Students milled back and forth through the Great Hall beneath floating candles and a cloudless, dusk sky.
Harry watched them go. Which one would I murder to save myself? Which one would be missed the least? His eyes flicked to Draco Malfoy. Probably him, but even his parents and friends would miss him. I have none of either.
‘Mr Potter!’ Professor Mcgonagall’s voice echoed down the hall. ‘If you would like to accompany me to the headmaster’s office.’
I wonder what Dumbledore wants. Harry rose from his seat and stretched the stiffness from his limbs.
Professor Mcgonagall’s eyes roved over him. ‘If you like, Mr Potter, we can go via the tower so you can change into some fresh clothes.’
‘It’s ok.’ Harry transfigured his crumpled, stained robes into crisp, clean ones. ‘There, good as new.’
‘You have become much more accomplished than I realised,’ Professor Mcgonagall said. ‘To the headmaster’s office, then.’
Harry glimpsed Katie hunched between Angelina and Alicia. She kept her eyes fixed on her food, but Harry heard the giggles of the three of them as he passed.
As if nothing ever happened. He swallowed a knotted, hot lump of emotion and smothered it. It’s like I’m not even real. Just some caricature of a hero; there when needed, gone when not.
Professor Mcgonagall stared the gargoyle in the eye and released a long sigh. ‘Sweet crystals.’ She led him up the spiral staircase.
‘Harry.’ Dumbledore gestured to the seat in front of his desk and proffered a bowl of bright, striped sweets. ‘Humbug?’
‘No thanks, professor.’
Dumbledore withdrew the bowl. ‘Professor Mcgonagall has been quite concerned about you, Harry. She overheard some of the rumours and after investigating, brought her suspicions to me. It seems nobody has seen you in some time, Harry. A few of your fellow students were quite concerned.’
Concerned I was up to no good, probably.
‘Miss Granger, Mr Weasley, Miss Weasley, Miss Bell, and Mr Longbottom.’
All concerned for their own skins, no doubt. A familiar smooth, cool voice welled up from the depths of Harry’s mind. They expect me to come for revenge. The longer the wait, the more likely their fear will drive them to strike first.
Dumbledore fixed Harry with a piercing look; his electric blue eyes as bright as gimlets. ‘I am glad you have learned more about the cloak Harry, it’s a powerful heirloom, but you should try to resist the temptation of using it. Artefacts such as your cloak carry a risk with them, becoming addicted to their use is dangerous.’
‘I don’t understand. Heirloom or not, it’s still just an invisibility cloak with a few extra enchantments.’
Dumbledore’s brow wrinkled and he pushed his half-moon spectacles up the bridge of his nose. ‘What do you know about age lines, Harry?’
‘I assume they prevent anyone below the set age from crossing them.’
‘Do you know how?’
Dumbledore sagged and his glasses slipped down his nose. ‘I have made a mistake, it seems. There have been too many of late.’
Horcruxes, headmaster? Harry crushed the faint ray of hope before it could curdle to disappointment.
‘What do you mean?’ he asked.
‘Your cloak is a very useful thing Harry. It is not a simple invisibility cloak, but a rare artefact designed to completely conceal its owner, including their magic. One of the few ways an age line can be cheated is with such an object. In conjunction with the Goblet of Fire, an object that is very hard to deceive indeed, I created a nearly perfect barrier. I’m afraid that when your name came out, I simply assumed you’d figured out the abilities of your family heirloom and used it. I felt it was the most likely possibility, as I can conceive no other way by which your name could’ve been entered without my ward being broken. I am ashamed to admit, Harry, the one time in which I settled for Occam’s Razor, is the one time I shouldn’t have.’
‘I didn’t use it.’ Harry recalled the headmaster’s words before the Mirror of Erised and smiled a small smile. ‘I don’t need a cloak to become invisible, headmaster.’
‘That is a very admirable ability, Harry.’ Dumbledore smiled and some of the lines faded from his face. ‘We are two of very few wizards or witches who attain such prowess with the disillusionment charm. I am glad I do not have to ask if you entered the tournament.’
‘That is all very well, Albus, but not what I came to you about.’ Professor Mcgonagall’s tone gained an extra note of stiffness.
‘I know, Minerva, but it was important, too.’
‘I am concerned about the rumours that you have not been seen inside Gryffindor tower for a month, that when I asked for your whereabouts my Gryffindors, my lions, did not care about one of their own enough to find out. What is happening in my house?’ Professor Mcgonagall pursed her lips into the same thin, appalled line normally reserved for Neville’s attempts at transfiguration.
‘They don’t understand. It doesn’t really matter.’
Professor Mcgonagall’s stern expression melted. ‘Is there anything that we can do, Harry?’
Nothing can be done. Harry fed the faint warmth that spread through him fade into emptiness. And if you really cared about more than appearances, we’d’ve had this conversation months ago.
‘Very well, Harry.’ Dumbledore poked his glasses back up his nose. ‘I will do my best to discover how you have ended up in the Triwizard Tournament. Professor Moody has his suspicions, he has been telling me for weeks that the faces in his foe glass are getting closer and clearer. Is there anything else you would like to discuss, Harry? You did well in the first task, much better than anyone expected.’
‘I’m going to win.’
That’ll show them. See if they can make me disappear, then.
Professor Mcgonagall tutted. ‘Mr Potter, the Triwizard Tournament is meant to be a stern test for exceptional wizards several years older than you are.’
A shard of ice hardened beneath Harry’s ribs and crept into his veins. ‘Then when I win it’ll be quite the embarrassment for the other three.’
Dumbledore gave him a small smile and selected a pink-striped humbug from the bowl on his desk. He slipped the sweet into his mouth, then reached out one wizened to catch Harry’s, tapping the missing thumbnail with his finger. ‘I do have one more question for you, though, Harry. When did you learn to apparate?’
‘This year,’ Harry said. ‘I would’ve been wandless for the first task had I not.’
‘I am not going to report you for illegal apparation,’ Dumbledore said. ‘I was merely concerned you might splinch yourself more seriously next time you tried to visit Diagon Alley. Mr Ollivander was very impressed by you and very proud of your new wand. He is an expert in both alchemy and the lore of wands, in fact, I trust his judgement on the subject implicitly. He told me your wand was not something to be concerned about and that you were a prodigious and talented pupil I had every right to feel proud of.’
‘I won’t be repeating my feat. It was only out of necessity that I ever attempted it.’ He withdrew his hand from Dumbledore’s loose grip and tucked it into his pocket. ‘As for my wand, it’s no concern of anyone’s but mine.’ He forced a bright smile onto his face.
Dumbledore shivered and paled.
‘Albus?’ Professor Mcgonagall asked.
‘It’s nothing, Minerva. I was momentarily reminded of another mistake of mine, one that I still hope to be able to correct before it is too late.’
Is the mistake me and my harboured horcrux, or Tom Riddle?
‘No need to look so nervous Harry. There’s nothing you need to worry about except the Triwizard Tournament. You have your OWLs next year, too and I expect you to perform quite spectacularly on them.’
So I do not need to die for another year and a half at least. If he’s not lying. Harry studied Dumbledore’s expression. He doesn’t seem to be. He’s no reason to lie, anyway. He doesn’t know I know.
‘You can return to your studies or to trying to discover the clue to the second task, Harry,’ Dumbledore said.
Harry pushed himself out of his chair and descended the staircase. I have at least a year or so left. I’ll have to make the most of it.
The corridors grew quiet and empty as he made his way up toward the Room of Requirement.
A hand grabbed him by the shoulder and slammed him into the wall. Pain flared up down his side and Harry’s glasses slipped off his nose and skittered across the floor.
‘So…’ Draco Malfoy drawled. ‘You actually got something right, Weasley.’
‘Shut up,’ Ron snapped. ‘Seventh floor I said, and here he is, skulking.’ Someone shoved him against the wall. ‘I told you that you’d pay. Nobody hurts my little sister, not even you.’
And here they are, come for revenge.
‘So you join forces with Malfoy.’ Harry sneered at the red and black blur before his eyes and straightened his sleeve, letting his wand slip into his palm. ‘That’s a new low you’ve sunk to, even for you.’
‘He’s still a git,’ Ron snarled. ‘We’re not all buddy buddy now. Tomorrow, us and those snakes will be enemies just like normal. We just needed some extra muscle to make sure you didn’t slip away. Besides, Dean’s here too.’
‘Is he?’ Harry peered at the blurs around him. ‘Can’t even see him. I assume he’s still upset because your sister would rather spend her Christmas with me than him.’
‘At least he’ll be going with someone, you’ve only got a few days left,’ Malfoy jibed. ‘Everyone knows Katie Bell ditched you for Roger Davies. He’s a much better prospect than you to be sure, but I never guessed that girl was actually smart enough to pull off something like that.’
Roger Davies doesn’t care about her. Harry smothered every ounce of feeling. She’s going to have a miserable night.
‘So what now?’ he asked. ‘Are we going to have a pleasant conversation?’
Someone shoved his glasses back onto his face and things swam back into focus. Ron and Dean glowered on his left. Crabbe and Goyle loomed in front of Malfoy on his right.
‘We’re going to hex you so badly you’ll be in the hospital wing for a week,’ Dean growled, raising his wand. ‘See if you’re such an arrogant prat, then!’
‘At least I won’t have to worry about the Yule Ball.’ Harry flicked his wand up and directed a weak blasting curse to his left.
A red flash struck Dean on the shoulder and hurled him against the wall with a loud crack. Ron threw himself to the floor.
‘Serpensortia,’ Malfoy cried.
The summoned snake flew past Harry to land several feet away; he ignored it and waved his wand at Crabbe and Goyle.
Thick, black ropes spun from air twisted around the pair.
‘Expelliarmus!’ Ron jabbed his wand out.
Harry sidestepped the red beam and swept his wand sideways, hurling Malfoy’s two henchmen into the blond Slytherin. The hawthorn wand was knocked from his hand.
Ron froze, his wand outstretched.
‘Perhaps you should’ve brought a few more friends.’ Harry took a step back from the advancing snake.
Ron raised his wand. ‘You used a blasting curse on Dean.’
Harry disarmed him and volleyed Ron’s wand down the corridor. ‘It wasn’t powerful. You all deserved worse for trying to ambush me. You wanted to step out of my shadow and be seen as yourselves instead of being my friends. I gave you that chance when I left you alone.’
‘We apologised!’ Ron turned crimson. ‘We said we were sorry! You were the one who didn’t want to be friends!’
You betrayed me. Of course I didn’t want to trust you again. Harry flicked his wand.
Ron disappeared under black ropes, bound from head to toe. He squirmed, his shouts muffled, clawing at his mouth with covered fingers.
Harry sliced a hole over Ron’s mouth and glanced at his wand. That spell came out stronger than I intended. I guess my heart must’ve been in it.
Malfoy wriggled out from underneath his two henchmen and scrambled for his wand.
Harry banished it down the corridor out of sight. ‘You tried this before.’ He pointed at the snake. ‘Why did you think it would work now, when it failed last time? I’m much stronger.’
Malfoy sneered. ‘You won’t hurt me. My father would destroy you. Just because you’re an unloved orphan, doesn’t mean my family won’t look out for me.’
Ice swirled through Harry’s blood. ‘Shall we find out, then?’
Malfoy’s eyes widened. ‘Wait–’
‘Bite him,’ Harry hissed to the conjured cobra.
Malfoy paled white as a sheet.
‘Did you forget?’ Harry laughed as the snake lunged past him and walked away. ‘You shouldn’t forget, Malfoy. You just end up repeating your mistakes.’
A strangled exclamation and a gasp of pain echoed down the hall as Harry stepped into the Room of Requirement.
Goyle grunted. ‘Quick. The hospital wing. Snake’s not deadly, but–’
Harry shut the door. Next time, if they dare attack me again, I’ll have to be harsher. His thoughts bubbled up from the base of his skull in Tom Riddle’s smooth voice. Otherwise, eventually, they’ll manage to hurt me.
He pulled the Marauders’ map out and traced their names. Malfoy’s drifted toward the hospital wing, Ron and Dean toward the tower. Peter Pettigrew’s name lingered near the quidditch pitch.
Soon. Harry watched it for several long minutes until it vanished. I should clear Sirius’ name before I have to die, since nobody else seems to want to bother.