Harry padded down the carpeted stairs of Privet Drive over the top of his first room and drifted into the kitchen.
‘Doesn’t your school start today,’ Vernon grumbled, putting his paper down beside his plate.
‘Yes, it does.’ Harry stole Dudley’s bacon in passing.
Dudley squealed and looked at his parents. They both gave him a small shake of the head. Aunt Petunia’s pursed lips looked more like the expression she wore when Vernon decided not to have a third beer rather than the time he’d bought her one of china dog figures for her birthday.
‘That’s very good bacon,’ Harry said.
Aunt Petunia’s pursed lips twitched, but her eyes remained soft and more than a little sad.
Perhaps I remind her of her sister more now. Harry yawned and finished off the other half. Too late to remember I’m family now, Aunt Petunia.
‘Why’re you still here, then?’ Dudley demanded.
‘To make sure you eat your grapefruit, Duddikins.’
‘The train leaves London at eleven and it’s already nearly ten,’ Aunt Petunia murmured.
Harry raised an eyebrow. She turned away and busied herself with the dishes in the sink.
He turned back to Dudley. ‘You remember how I can apparate at will.’
Dudley nodded and shot a sideways look at his father. Veron stared into an advert for solar panels with far more attention than Harry’d ever seen him give anything but the business section.
Or page three of the Sun, when he thinks nobody’s looking.
‘I can do that to get to school, but the other students can’t, so I don’t need to get the train like them.’ Harry ran some numbers through his head. ‘I’ll be off soon, though.’
‘Oh.’ Dudley screwed his face up into the that’s-kind-of-cool expression he normally reserved for the TV. ‘Makes sense.’
‘So, when are you leaving, boy?’ Vernon lowered his paper to fix Harry with his small, piggish eyes. ‘We have things planned. Can’t be waiting round all day here for you.’
Harry grinned. ‘Now.’ He apparated up onto the landing with a loud crack.
‘This can’t continue, Pet.’ Vernon’s voice drifted up from the kitchen. ‘He just does whatever he wants!’
‘What do you think we’re going to be able to do, Vernon?’ Aunt Petunia’s voice held a terse note. ‘We’ve talked about this several times already. When I was nineteen, Lily and I came back to our parents’ house to help them rearrange their garden. Our mother decided she didn’t want the shed. It was empty and nobody had the key to open it. Lily burnt the whole thing into ashes in seconds without saying a word or batting an eyelash and James. He was far worse, doing things like that every time he turned around.’
A strangled whimper escaped Uncle Vernon.
Aunt Petunia sighed. ‘He’ll leave like Lily did in a few years and then it will just be us and our son, how we always dreamt it would be.’
Still hoping I’ll vanish, then. He frowned. Well I won’t.
Harry tugged Fleur’s picture out from under his mattress. ‘Argent.’
He opened his eyes into bright sunlight. It lanced through the gaps in the dome of willow branches, glimmering back off the water and the smooth, round, white pebbles of the shore. He took a moment to breathe it in: the sound of the water, the rustling of the willow leaves, the warmth scattered in bright bars of light across his back, the smell of grass, hot stone, and sweet, sharp marzipan.
Fleur reclined on her branch, her bare legs and feet dangling down to his shoulders. Harry’s heart squirmed at the small smile on her lips.
‘Coming up?’ she asked.
Harry grinned and apparated up onto the branch, slipping an arm round her waist.
Fleur leant into his side. ‘I still can’t believe you’re able to apparate at fifteen, even if it’s illegally.’
‘You’re just upset I can get up here, too,’ Harry quipped.
‘I’m very glad you can join me up here,’ she murmured into his neck.
Harry watched the flashing ripples of the river and the slim shadows of darting fish. ‘So am I. This place, it feels like a whole other world to me. One just for us.’
Fleur smiled, but straightened up and tucked her hair behind her ear. ‘I’m going to have to tell my parents about us soon. I never spent half so much time here before, they’re suspicious.’
‘I don’t mind.’
‘Gabby has already guessed.’ Fleur laughed. ‘She spends her time trying to work out how this happened. She wants to know the story, I think. She spends too long reading romance books.’
‘When do you plan on telling them?’ Harry asked. ‘I should make sure I can come here to meet them.’
‘I don’t have a date,’ Fleur said. ‘Whenever feels right. Or whenever Gabby finally figures out where I keep disappearing off to and tracks us down. I think she considers us her own personal romance story.’
‘I shall have to give her my memories of the Room of Requirement,’ Harry muttered.
‘You’re not showing her our first kiss.’ Fleur turned her nose up. ‘That moment’s ours.’
Harry chuckled. ‘I meant the other memories.’
‘That’s the only time we were ever in there alone together.’
I never told her, did I? A lance of mortification pierced through him. And now I remember why.
‘It’s not important.’
‘No. Nuh uh.’ Fleur smirked. ‘Too late. You have to tell me now.’
‘No I don’t.’ Harry focused on a particular fish and watched it flit about in the sun-dappled water. ‘You can’t make me.’
‘Can’t I?’ A pair of cool fingers turned his face to hers.
That’s not playing fair. Harry gazed into her summer sky blue eyes. His heart lurched as a slight pout formed on Fleur’s lips. If I didn’t know better, I’d still think it really is her allure.
‘Fine.’ He sighed. ‘You know, it’s a good thing we tested your allure this summer, or I’d still be sure you’re using magic on me.’
‘I can’t enthrall you.’ She kissed him on the jaw. ‘Not with magic, anyway. I reckon taking my top off would work.’
Or laughing, or smiling, or kissing me.
Harry chuckled. ‘It definitely would.’
Fleur cocked her head and smiled at him.
‘Oh, alright. When we weren’t speaking, I was still using the room on the seventh floor, but since it tries to give you what you want…’ Heat crept onto his cheeks.
‘The pictures…’ Fleur cupped his burning cheeks with her hands. ‘I nearly saw those. You all but ran from the room before it changed back.’
Harry squirmed. ‘Yes. Well. I didn’t exactly see you declaring your feelings either.’
She laughed. ‘Gabby would love to see that memory. She’d find it ever so romantic.’
‘It’s embarrassing,’ Harry muttered. ‘I could barely use the room.’
Fleur’s hands slid up into his hair and she pulled him across to her lips. ‘I like the idea of you moping about me in a room full of my pictures. Will you do it again this year?’
Of course you like it. You’ve got a streak of pride in you as wide as the river.
‘If I can’t visit you often, probably, yes,’ he replied.
‘Have you told anyone about me?’ Fleur asked.
‘Sort of. I don’t have any living magical relations, but I mentioned you to one of my friends. She asked about you last year.’
I don’t think Salazar really counts.
‘Katie Bell,’ Fleur growled.
‘Not a threat.’ Harry grinned. That’s all in the past.’
Fleur scowled. ‘I’d definitely immolate her if she tried anything.’
‘Nev sort of knows, too.’ Harry shrugged. ‘He saw the room when I was in it. Neither of them know about us, though.’
Fleur’s lips twitched and she ran her fingers along the rough bark of the bough. ‘I can’t stay much longer. I’m not able to apparate to Beauxbatons because of the wards. I still want to know why you think you can apparate into Hogwarts, especially after you bounced off the wards last time you tried.’
‘It’s a secret.’ Harry glanced down and found her smile had faded. ‘You have to go now, don’t you?’
‘Sorry.’ A faint pout formed on Fleur’s lips. ‘I’ll enchant something so we can stay in contact and send it to you.’
‘I’ll send you a letter when it breaks,’ Harry said.
‘It will not break.’ Fleur leapt off the branch and landed on the balls of her feet with a soft thud. ‘I will owl it to you, with a suitable phrase to use it, of course.’
Another joke in French at my expense, no doubt. He rolled his eyes and apparated down behind her with a soft snap.
‘Still not silent,’ she teased.
‘I don’t have special veela magic to cheat with.’
Fleur huffed. ‘You’re just envious. And your magic is not normal either, is it? You have a very unusual wand.’
‘True, but I still don’t have, how did you describe it, soft magic.‘
‘It won’t really make sense to you. You aren’t veela, you can’t feel it. Gabby can feel almost everything about a piece of magic’s intent if it’s strong enough, but I can still feel enough to identify it.’
‘Oh?’ Harry quirked an eyebrow.
‘In the maze, I couldn’t feel much more than that there was magic all around me. Too many spells all mixed together, and when it’s all floating around like that, it’s hard to get a sense for. Gabby told me it was roiling, hot, and angry. She said it was like boiling water, but hungry.’ Fleur laughed.
‘Well I was all of those, except hungry,’ Harry said.
‘I’d love to know what spell you used to give off such an aura.’
‘It’s a secret,’ Harry teased.
Fleur turned her nose up at him. ‘You’re just afraid I’ll do it better.’
‘It’s a fire spell. I know you’ll be better at it, not that you need it.’
‘True.’ Her face fell. ‘I have to go now, Harry, but I’ll enchant something and send it to you as soon as I can so we can come back here.’
‘I could spend forever with you here…’ Harry pressed his lips to her forehead. ‘One day. I will.’
‘I know.’ She kissed him, pressing herself into him as if to try and keep the feeling of him with her a little longer, then she gave him one last smile and flickered away without a sound.
Just to rub it in.
Harry took one last look at the willow tree and the river, then with a soft snap the world spun back past him and he stepped into Salazar’s study.
‘You’re back.’ Salazar ran his eyes over him. ‘In one piece, too.’
Harry patted himself down. ‘I believe so. I haven’t splinched since I went to Diagon Alley.’
‘What’re you planning on learning today?’
‘There’s not too long before the welcoming feast,’ Harry said. ‘So nothing complicated.’
‘The welcoming feast,’ Salazar mused. ‘Already? But you’re not even halfway through what you wanted to learn over the summer.’
Salazar jabbed his wand at Harry, showering silver sparks down into the base of his frame. ‘You told me that you expected to have finished all the OWL level work in the subjects you fell behind in last year!’
‘I’m ahead of where I wanted to be with my study of Occlumency, I caught up from last year, and I’m already well past OWL level in some subjects,’ Harry said. ‘And you should know what day and time it is, I bought a clock for you, it was the first thing I did this summer.’
‘My point still stands,’ Harry said.
‘And it’s such a good point.’ Sarcasm dripped from Salazar’s tongue. ‘You excelled in an area that we have always been exceptional at and forgot about everything else.’
‘It was the most important area,’ Harry muttered.
Salazar’s scowl was black as pitch. ‘Of course, if you hadn’t spent every second you could in France, you might’ve had another year to learn about the more interesting fields of magic.’
He’s taking this a little harder than I expected.
‘What don’t I know?’ Harry asked.
‘Enough about magic to survive or stand a chance of defeating Voldemort,’ Salazar retorted. ‘You’ll get stronger naturally as you grow toward your physical and mental peak, or if you decide to keep moving through the pages of the books on rituals, but knowledge is a part of power, Harry, and he has decades more of it than you.’
Harry glowered at the painting. ‘I don’t have decades to spend learning, do I?’
‘Which is why you can’t afford to waste time.’ He shook his head when Harry’s eyes narrowed. ‘I’m not saying spending time with her is a waste, I know better than most how valuable time like that truly is, but don’t forget about everything else. It’s a balance, Harry. You have something more than just surviving, and that’s very important and very good, but you still need to survive.’
‘I suppose you can learn about the more important areas of magic in our time down here,’ Salazar said. ‘Legilimency is what we should start with. Tom was, as all our family is, talented at the mind arts. You need to be able to keep him out and use the skill against his followers.’
‘I have no safe way of testing my prowess.’ Harry shrugged. ‘Not without provoking Dumbledore to go rooting through my head.’
‘That’s a bad idea,’ Salazar muttered. ‘And you can’t exactly learn how I did.’
‘Why not?’ Harry asked.
‘I learnt from a sphinx. In my day, mind magic was very limited, so I tracked down a sphinx renowned for being interested in humans and learnt from it.’
Harry blinked, recalling the sphinx in the maze. ‘Did it test you?’
‘No.’ Salazar shrugged. ‘I’d made a name for myself by then and it knew I was looking for it. Sphinxes live for thousands of years, but they’re normally very reclusive. This one was interested in us, spent centuries studying how we thought in comparison to how it did. I tracked it down near the Byzantine city of Ephesus and convinced it to teach me about the mind arts. It was an unexplored branch of magic back then, not many wizards bothered with it and most still don’t. It takes a certain type of wizard or witch to understand and master it.’
‘One tested me,’ Harry said.
Salazar dropped his wand. ‘You met a sphinx?!’
‘There was one in the tournament.’ He frowned. ‘Well, it was in the maze. I’m fairly sure it came just to test the Heir of Slytherin.’
‘Perhaps it was the same one I learnt from, then.’ Salazar shook his head. ‘Most of them don’t care about wizards and their affairs, not when they can strip every thought from your head in an instant.’
‘This one just gave me a riddle.’
Salazar stroked his goatee. ‘You lived, so let’s not worry about it. I’ll teach you the principles of legilimency. You’ll have to find your own way to test yourself and your progress.’
‘Now?’ Harry cast a tempus. ‘There’s not that long before I need to put in appearance.’
‘I’ll give you a brief introduction,’ Salazar said.
Harry took a seat behind the desk, pushing the stack of newspapers and the bag of galleons to one side.
‘Legilimency is not the opposite of occlumency.’ Salazar plucked his wand from the bottom of his canvas. ‘That’s a generalisation made by wizards who don’t understand the subject. Occlumency is organising and controlling your own emotions, memories, and thoughts, whereas legilimency is the art of reading and understanding those of others. It’s a different principle entirely and far less obvious.’
Another complex, abstract thing. Fantastic.
Salazar paused and polished his palms together. ‘The first step is active legilimency. The incantation is legilimens and it requires direct eye contact to for novices or the ungifted. This is not the same as transfiguration, you can’t visualise it, your intent must be entirely focused by will. Active legilimency is a battle of intellect and intention. The mind is not a straight forward object, you cannot read from its pages, meaning and connection must be gleaned by more abstract means.’ Salazar grinned. ‘Like all the best branches of magic!’
‘And passive legilimency?’ Harry asked. ‘Dumbledore mentioned that.’
‘The more subtle aspect. It’s an application of wandless, wordless, active legilimency and very hard to master. You have to perfectly find the edge of the knife, a legilimency attack so light it cannot be felt, but strong enough to skim the surface thoughts and emotions of your target.’ Salazar patted his snake on the head. ‘Not an easy feat, even for a master.’
‘I felt it when Dumbledore tried to use it against me.’
Salazar nodded. ‘As a practitioner of occlumency, you’re much more aware of your thoughts, so you’re more sensitive to such attacks. He didn’t know that, so he likely underestimated you. Be wary, now he knows you can detect it, he may still be trying, only more subtly.’
‘I bet he is.’ Harry’s lip curled. ‘But he won’t get anything out of me. I’ve come a long way since that circle of ink on a page.’
‘Go clear up your mess on your way to the feast,’ Salazar told him. ‘It’s very rude to leave a huge corpse lying around like that.’
Harry rolled his eyes and strode out of the study, pausing before the gaping mouth of the basilisk and sending a thin stream of fiendfyre down its throat. A crimson glow poured out through the dead serpent’s mouth and eyes, brightening to white, then its scales paled and the whole thing crumbled to ash. Harry vanished the remnants and hurried up the steps.
‘Hey Myrtle,’ he called out into the toilet above the chamber.
A loud squeal of surprise came from one of the cubicles and the pearl-white figure zipped out through the walls. ‘Harry.’ She fiddled with her thick-framed glasses and flushed silver as Fleur’s hair. ‘How’d you get here?’ Students aren’t meant to be at the castle yet…’
‘I didn’t want to catch the train with everyone else, so I thought I’d come say hi.’
Myrtle’s flush darkened. ‘Hi Harry.’
Harry let the smile fade from his face. ‘Things are going to be complicated this year. He’s back, you know, the one who opened the chamber.’
‘I thought Tom was gone.’ Myrtle turned so translucent Harry could see right through her.
‘I need you to watch the entrance for me, Myrtle,’ he asked. ‘Tell me if you see anyone near it, or looking for it, anyone or anything suspicious at all.’
‘I will, Harry. I promise.’
‘Any time.’ She squeaked and fled back into her cubicle.
Good. Now I have a guard on the entrance to the chamber.
Harry cast his disillusionment spell and slipped through the throng of students flooding into the hall, sliding into a seat alongside Neville and dispelling his spell. ‘Hey, Nev.’
Nev flinched. ‘Harry.’ He glanced down the table to where Seamus and Ron were whispering to one another. ‘We didn’t see you on the train.’
‘Don’t worry about them, Nev.’
‘They might be angry that I’m talking to you,’ Nev murmured.
‘Will that make you stop?’ Harry asked.
‘Then why worry?’
Nev’s brow creased. ‘I suppose not. It’s hardly anything compared to what the Daily Prophet has been writing about you and Dumbledore.’
‘I have a very nice collection of headlines.’ Harry smiled. ‘I quite like some of them, there’re some good puns in there. The Boy-Who-Lied. Potty Harry.’
‘I had to make Gran subscribe again so I could see what they were writing.’
He argued with his grandmother? Well, Nev’s a braver man than most, from what I heard.
Harry shrugged. ‘I don’t blame you. Rita Skeeter’s a very good journalist. Terrible person, though. I do wonder how she finds out some of the things she does. Her articles on some of Dumbledore’s more outspoken supporters were quite personal and unexpected.’
She better not find out about Fleur. A French veela would really be the last straw. I might have to flee the country.
‘Are you coming back to Gryffindor Tower, then?’ Nev asked. ‘You can’t keep using the room, it isn’t fair that you’re uncomfortable in your own dormitories.’
‘I’ll come back. Best for me not to cause any trouble for a bit if I can avoid it.’
The sorting hat’s song came to a close and the first years began to line up. Harry ran his eyes along the staff table until they came to rest on a dumpy, wide-faced woman whose sweet smile and horrible pink, velvet attire turned Harry’s stomach.
Is that Madam Puddifoot? Harry contemplated her attire. Well, I think I can be fairly sure she’s not been possessed by Voldemort. I can’t really imagine him wearing so much pink. He snorted. Although, he would definitely get me by surprise if he lunged at me wearing that flamingo-pink cardigan. Missed opportunity for him.
Steak and kidney pie materialised on the table in front of, accompanied by more pumpkin-related products than he could turn his nose up at.
Katie gave him a wave and a wink from further down the table. Harry returned her smile and helped himself to a good amount of pie, keeping one eye on the teacher’s table.
Dumbledore stepped toward the lectern. ‘Welcome–’
The squat, pink-clad woman cleared her throat. ‘My name is Dolores Umbridge, former Undersecretary to the Minister, and your new Professor for Defence Against the Dark Arts.’
Not Madam Puddifoot, but possibly a distant relation. He tuned out the spiel on slipping standards and ministerial concern, Hermione’s outrage, and the general muttering of the students. The Ministry’s afraid of Dumbledore’s influence here. They’re about half a century late to the party, really. Voldemort and Dumbledore are well-established.
Umbridge sat down, a satisfied simper spread across her wide, pale face. The twinkle had faded from Dumbledore’s eyes when he gave his short welcome address.
Nev glowered. ‘She’s awful. Gran’s said plenty about her.’
She’s the catalyst. Whatever she does will give me the chance to wriggle free of Dumbledore and Voldemort. The more confusion she causes, the better for me.
‘We’ll see what she does and be careful of her,’ Harry replied.
‘You make it sound like quidditch.’Because it’s like a game. He grinned and let his thoughts drift to Fleur’s sweet kisses, soft smiles, and the scent of burnt holly. And we’ll win. As always.