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Fan Fiction:
Back Again, Harry?

Chapter posted Jan. 2, 2008

Chapter Nine:
A Vital Question

Harry and Ron had to drag Hermione out of the Room of Requirement at curfew; she muttered imprecations about holding students to an unjustifiably early hour on the eves of weekends all the way back to the Tower, and by the time they got there Harry's cheeks hurt from trying not to smile. Her bag bulged with old and damaged tomes, and she'd made him repeat how he'd called that version of the Room three times over before she'd even let them leave. It looked like she'd definitely found a project to keep her busy.

The good mood stayed with Harry all through the night. He woke without remembering any nightmares, and headed for Quidditch practice that morning with a lightened heart. Ron saw him out of the Common Room with a cheery wave; he was messing about with several slightly damaged prank items he'd taken from the Room, and Hermione sat nearby, bushy hair protruding from behind a large, dusty book. The symbols on its cover looked vaguely familiar to Harry at a distance, but not enticing enough for him to stop and ask. He was sure she'd tell him later if she'd found anything particularly fascinating or important.

The pitch was very wet and muddy that morning, but Harry remembered the charms for keeping his glasses clear and warming his Quidditch robes, and was not bothered by it. He flew circles above his teammates for a while, repeatedly chasing and catching the Snitch while Wood lectured the rest of them about how best to do their jobs, and generally enjoyed the time spent in the air. Every so often he would vary the routine by diving down to interrupt the passage of a Quaffle or attempt to distract the Keeper. Wood never fell for it, of course, but he usually had a word of praise or correction for Harry's efforts.

That day, however, something seemed to have the Quidditch captain a bit more distracted than usual. When the Weasley twins began dive-bombing each other and pretending to fall off of their brooms, he snapped at them more harshly than was his wont, and then gave them a bit of news Harry had forgotten to expect:

"Snape's refereeing this time, and he'll be looking for any excuse to knock points off of Gryffindor!"

George really did fall off his broom at that-- and Harry's heart fell with him. Not so much because of Snape-- whose real purpose there, as weird as it still seemed, would be to protect Harry-- but because it reminded him of Quirrell, and Voldemort, and the fact that time was slowly getting away from him.

When the rest of the team hung back to talk after practice, Harry trudged back toward the castle, not in the mood for the usual banter. Instead of heading up to tell Ron and Hermione about Snape's decision, however, as he vaguely remembered doing before, he wandered aimlessly through the lower floors of the castle, deep in thought.

It had been three weeks and one day since he'd awakened back in first year, with all the pain and grief of the war still to come. In that time, he'd mostly figured out a way to survive his classes with decent marks and earn respect from his professors; he'd reconnected with his friends; and he'd taken his first Horcrux, leaving only four to collect. He'd also written to Remus and formed a plan to hopefully free Sirius before the end of the school year. But what else had he done? What else could he do? He'd been moving as quickly as he thought safe, but at the same time, he felt as though he were already falling behind.

His feet eventually carried him, without any deliberate intent on his part, to a hall containing a very familiar bathroom. Moaning Myrtle was apparently on form; there was water leaking out from under the door, covering the floor in a thin, shimmering sheet, and the soles of Harry's trainers had already been dampened by the time he noticed the problem. He took a few steps back, frowning at it, and shook the water from his feet, wondering whether he ought to go in and see whether he could still open the Chamber of Secrets.

Dumbledore had said he'd inherited his gift for parseltongue straight from Voldemort; if it had been part of the Horcrux left within Harry, then Harry had probably lost it along with whatever else the soul fragment had given him. In some ways, it would be a relief not to have that Dark brand hanging over him any more-- but at the same time, it would make his tasks considerably more difficult.

He'd just about made his mind up to go ahead and get it over with, when one of his least favourite people suddenly spoke up from behind him.

"Well, if it isn't Potter," the familiar Slytherin voice drawled, somehow managing to sound smug, condescending, and disapproving all at the same time. "Had a little accident, I see," it snickered.

It was the kind of voice he'd hated ever since he was old enough to differentiate bullies from victims; it reminded him of Dudley's gang and too many afternoons spent running away from children whose parents had let them believe anyone inferior was legitimate prey. He couldn't even imagine a world where he could have taken Draco's hand back on that train, no matter how much trouble it might have saved him later; it just wasn't in him to excuse, or become a party to, that kind of behaviour.

"Malfoy," he acknowledged with a sigh, turning to face the other boy.

Draco had his bookends with him, of course: the ever-present Crabbe and Goyle. They looked as thick and spiteful as ever, and between them Malfoy was his usual pale, pointy, arrogant self. There was a kind of honest, malicious joy in his expression, though, that Harry hadn't seen in years; the war had broken him down just as thoroughly as it had Harry, filling him up with bitterness and desperation.

"You've been ignoring me lately, Potter," Draco said, smirking as he drew his wand from his pocket. "Finally learning not to interfere with your betters?"

Harry gritted his teeth and clenched his hands at his sides to prevent himself from drawing his own wand in reflex. Just let Malfoy try to curse him. His father might still be on the school board, but Harry knew about pensieves and priori incantatem this time around; if Draco attacked Harry, it would be more than just Harry's word against him. Pity no one had ever called his bluff last time before he was old enough to be dangerous; a little humility on Malfoy's part might have saved Dumbledore's life.

"If it makes you feel better to believe that," he said coolly, "then be my guest."

Draco narrowed his eyes. "You know, I've been looking for someone to practice my newest spell on," he said, sharply. "How good of you to volunteer, Potter."

"Professor Snape!" Harry blurted, staring over Malfoy's left shoulder.

The boy whirled around, hastily shoving his wand back in his pocket, already stuttering an excuse-- but he fell silent a moment later, staring down the empty hall, and the look on his face when he turned back to Harry was ugly indeed.

"Sorry if I startled you," Harry said unrepentantly, smirking back at him. "But you sounded exactly like Professor Snape just then."

"Is that so, Mr. Potter," a new participant in the conversation spoke up behind him.

Harry's blood ran cold, and he froze, struggling not to show his dismay in front of Malfoy. Had he just sacrificed all the progress he'd made in Potions over the last two weeks? "No disrespect meant, sir," he said as calmly as he could, turning to face the professor.

Snape's sharp gaze lingered on his face a moment, then drifted past him to where Malfoy and his goons still stood, watching. "Indeed," he said slowly. "And just what was your purpose for lurking here in the first place, Mr. Potter? Come to spy on the girl's loo, no doubt?"

"No sir," Harry replied, heart beating wildly in his chest as he tried to avoid staring directly into the professor's eyes. No matter what he knew about Snape these days, it was hard to shut down the instinctive fight-or-flight response the former Death Eater's presence always provoked in him. "I was just passing through, sir."

"Then do not let us stop you," Snape sneered, stepping to one side of the hall, the implication clear.

So much for testing the entrance to the Chamber. Harry took a deep breath to calm himself, then took the offered opening, a bitter taste in his mouth as he hurried by the professor.

As if that wasn't enough, he heard Snape speak again as he scurried off: "Five points to Slytherin, Mr. Malfoy, for foiling--"

Harry didn't hear the rest of it, but it was enough to burn in his gut all the way back up to the Tower. He'd like to see Hermione find an upside to that, he thought, then shook his head as he remembered he was supposed to be the one insisting Snape was on the side of the Light.

Who needed enemies really, he thought, when he had allies like these?

He nearly ran into a flustered Neville on the way up; the other boy had apparently just been in the library, and was still trying to stuff the books he'd borrowed into his satchel as he walked. One of the books had a very familiar title; it was one Harry had borrowed the week before in his quest to better understand the way certain herbs behaved in Potions. Grateful for the distraction, he struck up a conversation about it with Neville as they climbed the stairs, and by the time they reached the Common Room both boys were in a much better mood.

Ron and Hermione were playing chess again when he got there, but Ron appeared to be distracted; Hermione was actually doing well against him, for once, and when he noticed Harry standing next to them he abandoned the game entirely.

"Harry!" he hissed, glancing over his shoulder toward the twins-- who'd apparently made it back to the Tower ahead of Harry. "George said Snape's going to referee your next match!"

Harry sighed. "It's several weeks away yet, Ron. I'm not going to worry about it before it gets here."

"Are you sure?" his friend asked, frowning. "You could break your leg."

"Or pretend to be ill the day of the match," Hermione put in, looking up at him.

Harry scowled at her. "I thought you believed me about Snape," he said.

"I believe he wants to push you in Potions," she said primly, "but until we find some other explanation for what's been happening, I'm going to reserve judgment about everything else."

"Forget it," Harry told them, firmly. "There's no reserve Seeker, so I've got to fly or Gryffindor will automatically lose. Besides, the rest of the professors will be watching for it this time; if he really wants to kill me, he'll have to find a more direct way of doing it than knocking me off my broom."

"Shh, keep your voice down," Hermione admonished him, as other heads in the room began turning toward their conversation. Then she frowned down at the chessboard again, tipped her king over, and stood. "Thanks for the game, Ron, but I'd better get back to my books."

Ron shook his head as she headed for the stairs to the female dorms. "Ink and paper, mate," he said, watching her go. "Ink and paper."

His friends' distress over the prospect of Snape watching him at the Quidditch match accomplished one good thing, at least; it reminded Harry about what had happened afterward, when he'd seen Snape confronting Quirrell in a clearing of the Forbidden Forest. It had been some kind of an arranged meeting, if he remembered right, and the conversation had been fairly incriminating. If Harry could arrange to observe it again-- which shouldn't be too difficult, knowing what he'd be looking for-- then he could simply happen to encounter them there, maybe even fall off his broomstick onto Quirrell. It would be a little abrupt, but it would take care of most of his concerns about confronting the possessed teacher: his broom would give him a believable excuse for being out there, the potential witnesses would not include anyone or anything Dumbledore could use to backtrack Harry's more deliberate than accidental approach to the clearing, and the witness that was there would be more concerned with the implications of Quirrell's possession than with sugarcoating events for Harry's benefit.

The only question was, whether he could afford to wait out the five weeks until the match came around before doing anything about Voldemort's presence in the castle. He rather thought it would do for an initial plan, though, unless a better opportunity came to light in the meantime. It would be far better than waiting for the end of the year, in any event.

Harry suffered impatiently through the next two weeks of classes and practices, his list of unmet goals much more on his mind than they had been the two weeks previous. He could hardly wait for the Hogsmeade weekend to arrive; the Twins had promised to pick up the camera he'd asked for in exchange for copies of any photographs they might particularly fancy, and he was very impatient to use it. Remus' next letter had already arrived, and he dearly wanted to include an incriminating image of Wormtail in his next reply.

At the same time, however, he was also rather glad to have an excuse to wait to write back. Lupin had answered his question about James Potter's family with a most unexpected answer-- Harry did have cousins in the wizarding world. Several of them, a couple of generations removed; James hadn't had any siblings, and his father had been an only son, but James' mother had been one of a very large family.

It was the identity of that family that had temporarily knocked his wits loose.

"I'm part Black?" he'd sputtered, jaws agape, staring down at the curling parchment of the letter. "I'm part Black?"

Even more surprising had been Ron's answer. "You didn't know that?" he'd replied, around a mouthful of potatoes.

"No!" Harry had blurted, feeling dizzy as he tried to remember whether he'd seen the name Potter on the Black tapestry. He'd never really paid that much attention to it, except for the places where names like Sirius' had been burnt off. But if he'd been Sirius' cousin the whole time, why hadn't his godfather ever said anything?

And if it was true-- did that make him Tonks' cousin, too? And Malfoy's?

"Most of the old families are related to each other," Ron had said, casually. "Not that most people keep track, beyond making sure first cousins don't marry. Dad's mum was a Black, too, until they disowned her for marrying a Weasley."

Harry had stared at him, dumbstruck. "Does that make us cousins, then?"

"Probably," Ron had answered. "You'd have to ask Dad how close, though."

"But why didn't you ever say anything?" Harry had replied-- aware that he was asking the best friend he'd left behind in the future as much as the one sitting in front of him.

"I guess I thought you already knew," Ron had answered with a shrug. As though it were no big deal.

He must have sat there, watching Ron eat, for several more minutes while Ron dug further into his meal. It wasn't until he'd realized that expression was creeping over Hermione's face again that he'd turned back to his own plate, mind awhirl.

Could it be possible that no one had ever guessed how much it would have meant to Harry, before, had he known that he had actual, blood family in the wizarding world? Not that it wasn't great to have friends, and a godfather, and all, but family--

--Or maybe they had known, Harry had thought, glancing reluctantly up at Dumbledore. Maybe people like Sirius and Arthur Weasley had simply thought he already knew-- or maybe they'd been specifically told not to bring it up by a certain someone with a vested interest in keeping Harry's connections to the world, his reasons to live, as limited and uncomplicated as possible. He was trying not to be paranoid, but-- with so much evidence already out there of Dumbledore's manipulations, it was hard not to at least suspect.

And if he'd never thought to write to Lupin now, before the werewolf came back to Hogwarts and into Dumbledore's sphere of influence again, Harry might never have known. That thought kept him on-task in classes when his mind started to wander, and kept him at his extra studies in the evenings when the temptation to socialize or run off to the Room again grew distracting.

He had to stop Voldemort before Sirius-- before anyone-- died this time. He just had to.

When the Hogsmeade weekend finally came around, Harry slipped the Weasley twins the last of the gold he'd taken out of Gringotts at the beginning of the year and settled down in the Common Room to impatiently await their return. He'd finally thought up a trick he could play on Ron using the rat that wouldn’t be either too harmful or too complex for a first year, and he was ready to try it out.

Neville spent part of the afternoon with him, studying for Potions; he still shook like a leaf and mostly let Harry do all the actual brewing in Potions while Snape hovered over their cauldron making vicious remarks, but he'd regained some of his confidence when dealing with the ingredients themselves, and they hadn't blown up a single potion in the weeks that they'd been paired in the class. Snape still wasn't taking any points, but he wasn’t showing Harry any more respect, either; he was still as harsh as ever.

At the rate things were going, he would never warm up to Harry enough to believe him about the Horcruxes instead of taking the matter directly to Dumbledore. But who else could Harry ask for help? Sirius, maybe-- but even Sirius would be more inclined to think of him as a child to be protected, especially at the age he was now. And Harry couldn't afford that level of interference. That was one side effect of Snape's insistence on identifying him with his father that Harry had never thought he might have reason to be grateful for: the fact that Snape saw him-- and criticized him-- as an individual old enough to be responsible for his own actions, rather than just a kid.

The whole point would be moot if only he didn't have to worry about the Trace. Then he wouldn't have to tell anyone the whole truth. Until he was of age, though, there was nothing for it-- he needed an adult pair of hands, and six years was much too long to wait.

His study session with Neville finally broke up mid-afternoon when the other boy left to send a letter to his grandmother. Hermione was deep in yet another book, and Ron was playing Exploding Snap with Seamus and Dean; Harry was briefly tempted to join the game, but didn't quite have the heart for it. Instead, he decided to get back to the task he'd been interrupted in two weeks before-- Myrtle's bathroom would be easier to investigate with so many students and staff out of the castle.

He stopped by the third floor on his way down for a detour through the trophy room; he lingered in front of Tom Riddle's Special Award for Service to the School for a moment, then in front of the Head Boy's plaque where his father's name was inscribed. Then he stared at the place where his and Ron's Special Awards would have been, and sighed. He'd put it off long enough.

He approached Myrtle's bathroom slowly, as though approaching his own execution; he recognized the way his heart pounded and the world seemed to fade away into the distance, leaving only the task ahead of him. He'd been trying not to think about how vital the question would be to everything else that was yet to come-- and until that moment, he'd succeeded. How would he open the locket, when the time came, if he'd lost the ability to speak to snakes? How would he destroy the Horcruxes, if he didn't have access to basilisk venom? But what would it mean for him, if the ability wasn't gone?

Finally, he opened the door and stepped in. Myrtle didn't seem to be around, but he doubted he'd have had the energy to deal with her even if she was; all of his attention was focused on that one particular sink and the tiny snake etched onto one of its copper taps.

He licked his lips, then spoke the crucial word: "Open."

Nothing happened. He took a deep breath, trying to listen past the English he'd always heard for the sibilant hisses that accompanied the language of the snakes, and said it again. "Open."

Nothing. And again: nothing.

No hissing. No Chamber. No parseltongue. No Horcux.

He collapsed to the floor like a puppet with its strings cut, breathing harshly, as he processed what it meant. He couldn't-- he couldn't--

--but he wasn't. For all the assurances he'd had before, this was the first solid proof he had that he didn't still carry a piece of Voldemort inside him. More than Dumbledore's word, more than the mere absence of scar-prickling or easier Occlumency, this was positive confirmation. A weight that he hadn't realized he'd been carrying around since he'd first viewed the Prince's tale in Dumbledore's pensieve had fallen from him, and he was shaken by the loss of it.

"Just Harry," he said aloud, and laughed, feeling slightly hysterical. "I'm just Harry, now."

Then the rest of what that meant sank in. If Harry-with-a-Horcrux had been Voldemort's equal, could Harry-without-one match up? Did the prophecy still apply at all?

And if particular magics truly were attached to the soul-- and stayed gone once ripped away--

Harry had been assuming the Trace was back, this whole time.

...What if it wasn't?


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