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Harry leaned forwards and stared as he watched Hermione activate the machine she'd obviously spent a lot of time on. The silver wires started spinning, and then black dust was falling down from the stones, and Harry could see it raining on what looked like a village called Little Hangleton.
"You can find the Horcruxes." Ron was almost whispering.
Hermione nodded, blushing. Harry grinned. He had to think that had more to do with the way that Ron was looking at her than the way he was.
Of course it does, Dash said idly from near the wall, where he was tracking what he insisted were the traces of rodents. Those two will take longer than you and Draco to realize their feelings. They are more conventional.
Harry wanted to ask what that meant—since it sounded like an insult—but Ron abruptly whooped and leaped across the space that separated him and Hermione, grabbing her in his arms and spinning her around. "You can find the Horcruxes!" he yelled, and it was a good thing they were in the Room of Requirement, Harry thought, or most of the school might have known what Horcruxes were before the end of the day. "Merlin, Hermione, you're amazing!"
"Put me down, Ron!"
Harry watched as Hermione straightened out her robes and ducked her head away from Ron's grin, and Ron suddenly lost the grin and stepped slowly back. Then Ron turned and made frantic gestures for Harry to step forwards and say something. The longer Harry waited, the more frantic his grimaces got.
Harry valiantly restrained the impulse to chuckle. He looked at Hermione instead and smiled. "Then this will make finding them a lot easier. It looks like one is near this village of—Little Hangleton?" He craned his neck so that he could see. "And you had another map that said one of them is right here in Hogwarts."
At least his words made Hermione act like her normal self again. She straightened out her shirt and wrinkled her nose. "Yes, and that one's actually the most frustrating one! Because the machine acts like it should be right here, but then nothing I can do actually locates it!" She looked around the room in exasperation, saw Ron, and promptly turned in the opposite direction with her ears going redder than his had.
Conventional, Dash remarked, and ate a spider. Harry ignored him.
"It's still amazing, Hermione," Harry soothed her. "And maybe it means that the Horcrux is hidden in another version of the Room of Requirement—"
"No, you're amazing, Harry!" Hermione's face cleared in a bright smile. "That's right! Of course it could be! We'll walk up and down the corridor until the Room tells us what version it is!"
"Um, not without Severus," said Harry apologetically. Severus was already getting upset at the mere thought of Harry being at Hogwarts during the full moon raid to try and recapture Bellatrix, and Harry wouldn't even be fighting in that one. "I have to tell him about this, and he'll probably forbid us to go after it alone."
"Do you have to?" Ron said. "I mean, it just seems like we never get to have adventures alone together anymore. Draco is always there, or Snape, and I mean, they're all right, but it's just never the same…"
"Ron! Of course he has to! He's being responsible and bringing in adults for once, just like he should, just like we should have been able to when we went after the Philosopher's Stone…"
Ron shouted back, and by two minutes in, both of them were yelling and had red ears and faces. Harry sighed a little. At least it seemed to have distracted them from the idea of hunting the Horcrux in the Room of Requirement alone.
Conventional and oblivious, Dash said, as he went past Harry's ankles, tapped a companionable tail on the back of his leg, and then ate a haunch of venison the Room had apparently provided for him. A bad combination.
Is there a reason that you're eating so much? Harry asked, to avoid agreeing with his basilisk. He did think it would be a long time before Ron and Hermione admitted their feelings for each other, but that wasn't the same as thinking they hadn't realized them.
Oh, I am getting close to the time when I will shed my skin in a huge ball. I need more food to reach that point. I am growing rapidly. Don't tell me you didn't notice. This time, the Room provided a haunch of beef. Dash lunged forwards and ate it neatly, as if it would escape.
Harry stared at the bulge going down his throat, and swallowed. I—I didn't realize that you were going to get this big this fast. I mean, the basilisk in the Chamber was a lot bigger than you, but it had centuries to grow.
This body is altered from that basilisk, as I think I have told you in the past. I am not vulnerable to the crows of cocks, and I am not going to take as long to reach my full size. Dash looked up at him and winked one eye behind his clear eyelids in that way he had. I need to be bigger to protect you effectively.
You already protect me effectively—
Harry started guiltily and turned back to Ron and Hermione, who were both glaring sternly at him. "Sorry," he said. "What?" Behind him, the Room had summoned another bloody piece of meat for Dash that Harry couldn't identify, and he was eating it as if he wanted to crawl inside it.
"We've agreed that you can tell Professor Snape," said Hermione, folding her arms and radiating injured dignity.
"But you can do it after we've walked past the Room three times and got it to open up," Ron said. "We're just going to take a look inside and see if we can find the Horcrux. That's all. If we don't see it, then we'll close the door and wait for him. It's not like we've really stepped inside if that's all we do."
Harry hesitated. That did sound like a better compromise than just going after the first Horcrux all by themselves would have been. He knew he wouldn't have done even that much when they were younger and hunting for Nicholas Flamel and Slytherin's monster.
Somehow, I don't think your Severus will be impressed by the semantic difference, Dash remarked. He was slowing down in his gulping now, enough that Harry thought there might be patches of flat scaled neck in between the lumps of his meals.
"No," Harry said, shaking his head. "I want to tell him right away. I know that he'll get upset if I don't."
That was Ron. Hermione was nodding along. Harry pointed at Ron. "No. For one thing, you're not the one he's going to put in detention if we do this and then I tell him."
"Detention doesn't matter that much when he's your guardian, does it?"
"For a second thing, you don't get the brunt of a disappointed look from having your guardian living in the school with you. Your mum can send Howlers. Can you imagine her just staring at you because she lives in the same place and hears about you doing something dangerous?"
"No, because she wouldn't just stare, she would scream at me," Ron muttered, but he sounded convinced. "I just—fine. Let's do something soon, though, all right, Harry? Something that's all Gryffindors and no Slytherins?"
Harry smiled and said something he honestly couldn't remember afterwards, given Dash's voice in the back of his head.
All Gryffindors except for one Slytherin.
You could let me do something alone with them if it was safe, right?
None of the things that dunderhead is likely to imagine are "safe."
Harry didn't get the chance to argue back, because Ron started threatening to go get the Horcrux right now, and Harry had to run down to the dungeons to find Severus. Dash flowed after him, snapping up insects Harry hadn't even seen scuttling along the corridors, and talking about the merits of hard-boiled eggs and whether he should visit the kitchens.
How big do you think you're going to get? Harry asked, and got only a snicker for his trouble.
Severus strode towards the Room of Requirement. He was impressed that Granger had invented a way of detecting the Horcruxes. He was impressed that Harry had had the sense to come get him before setting off into some dangerous adventure.
He was not impressed that Weasley made striding necessary.
He arrived outside the Room of Requirement to find Weasley just walking up to a door that had appeared on the wall. Granger, standing behind him, widened her eyes and squeaked when she saw him. Severus granted her a nod before he reached out and grabbed the collar of Weasley's robe, twisting it up around his throat.
Granger appeared as if she wanted to say something, but slowly closed her mouth. Severus guided Weasley around and stared into his eyes. "What do you think you're doing, boy?"
"Exploring…sir." Weasley was finding it hard to breathe. Severus lowered him so that his feet touched the floor again. It made it more convenient to shake him.
"You have to understand me," he said, and lowered his voice as he all but hissed. "You will not drag Harry into anything like this against his will. Or something he told you will be wrong."
"What's that, sir?" Weasley had enough breath to speak the words and enough daring to meet Severus's eyes head-on. Severus clenched his fingers in the miscreant's collar and gave him another sharp shake, one that made Weasley yelp as something in his neck popped.
"The detentions that I would have served him with will instead fall upon you."
Weasley looked truly stunned. Severus let him go with a disgusted snarl. Did he believe himself immune from consequences? It was true that Weasley hadn't had many detentions with Severus himself in his four-and-a-half years in this school, but that could be changed so quickly that Weasley's tongue would still be flapping a week later.
"We were just going to see where one of the Horcruxes was," Weasley finally muttered, staring at the floor.
Severus opened his mouth to tell the boy exactly how dangerous one of those Horcruxes was likely to be, but Granger cut in, mercifully for Weasley. "Where's Harry, sir? And Dash?"
"Harry is in my quarters, as far as possible from your attempts to bring trouble down on his head," Severus said coolly, and watched in satisfaction as Granger turned pink—and reached out to restrain Weasley from saying something stupid. "Dash is hunting. Now. Do I have to chain you in Gryffindor Tower to convince you to leave this business to adults?"
"But Hermione was the one who invented the Horcrux-finding machine! We should be able to—"
"Detention, Weasley." Severus had seldom relished giving one more, and watched the deep red color Weasley's ears turned in vicious satisfaction. "Back to Gryffindor Tower with both of you."
They scurried off, Granger floating a coil of silver and beads behind her that was probably the Horcrux-finding machine the boy had talked about. Severus shook his head. It was indeed a remarkable achievement, and he would have to speak with her about it later. But he would not mix praise with punishment. That was a mistake he had not made since his first season as a teacher in Hogwarts.
And in the meantime…
He turned to face the door Weasley had summoned. Before he went in, he raised a shield that would spring into being around him the minute something threatened him, even if that thing was physical instead of magical, or subtle instead of overt. His wand was in his hand. A few useful potions were in his pockets.
He still hardly wanted to venture into that version of the Room of Requirement to confront a Horcrux.
Severus grimaced and opened the door with a hand wrapped in soft cloth he had conjured. The silver handle didn't burn with the foulness of Dark magic, as he had thought was almost inevitable, but that didn't mean anything. The Horcrux could be far enough back in the room that it didn't directly influence the door.
Someone coming into the room would be a different matter.
Resolutely, Severus didn't gape at the piles of rubbish that loomed around him, and moved steadily past broken chairs, what appeared to be a half-shattered Vanishing Cabinet, and some loose coils of tarnished silver and greened bronze that might have been part of Granger's machine. He was aiming towards the strongest source of Dark magic in the room.
It wasn't easy. Many of the artifacts radiated some form of foul power, and it was actually harder to distinguish between them with so many broken, because then the magic leaked and didn't form in the right "patterns" to make it traceable. But Severus was able to analyze many of the sources of magic that called for his attention and then bat them away as irrelevant. They weren't evil enough for a Horcrux.
In the end, he almost walked past it. He jerked to a stop, though, when a twinkle or flash of light from the gem embedded in the middle of it caught his attention.
Severus approached with careful steps. Cast over the ear of a carved bust was a silver diadem—or it might once have been silver, as the jewel in it might once have been a sapphire. Severus floated the diadem into the air instead of trying to touch it. When he made it spin to the side, he could read the words carved into it.
Wit beyond measure is man's greatest treasure.
Severus swallowed. It felt as though his throat was burning. This wasn't something that Voldemort had created, as he had once assumed most of the Horcruxes would be, given the diary. No, this was the lost diadem of Rowena Ravenclaw.
He didn't lose control of the spell that kept the diadem aloft, but turned it carefully to the side, and began casting the spells that would detect the protections around it. He could find nothing. Severus grew more and more suspicious as he cast, and still nothing happened.
Can he have left it here and not had the time to enchant it? Yet that seems impossible.
Well, if Severus could not find one of the common sets of protections, that might still mean the diadem could ensnare anyone who touched it, the way the diary had. He did not intend to wear it. He waved his wand and wrapped it in the same white, silken cloth he had used to touch the door handle. Then he walked out of the Room, with the diadem hovering beside him, and paced up and down the corridor again.
I need a place to hide the diadem, a room only I can enter.
When he had repeated the words in his head three times, a different door appeared, a weathered panel of dark oak so small that it looked as if it covered a rodent's burrow. Severus smiled grimly and dropped the diadem in. Then he cast another spell that would let him know the instant someone moved or touched it.
And then he finally turned away and went back down to the dungeons, where Harry was waiting for him.
Harry studied Severus carefully as he came through the door into his quarters. It didn't look as though he was wounded or limping, but Harry still asked. "Did it hurt you?"
"Horcruxes should not, once one knows how to handle them," Severus said dryly, and then went over to the liquor cabinet and took out a heavy bottle of something golden and seething that Harry had never seen him drink. "The tension was more draining than the process of fetching the thing itself."
"So it's hidden?"
Severus gave him a harsh glance that mellowed the instant Harry flinched. "Yes, of course it is. And I'll make sure that you know exactly where it is and what I'm going to do with it when we fetch some basilisk venom to destroy it."
Harry reached out through the bond to Dash. Dash had disappeared from Severus's rooms a little while ago, to go out and hunt some more rodents. Would you be willing to provide the venom to destroy the Horcruxes?
Yes, but I'd rather provide it for several of them at once. It's draining to produce that much poison.
Harry blinked. The sense through the bond was one of strain, and he wondered what in the world Dash was doing, that he felt like that. Are you all right?
I am, but what I'm doing right now takes a little more concentration than it did when I was Salazar Slytherin and had hands. I'll talk to you again when I'm done.
The bond snapped silent. Harry sat back and noticed the way Severus was eyeing him. "Dash is all right," he said, shaking his head. "But he wants to be left alone right now, and it almost sounded as though he was trying to cast a spell or do a ritual or something."
"Nothing is perhaps impossible for a basilisk who was the Founder of my House," Severus muttered, and began to sip from the sloshing golden bottle. "What are you going to do with the latest letter from the mutt?"
"Don't fight with me about calling him that right now, Harry."
Harry paused, then nodded. It seemed going into that version of the Room of Requirement to retrieve the Horcrux had really upset Severus. "All right. I wrote back to him and told him I was happy to hear from him, but that I don't really want him handing me any more houses or money or Dark artifacts. And that we were closer to figuring out what to do about my scar. And that we'd like to decide something about that before Voldemort wakes up again."
"And you did not respond to his offer to meet?"
Harry frowned and looked down at his hands. Honestly, it had been long enough since he'd seen Sirius that the thought of seeing him again was strange. And he didn't know if Sirius could control himself well enough to keep from flinging insults at Severus.
That wouldn't be such a problem if Severus would let me see him by myself. But he's never going to allow that.
"I'll write back to him tomorrow," Harry finally said. "And tell him that it's too soon, unless he thinks he can really control himself when it comes to you."
Severus was in the middle of lifting his bottle to his mouth, but he lowered it then and stared straight at Harry. "You're worried about me."
"Of course I am." Harry stared at him in turn, wondering why Severus looked so baffled.
"You're trying to protect me from Black."
"It's not like I would need to protect myself."
Severus swallowed some more of the golden liquor, and then said, "You do not need to worry like that, Harry. I am the adult and you are the child. I am the one who will remove you from the situation if Black becomes abusive."
"To either one of us."
Harry considered that, then nodded. At least Severus wasn't the kind of martyr who would feel obliged to stay if the insults were "only" being flung at him. "So we'll see what his response to that is, and if it's not explosive, then we're one step closer to trusting him."
"Yes." Severus stared a moment longer into the golden bottle, took one more sip, then set it aside. He turned to face Harry. "Did you come to fetch me because you were worried that your friends would walk into the Room of Requirement and you might see them die, or because you were afraid of detention, or for some other reason?"
Harry blinked. "I came to get you because I knew you would be worried if I went along with them." He considered it, and then added, "And I knew you were the only one scary enough that Ron might back off instead of pushing forwards with it."
Severus snorted, and sounded for a moment as though he was going to laugh. Then he said, "I repeat that I am the adult, and you the child. You don't need to look after me."
"What if I want to?"
Severus's face softened for a second, and then said, "I would say that is a relic of your upbringing, where you began to think that you were not worthy of love and care."
Harry scowled at him. "That's a stupid thing to say." He ignored the way Severus started and then began to scowl back. Just because the man might put him in detention or something similar didn't mean Harry was frightened of him now. "Dash would yell at me if I really felt that way. No, I just want to protect you the same way I want to protect Ron and Hermione and Dash and Draco and all the rest of the people I—love." It was still hard to force that word past his throat, which felt sticky, but he managed. "It's not different. I want to make sure that you don't worry and you have what you want."
Severus closed his eyes in a slow blink. Then he said, "Your reasons make sense."
Harry swallowed. "And you're not going to put me in detention for calling you stupid."
Severus picked up the golden bottle again. "You said my words were stupid, not me." He began to smile slowly. "And we have recovered one of the Horcruxes."
That was true, and Harry hadn't thought about it enough. He smiled back. "True. Do you think we can have a party?"
"Not with your friends, at the moment. I sent them back to Gryffindor Tower and told them to behave themselves."
Harry laughed. "Then I'll go get Draco. It can be Slytherins and kind-of Slytherins." He stood up and made his way to the door, calling down the bond, Dash, do you want to join us?
Harry swallowed. He would accept the silence for now, since he thought forcing his way through it would be worse. But he definitely hoped that Dash would return to them soon.