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The bared fangs and sharp tongues of the serpent effigies threw short, sharp shadows over the floor of Salazar’s chamber. The vast coil of the basilisk stretched across the stone; its maw gaped, the lower jaw melted into a thick, viscous red pool.

‘Why are you still trying to get stronger?’ Salazar fixed Harry with a searching look. ‘What’s the point?’

‘I need to be more powerful.’ Harry raised an eyebrow at Salazar. ‘There’re still some things I can do in the next year. I don’t want to vanish when I die. I don’t want to disappear.’

‘For someone so set on dying, you seem remarkably reluctant to accept what it is.’ Salazar stroked his chin. ‘To die is to become nothing. Your parents sacrificed their lives for you. You will always remember them, but they’re gone. They don’t know you love them. They can’t know. They’re nothing.’

‘I do not want to die!’ Harry clenched his teeth. Cold rage flooded his veins and ebbed into the numb, hollow void gnawing at his heart. ‘I want to live. I want my dreams. I want my hope. I want my wishes to come true. But I can’t.’

‘Why not?’ Salazar tickled the chin of his snake. ‘What is less valuable about your life than the one you’d have to trade for it? You’re my heir, an exceptional wizard, and no average murderer or criminal could ever do more for the world than you will if you live.’

‘It’s not about that. I know I’m more likely to do good things for the world than someone like Peter Pettigrew—’

‘Then what is it about?’

‘It’s about all of them!’ Harry thrust his wand up at the castle above. Ice swirled through his blood like a snowstorm through a forest and faded into the emptiness like whispers into the night. ‘All the Ron’s, Hermione’s, Voldemort’s, and Dumbledore’s.’

‘What about them?’ Salazar’s dark green eyes bored through Harry’s. ‘Because they judge you for not living up to their unrealistic perception of you?’

‘Yes.’ He sagged. ‘They want me to turn up and be perfect when they need me, then vanish the rest of the time so they don’t feel bad they can’t hold themselves to the same standards they hold me.’

‘You’re letting their delusions warp your perception of yourself.’ Salazar pointed his wand at Harry’s chest. ‘You know what anyone else would do in your shoes, yet you try to be what they think you are instead. That’s what you’re dying for Harry. It’s not stopping Tom. It’s not saving lives. It’s their foolish belief that you’re some kind of hero and your pride at being better than the ones who turned against you.’

Harry drew himself up. ‘I won’t give them the satisfaction of dragging me down to their level. They can drown in my shadow, real or not.’

‘Riddle stands at one selfish extreme, you at the selfless other! See the middle ground! Walk it! Don’t throw away your life because you’re paranoid of emulating your predecessor.’

‘Voldemort is not my predecessor,’ Harry hissed.

‘He was my heir, once. He is, without a doubt, distant family of yours. Do not delude yourself into thinking he is some personification of evil you must avoid emulating.’ Parseltongue bled into Salazar’s speech. ‘I will tell you of the Tom I knew.’

He glowered at the painting. ‘Tell me then.’

‘A boy came into this chamber, thin, ragged and alone. A child who dreamt of becoming something great enough to be remembered, to protect the few who’d protected him. He was family, my heir and my legacy, so I offered him my help. As the years passed, he withdrew within himself, cut off from the few he had trusted one by one. Albus Dumbledore threw him back to the muggles that loathed him without a second thought for his well-being, the students avoided him, not wanting to be dragged into his spiral to self-destruction. Within this chamber he learnt he had the ability to be something great and found the determination to seize it. He swore he would never look back.’

‘You said you’d tell me about Tom. Not me.’

‘I am.’

Harry blanched, a shiver trembling down his spine.

‘Did you think you were so different?’ Salazar’s voice softened to near a whisper. ‘Even accounting for the effect of the soul fragment, the two of you would’ve been similar. I’ve said little about it because I knew you wouldn’t want to listen, but I’ll not stay silent while you throw your life away.’

If we’re so similar, will I just end up like him?

‘The world doesn’t need or want a second Lord Voldemort.’

‘Don’t be a fool,’ Salazar snapped. ‘You’re a hundred times worse than Godric sometimes. It took Rowena and I a month to convince him the first time he killed some child-murdering witch that he was still a good person and a good wizard. You stand here with only noble intentions and speak about dying before you become a dark wizard. Did you not listen when I explained to you the principles of magic?’

‘There is no light and dark, only power and the intent that directs it.’

‘Then there’s nothing that needs to be said. You are like him, but you are not him. I am sure I am not the only one who sees the similarity. Dumbledore must as well, Tom often spoke of the man as something akin to an idol.’

‘He does.’ Dumbledore’s pale face swam among Harry’s thoughts. ‘He definitely does.’

‘And has he ever shown any concern that you might become another Voldemort? He may be raising you to sacrifice, keeping you alive until your death suits him best, but he still knows that the two of you are different.’ Salazar straightened up and folded his arms. ‘The two of you are apples, fallen far apart, but from the same tree.’

I suppose that’s better than some of his metaphors.

‘It still changes nothing. I have to die or Voldemort will eventually find a way to return and many more will suffer.’

‘The horcrux that anchors him has to be destroyed,’ Salazar said. ‘You do not have to die for that to happen.’

‘But I’d have to kill. To stop Voldemort, I’d have to take a dangerously large step toward becoming him.’

‘Your soul will heal over time,’ Salazar murmured. ‘As long as your intentions do not shift down a darker path, your soul will mend.’

‘Without that darker intent I won’t be able to cast the killing curse to save myself in the first place.’ Harry sighed. ‘Enough of this, Salazar. You’re just twisting the knife, wasting your time and what little time I have left. My mind isn’t going to be changed.’

‘So you say,’ Slytherin muttered. ‘Tom said similar things. His friends would be disappointed, he said. His dead parents might not understand, he told me. His equals would stand with him, he’d say. One by one, those trusted, treasured people proved they were loyal to themselves first and foremost. They chose to be selfish, refused to understand, and to not stand with him. Afterward, he withdrew. Tom didn’t leave everyone behind to become Voldemort. They tore themselves free of him and Voldemort was forged from what was left.’

How could it be worse than it is? Harry shuddered. Nothing’s worse than this endless empty feeling. I wake up with it every morning and yearn for the moment I can just fall asleep again.

‘I’ve nothing left to lose,’ he said.

As long as dying is really like sleeping. Harry’s heart shrank into the cold, sick pit of his stomach and he swallowed a stab of fear. If you can feel the emptiness of dying forever, then I can’t even escape it by sleeping.

‘If you say so.’ Salazar tossed his wand back and forth between his hands as it sputtered silver sparks. ‘Let’s spend this time on something more productive, then. Have you made any progress with anything else?’

Harry cast the Disillusionment Charm on himself.

‘You mastered it.’ Salazar nodded. ‘Excellent. What about the rest?’

‘Papilionis,’ Harry whispered.

Black butterflies swarmed from the tip of his wand, swirling around Harry and Salazar in a demi-sphere of whirring wings.

‘The butterflies,’ Salazar groused. ‘What was wrong with conjuring snakes? A proper heir of Slytherin would conjure serpents, not girly insects. I can almost hear my wife and daughter laughing at me in the afterlife.’

A brief thrill of amusement caught the corner of Harry’s lips and curved them upward, then it faded into the deep numbness inside him. Harry transfigured a butterfly to a razor-edged shard of steel and flicked it forward.

It screeched off the nose of a serpent effigy and skittered past the edge of Salazar’s frame. Harry covered the chamber in a flurry of steel. They clattered across the floor and off the walls, leaving a myriad of small scratches upon the basilisk’s skin.

‘Stop that!’ Salazar glowered at the pieces of steel littering the chambe. ‘I do not need holes in my canvas. There’s barely enough room in here for me as it is with this wretched snake wriggling around.’

‘I’m done.’ Harry dispelled his butterflies and strewn projectiles into wisps of black smoke. ‘Well, apart from the basilisk spell. I’d like to try that again. It seems like a good last resort spell.’

‘Not from the water,’ Salazar said.

Harry quirked an eyebrow. ‘What should I use as a medium, then?’

‘The air. If you can conjure it effectively from nothing but air, you’ll have a far more versatile and dangerous spell. A good duellist will be wary of water or fire nearby, or anything their opponent might use against them, but people always overlook the air surrounding them.’

Harry shrugged. ‘Why not.’

‘Don’t look so sceptical,’ Salazar snapped. ‘I don’t want you to give it flesh, blood, and scales, coalesce it from the air, use your emotions as a focus and give it form from the element just as you’ve always done.’

Easier said than done. Harry clawed at the emptiness for some scrap of feeling, picturing the fangs and maw striking out of nothing, just as they’d lunged from the common room heart. 

He slashed his wand forward.

A blur flashed across the chamber and the tongue bridge shattered like glass, spraying pieces across the pool.

‘Never listen to my suggestions again,’ Salazar murmured, his serpent cowering behind his neck, flicking its tongue at a piece of bridge lodged in the edge of the frame. ‘That’s nothing like what I was expecting.’

Harry waved his wand. The pieces of bridge rose from the water and the tongue reformed over the pool. 

‘What were you expecting?’ he asked.

‘I expected a translucent serpent similar to the water based one, but that certainly wasn’t it.’ Salazar stroked his chin. ‘Usually, it’s the emotion of the focus that warps a spell. What feeling did you use the first time you cast it? When you killed that wizard?’

Harry cast his mind back. ‘Anger. I was angry.’

‘And this time?’

‘Nothing. I didn’t feel anything.’ Harry shrugged. ‘I don’t feel much of anything anymore.’

The emptiness. It was the emptiness.

‘Nothing…’ Salazar frowned, a shadow flitting through his green eyes.  ‘I think you made it a vacuum, a concentrated absence of air. It imploded, rather than exploded.’ He grinned. ‘Marvellous. I’ve never seen anything like it. No simple shield charm will stop a spell like that.’

‘I can test it, if you like.’

‘Not in the chamber,’ Salazar hissed. ‘Go and ruin the Room of Requirement instead.’

Harry picked the painting up and carried it back to its spot in the study. ‘I should eat.’

‘I’m not surprised you’re hungry after that.’

‘I’m not hungry.’ Harry patted his stomach. ‘I’ve not been hungry for a few days. I need to eat, though.’

‘You fell out with that girl a few days ago.’ Salazar’s eyes darkened. ‘Make sure you eat, Harry. You need the energy.’

‘I know.’

Harry found the tables of the Great Hall piled with pumpkin pasties. Urgh. What terrible luck. What is this school’s obsession with pumpkin? Did Dumbledore stumble into muggle Halloween once and fall in love with pumpkins and sweets?

He took a seat at the very end and peeled the pastry off the soft, orange mush, forcing down a few mouthfuls.

The bench shifted beside him.

Please don’t be Katie. Harry stared at his plate and stifled a deep sigh. Maybe they’ll go away if I ignore them.

‘Harry.’ Hermione nudged his shoulder.

Ah, the only person I might want to talk to less than Katie, of course.

‘Hello, Hermione.’

‘Where have you been?’

‘That’s a strange way to apologise for breaking my wand,’ he said.

‘I already said I was sorry, Harry. I didn’t mean to break it, you know that. I’d been practising the charm and it was the first thing in my head when I cast. I know you loved your wand, but it was an accident.’

‘If you didn’t come to apologise, then why did you come?’

Just leave me alone. He smothered a sigh and soft twist of pain in his chest. I just want to be alone.

‘We’re worried about you,’ she whispered. ‘You’ve been so different since the World Cup.’

‘I’ve heard your theories. You might be interested to know that Dumbledore believes I didn’t put my name in the tournament. Pass that along to Ron, he can tell Dean next time he visits the hospital wing.’

‘How did you know about Dean getting hurt? Ron said not to tell anyone.’

Harry twisted round and studied the glint in her brown eyes. ‘What else did he say?’

‘That Dean’s collarbone got broken in a fight on the seventh floor. He was really angry about it, but I had drag things out of him, so whatever was going on must’ve been bad.’

‘That was it? He didn’t mention they all tried to ambush me together up there?’

‘No.’ Hermione shook her head and gasped. ‘You broke Dean’s collarbone, Harry!’

If they’d not attacked me, nothing would’ve happened to them.

‘He started it.’ Harry shoved the remnants of his pumpkin pasty away. ‘Should I have just let them hurt me, instead? Is that better?’

Hermione chewed at her lip, spinning her empty goblet round and round on the table. ‘I heard about Katie,’ she murmured.

Harry shot her a flat stare. ‘That’s good. You’re probably the only person who has and I really wanted to discuss it with you.’

Hermione flinched.

‘We aren’t friends anymore. You broke my wand, pretty much the most precious thing I owned. And before you start saying it was an accident again, let me remind you the whole reason you cast that spell in the first place was because you couldn’t accept I might be as good at something as you.’

‘I could accept it!’

‘I’m glad that’s the only part of my statement you wanted to contest,’ Harry snapped. ‘Because I’m not sure I could’ve kept my temper if you’d tried to convince me we could still be friends.’

She crossed her arms and released a short huff. ‘I don’t know what’s happened to you, Harry. You’re being very unreasonable and irrational.’

‘Really? You’ve no idea what happened?’ Harry’s lip curled. ‘That’s strange, given you’ve been involved every time.

Hermione threw her legs out from under the table and stomped away.

Just leave me alone. Harry watched her bag recede into the crowd. You disappeared when I needed you, don’t come back now I don’t.

Laughter burst from the far end of the hall. Harry risked a glance and glimpsed Ron’s red hair.

‘No.’ A cold, French-accented voice cut through the laughter like a knife. ‘Not if you were the last male in this entire school.’

Ah, the charming Fleur Delacour is still struggling with getting a date to the Yule Ball. Harry watched out of the corner of his eye as she strode through the tables, followed by the crowd. I bet she just wants to be left alone, too.

A crimson-faced, mortified Ron slunk out of the crowd.

Ron actually asked her. A laugh burst from his lips. They literally couldn’t be more unsuited for each other. She’s elegant and clever and he’s, well, not that at all.

Ron rounded on him like a wounded bull. ‘I don’t know what you find funny, Potter. I’m just as successful as you are and you have to open the ceremony.’

True. I do. Harry’s cheer faded. Thanks for reminding me, Ron.

‘No wonder Katie dumped you.’ Ron sneered. ‘You don’t even have the courage to ask anyone. Explains why you can’t bear to show your face around Gryffindor Tower. There’s no room for cowards in the house of the brave.’

A shard of ice formed in Harry’s chest. ‘I don’t care about the Yule Ball. Since you’re so obsessed with the limelight, you can polyjuice as me and take Hermione.’ He spied Dean across the hall and let a small smile slip onto his face. ‘You’ll only have to deal with your little sister making eyes at you the entire time.’

Ron spluttered. ‘As if—’

‘Alternatively, you could do something to try and make yourself known in your own right, Ron. Have you thought about asking Fleur Delacour to the Yule Ball?’ Harry’s smile spread into a grin. ‘I’m sure she wouldn’t be too scathing in her response, not when there are so many people around to witness your humiliation.’

‘As if I’d ever lower myself to act like you,’ Ron yelled. ‘You don’t even have the courage to ask anyone to the ball, let alone Fleur Delacour.’ Her name slipped out in a quiet, reverent whisper.

Harry burst into laughter. ‘I don’t even want to go, let alone with her. Besides, she has so many fans I wouldn’t have time to finish my lunch if I wanted to join the queue and ask.’

Although, if by some miracle she said yes, it’d certainly teach Roger Davies a lesson.

A tense, thick silence settled over the hall and Ron’s face turned crimson as the eyes of everyone in the hall focused on them. Distinct clear steps rang out across the floor of the hall from his left. Harry’s heart slipped somewhere down below his stomach.

‘So, you find this funny, too.’ Fleur Delacour’s soft voice emanated from just behind him. 

Her tone reminded Harry very much of the eyes of the Hungarian Horntail and a primitive instinct to remain still seized him.

Oh, bloody hell. I’m about to get murdered by an angry French witch in front of everyone. A chuckle slipped from his mouth. Well, at least that’s one horcrux gone.

Soft, strong fingers caught his chin and turned his head round. The faint, sharp, sweet scent of burnt holly and marzipan drifted to Harry’s nose.

A pair of narrowed blue eyes met his, as bright and clear as a summer sky. 

‘I think you will make a good date to the Yule Ball,’ Fleur said.

She’s used to getting what she wants, but I’d rather not be subjected to even more of the school’s envy. Harry struggled for words, but caught sight of Roger Davies’ horrified face in the crowd. On second thought…

‘I agree.’ He pulled a bright smile onto his lips.

Fleur’s lips curved. ‘Of course you do.’

‘Good.’ She let go of his chin and flicked her long, silver hair back over her shoulder. ‘Tomorrow is Christmas Eve,’ she murmured. ‘I will meet you at the Owlery as we met before, so we can take a day to get to know each other a little before the Yule Ball.’

She wants to explain. Harry nodded and gave her a thumbs up. Maybe she can explain the whole Katie thing. Maybe I should apologise for laughing at Ron bothering her.

‘Perfect.’ Fleur Delacour turned on her heel in a swirl of silver hair. ‘If anyone else wants to ask me to the Yule Ball, the answer will obviously be no. Do not waste my time unless you want to be cursed.’

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