Actions

Work Header

Time Is A Pretzel

Chapter Text

If anyone asks, it was totally the Basilisk’s fault.

Harry is quite certain of this.

Except, technically it’s the Dursleys’ fault that Harry can’t stand the idea of being trapped. Or it’s Sirius Black’s fault, for the constant presence of Dementors that are making everything even more horrible than it was when Slytherin’s monster was terrorising the school last year.

Or maybe it’s Harry’s fault for deciding to cope with, well, everything by wandering the school corridors in the early hours of most mornings when he can’t sleep. But what’s the point in finally being a teenager if he’s not allowed to occasionally do reckless things that might get him killed by the insane escaped convict?

On the whole, it’s easier to blame the decaying corpse of the giant venomous snake under the floor.

Anyway, it is true that the Basilisk killed Myrtle, which meant that Hermione was able to brew Polyjuice potion in her bathroom, which allowed Harry and Ron to sneak into the Slytherin Common Room. And as a consequence, Harry now knows where to find the Slytherin Common Room, which… isn’t really helping Harry’s ability not to make impulsive and foolish decisions.

Hogwarts’ dungeons are freezing, and the endless deserted corridors are not helping him to outrun that trapped feeling. It doesn’t help that Sirius Black somehow managed to get past the Dementors again, last night.

Luckily, the Slytherin Common Room is the last place that Sirius Black will search for the Gryffindor Boy Who Lived, which is definitely absolutely completely total justification for Harry to be loitering in this corridor right now, trying to work out if he can guess the password.

Reckless decisions: blame the Basilisk.

Not even Harry expects the instinct to hiss at the wall, and the fact that it works is even more surprising. Still, he said that he was going to explore the dungeons, which means that he’ll bloody well explore all of them, thank you very much. And, well, the door did open for him.

The Slytherin Common Room is exactly the same cavernous room soaked in dim green light that he remembers from last year.

It really is very green.

Now Harry wants to know if the Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws are drowning in yellow and blue too, or if it is just the two who decided on excessive demonstrations of house pride. Not that he doesn’t like it, even if he’ll be admitting it to Ron sometime approaching never. It’s probably less peaceful when it’s full of Slytherins anyway.

No magical alarms start shouting their unhappiness when Harry enters, and that is an excellent start. It’s deserted, which is also useful, because Harry is not as brilliant as he used to think he was at navigating unseen. Invisible isn’t the same as undetectable.

He wanders through the middle of the room, heading for the window that looks out into the depths of the lake. It’s beautiful, sure, for a certain value of really incredibly creepy. Harry hopes that he never has to find out if it actually is as cold as it looks, and not just because he never learnt to swim. There are also-

-Bloody fucking mermaids, apparently.

And they look nothing like the muggle version, and okay, now Harry really doesn’t want to go in that lake. They might be lovely beings, for all that they look like terrifying fish demons with hair, but Harry would still rather not get close enough to find out for sure. Even now, he’d much rather be backing away towards the fireplace – which he’s doing – almost unconsciously, and he’s also not looking where he’s going, and that is probably a bad plan.

It is definitely a bad plan.

He trips backwards. An armchair, he thinks, but he’s too busy flailing his arms and trying to stay upright, trying to stay quiet, trying not to let the invisibility cloak start to slip off him like- that.

He manages to grab it, and teeters for one gold-spun second of perfect balance.

The chair kicks him in the ankle and he lands in a painful invisible heap on the floor.

Shit.

“If you’re going to sneak around invisibly, you might consider not making so much noise.”

Shit.

Once more, with feeling.

Harry doesn’t freeze. He’s lying crumpled on the floor; he’s already doomed.

The voice… sounds amused more than anything else, though, and when Harry twists his head, he sees that it belongs to a man in the portrait above the fireplace. The painting is vaguely familiar, not that Harry was paying attention while he and Ron were doing a very bad job of interrogating Draco Malfoy, but Harry doesn’t remember there being a person in there.

Sprawled on the floor isn’t the ideal position for Harry to be analysing facial expressions either, but he doesn’t think that the man looks upset. He can see that the man has brown hair and robes that even Harry recognises as archaic, and he looks familiar for reasons that Harry can’t describe.

And Harry is currently panicking.

“Are you going to introduce yourself?” the portrait prompts, with a hint of impatience.

Introduce- right, yes, of course. Give his name to the Slytherin portrait who is the only witness to Harry’s very inelegant infiltration of the Slytherin Common Room. That sounds like a terrible idea.

On the other hand, there is no need for Harry to be rude. It’s already too late to run away undetected, and Harry really wants to work out why he feels like he recognises the portrait from somewhere. Maybe he can persuade the portrait not to tell anyone.

Aunt Petunia has always insisted that his curiosity will get him into serious trouble one day, but Harry’s pretty sure this isn’t what she had in mind.

He scrambles to his feet, picking up the invisibility cloak and holding it in front of him like a very ineffective shield. This entire situation is absurd, and a part of Harry wants to break out into hysterical laughter. But he doesn’t. Maybe the portrait won’t realise he’s a Gryffindor.

The portrait raises his eyebrows with a “well go on, then” gesture.

“Hi,” Harry says, waving one partially invisible hand. “I’m Harry. Um…” He’s never been very good at meeting new people. “Sorry for being bad at sneaking around invisibly?” He glares at the chair, which shuffles its ostentatiously clawed feet, somehow managing to give off an air of smugness. Because of course Slytherins fill their Common Room with homicidal chairs.

“Hello Harry,” the portrait says politely. “I am Nizar. And you are not one of my Slytherins.”

Well, there goes that plan.

Forget Voldemort, Sirius Black and the Dementors, Harry is going to be murdered by Professor Snape.

“Are you going to tell someone?”

Nizar shrugs. His robes really are ancient. “There’s no one here for me to tell.”

That is not particularly encouraging, but Harry wasn’t particularly subtle in asking. Slytherins like to be… cunning, don’t they? Does that include not answering outright questions? The Sorting Hat’s songs aren’t helpful, and Harry hasn’t read Hogwarts: A History. This might be the first civilised conversation he’s ever had with a Slytherin, and that really is not a promising start.

As far as he can work out, he’s doomed as soon as people start waking up.

Luckily, Harry is also a nosy Gryffindor, and he is absolutely going to stay and make the most of it.

He creeps closer towards the fireplace.

Nizar is awkwardly perched cross-legged on a painted wooden chair, but he seems quite comfortable. Harry sits cross-legged on chairs like that all the time, so maybe it’s just a thing. There’s something that Nizar is holding, something green and glittering, that twines around his fingers.

Harry tilts his head. Nizar looks… kind, he decides. Also a bit like only the physical constraints of the portrait would stop him from wandering around stabbing people who annoy him, but that doesn’t bother Harry as much as it probably should. If people are going to get stabbed, he’d rather that it’s someone with good morals doing the stabbing.

Nizar is still watching him with an odd half smile, as if he can tell what Harry is thinking. Harry has never really interacted with portraits before, so he has no idea if that might be the case.

The glittering green-gold-black ribbon lifts its head and flicks its tongue at him, flashing bright green eyes.

Not a ribbon.

Harry hesitates for a single moment. He might still be a bit afraid of the Basilisk, but this isn’t the Basilisk, and he’s always liked normal snakes. Talking to snakes in front of people is terrifying after that whole incident last year, but this is a Slytherin portraits. Snakes are a whole Slytherin Thing, right? And this one is literally climbing on Nizar, so it’s reasonable to assume that Nizar is not afraid of it.

Mainly, Harry just wants to talk to the pretty snake.

“Hello,” he hisses softly, immediately catching its attention. “I’m Harry. It’s nice to meet you.”

“I know,” the snake replies smugly.

Nizar taps her on the head. “Be polite, dearest!” He gives Harry an apologetic look. “This is Kanza. She understands English though she cannot speak it.”

“And I’m brilliant,” Kanza adds, before she twists and crawls away up the inside of Nizar’s sleeve.

It takes several seconds for Harry to process that exchange, and then several more seconds to realise that Nizar- that Nizar-

Harry stares at him in wide-eyed speechless surprise.

Nizar gazes back, entirely unconcerned about the snake somewhere up the inside of his sleeve, and he is looking at Harry like Harry is the weird one who can suddenly and unexpectedly speak parseltongue.

“You- you’re a parselmouth,” Harry gasps, in what might have been a mixture of snake and human languages. It feels like he doesn’t have enough oxygen. This is ridiculous, this is-

Bloody Slytherins!

Nizar gives him a very odd look. “And you are…?”

“Um, yes. But.” Harry’s heart is racing, and he really wishes that it wouldn’t. Maybe it’s meeting another parselmouth apart from Tom Riddle, maybe it’s that this is the first time that no one has acted like he’s a freak for speaking parseltongue. Maybe it’s, maybe… “Wh- who are you?”

Nizar tilts his head with an amused expression. “I am Nizar.”

Maybe it’s part of his brain telling him that something about this meeting is important, even though it hasn’t yet bothered to explain why. “My name is Harry James Potter.”

Nizar smiles as if Harry just got something right. That’s great, because Harry still doesn’t know what he’s doing. “I am Nizar Hariwalt Deslizarse. Properly, Nizar Hariwalt de León, Casa de Deslizarse de Castilla y Moravia, but those extra bits usually take too long to say.”

Harry blinks. That feels… that feels like a gift. He has no idea why. Slytherins don’t make any sense. “What does it mean?”

“Nizar Hariwalt is half-Euskaran and half-Germanic. It means little war leader.

Harry bites his lip before he can ask what Euskaran is. He doesn’t want the portrait to think he’s stupid as well. “Harry sounds a bit like it could be a nickname for Hariwalt,” he offers, stumbling slightly over the unfamiliar word. He likes it, but he doesn’t think he’d ever suit a name like that. “I don’t think my name was meant to mean anything special.”

Nizar gives him a long scrutinising look which makes Harry feel sure that this man was a teacher or something at some point. It’s a bit intimidating, but Harry already decided that he’s not going to run away.

“That name was a gift from parents who loved you,” Nizar finally says, in a quieter voice than before. “That can be special.”

“Oh,” Harry whispers, a tiny helpless noise that escapes before he can stop it. No one has ever said anything like that before. He clears his throat, trying to swipe away at emotions that he really doesn’t want to deal with. “So… er, what do the other parts of your name mean?”

Nizar is giving him a fond look tinged with concern. Except he’s not, because that would be silly. No one is fond of Harry apart from Mrs Weasley. And occasionally Hermione, when Harry hasn’t done anything particularly stupid recently.

“This region of Scotland used to be known as the Kingdom of Moray. My family is from Castile and León. And my family name is Casa de Deslizarse, although it was immediately slurred into Slytherin by the people of this isle.”

Lecture voice. Definitely a teacher.

“You’re Spanish?” Harry blurts out, before he can stop himself.

Nizar’s foot slips off the chair, and he uncrosses his legs to avoid falling, giving Harry a surprised look. “Are you not going to ask me about- no, alright, that is fine. Spain was not a unified country in my time. But yes, that is where my family is from.”

Harry never learnt much history at junior school, and he doesn’t think his experience was anything unusual apart from, well, Dudley. “Is Professor Binns is going to teach us anything useful before we graduate?”

“Cuthbert Binns’ love affair with goblin wars has been going on for literal centuries and is unlikely to end anytime ever,” says Nizar dryly, giving Harry another odd look that Harry doesn’t understand. “I did finish explaining the meaning of my family name?”

“Uh, your family name is Casa de Desli- something, but everyone said it wrong, so it became Slytherin instead?” Harry says uncertainly, trying to see what he’s missing. This is a Slytherin Common Room, he already knew that. This is a Slytherin portrait, in the Slytherin Common Room.

“Oh!” Harry exclaims excitedly, “so that’s why you’re a parselmouth!”

Nizar blinks several times. “That is not the exact reaction I was expecting.”

“Well, this is the Slytherin Common Room,” Harry says, grinning, with a bit of relief. “It’s not like you’re telling me that Salazar Slytherin was your brother or something.”

A pause.

Nizar presses his lips together and goes very quiet and still.

Harry’s eyes widen.

“Do you have any Divination talent?” Nizar tilts his head. “You are reminding me of… someone—” Then he breaks off, and is staring at a point somewhere past Harry’s shoulder for long enough that Harry starts to get concerned.

“Er… Nizar?” Harry can’t really step closer without literally standing on the dying embers of the fire, but he does his best. “Nizar. Are you okay?”

Nizar blinks and shakes his head before refocusing his gaze on Harry, brow furrowed. “Are you alright?”

Harry nods. “Are- are you? You… Um, are you really Salazar Slytherin’s brother?”

“I am the brother of Salazar Slytherin,” Nizar confirms, smiling warily at Harry.

“That’s so cool,” Harry says, and he means it. “What’s Spain like?”

Nizar stares at him for a second, and bursts out laughing.

Harry’s mouth falls open before he can stop it.

This- The brother of Salazar Slytherin. The literal actual brother. Of Salazar Slytherin. Is laughing hysterically in his chair in his portrait. Because Harry wanted to know about Spain.

Rude.

Nizar points at him, still gasping for breath. “You are the oddest Gryffindor I have met in at least five hundred years.”

Harry wants to be offended by that but it’s probably true. He’s the one who decided to invisibly infiltrate a Slytherin Common Room. “How do you know I’m a Gryffindor?”

Nizar pulls himself upright with the dignity of a portrait that almost didn’t fall off his chair from laughing. “You came here.” He raises an eyebrow. “Am I wrong?”

“Can you tell me about Spain?” Harry counters. Nizar doesn’t need him to state the obvious, and Harry has unanswered questions now.

Yes, it’s incredible that this portrait actually knew the founders, but Harry’s never been abroad before. He’s not likely to ever meet the founders unless some lunatic decides to yank him backwards in time, so right now he’s more interested in Spain, thank you.

“I’ve never been to Spain!” Harry protests, when Nizar looks at him like he’s completely insane. “The Dursleys never- stop laughing, Nizar!”

“Sorry! Sorry!” Nizar wipes at his eyes with his sleeve. “Why are you awake, Harry?”

“Couldn’t sleep.” Harry shrugs when Nizar gives him another concerned look. That still doesn’t make sense. There’s no reason for a random portrait to be concerned for Harry, of all people.

Nizar raises an eyebrow. “Do you frequently invade the Common Rooms of other houses when you cannot sleep?”

“No,” Harry admits reluctantly. He takes a step backwards so that his feet are no longer melting in the embers of the fire. “I haven’t found a way into Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw yet.”

Nizar gives a muffled snort and grins widely. Harry has decided that there is definitely something strange about this portrait. Not that Harry has experience with talking to portraits, but Nizar has probably never had to deal with the 3am invasion of a single invisible Gryffindor parselmouth, so maybe they’re both weird. Or maybe Nizar is just really bored.

He doesn’t realise he’s said that out loud until Nizar dissolves into laughter again. Maybe he’s just really tired.

“You remind me of Slytherin’s Head of House,” Nizar tells him, and looks delighted by Harry’s completely baffled expression.

Harry’s not sure that he wants to be compared to Professor Snape, but he’s not going to tell that to the Slytherin portrait. More importantly; “You know Professor Snape?”

Nizar nods and sits back in his chair. “All the Slytherins, in fact. I see them quite a lot, you know,” he says seriously.

“Is Malfoy that annoying in the Common Room as well?” Harry asks, deciding to ignore the fact of his imminent death by Snape.

Nizar looks amused. “Tiny Gryffindor, I have no idea. I literally cannot leave the bounds of this portrait.”

Harry tries not to wrinkle his nose – Gryffindor isn’t his only character trait. “You really are just bored then?”

Nizar nods solemnly, but his eyes are still bright. “And you should go back to your tower, Gryffindor. If it is truly 3am.”

“Are you—” Harry hates how uncertain he sounds. “Are you going to tell Professor Snape?”

Nizar gives him yet another strange look. “Do you want me to?”

“No! He’d actually murder me!” Harry says immediately and then blushes. “I mean, he’d probably only give me detention for the rest of my life.”

“He probably would.”

That feels like a non-answer, but Harry thinks it’s the best answer he’s going to get from one of the literal original Slytherins. Still, uncertain death might be a slight improvement on certain death. “You still haven’t told me off for sneaking around at night,” he adds, just in case.

Nizar waves his hand dismissively. “The curfew is stupid.”

“You are not like Professor Snape,” Harry declares, at the same time as he realises that it’s a really weird thing to tell someone, just because they’re a Slytherin portrait. But before today, Professor Snape was the only adult Slytherin that Harry had ever interacted with – Voldemort definitely doesn’t count – and Harry had kind of expected all Slytherins to be the same.

Nizar is nice though, and surprisingly funny. Harry has a feeling that Nizar already knows far more about Harry than Harry knows of Nizar, even though Nizar is still being polite enough to pretend not to.

Either way, Nizar seems friendly, if a bit insane and possibly bored out of his mind, and familiar somehow, even though there’s no way they could have met before now.

As Harry makes his way through Hogwarts’ dark and deserted corridors back towards the Gryffindor tower, he thinks, with more finality than he probably should, that he might have found someone like a friend.

Apart from that, he really, fervently hopes that no one is ever going to be stupid enough to turn him into a portrait.

Who is he kidding, it’s probably already guaranteed.

Chapter Text

The next day passes like an entirely normal day, and Harry does not get murdered by Professor Snape.

Quidditch practice after class is also entirely normal. Oliver Wood tries to kill them all with his insane training plans, Fred and George try to kill Wood because of the training plans, and Katie Bell tries to kill the twins for flinging handfuls of mud at her while she’s trying to score.

Then everyone goes back to the Common Room and to bed, and Harry discovers with disappointment, though no particular surprise, that this entirely normal day includes an entirely normal inability to sleep at the end of it.

Hogwarts: A History is lurking at the bottom of his trunk as usual, and he flicks through a couple of pages in a hopeless sort of way. It looks exactly like the kind of book that Hermione loves and every sane person would quite happily set on fire, and Harry hasn’t really tried to pick it up since First Year.

Anyway, it’s not like he needs it now. If Harry wants to know about the history of Hogwarts, he can just as easily ask-

No. He’s not going to do that.

He is absolutely definitely not ever in a million years going to sneak back into the Slytherin Common Room, no matter how interesting Nizar is to talk to.

That would be irresponsible and reckless, and Harry can fulfil his yearly quota of doing stupid things in plenty of other ways, thank you.

He does not need to risk his life and Professor Snape’s questionable sanity by breaking into the Slytherin Common Room again.

Harry tosses Hogwarts: A History back into his trunk with a lack of care that would make Hermione wince, and picks up his cloak. The rest of his dormitory is either asleep or pretending to be, and he slips out of the room like a politely corporeal ghost. Still not going back to the Slytherin Common Room.

Fred and George said that the Hufflepuff Common Room is near the kitchens.

They also broke out into evil cackling when he asked, and then refused to elaborate, so Harry doesn’t really know what to think about that.

First problem: Harry doesn’t know where the kitchens are.

He does manage to find where he thinks they might be, but then he’s just wandering aimlessly, because knowing Hogwarts, the door is hiding or invisible or not actually a door at all.

The random pile of barrels does look fairly promising, but no entrance to kitchens appears, no matter how Harry pokes at them. That is not entirely unexpected, Harry will admit.

He’ll have to work out a better strategy for locating the kitchens sometime, and then he can look for the Common Room from there.

Or maybe he can just stalk a random Hufflepuff, but Harry has already proven how entirely terrible he is at being sneaky while wearing an invisibility cloak.

Harry temporarily gives up his attempt at finding the Hufflepuff Common Room when he kicks one of the barrels and has to jump back to avoid being doused in vinegar that came from absolutely nowhere.

Right, because the castle loves to make life difficult for everyone involved. He knew that already. Kind of respects it, even, because honestly, that’s fair enough.

What next?

He’s not going back to the Slytherin Common Room.

No, really, Harry is not going to go sneaking into places he’s not allowed to be, just so that he can-

Fuck it. He’s going to go and visit Nizar.

Giving the barrels one last confused and slightly irritated look, Harry spins, letting the cloak swish dramatically (if no one can see it, he can be as dramatic as he likes, thank you very much), and heads towards the dungeons.

He is not at all impressed when he ends up in the Entrance Hall, after taking a short cut that definitely should have come out somewhere near Professor Snape’s office.

Fuck, he really is going to have to read Hogwarts: A History, because Harry still does not understand the system of logic behind the movement of the secret passageways, doors and stairwells.

If there is any logic other than the castle’s vaguest whim, anyway. Because now that he’s here, he’s noticing the Founders’ Portraits, and oh, he does actually want to talk to what might be the only other parselmouth in the school apart from Nizar.

Hopefully, this isn’t going to blow up in his face, either metaphorically or literally.

Three of the portraits are snoring about as convincingly as the ones in Dumbledore’s office, so Harry steps in front of the fourth. He pulls off his cloak, and meets Salazar Slytherin’s baleful glare with a polite smile.

If Nizar really is Salazar’s brother, they do not look at all alike.

It might be the lack of hair, or the completely grey beard, or actual death stare, or possibly the fact that this Slytherin really seems to have invested in the whole Creepy Thousand-Year-Old Bastard aesthetic.

Salazar Slytherin looks exactly like the kind of person who wouldn’t bother to stab you because he’s already poisoned you at least twice and is still waiting for you to notice before he kills you again.

In fact, overkill really does sum it up in every way.

Harry tries not to grin at his own terrible pun, and then waves at the portrait like the idiot Gryffindor that he is. “Erm… hello.”

The portrait doesn’t respond.

“Hello,” he tries again in parseltongue, because if in doubt, pretend to be a snake. That feels like it should be terrible advice, it’s had a hundred percent success rate so far when dealing with ancient Slytherins.

The portrait stops glaring at him, and slowly his hands shift, or more properly, morph until they’re no longer reminding Harry of the witches in Muggle fairy tales.

That- okay, that is actually cool, even if it’s also weird and creepy. Harry absolutely wants to learn how to do it.

“Hi. My name is Harry.”

Salazar Slytherin’s eyes widen in the dark. “Hari?” he repeats in a low whisper. His pronunciation is different to Nizar’s, and Harry doesn’t know why.

“Yeah, that’s me. Um. Hi,” he repeats once again.

There is another pause, long enough that he starts to get the feeling that striking up conversations with ancient portraits in the middle of the night might not always be such a brilliant idea.

“What year is it?”

Harry squints at Salazar, absolutely certain that he’s imagining the undertones of hope, longing and quiet terror layering that question. “It’s 1993. November.”

“Oh.”

“But, um. I met your brother.” Not subtle, Harry. Not subtle at all.

Salazar gives him a slowly startled look. “You. Met… Nizar?”

“His portrait,” Harry clarifies. “In the Slytherin Common Room?”

“You are not of my house,” says Salazar in a nonchalant voice. What is it with ancient Slytherins and immediately guessing Harry's House, anyway?

“I might have been. Gryffindor isn’t my only character trait!”

Salazar smiles, and the Cranky Bastard Snake Guy mask cracks suddenly.

Harry is still trying to catch up from the point where he decided to argue his level of Gryffindor-ness with Salazar Slytherin, of all people.

“I said nothing of that House in particular, tiny snakelet.” And apparently giving nicknames to wandering Gryffindors is a genetic trait.

“I broke into your common room in the middle of the night and started talking to your brother.”

“That is a good point,” Salazar acknowledges, still smiling. “You remind me of him.”

Harry stares. “…I- what? Why-? I mean- do I really?”

That- that can’t be right. Nizar is an adult. Nizar is a Slytherin. Nizar is kind and funny and intelligent and brilliant, and Harry is still… just Harry.

Three years since he first met Hagrid on that horrible old rock in a storm, and Harry has never learnt to be anything more than that.

“Come back in two years, and I’ll tell you.”

“What happens in 1995?”

Salazar starts to answer, but the smile is pulled off his face before he can get the words out.

Harry feels his heart start to sink before he can work out why.

Then something, somewhere, twists.

Like a block being pulled back into place. The expression on the portrait’s face shifts. 

The Slytherin Arsehole mask returns in full force, and Salazar Slytherin’s portrait offers him a full-blown scowl that in this moment is more bewildering and terrifying than anything Professor Snape has ever said or done.

Worse, Harry has a horrible, horrible feeling that not even the portrait is aware of the change – hands back to claws, seamless fury, a sharp transition into harsh English, asking who dares to interrupt the sleep of the great Salazar Slytherin, boy?

And suddenly Harry isn’t standing in front of a portrait anymore. He isn’t even at Hogwarts. He’s… somewhere else. Looming over him is Uncle Vernon- no, the schoolteachers who always blamed him for fights that Dudley- it’s Dudley, except taller and older and meaner, and-

Harry’s instincts don’t give him a chance to think.

He flees, cloak almost tripping him up as he runs, the portrait of Salazar Slytherin snarling insults behind him.

It’s several corridors before he stops, leaning against the wall and pulling the cloak tightly around him. He twists his hands in the fabric in an attempt to get them to stop shaking, and for a moment he just breathes.

That was a total disaster, and he has no idea why.

No. He just doesn’t like his idea one bit.

Also, Harry is never setting foot in the Entrance Hall ever again. Not ever.

He managed to get himself freaked out by a portrait, of all things, and then he ran away like a little child, and now he’s still standing here, with his heart still racing, struggling to breathe for no good reason at all.

Nope, Harry is never trying to talk to any ancient Slytherin portraits again either.

No way.

He sighs, then, and pushes his glasses up to rub his eyes, before standing up from the wall. He needs to talk to Nizar.

 

Professor Snape walks out of the Common Room just as Harry turns up in that corridor, which is only the second literally terrifying event of the day.

He presses himself against the wall and holds his breath as Professor Snape storms past, and then slips into the empty room behind him.

If Nizar has already told anyone about Harry’s night-time visit, then Harry is doomed whether he gets caught repeat-offending or not, so he might as well make the most of this opportunity.

“Nizar?” Harry asks uncertainly, as he makes his way to the fireplace. “Are you there?”

“The Gryffindor parselmouth.” Nizar looks up and greets him with a bemused pleased look. “I am always here. I literally cannot escape this portrait frame.”

“Oh, right. Sorry. Yes. Hello Kanza.”

“Hello tiny intruder,” Kanza says, poking her head out of Nizar’s sleeve and flicking her tongue at him.

Harry gives her an offended stare. “I am far less tiny than you are.”

Kanza hisses a laugh, and slides onto the floor, disappearing somewhere through an archway which presumably leads to parts of the portrait that Harry can’t see.

“What is your excuse for intrusion this time?” Nizar asks, sounding far too amused. “Hufflepuff Common Room doesn’t have sufficiently interesting portraits?”

“I haven’t found Hufflepuff yet, give me a chance,” Harry says, in overdramatic tones of disappointment that make Nizar smile. “I did find your brother though.”

“You. Found Salazar.”

“His portrait,” Harry clarifies, hoping that his sense of déjà-vu doesn’t mean that this portrait is about to start shouting him out of the Common Room as well.  

Nizar tilts his head. “And how did that go? I can’t remember exactly what he was like as he got older.”

Harry hesitates, and then decides to throw any attempts of subtlety out of the metaphorical window. He isn’t a Slytherin; Nizar will just have to cope.

“I think someone’s tampered with Salazar Slytherin’s portrait.”

Tampering.

He’s hoping that Nizar is going to tell him that he’s wrong, but the word slotted into Harry’s head like it had always been there, and he really, really hates his intuition sometimes.

Nizar isn’t denying anything.

In fact, from the utterly devastated look on his face…

Oh fuck, now Harry feels awful. Can he apologise? It’s not like that would fix anything.

“I think that would explain many things,” Nizar says slowly, “now that you mention it.” His expression has been forced back to neutral, and Harry gets the strangest feeling that it’s for his benefit. Nizar probably doesn’t want to let himself be really upset in front of a thirteen-year-old.

Harry scuffs his foot against the fire grate, still not entirely willing to sit down on one of the murderous chairs uninvited. “Can we do anything to fix it?”

Nizar’s face twitches, and he sighs. “Most likely not. Those portraits were intended to be protected from tampering, when they were first created.”

“I’m sorry.”

Nizar offers him a tired smile. “I do not enjoy the limitations of being a portrait. Most likely there are worse alternatives, but sometimes…” he breaks off, a horrible unhappy expression on his face.

“You don’t seem very portrait-like,” Harry says without thinking. “More like a physical person trapped in a portrait than anything else.”

“Thank you. That is a prospect that will give me nightmares for many months, Harry Potter,” the portrait says in a dust dry voice, and Harry winces.

Nizar doesn’t seem at all inclined to kick him out, so Harry sits down, and tries not to say anything else entirely stupid.

It’s early morning when Harry finally leaves, but Nizar has stopped looking so sad, so it counts as time well spent.

Even if he completely forgets to ask about Spain.

 

Nizar doesn’t even pretend that Harry turning up for the third night running is anything but normal, and at this point, Harry isn't particularly shocked about it either. 

He didn’t expect Nizar to be sitting slouched under his desk, with his feet resting up on the seat of his chair, but he does keep talking about how boring being a portrait is.

“Hello again, insane Gryffindor,” Nizar says in a polite voice, when Harry removes the cloak.

“Hi.” Harry waves at Kanza, who is poking her nose out of Nizar’s robes.

Nizar sits up, and then climbs on top of his desk, which can’t possibly be comfortable. “Can’t sleep?”

Harry shrugs, and decides he’s allowed to sit down. “I haven’t found Hufflepuff yet, either.”

“Have you been locked out of your tower, young Gryffindor?” Nizar drawls. “Or are you just lost?”

“The Gryffindor Common Room doesn’t have any interesting people in it at this time of night,” Harry says, which makes Nizar sit up in surprise. “This mad insomniac gets bored.”

Nizar blinks at him, and Harry has no idea what to make of the expression on his face.

“Anyway,” he adds, when Nizar still isn’t saying anything. “You still need to tell me about Spain.”

“Do I really?” Nizar raises an eyebrow, seeming to recover from… whatever that was.

Harry gives a decisive nod which is far more decisive than he actually feels. If he’s tired, restless, and making bad decisions, that’s his problem, okay?

“You know about Spain, I want to know, and you literally can’t escape. So, you might as well just tell me, because we’re both bored anyway.”

Nizar starts to grin. “That’s an interesting negotiation technique, baby Slytherin.”

Harry shrugs again, and Nizar starts talking.

Apparently, Spain only became a whole country a couple of centuries ago.

Harry has no idea when he was meant to pick up that piece of information.

Nizar doesn’t know either, and seems baffled by Harry’s total lack of historical knowledge, even being already aware that their History teacher is a useless ghost.

“But don’t you read?” Nizar asks, waving his hand in the air and sounding so much like Hermione that Harry nearly bursts out laughing.

“Not many books on Spanish history. It’s all just… schoolwork.”

Nizar grimaces but nods in apparent agreement.

Harry wonders for a moment if he’s managed to offend the portrait, but then Nizar tells him to continue to focus on not dying over the acquisition of non-essential knowledge, and somehow that feels worse.

Harry knows he’s not that smart, and he’ll never be able to learn everything like Hermione does, but that doesn’t mean he has to be happy about it.

“Tell me more about what Spain, um- not-Spain was like in your time, then?” Harry asks, and Nizar does, pausing every so often to mutter things about Ravenclaws making a hat burst into tears.

Harry doesn’t know what Nizar is talking about there, because Harry is even less of a Ravenclaw than he is Slytherin, but he does learn a lot about Spain- um, not-Spain- er, the lands that spanned the Iberian Peninsula, which is now known as Spain and Portugal.

It’s still easier to just say “Spain,” and it’s fun when it makes Nizar roll his eyes and glare at him.

In return, Harry decides to tell Nizar about that time at the zoo with Dudley and the boa constrictor.

Kanza is interested in hearing about another snake, but Nizar starts to get weirdly tense as Harry tells the story.

Maybe he’s offended by the concept of a zoo, Harry’s description of Dudley Dursley, or the fact that Harry technically attacked his cousin with a snake. Harry’s panicked reassurances that he was punished for setting a snake on his cousin only makes Nizar look more unhappy.

He gives up trying to understand what’s so upsetting about a trip to the zoo, and starts talking about the grass snakes that he’s made friends with in Surrey, until he gets sent to bed when Nizar realises the time.

Once again, he manages to avoid being murdered by Snape, Filch, Black or Voldemort on his way back to the Gryffindor Tower, which he is definitely counting as a win.

 

Harry is holding very tightly to his new conviction that he is doomed as soon as Professor Snape finds out that he’s broken into the Slytherin Common Room once, and that Harry therefore might as well carry on doing it as much as he likes.

Nizar just waves when Harry pulls his hood down and perches on the sofa by the fireplace, so that’s almost definitely a positive sign.

It’s Kanza who decides to assign Harry’s daily weird nickname, which turns out to be “young sleepless idiot.” That’s entirely accurate, at least, although Kanza seems to draw far too much amusement from referring to Nizar as “old sleepless idiot,” as if they are two versions of the same person.

Harry wants to offer her an insult in return, but he’s still not sure how best to offend a thousand-year-old infant snake. He settles for scowling and informing her that she is awake right now too and therefore just as idiotic, which makes Nizar laugh.

It is so weird that another human understands what Harry is saying in snake-language, for once. The Tom Riddle shade does not count, and is also unavailable due to the Basilisk fang.

“Have you been getting any sleep recently?” Nizar asks seriously, once Harry and Kanza have finished sniping at each other. Harry thinks that the weird, almost pained expression on the portrait’s face might be worry, but Harry has no idea how to deal with such a strange possibility, so he’s going to ignore it.

“I slept some at the weekend.”

Nizar stares at him for five seconds too long.

Harry fidgets, and then he’s suddenly panicking right now, because really, what the hell was he thinking? It’s far too easy to be blasé about a possibly evil Potions Master when he’s not currently sitting in the Potion Master’s Common Room.

If Nizar changes his mind about telling someone, Professor Snape actually is going to kill him.

Hell, Hermione might just kill him for being stupid enough to let Snape kill him.

Harry is a complete fool, and he’s just broken into Slytherin Common Room again.

“Found the Hufflepuff Common Room yet?”

The light, teasing question snaps Harry out of wherever he’s spiralling to. The ancient painted Slytherin is still actively encouraging Harry to break rules. Everything is fine.

“Um… not yet. Can you give me a hint?” he says hopefully.

“It’s near the kitchens.”

Harry stares at Nizar. There’s- there’s no way the twins have- Actually, he wouldn’t put it past them to have snuck in here at some point, but they wouldn’t have been stupid enough to try to make friends with a portrait. “That’s… not actually helpful, Nizar.”

“Isn’t it?” Nizar asks in mock surprise.

Is fucking with people a Slytherin thing, or a bored portrait thing, because Harry really has not had enough civil conversations with Slytherins to be able to tell.

“I think I found Ravenclaw though.” That was mostly luck, but Harry will pretend it wasn’t.

Actually, he’s not entirely sure what it was: the blonde girl in Ravenclaw robes just smiled at him and pointed towards the eagle doorknocker and disappeared off to Merlin knew where before Harry could even find out her name.

“Uh-huh.” Nizar leans forwards and rests his chin on his hands. “And how did that go?”

Harry scowls. “I’m terrible at riddles.”

“Let’s hope your ridiculous adventures never send you running into a sphynx then,” says Nizar brightly.

“If I ever meet a sphynx, I’m pretty sure I’ll just run in the opposite direction,” Harry shoots back.

He hadn’t even realised that sphynxes were actually real until Ron came back from Egypt, but he’s probably safe until Hagrid decides to acquire yet another lethal pet.

“That is an adequate form of defence.”

“See?” Harry says triumphantly, as if this is something they’ve been arguing non-stop for the last four evenings. “I do have more character traits than ‘insane Gryffindor.’”

He thinks he should probably be offended when he only receives a long doubtful look.

“You wandered into the so-called Chamber of Secrets with the knowledge that it contained a fully grown live Basilisk,” says Nizar flatly.

It’s a good point.

“Okay, but—”

“And it never occurred to you to inform an adult.”

“We told Lockhart!”

Nizar makes a disgruntled face. “A competent adult.”

“No one believed us about the Philosopher’s Stone, and Voldemort nearly stole it,” Harry retorts, not entirely sure what he’s arguing. But he’s been thinking about this since the end of First Year, and this is the first time that anyone has bothered to listen.

“Instead, you burned him to ash with your bare hands.”

Harry flinches at the expression on Nizar’s face, and the fight drains abruptly out of him.

Nizar isn’t angry or disgusted, as he should because Harry killed Quirrell. Whether Dumbledore is admitting it or not. Nizar looks sad, and sad for Harry, no less.

No other adult has ever been upset on Harry’s behalf like that before.

“How do you know about that, anyway?” he asks.

Nizar gives him an odd look. “It wasn’t exactly kept secret.”

“Right.”

Harry suddenly feels incredibly off balance. He never quite manages to forget that he’s stupidly famous for something he didn’t do, but the idea that the whole school is aware that he literally caused Professor Quirrell to disintegrate is a bit… disconcerting. No wonder everyone found it so easy to believe that he was petrifying muggleborns last year.

“Mountain troll, flying car, wandering around the school at night while several people are trying very hard to kill you,” Nizar adds as he lists them off on his fingers. Apparently this conversation is not over. “Not including Quidditch accidents in almost every game you play.”

Harry huffs a bit at that. Quidditch isn’t dangerous. “Well, I’ll try not to get attacked by any more teachers possessed by Voldemort or over-enthusiastic house elves during the match on Saturday,” he says sarcastically. “But maybe I’ll get lucky, and find Sirius Black hiding in the Snitch.”

Nizar gives him a sharp look. Oh hell, Harry does not need another person to start worrying that he’s planning to go chasing after the mass murderer.

“I’ll have to watch out for the Hufflepuffs too, of course. They’re not as likely to try to kill me as the Slytherins, but anything can happen in a Quidditch match, right?” Maybe Harry sounds a tiny bit bitter now, but he fucking well is, so that’s fine.

“Draco’s infamous hippogriff injury?” Nizar sounds like he’s trying not to laugh, and now Harry really wants to know how that conversation went.

“They just wanted an excuse not to play in a storm.” Harry rolls his eyes. No one wants to play in a bloody storm unless they’re insane, which Harry is not.

Nizar just gives him a dry look. “Try not to fall off your broom.”

Chapter Text

Harry blinks awake to the too-bright light of the hospital wing and fuzzy shapes hovering around him. “Oh. Fuck.”

Nizar is going to be so unimpressed.

Someone stabs him in the eye with his glasses, and the red blobs are suddenly recognisable as Ron, Hermione, and the entire Gryffindor Quidditch team minus one Oliver Wood.

They’re all looking kind of alarmed, even Fred and George, who are more usually described as alarming.

Harry has no idea how far he fell, apart from that it was too bloody far, but maybe something else happened with the dementors that he doesn’t know about yet. If Sirius Black really does turn out to have been hiding in the Snitch…

So, so unimpressed.

“Mate, are you alright?” Ron asks, looking a bit shocked. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you swear before.”

Harry gives him a blank stare.

“He fell from the height of the Astronomy Tower, Ronald, give him a break.” A Weasley twin. Harry would try to work out which if his brain didn’t feel so fuzzy.

“Oliver’s still trying to drown himself in the shower, by the way,” the other twin adds cheerfully. “Good work.”

“Did we… what happened to the match?” Harry tries and fails to sit upright.

Hermione mutters a disgusted, “Boys!” under her breath, and steps backwards out of the red huddle around Harry’s bed.

He isn’t entirely certain why she’s annoyed. Sure, Wood is being a bit melodramatic, which is never a good sign, but the rest of them – including Alicia, Angelina and Katie – all have perfectly normal attitudes about the importance of Quidditch.

Then they tell him how the match went.

The loss of his Nimbus 2000 hurts nearly as much as losing the match, which in turn hurts quite a bit more that falling from the height of the Astronomy Tower. Both of which are only slightly more painful than being kept in the Hospital Wing all weekend.

See, Hermione? Totally acceptable priorities.

Hermione and Ron both laugh at his complaints that Madam Pomphrey is drugging him with potions, and refuse to help him escape. Ron even suggests that it’s a good chance for Harry to get some sleep.

That’s just rude.

Harry is capable of sleeping without being trapped in the Hospital Wing.

Monday evening is his first chance to talk to Nizar since Quidditch, so the fact that Harry spends his first night out of the Hospital Wing sneaking down to Slytherin Common Room instead of sleeping has absolutely nothing to do with anything.

Well, he does also make a detour to argue with that eagle doorknocker again, but that doesn’t count either. Riddles are entirely stupid.

Not that his second year didn’t already prove that fact, but Harry should really stop making Voldemort puns in his head sometime around now, no matter how tempted he is to find out exactly how much carnage he could cause surrounded by people who flinch at the barest mention of the super-evil mass murdering Dark Wizard.

Okay, so Harry’s sense of humour might be a just little bit too morbid for anyone’s good. And yes, he is aware that it isn’t socially acceptable to make puns out of the names of either of the homicidal lunatics currently trying to kill him.

But they both had to go and make it so easy.

The Common Room is empty as Harry makes his way inside. Nizar’s eyes track his path before he’s even removed the cloak, which is interesting. Harry pulls off his cloak as he sits down, and wonders hopelessly if there is any chance of avoiding what he just knows Nizar is going to-

“Fell off your broom?” Nizar asks, tipping backwards in his chair with an unimpressed eyebrow raise. “I didn’t actually need you to prove my point.”

That.

Harry needs to say something really smart now. Something that definitely proves his point, that Quidditch isn’t really dangerous, and that it wasn’t his fault that he fell, and that this injury really was a one off, honestly, and he probably won’t even end up in the Hospital Wing again until someone tries to kill him at the end of the year again.

“In my defence, it wasn’t actually Sirius Black this time.”

Nailed it.

Nizar puts his hands over his face.

“Quidditch isn’t dangerous!” Harry adds. That is definitely a convincing argument.

“Quidditch isn’t unreasonably dangerous,” Nizar says, dropping his hands again, and speaking with exaggerated clarity. “You, on the other hand, attract trouble simply by walking down a corridor.”

Well, no, that-

Damn.

How is he supposed to argue, when every single ridiculous statement Nizar makes about Harry’s life is entirely true?

“It was the Dementors’ fault!”

“Oh yes, you didn’t even need to walk along a corridor to almost die this time,” Nizar says caustically, and his chair snaps back upright. He really does seem unusually stressed today.  

“And hello to you too,” Harry says very politely, because manners.

Nizar sighs heavily, and then makes an attempt at a smile-grimace. “Hello, reckless Quidditch player.”

“Are you alright, Nizar?” Maybe the Slytherins are being particularly annoying or something.

For a moment Harry thinks that’s going to get him another sigh, but Nizar just presses his fingers against his head again like he has a headache or something. Do portraits get headaches?

“Are you alright?” Nizar asks instead.

“I- yeah?” It comes out as a question, but Harry is mainly just confused. “Did something happen?”

Nizar gives him a very long stare. “You fell off your broom into a swarm of Dementors.”

Harry nods mournfully. That did happen. “I’m pretty sure the Whomping Willow is evil.”

“You landed in the Whomping Willow?!”

Harry almost leans back at the sudden sound of panic coming from the portrait, and gives him a concerned look. “...No? It completely destroyed my Nimbus 2000 though.”

Nizar scowls at him. “Don’t you dare terrify me like that again, tiny Gryffindor.”

“...Wha-?”

Harry tries really hard not to gape in bewildered astonishment, but Nizar is being really weird, and Harry is absolutely certain that he is missing something crucial in this conversation.

“I was worried about you, idiota!” Nizar bursts out finally.

Oh, that would be it.

Apparently, that was meant to be obvious.

Quick, say something intelligent. Literally anything.

“You were worried about—?” His throat closes up before he can finish the question.

“Yes!”

Meant to be really obvious, apparently. And then Harry’s mind goes helpfully blank. “...Why?”

Nizar has reverted back to that pained expression. “Harry, I may only be a portrait, but I still care about the wellbeing of my students. Particularly those who are kind enough to speak with me.”

“But I’m not a Slytherin,” is the first not-stupid thing that Harry manages to say.

Nope. Based on the look that Nizar gives him, it was still a stupid thing.

“You are a cunning, intelligent and loyal Gryffindor parselmouth who chooses to sneak into this Common Room to talk to a Slytherin portrait. At this point, you are one of my serpents whether you intended it or not.”

Oh.

Harry feels something prickling behind his eyes, and oh hell no, he is not dealing with those feelings right now. Nope, no way. No feelings when he’s only just escaped from the Hospital Wing and is currently not an exhausted disaster of a person for once. It’s not allowed. This is entirely stupid.

He can panic later – and he probably will – but right now he is fucking capable of pretending not to fall apart at this smallest sign of acceptance from a portrait that he has known for exactly a week.

He is not going to sit here silently and dwell on that rightness shooting through his chest, nor the weird, amazing, painful, not-enough feeling of maybe this is what’s been missing.

Because this feels like a taste of What Could Be, and what if Nizar never says anything like it ever again.   

“Erm... Professor Lupin is going to teach me a spell to get rid of Dementors.” Harry’s getting really good at this whole Abruptly Changing The Subject thing. Nizar doesn’t even blink.  

“Patronus Charm?”

“Professor Lupin said it’s difficult.”

Nizar smiles. “You’re good at magic.”

“You’ve never seen me do magic,” Harry says automatically. There’s not much point in arguing directly when Nizar keeps calling him clever.

“You’ll have to prove me right then, won’t you?”

Teacher, teacher, teacher. Harry is absolutely certain of it.

 

He’s even proven right a couple of nights later, when he hisses his way into the Common Room to find that it isn’t empty.

He stops completely still.

Invisibility cloak covering him? Yep. Okay. Good.

The girl – a fifth year, he thinks – looks up at the sight of her Common Room opening seemingly of its own accord, and frowns.

Harry doesn’t recognise her, which means that she’s probably not friends with Malfoy. He doesn’t tend to interact with the Slytherins who don’t visibly hate him.

Everything’s fine. Everything is fine. Everything is definitely entirely completely fine.

The Slytherin packs up what looks like an almost Hermione sized essay – unless that’s the expected length for OWL level essays, in which case Harry is doomed – and says good night to “Professor Slytherin,” before disappearing off in the direction of what Harry assumes is the Slytherin dormitories.

Professor Slytherin, Harry realises, Nizar. That’s a very obvious jump to make.

But it also pretty much confirms that the girl is one of the decent Slytherins.

“Are you going to hang around in the doorway forever?” Nizar demands impatiently from the fireplace, and Harry grins, still invisible.  

He sits down on what he’s already thinking of as his sofa, and bundles the cloak in his lap.

Nizar perfectly reproduces his Unimpressed Eyebrow Look. “You may have convinced a single tired fifth year that you were a well-hidden and disguised Professor Snape, but your entrance was not at all subtle, little Gryffindor.”

“I was literally invisible,” Harry defends, secretly delighted when Nizar rolls his eyes in response. “Also: she called you ‘professor.’ I knew you were a teacher!”

“I used to be the instructor of Defence for all of our students.” Nizar says.

Harry feels his eyes go wide. That is so cool.

Yes, he’d guessed already, but now Nizar has confirmed it.

Nizar used to teach here. Nizar knew the Founders. Nizar must have taught alongside the Founders. Nizar must have been friends with the Founders.

Okay, Harry totally understands what Hermione is talking about now. History is fascinating, and maybe he really should give Hogwarts: A History a proper try.

“Can you teach me things? I bet you’re a brilliant teacher! Professor Lupin is really good too, but he’s ill sometimes, and he wouldn’t let me face the boggart because he thought it would turn into Voldemort, and—”

Nizar actually laughs. “Did you make the Sorting Hat cry as well, little Ravenclaw?”

Harry doesn’t think it’s possible for his eyes to go wider. He’s leaning forward in his seat almost without realising, and his excitement probably looks ridiculous to the however-many-years-old portrait hanging above the fireplace. “Who made the Sorting Hat cry? Wait- how? Is that why you don’t have a House named after you like the others?”

“Calm down, Ravenclaw. Remember to breathe,” Nizar tells him, smiling. “I promise to answer your questions.”

Harry grins delightedly. He knows that Aunt Petunia’s response to being asked things isn’t normal – at least, not from what he’s seen of the wizarding world – but it’s still a relief that his curiosity is being humoured instead of shut down. “I want to learn everything.”

 

Nizar doesn’t have time to tell Harry anywhere near everything in a single evening, especially with his insistence that Harry at least try not to become a sleep-deprived mess (Harry’s words, but Nizar agreed, and then Kanza started laughing so hard she had to leave that room in the portrait) again, which means – oh, what a shame – Harry just has to keep coming back the next couple evenings.

He was right. Nizar is a really good teacher.  

Harry almost wants to suggest to someone that they move his portrait and let him teach DADA like that. Even though Professor Lupin is a good teacher too, and it would definitely not be a subtle way of informing Professor Snape of Harry’s night-time trespassing on Slytherin territory.

But hell, if Dumbledore is happy to let a ghost teach History of Magic, then there’s no reason why Nizar should be any less capable.

Actually, Harry’s also certain that Nizar would be a better History of Magic teacher than Binns, and Nizar doesn’t even know anything about Goblin Rebellions or Giant wars.

Harry has learnt more about magical (and non-magical) history in the last week than he has in two and a half years of lessons. And Nizar’s version of teaching doesn’t make Harry want to fall asleep, cry, or fling a textbook at him.

The single advantage of Binns, of course, is that he doesn’t ask annoying questions about the two maniacs competing over who can murder Harry Potter first.

Harry still has no idea how to convince the suddenly overprotective ancient Slytherin and brilliantly sarcastic ancient viper that Harry is not actually trying to get himself killed.

“I still don’t know why everyone thinks I’m want to find Sirius Black,” he complains, slouching down further in his seat.

No one else has ever managed to give him a proper response to that, but Nizar just raises his eyebrows. “Philosopher’s Stone. Basilisk.”

“Those weren’t my fault!”

Then they’re back to the discussion of to what extent Harry is an insane Gryffindor, which Kanza never fails to find entertaining. Harry thinks it’s stupid – he’d be just as insane as a Slytherin, Hufflepuff or Ravenclaw.

Nizar rolls his eyes at that, but Harry hopes he’s smiling underneath the sarcasm. “That’s wonderful. But several people would quite like for you to survive at least long enough to sit your OWLs.”

“My OWLs are two years away,” Harry blurts out in surprise, and immediately winces at the narrow-eyed look Nizar sends his way.

“And you had best not get murdered by anyone before that time.” A pause. “Or at all. Please.”

Harry tries not to let his shoulders hunch. He really doesn’t like these conversations. “I’ll try. I’m trying.”

Nizar sighs, and the only reason why Harry can bear this is that Nizar keeps doing his best to show that he does genuinely care about Harry’s safety. Even if Harry still doesn’t understand how or why.

“You wander around the school alone in the middle of the night,” Nizar points out. “Without telling a responsible adult.”

“You said that the curfew is stupid.”

“It is,” Nizar sounds exhausted and frustrated and gentle all at the same time. “And I do understand your reasons.”

Harry squints at the portrait. “You’re worried again.”

“Yes,” Nizar says, in his That Should Have Been Obvious, You Idiot voice. “You continue to get yourself injured in a place that should protect you from outside harm.”

“You are a reckless Gryffindor,” Kanza adds succinctly from Nizar’s shoulder, giving her current perch a meaningful poke with her tail, even though Nizar doesn’t show any signs of understanding whatever her meaning is meant to be.

“I’m trying to be careful,” Harry says. Even he is aware that it is a very weak defence. “But—”

Please don’t stop me from sneaking down here at night, he wants to say.

He’s not going to say that. He can’t.

Harry’s chest starts to get tight just thinking about it, and he tries to keep breathing normally.

Most of the time, conversations with Nizar end up catapulting through a chaotic mess of random historical facts, Spain, every possible study of magic that the portrait is aware of, and anything else that occurs to Harry or Nizar, but Nizar is just as good at bringing up topics that make Harry want burst into tears, or scream, or run away, or something else. Worst of all, it’s actually helpful, because there’s no way Harry would dare to talk about things like this with anyone else.

Hermione and Ron are amazing, but they have their own problems, and Hermione is definitely taking too many classes this year, however many that is, and they keep falling out with each other because of their respective pets, and Harry really, really doesn’t want to feel like a burden.

It’s ridiculous, really, because even Harry is aware that he doesn’t trust adults easily.

Somehow, Nizar doesn’t feel like an adult. Not because he’s a portrait, because Harry doubts that Nizar would let that stop him, if he really wanted to do something. Nizar is familiar for reasons that Harry is still no closer to understanding. He feels like safety, and – if Harry dares to think it – something a bit like family.

“I’ll stop trying to sneak into Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw Common Rooms,” Harry offers hesitantly, because he has to say something.

Nizar gives him a curious look. “Are you bargaining, little serpent?”

Huh. That’s a good idea actually. Harry straightens up in his seat, and lifts his chin. “Maybe I am,” he says, Nizar’s encouraging smile giving him confidence. “I’ll stop wandering aimlessly around the school at night, and I’ll be careful all the time, so you don’t have to worry about me, as long as- as long as—” deep breath, then all at once: “as long as I can keep coming here to visit when I can’t sleep.”

The three seconds of silence last a thousand years.

“Alright.”

Harry blinks at the portrait, and then lets his shoulders slump in slightly surprised relief.

“Provided that,”  Nizar continues, in that very pointed voice that means he's going into Responsible Teachery Teacher mode, “if Sirius Black does find his way into the school again, you tell someone about it, before chasing after a madman by yourself again.”

“I’ll... try?”

“Thank you,” says Nizar, looking like a weird mix of worried, pleased, relieved and something else. “And I look forward to seeing your Patronus, when you manage it.”

Chapter Text

It isn’t the first time that a non-Slytherin has snuck into the Common Room in the middle of the night. The Common Rooms used to be open to everyone, after all. Nor is it the first time that the infiltrator has been a Gryffindor, or willing to talk to Nizar, or even a parselmouth for that matter, although the last one has been far less frequent.

Harry Potter is different.

Maybe it’s because Nizar has already heard so much about him from other sources. Maybe it’s because he’s a paradox, an entirely bewildering child, who is somehow so familiar.

Maybe it’s simply because Nizar is a useless broken portrait with memory problems and attachment issues, desperately clinging to the Gryffindor parselmouth who reminds him of home.

A thousand years is too long to spend as a portrait.

Talking to Harry is wonderful while it lasts, right up until Nizar’s sense of responsibility – which might be the only thing functioning right now – makes him send the child to bed.

Then Nizar is stuck alone, looking out at a far too empty Common Room full of imagined ghosts that he can’t even remember, but have somehow been awakened by the brief appearance of a single thirteen-year-old child.

It’s not a pleasant feeling. Disjointed thoughts, unsettling, with the strong conviction that something important is occurring way beyond Nizar’s comprehension. Like the world’s largest headache, and he can’t even remember what is causing it.

Useless. Broken.    

He is almost certain that portraits aren’t meant to be able to get headaches, but he’s just as sure that he hates whoever his painter was, so maybe they were actively trying to cause him distress all along. That makes no sense at all, but Nizar is sure that he'd be able to think of a more reasonable explanation if his brain would stop trying to beat itself to death on the inside of his painted skull. This is entirely ridiculous.

He’s supposed to be better than this.

Says who?

Fuck.

Severus notices Nizar’s, ah, absentmindedness and even asks if he’s alright, and that is completely terrible as well. It's a sign that Nizar is even more of a failure than he’s realised, if he’s enough of a mess that the real people with real concerns are wasting time worrying about him too.

He just needs to get past this impending meltdown about nothing in particular. Then he can go back to being a decent friend to Severus, and a pretending-to-be functional portrait who is most definitely doing his job at preventing his young Slytherins from doing foolish things.

No more indulging in his unreasonably messed up emotions.

Right.

Harry’s return to the Common Room, the following night, is a genuine shock and Nizar’s emotions catapult so wildly that the promises he has just made to himself are almost useless.

Of course the Gryffindor parseltongue-speaking Raven-Huff-Slytherin Hat Stall is insane enough to be repeatedly breaking the same set of rules while sneaking around the castle at night.

Nizar would have done exactly the same, but that is not the point.              

He is, perhaps, not in the best of moods to be dealing with confirmation of the already suspected tampering on his brother’s portrait, but he is reasonably sure that Harry doesn’t notice either, given his willingness to stay and talk a while afterwards.

Nizar tries and fails to not feel guilty about his deliberate avoidance of the topic of Spain, and feels even more ridiculous for believing that it might be enough to persuade Harry to return, when books exist and contain far more relevant information than a random painted amnesiac is able to provide.

Then Harry repeats his acts of insanity by turning up for a third night running, and Nizar pretends that he has regained enough emotional stability to be functional.

He’s genuinely delighted to find that Harry is as much of a Ravenclaw as he first suspected, and Harry is delighted to terrify him with the total lack of useful history and geography that Hogwarts is teaching her students. It is a good trade.

Nizar is still a hopeless mess.

 

The Tuesday after the Dementor Quidditch match, an unusually stressed and irritable Severus storms into the Common Room to ask if Nizar has seen any Slytherins sneaking out of the Common Room after hours since Halloween, and Nizar is happy to be able to respond that he has not.

It’s rare that Severus is so obvious about caring for his students, but in the light of Sirius Black’s Halloween break in – not to mention those fucking dementors – Nizar is more worried about their safety too.

Severus doesn’t stay long, muttering something about checking the monitoring charms on the Common Room entrance, which Nizar didn’t even know existed, so that’s an interesting development. Either they have never been particularly effective, or Severus was willing to turn a blind eye to Slytherins out after hours before there was the risk of running into an escaped convict in the corridors.

It is a slightly baffling exchange, but Nizar takes it as a positive that Severus doesn’t seem to be aware of the wandering habits of one Harry Potter. That’s nice, if it means that he can avoid directly lying to either of his friends.

 

The school year regains some semblance of normality from that moment onwards, and Nizar returns to successfully lying about not being a complete disaster. The explicit confirmation that Harry, for whatever reason, actually wants to risk Severus’ anger in order to talk to a (ridiculous, useless, impossible) portrait is comforting, and almost enough to silence the self-sabotaging thoughts still dancing around in Nizar’s head.

He now has two weird, intelligent idiots who choose to visit his portrait instead of sleeping.

 

Friday evening. Harry bounces into the Common Room, and flings himself onto the sofa like a whirlwind of a child who is pretending to get far more sleep than he really is. Kanza immediately crawls up onto Nizar’s shoulder to insult the Gryffindor properly.

There has still been no explanation as to why his basilisk has specifically decided to be rude to the only other parselmouth available, but Harry finds it hilarious, and it is nice to see him taking the opportunity to act like a child. Even if the circumstances are less than normal.

“I’m an idiot for so many more reasons than where I was Sorted, Kanza,” is today’s argument, Harry grinning widely, while Nizar tries to prevent the indignant basilisk from falling off his shoulder, “unless you’re going to tell me Draco Malfoy isn’t an idiot. In which case I’m leaving, by the way.”

Kanza hisses and shows off fangs which are only threatening if one is aware that she is a basilisk. “But you are still annoying, reckless and foolish,” she insists. Then, as an afterthought, “And you’re far too small for a human.”

“You can’t call me short. I’m taller than you, so your opinion doesn’t count. And you’re a snake.”

“I don’t hear any counter points about you being annoying, reckless and foolish though,” Nizar notes, resting his chin on his hands, while Kanza whispers muffled abuse into his hair.  

“Maybe I know when to pick my battles,” Harry says, like a complete liar.

Neither of them have time to call him out on it, because Harry’s bouncing excitedly in his seat again, apparently remembering some essential piece of information. “Did you know, Ron threw a crocodile heart at Malfoy today? In Potions. It hit him in the face and everything!”

“How well did that go?”

“Professor Snape took fifty points from Gryffindor!” Harry looks far too gleeful for someone who has lost so many house points. “It was totally worth it!”

Eyebrow raise.

“Well... Professor Snape didn’t think it was very funny, but it did stop Malfoy from being a git, and it made a huge mess everywhere, and that was really awesome.”

 

“Crocodile heart?” Nizar asks, the next time Severus passes through the Common Room.

“You heard about that?”

“I have ears,” Nizar drawls, and tries not to smile when Severus shakes his head in disbelief.

“It was a little bit amusing,” is all he says, entirely straight-faced, as if Draco Malfoy covered in crocodile heart is not a sight that Nizar has been dying to see since he found out that it happened.

Nizar’s friends are wonderful.

 

On the evening after the Hufflepuff-Ravenclaw Quidditch match, Harry appears in order to explain how badly Hufflepuff lost in excruciating detail, getting so caught up in talking about the work of the two Seekers that Nizar is no longer sure if it is entirely about the Quidditch.

If Harry does feel something for either or both of the Seekers, Nizar is most determinedly not going to make it his business unless he really has to.

He really hopes that he doesn’t have to.

Less than five minutes after Harry has gone to bed, Severus turns up to inform Nizar of the exact same Quidditch match, though with fewer explanations of Seeker tactics and far more complaints about how bloody freezing it was.

Either there is some very specific luck which is preventing the two from running into each other, or one or both have some skill at Divination, and Nizar would love to find out which it is some day.

 

It’s Thursday. Of course it’s a Thursday. Thursdays are entirely terrible, and it’s not fair on the young Gryffindor who deserves a space to have his unnecessarily aggressive discussions about grass snakes with an offended basilisk.

The fact that it is Thursday is not remotely relevant, but Nizar is exhausted, and Harry needs someone more capable than an ancient Slytherin portrait to be dealing with this shit. At least Severus would be physically capable of making Petunia Dursley’s life miserable.

“Grass snakes are boring,” Kanza insists for the ninth time.

“Not as boring as the Dursleys,” comes Harry’s response, exactly the same as the eight times before.

Kanza turns her nose up. “You should find some more interesting snakes then.”

“Well, that’s a brilliant idea, but I think a couple of people might have something to say if I try to drag your portrait back to Surrey with me.”

“No one has ever tried that one before, as far as I can remember,” Nizar comments, amused. “Lucius Malfoy did try to set me on fire, but that’s hardly the same thing.”

“He- really?” Harry asks in wide-eyed disbelief, derailing the now rather repetitive snake debate. “I mean, I realised that he was a bit... dramatic... when we met last year, but...”

Nizar almost bursts out laughing at Harry’s delicate understatement. “He doesn’t appear to have changed at all since he left school.”

Harry chews on his lip and takes a few seconds to set his face in a determined expression. Immediately, Nizar can guess where this is going, and he almost wishes that they could return to Harry’s attempts at antagonising the infant basilisk.

Still, he’s surprised that the topic hasn’t come up sooner.

“You know everyone who used to be Slytherin here, don’t you?”

“Mostly. Some have been more willing to talk to a mere portrait than others.”

“And...um.”

Nizar closes his eyes briefly. “Tom Riddle was unpleasant from the day that he stepped into this Common Room, and grew worse from that day until he graduated.”

“Okay,” Harry says in a very uncertain tone. “That’s... good to know, I guess.” He bites his lip, then:

“My parents were Gryffindors.”

Oh, fuck. Of course. Nizar is the idiot who has been making the same mistake as everyone else in forgetting that this child in front of him is an orphan who has little or no memory of his parents.

“James Potter and Lily Evans,” he acknowledges, as if he can somehow cover up his stupidity. “I was never able to meet them personally, but—”

Nizar cuts himself off abruptly, because that wide-eyed look has returned to Harry’s face. “Baby Gryffindor? Are you alright?”

Harry blinks three times, before he nods, his gaze still focused somewhere else. “James Potter and Lily Evans,” he repeats, his voice soft, almost reverent. “Lily Evans.”

Nizar does not enjoy the cold feeling that steals over him. Nope, this is not a good day at all. Thursdays are the worst. “No one bothered to tell you their names.”

Harry actually sits up defensively, glaring at Nizar before he registers that it is not a criticism. “I didn’t know mum’s name,” he says quietly. Defeated.

Nizar would desperately like to know what happened to make Harry believe that his lack of knowledge is a personal failing. He can, unfortunately, guess.

“I would so love to stab your relatives,” he says, before he can help himself.

The cautious half-smile that Harry offers him makes his heart break a little bit more. Nizar can pull himself together. And he’ll do it, too, for the hopeful child in front of him. Whatever it takes, no matter that he is nothing more than a portrait. This is important.

“If no one has bothered to tell you the first thing about your parents, we are changing that right now. It just so happens that I used to talk quite regularly with a friend of your mother’s.”

The expression of surprise returns to Harry’s face for a third time, and Nizar pushes down his fury as he does his best to ensure that Harry Potter has more of his parents than the ability to recognise their faces in a photograph.

There should have been someone better equipped to put this right.

 

Monday evening, and sometimes Harry’s priorities are truly strange.

“All the teachers keep following me everywhere,” he complains, flopping onto the sofa with the inelegance of a thirteen-year-old who finally feels comfortable in the room that he’s in. “I can hardly sneak off at all.”

Never mind that Harry appears doing a perfectly adequate job of sneaking around when he wants to. Such as, for example, every night that he comes to visit the Slytherin Common Room.

“I think they’re trying to protect me from Sirius Black.”

Nizar gives him a narrow-eyed glare. “That is a good thing.”

Harry scowls right back. “I can’t even escape by using my cloak most of the time, because it’s too crowded, and I keep walking into people. And then Peeves decides to join in, and one of the Ravenclaws was in the Hospital Wing for three days after he pushed her down the stairs.”

“You could always... accept the additional protection?”

Harry looks at him like he’s gone mad, which is not entirely an unexpected reaction. This is the child who decided to chase down a maddened basilisk.

“If he happily blew up 12 muggle witnesses, I don’t know how Professor Vector’s presence is going to stop him from doing anything. I don’t even take Arithmancy!”

Nizar would love to push further, but this is where he loses all credibility, because he is a stupid, useless, selfish, hypocritical portrait idiot, and those thoughts are not helpful while he is trying to be functional right now. He sighs instead, definitely not in defeat, and accepts the proposed change of subject. “What electives did you choose, then?”

Care of Magical Creatures and Divination. That sounds promising.

Harry’s description of his first Care of Magical Creatures lesson does not sound bad either. It is perhaps a brave choice for an entirely new teacher, but apart from an idiot student getting mauled by a hippogriff, there is little that could go wrong.

Gods, Nizar wants to hit Draco Malfoy over the head with one of Hagrid’s biting books.

Biting books which sound like an excellent idea, by the way, or at least highly entertaining. He is quite sure that he would like never to be anywhere near a book that is actively trying to chew his hands off, but fortunately Nizar is a portrait and is therefore at liberty to not give a fuck.

He doesn’t say all of that aloud, of course, and Harry promises to bring his copy of the Monster Book of Monsters to the Common Room sometime, with a bemused expression that does not quite explicitly state that he thinks Nizar is insane.

Nizar breaks off into outraged, amused and slightly horrified spluttering when Harry starts to describe the unique way that Professor Trelawney approaches her subject. It is perhaps a good thing that Nizar hasn’t tried to tell Harry of his probable divinatory talent before now.  

“I hadn’t realised that Professor Thorne’s replacement was almost as useless as he was,” he says indignantly, when his words are coming out in the right order again.

Harry is grinning in a way that is absolutely at Nizar’s expense. “Wait- there used to be someone worse than Trelawney?”

“How terrible is she exactly?”

“She predicts my imminent death three times a week.”

“Ah. That sounds less than ideal,” Nizar says, raising his eyebrows. Harry does not seem upset, exactly. “She is setting herself up for a lot of inaccurate predictions.”

“Or maybe she’s expecting me to die from drowning, being trampled by a hippogriff and falling off the Astronomy Tower all in one week,” Harry agrees mock-thoughtfully.

“You are supposed to be the Boy Who Lived...”

Harry shudders. “Maybe I actually can’t die properly at all, and I’m going to live for over a thousand years until I find my ‘one true love,’ like a muggle fairy tale or something.”

“Maybe.” Nizar nods along wisely. He actually has no idea what muggle fairy tales Harry might be referring to.

“But then,” says Harry through a yawn, “she’s also expecting me to get eaten by a dragon next year, and stabbed with basilisk venom again the year after that, so at least I’ll be kept busy...”

“Time for bed, I think, dear Child of So Many Prophecies,” Nizar tries to say, but Harry is still mumbling to himself.

“... and I doubt there are any more basilisks are hanging around near here, and it shouldn’t be too difficult to avoid bumping into a dragon at school—”

“Little Gryffindor, you have Potions class tomorrow.” That is usually enough to remind Harry that he needs to sleep, whether the statement is true or not.

“...I mean, we’re all hoping that Norbert was a one off.”

“Harry.”

Harry jerks upright, and then immediately stands, almost tripping face first into the fire place. “Oh! Time! Yes, I’ve got to... Sorry. G’night Nizar. I’d better go – got Potions tomorrow, or today, or... sometime.” He stumbles towards the door with uncharacteristic abruptness, nearly tripping over his cloak as he tries to pull it over his head.

Nizar silently watches the Common Room door close behind a half-invisible Gryffindor, and trying not to be worried is already a doomed effort. It is late, but it is not that late, and if Harry is this exhausted at the beginning of the week...

He’s missing far more sleep than he claims, and Nizar didn’t notice in time, and now Harry has to walk all the way back to Gryffindor Tower on his own, because Nizar is still a useless fucking portrait.

He also really wants to know who this ‘Norbert’ is.