AN: Check out 's Halt CPM's DLP Library community on FFN. It has all of DLP's highest rated non-HP stories. It's an absolute treasure trove.
The Room of Requirement was less of a room and more of a broom closet. Fleur hadn't bothered to take into account personal space when wishing up the room. There was a small desk, cluttered with their research and writing materials, two uncomfortable wooden chairs placed symmetrically at either end, and an increasingly irritated Harry.
Not only had Fleur put him to work in a tiny stuffy room alone with her, she had also put on a distracting new scent and had spent the entire time ignoring him. Harry kept stopping to look at her, his quill pausing conspicuously and a noticeable silence taking over for his tedious scribbling, but she never acknowledged the pauses. It was somehow worse than the sly recognition that he was accustomed to.
It wasn't an intentional snub. He knew that Fleur was just too caught up in her work. But that didn't slow the march of his mounting irritation.
Fleur continued writing. The scritch-scratching of her quill pierced his ears at a frequency somewhere beyond irritating and just short of painful.
"Fleur," Harry said. She didn't hear him. He repeated himself. Still no response.
Harry pointed his wand at the pile of notes that she had painstakingly collated and sent the barest hint of a gust—just enough to send the stack into the air, still perfectly arranged.
It was a feat of control that Harry was quite proud of, though one which he was unlikely to earn any praise for. Fleur noticed the gently rising papers and gave a harpy's screech, worse than the endless, hellish scrabbling of her working. She grabbed the papers and anxiously checked to make sure that they were still in the proper order.
Once she was satisfied that he hadn't caused any lasting damage Fleur shot him with a nasty Stinging Hex. He only just managed to avoid the worst of it. A welt the size of a marble started to form on the top of his shoulder and Harry hissed as he rubbed at it.
Fleur worried the ends of the notes, smoothing out imaginary wrinkles and ironing out imperceptible imperfections.
"That was uncalled for," she said.
"I was about to say the same thing," Harry said. He continued to melodramatically rub at his new wound.
"What do you want?" Fleur asked.
"I was about to ask for your help on a job that Dumbledore gave me."
"Help you with a job? I'm not feeling very much goodwill toward you right now." Fleur held her research notes to her chest, as if he was some kind of rapacious scavenger ready to rend them to pieces if she so much as glanced away.
"Even though I spent the last two hours helping you with your work?" Harry asked.
"Let me see what you've done, and I'll decide whether or not you deserve a reward," Fleur said. Harry handed her his work, one eye trained on her wand in anticipation of further retaliation. Fleur, he had come to realize, was even more protective of her work than Hermione. Or at least less restrained when it came to defending it.
A lewd thought came to mind. He wondered if Fleur only enjoyed punishment when it came to academia, or if that proclivity carried over to other, less intellectual spaces as well…
Fleur complained about the poor organization of his work. Harry wasn't sure that he would be able to meet her eyes if he continued with that line of thinking.
"This isn't bad," Fleur said, nearing the end of his notes. "You make a few hasty assumptions that we haven't tested yet, but they're not egregious and the theory behind it all is solid. There's some overlap with what I was doing but I think that just means that we're on the right track."
She stacked Harry's notes on top of her own and slid them into her folder. Given the hundreds of pages that they had copied and produced, he thought that there had to be some hefty space-extension charms on the folder.
"Do I get my three wishes now?" Harry asked.
"Use them wisely," Fleur said. She winked at him and reclined in her chair. Harry's traitorous mind immediately sprang back to the various creative punishments that he could imagine Fleur enacting.
He blushed. Fleur's smile stretched. Just another in a long line of victories for her.
"Slughorn has a memory that Dumbledore wants to see, but it's embarrassing for him so he won't give it up. Dumbledore asked me to get it from him but I'm not sure how," Harry said.
"A memory? Generally if you want information from someone you either trade for it or manipulate them into giving it to you," Fleur said. "If even Dumbledore can't get this from Slughorn I think it's fair to say that we'll have to get it out of him using some less straightforward methods."
"More subtle than that. Reputation is important, yours especially. We can't risk word getting out of you blackmailing a Hogwarts professor. Start thinking weaknesses. What does Slughorn love, and how can we use that against him?"
Even paying only a modicum of attention to Slughorn was enough to answer that question. Fame. Food. Alcohol. Influence. Harry said as much to Fleur.
"You're right. In a way, we're lucky that it's Slughorn. He's easy to figure out," Fleur said. "The real question is, what's the best way to approach him?"
"I was thinking after a Slug Club party," Harry said. "There's one next weekend that I could go to. If he drinks enough during the party and then I corner him afterwards I should have a good chance of getting it out of him."
"That's too obvious. Remember, you'll only get one chance at this. If you suddenly change your behavior and start blatantly trying to get closer to him he'll be on his guard. This is going to require patience. You'll need to ingratiate yourself into his trusted circle over time. Then you can try to get the information from him. Think of this as a long term espionage assignment."
Harry had only mentally prepared himself for a single tortuous night. The prospect of spending weeks, or months, trying to get into Slughorn's good graces and mingling at his insipid parties left him grasping desperately for alternatives.
"Are you sure that we can't just use the Imperius?" Harry asked.
"Is a life sentence in Azkaban really better than a couple of Slug Club parties?"
Harry thought about it. "It's a close one. Especially since I know you'd break me out of Azkaban."
"Oh? Would I?" Fleur asked.
"Of course. You'd be bored senseless without your miserable research assistant to torture."
"Research assistants are easy to come by. And maybe I'd actually get some work done without you constantly distracting me."
"Distract you?" Harry asked. "I didn't know that I distracted you." He leaned forward in his chair, placing both elbows on the desk and jutting into Fleur's personal space like she was about to confide some especially tantalizing secrets.
She swatted him with her folder. It felt more like a brick than a bunch of papers. "The most important thing when you meet with Slughorn is to make sure he trusts you, is drunk, and that you have a plausible reason for asking about what you want. Put those three together convincingly and you'll get what you need," Fleur said. She put the folder in her bag and stood. The back of her chair rattled against the stone wall.
"Leaving already?" Harry asked.
"Don't look so sad. You're coming with me. We've been spending so much time working on the spell that we've neglected your training. It would be a shame if you looked rusty in front of all those aurors."
"You don't need to worry about me. I've been keeping up with practice on my own time."
Fleur looked at him with something like pity. He had made similar claims in the past. It had never mattered. She dismantled him with the same flair as always. Since Fleur had gotten to look at Dumbledore's notebook, and taken the time to assimilate the entirety of the contents, the only thing that Harry could really do was try to keep pace with her improvement.
This time would be different though, he assured himself. She was out of practice, and he had never been so sharp.
All of the time that she had spent working on her spell instead of training was setting her up for defeat. Harry carved out time every day for devising countless tricks, strategies, and approaches for defeating Fleur.
Most were discarded after he figured out how she would counter, but every mistake helped him analyze her style a little more, peeling away the layers until predicting her movements became as effortless as making his own.
"Since you're so confident I won't go as easy on you as I normally do," Fleur said.
The Room of Requirement blurred around them. Harry couldn't make out the details of what was happening, almost as if blinders had been placed over his eyes. All he could see was a vague undulating motion as the walls stretched and pushed and extended. The space between him and Fleur increased, moment by moment, as if he had been placed on a conveyor belt carrying him away from her. The desk became lighter, more pellucid, the color bleaching from it moment by moment, until it was entirely transparent, and then gone, an apparition fading into nothingness. At the same time that the desk was fading, a regulation size dueling mat was spun into being; its pristine royal blue bulk materialized into the exact center of the room, with Harry standing on one end and Fleur on the other.
Some kinds of magic became mundane. Harry knew the Room of Requirement never would.
"Let's make this interesting. If you win then I'll come to the Slug Club parties with you," Fleur said.
"Make sure you wear something nice," Harry said. He appraised her, up and down, with an unimpressed look that she rolled her eyes at.
"Not something too nice though. I wouldn't want to keep you from your important mission. After all, you have a hard enough time focusing as it is," Fleur said.
"I can handle myself. You worry about keeping Slughorn happy."
"It's a moot point. You won't beat me."
"Best out of three," Harry said.
"As if it'll make a difference. Are you sure you don't want a handicap?" Fleur asked.
"Just get ready."
Fleur dropped into her dueling stance, one that had evolved over their constant practice; she looked like a snake ready to uncoil at any moment. It was a flexible position—she could launch into a maelstrom offensive or weather his heaviest attacks with the slightest notice. And she never telegraphed her move in advance.
The fact that she bothered to get into a stance at all was an improvement. There had been a period, longer than Harry cared to recall, where Fleur had been able to beat him down without even the pretense of effort.
"Whenever you're ready," Fleur said.
Harry settled into his own stance. His wand leveled at Fleur like a spear, his knees bent, his feet arched, ready to spring, slide, or scatter depending on the situation. He had learned, through harsh demonstration, that getting caught flatfooted by Fleur was a good way to ensure a swift conclusion to their duel.
Harry probed with a blustery hex; attention getting, but little else. Then their duel began in earnest.
Fleur sat, panting and gasping, on the stone floor just outside the dueling mat. A few drops of blood trailed from her nose, nothing more than a trickle compared to the original deluge. She had only managed to staunch the worst of it during their duel.
"Practicing, huh?" Fleur said. Her voice was nasally. Combined with her French accent it made for a particularly strange sound.
A clean sweep for Harry. Not easily won, and not without cost (as his black-and-blue shoulder could attest), but worth the numbingly repetitive practice he had endured.
"It would have gone differently if you weren't out of practice," Harry said.
"I don't need to be coddled. I'm not some spoiled child. You beat me. You should be happy." She remained on the ground. Harry suspected that she was in more pain than she was letting on. They had been trading some vicious spells near the end, and a pair of his bludgeoners had connected, though things had been moving to quickly for him to judge the extent of the damage.
He walked over to her. His wand rested, just ever so slightly, on the bridge of her nose.
The blood from her nose steamed away, like water under intense heat, and Fleur wrinkled her nose in discomfort. The movement made her wince.
"Episkey," Harry continued. A faint blue glow illuminated her face like moonlight as he worked. The break had been clean, or Fleur's hasty spellwork had ameliorated the worst of it, because it took only gentle coaxing to put everything back in order. He was relieved to see that he hadn't caused any permanent damage.
Harry saw to the rest of her wounds. His wand soothed bruises on her arms, closed cuts on her stomach, and tended to burns on her legs. Not daring to ask her to remove her robes, as much for his sanity as her modesty, Harry ran his hands along places that he thought he had injured her, waiting for the tell-tale wince or gasp.
He could have just asked her where she was hurt, but he didn't. And she didn't tell him.
His hands moved tenderly. The air between them was intimate. Harry had never felt like the one taking care of her before. It was intoxicating, like she was finally letting him take a definitive stake in her wellbeing.
Throughout the entire process Fleur watched him, sphinxlike, the gravity of her gaze only interrupted by her periodic pained outbursts. If he closed his eyes he could imagine that she was gasping for another, more pleasing, reason.
Harry finished, but whatever was between them wasn't over. The dim glow of his wand faded, his hand trailed off of her calf, and their eyes dueled and danced, even more resolutely than earlier.
Whatever meaning was struggling to get across was lost along the way. Harry had a feeling of great importance when their eyes met; like some common message was being ferried across a great chasm, but which lost its way every time. Whatever fragments made it to the other side were torn and tattered; indecipherable.
A lock of blond hair had fallen in front of Fleur's left eye. Harry felt his hand rise up from next to her leg, an unthought action spurred by an unwilled willingness. He brushed the lock out of her face, tucking it back in with the falls of her hair, marveling at the feel of it, and the fact that she didn't stop him.
Fleur's eyes forfeited their duel. She broke away from Harry, her expression falling from inscrutability to something sadder. Regret, or frustration, or guilt?
Softly, warningly, she said, "Harry…"
Harry removed his hand. He didn't conceal how crestfallen he felt.
"I like those blue robes you have," he said.
"I've already worn those to one of Slughorn's parties…but I can wear them again, if you want," Fleur said, still looking at the dueling mat.
"I should go. I told Ron that we would work on our Potions assignment tonight," Harry said.
"You did well today, Harry. I'm glad…" She lost her way again; faltering for a lack of words, or a lack of confidence?
Harry was standing again. With Fleur still on the ground, and still with that lost expression, and still not meeting his eyes, it was as if he were the one in charge, and all he needed to do was take the lead and break past that first wall of resistance; then Fleur would follow along, he was sure of it.
They would be happy. He was sure of it. It was just a matter of making a demand.
But, Harry realized, he had never been good at demanding things. He stayed silent. He didn't stretch out his hand. He couldn't bring himself to topple what others had built.
"I'll see you tomorrow, Fleur," Harry said.
He waited a moment, in case she was going to respond. She didn't, so he left. Though he didn't look back Harry knew that her eyes were on him.
"I mean, I'm not saying that she's a model or anything, but I was surprised. It's weird to think about her like that after all these years, you know?" Ron said.
"Ron, if you keep telling me about what you and Hermione get up to together I'm going to hex you," Harry said. "I don't want to think about her like that. Or you. Ever."
"Fine, fine, I get it. All I'm saying is that she's got a nicer pair than you would think."
"A terrible hex. Madam Pomfrey won't be able to do a thing."
"Can it wait until we've finished the assignment? I swear, I never understand the point of Slughorn's homework. An explication of the timing of ingredient addition in Hiccoughing Solutions? I think he's just running out of ideas."
"It's still not as bad as anything Snape's given us this year. Or last year. Or the year before that."
"But that's Snape," Ron said.
The Gryffindor Common Room had reached the point in the night where the noise fell to just about tolerable, with the most idiotically rambunctious students either running out of ideas, energy, or getting bored; leaving behind only those desperate enough to still be working on assignments, and the neurotic overachievers preparing for still distant exams.
Harry and Ron had been able to claim a pair of comfortable chairs in the room's secluded corner, far from the door and the fire. The closest group was a trio of fourth years who were unable to decide between their Charms homework and their start-stop game of exploding snap.
"Hah! Finished." Ron held his paper up to the light, glorying in it like it was his magnum opus.
"Do you think Slughorn ever wonders why your potions are perfect but your essays are shite?" Harry asked.
"He knows that I'm a man of action," Ron said. He read over his essay, nodding in satisfaction as he arrived at parts that Harry was reasonably certain had been lifted verbatim from library books.
Harry was already plotting out the last few paragraphs of his essay in his head. It was late, and he had been ready for bed hours ago.
"Harry, can I ask you something?" Ron said. He looked around to ensure that no one was close enough to listen in.
"Sure," Harry said. He scrawled his thoughts on a scrap of paper and then put his work down. Ron looked solemn, and uncomfortable.
"I was thinking that maybe, since Hermione and I have been going out for a while, I should…tell her how I feel," Ron mumbled. "This is, if you don't think that I'm rushing things. I don't want to rush things. It's not too soon, is it? We haven't been going out for that long. I just figured that since we've known each other for years that it would be alright. That I should be honest. Gryffindor pride and all that, yeah?"
Ron was so pathetically earnest that Harry couldn't laugh at him (no matter how much he wanted to).
"If you love her then you should tell her that. Don't overcomplicate things," Harry said. Ron stared at him as if he had uttered the only word in existence more terrifying than Voldemort.
"Don't act like this is so simple and easy. It's not like you've ever had to do this before," Ron said.
At this Harry did laugh, not minding Ron's perplexion.
"If you want to tell Hermione how you feel then you should. You're straightforward, she's straightforward; it's the best way of doing things. I don't think that you have to worry about it being too soon or anything."
"So I should just do it."
"Yeah. Make sure that you don't act like it's no big deal or anything. It is. Hermione needs to understand that you understand how important this is." Harry expounded on the subject with all of the enthusiasm of a zealot, and Ron listened with the rapt attention of a recent convert.
"Right. This is happening. I can do this. I can do this. Even though I don't have a clue what I'm doing, I can do this," Ron said, with the voice of someone who had no belief in their ability to do anything.
"You're not backing out of this, Ron. I know you, and I know that you're going to think of reasons not to go through with this, but it's happening," Harry said.
"Maybe now isn't a good time though. The weather's been bad, it's cold outside, the setting's just not right. And Hogwarts? That's so cliché. I need time to think of something better," Ron said.
"No. Those are all just bad excuses, Ron. You're better than that, and Hermione deserves better than that. I'll tell you what you're going to do. You're going to invite Hermione out for the next Hogsmeade weekend. You're going to take her on the perfect date. You're going to get her alone. And you're going to tell her how you feel. Make it romantic, if you think that'll help. But I guarantee you, the only thing that Hermione is going to care about is what you say to her. That's the kind of girl she is."
"What if she doesn't feel like that?" Ron asked. He spoke low, in the tone a child uses to ask about monsters.
"You've still got the potion you won from Slughorn, don't you?" Harry asked.
"The Felix Felicis?"
"Right. Take that before your date if you're so nervous."
"Doesn't that seem like cheating?" Ron asked.
"You're not doing anything to her. You're just improving your own luck. All the potion can do is set the scene. Things will just…go your way. It'll be the perfect setup for a confession."
Harry felt himself getting excited at the prospect of it. Ron and Hermione would have the perfect romance; not some shameful confession made away from prying ears out of fear—one which had to stay hidden from the world. No, they could be together with pride, reveling in their happiness without having to worry about the reactions of others. Harry would be damned if anything got in the way of that, including Ron himself.
"I really never took you for a romantic," Ron said.
"It's not hard to figure out what a girl wants. You're just dense," Harry said.
"If this goes well you'll owe me one."
"I've still got to figure out the details."
"I think that naming your firstborn after me will suffice."
"Prat is a terrible name for a kid."
Harry looked at Ron seriously, trying to instill all of his faith into one gaze. "As long as you're committed to this, and as long as you're honest with Hermione, everything will be alright."
No matter how well Ron had responded to what Harry said, he knew that Ron had a tendency, when unchecked, to slide into self-doubt, to wallow in it until it was ruling him. He would have to monitor events closely to make sure that didn't happen.
Letting Ron ruminate on what he had to do wasn't a good idea either. Harry kept the conversation going.
"Hermione was talking to me about you the other day," he said.
"She's worried about the spells that you've been learning."
"Oh, that," Ron said, disappointed. He had probably been hoping that Hermione came to Harry to discuss something along the same lines as what he had.
"She's worried about you," Harry said, trying to frame it in a more positive light. "Honestly, I don't have a problem with what you're doing but I thought that you two should settle this before you confess anything to her."
"It's not that simple. Hermione doesn't really get it. She thinks she does, but it's hard to get it when all you've known is Hogwarts. We've had our own problems here, but it's not like being out there: the fear, the worry, the doubt. I'm not a blood purist or anything but it's hard for someone who doesn't have any family here, and has never felt that kind of threat, to understand. I just want to help keep my family safe. I know what happened during the last war. I know what happened to my uncles. I'm not going to let that happen to my family."
"Have you tried explaining that?"
"She just gets angry when I tell her she doesn't understand. Hermione's brilliant and all, and I, you know, care about her, but she sucks when it comes to understanding stuff like this."
"You're not going to give this up."
"Yeah. I won't be a burden when we have to fight. There's no use pretending that we'll never have to. It's already happening around us."
"Then there's only one thing to do. Lie."
Ron's surprise was to be expected, but as far as Harry saw there was no other solution. Ron and Hermione were two of the most stubborn people he knew. Neither was going to back down on this. Harry agreed with Ron, and while he understood Hermione's fears, he thought that they would have to be pushed aside for the sake of the war.
They were schoolchildren, but they weren't really. They were already marked enemies of Voldemort. Ron was acting like it. Hermione wasn't.
A year ago Harry wouldn't have considered lying to Hermione. It would have been an abhorrent notion. They might argue, but at least they know where they stood. Now they didn't have that luxury.
Ron and Hermione were in love. Ron and Hermione were at war. In the face of that, their love might not last. Ron understood that. Hermione didn't.
"I can't lie to Hermione," Ron said.
"If you don't then you'll have to make a choice between the two. I don't think that's a choice you want to make. It's definitely not a choice that I want to see you make."
"You just want me to lie to Hermione instead."
"I want to see you and Hermione happy. For forever would be nice, but if we can't have that then at least for right now."
"Even if I could lie to Hermione, she would find out. She's too smart for her own good," Ron said.
"I'll help you. We can use the Room of Requirement. She may suspect something, you're right, but we'll never give her the chance to prove it," Harry said.
Ron paused. He was being asked to choose between Hermione and his family on one hand, and truth on the other. To Harry it was obvious what the best choice was, though he couldn't say that he was sure what the right choice was.
When Harry thought about it, he wasn't sure that he would be able to lie to Fleur like that. He could claim that he would never need to. Fleur always seemed to understand what he needed. But that was an evasion, no matter how true.
The fact was that Harry would never be able to lie to Fleur like that. No matter the necessity. He was asking Ron to do something he never could, and so Harry knew that he was a coward.
The incongruity of talking about a confession of love to Hermione alongside lying to her was not lost on him. It was hypocritical, arrogant, and condescending; but he was willing to take on all of those epithets to see Ron and Hermione happy.
"She'll kill us if she finds out," Ron said.
"We have to make sure that she never finds out," Harry said.
"It might even ruin our relationship," Ron said.
Ron sighed. He looked like he had just been asked to put his family to the sword.
"We'll try this out, but eventually I'm telling Hermione the truth," he said.
"I think it's for the best," Harry said.
"This had better not backfire on me."
"I'll take the blame if it does."
"Somehow I don't think that'll save me from Hermione."
"Then if we go down we're going down together," Harry said.
"Somehow I always assumed it would end like that," Ron said.
The first Slug Club party was tedious. The second was agonizing. By the third, Harry was wishing that he had gone with the Imperius.
"You can't tell me that you're actually enjoying this," Harry said.
"I've been to worse parties," Fleur said. She smiled winsomely at a passing guest, who stumbled into the bar in response.
"Can I get it out of Slughorn now? I don't know how much more of this I can take."
"You were with him for a while tonight."
"Over an hour." The memory made Harry feel like a cheap escort. 'Talking' to Slughorn mainly consisted of being guided around like an ambulatory trophy as Slughorn tried to sweet-talk whatever inferior official or minor celebrity had been beguiled into coming. Anyone of note only showed up for the major occasions, if at all.
Not all of the guests were bad, with a rare few actually managing to keep Harry entertained despite his unfortunate position at Slughorn's side, but most seemed interested only in squeezing as much out of him as possible. The verbal jousting, with Harry having to fend off suitors desperate for his reputation's chastity, had grown tired quickly.
"Do you think that Slughorn's had enough to drink? He seems fine to me," Fleur said.
"Three scotches and a glass of champagne. I made sure that there was always one on hand," Harry said.
"That's not enough. The man's enormous. I suppose there's nothing for it at this point. I'll have to handle it. Just get ready."
Fleur positioned herself coquettishly in front of the bartender and requested two drinks. The bartender handed them to her with an expression that suggested she was the one doing him a favor. A pair of guests who had been waiting scowled at Fleur, and then the bartender, both of whom were completely unrepentant.
Fleur carried two double Firewhiskies, smoke ringing into the air, over to Slughorn and his entourage. Within a minute she was integrated into the conversation and Slughorn was fisting the new Firewhisky in one hand and a half-finished glass of scotch in the other.
Now Harry could slip away and wait somewhere. Even Slughorn's formidable tolerance had limits, and he was sure that Fleur would be able to find them.
To his dismay, he was accosted, not rudely, before he had a chance to slip to some forgotten corner of the party.
"You've been keeping busy tonight," Ginny said.
Harry wasn't uncouth enough to show his disappointment. Fleur had bludgeoned enough manners into him to make sure of that. Still, he wasn't interested in more highline conversation—though it wasn't as if he could just blow her off. Again.
"Slughorn likes to show me off. I'm his trophy wife," Harry said.
"Or at least you were, until Fleur took your spot. And unlike you she's pretty enough for the job."
Ginny was wearing a conservative red and black pair of robes, nestled somewhere between the formality of dress robes and the everyday casualness of their school robes; perfect for a Slug Club party. The red, closer to maroon, was marbled with black, giving the dress a sleek, modern look that suited her.
It went well with her hair and complexion, Harry noted. The ensemble somehow made her seem older, more mature; beautiful like a woman, not just pretty like a girl.
"I didn't see you at either of the last parties," Harry said.
"It's always good to know when to show up and when to stay away," Ginny said.
Harry took the point in the spirit it was intended. Ginny didn't look upset, or irritated—he supposed that she had, if not gotten over it, at least settled down about him ignoring her. Though he hadn't ever actually made it up to her.
It was a nice change to know a girl who could let things go. If Harry had to guess, he would say that it was a pleasant byproduct of living with so many brothers. Grudges had to come and go in a house like that, even if she was the adored little sister.
Their conversation, which had proceeded in fits and starts, stuttered back to life, as Ginny said, "We could've used you in our last game. Ravenclaw demolished us. Thirty point win even though we caught the snitch."
"I haven't really had the time for quidditch recently," Harry said.
"I figured. Busy saving the world and all that."
"Ron handles the saving the world bit. I just sit back and take the credit."
"And by that you mean that you trust Hermione to save the world and Ron to do exactly as she tells him."
"It's a system that's never failed us," Harry said.
"If it makes you feel any better I think that you'll make an excellent figurehead for Hermione to rule the country with," Ginny said.
Their conversation strolled on from there: dueling, school, friends; Harry let Ginny occupy him with light fare while he made sure to glance over at Slughorn ever now and then, to make sure that he wouldn't miss Fleur indicating that they were ready.
Throughout it all Ginny kept Harry entertained, laughing for the first time since had come to Slughorn's party. Talking to her was like getting drunk, without having to suffer through any of the hangover the next morning. A pleasant smothering euphoria that grew, crescendoed, and then flattened out into a buzzing blur.
"So Colin is sprinting down the hallway, the carpet is chasing him, and all Professor Flitwick says is, 'We'll get him when he loops around.'"
"I thought that Colin looked a little worse for the wear last week," Harry said.
"Apparently it caught him. Twice. Nasty animation too. It nearly smothered him the second time," Ginny said. "I swear, he's never going to get used to magic. Even when things are trying to eat him he looks like he's having the time of his life."
"He's been doing well in the Dueling Club, at least," Harry said, feeling strangely compelled to defend Colin. "Hasn't even caused any explosions recently."
"True, but that's the kind of thing you praise a first-year for," Ginny said.
"There are plenty of other people in the Dueling Club who blow things up accidently."
"Poor boy, you have such a dangerous job."
"And I'm not even getting paid."
"Dumbledore should be fired for that oversight."
"You know, I've always thought that I would make an excellent headmaster."
"Why don't you try out being an actual teacher first?" Ginny asked. "I'll let you practice on me. I've been having trouble with the Locomotor Charm that Professor Flitwick has been trying to teach us. If you could help me figure it out sometime I'm sure it would really cement your credentials."
"I think Hermione might be a better choice for something like that," Harry said, trying to adjust to Ginny's rapid pivot without sounding off balance.
"I already asked her. She told me that she was too busy right now," Ginny said.
It was a lie. It was a bad lie. It wasn't even supposed to be a believable lie. Harry didn't doubt that Ginny had talked to Hermione, but he also knew that Hermione would never tell Ginny that she was too busy to help her. Hermione loved helping people, and she loved showing off her learning even more.
They were conspiring together. Manipulative witches.
"I'll tell my mum to send a box of treacle tart," Ginny said, cajolingly.
"I can't be bribed," Harry said.
"I'm just offering payment for services rendered."
Harry looked up at Fleur, ostensibly to check on her progress with Slughorn, whose laugh had become so booming that it was actually disturbing conversations on the other side of the room. Fleur was outwardly amused, but Harry could see the subtle lines—creased brow, tight eyes—that indicated that she was nearing the end of her patience, as if she were a displeased teacher and Slughorn her errant student.
He would have to intervene. Before Slughorn did something. Or worse, Fleur did.
"Can we talk about this later, Ginny? I really need to go talk to Fleur quickly," Harry said.
There was a pause that struck Harry as almost dangerous. Then, "Sure, that's fine," Ginny said. She smiled, turned around, and left.
Not pausing to ponder the abruptness of her departure, Harry moved over to intercede between Fleur and the dangerously bobbing Slughorn. He didn't mean to behave like a cad to Ginny, but the situation over there looked to be deteriorating.
"One of the most talented witches to ever step foot in these halls. The most talented even! Talent, talents, nothing less than supremely talented," Slughorn was saying, poeticizing, almost singing.
"Thank you," Fleur said. She looked strained, but some of that dissipated when Harry joined them.
"We were wondering where you got off to, Harry," she continued.
"Harry?" Slughorn peered at him, squinting comically from his position only a few feet away. "Harry! Good lad, I was hoping that we would see you again tonight. You're one of the highlights of the party, after all. Along with Ms. Delacour here, of course. The two of you light up the room. You're, dare I say it, magical!" He chuckled to himself.
Harry wondered if he was being made fun off, but quickly dismissed that. Slughorn was just a fool when he was drunk. Unlike most people, however, Slughorn wasn't slurring his words, but rather letting them fall with such messy merry rapidity that they seemed almost to come out in discrete chunks and phrases; paragraphs came out with the same speed that another person might finish a sentence. It took Harry some time after Slughorn spoke to translate.
Their timing for getting him drunk had been perfect. It was nearing the end of the party anyway, and people looked ready to leave; a decision which was only being encouraged by Slughorn voluble boisterousness.
The Hogwarts students looked especially wary of being caught in the gravity of Slughorn's orbit. Harry saw them skimming along the edges of the party to the door in an unannounced full retreat. He envied them.
Their exit had a cascading effect on the rest of the guests, until even the most stalwart were moving to the exit, as if there was some kind of emergency evacuation taking place.
Slughorn noticed, but didn't seem to comprehend or process the fact that everyone was leaving. He was teetering on his feet, his great bulk threatening to crash against the floor if it were only given the barest nudge.
Fleur was no longer bothering to conceal her amusement. Harry doubted that Slughorn would have the capacity to notice, in any event.
"It looks like the party is winding down for tonight," Harry said. "It's a shame. We never really got the chance to talk, professor."
"Too true, Harry. Too too true. Why don't you and Ms. Delacour join me for a quick nip before bed back in my rooms. Nothing to worry yourself over, Harry, we'll keep it reasonable, but the night is young and it would be a blasted shame for things to end so soon. As I've always said, the three great tragedies of life are the end of a good conversation, the end of a good bottle, and the end of a good party. I refuse, I absolutely refuse, to let all three happen at once. Don't you agree? Of course, it's settled then. I'll treat you both to something I've been saving up for years. A gift from the last Assistant Head of the Department of Magical Transportation, T.H. Harrington; a fine man—died in a terrible floo accident, just terrible—he never stinted when it came to pitching in with a nice gift her and there. Head Boy in his day, on my recommendation, of course. I could see you in that role some day, Harry. What a shame it was though. Such a fine man. A terrible accident."
"I'm afraid that I won't be able to join you tonight," Fleur said, as if Slughorn hadn't just sucked up most of the oxygen in the room. "I'm behind on my work as it is."
Not only did Fleur manage to not give the impression that she had been waiting patiently for an opportunity to speak, she also didn't give Slughorn the opportunity to ask what kind of work she would be doing at midnight on a Friday.
"A shame. A tragedy. Misfortune in the extreme. We shall truly lament your loss for the rest of the night, Ms. Delacour. Truly, it won't be the same without you."
Fleur made her goodbyes (in a rather extended manner, as Slughorn couldn't restrain his effusive outpouring). Harry thought that he made it seem as if they would never meet again, rather than being parted only until breakfast the next morning.
Once she was finally gone, Slughorn said, "A shame. A true shame. You'll join me though, won't you, Harry?"
"I'd love to, professor," Harry said.
"Wonderful, so good to hear. Let me just thank the rest of my guests for coming and we can be on our way. This won't take long, don't move a muscle, I'll be right back."
On clumsy legs Slughorn shambled over to the last partygoers, who were clearly staying more for the open bar than the company or environment, and thanked them loudly for coming. Harry thought that it should have come off as rude, but Slughorn possessed the remarkable ability, native to older gentlemen, of making even a discourteous dismissal sound regretful and unavoidable. It was like Slughorn actually would miss their company, perhaps even spend the rest of the night thinking of them, despite the fact that he was the one ushering them out.
"Let us be on our way then, Harry. The night is stealing away from us while we dawdle here. The elves will take care of this mess but, oh, bring that bottle of scotch with you. It's far too fine to be wasted on an event like this, I can't even imagine what I was thinking—better for us to enjoy it ourselves, eh? You and I will make good use of this. Albus may not approve but, as your professor, I'm obliged to prepare you for the future to the best of my ability, so consider this one of your most crucial assignments. I tell you, wasting good bottle is one of life's greatest tragedies, remember that. Well, what Albus doesn't know can't hurt him. You understand, of course, Harry? Good, good, very good. Let's be on our way then, no more delaying, dawdling or dilly-dallying for us."
"Yes, professor," Harry said. He held the scotch in one hand and kept the other at the ready, in case Slughorn looked like he was going to tilt and sink.
On second thought, Fleur may have been overzealous. He had wanted Slughorn drunk, not babbling incoherently. Could memories even be extracted while he was like this?
"Lovely party tonight," Slughorn said. "We owe a great deal of that loveliness to Ms. Delacour. She's the finest, absolutely most indisputably quality addition that Albus has made to the faculty in all of the years that I've been here, and I've been here quite a few, Harry. Half the school is thanking Dumbledore for that appointment, and half the faculty too, though the blasted buggers would never admit it."
The farther they walked together the less inclined Harry was to catch Slughorn if he fell.
"I'm sure that I'm not saying anything you haven't before. After all, you're not a blind man! Nothing to be ashamed about, Harry. Nothing at all. Indisputably quality, after all."
"Are we almost to your rooms, professor?" Harry asked, clenching the bottle of scotch rather tightly. "I think the bottle is starting to get chilly."
"Not to worry, Harry. Not to worry in the slightest. Just up ahead. The door's unlocked, so be a good lad and let us in."
Harry had expected that Slughorn would have taken up residence in the dungeons, like their neighborhood skulker and sneerer, but instead he had requisitioned a nice suite on the second floor, well out of the way of any irritating foot traffic, with exactly the sort of ostentatious furniture and decorations that Harry would have expected.
After depositing Slughorn in one of the plush chairs in the living room Harry looked around. Despite the flashiness, the furniture's comfort wasn't compromised; indeed, the room had been optimized for the perfect balance between form and content, with the trappings of luxury—thick carpets, sumptuous couches, and soft silk pillows—mixed with elaborate sculptures, solid pieces of carven fixtures, and tasteful works of art distributed carefully along the otherwise bare walls.
The entrance and living room had an adjoining kitchen and bathroom, and at the end of the lone hallway Harry saw another door, which he presumed was Slughorn's bedroom. The suite smelled like smoke and pine, as if there was a relaxed fire chirping somewhere, hidden away.
"Would you be so kind as to pour me a glass, Harry?" Slughorn asked from his chair. His head bobbled forward, making Harry think that he'd fallen asleep, before he recovered and straightened. "And one for yourself, if you're so inclined. What Albus doesn't know won't hurt him. I dare say you've suffered through more dangerous experiences than a drink with a professor."
Harry gave the sort of unconvincing laugh that's reserved for superiors and in-laws, and Slughorn laughed along with him, delighted in Harry's seeming good humor. When Harry returned from the kitchen with the glasses, Slughorn was still chuckling to himself.
One glass went into Slughorn's hand, scotch mixed liberally with water. Harry counted on the man being too inebriated to notice. He kept the second for himself. Harry had been as liberal with the scotch for himself as he had the water for Slughorn. If he was going to spend time with a Slughorn this intolerable then he would need to apply some kind of numbing agent.
For a few minutes Harry engaged Slughorn in small talk, listening with as much engagement as he could muster to Slughorn's endless repository of stories about the famous students he had taught and the influential world-beaters who owed him some favor or another. Some of it was probably true, but Harry didn't doubt that a great deal of it was either exaggerated or utter tripe.
Slughorn sounded like nothing so much as a desperate groupie, living vicariously through the deeds of his betters; many of whom, Harry thought, had about as much patience for Slughorn in general as he was feeling at the moment. There was clearly a reason why none of them bothered to make even the most perfunctory appearance at one of Slughorn's parties.
After listening for a while, Harry realized that there was no point in making an attempt at subtlety. In all likelihood Slughorn wouldn't pick up on it anyway. He was functioning more or less on autopilot.
"He sounds like he was really talented. How does my mother compare to that? You said that you knew her," Harry said.
"Your mother…a fire that burned too brightly and too shortly," Slughorn said. Harry supposed it was supposed to sound dramatic but it came off as mawkishly insincere.
"She would have created some of the finest work this country has ever seen," Slughorn continued. "The field didn't matter, no it didn't matter at all. She had such talent, and it was marvelous to watch. A mind like few others, you understand. Not just intelligent—there are plenty of intelligent witches and wizards who pass through these halls. Your mother was an original; original in thinking, original in acting, just original in life. Such talent she had, immense talent."
Slughorn moved himself with his rhapsodic hagiography. He sniffled loudly when he finished talking.
"I wish I had known her," Harry said, prompting Slughorn on. They both took a drink. Slughorn shuddered, for no discernable reason, and set his largely untouched glass on the end table.
"She would have been immensely proud of you m'boy. I'm sure of it." Tears started to fall, and Slughorn wiped them away openly, unashamed of his outpouring. He looked like a great overgrown baby, helpless and frail, in the moment just before it started to wail.
"Sometimes, when I think about what happened…I get so angry. I want to make You-Know-Who pay for what happened…but I don't know how," Harry said, eyeing Slughorn like an instrument to be played. Every move he made was filed away in Harry's mind to be analyzed, as if it would reveal the proper sequence of notes to play that would allow him access to the memory.
Slughorn was looking down so Harry kept talking. "I can't beat him though. Not by myself. I need help, professor."
Harry waited. Slughorn reclaimed his scotch and drank down the contents greedily. He gulped when he finished, a sound that seemed foreboding in the silence that had ensnared the room.
"There's no way to win against that monster. Put it out of your mind. Forget that it's even an option," Slughorn said. He held out the empty glass in his hand like a cross to ward off evil.
"There has to be something. Someone has to know something," Harry said, softly, coaxingly. Slughorn's earlier cheerful loquaciousness was gone, replaced by the paralyzing terror that had, in the absence of countervailing influences, grown over years of insidious neglect to monstrous proportions. Voldemort wasn't a human to Slughorn; he was a monolithic horror.
Harry pitied the man. He wasn't strong or brave; he had no Ron or Hermione; he had no Dumbledore or Fleur. He had been running for years from a traumatizing truth, and now Harry was backing him into a corner and wheedling out that truth, trying to force out all that which he had tried to lock away.
"Please, professor. Doesn't my mother deserve justice?" Harry said.
"Did Dumbledore put you up to this?" Slughorn asked. His voice cracked. His hands trembled. It looked like the glass would be sent spilling to the floor at any moment.
"I saw her, you know. The night that Voldemort was resurrected. I talked to her."
"Saw her. Talked to her," Slughorn repeated. He started crying, silently but violently. His whole bet was set to trembling.
"She told me to run. She kept me safe again. Sacrificed herself for me again. I need your help, professor. So that my mother's sacrifice wasn't in vain, I need your help."
Slughorn tried to talk, but all that came out was a gut-wrenching strangling sound, as if Slughorn's body were turning against him out of spite. Harry gave him the time he needed to regain control of himself. He gave the words time to sink in.
"It's all my fault," Slughorn finally said, his voice no more than a whisper. "All my fault. I did this. All of it. Everyone who died. All of these years. All of these people dying. It's all my fault and no one ever knew. Never knew that I was the one to blame. They should have been blaming me, but they never knew. Didn't know, couldn't have known. Because I was afraid."
"You can make up for that," Harry said.
Slughorn let out a piteous moan that echoed through the room, and then rattled against Harry, giving him some idea of the silent invisible sickness that had been festering in Slughorn ever since the first rise of Voldemort. Years of overwhelming guilt, shame, and fear condensed into a single haunting lament.
The sound lasted an eternity, and then stopped, and Slughorn stopped crying, and Slughorn stopped shaking.
"It's yours. My memory. The one that Dumbledore wants. I should have shown it to him so many years ago but I was so ashamed, and I was so frightened. You understand, don't you, Harry?"
"I understand," Harry said.
He no longer felt any distaste for Slughorn. It was hard to say that he had any feeling for Slughorn at all. As if the man was now utterly beneath his notice, existing as the antithesis of everything that Harry had ever stood for, fought for, sacrificed for.
Slughorn drew forth the memory with an unsteady but determined hand. Harry held out the vial that he had brought along and let the memory nestle and swirl within. He stoppered the vial.
"I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry, I'm so so sorry," Slughorn repeated, over and over again. His glass dropped to the floor. Harry picked it up and placed it on the end table. He guided Slughorn to his feet and led him to his bedroom.
Harry helped Slughorn into bed. Slughorn kept repeating his penitent's litany, the sound of it failing to penetrate Harry's ears.
Slughorn rested. Harry left the room. He wondered if Slughorn would remember any of what had taken place.
The vial seemed to have an immense weight. It bore down on him. Each step Harry took required an inordinate amount of effort.
The distance to Dumbledore's office had never seemed greater.
"That many of them…" Harry said.
"It would seem so," Dumbledore said. "I had my suspicions but even I didn't truly think that Tom would be so audacious as to split his soul seven times."
"They could be anywhere."
"Two have already been destroyed. One by your hand and one by my own. Three are close to falling in our grasp; the tainted legacies of the founders. One is kept my Voldemort's side at all times. And the last cannot be destroyed without sacrificing something precious."
Dumbledore spoke not as a kindly old man, or the Headmaster of Hogwarts, but as the grand wizard he was; weighty, ominous, and not without a tinge of disgust. His gaze remained on the pensieve but Harry thought that he looked faraway, as if casting his mind into the deep hidden places of the world where such malevolent artifacts lay in wait.
The enormity of the task before them was crushing. In five years they had only managed to destroy two of Voldemort's horcruxes, and that was before he had returned. The only consolation was that now they knew exactly what they were looking for, and what they had to do. Dumbledore seemed sure of the exact nature of each horcrux.
"Do you know where they are, professor?" Harry asked.
"Yes. Our study of Tom was not in vain. His past is the map that will lead us to his horcruxes. Even Tom has things and places which, in his own way, he values."
"Then when are we going to destroy them?"
"Our assault must be swift. Should he learn that we have divined the nature of his immortality he will conceal his horcruxes beyond our ability to ever find. We move against him soon, before there's a chance of that happening. You will accompany me, Harry."
"I understand," Harry said. He didn't thank Dumbledore for including him, or press him for more details about his plan. They were past wearing the simple roles of teacher and student; at war, Dumbledore was a leader—Harry's leader—and he exuded the charisma and power that was required of one, carrying himself with a presence that truly could defy the Dark Lord.
"We leave tomorrow. Tell no one; not even your closest friends," Dumbledore said.
Harry thought that he'd been prepared for anything. A horcrux hunt might lead them to the foulest dungeon or most imposing peaks, and he had made his peace with that, prepared for any sacrifice, ready for any demand, willing to push beyond his limits, if only it was asked of him.
Even so, he was astounded, and not a little discomforted, to find himself standing in front of the Room of Requirement.
"There's a horcrux in Hogwarts?" Harry said.
"Tom concealed the fragments of his soul in the locations most important to him," Dumbledore said. "It would be more astonishing if Hogwarts were not on that list. There are few places in the castle which are beyond my gaze, and I have already scoured them for any hint of his horcrux. The Come and Go Room is the last possibility."
"I didn't think that Voldemort would have known about this place," Harry said.
"Tom plumbed Hogwarts for her secrets with a vigor that has quite possibly never been surpassed. He treasured knowledge of this castle much in the same way that you treasure your friends."
Harry wasn't sure that he liked the comparison between Voldemort and himself, salutary as they might be.
"What are we looking for, exactly?" Harry asked.
"There are four famous possessions of the founders which survive to this day. Gryffindor's sword is accounted for, and I have my suspicions as to where Hufflepuff's Cup has been hidden. We will find either Slytherin's Locket or Ravenclaw's Diadem here. Be alert, and no matter the temptation, Harry, I must insist that you do not touch them. If you do you will find yourself in as a grave a state as my own."
Dumbledore withdrew a fraction of his withered arm, just enough to strike a spark of foreboding within Harry, and then he hid it away, though Harry was more aware of its existence than ever before.
"Have you prepared yourself, Harry?" Dumbledore asked.
"I'm ready, professor," Harry said.
The door to the Room of Requirement opened. An endless horizon of junk rose before Harry's eyes. There were mountains of desks and dressers, wardrobes bursting open with clothes that had been dated hundreds of years ago, broomsticks that buzzed and sparked erratically, and dusty tomes that were stacked to the heavens, some of which were laying inert and others which gnashed and groaned, like prisoners stuffed in a dank cell.
It was a world of odds and ends, an island of castoffs, a never-ending chamber of clutter and scraps.
"Oh dear," Dumbledore said.
"We're supposed to find the horcrux in the middle of all this?" Harry asked. He looked at Dumbledore and was unable to decide whether he could be heartened or frustrated by the fact that the Headmaster was chuckling to himself as he surveyed the wasteland.
"I never thought that Tom would be willing to leave a fragment of his soul in a place like this. Perhaps he has more of a sense of humor than I thought," Dumbledore said.
"Sense of humor. Right."
"No point in wasting time now, Harry. We'll simply have to take our time and be thorough. You head in this direction," Dumbledore pointed imprecisely toward a particularly large and unsteady heap, "and I shall go this way. If you find the horcrux, send up sparks. Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to destroy it yourself."
"What if we can't find it?" Harry asked. There was no end to the expanse of miscellanea; Harry doubted that an army, searching for months, would be able to find something so insignificant. Hogwarts had been depositing enormous quantities of junk into the room for centuries. If Voldemort had hidden his horcrux at the bottom of some pile they would never find it. Harry said as much.
"Not to worry. Tom's vanity would never allow him to discard his horcrux in some forgotten corner. I have no doubt that it will be on display; a testament to the regard in which he holds it, and a way for him to show off his cleverness. He delights in outfoxing me."
Dumbledore patted Harry on the shoulder, which strangely did make him feel better, and then wandered off, whistling a familiar jaunty tune. He was swallowed by the endless room seconds later.
Harry sighed. When he had pictured horcrux hunting to himself it hadn't borne such a resemblance to dumpster diving.
As far as he could tell there was no overarching organizational structure to the room—no means of establishing a helpful pattern to guide him amongst all the junk. It was just stack and stack of lost items, with dozens of narrow paths spidering off in every direction. Harry was lost the moment he stepped off the original path.
In order to try to salvage the situation somewhat, Harry left various small objects behind him, in an attempt to mark his passing, like a lost boy out of a fairy tale. However, when he turned back to make sure that the path he had made was clear, the objects were back where he had found them, as if the Room of Requirement was resentful of any attempt at imposed order among the unremitting chaos.
There was no way to accurately sense the passing of time. Harry consulted his wand at what he thought was a regular interval, only to find that two minutes had passed, or twenty.
As he wandered, Harry brushed against a loose conglomeration of strangely designed instruments—like a cross between trumpets and keyboards—and was nearly flattened by an immense one which fell from the top, shattering into dozens of glassy pieces.
It let out a keening note in its final moment which reverberated throughout the room. Other melancholy sounds echoed back, as if by some ghostly chorus, giving Harry the sense of being in a haunted graveyard.
He imagined hands snatching at him from within the piles of junk, cruel misshapen creatures, forged by cruel misshapen magic, leaping at him, coming from high and low, pouncing and tearing. The images, more like visions, were artful, yet real, seemingly as clear to him as what was truly before his eyes. Harry hurried on. He hoped distance would cure the ills induced by that swan-song.
Eventually, once the feeling had faded, Harry took a break. He sat down on an old desk at the junction of several wide paths.
They had, by his reckoning, been in the room of nearly three hours. Since they had split up there had been no sign of Dumbledore. All of the adrenaline that Harry had been feeling at the start of the hunt had been replaced by an aggrieved boredom. In addition to all of the indisputable evil that Voldemort had done, he had also placed his horcrux in one of the most boring places Harry had ever been to.
Even the final satisfaction of slicing through the locket or diadem wouldn't be adequate compensation for the sheer tediousness of searching through thousands of rotting desks and moldy wardrobes.
Harry stood. The hunt was boring but there was no chance that he was going back to Dumbledore unable to say he had done his best. Several new paths branched out before him. Harry chose one, almost at random, getting a slightly better feel from it than the others.
That feeling of rightness, like drawing near a warm welcoming campfire, grew as he walked. It got stronger and stronger still, until Harry was forced to admit that what he was feeling wasn't some hunch, but the calling of like to like. A connection that had once been so tenuous as to be invisible was suddenly igniting and calling out, gaining more life and form the nearer he drew.
An unbreakable thread had been formed, imperceptible by any normal means but there nonetheless. Harry knew it was leading him in the right direction. He drew ever nearer to the horcrux.
Doubt tried to creep in. He rubbed at his scar, as if he could scrub away at whatever taint connected him to Voldemort; but he pressed on. He would take advantage of their connection until it was time to sever it entirely.
A tense anticipation wracked him. Was this what had seduced Dumbledore into wielding the horcrux? This feeling, like returning home after a long journey? Harry couldn't shake the feeling that he was reuniting with someone, or something, that had once been dear to him.
He resolved to send up sparks as soon as the horcrux was in sight. Dumbledore had the sword and the expertise. It would be foolish to try to destroy it himself.
When he rounded the last corner—he had somehow just known that it was the last corner—Harry saw it. The diadem rested on the head of a carven warlock, grotesque by design and further diminished by age. The pairing was bizarre, almost repulsive; worn statue and gleaming diadem. Harry knew that the diadem didn't belong on that statue.
The connection that had pulled at him was now brimming, and it had started to snatch at him, as if it could, through overpowering will, force him to don the diadem. Harry grinned with a savage satisfaction at denying the horcrux.
He drew his wand and was in the process of sending up sparks when, with a sudden shift, the connection changed and Harry was sent hurtling into a freefall. He found it impossible to center himself.
It was no longer a string that tied him to the horcrux. Now it was a long bridge, and at the end of the bridge was a door. An open door.
A rough beast slouched into Harry's mind.
Harry's hand trembled as he was agonized by this foreign will. He screamed as images flashed by, superimposing themselves over his eyes so that the real world faded from his view.
An orphanage. Husks of buildings. Fires burning, children laughing, screaming, crying, whining, eating, shitting, showering, pushing him, yelling at him, and nobody nobody nobody helping him? They were bigger than him and hurting him and nobody nobody nobody came to help him. What why why why? They were bigger than him and hurting him and nobody Dudley was hurting him and the orphanage was hitting him and he was two nobodies, not just one, not Just Harry, both people both nobodies nobodies being hurt by these orphanage dudley boys
The images stopped. Harry realized that he was on his knees. He hadn't been breathing. He didn't manage to raise his wand before the assault resumed.
DumbledoreHagrid. His wardrobe was on fire and the door was broken down and uncle vernon with a shotgun telling him not to steal and not to tell lies because you couldn't steal at Hogwarts and hagriddumbledore leaving on the boat taking him to Diagon Alley by himself and the sights and wizards and goblins and his wand his Wand his very own Wand with a Phoenix Core and it had a great but terrible brother two nobodies and he left Diagon Alley alone with hagrid by himself and he was on the train with ron and the other slytherins who didn't know he was a mudblood with dead parents dead parents both nobodies dead parents and then There Was Hogwarts.
hogwartshogwartshogwarts vast amazing overwhelming and he was sorted into slytheringryffindor and everyone was happy and clapping and calling him a mudblood and Dumbledore was smiling at him suspiciously because he knew he knew how did he know that he was seething so angry and he wanted to make them hurt like he made dudleyorphanage hurt because he could talk to Snakes
Snakes were in Harry's mind.
They found all of the hidden places and burrowed there, head first, writhing and wriggling in him, cold and scaly and so painful. They moved him, the snakes, like he was their disgusting puppet, jerking him this way and that until he was standing again, pigeon toed and hunchbacked, one arm jutting oddly. He was reaching for the diadem.
Somewhere in his mind he was resisting. He couldn't touch the diadem. He couldn't touch the diadem or the snakes would win.
But they found him, in the deepest parts of his mind where he was hiding, and the snakes bit and tore. They made him scream and cry and ate chunks of him and then snakes burrowed in there until he was more Snake than Harry.
His body's grasping rigid movements became less unnatural and more sinuous, almost reptilian. His eyes blinked. His tongue lapped at the air. His fingers clenched and unclenched.
Harry touched the diadem. Harry put the diadem on.
The snakes were everywhere.