The sunset hovered beyond green fields and the swaying fronds of the willow tree. He stood on white pebbles and watched the light play across the heavens with a small smile.
The ground shifted beneath his feet. White pebbles shifted to staring skulls beneath his heels. Harry struggled over them toward the sunset, but sunk further in with each step until cold bone surrounded him to his neck.
‘You won’t make it.’ Fleur crouched on the roots of the tree. The azure silk of her dress stretched across her knees; her blue eyes unreadable behind a veil of silver hair. A gleaming, sapphire-studded tiara perched upon her head. ‘You don’t just get to waltz off after your wishes, mon Cœur. There’s a price to be paid. A pound of flesh.’
Harry struggled, but only sank a little further. ‘I’m too heavy.’
Fleur stared down at him. ‘A pound of flesh…’
He slipped his wand from sleeve and stared at the slim length of ebony. His stomach knotted and churned. ‘A pound of flesh,’ he whispered. ‘Can’t you pull me out?’
She shook her head and the red light flashed upon the silver tiara and its gemstones. ‘I can’t reach you.’ Fleur looked back toward the sunset. ‘We’re missing it, mon Cœur.’
I can’t lose it.
Harry steeled himself and brought his wand down like a blade. A bright green flashed seared his eyes and his hand hung from his arm, half-severed. ‘Sacrifices have to be made,’ he muttered. Harry cut again; it dropped away into the skulls and he rose a little higher.
‘It’s not enough,’ Fleur murmured. ‘Hurry, mon Cœur.’
He swallowed hard and raised his wand to his shoulder. The rest of his arm tumbled away. He clawed his up until the skulls were only waist high.
‘More,’ she whispered. ‘More. We’re losing the light.’
Harry’s stomach swirled like a storm, then clenched into a thick, hot, sick knot. ‘Whatever it takes, mon Rêve.’ He cast away his wand and clawed the flesh from his ribs a fistful at a time, ripping bones free and tossing hot, red, organs away after them.
‘Just a little more, mon Cœur,’ Fleur murmured. ‘We’re almost there.’
He curled his fingers round his heart; it throbbed in his hand. ‘Even this?’ A fierce unease seized him. ‘I think I might need this.’
She extended her hand. ‘Hurry, Harry. The sunset’s disappearing.’
He closed his eyes, tore it out, and cast it away, then hauled himself out of the skulls and stumbled up onto the bank. A sliver of red lingered over the curve of the horizon. Fleur sat upon the branch in a dress of midnight blue silk, swinging her legs as the light faded.
‘I made it,’ he said.
‘Made it?’ She twisted round and stared down at him with cold, pitch-black eyes; her fingers curled round the silver and sapphire circle shining upon her brow. ‘You didn’t make it. There’s nothing of you left.’
Harry jolted awake and stared at the ceiling of the study. The golden hourglass swung back and forth over his sternum. I don’t think using the time-turner a lot is a good idea from now on. These dreams seem to come when I use it. He grimaced and pulled the slim gold chain over his head. Awful things happen to wizards who mess with time.
He ran a finger along the thread-thin pink line on his forearm. It’ll be gone by tomorrow at this rate. Harry rummaged through his pockets for a scrap of parchment. His fingers met warm, smooth metal.
‘The circlet…’ Harry pulled it out and balanced it on its palm.
Silver gleamed as bright as moonlight, the sapphire shone like sunlight off the soft waves of a summer sea. He ran a fingertip along the gentle curve; smiling as it grew warmer and released a quiet chitter.
Such a strange thing.
It drew his touch like the seat of a lost tooth drew the tip of his tongue. Harry weighed it in his hand, then slid it back into his pocket and headed toward Myrtle’s Bathroom.
A shame it’s too girly to wear. He ran his fingers along it. Maybe I should give it to Fleur. She doesn’t wear much jewellery, though.
The circlet twittered in his pocket and the metal flared warm under his fingertips.
‘You like that, huh,’ Harry murmured. ‘Of course, she might take you apart to see how you work, which would be a shame.’
He strode into the girl’s bathroom and swept the water-covered floor clean with his wand. ‘Open,’ he whispered.
The diadem chittered and turned hot in his pocket.
‘Yeah, I can make odd noises, too.’ He patted it with one hand, then pulled it out and stroked the edge of his thumb across the sapphire. ‘Only people would think that you’re cute and that I’m some kind of budding mass-murderer, which isn’t exactly fair.’
Although, I have killed a few people now… He paused on the last step and span the circlet round in his fingers. But they were pretty awful people and it wasn’t like I had much choice.
Harry drifted into the study, bouncing the tiara on his palms.
‘Where did you find that!?‘ Salazar hissed. ‘It was lost!‘
‘Lost?’ Harry stroked the shining, silver curve. ‘Well, it’s found now. I think I quite like it.’
‘It’s Rowena’s diadem!’ Salazar ripped the serpent from around his neck and tossed it away into the background of his painting. His wand fountained silver sparks away into the edges of his frame. ‘Her foolish daughter stole it and fled. A young man went out to rescue her, but neither returned.’
‘I found it in the Room of Requirement,’ Harry said. ‘Not sure how it ended up there. Umbridge pinched it and I nearly left it in the Forbidden Forest, but it’s kind of beautiful.’
Salazar stared at the silver diadem. ‘Rowena and Godric made that. Rowena loved it. She used to put it on little Helena when she was just a child and watch her totter around with it on her head.’ He sighed. ‘Helena always loved it, but Rowena was better with magic than motherhood.’
And so she took it and ran away. Harry grimaced; it was Privet drive that flickered through his thoughts. Aunt Petunia’s cold indifference. And I bet she never came back.
‘How does it work?’ he asked.
‘You wear it,’ Salazar muttered. ‘It’s a tiara, what were you expecting?’
‘I thought it might have a phrase to activate it.’
‘Keep it,’ Salazar said. ‘Like all the best pieces of Godric and Rowena’s work, it’s art. They designed it based on the sorting hat Godric made, only Rowena made sure it’s less… eccentric.’
‘I’m going to use it to think through the plan one last time.’ Harry grinned and stared into the shining sapphire. ‘I want to use it.’
It must be amazing. He placed it on his head. Warmth seeped into his scalp and a soft chitter drifted to his ear.
‘Wit beyond measure is man’s greatest treasure,’ a soft, smooth, high male voice murmured. ‘Such a neat little saying, but we know it isn’t true, don’t we, Harry.’ Red eyes gleamed in the back of Harry’s mind. ‘We know there’s only power,’ Voldemort hissed.
Harry tore the tiara from his head and kicked it away across the floor; it skittered across the floor screeching and screaming like metal nails down glass.
‘What are you doing?!‘ Salazar snapped. ‘That’s Rowena’s diadem!’
‘It has Voldemort’s voice. It whispers back.’ Harry swallowed and slid his wand from his sleeve. ‘Like the diary wrote back.’
‘A horcrux,’ Salazar breathed. ‘Tom made a horcrux of Rowena’s Diadem…’ Black fury burnt in his green eyes. ‘I told him how precious that was to her and he defiled it.’
‘I can’t rip the soul fragment out.’ Harry met Salazar’s glare. ‘It can’t be done.’
‘Destroy it,’ he spat.
Harry conjured a long, thin piece of metal and flicked the tiara out onto the bridge. I’m not here to be used. Not by Dumbledore. Not by Voldemort. Not by anyone. He buried the diadem in a stream of red fiendfyre as thick as his arm and forced the heat higher until the circlet screamed.
‘Is it destroyed?’ Salazar asked.
Harry dispelled the flames and nudged the blackened, cracked circlet with his toe. A thick, ink-black wisp of smoke belched forth from the cracks and dissipated with a faint whisper. ‘It’s destroyed.’
‘Good,’ Salazar snapped. ‘That diadem was as precious to Rowena as my locket was to me; it would’ve torn her heart to see it used so. Few of the things we deem precious survive,’ he murmured. ‘That’s why blood is important, little else of you lasts long after your death but your bloodline.’
‘I don’t know of any others who claim to be descended from your friends,’ Harry said.
‘I feared it would be so even before we died,’ Salazar said. ‘Godric was too set on saving other people to ever do something so selfish as follow his own heart, Rowena had only one daughter, and it seems my only two descendants are doing their best to kill each other. Soon there will be nothing left of us but a divided school, Godric’s scruffy hat, that ridiculous sword, and two forgotten, empty rooms.’
‘What about Helga?’ Harry asked.
‘She had family,’ Salazar said. ‘A big one, once, but if you don’t know of them, I suspect they no longer exist. Perhaps some of her work survives, the plants she created, the potions, spells, or even that useless cup.’ He chuckled. ‘She convinced Rowena to spend hours helping her enchant a cup to absorb the properties of her phoenix’s tears, only to forget that phoenix tears don’t actually do anything if you drink them. Only Helga could have made such a mistake.’ Salazar chortled and his serpent bobbed its head. ‘Or Godric, but he would have chosen the perfect substance, then accidentally enchanted the cup to spew it out the bottom onto your lap when you tried to drink from it.’
‘What mistake would you or Rowena have made?’ Harry asked, smiling at the founder’s cheer.
‘Rowena would have lost the thing.’ Salazar snorted, then the humour faded from his face. ‘I, well, if it was really important to me, I would’ve probably ended up sacrificing it for something I couldn’t manage to do in the end.’
‘But you could’ve done it if you’d had more time.’
‘Maybe.’ Salazar pointed his wand at Harry. ‘Don’t repeat my mistake. Some things are out of reach.’
‘I just want Fleur,’ Harry whispered. ‘That’s all. I can endure without anything else. I have before. But not her. I need her.’
Salazar blinked. A faint shimmer rippled across his canvas. ‘I know, Tom.’
Harry snorted. ‘You are going senile. I’m Harry. Tom was the other one.’
Salazar blinked, then frowned and retrieved his snake. ‘You should go, Harry. You came here to go get the Prophecy, not to listen to me reminisce about our flaws, many though they were.’
‘They make you seem human,’ Harry murmured. ‘Without them you’d be just as distant and unreachable as the other names that’ve outlived the faces they were once associated with.’
‘That sounded wise, like something I would say,’ Salazar said.
‘Wisdom can be found in the strangest of places,’ Harry retorted.
‘That definitely sounds like me. Now go, go and find out what’s so important about this prophecy that both Dumbledore and Voldemort will sacrifice lives for it.’
‘I will.’ Harry kicked the marred circlet into the pool and watched it sink down into the dark water.
It will remain lost. He disillusioned himself and pictured the fireplace in Borgin and Burke’s. The floo network here will do. I doubt they’ll run to the aurors to complain about a break in, knowing who their customers are.
He appeared before the fire with a soft snap, then took a pinch of powder from the open top of a human skull. ‘Number twelve Grimmauld Place,’ he whispered, tossing the powder into the fire.
The flames flared green. He stepped in, inhaled a lungful of smoke, and collapsed onto a cold, hard, stone floor.
‘I hate floo travel.’ He dragged himself to his feet and dusted off his robes.
Tattered wallpaper, rotting plaster, and crumbling mortar hung from bare, rough stone. Grime caked the corners and crannies. A leaning tower of soup tins and a collection of dirty mugs occupied the sink. He drifted out of the kitchen into a narrow hall. Scratched, scraped, and rotting hardwood floorboards creaked beneath his feet and the thick, must of mildew reached his nose.
‘Lovely place, this.’ Harry glanced about. ‘Who’d want to live here?’
Thick, velvet curtains flew open on his left. Harry flicked his wand into his hand and twisted round. A life-size, incredibly detailed, painting stared at him. She had the same chin, nose, eyes, and ears as Sirius.
‘You’re not my blood-traitor son.’ Her face twisted out of its expression of ugly disdain into something that would’ve been beautiful before age marred it.
I should incinerate you. Harry span his wand round in his hand. You’ve seen me. But it might be hard to explain that you’re missing.
‘You look like you come from a good family.’ The woman sniffed. ‘Good bone-structure and nice-eyes. What’s a proper pure-blood doing in among the half-breeds and traitors my son consorts with?’
Maybe I don’t have to burn you, then. He slipped his wand back into his sleeve. It doesn’t seem like you’re keen to talk to Dumbledore’s lot.
‘I’m Harry. I’m afraid I don’t have the pleasure of knowing your name?’
‘Walburga Black.’ She smiled and her face shed several decades. ‘Do you have a family name?’
Sirius’ mother. So not a Dumbledore supporter. Quite the opposite.
‘Slytherin,’ he said.
‘An honour.’ Walburga Black dipped her head. ‘I assume you aren’t here to join my son’s little group of muggle-lovers.’
‘No,’ Harry said. ‘I have very different aims.’
‘Do you follow the Dark Lord?’ Walburga Black enquired. ‘My Regulus followed him, he was a proper pure-blood scion.’
‘No. The Dark Lord has been unmasked. His real name is Tom Riddle, a muggle-raised, half-blooded wizard who doesn’t even believe in blood purity.’
‘He lied,’ Walburga Black whispered. ‘But my Regulus died for him.’
‘So did many others,’ Harry said. ‘So will many more.’
Walburga Black stared down into the bottom of her frame. ‘Then why are you here? You didn’t come to rip apart the last shreds of a long-dead woman’s world.’
‘I came to meet with Sirius.’
‘So you are one of the blood-traitors.’ She sniffed. ‘Your noble ancestor would be ashamed.’
‘No he wouldn’t.’ Harry let his tone harden. ‘Neither he nor I not care about blood purity. There’s only power and the intent with which it’s wielded.’
‘All powerful wizards are pure-bloods,’ Walburga Black replied. ‘Just look at my family. My sons, even the disappointment, are powerful wizards, Cissy, Bella, and the other one are all powerful witches, even the half-blood girl is.’
‘Tell that to your Dark Lord. He’s just a half-blood, too, remember.’
‘I serve no half-blooded imposter,’ she hissed. ‘That liar stole my Regulus from me and brought half a hundred old families and bloodlines to an end. He is no lord of mine.’
‘He’s a distant relative, as I’m sure you’ve realised.’ Harry swallowed a sour taste. ‘But he’s no friend of mine.’
And what about you? You never actually said. I assumed you’re pure-blooded if you truly carry the Slytherin name, but I made the same mistake with the Dark Lord.’
‘I’m not sure,’ Harry said. ‘I don’t know the exact boundaries, but I don’t particularly care, either. I’m stronger than most my age or older, pure-blooded or not.’
‘Very likely a pure-blood by my estimation.’ Walburga folded her arms. ‘You have the feel of a pure-blood and the looks, too. I can’t imagine you’d be anything else. Not if you’re using that name.’
‘I don’t use that name except in particular company,’ Harry replied.
‘Understandable.’ Walburga scowled. ‘There’re many muggle-lovers who’d like nothing more than to condemn us for being more than they are. We are not born equal, magic is in the blood, and our blood is oldest and purest of them all.’
‘You’re not going to convince me to adopt a pure-blood agenda. I judge each individual on their own merit and make fewer mistakes because of it.’
‘A pity.’ She sniffed. ‘I’d hoped you might knock some sense into my son before he completely ruins this family by selling us out to blood-traitors.’
‘If your family comes to ruin it will be the work of Voldemort and Dumbledore,’ Harry muttered.
‘It will be the work of my eldest son,’ she hissed. ‘He is the last scion of the Most Noble and Ancient House of Black, he needs to find himself a suitable wife and an heir. Regulus would be married by now.’
‘If only he wasn’t dead,’ Harry muttered. ‘Where is Sirius?’
‘I don’t suppose you know any eligible girls from good families?’ Walburga asked.
‘Not off the top of my head.’ Harry laughed. ‘I don’t think Sirius will be keen, though.’
‘Kreacher,’ Walburgs shrieked.
Harry flinched. A loud crack echoed through the hall and a hunched, withered house elf appeared next to Harry. Kreacher stared up at him with narrowed, washed-out, pale blue eyes.
‘Mistress called Kreacher.’ Kreacher bowed so low before the painting his nose brushed the floor.
‘This is… Harry,’ Walburga folded her arms. ‘He is from a very respectable family, you will treat him as he deserves, not like the other blood traitors my shameful son has brought into my home. Find the family records, search for any other possible male heirs of the Most Noble and Ancient House of Black, my son cannot be trusted to take his duties to the family seriously. He never has had any love for us.’
Kreacher grinned. ‘Yes, mistress.’
‘Until next time.’ The curtains swept closed.
Kreacher peered at Harry and wrung his hands. ‘From a respectable family Mistress says, but Kreacher knows only nasty traitor Master’s friends can come to Mistress’ house. Blood traitors, filthy creatures, and mud-bloods all of them. But Mistress gave Kreacher orders and Kreacher will follow them.’
‘Shut up, Kreacher, you’ve got a decade of cleaning to catch up with.’ Sirius appeared at the other end of the hall. ‘He’s a miserable little house elf, malicious as the day I left this place and a whole lot less sane than I remember.’
‘Yes, Master.’ Kreacher shuffled away. ‘Nasty blood-traitor master, abandoning Mistress Black and Master Regulus,’ he muttered.
Sirius shot him a hot glare and the elf slunk off up the stairs. ‘I hate that elf. I hated him before I left this awful, miserable, blood-stained place, and I hate him even more now mother’s portrait has driven him mad.’
‘I spoke with your mother.’ Harry grinned. ‘She seemed nice.’
‘I didn’t hear any screeching?’
‘She seemed convinced I was a pure-blood and tried to ask me about eligible girls for you to marry and produce a male heir with.’
Sirius’ face contorted. ‘Oh now she wants me to consort with witches. If she’d had her way, I would’ve been married to my cousin, Bella.’ He shuddered. ‘That’s why I ran away, you know. Bella’s not been right since she had an accident as a little girl. Mother wanted me to marry and look after her, keep everything neatly in the family, and in return Regulus would be heir and do all the things I hated, but I would’ve rather slept on the streets that get dragged into that.’
‘So you left?’
Sirius grimaced. ‘Sounds bad, doesn’t it.’ He sighed. ‘I ran away from here. I ran away from James. I ran away from Azkaban. Now, I’m stuck here, back where I started, and I can’t even run away this time.’
Harry stared at him. ‘I told your mother’s picture Voldemort was a half-blood. She seemed quite upset about that.’
‘She would be. She sent Regulus off to die for him.’ Sirius’ frown darkened. ‘After Bella’s accident, they never let up on us for a second. Andi left the family the first moment she could. Cissy… She just gave in. I left. Regulus had a kind heart, he never had a chance.’
‘So have you really been stuck in here all this time on your own?’ Harry asked.
‘This isn’t even the worst bit.’ Sirius chuckled. ‘Follow me, we haven’t cleaned the top floor yet, I’ll show you what the whole place was like when I came back.’
Harry drifted up the stairs after him.
Sirius picked his way round a few dubious, dark stains. ‘I’m not always on my own, though. In the school holidays some of the Order members come to stay here. This is the headquarters, after all, my father had the whole place warded as extensively as possible and after Dumbledore cast the Fidelius Charm, it became all but impossible for anyone to come here without invitation. Still, you’ve no idea how much I’ve been looking forward to getting out of here.’
The scoured walls and floors gave away to rot, mildew, damp, mould, and dark, stained, smeared, dust-coated wall-hangings.
‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’ Sirius quipped.
‘The whole place was like this?’ Harry swallowed a flare of anger. ‘And Dumbledore just left you here?’
‘Until this summer,’ Sirius replied. ‘I didn’t really notice after Azkaban and living on the run, but Molly wasn’t having any of it and started everyone cleaning the moment she arrived. Ron, Hermione, and the other Weasleys helped a bit at Christmas, but the top floor has the library, my father’s study, and the attic. Nobody wants to use any of them, so I’ve had Kreacher start cleaning them.’
‘He doesn’t seem to have got very far.’
‘I know.’ Sirius shrugged. ‘I was hoping there would be doxies, another boggart, or something that would finish him off, but sadly the horrible wretch lingers on to irritate me.’
A loud rattle came from the room at the end of the corridor.
‘That’s probably him now,’ Sirius muttered. ‘He’s likely trying to save everything he can find that belonged to my family before doing any actual cleaning. I’d better go and stop him before he manages to hide anything away again. He had a whole stash of treasures, you know. It took Hermione and Ron a whole day to get rid of his little hoard.’
Sirius pushed the door open, the metal lock tore straight through the rotted wooden frame.
Harry’s parents stood on the other side of the desk, their arms folded across their chests, their faces twisted in anger. They leant away from each other as if they were joined at the hip.
‘You failed us,’ James hissed. ‘You left our Harry and threw yourself in prison. Now you hide in here. You should be out fighting! We fought, Remus is fighting, even Peter fought for someone. You’re a coward Black, a pitiful, terrified coward. You sicken us.’
A boggart. Harry pulled out his wand.
His mother’s hair darkened, slipping across her face to cover it as his father melted away into her side and they shrunk into the skeletal, cloaked form of a dementor. A cold, creeping chill slid across the room. The dementor tugged back its hood a fraction to bare grey, withered lips and a gaping orifice.
Sirius moaned and yanked at his hair. ‘I escaped,’ he whispered. ‘I’m free, they’re gone, they’re gone, they’re gone. I’m not a coward,’ he yelled, swinging his fist at the dementor.
Harry pushed him out of the way. He struck the bookshelf and collapsed to the floor, curling up into a shivering ball.
The dementor twisted about, then melted to a slim shadow. ‘Au revoir,’ it whispered in Fleur’s voice. A ring of burning gold shone upon her left hand. ‘Au revoir, Harry. I’m afraid perfect wishes just don’t come true.’
Harry’s heart sank down into the dark. No. He clawed it back and clutched for the cold rage; it came with fragmented images. Fleur arm in arm with a shadow, embracing, entwined, ecstatic; its dark hands where only Harry’s had been. How dare it. How dare it show me that.
Fiendfyre gushed from his wand tip. Crimson flames swallowed the boggart and the desk. Harry watched it writhe and burn, still shifting. Red eyes gleamed through the bright flames, Fleur’s silver hair smouldered and sprang into flame. He stared until it fell still and crumbled to ash, then extinguished the fiendfyre.
Nothing will send me back to how I was. I won’t lose her. She promised.
‘Is it gone?’ Sirius croaked.
‘Yes. It showed me something I didn’t want to see and is probably very much regretting it.’ Harry slipped his wand back up his sleeve. ‘Are you ok?’
‘I don’t like dementors.’ Sirius uncurled from the floor and opened his eyes. ‘Or boggarts.’
‘Me neither.’ Harry kicked the ashes away. ‘Let’s go, Sirius. We need to get that prophecy.’