Chapter Sixty-Two

Rot

Alex had hardly begun making her way back to her compartment when Hogwarts became visible on the horizon.

"Where's Harry?" Ron asked before she could even fully step inside their compartment.

"Busy," she said shortly, brushing him aside in order to reach her trunk. "We'll prob see him on the platform."

"I don't like this," mumbled Hermione, frowning. "What if he gets found out? They'll kill him!"

"They probably won't murder him."

"Yeah, that's not really helping," remarked Ron.

Alex sighed. "I'll go back there if we don't see him by the time we reach Hogsmeade station."

That seemed to placate them.

"What's your take on Professor Slughorn?" Hermione asked, sliding over so Alex could squeeze in between her and Luna.

"Very Slytherin," Alex replied after a moment. "But not the evil kind."

"Unlike you?" said Ron. He dodged her kick with the expertise of someone long used to her antics.

"Do most Slytherins go around hosting parties?" wondered Neville.

"No. Well, yes," amended Alex, thinking of all the soirees the purebloods put together to celebrate birthdays and coming-of-ages and Yuletide. "He's the sort of Slytherin who prefers to be well-connected and in the know. If you're anyone remarkably profitable, he'll try to get in touch."

Ron pouted immensely.

"Oh, come off it," groaned Hermione. "You wouldn't enjoy those sit-downs anyway, judging by what Neville's told us."

"Outdone by my sister," he grumbled.

"He's a quidditch freak," Alex informed him. "He's acquainted with almost every team. If you wanna impress him, be the best player on the field this year. He'll try to collect you for sure."

"And you're happy to be his collectible?" Luna asked in that totally judgemental-free way of hers.

"Of course," said Alex. "He and I are more alike than most people would realise."

The Hogwarts Express pulled into the station smoothly.

Hermione turned to her expectantly. "Shouldn't you be outside guiding the first-years?"

Alex threw her head back with a groan. "Fuck's sake."

"Is that strike one?" Ron asked innocently.

This time, her kick landed.

"Move!" Alex barked as she navigated through the river of students trying to exit the train. Once she was out, she moved to one end of the platform and hollered, "First years over here!"

"Good evenin', Alex," greeted Hagrid as he held a lamp close to his head. "Head girl, I see! Well, can't say I'm too surprised, eh?"

Alex beamed up at him. "Thanks, Hagrid. I'll leave the first years to you?"

He chuckled. "I've only done this a few decades now."

"He's huge," whispered a first-year girl. She craned her head just to get a full glimpse of Hagrid.

"I think he's part giant," replied her friend, her voice similarly softened. Rather than awe, her tone was coloured with something that sounds a lot like fear. "Is going to eat us? Is that why we're all going with him?"

Alex smiled down at her. "Hagrid is one of the nicest people I've ever met." Her smile widened into a grin that Sirius had once called wolfish. "If you say something like that about him again, I'll rip all your fingernails out."

Fortunately, Hagrid had missed out on their exchange in its entirety; he was preoccupied with trying to fish a first-year boy's leg from between the train and the edge of the platform. How he managed to jam his limb there, Alex hadn't the foggiest.

After herding the eleven-year-olds to one side of the platform, Alex returned to the compartment that held the sixth-year Slytherins. It was abandoned, as was the whole train. All the blinds were drawn, which was incredibly suspicious if she said so herself.

Alex concentrated. In the middle of the compartment was a magical presence. The naked eye alone saw nothing out of place.

Invisibility cloak, she surmised with a sigh.

"Got caught, didn't you, idiot?" she asked, kneeling down and reaching for something solid. Her fingers brushed against the top of Harry's head, and she pulled the cloak off him.

Harry made a pitiful sight indeed. Someone had landed either a solid punch or kick to face, breaking his glasses and his nose. Blood had gushed from the crooked appendage, now dried and flaking around the lower half of his face. Other than that, he looked unharmed.

"You're so dumb," she said wearily. Harry could've died.

She set to work fixing him. A simple finite ended the Full Body Bind that left him paralysed on the floor. His nose was patched with a mild episkey and she even made his glasses look good as new.

"Thanks," he said quietly, ashamed at having his arse handed to him so thoroughly. He pulled himself off the floor with a groan. "We should hurry before the train departs."

Alex trailed after him. "The Hogwarts Express doesn't leave Hogsmeade until after the feast. They don't want to leave anyone or anything on board, so it gets checked thoroughly."

"D'you think someone would've found me then?"

"Possibly. An auror would've," she added, nodding in the direction of a burly wizard who left the train a moment after them.

He smiled at her. "Alex!"

Eh?

The dark-haired man transformed into Tonks.

Eh?

"You're stationed here?" Alex asked, stunned. "I thought you were gonna be at the Ministry."

"Rotating shifts," Tonks informed her, smiling. "Sometimes I'll be here, sometimes elsewhere."

Alex relaxed. Tonks didn't seem interested in rekindling their barely extinguished flame.

She whistled when she got a good look at Harry. "Did you trip?"

"He's not you," laughed Alex.

"Malfoy stomped on my face," Harry said tersely.

She shouldn't have felt impressed. Really. But Draco had noticed Harry when possibly no one else did. And…

"That's it?" Alex said breathlessly. "He didn't snap your wand? Break your legs?"

"You have issues," Harry told her frankly.

Alex didn't disagree. But how did neither Harry nor Tonks realise what a big deal this was? Draco had Harry at his mercy. As a newly minted Death Eater striving to restore his family name, it would've been a no-brainer if he killed Harry or tortured him for info. Hell, he could've at least stolen Harry's identity. Draco was no moron; he was just soft.

Draco Malfoy has a soul.

"You're really lucky," Alex said softly.

"You should probably head up to the castle," Tonks said in the ensuing silence. "They'll have a conniption once they realise you're both missing."

Alex raised her wand and thought of nothing but her broomstick. "Accio Firebolt."

Harry copied her. The trek to Hogwarts from Hogsmeade was no joke, and you couldn't even apparate too closely without setting the runic barriers off.

Even while recovering from his shock and mild pain, Harry outflew her. She cursed him in her head as she flew after him; Tonks remained at the station after she sent her jack rabbit patronus to Dumbledore warning him of their incoming arrival.

They reached the gates on the edge of the school grounds. Naturally, it was locked.

Wanting to feel useful, Harry took out his wand and waved it at the lock. "Alohomora."

Alex stifled a scoff. The Chosen One, her ass. "You really thought that would work? The magic protecting this castle is stronger and older than even Dumbledore."

"What d'you suggest we do then?" he snapped. "Stand around and wait?"

"That's exactly what we do."

Approximately seven seconds later a lumos became visible from the other side of the gate. It wasn't Dumbledore who came to fetch them, but Snape.

"What are you doing here?" hissed Harry.

Sighing, Alex rubbed her eyes. Of course he would antagonise the man who had come to help them out.

"Shall I return to the castle then?" drawled Snape. When Harry merely scowled harder, the Head of her House said, "I intercepted Nymphadora's patronus. The headmaster can't just up and leave in the middle of the start-of-term feast."

He inspected them closely, his beady eyes lingering on the dried blood clinging to Harry. "Too busy fighting to get to the castle in time?" he asked sardonically.

Alex shrugged to diffuse the rapidly mounting hostility between Snape and the boy half his age. "You know how annoying Harry can be, Professor. I couldn't help myself."

The corner of Snape's mouth curled upwards. "You did well to escort him, head girl. Ten points to Slytherin. Fifty points from Gryffindor for being late and out of uniform, Potter."

"I didn't have time to change—" Harry began angrily.

Snape turned his back to him as though he hadn't said anything. "Come. You might make it in time for dessert."

Alex hung her head in disappointment. She was so looking forward to the house elves' cooking.


"Bathroom," she announced when they got to the entrance hall.

Neither Snape nor Harry seemed to hear her; they were preoccupied with trying to vaporise each other with their glowers alone. Rolling her eyes, Alex threw discretion out the window and made her way to the kitchen. Not only did she want real food and not just dessert, she wanted to avoid walking into the Great Hall at the same time as Harry. People would put two and two together and Alex would find herself neck deep in hot water.

The house elves, though busy prepping dessert, paused long enough to greet her warmly. She smiled sincerely at them and asks for some leftover dinner please.

After eating her fill and then some, Alex returned to the Great Hall just as the feast wrapped itself up. She supervised the fourth-year prefects as they corralled the first years to their new dorms. When she was satisfied with their work, she followed her Housemates into the dungeons.

"Where were you?" Katherine asked the moment she stepped into the dorms. There was the faintest trace of hysteria in her voice. "We thought you died."

"Why?" asked Alex, alarmed.

"Because a number of our Housemates' parents are in Azkaban after that little stint in the Department of Mysteries," Katherine said flatly. "They might try to seek revenge on you."

Alex rolled her eyes. "It's not like I personally imprisoned them," she said as she unlocked her trunk. Besides, if all Harry got was a broken nose, she figured she would be fine.

Agatha emerged from the bathroom in her bathrobe, clearly about to take a shower. "Thank Merlin you're all right," she said, shoulders slumped. "Congratulations on making head girl."

Alex beamed. "Thanks."

"I'm sorry about your father."

Her expression dimmed. "Yeah. Thanks."

"I'm honestly surprised you've yet to be assaulted," admitted Katherine from where she was curled up on her bed with Spitfire in her lap. "You should watch your back. Don't go anywhere alone, and don't wander around at night."

"Yes, mum," sighed Alex. Still, she was grateful for her roommates' concern. "I genuinely don't think the Death Eater children resent me too much. They most likely blame Harry or the aurors for how things played out."

"They're also banking on the fact that the Dark Lord will free his followers from prison sooner rather than later," said Agatha quietly.

Just like last year… Grimacing, Alex put such thoughts away as she unpacked her toiletries and pyjamas. "D'you think I can pop down to the prefects bathroom or will I get necked on my way?"

Katherine frowned as she calculated the odds. "Disillusion yourself just in case."

Alex saluted her and made her way back out.

Myrtle was already there when Alex entered the prefects bathroom.

"Hey, Myrtle," greeted Alex as she shut the portrait door behind her. "Can you do me a favour and confirm there's no one out there? I'm pretty sure I wasn't followed but it doesn't hurt to double check."

Always delighted to be relied on, Myrtle drifted through the wall. She popped back in after a handful of seconds. "All clear," she declared.

Nodding her thanks, Alex stripped herself down and undid both her wand and dagger holsters strapped to her forearms. Her pocket sneakoscope was placed gingerly atop her robes.

"How was your break?" she asked conversationally as she filled the bath with warm water and fragrant suds.

"Dull," sobbed Myrtle. "Although there was some excitement near the end. Dumbledore's hand is all blackened and cursed. Some people think it's You-Know-Who's doing."

Dumbledore could stub his toe on his desk leg and people would pin it on Voldemort.

Once the tub was filled to her liking, Alex switched off the taps and sank herself into the water with a sigh of relief.

"Would you be sad if I died?" Alex asked after several minutes of silence.

Myrtle emerged from the water right beside her. Used to her antics by now, Alex didn't even flinch. "Not really," said the ghost. "I'm kind of hoping you become a ghost yourself. Then we could be friends forever."

"Maybe." She could see the appeal of it. Ghosts were too limited in how they affected the world, though.

"Do you plan on dying soon?" Myrtle asked, moving so that she was face to face with her.

"I don't intend to. But a war is on the horizon. And I'll be in the thick of things."

"Well, that's stupid. If you want to live so badly you should stay out of harm's way."

Alex snorted. "I may be a Slytherin but I'm not a coward." She wasn't going to run while a thousand more Myrtles were slaughtered for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Myrtle seemed to be thinking along the same lines. "If you see Riddle, punch him in the face for me, won't you?"

"I'd like nothing more."


The first morning of the term, Alex received with her timetable a handwritten note from the headmaster.

Alexandra,

Please report to my office before the first bell rings.

Yours sincerely,

Albus Dumbledore

P.S. I enjoy Acid Pops.

Alex stared at the usage of her first name and then the post-script. Was Dumbledore craving acid pops? Did he expect her to have some on her?

She peered up at Snape, who was watching her expectantly. No doubt he knew exactly what was going on. "Well, get going, head girl," he said coldly.

More than a little annoyed, Alex did as told, but not before grabbing a warm blueberry muffin. Her irritation grew as she scanned her timetable on her way to Dumbledore's. Her first period of the day was a free one, meaning she could've slept in.

What a waste, she thought grumpily.

"Morning, Michael," she said to the gargoyle guarding Dumbledore's office. "The headmaster's expecting me.

To her surprise, he didn't leap aside like he usually did. Was security that tight this year?

Alex glanced back at her note. "Acid pops," she said, giving it a go.

Michael made way for her this time.

"Thanks."

Dumbledore's office had changed little in the time since she had last been here. Alex nodded a greeting at the portrait of her grandfather as she hastily put up her occlumency shields. Dumbledore was a nosy bastard, and a slippery one to boot. His legilimency was so refined that she wouldn't even be able to tell if he tried to poke around in her mind.

"Morning, professor," she said as her brain emptied itself of any notable thoughts.

"Good morning, Alexandra," he said, leaning forward in his comfy chair. He gestured for her to sit in the chair across him. "How are we today?"

"Tired," she confessed, collapsing into her seat. "And confused. Do you normally invite the heads to your office first thing in the morning?" Duncan's absence was also conspicuous.

"Not usually, no. I'm more curious about what took place last night. Professor Snape mentioned you and Harry arriving late to the school grounds last night. I can assume that wasn't a mere coincidence."

Alex rubbed the back of her sheepishly. "Harry wanted to eavesdrop on Draco on the train, so he threw his invisibility cloak on and snuck in. Evidently Draco caught on and paralysed Harry and broke his nose. I went to check on him and found him lying on the floor of the compartment with his cloak hiding him from plain sight."

Dumbledore propped his elbows on his desk and rested his chin atop his clasped hands. Like Myrtle said, one of them was charred and slightly shrivelled.

"Does that hurt?" she asked softly. Dumbledore wasn't her favourite person in the world but Alex never could stand to see another person's suffering.

Dumbledore smiled at her obvious display of sympathy. "It's tolerable," he assured her. "You did well last night, Alexandra. Professor Slughorn was also rather impressed with you in general after you tried to stop your peer from choking."

Alex waited for him to get to the point. Surely he didn't call her up here just to stroke her ego.

"He's aware of your legacy, of course," continued Dumbledore. "Granddaughter of a previous headmaster, daughter of an esteemed auror, champion of Hogwarts and a close confidant of Harry Potter despite the animosity between your Houses. Your grandfather and I also made sure to praise your intellect and talent at magic when Professor Slughorn paid us a visit after dinner last night."

"Who is Professor Slughorn, really?" asked Alex. "You wanted him here badly enough you dangled Harry in front of him like a tasty treat over the summer. Is he that good at Defence Against the Dark Arts?"

Dumbledore stroked his long, long beard. "That's right, you would have missed my speech during the feast. No, Professor Slughorn is not the latest addition to our line of Defence teachers – he's a potions master. He first taught at Hogwarts around the same time as I did, and he's doing us an immense favour by returning to his position as Potions professor this year."

Alex's throat went dry as she connected the dots. "Snape is teaching Defence at last," she murmured in realisation.

Dumbledore nodded. "Professor Snape's goal has been acquired."

Well, that wasn't ominous at all.

"I guess we'll finally have a decent Defence professor," she sighed, shifting in her chair. "The only other teacher who knew what he was doing was Remus…and Barty Crouch Jr, I suppose." She gagged just from uttering his name. God, how she longed to sink her claws into that man's throat.

"I'm pleased to hear you speak so highly of Professor Snape," said Dumbledore, sounding like he meant it, "despite the fact that is the main reason you and so many of your classmates refused to take Potions after your fifth year."

Alex shrugged. "Snape is brilliant, but he hated teaching Potions even more than we hated learning from him. It's a shame when shitty teachers get in the way of students' learning."

Dexter Fortescue snorted audibly from his painting on the wall. "Very subtle," he told her sarcastically.

She responded with a brittle smile.

"If you could," said Dumbledore, ignoring her thinly veiled barb, "would you choose to study Potions again? Judging from the veritaserum you used on Peter Pettigrew several years ago, you have quite a knack for brewing."

"I'm in my final year," she reminded him, brow furrowing. "I've missed out on half the N.E.W.T. course already. There's no way I'll be permitted to join now."

Dumbledore withdrew a piece of parchment from his drawer and slid it over to her. "Not even if you have special permission?"

Alex pulled the parchment close to her. It was an official letter drafted by Dumbledore and signed off by the Board of Education granting her the opportunity of delayed enrolment into N.E.W.T. Potions.

She stared at Dumbledore openly. What was he playing at?

"I want you to essentially befriend Professor Slughorn," he declared, his eyes losing their customary twinkle.

"Uh."

Alex's occlumency shields almost dropped out of sheer surprise. It didn't matter if it did; there was no way anyone could make sense of the thousand thoughts streaming through her mind like a tumultuous river.

Dumbledore's expression grew amused in her light of system malfunction. "Harry will be approaching him in a similar fashion, although I dare say he lacks the discretion necessary for such a mission."

Mission. For the Order? To defeat Voldemort.

Alex tilted her head to the side as the gears inside her mind whirred. "If Slughorn was employed the same time as you, he must've taught Voldemort. Tom Riddle. He was gifted back then, too, right? He might've even been part of Slughorn's original collection."

Naked surprise unfurled across Dumbledore's lined face. "That's exactly right."

"Atta girl," her grandfather said proudly.

"Do you think Slughorn had a hand in shaping Riddle into what he is today?" wondered Alex, still missing several pieces of the puzzle.

"Not intentionally, no," said Dumbledore. "Professor Slughorn was much too elated when news of Voldemort's initial downfall spread through the nation."

Alex contemplated the implications of Dumbledore's words. "You believe he felt guilty, somehow. Unless Slughorn brewed Riddle an immortality potion, I'm not sure how he could've aided Riddle's transformation. But that's precisely what you want me to sniff out," she added wearily.

"We should play wizard's chess sometime," Dumbledore declared seemingly out of nowhere.

"I'm more of a checkers girl." Deciding the meeting was over, Alex rose from her chair and swept up her official permissions. "Breakfast is almost over, and I apparently have a N.E.W.T. potions class to sit. How quickly do you want me to earn Slughorn's trust?"

The headmaster spread his hands in a gesture one could call magnanimous. "There's no rush. Take your time."

Alex nodded. When she wanted to, she could present herself as a harmless girl – a skill necessary when dealing with difficult customers at the parlour. Moreover, she was a Slytherin and—unlike Harry—she wasn't Dumbledore's favourite. Slughorn had no reason to have his guard up when dealing with her.

The bell rang for first period. Frowning, Alex made her way to the Potions classroom. If she knew she was going to partake in seventh-year Potions, she really wished she could've prepared herself over the summer. Bloody Dumbledore and his surprise plans.

Due to the location of the classroom, those leaving the Great Hall got there much quicker than Alex. Katherine did a double take when she saw Alex slip into the line of students queueing against the wall. Half the class was composed of Slytherins; Agatha, Jacob, and Richard were standing near the front with Katherine. There were three Ravenclaw students and two Hufflepuffs separating Alex from her Housemates.

"Come in!" Slughorn said affably. He waited by the doorway and stopped Alex from entering. "Dumbledore told me the wonderful news last night. I'm chuffed you can join us."

Alex put on her best smile. "I hope I don't fall behind any further than I already am."

"Nonsense! I daresay you might give your classmates a run for their money."

She glanced at the floor. "Actually, sir, I was wondering if you give me remedial lessons? If you have time, of course. Even though I'm head girl and a senior prefect, I still value my studies."

Slughorn swallowed the bait eagerly. "My girl, I'd be happy to do so. Let's work out the finer details later, shall we?"

Smile growing, Alex followed Slughorn into his room. Though it had been a while since she last stepped foot in a Potions classroom, the layout of Slughorn's room and Snape were as different as night and day. Gone were the dark blinds and heavy atmosphere. Slughorn brought with him a levity that this classroom had yet to see in literal years.

Several golden cauldrons sat on a desk in the middle of the room. Slughorn described each one in vivid detail and asked for their names. The first was felix felicis, veritaserum, the next polyjuice, then amortentia (Alex grit her teeth at that), insomnium, virtuserum, and so forth. Most people answered the first few, but only Alex managed the last two.

Slughorn beamed at her. "For extra points, could you tell me what these potions do?"

"Insomnium provides dreamless sleep and virtuserum makes one feel courageous," replied Alex. She regularly used the former. The latter seemed nice in theory, but it had a nasty drawback and had actually gotten its inventor killed because of his artificial foolhardiness.

"Well done! Ten points to Slytherin. This morning we'll be brewing insomnium. To celebrate a new term with me, the best brew will earn you a special prize," said Slughorn, grinning as they brightened visibly.

But what the prize actually was would remain a secret for the moment. "Turn to page 82 of your textbooks and pick out your ingredients from the bench at the back. Alexandra, allow me to find some materials for you."

While everyone prepped their benches for the lesson, Slughorn shuffled over to the storage cupboard. "Alas, we only have two copies of Libatius Borage's Advanced Potion-Making—I had the honour of meeting him once—as one of these is definitely worse for wear… This one will have to do," he said, handing her the textbook that looked at least twenty years old. At least it wasn't stained suspiciously like the other copy.

"Thank you," said Alex, accepting the book gingerly.

"Spare cauldrons are at the back. Off you pop."

Agatha and Katherine had already set up her cauldron and ingredients for her.

"You guys are the best," Alex said vehemently as she placed the textbook on the table, well away from the cauldron itself. It wouldn't do to damage what was essentially a Hogwarts antique five minutes after getting her hands on it.

"Why are you here?" wondered Agatha. She peered at Alex over her bubbling cauldron. "How are you here?"

Shrugging, Alex flipped open the book to the appropriate page. "Special permission. Once I learned Snape wasn't teaching Potions anymore, my interest in the subject was renewed. Since my grades aren't shite, I was permitted to join."

"Halfway through the course," Katherine pointed out sceptically.

Agatha shook her head in exasperation. "Perks of being in the Slug Club."

Alex frowned, both at the implied special treatment and the scribbles in her book. One of its previous owners had decided the instructions in the recipe were inaccurate and sought to rectify it by crossing out sections and writing alterations in the margins of the page.

"Your potions should be looking thin and milky about now," announced Slughorn as he roamed around the classroom.

Alex peered at her friends' cauldrons. Both of their—and indeed most of the class's—potions were viscous and close to transparent.

Perhaps this mystery editor was onto something.

Half an hour later, Alex was immensely grateful for the amendments to her book. Without them, she'd be struggling far worse than her classmates. When Borage said to slice the knotgrass, the notes said to tear them. When the former said to add a tablespoon of rose oil, the latter recommended a teaspoon.

Even with her slow start, Alex not caught up to her peers but eclipsed them entirely. When time was up, she was the only one with a perfect Dreamless Sleep potion.

"Outstanding!" exclaimed Slughorn. "Fifty points to Slytherin!"

One of the Ravenclaws sighed in defeat. At least no one seemed upset with her; if anything, Alex's success lent credit to her sudden admission to the class. She subconsciously tightened her grip on her textbook.

It was almost time for second period. Everyone hastened to destroy all evidence of their botched potions and return the unused ingredients to the bench at the back. The process took all of one minute, by which time the bell began to chime.

Not wanting to be late twice in a row, Alex hurried out of the classroom, completely forgetting about the prize Slughorn promised earlier in the lesson. It worked out, though, as the next morning Alex received a letter from the portly professor requesting that she drop by his office after dinner.

According to Zubair, Snape retained his old office in the dungeons as Slughorn refused to remain in what he called a 'water closet'. Alex sorely hoped he used those very words to Snape's face. Hogwarts' new Potions master took an office several floors up.

When Slughorn ushered her in his office later that night, Alex was stunned by its opulence. Out of all the professors' offices she'd been in, Slughorn's was easily the largest. It contained a roaring fireplace with two large sofas surrounding it, a round dinner table large enough to seat ten people, access to a private balcony, as well as two doors connecting the room to the rest of the castle.

"Wow," she murmured. "Professor Dumbledore spared no expense in bringing you out of retirement."

Slughorn chuckled. "You don't the half of it, my dear. Toffee?"

"Oh, no, thank you," Alex said politely as she wandered over to his desk. She took the offered seat across him. Her occlumency shields went up; she wasn't sure if Slughorn was talented at legilimency, but it didn't hurt to exercise caution. "Why did you want to see me tonight, sir? We have class on Friday."

In response, Slughorn nodded at the small vial of golden liquid on her side of the desk. "You forgot your prize yesterday."

Alex plucked the vial from its stand and inspected its insides. She popped open the stopper and took a tentative sniff. It was odourless.

"Felix felicis?" she guessed.

Slughorn nodded. "Right again. That's yours to use. It'll last roughly two to three hours after consumption."

Alex replaced the stopper and leaned back in her seat, wide-eyed. "That's… Thank you, professor." Felix felicis was perhaps one of the hardest brews in the world, especially considering the rarity of its ingredients. The tiny vial in Alex's grip could go for at least a hundred galleons on the market.

"Thank you, Alexandra," said Slughorn, startling her. "I'll admit, I was hesitant to return to Hogwarts for a number of reasons, one of which was doubt as to my ability to teach after all these decades. Your extraordinary talent has been a balm on this old soul."

Alex ran her fingers over the potion vial. Sorry, professor, but I'm a huge fraud. She bit her lip as guilt gnawed at her on the inside.

"In fact, I'm not sure you need remedial lessons with me after all," mused Slughorn.

Alex snapped her gaze back to him. "If possible, sir, I'd still like that. You don't even have to provide me with much guidance – just being able to the Potions classroom to try my hand at some unfamiliar brews would be enough for me." As if it wasn't a big ask as it was.

Slughorn's expression grew pensive. "I suppose that would be all right. How does every second Monday sound? Say, 8pm?"

"I'd appreciate that," she said sincerely.

"While I have you here, please write down what night you're free for supper. Feel free to invite Duncan as well."

Ah, Slug Club dinners. Truthfully, Alex was content with the house-elves' cooking, but she didn't want to risk offending Slughorn. Alex scribbled down Tues-Thurs night as her availabilities. Weekends were for her and Fridays were for prefects' meetings.

In between these dinners, remedial potions, prefect and head girl duties, Alex was kept busy during her first few months as a seventh-year; her studies soaked up the rest of her time. In addition to following the N.E.W.T. syllabus, Alex struggled not to neglect her other skills. Wandless spell-casting, elemental magic, healing magic needed to be practised regularly or else she would set herself back by months. There were also a few interesting spells scrawled onto the pages of the Half-Blood Prince's textbook she'd been meaning to try out. Alex still attended Charms club and the D.A.—which was now a regular duelling club—but infrequently and as a participant rather than teacher.

"Yeh've lost some weight," Hagrid said during her monthly visit to his home. "Whenever I see yeh at the Great Hall, yeh got yer nose stuck in some book." He pushed a plate of rock cakes in her direction.

Alex dutifully began the arduous process of softening one up in her mug of tea. Maybe she could slip to Fang when Hagrid wasn't looking. The boarhound was currently resting his head on her lap while he napped.

"How's your brother?" Alex asked, rubbing the top of Fang's large head.

"Grawpy's doin' good, much better than last year," Hagrid replied cheerfully. "I'd invite yeh to come see 'im again, but the forest isn't too safe right now."

"Oh? Why's that?"

Hagrid's face lost all levity. "Aragog's dyin'. His family's beside themselves."

Alex could face many things, but a dark forest full of giant spiders was definitely something she'd be happy to avoid for as long as possible. "I'm sorry to hear that," she said neutrally.

She nibbled on her rock cake as a question rattled inside her head. "Hagrid," she began slowly, "you were a student when Slughorn first taught here, right?"

Hagrid nodded. "He's a nice bloke, even if he does treat some people like trinkets. Yeh part of his Slug Club, eh?"

"Yes. If he asks about me, put in a good word, would you?" When he agreed, Alex smiled. "Thanks."

"Speakin' of Slytherins, how are yer Housemates? Any weird behaviour?"

Alex considered his question. The sixth-years were testier than usual this year, no doubt because most of them were children of Voldemort's inner circle. Draco's home had already been searched twice this year for illegal contraband or any evidence of them harbouring illicit individuals, aka the Dark Lord himself. To Alex, it sounded like a sure-fire way of being murdered or kidnapped by You-Know-Who, but whatever. She could only hope her mum wasn't assigned to one of those raids.

"No," she said, draining the last of her tea. "No weird behaviour."