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The portraits upon the stairway stared down at him, flitting between their frames, muttering and murmuring. The Fat Lady closed her eyes and crossed her arms.
Where is she? Harry pushed Sirius’ letter further into his pocket. His gut twisted and turned like a barrelful of snakes. I could’ve read this letter twice over by now. She can’t still be angry at me for stopping her picking a fight with Fleur Delacour.
The Fat Lady’s picture swung aside. A trio of Gryffindor students stumbled out and bustled past him.
Harry glanced at them and turned away. Still no Katie. He sighed and tried to crush the churning in his abdomen away, but it tightened like a vice. She argued with her friends for me, she wouldn’t leave me alone over something as small as this.
The Fat Lady swung aside.
A flash of orange and yellow caught the corner of Harry’s eye and her whirled.
‘Harry…’ Katie’s lip trembled.
‘Katie.’ He clawed as bright a smile as he could over the anxiety. ‘How’ve you been?’
Her brown eyes fixed on an empty portrait on the far side of the stairs. ‘Not great.’
‘Are you okay?’
Her expression crumbled, tears glinting in the corner of her eyes. ‘I did something very stupid,’ Katie whispered.
‘If it’s about what happened in the Great Hall, then it doesn’t matter,’ Harry said. ‘I don’t know why you were so angry with Fleur Delacour, I just didn’t want you to get yourself in trouble.’
Katie’s fists clenched. ‘Do you not see how she affects everyone around her?!’
‘They all stare at her.’
Like they all stare at me.
‘She’s part-veela, Harry,’ Katie said. ‘I overheard Hermione telling the other guys in your year. They stare at her because she uses her magic to charm them into liking her.’
Does she? Harry recalled the disillusionment spell, near perfect. I’ve not noticed her doing it. In fact, she seems to try and keep to herself when she’s not stealing my glasses.
Katie’s knuckles went white. ‘She used it on you in the Great Hall! We were together and she tried to steal you.’
Oh. The bottom dropped out of Harry’s stomach. I guess I just can’t feel it as well as others. I wasn’t as caught up in it at the World Cup, either.
‘I’m sorry.’ He dug for other words. ‘I didn’t—’
‘She tried to steal you with her magic.’ Katie’s lip trembled and she shoved her fists into the pockets of her robes. ‘And when I got mad, you defended her!’
‘I didn’t know. I promise.’
Stupid bloody idiot. I should’ve known Katie wouldn’t start something over nothing.
‘You shouldn’t have said anything!’ Katie’s eyes filled with tears. ‘I was so angry with you, Harry. So angry. If you’d just not said anything, it wouldn’t have happened.’
A chill settled on Harry’s spine. ‘What wouldn’t have happened?’
Katie bit her lip and a drop of clear liquid spilt down her cheek. ‘Roger Davies asked me to the Yule Ball in the corridor afterward. I said yes.’
Why would you do that? He tried to picture it, but Roger Davies’ face kept blurring into his own. How could you do that?
‘I’m so sorry. I was angry. And the firewhiskey…’ Tears poured down Katie’s face. ‘Maybe — maybe after the Yule Ball, we can go on another date?’
Can’t you just tell Roger Davies you’ve changed your mind? Harry caught the question on the tip of his tongue. He doesn’t care about you at all.
‘Harry?’ Katie whispered. ‘Please say something.’
Does it matter why? A smooth, high murmur welled up in the back of Harry’s skull, rising up like cold, black water bubbling from a drain. If she’s capable of doing it once. She’s capable of doing it again. If I forget that, I’ll just find myself here again. If I forgive her, she’ll think it’s ok to hurt me again.
A little ball of cold settled over Harry’s heart.
Katie reached a hand out and collapsed into his chest. Her warm tears soaked into the shoulder of his robes.
‘I was going to ask you to the Yule Ball.’ Harry found words beneath the ice. They welled up through the cold out of a numb, dark, hollow place. ‘I sort of assumed we’d eventually end up going together after you asked me on a date, so I turned down Ginny. I quite liked the idea of us going together, even if I really didn’t like the idea of the Yule Ball all that much. I guess that’s not happening now.’
Katie sobbed into his shoulder. The draft through the stairway turned the hot damp of her tears to a soft chill. She drew back and smeared the tears off her face with her sleeve. Mascara smudged the skin beneath her eyes, a faint redness hovered on her cheeks, and stray strands of her hair stuck to glistening patches on her face.
That’s what you get for hoping. Harry let the numb emptiness swallow him. It doesn’t matter anyway. I’ll have to die soon.
‘I hope you enjoy the Yule Ball with Roger Davies.’ Harry tried to bite the rest of the words off, but they tumbled off his tongue. ‘Go ahead. Tie up your hair for him. I suspect his mind’s going to be on a different girl the whole time anyway.’
Katie’s lip trembled. She whirled, and shoved her way through a group of students leaving Gryffindor Tower.
Fuck this Yule Ball. Harry tried to picture himself there among the gaudiness of decorations and festive cheer. Perhaps I just won’t go. If I have to die, then I might as well do what I want first. Everyone else just seems to do whatever they want.
He turned on his heel and stalked toward the Chamber of Secrets.
Harry sat on the tip of the serpent bridge’s tongue and pulled Sirius’ letter out, staring at the plain seal. What does it matter what it says? He clawed at the emptiness, searching for something in its hollow depths.
The void gnawed back.
It takes another little piece of me every time I’m left wishing. And it doesn’t feel like there’s all that much remaining.
Harry took a deep breath and swallowed it all down. ‘Read the letter. Don’t dwell on stupid stuff when it’s not going to matter in the end anyway.’
He scanned the untidy scrawl. Prove them all wrong. Deep quill scratches marred the parchment’s surface where the letters marked the page. Win the damn thing.
‘I’ll win it. I can die after I’ve won.’ He seized on the shard of ice in his chest, clutching at it like a lifeline. ‘They can drown in my shadow. Ron, Hermione, Katie, Fleur Delacour, and all the rest of them. They’ll never forget.’
And I won’t be nothing, then. Not once they’ve all seen me.
He raised his wand from his sleeve and pressed the tip against the centre of Sirius’ letter. The parchment browned and burst into flames, curling upon itself and disintegrating into ash.
Like it was never here. He tilted his hand and let the ashes slip into the cold, dark water of the pool beneath the bridge. As if nothing ever happened. Harry watched them sink, clinging to the ice he felt, pushing at it every time he felt it begin to thaw. When I die, I’ll be nothing. I hope it doesn’t feel like this.
He took a deep breath and stepped into the study.
Salazar glanced up from Tom’s notes. ‘I may have a solution.’
A ray of hope burst through the deep, empty void. A touch of warmth like the green-inked name upon the Hogwarts letter thrust into his hand.
‘Tell me,’ he whispered.
‘I believe the piece of Tom’s soul must’ve latched onto your own in order for it to survive being in the same body as another soul. A body cannot house two souls in conflict, one must be subdued or they must coexist peacefully.’
Coexist like Quirrell? Harry shuddered. That wasn’t peaceful.
‘And that means what for me?’
‘Since you are still in control of yourself and were unaware of its presence, the soul fragment must be subdued. From the notes, I surmise a connection must exist between the two souls within you. It should be possible for you to either absorb or expel it once the link is broken.’ Salazar peered down at the notes. ‘There it is. True, complete remorse, the opposite intent to that which was used to fracture the soul, might reverse the effects of one, transferring and absorbing the piece back to where it belongs. I’m not sure how that would work with a fragment of another’s soul, but you and Tom are similar…’
‘How would I break the link?’ Harry asked.
Salazar’s deep, green eyes bored into Harry. ‘You would have to fracture your soul.’
‘No. Find another way.’
‘I tried. I knew you would not agree, so I kept searching.’
‘You found nothing.’ A wry smile spread over Harry’s lips as the hope died. ‘Oh well, then.’
Salazar’s wand fountained green and silver sparks. ‘You don’t need to be a sacrifice! You are my heir, the last of my family that I recognise.’
‘So I should sacrifice someone else in my place?’
‘Someone must die. It can be you or someone of your choice.’
‘I will not kill to save myself.’ Harry recalled the flash of green from his dreams, his mother’s begging, and all the faces from Gryffindor Tower when his friends had turned on him. ‘I won’t be selfish like they all would be. I don’t want to be like them.’
‘You can choose someone who already deserves death,’ Salazar said. ‘The Killing Curse will not change its effect and you, who deserve more, do not need to be sacrificed. A single, deserving death to temporarily fracture your soul, then a moment’s pain to rip the piece of Tom’s soul out. Tell me that it’s not a sacrifice worth making to preserve your life? You are a good wizard in more ways than one, your death is unnecessarily noble, be a little selfish for once. In the end, the wizarding world will profit more from your survival than your death.’
‘You are being foolish.’
‘Am I?’ Harry asked. ‘Is it foolish to understand that sometimes things need to be sacrificed?’
‘Don’t speak to me of sacrifices.’ Salazar’s eyes darkened. ‘I’ve seen and made plenty. I’ve learnt the hard way when to make them and when not. You let those around you feel you’ll always stand by them and help them no matter what they choose. And so they choose whatever they want most, relying on you to make the sacrifice needed to obtain it. They should be the ones making the sacrifice to get what they want. That’s what’s fair! They exploit your nobility, your generosity, and your tenacity. They always have. And if you let them, they always will.’
‘I will find others. Equals. They’ll stand alongside me, never let me down, and never leave me alone.’
Salazar shook his head. ‘What good are equals when you know their role is only to bury you, Harry.’