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A field of ice statues stretched as far as he could see, glittering and glimmering in the light of countless candles. Mistletoe curled round them like ivy over the abandoned stones of ruined walls.
Fleur danced between them, swirling in her shimmering dress, wearing a soft, warm smile that tugged at the strings of Harry’s heart like it were a puppet dangling beneath her fingers.
Come closer. The words refused to leave his lips.
He watched her sway as the ice statues began to melt. Fleur danced upon the shining surface of the water, floating over the waves like she weighed no more than a feather. Her shimmering silhouette drifted into the distance and the water rose to lap about his ankles, dark and cold as the Black Lake.
Harry opened his eyes to find his feet hanging over the end of the bed in the room of requirement. Blue and silver sheets and pillows shifted to dull white and the faint scent of burnt holly faded.
He sighed. ‘This room really has no respect for peoples’ privacy.’
Harry’s stomach growled as he swung himself out of bed and dragged his robes on. Breakfast time. He cast a quick tempus as he grabbed his glasses. Or lunch time, apparently.
Harry stumbled down the stairs to the Great Hall and plonked himself down on the end of the bench. A few first years shuffled down the table away from him as he helped himself to a sizable quantity of mashed potato and gravy.
Harry gulped down the first handful of forkfuls. That’s much better. Memories seeped through his thoughts like ink through parchment, Fleur’s sugar-glazed lips hovering at their heart. Why did she kiss me? It was just supposed to be a test of her allure. She can’t’ve thought I would hate it, not after spending a whole evening getting used to her being close to me.
He spun his wand around on the table’s surface.
Is there something special about veela kisses? Harry sighed. If I’d tried to kiss her, that’d make sense, I was enthralled. It makes no sense for her to kiss me.
People began to flow into the hall. Small groups gathered along the table from the door to the teacher’s dais. Harry watched everyone stream into the hall in the reflection of the great, stained-glass window.
A cheerful looking Seamus and Neville came in towing a miserable Ron and Dean, and Ginny lingered to chat with a dirty blond haired Ravenclaw he half-recognised. Katie sat in the middle of the three Gryffindor chasers, chasing her food round her plate with her fork as Alicia and Angelina chattered past her.
She looks like she didn’t have a great evening. A small flare of satisfaction rose through the stab of pity Harry felt. She shouldn’t’ve said yes to Roger Davies.
A flash of familiar silver in the window caught his eye. ‘Fleur…’ Harry’s heart spasmed and he clapped his mouth shut before anything else slipped out.
Fleur drifted halfway down the hall between the Gryffindor and Ravenclaw tables, her step uncertain and her usual smile fixed upon her face. A strong urge to wipe that cool, polite curve of her lips away and see the bright warmth of her real smile seized him.
Her eyes flicked to the end of the table where he was sitting and a soft hopeful glow rose within him.
She froze mid-stride, the smile slipping off her lips, and turned and left.
Harry’s heart sank into the cold, tight grip of the emptiness. She’s avoiding me. He spun his wand once more upon the table surface and slipped it back into his sleeve, counting down the seconds. She’s gone by now. Unless she’s waiting for me out here? Harry rose from his seat and strode out of the hall, wrestling with one last faint ray of hope.
No tell-tale shimmer lingered by the staircase or in the corridor. The hope guttered and died like a candle beneath midnight rain.
That’s what you get for wishing. Harry took the steps two at a time and hurried to the Chamber of Secrets. Don’t forget. They don’t come true.
‘Harry!’ The cheer on Myrtle’s face vanished as she caught sight of his face. ‘What’s wrong, Harry?’
He stared down into the puddle on the floor as he wrestled with all the words threatening to burst past his lips. ‘You flooded the bathroom again, Myrtle.’
The ghost giggled. ‘If you slip and break your neck, you can stay here with me.’
‘Thanks, Myrtle.’ Harry opened the chamber and wandered down the stairs.
I’ll probably be haunting somewhere around here in a couple of years once Dumbledore runs out of patience.
‘Don’t even think about opening that egg,’ Salazar snapped as he entered the study.
‘I have to open it to figure out the clue,’ Harry said.
‘Maybe the clue is on the outside?’
Harry gave him a flat look. I’d sit here and let the egg scream at me all day, but even that won’t blot out whatever this mess with Fleur is.
‘It sounds worse than Godric’s singing,’ Salazar grumbled. ‘The only things less bearable than his singing were the months he spent learning Mermish and speaking it constantly above water and Rowena’s poetry. She just couldn’t grasp that a poem needed more than just a rhythm and some rhyming.’
Harry tuned Salazar out. If the basilisk was able to hear Salazar talking to himself, then Tom’s probably only partially responsible for its madness.
‘Right, you.’ He poked at the egg. ‘Time to reveal all your secrets.’
It swivelled on its axis and toppled onto its side.
‘Mermish,’ Salazar exploded.
I think he may actually be growing senile. Harry raised his eyebrows at the painting. I didn’t know that could happen to paintings. Maybe the magic wears off over time.
‘Don’t open it until it’s underwater,’ Salazar said.
Harry sighed and folded his arms. ‘I can’t hear it if it’s underwater.’
‘You’ll be underwater, too,’ Salazar hissed in parseltongue. ‘Stop acting sceptical and listen to the wizard who was heralded as one of the greatest of all time.’
‘Will it sound any different underwater?’ Harry asked.
‘It’s Mermish. It sounds horrible above the ground, but below it’s supposed to be quite beautiful.’
‘How deep is the pool?’
‘Only about five metres,’ Salazar replied. ‘I didn’t want my basilisk to drown if she fell in.’ A wide smile spread over his face. ‘It will be cold, though.’
It seems my anti-Salazar device has come back to bite me.
The egg screeched all the way to the bridge, drowning out Salazar’s indignant protests.
Harry stripped off his clothes and dropped into the pool before the vast likeness of Salazar’s face. Ice-cold water closed over him and choral singing drifted from the egg in his hands.
‘Come seek us where our voices sound. We cannot sing above the ground. And while you’re searching ponder this; we’ve taken what you’ll sorely miss. An hour long you’ll have to look, and to recover what we took, but past an hour, the prospect’s black; too late, it’s gone; it won’t come back.’
He dragged himself out of the water, shivering like a leaf in the cold of the Chamber of Secrets and fumbling his wand out from under his robes. Harry muttered the incantation for half a dozen warming charms through chattering teeth and pulled his robes back on.
‘Was it warm?’ Salazar snickered at Harry’s blue fingernails and pale skin as he stumbled back into the study. ‘It looks like it was warm.’
‘I will leave the egg open when I depart…’
‘What did it say?’
‘Something of mine will or has been taken; something important.’
‘Oh?’ Salazar raised an eyebrow at him. ‘I thought everything you possessed was down here cluttering up my study?’
‘So did I… Maybe it’s just a turn of phrase.’
‘Maybe they intend to take something you can’t hide or protect even with warning and time to prepare. A person, perhaps?’
Who would I even miss? They can’t choose another champion, that wouldn’t work.
‘The only person they could take is my godfather,’ Harry said. ‘If they find him, then being party to the tournament is the least of his worries, or mine, probably.’
‘What else did you learn?’
‘Whatever they intend for me to retrieve will be kept by the Merpeople, underwater, for at least an hour.’
‘There are merpeople in the Black Lake,’ Salazar said. ‘Godric used to talk to them. Intelligent enough, but not overly friendly.’’
‘There’s a giant squid and who knows what else in there, as well.’ Harry groaned. ‘I bet it’s as cold as that damn pool, too.’
‘Where did the squid come from?’ Salazar asked.
‘How would I know?’
‘You might’ve been curious.’
‘I wasn’t, but I do know it eats toast. The Weasley twins and Lee Jordan feed it.’
‘Squid do not eat toast. Still, I advise avoiding it for the duration of the task. Unless you’re the sort of guy who enjoys cuddling creatures with a lot of tentacles?’ Salazar stroked his goatee with the fingers of his left hand. ‘How do you intend to breathe? There’s the bubble head charm, but it isn’t really meant for long-term use. Self-transfiguration, enchanting, and even a selection of magical plants are better bets.’
‘Transfiguration’s my forté,’ Harry said. ‘I don’t want to have to choke down anything from Snape’s stores. He’s probably pre-emptively poisoned half of it.’
‘You’ll have to pick something to transfigure yourself into. You’ve chosen the hardest route. You won’t be able to master a full self-transfiguration in time, but a partial one could be managed.’
‘Obviously it needs to be something that breathes underwater.’
‘Don’t get too complex.’ Salazar drummed his fingers on his chin, batting away his serpent’s tail when it curled around his forehead. ‘You only need to breathe for an hour, gills would be enough.’ The snake’s tail coiled round Salazar’s neck and he dragged the serpent off and dropped it on the floor. ‘Irritating reptile.’
‘I guess I’ll just stick with gills, then.’ Harry glanced at the shelf of books on aquatic creatures. ‘Kind of a shame, really.’
‘You’re going to have to redesign half of your respiratory system,’ Salazar said. ‘If you replace the alveoli and bronchi within your lungs with the filaments of gills you’ll simply have to inhale water to breathe. As long as you keep oxygenated water flowing over the filaments you’ll be fine.’
‘That sounds deceptively simple.’ Harry frowned. ‘And everything you’ve made sound simple turns out to be horribly complex, like blood magic, or parseltongue.’
‘Well, you’ll have to breathe very quickly to keep the water flowing in and out fast enough, and it’ll feel extremely unnatural to inhale water in such a manner.’
‘I knew there would be a catch.’
‘If you’re careful you’ll be fine. I’ll teach you the spells used to reverse faulty transfigurations before you start practising, just in case.’ Salazar tapped his wand against his palm. ‘Don’t even think of dying in some kind of transfiguration-related mishap. Godric will never let me hear the end of it if you do.’
‘You know, it’s probably unfair that I have your assistance,’ Harry said.
‘Unfair on who? Your rivals? Voldemort? Albus Dumbledore?’ Salazar fixed him with the look Harry had dubbed the your-acting-like-Godric expression. ‘You’re here to win.’
‘I suppose that’s true.’
‘You aren’t going to defend Dumbledore?’
‘The prat has been doing his best to get me killed every year, I won’t be defending him again.’
‘There’s my heir,’ Slytherin crooned. ‘Don’t let him use you, you aren’t his sacrifice to make.’
‘I’m not anyone’s sacrifice but my own.’
‘I suppose that’s better than being everyone’s enduring, noble hero.’ Salazar sighed. ‘Any chance you’d consider not dying to destroy that horcrux?’
‘It has to be destroyed,’ Harry murmured. ‘I can’t stand here and pretend my life outweighs the hundreds and maybe even thousands of lives it would save.
Salazar studied him with a strange glint in his deep green eyes. ‘You’ve not snapped at me. Are you okay, Harry?’
‘The Yule Ball didn’t go how I expected.’ The words bubbled up off his tongue before he could close his mouth and catch them.
‘The Katie girl again?’
‘No, I went with Fleur, my rival.’
‘I assume there’s some context to explain that?’
Harry dragged his thoughts into order. ‘I didn’t realise at first, but she’s a bit like me. I remembered what you told me about finding equals and her company’s not awful. She… demanded I take her to the Ball. I agreed. She told me she was different from all the others who turned on me.’
Salazar’s eyes softened. ‘She left you for another during the evening?’
‘No. We spent the day before together, getting to know one another a bit beforehand. We talked about a few things, the egg, the second task, veela…’ He trailed off at Salazar’s darkening expression. ‘What?’
‘She is veela,’ Harry said.
‘That makes sense,’ Salazar muttered. ‘Did she try to use her allure to get you to do something?’
‘Of course you are! My family have always been gifted with the mind arts, the longer you study occlumency the less effect you will feel from such magic. I’d wager you’d already be hard to snare for all but the strongest of them.’
‘She turned the full force of it upon me to test my resistance. Once I gave in, she kissed me and left.’
Salazar’s frown deepened. ‘I don’t understand. There seems to be no dilemma except why she might’ve kissed you. I‘d feared—’
‘She’s avoiding me.’ Harry’s stomach clenched at the memory of Fleur turning away from him in the hall and he balled his fists. ‘I thought — I knew it’d be too good to be true. I’m fourteen. She’s seventeen. She kissed me after testing how well I could resist her allure. She knows I don’t like people close to me. And now she’s avoiding me.’
‘Ah,’ Salazar murmured.
Harry stared at the painting. ‘Ah?’
‘I was about to say that my fears seemed unfounded, but—’
‘But they weren’t?’
‘You said she asked about the second task and the egg.’ Salazar gathered his snake up and let it coil round his wand arm. ‘And she began avoiding you shortly after realising you were not entirely resistant to her allure.’
Several little pieces began to fall into place in Harry’s head like the small stones at the start of an avalanche. She understood me, but she just wanted to find some way of beating me. A fist of ice clenched around his heart. She lied. She’s just like all the rest.
‘I could be wrong,’ Salazar murmured. ‘She didn’t have to kiss you.’
‘No.’ Bitter, high laughter slipped from his lips. ‘She didn’t have to kiss me, but she wanted me to know she’d won, didn’t she?’ The ice in his chest seeped into his veins. ‘She used me,’ he hissed.
‘She didn’t need to ask you to the Yule Ball.’ Salazar’s brows creased. ‘You’re taking this very hard, Harry. What does this girl mean to you?’
He grappled with the ice, the knot in his gut, and the bitter ache in his chest. ‘Fleur was supposed — she was meant to understand. To be my friend. A real friend, one who wouldn’t turn out like Ron, or Hermione, or Katie, or any of the rest of the people who just want me to be a hero when it’s convenient and disappear when it’s not!’
The ice spread across his chest, egged on by the little smooth, high voice in the back of head. Albus Dumbledore. Albus Dumbledore. Albus Dumbledore. Albus Dumbledore. The whispered name hovered in the midst of his rage like dense, freezing fog. Once for every year he tried to get me killed. Despair muffled his rage, a thick, dark blanket, like distant night clouds blotting out the stars one by one.
‘You were right.’ Harry clenched his fists and dug his nails into his palm. ‘I let them take advantage. I let them walk over me as if my goals and dreams didn’t matter as much as theirs. I let them, because the way they looked at me made me feel like I was somebody important after all those years of being nobody. I deluded myself into playing the hero for people who’d trade away everything I gave them in a heartbeat just to win some small token for themselves.’
The snake fled inside the neck of Salazar’s robes.
We’re such wretched creatures. Harry shoved the despair down beneath the ice to drown. I don’t need to be better than them. They wouldn’t even understand it. There’s no reason not to chase my own dream.
‘I’ll seize my dream and if I find anyone worthy of my trust and friendship along the way, then so be it.’ He took a deep breath. ‘How can Dumbledore expect me to die for people like this?’
Salazar’s gaze sharpened. ‘Can you name a single one of them who’d die for you, Harry?’
No. A blizzard of ice swirled through his blood. And I won’t become nothing, not for a world that’s done nothing for me. He snatched the Marauders’ Map from his pocket. Where are you? You’re always there when I look, Pettigrew. Where are you now?
Pettigrew’s name hovered in black ink beside the quidditch pitch just beyond the edge of the castle’s wards. Harry took one look and dropped it on the table.
‘Where’re you going?’ Salazar asked. ‘You need to be careful, Harry…’
Harry struggled for words. ‘I’m the Heir of Slytherin.’ Salazar’s words found their way onto his tongue when none of his own appeared. ‘I’m not a sacrifice for lesser wizards. I refuse to be sacrificed for people — for people like them.’ He took a deep breath and forced the ice back into a cold point beneath his ribs. ‘They don’t deserve it. They don’t deserve a hero. And they’re not going to get one.’