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 okay.’ Harry transfigured his crumpled, stained robes into crisp, clean ones. ‘There, good as new.’
‘Well done. 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 smooth, cool voice welled up from the depths of Harry’s mind. They expect me to come for revenge. The longer they 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 learnt 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 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 a month 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 and 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 apparition,’ Dumbledore said. ‘I was merely concerned you might splinch yourself more seriously next time you tried to visit Diagon Alley. It is a very long way to apparate. 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.’ Harry 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 don’t 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 this is where you slither off to,’ Ron snapped, shoving him against the wall. ‘I told you you’d pay. Nobody hurts my little sister, not even you.’
‘Would you have liked it better if I’d lied to her?’ Harry sneered at the red and black blur before his eyes and straightened his sleeve, letting his wand slip into his palm. ‘Don’t make excuses. If I’d done something out of order to Ginny, Fred and George would be here, but you’re all by yourself. You’re doing this because you want to get at me, not for Ginny.’
‘She was crying because of you,’ Ron snarled. ‘And I’m not alone, Dean and Seamus are here too.’
‘Are they?’ Harry peered at the blurs. ‘Can’t even see them without my glasses. I assume the real reason Dean’s upset is because your sister would rather spend her Christmas with me than him.’
‘At least I’ll be going with someone,’ Dean jibed. ‘Everyone knows Katie Bell ditched you for Roger Davies.’
Roger Davies doesn’t even care about her. Harry smothered every ounce of feeling. She’s going to have a miserable night watching him stare at Fleur Delacour.
‘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 from the corridor. Seamus let go of him and stepped back.
‘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.
‘Expelliarmus!’ Ron jabbed his wand out.
Harry sidestepped the red beam and swept his wand sideways, banishing Seamus into a suit of armour. His wand bounced away across the floor.
‘Perhaps you should’ve brought a few more friends,’ Harry said.
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, muffled shouts emanating from beneath his bonds, 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.
‘What did you think was going to happen?’ he demanded. ‘You’d jelly-legs me and I’d be overcome with remorse and forgive you for turning on me?’
Ron squirmed and writhed. ‘I wanted to take you down a peg or two! You think you’re so much better than us all now, just because you had a whole summer to read a couple of books.’
‘It was quite a few books, actually.’ Harry ripped the ropes off his face with a flick of his wand. ‘Did you think about why I have the whole summer to do nothing but read, Ron? Or were you so busy celebrating the murder of my family with pumpkins and sweets that you forgot?’
‘Oh bugger off.’ Ron grunted, the tips of his ears turning pink. ‘You can’t even remember them, how bad can it be?’
‘Bugger off?’ A little cold spark settled beneath his ribs. ‘You don’t understand at all, do you? None of you do. Not even Hermione.’
‘Yeah, mate, it’s real hard for us to understand why you’ve suddenly turned into such an absolute dick.’ Ron glowered through the ropes. ‘So what if we forgot about Halloween? You forget stuff, too.’
‘I do.’ He hardened his heart, letting the cold swell through him and trickle into his veins. ‘But you just end up repeating your mistakes if you forget them. Like you, enviously lashing out at Hermione in first year because she was better than you at magic and now enviously lashing out at me because I ended up in the death trap tournament you’re stupid enough to think will be great.’
Ron’s lip curled. ‘I’m not jealous, we all just realised you’re a lying twat.’
Harry turned on his heel and slammed the door to the Room of Requirement behind him. If they attack me again, I’ll have to be harsher. His thoughts bubbled up from the base of his skull in a smooth, high voice. Otherwise, eventually, they’ll manage to hurt me.
He pulled the Marauders’ map out and traced their names. Ron, Seamus, and Dean headed toward Gryffindor tower and Peter Pettigrew’s name lingered near the quidditch pitch.
Soon. Harry watched it until it vanished. I should clear Sirius’ name before I have to die, since nobody else seems to want to bother.