Harry was sitting across the room from a large man with a walrus-like moustache. This was not unusual, as Harry often found himself in this very situation during his summer holidays. In most cases, the large man in question would be Harry's Uncle Vernon, and the room in question would be located at Number Four, Privet Drive, Little Whinging. Tonight, however, Harry was far away from both Vernon and Number Four, Privet Drive, and the man sitting across from Harry was a wizard by the name of Horace Slughorn. Dumbledore was somewhere in the house, ostensibly making tea, leaving Harry with the unspoken task of persuading Slughorn to join the staff at Hogwarts.
"We've met before," Harry said, trying to prompt a conversation.
"Hmm?" Slughorn, who had been staring off into space, blinked and focused his eyes on Harry. "Pardon me, lad. I didn't catch that.
"We've met before. At the quidditch world cup. Lucius Malfoy introduced us." Harry gave Slughorn an odd look. "You remember, don't you?" Harry was rather famous—very few people forgot having met him.
"Of course I remember," Slughorn said. "Of course. I was just… lost in thought."
"You seem distracted," Harry said.
"No, not at all…" Slughorn's voice trailed off, and once again his gaze drifted to the right, losing focus as he looked past Harry's shoulder. Harry turned around—the only thing behind him was a picture window.
Harry stood and closed the curtains. "Is that better?" he asked.
"I… I'm not sure what Dumbledore wants of me," Slughorn said, trying to change the subject.
"I think he wants you to come teach," Harry said.
"Not sure why," Slughorn mumbled. "I'm just- AAAH!" Slughorn screamed as an enormous clatter came from the kitchen.
"My apologies!" Dumbledore's voice called out. "Nothing to worry about!"
Harry gave Slugnhorn an appraising look. He was breathing deeply and seemed tightly wound, tense. Slughorn's conversation with Dumbledore led Harry to believe that Slughorn was hiding from Death Eaters. Not necessarily on the run, but trying to remain out of sight lest he pique their interest. From what Lucius Malfoy had told him about Slughorn, this was not the type of existence that the older man wanted to live. Lucius had intimated that Slughorn was a man who liked his comforts and his luxuries, a man who reveled in the fame of his acquaintances, a man who would wilt without societal approval. Harry needed to play on those desires.
Harry wandered over to the fireplace and took a long look at the pictures Slughorn had placed on the mantle. His eyes settled on a picture of Slughorn and Gwenog Jones, captain of the Hollyshead Harpies quidditch team. She was wearing her uniform and playfully ruffling Slughorn's hair. "Is this Gwenog Jones?" Harry asked, pointing at the picture.
"Yes it is," Slughorn said. He stood and walked toward the mantle, seeming glad to have a distraction. "Gwenog was one of my favorite students at Hogwarts. Very near the end of my time teaching, but her talent was obvious. Striking, really. She still sends me tickets, if I happen to request them." Slughorn gestured toward the next picture on the mantle. "And here, this is…"
Harry half-listened as Slughorn expounded on the fame of the various wizards and witches shown in the pictures. Harry had spent enough time in Slytherin that he could feign interest and prolong the conversation without devoting the whole of his attention to the endeavor. Harry took note of important names and preferences—Ambrosius Flume, owns Honeydukes, sends Slughorn crystal pineapple; Barnabas Cuffe, editor of The Daily Prophet—all while considering his next conversational maneuver. Harry's planning came to a screeching halt, however, when Slughorn mentioned someone completely unexpected.
"And, of course, your mother," Slughorn said.
"Where?" Harry said, turning his head curiously.
"Just there, in the back of the picture." Slughorn pointed, and Harry saw his mother peek out from behind the head of another student. "She was one of my best Potions students. Lily had true talent. Sad that we lost her so young…" Slughorn sighed. "You have her eyes, you know. Striking."
"Were you close?" Harry said.
"Oh, she was a member of my Slug Club. A special little group for the best and the brightest, you know—the wizards who have real potential." Slughorn smiled and patted Harry on the back. Harry thought he knew what Slughorn really mean—the wizards who had real potential to get rich and send Slughorn with gifts.
"There's nothing like that at Hogwarts now," Harry said, trying to allow a little wistfulness to creep into his voice. Then, after a pause, "You know, you were always one of my mother's favorite teachers."
Slughorn eyed Harry with some suspicion. "It comes as no surprise, of course… but how did you come by that information?"
"Professor Snape," Harry said. "He told me that he and my mother were Potions partners for years. According to him they almost always were the first pair to finish, and any time they finished second was because the other group had made a mistake." Harry knew that his mother and Snape had been partners from looking at Snape's memories last year during occlumency lessons. The second bit, about other groups making mistakes, was a complete fabrication on Harry's part, but it was a calculated risk. Harry sensed that the best way to connect with Slughorn was through the memory of his mother, and playing up her status as one of Slughorn's best and favorite students would do that.
Slughorn grinned and began to chuckle, and Harry knew that his gambit had worked. "Yes, yes, that sounds like Severus and Lily. And how about you, Harry? Do you have your mother's talent at Potions?"
"I'm not bad," Harry said, smiling broadly. "Not by a long shot."
"Ah, false humility." Slughorn clapped Harry on the back. "You're going to have to cover that smile, my boy, if you ever want to convince your audience."
"Do you ever miss it?" Harry asked. "Teaching?"
"Sometimes," Slughorn said. "I miss the students most. Seeing them grow as they moved through Hogwarts, watching them mature and then sending them out into the world… That's what I miss."
"Come back," Harry said. Slughorn looked stricken, but Harry forged onward. "Hogwarts could use something like the Slug Club. Something to bring us together, after last year's Inquisition. We need somebody who puts the best interests of the students first." Harry was more than aware that Slughorn put his own interests first, but he also seemed like the type who would be unable to admit that to himself.
"I don't know, Harry," Slughorn said.
"You can't go on living like this," Harry said. "Moving from house to house every few weeks, faking your own death every time a wizard happens to apparate nearby. You didn't know who we were or why we were here, and your first instinct was to turn yourself into an armchair." Harry paused. "That was quite impressive, by the way."
"Thank you," Slughorn said, puffing slightly with pride. "It took years of practice."
"At Hogwarts you'll be protected," Harry said. "Voldemort will never attack while Dumbledore is there."
Slughorn twitched violently at the sound of Voldemort's name. "Who said anything about You-Know-Who?"
"Who else could you be running from?" Harry asked quietly.
Slughorn folded his arms. "By joining Dumbledore I'd make myself a target!"
"You wouldn't be living here unless you already were a target," Harry countered. He held out his hand. "Come with us, Professor Slughorn. Hogwarts needs you. We need you. And you'll never be safer."
Slughorn twisted his mouth this way and that, and his massive moustache twitched back and forth. After a few moments, he shook his head and began to chuckle. "Harry, my boy, you're the first member of the new Slug Club. A true Slytherin, through and through." Slughorn raised a hand and began to shake his finger. "Nobody else could have convinced me, not even your mother!"
Dumbledore stepped into the room from the kitchen, carrying a tray with teacups and teapot. Harry got the impression that he had been lurking on the other side of the door, waiting to hear the outcome of Harry's conversation with Slughorn. "Did I hear you correctly, Horace? You will be joining us this year?"
"Yes, yes," Slughorn said. "And it was a dirty trick you played, sending Harry to convince me."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Dumbledore said, eyes twinkling.
As the three wizards drank their tea, Dumbledore gave Slughorn instructions for moving to Hogwarts. Slughorn's personal belongings were ready to be moved on a moment's notice, as he had been living almost nomadically for several months. Dumbledore offered Hagrid's help to retrieve Slughorn's home furnishings from wherever they might be stored. Once the arrangements were finalized, Dumbledore quickly finished his tea and announced that they must be leaving. "And you must be packing," Dumbledore said, smiling at Slughorn.
"It seems I must," Slughorn said. "Ah, at least I won't need to buy any more dragon blood…"
Harry and Dumbledore said their goodbyes and stepped outside. Once Harry was safely under his invisibility cloak and Slughorn's door was shut tight behind them, Dumbledore began to speak to Harry in a low voice. "What do you think of Professor Slughorn, Harry?"
"He likes comfort," Harry said. "No, that isn't right. He likes luxury." The pair walked down toward the street and turned onto the sidewalk. "I'd say that he craved fame and power, but he doesn't, not exactly. He doesn't want the pressure or the responsibility, because then he couldn't be relax."
Dumbledore smiled. "Well put. Horace is like the moon—he would prefer to bask in reflected light rather than providing it himself. He tries to collect students with potential for fame or power in his 'Slug Club,' offering to assist them in exchange for future considerations." Dumbledore adjusted his glasses. "I have no doubt that he has set his sights on you, now that he has accepted a position at Hogwarts."
"I practically promised to join," Harry said.
They paused, standing under a streetlight. "And does the prospect concern you?" Dumbledore asked. He was searching through his pockets for something, and as he did Harry once again saw the Headmaster's blackened hand.
"Not necessarily," Harry said. "I wasn't the most popular person in the school last year. Or anywhere. After the Inquisition and lies that the Prophet was printing, I could use some help in that area."
Dumbledore nodded. "Horace is generally harmless, so I will not discourage you from that pursuit. Aha!" Dumbledore withdrew his hand from his pocket, holding what appeared to be a cigarette lighter. He snapped his wrist to open the silver contraption, then flicked it with his thumb. The light from the streetlamp disappeared with a pop, leaving Harry and Dumbledore in darkness.
Harry expected that Dumbledore would invite him to take his arm, and that they would be apparating to their next destination. Instead, Dumbledore stood quietly in the darkness, saying nothing.
"Sir?" Harry asked, after a moment.
Dumbledore blinked and looked down at Harry. "Sorry, Harry. In my old age I sometimes become lost in thought."
"And what thought was that?"
"I thought that I should thank you for your efforts with Professor Slughorn. You did us all a great service by convincing him to return to Hogwarts. And… you remind me very much of a man I knew in my youth."
"How so?" Harry asked.
"He was a very charismatic young man," Dumbledore said. "At times, it seemed that he could convince almost anybody of anything."
Harry looked away, into the night. "You're talking about Voldemort, aren't you," Harry said.
"No," Dumbledore said. "I am not." The older man cleared his through and held out his elbow. "Take my arm, please. It is time we departed."
Dumbledore delivered Harry into the custody of Arthur and Molly Weasley. Dumbledore explained that he had strengthened the protective charms and wards on the houses of every member of the Order, and that he had paid particular attention to those at the Burrow. Harry could have returned to Hogwarts for the remainder of the summer, of course, but Dumbledore had (correctly) guessed that Harry would prefer the company of Ron and Ginny over the company of the Bloody Baron and Peeves. In reality, Harry would have preferred to stay at Grimmauld Place, but Dumbledore nixed that idea immediately. Having Harry stay at the Order's headquarters when his godfather lived there was apparently one sort of thing, while Harry live there alone except for Kreacher was another thing altogether.
When Dumbledore and Harry arrived at The Burrow, nearly everybody was already asleep. Only Molly Weasley remained awake to greet them. After Dumbledore left, Molly showed Harry to his room and Harry fell asleep almost immediately. The next morning, Harry discovered that waking up at The Burrow was unlike anything that Harry had previously experienced—and he had spent most of the last five years living in a dormitory with five other boys. It was a discovery that Harry made anew every morning over the next several weeks.
On days when Harry wasn't awoken by the noises and smells of Mrs. Weasley's cooking, he was awoken by the slams and bangs of the Weasely siblings as they tore through the house. Ron and Ginny were home, of course, but their older brother Bill was visiting, as well. The three siblings moved through the house like a well-choreographed tornado, blasting in and out of bedrooms at a hundred miles an hour as they got ready for the day. Harry's presence disrupted the delicate balance—even a quick visit to the privy could throw the Weasley children into chaos. Despite Harry's disruptive presence, things might have worked out reasonably well… except for Fleur.
Fleur was the reason for Bill's visit this summer—he had come to announce his engagement and introduce his fiancée to the family. Reactions to Fleur were decidedly mixed. Ron was elated to have Fleur in the house, but devastated because she was engaged to his older brother. Arthur and Molly were happy that Bill was engaged, but Molly seemed to think that Fleur was shallower than a rain puddle on a hot day. Ginny, meanwhile, seemed annoyed by Fleur's presence, and the only thing that restrained her snarky comments were cross looks from Arthur.
Fleur was a new variable in the Weasley family dynamic, one that could not be ignored. Especially in the morning. While Harry would try to scurry in and out of the bathroom as quickly as possible, Fleur claimed the room for seemingly hours on end, as if it were her birthright. She seemed oblivious to the glares Ginny sent her way as she traipsed out of the steam-filled room. And no matter how angry Ron and Bill got while they waited outside the closed bathroom door, their fury evaporated as soon as Fleur's face came into view.
Harry rarely made it to the shower before eleven in the morning.
After lunch, Harry helped Ron and Ginny with their chores. Most of the chores were tedious, but Harry came to enjoy de-gnoming the garden quite a bit. He and Ron had made a competition of it, seeing who could get the most gnomes past the tree stump on the other side of the garden wall. And regardless of how tedious the chores felt, the faster the Weasleys finished working around the house the more time the three of them were able to spend playing quidditch.
Occasionally Bill would join Ron, Harry and Ginny on the pitch, and they could play a match two aside, but mostly Ginny and Harry took turns shooting at Ron. Harry could see that the two Gryffindors had improved quite a bit since the previous fall—Ron was much more confident in net, and Ginny was shooting harder and with greater accuracy. Harry was nervous about Slytherin's chances in the upcoming season, until he remembered that there was no guarantee that he would be on the team. He assumed that his lifetime ban had been rescinded, but there had been no confirmation.
Evenings were much less structured than the rest of the day. Sometimes Ron and Harry would play chess—Harry was improving, which meant that he was able to win one match in every five instead of merely drawing one in every five. If Ron and Ginny were both occupied, Harry would find a comfortable spot and sit down to read. Harry was still working his way through the books that he had nicked from the library at Grimmauld Place last summer, and without the constant pressure of the Inquisition he was finding it much easier to understand the material. Before he opened any of his books, however, he made sure to alter the cover with an illusion; if Molly Weasley ever wandered by, she would see Harry reading a copy of "Household Charms for the Muggleborn."
Molly never seemed to question that Harry was so interested in learning—on the morning after Harry arrived, he and Ron had received their O.W.L. results. Harry had earned O.W.L.s in all nine of his classes, while Ron had earned O.W.L.s in seven. Ron had earned more than Fred and George combined, a fact that Molly had repeated several times. For his part, Harry was only moderately pleased with his grades. He had As in History of Magic and Arithmancy, two subjects where he had expected to earn at least an E. Lack of sleep must have cost him more than he knew. At least he had earned an O in Defense—if only Umbridge was around, so he could rub her nose in it.
When Harry wasn't reading or knocking about the house with Ron, he sometimes found himself spending time with Ginny. Harry would never admit it aloud, but those were Harry's favorite evenings. As Harry entered his third week at the Weasley's, he found himself trying to manufacture reasons to be in Ginny's company. As dinner wound to a close every evening, Harry would listen carefully for clues about the family's plans. Did Arthur and Molly have chores for their children after dinner? Were Bill and Fleur going off on together or staying in? Had Ron convinced Bill to play a late game of two-aside quidditch? Did Ginny have letters to write to her friends in Gryffindor?
In the light of day, Harry regarded these feelings with something like contempt. The amount of attention he paid to Ginny made him feel stupid. He was his own man, and his happiness didn't depend on what Ginny happened to be doing on any particular evening. Harry wasn't beholden to anybody. Those thoughts were easy to think at one or two in the afternoon, when he was lobbing gnomes over the fence with Ron. But no matter how resolved he had been in the daytime, as the sun began to set Harry struggled to keep his eyes from turning toward Ginny.
On the Sunday before his birthday, Harry volunteered to clear the table and wash dishes. Harry's desire to be a good houseguest was part of the reason he offered, but it was a small part. The true reason for Harry's offer was that Molly had ordered Ginny to clean up after dinner, and Harry knew that helping with the chores would put him in her close proximity. And, since nobody else would be likely to volunteer to do chores, it meant that Harry and Ginny would be alone.
Harry and Ginny chatted idly as they cleared the table, and their small talk continued as Ginny began washing dishes. Harry dried as Ginny washed, and only as he was putting a towel on the last bowl did Harry realize that they had almost finished with the dishes. Harry didn't know what Ginny planned to do with her evening, but he wasn't prepared to let her walk away.
"Er… Ginny? What're you doing tonight?
"Sleeping, I reckon," Ginny said. Her arms were deep in the sink, fishing for the plug so that she could drain the dishwater. She found the chain and yanked, pulling the plug free. As she dried her arms and hands on a dishtowel, she gave Harry a grin. "Or, did you mean before then?"
"Yes, that's what I meant," Harry said, rolling his eyes.
"I'm not sure," Ginny said. "I hadn't really thought about it."
Harry took a deep breath. "Would you like to go for a walk?"
Ginny's mouth twitched, and Harry got the impression that she was trying to conceal a smile. "That might be nice. Grab your shoes!" Before Harry could say another word, Ginny darted out of the kitchen and through the narrow passage that led to the sitting room. Harry followed her at a more reasonable pace, and when he arrived he saw Ginny sitting on the ground, already pulling her second shoe onto her foot. The rest of the family was in the sitting room, listening to the wizarding wireless.
"And where do you think you're going at this time of night?" Molly asked. The family had eaten dinner late, and it was almost nine in the evening. The sky had turned red, and even though the sun had not yet set it had long since fallen behind the trees.
"Harry and I are going for a walk," Ginny said.
"You know you can't leave the property without protection," Arthur said. "I know you don't like it, but…"
"Who said anything about leaving?" Ginny said. She finished tying her shoe and hopped to her feet. "I just said that we were going for a walk."
Every head in the room turned toward Harry. Arthur, Bill and Ron gave Harry identical glares—a simultaneous expression of disapproval and warning. Molly, meanwhile, seemed to be repressing a smile the same way her daughter had only minutes earlier. Fleur, for her part, was smiling brightly.
"It's a nice night," Harry said lamely.
"Go ahead," Molly said. The smile she had managed to keep off her face was evident in her voice. "Just stay on the property."
"Come on," Ginny said. She grabbed Harry's shoes and opened the door. "It's stuffy in here."
Harry followed Ginny outside, and she closed the door behind him. As he sat down on the steps to put on his shoes, Ginny folded her arms and glared at the door. "I can't believe them," she said. "Looking at you like that. Who do they think they are? What do they think is going to happen?"
"They're just worried," Harry said. "Don't be too hard on them."
"If they give me another look like that, they're liable to find themselves being attacked by their own bogies." Ginny spun on her heel and stomped away from the house. "Hurry up! Are we having a walk or not?"
Harry hastily tied the last knot in his laces and leaped to his feet to follow. Ginny was moving quickly, and Harry had to jog to catch up.
A/N: Producing a lot of content lately, which is good news. But it's hand-written, so I also need to find time to transcribe it, which is bad news. But it's better than no content, right? Right.
Update schedule: I'm going to shoot for once every three weeks. And I promise that this book will be SUBSTANTIALLY shorter than Emerald Trance.