Colin Creevey dozed beside the fire in the common room. His heavy, steady breathing rose and fell in a regular rhythm over the rattling window beside the stairs. Creevey’s head slipped off the corner of his chair and he jolted upright.
Harry caught his eye and pushed a whisper of magic at him. A faint impression of fading shock flitted through his thoughts. He turned to the fire and the tenuous connection broke.
‘You’re not looking very ill.’ Katie drifted down the staircase from the girl’s dormitories and sat on the arm of Harry’s chair. ‘That horrible sickness you picked up yesterday has mysteriously vanished.’
Harry smiled. ‘I found a cure.’
Fleur. The fire that’d smouldered in her eyes flitted through his thoughts and his heart squirmed. Always Fleur.
‘Was it Frenchie medicine?’ Katie waggled her eyebrows.
‘No.’ Heat crept onto Harry’s face and he tried to smother the memories of Fleur’s little gasps and moans beneath the willow tree.
Katie pursed her lips. ‘Sure, Harry. Whatever you say.’ She wriggled further into the arm of his chair and rested her arm on his shoulder. ‘I went to the hospital wing when Neville said you were sick, but you weren’t there and nobody had seen you since your lesson with McGonagall…’
‘I might’ve gotten lost on the route to the hospital wing,’ Harry admitted.
‘Just be careful about getting caught disappearing off to France. Rita Skeeter hasn’t written anything about you in almost a week, she’s probably desperate for another.’ Katie gave him a gentle shove and lowered her voice. ‘How’s it going with you and Frenchie, anyway? You never say anything about her.’
Because when people realise I have things, they always try to take them away from me.
‘I don’t want anyone going after her because of me, especially Skeeter. Any girl she thinks is anywhere close to me is going to be on the front page by the next day.’
Katie nodded. ‘That must suck. If you’re not telling people, she must still get hit on an awful lot. You’ll both probably have to go on some fake dates at some point or people will start to think it’s weird.’
Harry smothered a twist of ugly heat and forced a smile. ‘She’s suspended for cursing someone right now, so I doubt anyone’s hitting on her.’
‘Yeah.’ Harry crushed the shadow beside Fleur down somewhere he could no longer see it. ‘Can’t say I’d be all that happy with that.’
‘At least you’re not around to see it happening.’ Katie tugged at her hair. ‘Still, as long as the two of you are happy and safe, right?’
She squirmed on the arm of his chair. ‘Since you were away, did you happen to read what Skeeter wrote in the absence of a story about you or Dumbledore?
‘No.’ He glanced up and met her eyes. ‘Anything interesting?’
Any Dark Marks? Or did they manage to cover it up completely?
‘Someone cast the Dark Mark over Godric’s Hollow.’ Katie lowered her voice to a whisper. ‘The Ministry are quoted as blaming Sirius Black because he’s an escaped supporter of You-Know-Who, but Skeeter went a bit off the script after that point. She mentioned Black was last reported in Cyprus only three days ago and that he never cast the Dark Mark after killing Peter Pettigrew.’
‘Just enough to inspire doubt about the story.’ Harry frowned. ‘Maybe someone at the Ministry upset her and this is the only way she can get back at them.’
Maybe Fudge forgot to keep paying her or something.
‘Or she might just want more money,’ Katie muttered. ‘The interesting thing is that the Prophet got into trouble for revealing the details of a secret investigation, so Skeeter shouldn’t have known about the Cyprus thing at all.’
Harry laughed. ‘I don’t think she should know a lot of things that she writes. She must know someone in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement.’
‘She is very good at finding out secrets, isn’t she? I wonder how she does it.’
‘What else did the article say?’
‘Not a great deal, it was only part of her column. There was a bit on the Dark Mark, that it’s He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named’s personal symbol and only cast by members of his inner circle, some of whom have escaped from Azkaban.’ She rubbed her chin, then slipped off the arm of the chair and wormed her way in beside Harry. ‘She speculated about why the mark might have been cast over Godric’s Hollow, too.’
‘The Daily Prophet suggests it was Black taking credit for their deaths.’
‘I suspect they’ll never actually catch them, Sirius Black or not. They didn’t manage to keep him in Azkaban and they haven’t found him in two years.’
‘You don’t seem all that concerned by it,’ Katie said. ‘The Dark Mark was cast over your parents’ house.’
‘They died when I was a baby, Katie, and everyone knows who killed them. The house is just a memorial, I’ve never set foot inside it. There isn’t really a good reason for me to care, I’d rather they were casting big obvious pieces of magic in the sky than murdering people.’
‘Maybe they’re only just getting started.’
The more times I cast it, the harder it’ll be to ignore.
‘Maybe they are,’ he said.
‘Enough gloomy talk.’ Katie gestured at the handful of people who were making their way out through the portrait. ‘It’s DA time.’
‘Have fun.’ Harry pushed her out of his chair and onto the floor.
‘Oh no you don’t, Harry.’ Katie pouted up at him from the floor. ‘You promised you were coming to this one.’
The Patronus. Right.
‘I did, didn’t I? Might as well get it over and done with, then.’
He dragged himself out of his chair, offering Katie a hand.
She laughed and let him pull her to her feet. ‘Such a gentleman.’ She leant in close. ‘No wonder Frenchie’s so smitten. What other boy could hope to compete?’
Probably an awful lot of them. A little ball of cold tightened beneath his ribs. But Fleur would never want any of them. They’re not right for her.
He managed a chuckle. ‘I do try.’
Katie shoved him toward the portrait and out onto the stairs. ‘Come on, lover boy. You can daydream later.’
‘Harry.’ Ginny’s voice came from right next to his ear.
He winced as cold shock flooded through his veins. ‘Ginny?’
She twisted her fingers together and stared at her feet, then took a deep breath and straightened up. ‘I was wondering about something–’
Katie stepped out of the passage into Harry’s back. ‘Ow.’
‘I was wondering if you wanted to go to Hogsmeade next weekend,’ Ginny blurted.
Harry grimaced. ‘We talked about this, Ginny. I’m sorry, I can’t.’
‘You can’t or you don’t want to?’ Ginny asked.
‘Both.’ He sighed. ‘I don’t want to keep leading you on, Ginny. I just don’t see you like that, I’m afraid.’
‘Then why can’t you go?’ Ginny threw a glance past him at Katie.
Merde. Harry struggled for something plausible.
‘He’s busy,’ Katie said.
‘Oh.’ Ginny glanced between them. ‘I see. I just had to ask, Harry. I promised myself that I’d ask one more time and if you said no, then I’d move on for good.’
Harry watched a blue beetle crawling along Ginny’s shoulder. ‘I am sorry, Ginny. I don’t think you’d enjoy dating me right now, anyway.’
Not least because Fleur would murder both of us.
‘There’re plenty of other guys who’d be lucky to be with you,’ Katie added.
Ginny’s eyes flashed. ‘Just not the one I want. I’ll see you at the meeting, Harry.’ She turned on her heel and stalked away. The blue beetle drifted off her shoulder and away down the staircase.
‘That could have gone worse,’ Harry muttered. ‘I thought she was over her infatuation with heroes.’
‘It could have gone better too,’ Katie murmured. ‘Did you see how she looked at us?’
Harry raised an eyebrow. ‘With her eyes?’
‘She thinks the reason you can’t go with her is me,’ Katie said.
‘Exactly,’ Katie muttered.
‘Do you think she’ll tell anyone?’ Harry asked.
‘Will she talk to her friends about why she’s upset over you turning her down?’ Katie shook her head. ‘Sometimes, Harry, you’re very perceptive, but other times I wonder if you understand girls at all.’
‘I don’t.’ Harry grinned at her. ‘You’re all weird.’
‘Tell that to Frenchie,’ she sniped. ‘And speaking of…’
Harry’s heart sank. ‘If Ginny tells people, everyone will start believing it.’
Fleur may kill me.
‘Do you think anyone will believe it?’ he asked.
Pink crept onto Katie’s cheeks. ‘Well, not to put too fine a point on it, Harry, but we are close friends and we do have history.’
Fleur will definitely kill me if she learns everyone thinks I’m dating Katie.
‘Awww.’ Katie patted him on the cheek. ‘You’ve started picking up cute Frenchie words.’
‘That’s not a very cute word.’ He scowled and hurried up the stairs. ‘I’ll have to tell Ginny we’re not a thing at the DA before she talks to anyone.’
‘You aren’t going to tell her about Frenchie, are you?’ Katie bounced after him and caught his wrist. ‘I thought you were keeping her a secret.’
‘I won’t tell anyone about Fleur who doesn’t already know. If she asks, I guess I just won’t answer.’
‘She won’t believe you.’ Katie caught his eye and shrugged. ‘I wouldn’t. It sounds fishy.’
‘It’s Fleur hearing about it that concerns me. Ginny will get over it.’
Her fingers slipped from his arm. ‘Right. Of course.’ She glanced away. ‘You could always swear an unbreakable vow to Frenchie that we’re just friends. It’s not like we’re actually doing anything.’
Harry contemplated it. ‘It’s dangerous, but I suppose I’d rather do that than have her misunderstand and leave.’
‘You’d rather permanently bind your life and magic to her than have her upset at you?’ Katie stared at him. ‘That’s very committed, Harry.’
He flushed and stepped toward the door on the seventh floor. ‘Hush, you.’
‘You’re so sweet.’ Katie giggled. ‘Clearly I’m a lucky girl.’
‘As if I’d date a violent Quidditch fanatic like you again.’
She pouted at him. ‘We both know you’d be more than happy to see me in that seashell bra.’ A little gleam welled up in her eyes. ‘Or not in the seashell bra.’
Harry paused with one hand on the door. ‘We should probably not make jokes like that for a bit.’
Katie’s lips twisted. ‘Fine. I’ll hold back when there are gullible idiots nearby.’
Harry offered her a smile. ‘Thanks, Katie. You can still make as many silly jokes about us as you like when there’s nobody listening.’ He pushed the door open.
‘I’ll hold you to that,’ Katie murmured in his ear.
‘Ah, the teacher arrives.’ Cedric waved everyone else back against the wall with his wand. ‘Neville was beginning to fear you weren’t coming.’
‘I promised I would,’ Harry said.
The members of the DA watched him with wary eyes. Hermione rocked back and forth on her heels, tapping her wand against her palm.
‘Alright, let’s get on with it, then.’ Harry strode forward into the middle of the room. ‘The Patronus Charm is more advanced than anything else you’ll likely be learning at Hogwarts in Defence. It creates a partially tangible form of positive emotion and intent. The steps are relatively simple, you need only focus on a positive emotion and speak the incantation, but having the ability to cast it is another thing entirely.’
Harry spread his hands to indicate they should move apart from each other. ‘Can anyone produce a Patronus of any sort?’ He glanced at Cedric.
‘Nope.’ Cedric shook his head. ‘If I knew how you wouldn’t have nearly died when dementors interrupted our Quidditch game in third–’
‘I can!’ Hermione jumped forward. ‘It’s not a proper one like yours, but I can cast it.’
Harry stifled the urge to roll his eyes. ‘Show everyone.’
Hermione raised her wand, glowing pink with pride, and closed her eyes. ‘Expecto Patronum.’
A rush of silver vapour shot from her wand to form a shining shield between her and Harry.
‘That’s very impressive,’ Harry said. ‘Self-taught, I presume.’
‘How long have you been trying? All the way since the end of third year, when you realised I could do it?’
She flushed and shuffled her feet. ‘Yes. Sorry, Harry.’
‘You heard the incantation,’ Harry said. ‘Hermione pronounced it perfectly. Focus on the happiest memory you have, or imagine something that will make you happier still, then cast.’
‘Which do you use?’ Ginny asked.
‘Whichever comes easiest,’ Harry lied.
I’ve not tried. Not since the maze.
‘Can you show us yours?’ Cedric asked.
He pictured his parents in the Mirror of Erised, but Fleur’s figure crept in between them in the ancient, silver surface. ‘Expecto Patronum.’
A bright cloud of silver vapour burst from its tip, hovering in the air in front of him. The vapour twisted and churned on itself like smoke caught on the wind.
‘I thought you said you could form a corporeal Patronus,’ Smith said.
‘He can,’ Ron said. ‘We all saw it at Quidditch in our third year when Malfoy tried to pretend to be a dementor.’
‘Stags don’t have feathers,’ Terry Boot called out.
Harry’s gaze snapped back to the mist. The tips of ghost-like feathers shivered at the edges of the vapour, flaring as if to catch the wind. Best not to let them see what form it has. He dispelled it.
‘A Patronus takes on a corporeal form that is unique to the caster,’ Hermione recited. ‘A corporeal Patronus generally takes the shape of the animal the caster shares the deepest affinity with.’
‘He probably doesn’t want us to see what it is,’ Smith sneered. ‘It’s likely a snake.’
‘With feathers?‘ Terry Boot shot Smith a scathing look.
Smith muttered something under his breath and shuffled back into the crowd.
‘It’s changed…’ Hermione stared at Harry. ‘A corporeal Patronus only changes when the caster has been through a dramatic, emotional upheaval. The book said things like loss, love, and betrayal have caused changes in Patronuses.’
‘Perhaps you should all try casting your own versions now.’ Harry slipped his wand back up his sleeve. ‘As entertaining as listening to Hermione’s version of the textbook is, you’re here to learn how to cast it, not guess which feathered creature mine is. The dementors are unlikely to be stopped from taking your souls because you know the form of my Patronus.’
The members of the DA split up and began to cast. A few wisps of silver shot from a scattered handful of wands to disperse into the air.
‘Pick your happiest memory and let yourself really feel it.’ Harry took a seat on the floor nearby Nev and Katie. ‘Or if that doesn’t work, imagine something that would make you happy and use that.’
Katie shot Harry a glance, then closed her eyes and returned to casting. Silver mist gushed from her wand, growing tight and dense a metre from its tip.
Harry watched it coalesce into the form of a crow.
She pouted. ‘Well that wasn’t what I was expecting.’
Fred laughed and pointed it out to his twin. ‘But it explains a lot–’
‘Oh great Dark Mistress,’ George said.
‘Well done for being the first.’ Harry surveyed the room. ‘Cedric, Hermione, and Neville look like they’re getting fairly close now, too.’
A silver badger formed from Cedric’s wand and patrolled a small circle around his feet.
He shot Harry a rueful grin. ‘It was inevitable that it’d be a badger, wasn’t it?’
‘Badgers are actually violent, vicious creatures.’ Harry eyed the silver patronus. ‘Yours looks like a spaniel in cosplay.’
‘Bit harsh.’ Cedric laughed. ‘But probably fair. They absolutely ravage Dad’s lawn. Worse than gnomes, apparently.’
A silver otter chattered and scampered around Hermione’s feet.
Appropriate enough. I knew she’d get it soon. A faint pang rippled through Harry’s chest as he drew Ginny aside.
A little flicker of something that might’ve been hope passed through her eyes. ‘Harry?’
‘I’m not with Katie.’ He swallowed a bitter lump. ‘I’m not – I’m not with anyone. I just don’t want to have to listen to all the rumours. Katie doesn’t need that.’
‘Is she why your Patronus changed? From before the Yule Ball?’
‘I don’t think so.’ Harry shrugged. ‘I felt like a lot of people turned on me, then. Loss and betrayal.’
‘Not love, then,’ Ginny murmured.
Almost certainly. Harry smothered a small smile. Fleur’s blue eyes and slight pout hovered in his thoughts, and a soft pain twisted beneath his ribs. And I’m stuck here instead of being with her.
‘Definitely not,’ he said.
‘I wasn’t going to tell anyone,’ Ginny said. ‘I might’ve told my friends that I thought you were with someone else, but I thought you and Katie were trying to keep it a secret and just act like you were friends.’
‘We are just friends.’
Ginny glanced past his shoulder. ‘I think she knows what we’re talking about. I should keep practicing.’
Harry caught Katie’s eye. She beamed and gave him a thumbs up. A gleaming silver wolf padded around Neville, nuzzling at his wand hand with its muzzle.
Interesting. Harry waved to Katie and drifted away toward the door and the chamber. I wonder what mine is.
‘Myrtle?’ He paused before the puddle.
‘Harry!’ She shot out of the wall and twirled on the spot. ‘I had visitors at lunchtime yesterday. First years, or maybe second, they were very small. They wanted to know if there was anything special about the bathroom.’
‘Did they decide on anything?’ A tight knot coiled in his stomach.
If they keep coming back, I might not be able to get out to see Fleur.
‘They never found anything, but nobody who comes here does.’
‘If they come back, please tell me, Myrtle,’ Harry asked. ‘You don’t know how important it is to me that the entrance remains a secret.’
‘I’ll tell you, Harry. I always know when someone’s in here. I can feel it.’
‘Thanks.’ He shot her a smile. ‘I appreciate it Myrtle.’
‘That’s ok, Harry.’ She fiddled with her wide-framed glasses. ‘Come visit me whenever you want.’
‘I’ll do my best to say hi.’ Harry turned to the sink. ‘Open.’ He hurried down the steps and through to the top of the bridge. ‘Mother, I’m home,’ he called.
‘Welcome back, darling.’ Salazar pried his snake off his forehead. ‘Are you here to learn something useful, or are you off to France again?’
‘I was wondering what you knew about the Patronus Charm? Mine appears to have changed.’
Salazar peered down at him. ‘Changed?’
‘It used to be a stag, then I was almost unable to cast it, and now it seems to be something feathered, though I haven’t cast a complete corporeal charm yet.’
‘That’s interesting. The charm’s very old, it’s one of the obvious, emotion-related concepts of magic, but very hard to produce despite it. My own Patronus changed form twice, for different reasons.’
Interesting. I wonder if there’re any similarities.
‘When did it change?’ Harry asked.
‘If you wanted to know why you could’ve just asked,’ Salazar said. ‘It was originally a regular serpent, but when I met my wife and we had our daughter, it changed and became a runespoor. I was very proud of it.’ His expression darkened. ‘After my wife’s death and the beginning of my quest to try and undo the sacrifice I made, it changed again, shifting to the form of a moth. It remained a moth until I stopped being able to cast it.’
‘You stopped being able to cast it?’
‘You said you were almost unable to cast it, when was that?’
‘In the maze during the third task.’ Harry thought back. ‘It wasn’t the best time for me, not much was going well. Even happy memories and thoughts didn’t really reach me.’
‘Then you already know why.’ Salazar’s smile was thin and bitter. ‘I told you that those who commit themselves to escaping death are consumed by their quest. By the end of my life, everything else had lost meaning, and I’d all but given up. My happiest memories were tainted.’
‘You have Fleur Delacour now, so cast the charm and show me.’
Harry closed his eyes. He reached back for the warmth of the sun through the willow leaves, the quiet sound of the river and the wind in the grass, the sweet scent of marzipan, the taste of Fleur’s lips, the blue of her eyes, the silver of her hair, the slight curve of her pout, and the softness in her eyes when she stared at him. Perfect. As she always is.
‘Expecto Patronum,’ he murmured.
Heat rushed up his arm from his wand and a great eagle burst forth in an explosion of silver vapour. It spread its wings wide and eyed Harry’s surroundings with fierce intelligence.
‘That’s not an eagle, Harry.’ Salazar’s green eyes softened and the corner of his mouth crooked. ‘That is an Anzu, a giant bird supposedly capable of magically breathing fire. They went extinct millennia ago and are only found in the oldest stories of Mesopotamia, their homeland.’
‘An extinct, fire-breathing eagle.’ Harry grinned. ‘I like it.’
‘A new Patronus with the form of an ancient Mesopotamian magical bird… Do you know where the first veela are supposed to have come from? I don’t think it’s any mystery what caused this change.’
‘I like my eagle. Is that really why it’s that form? Because of Fleur?’
‘It’s an Anzu. Most eagles would disappear under its wings. And it seems that way. Mine changed because I found my wife, then when I lost her. Helga’s never changed from a phoenix, Rowena’s was always an owl, and Godric’s patronus was a griffin for as long as I knew him, but he mentioned it changed when his parents died.’
‘It’s actually that large in real life?’ Harry stared at the wingspan for a moment. ‘You know, I sort of expected the other founders’ Patronuses to be the same as the house sigils.’
‘They were extinct long before I was alive.’ Salazar shrugged, displacing his snake. ‘But the corporeal form of your Patronus takes on the exact shape of the animal as far as I understand, so probably.’ He peered down at Harry as he picked his serpent back up. ‘And why would you assume we would give away so much information about ourselves when choosing house sigils? Rowena chose a bird famous for its intelligence, I chose the serpent because nobody would expect anything else from me, Godric wanted to choose a griffin, but I told him that would look vain, so he chose half a griffin instead, and Helga just liked badgers. She thought they were adorable.’
Harry sighed. ‘That completely ruins my image of the four of you being the perfect embodiment of your houses’ traits.’
‘Rowena’s is fairly accurate,’ Salazar said. ‘Mine, too. Godric would’ve hated the students in his house, if what I’ve heard from you is true. He valued bravery, loyalty, and forgiveness above all else.’
‘What about Helga?’
‘She loved children. Helga spoiled every child she met, her nephews and nieces adored her more than they did their parents. It wouldn’t matter which house you were in to her as long as she could mother you.’
‘I wonder how Slytherin ended up having such a bad reputation.’
Salazar let out a short, bitter laugh. ‘The blame lies partly with myself and partly with the traits I valued. Ambition, cunning, intelligence and bravery can all be used to do terrible things, but while bravery can be foolish and intelligence misapplied, cunning can only really be outdone by others. It did not help that I dabbled greatly in dangerous magic in the final years of my life. That would have attracted a great many wizards and witches of questionable morals to my house.’
‘Like Tom Riddle,’ Harry muttered.
‘He was nearly sorted into both Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff, actually. His ambition outweighed his desire for knowledge and the loyalty he felt toward a world that accepted him when his did not, but only just.’
A strange sort of sadness settled over Harry like a thick, soft blanket. ‘If only the magical world hadn’t turned its back on him like the muggle one.’
‘If he’d chosen either of Ravenclaw or Hufflepuff it might not’ve done, but his desire was too strong and he did. There’s little point regretting it now. I watched him change from Tom Riddle to Voldemort with pride and said nothing, not realising how much he’d lost from himself in his becoming until it was too late.’
‘Could you have stopped him before he changed too much?’ Harry picked the time-turner off the desk and tugged a thick tome on prophecies off the shelf behind him. ‘If you’d known, that is.’
‘I believe so.’ Salazar stared down at Harry. Shadows clustered in the portrait’s eyes, deep and dark as dusk. ‘I hope so.’