius flinched. ‘Dumbledore, I’d like to see anyone try and get the secret out of him.’
Harry swallowed his reservations. ‘That’s good.’
It probably is good. Dumbledore will save Sirius. It’s me who’s the sacrifice.
‘I didn’t come here to talk about how safe I was.’ Sirius drew back. ‘I want to know what’s going on. There’s no way to send an owl to where I’m staying without knowing the location and Dumbledore was adamant that he wasn’t going to tell anybody yet.’
Harry took a long, deep breath and offered Sirius a small smile. ‘Everything’s changed.’
‘It seemed that way. You were a boy last year when I came after Pettigrew, now you walk and speak like you aged a decade in eight months.’
‘I suppose I’ve grown up,’ Harry said. ‘I wasn’t strong enough, Sirius. Every year I’ve been thrown into some new situation and each time I’ve escaped by the skin of my teeth and because of others. That won’t last.’
‘You aren’t meant to be strong at fourteen, Harry.’ Shadows lurked in Sirius’ grey eyes. ‘Someone your age… you’ve done well to survive. It’s unfair to expect yourself to be stronger than most adult wizards and witches.’
‘I have to be.’ Harry shrugged. ‘My enemies aren’t fourteen and they’re not going to wait for me to grow up, either.’
‘I guess that’s true.’ Sirius sighed. ‘Just try not to get too focused on it, ok. You need to be doing normal, fourteen year old boy stuff.’ A brief grin flashed across his face. ‘Chasing seventh year girls who’re way out of your league, bantering about quidditch, trying to quietly masturbate in the dorm without any of the other guys noticing and—’
‘Let’s stop there, shall we?’ Harry screwed up his face. ‘For my sake.’
Sirius tilted his head back and laughed. ‘That’s more like it.’ His humour faded. ‘I do wish that was all you had to worry about.’
Harry swallowed a hot, bitter, knot of feeling. ‘Wishes like that don’t come true.’
Sirius sighed. ‘Tell me what’s happened since your last letter, then.’
‘A lot,’ Harry whispered. A flash of green light and Peter Pettigrew’s empty eyes passed through his thoughts. ‘A lot.’
Sirius’ grey eyes darkened. ‘It doesn’t sound like it was good.’
‘Some of it was.’
I’m free. I don’t have to die. I just have to make sure nothing kills me.
‘Tell me about that stuff, then, Harry.’
‘Well, I’ve learnt so much more this year than any past one. My new wand’s perfect for me. I have dreams that I couldn’t have before.’ His face darkened. ‘It cost me the friends who didn’t understand I’m not some jack-in-the-box hero who’ll just vanish after solving all their problems. I’ve been all but alone.’
‘I was alone in Azkaban.’ Shadows clustered in Sirius’ grey eyes and in the deep lines of his face. ‘There’s nothing there to pull you out of the inside of your mind. The Dementors keep stirring your thoughts, pushing the most miserable, painful ones to the fore every time they draw near. It was enough to start eating away at my sanity and I knew I was innocent, so I’d something to cling to that they couldn’t touch. The others… And Bella’s bloody singing…’ Sirius shuddered. ‘You find something, an ideal or a goal, then you devote yourself to it and that’s enough to stop the loneliness consuming you. Afterward, when everything else has fallen into place, you’ll find yourself surrounded by people and not so alone as you thought. I came out with only the goal of killing Pettigrew. Now I have you and Remus.’
‘Things get better,’ Harry murmured.
‘That’s the only good thing about hitting the bottom, you know that there’s no further to sink.’ Sirius grinned. ‘My mother said that to me when I was sorted into Gryffindor. She hated having a respectable, unbigoted child.’
Harry snorted. ‘Your school record’s everything but respectable. I pray I’m in a different bed to the one you had at my age.’
Sirius laughed. ‘I was by the window.’
‘Shit.’ Harry threw his hands up in the air. ‘I should’ve known with my luck.’
‘How’s the second task going?’ Sirius’ eyes gleamed. ‘I would’ve loved to be in your shoes back in the day.’
‘I’m going to transfigure myself. The task is underwater.’
Sirius patted him on the shoulder with a firm hand. ‘Exceptional stuff, Harry. I had your dad to drag me through transfiguration, but you must have inherited his knack for it. I hope you’re thinking about giving becoming an animagus a shot. I wonder what you’d be, another stag, like James, or maybe a bird, you seem even better at flying than your father was.’
Harry transfigured the dirt into a couple of chairs and flopped back into one, lighting his wand with a murmured lumos. ‘Maybe one day. Not right now, though.’
‘It’s useful.’ Sirius dropped into his chair. ‘Dead useful. But, yeah, no, it’s a lot of effort and practice, so you should wait until after the tournament. Maybe give it a go in the summer?’
‘Maybe.’ Harry allowed himself a brief moment to picture Dudley skewered on his antlers. ‘If it’s safe.’
Sirius’ face fell. ‘Well. It’s not really safe. Actually, it’s not at all safe. And you don’t have any mandrakes. Damn. That’s a bit of a snag. Molly will skin me if she finds out I snuck you some, too.’