Thanks to Thobeobo for beta-reading this chapter.
I do NOT own Harry Potter or its universe. All rights go to JK Rowling and her publisher.
Sunsets were always beautiful, but they were truly wonders to behold at Hogwarts. The way the colours blended and reflected off the lake was a sight Albus had remembered ever since his first night at the castle, over a century ago.
As he watched another out his window, high in his office, he thought about something that both concerned him and filled him with pride. There was much he had learnt since this term began, and while some questions were answered, those answers only gave him more questions.
"How, Fawkes?" Albus asked, turning to glance at the phoenix beside his desk. "How does he know the magic that he does, and at such a young age? Who taught him?"
Fawkes only stared at him, his black eyes unblinking.
Albus faced the phoenix fully and smiled.
"How strange it is," he said, "that he would be the owner of the sole feather you have ever given."
Fawkes stood taller on his perch, radiating happiness almost palpably.
"You approve, then." Albus's smile grew. "You bring an old man great comfort, my friend."
He looked out the window again, just in time to watch a thestral soar out from beneath the treeline, followed by a foal. Even as unfortunate as it was to witness death, he would always appreciate the simple magnificence of thestrals. How contradictory it was that such nightmarish creatures could also provide the world with beauty unparalleled.
"Keep an eye on Harry, won't you?"
Fawkes trilled a single note, filling Albus with warmth and courage.
"Thank you," he whispered.
"I will do my part, as well."
Albus looked at the portrait that had spoken. It depicted a clever-looking wizard with a pointed beard who wore the Slytherin colours of green and silver. He was watching Albus with dark eyes.
"Thank you, Phineas," Albus said sincerely. It was a rare occurrence that the only Black to sit in the headmaster's chair offered his services, but then, this was a special circumstance.
"You know that I will only be able to tell you so much," Phineas warned. "First and foremost, my loyalty is to the House of Black. I can watch over the boy, but I will not spy on him for you."
"That is more than I would ever ask of you," Albus said.
It was more than what Phineas had already done. It was only because of Phineas that Albus had known from the start Harry was at Grimmauld Place with the Blacks. Albus had neglected to inform anyone of what he knew, however, because he thought it best that Harry and Evan were separated during the summer months, given what had happened between them.
Albus didn't like that it had also been a punishment for James and Lily, to be cut off from their son for two months when they could have had the chance to repair their relationship and move on, but it was for the best that Harry be kept away from them until Severus had taught him to control himself.
Harry may have been adopted by the Blacks and rechristened himself Krios, but that did not mean all hope was lost. There was always a chance that the Potters could, with time, at least become friendly with each other, if not family.
"Dumbledore!" cried another portrait. "You're needed outside the bathroom the ghost Myrtle haunts."
The urgency in the portrait's voice filled Albus with foreboding. He looked at Fawkes, who took off from the perch and landed on his shoulder. With a flash of flames that left a swooping feeling in his stomach, they were whisked away from the office.
They reappeared at the end of the corridor where the bathroom was and Albus's apprehension grew at the sight of Severus, Minerva, and several students staring at the wall opposite the bathroom door. His breath caught as he approached, noticing a small, stiff figure hanging from the torch bracket.
Argus Filch's cat, Mrs. Norris.
Before Albus could focus on the cat, however, his attention was caught by the words on the wall. They were carelessly smeared in red paint between the windows, foot-high and shimmering in the light of the flaming torches.
THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS HAS BEEN OPENED
ENEMIES OF THE HEIR, BEWARE
Albus swept forward and lifted Mrs. Norris from the bracket, ignoring the water that splashed against the hem of his robes. It wouldn't be the first time Myrtle had flooded the toilets, so it was of no importance for the moment.
He faced the teachers and asked, "Who found her like this?"
"Mr. Black did," Severus said. "He came to me afterwards."
"Let us move to your office, please." Albus sought out Krios amongst the gathered students, noting that they were all second-year Slytherins. "Come with us, please, Mr. Black."
A brunette witch leapt forward.
"He didn't do anything, sir. I was with him the whole time."
"I do not believe he did, Miss Greengrass," Albus said. "However, as he was the first to find Mrs. Norris in this state, he may have knowledge most valuable to discovering what happened."
Miss Greengrass gave Krios a wary look, but calmed when he nodded.
Albus would have smiled under better circumstances. To have earned the loyalty of a friend was a treasure beyond anything that magic could give, and he was pleased that Krios was the recipient of such a gift. He deserved it, after all the hardships he had been through.
"Professor McGonagall, if you could please escort these students the rest of the way to their common room then retrieve Argus for us?"
"Of course," Minerva said without hesitation. She herded the Slytherins along, down the corridor.
Severus led the way to his office, with Albus and Krios trailing behind. None of them spoke as they walked. Albus was looking over Mrs. Norris's stiff body; the cat was frozen, her eyes wide and staring, but what concerned him was the complete lack of a heartbeat.
He hadn't seen a victim like this since Myrtle herself, fifty years ago, which only lent credence to the possibility that the Chamber had indeed been opened again.
"Provide us privacy, if you will?" Albus requested of Severus as the office door shut behind them.
He nodded and pulled out his wand.
Albus turned to look at Krios, who had taken a seat in the chair in front of Severus's desk, looking far more comfortable than Albus would have expected. The detention lessons must have been going well.
"Can you tell us what happened tonight?" he asked, taking a seat in Severus's chair.
"I was in the library with some… friends," Krios began, unmistakably hesitant to use that specific word to describe the other Slytherins. "We were doing our homework and lost track of time. We realized that we were late for dinner, so we started heading down. We just wanted to drop our bags off first so we didn't have to hold onto them the whole time"
"Understandable," Albus said. He was quite pleased to hear how seriously Krios was taking his studies, and that he was indirectly encouraging the same in his peers. Messrs. Crabbe and Goyle, in particular, would benefit from having a positive influence around. "You found Mrs. Norris on your way down?"
"That corridor isn't part of the quickest route to the dungeons, is it?" Albus stared into Krios's eyes. They both knew that he wasn't really asking for confirmation.
"No, sir, it's not," Krios said calmly. "We saw the flood from around the corner and thought we should take a look in case something was wrong."
Albus briefly used Legilimency, barely more than a second; he had a feeling Krios wasn't telling the full truth, and he was right. But he was surprised, to say the least, when Krios narrowed his eyes, seemingly aware of what he had done.
A glance at Severus with another swift use of Legilimency to ask his question silently. He knew that the attempt would be blocked easily, but Severus would understand. And, indeed, Severus's eyes flicked to Krios and back, then he gave a short nod, confirming it.
But why had Severus introduced Krios to Occlumency, especially when he was only twelve years old?
Albus took a minute to look the boy over. There was no doubt that he was much healthier than he had been a year ago, standing taller with fuller cheeks and robes that actually fit him. Albus was happier than he could ever put into words that this poor child had escaped and found something better. He prayed that Severus could continue to help him recover, mentally, so that Krios could embrace his full potential and become a great wizard; one who did not strike at others when angered, but managed his temper, finding a more fitting outlet.
"Thank you, Mr. Black," Albus said. "You may go."
Krios nodded, then stood and walked to the door, where he hesitated for a fraction of a second, as if there was something else he wanted to say. He didn't, though, leaving without looking back.
"He is keeping secrets."
"He is," Severus agreed, moving to take the seat Krios had just vacated. "But for good reason."
Albus looked at Severus, silently asking him to explain.
What was revealed next filled him with dread. Severus told Albus all about how Krios was truly being treated by the Blacks—how they were hoping to turn him into both politician and soldier, teaching him how to duel like Bellatrix Lestrange and maneuver the Wizengamot like Lucius Malfoy. They wanted to turn him into a true member of the House of Black, one who possessed the cunning and mercilessness that had built their notorious reputation over the centuries.
"That's not all, though." Severus paused, seemingly debating with himself on whether to say more.
Albus sat patiently, not speaking.
"The Dark Lord has taken an interest in him," Severus said at last, and Albus's heart stopped beating. "Quirrell grew close to him last year on the Dark Lord's orders, teaching him the hexes he used against Evan Potter and providing him with the means to learn more."
"And Occlumency?" Albus pressed.
"Regulus and I deemed it necessary for him to learn as soon as possible."
"It is unfortunate, but I must agree." Albus sighed, "What damage has been done?"
"Beyond introducing him to the Dark Arts, none." Severus summoned a tall glass from his cupboard with a flick of his wand and filled it with a dark drink. He took a sip before continuing, "The Dark Lord didn't want to bring him harm. I don't know what his plans are, but it can't be anything good."
Albus folded his hands on the desk and fixed Severus with a piercing look.
"Why are you only now telling me this?"
The question hung between them like a tangible barrier that neither was willing to cross. Albus wanted an answer that Severus was reluctant to give. Despite all the trust between them, there were still secrets being kept that maintained the divide that had always been present. Albus had hoped that would have changed over the last decade, but clearly not.
"Have I not proven that you can confide in me, Severus? Have I not shared information with you that no other knows? Have I not fulfilled my promises?"
"Not all of them," Severus said, his voice low, barely audible. "You promised to keep Lily safe."
"And I did."
"YOU NEARLY DIDN'T!" Severus thundered, suddenly on his feet. His sallow face was flushed with rage, his eyes glittering with a malice Albus had not seen in years. "Pettigrew betrayed them! You should have insisted on protecting them yourself instead of leaving their lives in the hands of those that not even you trusted implicitly! Had they not needed time away that night, it would be Lily who had died instead of her parents!"
Each word was like a dagger to Albus's chest. They were what ifs he had punished himself with more than once since that night, knowing that he could have done more to keep the Potters safe. He had let his arrogance blind him; assumed that the Fidelius Charm would be enough, even though he knew there was a spy in the Order, if not whom.
"You ask that I trust you again, Dumbledore…" Severus shook his head. "How am I to trust a man whose only priorities are his own interests? You once claimed to serve the greater good of the many, but I fail to see how anything you have done lately follows that."
"Should I have told James and Lily where their son spent the summer, then?" Albus asked calmly.
Severus froze, wide-eyed.
"Yes, I knew then, not even a week into the summer, that Harry Potter was with the Blacks. But I neglected to tell his parents where he was because I believed it in his best interest that he stay away from them until you have succeeded in teaching him control. Was I wrong to do so, Severus? Should I have told the Potters then what I knew, allowed them to fight for their son?"
"They would have lost that battle," Severus said. "Their mistake and the results of it would have come to light had they challenged the sole remaining Noble and Most Ancient House for custody of the boy."
"Do you really believe so? The family of the Boy-Who-Lived, the lord of their House being a highly reputed Auror who fought against Voldemort on three separate occasions and survived, and you truly think they would lose?"
"Cornelius Fudge may be more tolerating than the company he keeps, but he is still biased against muggles, as are many of our world, especially among those with power in the Wizengamot." Severus's face twisted with a grim smile. "There would only be one outcome, and it wouldn't be in favour of the ones who left a wizard in the company of abusive muggles for ten years."
Albus sighed, knowing Severus was correct. It had been part of the reasoning he had used to convince himself he was doing the right thing by not acting when Harry arrived at the home of the Blacks. He had been curious to know whether Severus, who spent more time in his potions lab than the political arena, would be aware enough to realize the same, though.
"Your friends are company well kept."
"They have their uses," Severus drawled, a flicker of amusement dancing in his eyes.
Albus chuckled as the tension in the room drained away.
Severus looked down and grimaced at the shattered glass on the floor. A flick of his wand repaired it, and a second vanished the mess left behind from the spilled drink.
"Such a waste," he muttered as he returned the glass to its place in his cupboard.
Albus couldn't help but smile. "Such is the beauty of the Refilling Charm, is it not?"
Severus flashed an amused look over his shoulder, closing the cupboard.
It was still startling at times to see him happy, in Albus's eyes. He feared what Severus would be like now had that night truly happened differently and Lily perished in place of her parents. The broken shell of a man that remained wouldn't have been willing to help Harry Potter; at least, not nearly so much as Severus had thus far. Keep him and Evan alive, possibly, but he wouldn't have gone to the lengths he had to secure them a happy home away from the harm of the Dursleys.
And Albus, to his shame, wouldn't have done anything either. There were protections that he had placed around the home that would have kept the boys safe from the Death Eaters seeking revenge for Voldemort's fall. So long as they could call number four, Privet Drive home, they would be safe.
From external threats, at least; Albus, regrettably, had also believed Petunia's change of heart, and he was disappointed with himself for not looking closer and indirectly allowing something so awful.
He was pulled from his thoughts when the door opened once more and Minerva entered with Argus.
The caretaker burst into tears at the sight of his cat, his sobs filling the silent office.
As Severus and Minerva left the room to escort their houses back to the dormitories, and a house-elf was requested to deliver food to the common rooms, Albus prayed this was all a highly inappropriate prank. He feared what would come of Hogwarts and those who lived in its halls if the message on the wall was true and the Chamber of Secrets had indeed been opened again.
"Remind me to kill Draco later," Krios muttered, scowling as people pointed and whispered when he passed them. Draco had, in an act of sheer stupidity, told Pansy Parkinson, of all people, about how they had found a dead Mrs. Norris, and the rumours had spread like wildfire from there.
And, naturally, everyone suspected the only person in their group to be taken away, never mind that it had been mentioned repeatedly that Dumbledore himself didn't believe Krios had done it.
Daphne grinned. "Only if I can watch."
"I'll see you later," Krios said, nodding to her as he slipped inside Professor Snape's office. Finally, after a month, his detentions were coming to an end. If they continued from here on, it would be as extra lessons instead of a 'punishment' for actions he didn't regret.
Daphne waved just before he shut the door.
"Don't get comfortable," Professor Snape said when Krios went to sit down. "We're going somewhere else this time. I would prefer not to risk any of my possessions."
That piqued Krios's interest, but he didn't ask about it.
They stepped out of the office and, once Professor Snape had locked it behind them, set off down the corridor, heading in the direction of an empty classroom. Neither spoke until they were inside and standard privacy spells had been put in place.
"We're only duelling today," Professor Snape said, to Krios's surprise. "I have neither the desire nor the patience to wait for you to centre yourself, much less deal with your memories. You have managed well enough until now that I believe you are capable of continuing on your own."
Krios stood a little taller, proud of the praise.
Professor Snape tossed aside his cloak and raised his wand, and Krios quickly matched him. They stood across from each other, on opposite sides of the room, both prepared to cast at any moment.
Krios decided to start things, this time.
A jet of orange light raced across the room, but fizzled out against Professor Snape's silently-conjured Shield Charm, rather than reflecting back at him.
A slight smile tugged Professor Snape's lips as he returned a jinx of his own without speaking.
Spellfire flew back and forth, steadily growing more fierce. It was obvious that Professor Snape was holding back, focusing more on shielding Krios's jinxes and hexes than returning his own, but it didn't really matter, in the grand scheme of things. The point of their duels, usually, wasn't for Krios to win, or even get close to it. Professor Snape challenged him to be resourceful in his attacks, to use his environment more than brute force, as Bellatrix preferred.
The only problem was that Professor Snape had chosen a classroom devoid of anything useful.
This would be difficult, but not impossible. It was clearly a test of some kind, most likely to see how creative he could be in an environment that was designed against him.
Unfortunately, Professor Snape decided to end it after a few minutes. His arm blurred, he moved so fast, and Krios's wand was ripped from his hand without so much as a spark from Professor Snape's.
Krios forced his breathing to slow as Professor Snape approached him to return his wand, but it was hard when his lungs felt like they were freezing from the inside out after having gone so long without pause. He had more than enough endurance to move quickly for as long as they did, having spent most of his life outrunning Dudley and his gang, but it was another matter entirely to do so while expending energy casting spells at the same time.
"What was the point of that?" Krios asked when he could breathe easier.
Professor Snape's face was inscrutable, his black eyes like empty tunnels.
Krios felt as if he'd been dunked in the lake in winter.
"What does he know?"
"Almost everything," Professor Snape said softly. "I shared with him all I know of Quirrell and what you have been doing with Bellatrix and Lucius."
"You know about that?" Krios asked sharply.
Professor Snape raised his brow, looking unimpressed.
"I have been inside your mind on multiple occasions," he reminded Krios. "You have done better than I would have expected of you, keeping most of that from me, but not good enough. I know that he has been sending you letters with offers to teach you things the Blacks cannot."
Krios said nothing. Denying it would do him no good, so the only option before him was to be patient and let Professor Snape share his opinion.
"It is a generous offer, one that Lucius would not have made lightly." Professor Snape's eyes locked onto Krios's, glinting darkly. "However, I feel I must advise you to be cautious. Lucius is not a man you want to play games with; he is dangerous in a way the Dark Lord isn't, and that is what made him such a valuable asset. He is a politician unlike any other. He rose through the Dark Lord's ranks, growing from a mere schoolboy into one of the Dark Lord's most trusted within a few years.
"And that was all before the war even began. Following the Dark Lord's downfall, Lucius evaded imprisonment in Azkaban, the first of the Death Eaters to claim the Imperius Curse forced their hand because he knew it was his best chance at staying with his family.
"If you are to continue communicating with him…" Professor Snape hesitated, "I must insist you be cautious. Lucius would not bother with you unless he saw something he wanted. You have value to him, but that value can be lost quickly if he discovers you won't do as he wishes. For now, it is imperative that you learn subtlety and trickery to avoid his ire until you can properly defend yourself."
"But what if I agree with him?" Krios asked. "What if what he wants me to do is what I want to do?"
Professor Snape's expression darkened.
"There may well be things you agree with," he admitted, "but there are many you won't."
Krios frowned, looking at his wand as he twirled it in his hand.
"I'm confused, sir," he said after a moment. He looked back up at Professor Snape. "How does this help with duelling, how does it relate to what we were just doing?"
"If you cannot use your environment to subdue an opponent," Professor Snape's eyes glittered, "you must create distractions to use against them. It will be many years before you can be considered equal to any of the Dark Lord's finest, unless you learn how to outwit them. I cannot teach you to beat them in direct combat—not yet, at least—so instead I will attempt to help you learn to maneuver around them, to be smarter than them and win through cunning instead of force."
"So while Bellatrix helps me learn curses and stuff, you'll be doing this?" Krios asked.
It was a good deal, all things considered. Between Bellatrix and Professor Snape, he would be taught how to duel by a couple of the most powerful wizards alive. One would teach him the brutality of combat, how to inflict more damage on his opponents than they did on him, while the other would teach him survival, how to beat his enemy by being smarter.
Krios looked back at Professor Snape and grinned.
For the last month, the school had been buzzing about the Chamber of Secrets opening. They had all seen the message painted on the wall at this point. With the death of Filch's cat, the only suspect for which being Krios Black, most of the students were regarding Slytherins with more wariness than usual, especially the younger years.
It didn't help that people like Malfoy, those who believed in the superiority of proper purebloods, were spreading rumours that the Heir of Slytherin would go after muggleborns next.
Evan wasn't sure what to think about all of it. On one hand, he could definitely see his sadistic brother being cruel enough to kill a cat; but on the other, something about it just didn't feel right.
"Why did we agree to this, again?" Ron asked, looking around them in disbelief.
It was an understandable reaction, considering they were surrounded by ghosts and none of them was the one they were here for.
"Because it sounded interesting," Hermione said, wrinkling her nose. She appeared interested in some of the things happening around the dungeon they were in, but between the frigid chill from so many ghosts gathered in one place and the inedibility of all the food, it seemed she was rapidly coming to wish they were elsewhere.
"Because I owe Nick one," Evan corrected. It was because of Nearly Headless Nick that he had managed to avoid two months of detention with Filch after dragging mud into the castle following a late night practice for Quidditch a couple weeks earlier.
Ever since the death of his cat, Filch had been worse than ever before. When he wasn't lurking in the corridor where the message had been painted and his cat had been killed, he was scouring the halls for any potential troublemakers he could punish as harshly as possible.
"Fat lot of good that'll do us if we freeze to death down here," Ron muttered. His stomach growled loudly, and he wrapped his arms tighter around himself. "I wish we'd at least brought our cloaks."
"Well, how should I have known it'd be this cold?" Evan demanded.
"Oh, no," Hermione moaned. "It's Peeves."
Ron winced. "Let's get out of here. You can make it up to Nick some other way. This isn't worth dealing with that bloody menace when we could be eating real food."
"Yeah, I s'pose you're right," Evan said.
They slipped through the dungeon and out into the hallway, which was much warmer. Evan was grateful for the flickering torches; it would be pitch black without them. The entire way up to the Great Hall, though, Ron was still complaining.
"If Nick was going to ask you to be there, he at least could've shown up. I mean, really, what kind of person doesn't attend their own deathday party?"
Evan snorted, and he could have sworn he heard Hermione stifle a giggle.
Stepping up the stairs out of the dungeons and into the entrance hall, Evan said, "I hope we're not too late for the feast. It was amazing last year."
Ron licked his lips with gleaming eyes.
"D'you think we'll be in time for—"
A shrill, terrified scream cut Ron off.
Evan looked at Hermione, but she was staring in horror at something behind them. Evan turned to check it out and had to bite back a scream of his own.
Motionless on the floor, like a far too realistic statue, was Percy Weasley. His eyes were wide and staring, his mouth open in surprise and his skin paler than usual. His horn-rimmed glasses sat askew, the glass cracked from the impact of falling over.
Ron appeared as if he had been frozen, too, looking uncomprehendingly at his older brother.
Floating immobile and horizontal beside Percy, about six inches above the floor with his head half-off, was Nearly Headless Nick. He was no longer translucent silver, but black and smoky. The expression on his face was the same frozen shock as Percy's.
Before Evan could ask if they should go get someone, there was a storm of footsteps behind him, and it wasn't long before more gasps and screams came from the rapidly forming crowd. Everyone in the Great Hall must have heard Hermione, because it seemed like every student in the school was there, trying to push their way to the front.
To Evan's relief, Dumbledore was one of the first to break free and approach them. Evan couldn't recall ever seeing him look so grim and sad.
Behind Dumbledore, Evan saw Black and Malfoy. While Black was blank-faced, unsurprised to see any of this, Malfoy's eyes were glittering with glee, a broad smile stretching across his flushed face.
Evan had a sinking feeling in his stomach. Glancing at Ron and Hermione, he saw that they had noticed, too. The fury in Ron's eyes looked as if it was barely restrained, but, thankfully, Evan managed to catch Neville's attention; he hurried over to them in case they needed to hold Ron back so he didn't do something stupid in front of everyone.
"Madam Pomfrey," Dumbledore said, his deep voice calm and soothing, "please take Mr. Weasley up to the hospital wing. If his family wishes to accompany him, they may."
Madam Pomfrey nodded, then flicked her wand at Percy, levitating his stiff, statue-like body.
Ron seemed to find his voice again. "He's… He's still—"
"He is still alive," Dumbledore reassured them, and Ron sagged with relief. "Only petrified. We are fortunate that Professor Sprout is currently in the process of growing mandrakes. In a few months, we will be able to give your brother a restorative draught."
"Thank you, sir," Ron said in a voice full of gratitude.
Dumbledore nodded, smiling sadly.
"Hurry along, now," he said to them all. "Back to your common rooms."
Now smirking, Malfoy swaggered past them, looking far too happy.
"Disgusting," Hermione muttered, scowling. "How could anyone be that pleased about this?"
"He's evil," Ron growled. "Just like his father."
Evan firmly nodded his agreement. He and Ron had had the bad luck of running into the Malfoys this summer in Diagon Alley, and it had resulted in a fistfight between Malfoy's father and Mr. Weasley after several insults were exchanged by both men. It hadn't made it into the Daily Prophet the next morning only because Evan's father had managed to scare the cameraman, who was present for the book-signing Lockhart was holding that same day, and made him delete the photos.
"We have to do something about this," Hermione said as they walked up the stairs.
"But what?" Evan asked. "What could we even do? We don't know anything."
Hermione's eyes glittered in a way that made Evan's stomach feel weird.
"We don't know anything yet," she said, smirking. "I think I know a way we can fix that."
Evan and Ron shared a look.
THANKS FOR READING!