It was late afternoon as Harry walked slowly through the halls on his way back to Gryffindor Tower. He passed a knot of students discussing the attack on Hogsmeade which startled him, at first. The battle seemed as if it had taken place a lifetime ago. He felt like a different person than the one he'd been a few hours earlier. He had felt the perfect hatred he'd been dreading to find within himself which would give him the power to kill. But he had found something else as well that was far more powerful.
In hindsight, it made sense. He will have power the Dark Lord knows not… Harry had always despaired at that line of the prophecy; Voldemort was the most powerful evil wizard that had ever lived. But he knew nothing of compassion or forgiveness and Harry was somehow certain that this would be the key to his defeat. Standing in Dumbledore's office, confronted by the pain and tragedy hate had wrought, Harry had suddenly known it beyond reason or doubt. He felt at peace now in a way that he never had before. Whether he lived or died, at least he wouldn't have to become a monster in order to beat Voldemort. Knowing that, he could face whatever lay ahead.
Harry arrived at Gryffindor Tower and headed straight for his dormitory. He opened the door and was surprised to find Ron, Hermione, Neville and Ginny there.
"Harry!" Neville exclaimed, jumping to his feet.
"Where the bloody hell have you been?" Ron demanded, jumping off his bed as well. "We looked everywhere for you."
"What happened?" Hermione asked. "The way you rushed off…"
Neville chimed in. "It had something to do with Mrs. Lestrange, didn't it?"
"Did Professor Snape find you?" Ginny asked. "Or Professor Dumbledore? They both went looking for you."
Harry looked at the expectant faces watching him and hesitated. He'd just seen what fifteen years of secrecy had done to Snape and he wanted to be honest with his friends, but this wasn't his secret to share. Perhaps one day it might be, but not now; the wound needed time to heal. Harry took a deep breath and chose his words carefully.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to worry you. I was just upset, that's all. Bellatrix Lestrange said some things to me that I should have known better than to listen to. I let her get to me, which was stupid. If you hadn't stunned her when you did, Neville, I don't want to think about what would have happened."
Neville flushed at Harry's praise and Harry was relieved to see sympathy and understanding replace the worry in his friends' eyes.
"Well, the Aurors have her in custody, now," Hermione said with satisfaction. "The Ministry is supposed to have new security measures in place at Azkaban, so hopefully we won't be seeing her again."
"What happened in town?" Harry asked, anxious to change the subject, but also genuinely curious.
Ginny answered. "Well, first off it was Jeremy and Walter who created the diversion in the street. They set off one of those Percussion Bombs from Zonko's. Very clever," she added, with a pointed look at her brother.
Ron grimaced. "I've already said they did all right. Why do you have to keep rubbing it in?"
Hermione continued the story before Ron and Ginny could say any more in what was obviously a running argument. "It was complete chaos, of course. Everyone was screaming and running. Half of the Death Eaters went after you, but there were still quite a lot left behind and Voldemort was still there. There's no telling what would have happened if Dumbledore hadn't shown up."
"I've never seen him that angry," Ron said in awe. "Voldemort didn't stay around, either, let me tell you. He took one look at Dumbledore and scarpered."
"Of course, that left his Death Eaters in a rather sticky situation." Ginny grinned happily.
Hermione picked up the narrative once more. "By then, the teachers and Aurors had arrived and there was a huge fight, but Professor McGonagall made the students take cover in the shops, so we missed a lot of it."
"I did get to see Ryan in action, though," Ron said enthusiastically. "He's an amazing duelist! He wound up taking on three Death Eaters at once all by himself."
Hermione continued. "Once things quieted down, we went back outside and that's when Professor Snape stopped us and asked where you were. He sent us to find you and you know the rest."
"And no one was hurt?" Harry asked, not quite believing their good fortune.
"A few of the students got hurt by some stray curses," Neville said. "But no one died."
"I don't understand why Voldemort attacked Hogsmeade, though," Hermione said, chewing her lower lip thoughtfully.
"He was just trying to terrorize everyone again," Ginny said, but Hermione shook her head.
"It's one thing to burgle Gringotts in the middle of the night, or to have Draco Malfoy cast Morsmordre at school. Those posed no danger to Voldemort. But to bring that many of his Death Eaters to Hogsmeade in broad daylight when he had to know that Dumbledore and the Aurors would show up – that was a huge risk and it accomplished nothing."
"All he really seemed interested in was killing you, Harry," Neville said.
"But why?" Ginny asked.
Four pairs of eyes stared at Harry, who shifted uncomfortably.
"In the past, he's always had a reason for coming after you, Harry," Hermione said. "Have you any idea what he wanted this time?"
Harry swallowed. Here was his darkest secret which he'd kept carefully hidden for a year. He could feel his heartbeat quicken, but he knew the time had come to tell the truth.
"Yeah, I know why he came after me," Harry said. "There's something I need to tell all of you, but I think you'd better sit down."
His friends exchanged apprehensive glances, but sat down as Harry began to talk.
"Do you remember the prophecy that Voldemort was after last year, the one you smashed, Neville?"
"We couldn't very well forget that," Ron said as the others nodded.
"Dumbledore knows what the prophecy said," Harry continued. "He told it to me right after Sirius died."
"You mean you've known it all this time?" Hermione asked in surprise.
"Why didn't you tell us?" Ginny asked.
Harry shrugged. "It never seemed to be the right time."
"So, what does it say?" Neville asked.
"It says, The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches… Born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies… And the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not… And either must die at the hand of the other, for neither can live while the other survives. The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord will be born as the seventh month dies…"
There was a moment's silence while the others digested this.
At last, Neville spoke up hesitantly. "What does that mean?"
"It means that Harry is the only one who can defeat Voldemort," Hermione answered in a very small voice. She looked at Harry. "It means that you have to kill him or else he's going to kill you. Is that right, Harry?"
Harry nodded. "Yes. That's what it means."
There was another prolonged silence during which Harry's friends simply stared at him in shock.
"And you didn't bother to mention this?" Ron finally asked in a strangled voice.
Harry sighed. "I couldn't tell you because I couldn't bear to have you all staring at me the way you are now, as if I've got some sort of terminal disease and am likely to drop dead at any moment."
Ron, Hermione and Neville glanced away, uncomfortably, but Ginny continued to gaze at Harry with an unreadable expression. "So why are you telling us now?"
"Because now I know that I can beat him," Harry said.
"Beat Voldemort?" Ron asked incredulously. How?"
"I'm not sure," Harry admitted. "But I know that I can do it."
This didn't seem to reassure Harry's friends at all. If anything, they were looking more worried than ever.
"Look, I know it sounds mad, but it's hard to explain. The mental connection I share with Voldemort is the key. I just don't know how to use it yet."
"How can that help?" Neville asked.
Harry was unsure how to explain that, but Hermione's expression had cleared, the worry having been replaced by dawning understanding.
"Legilimency isn't just a means of reading another person's mind," she said excitedly. "It can also be used as a form of attack. A very skilled Legilimens can actually kill using the mind alone."
"So then, because your link to Voldemort is so strong, you may be able to attack him through his mind, is that it?" Ginny asked Harry.
"Let me get this straight," Ron said slowly. "You have to fight the most powerful evil wizard of all time in some sort of mental duel, and even though you don't know how to do that, you're certain that you're going to win."
It sounded ludicrous, of course, but Harry mustered more confidence than he actually felt and met Ron's doubtful gaze calmly. "Yeah, that's pretty much it." He held Ron's eyes steadily until at last Ron nodded, seemingly satisfied.
"Well, as long as you're convinced. As many times as you've outsmarted him, I reckon you'll manage it somehow."
"However it's managed, what's most important is that we know that Voldemort can be defeated," Hermione said thoughtfully. "He's not invincible."
"That's true!" Neville agreed, brightening considerably. "We've never been sure of that before. At least now we have real hope."
The others all nodded agreement and Harry was amazed that his friends could find hope in the prophecy when, for so long, he had found nothing in it but despair. He was relieved that they didn't feel the weight of the burden he carried.
"How about some dinner, then?" Ron asked. "I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm famished. Fighting Death Eaters works up an appetite."
The Great Hall was bustling with people when Harry and his friends arrived. The aromas from the platters lining the Gryffindor table made Harry's stomach growl demandingly and he quickly shoveled food onto his plate. As he tucked into his meal, Harry saw Dumbledore and Snape arrive. The Potions Master seemed lost in thought. He didn't even glance towards the Gryffindor table, yet Harry hardly noticed. It was Dumbledore who had caught his attention.
The headmaster seemed transformed: the weariness that had hung on him like a shroud all year was gone and he looked years younger than he had only a few hours earlier. His face was alight with a sort of serious delight and he flashed Harry a triumphant smile which made Harry realize how seldom he'd seen the man look genuinely happy since Voldemort's return. Dumbledore winked at Harry and Harry smiled back at him, then returned his attention to his dinner.
As they were finishing dessert, Ginny leaned over to Harry. "Would you like to go for a walk?" she asked.
"That would be great," Harry readily agreed. He wasn't particularly in the mood for sitting around the common room playing Exploding Snap or talking about Quidditch.
He and Ginny left the Great Hall and headed outside where the sun hung low in the sky. They walked in silence for a few moments, then stopped to look out towards the lake. Ginny was unusually quiet and wore a pensive expression.
"What's on your mind?" Harry asked.
Ginny looked at Harry. "How long have you known that you could defeat Voldemort?"
Harry hesitated and momentarily considered evading the question, but Ginny always seemed to inspire him to tell the truth. He gave her a wry smile. "About two hours."
Ginny nodded as if Harry had just confirmed something she'd already known.
"That doesn't surprise you?" Harry asked.
"No," Ginny said. "You've been so distracted all year. Even after learning to control your visions, you still seemed worried and distant. But this afternoon when you came back to the dormitory, there was something different about you. You seemed at peace in a way that you haven't been in ages."
Harry stared at Ginny, amazed. "How do you do that?"
Ginny frowned slightly in confusion. "Do what?"
"I spent most of the year studying Occlumency, yet you always seem to know what I'm thinking and feeling."
Ginny smiled impishly. "I can't read your mind, Harry, but I know you and I know what's in here." She laid her hand over Harry's heart and her warm brown eyes seemed to look straight into his soul. "I've always known that you were the one who was going to defeat Voldemort."
Ginny spoke with calm certainty and Harry felt a tingle run up his spine. Maybe it was just Ginny's hand on his chest drawing his attention to it, but he could feel his heart pounding and he stared at Ginny as if seeing her for the very first time. There was strength and determination in her eyes as well as compassion and understanding. After all that he'd been through that afternoon, Harry was drawn to her and without meaning to, he mentally reached out. In the next instant, he blinked and severed the connection, blushing in embarrassment both at what he'd done and at what he'd glimpsed in Ginny's mind.
How could he have failed to realize? She had always been there for him this year, to cheer him up, to take his mind off his worries. She'd always known what to say and, more importantly, what not say; which questions not to pursue. Harry had been grateful for her constant support and friendship, but had been too lost in his own fears to notice the depth of Ginny's feelings. He wondered how she could have continued to care for him for so long when he had been so blind.
Harry swallowed. A gold and red sunset colored the sky and a stiff breeze whipped their robes around them. Harry knew that they should be getting back to the common room instead of standing here staring into each other's eyes, but he couldn't bring himself to look away. Instead, he reached up, laid his hand over Ginny's and clasped it tightly. Ginny squeezed his hand in return and he moved closer to her.
"Ginny, listen to me," Harry said urgently. "I have to face Voldemort. I have to kill him or he's going to kill me. I think I know a way to beat him, but there's no guarantee that I'm right and let's face it, the odds aren't exactly in my favor. There's a good chance I'm going to die and you need to know that."
Ginny frowned slightly, taken aback by Harry's sudden earnestness. Harry squeezed her hand and gazed into her eyes, willing her to understand what he was asking her. It seemed to work. Ginny's eyes widened slightly in surprise, then she bit her lip and squeezed Harry's hand tightly once more.
"There's never a guarantee, Harry," Ginny said somberly. "Any of us could die. I learnt that the night Mum was killed. I'm not going to stop living my life because of it and you can't either. We just have to make the best of whatever comes."
"Are you sure?" Harry asked.
The mischievous glint was back in Ginny's eyes. "Of course I am. I've always been sure about you, Harry."
Harry wasn't certain which of them made the first move, but the kiss was like nothing he'd ever felt before, certainly nothing like the awkward, tense kiss Cho had given him the year before. That had been terrifying. This was just… right.
They broke apart, then Ginny flashed Harry a radiant smile and suddenly, Harry felt like the luckiest person in the world.
"Where have you two been?" Ron asked, looking up from his homework as Harry and Ginny climbed through the portrait hole into the common room.
"We just went for a walk," Ginny said with an astonishingly straight face. Harry couldn't even bring himself to meet Ron's eyes and was certain that he must look guilty.
"Hermione, do you have time to help me study for Potions," Ginny asked. "I really want to get an 'Outstanding' on that OWL."
"You're not planning to take Snape's class next year, are you?" Ron asked, sounding horrified.
"I might," Ginny replied, smirking at her brother. "I, at least, want to have the option."
"Of course I'll help you study," Hermione said. "Come on, we can go up to my dormitory." She closed the Ancient Runes text she'd been reading and the two girls disappeared up the stairs.
Harry watched them go, feeling slightly queasy. He was sure that Ginny was going to tell Hermione about their walk.
"How about a game of chess?" Ron suggested, taking advantage of Hermione's absence to shove aside the History of Magic notes lying on the table in front of him.
"Er, sure," Harry agreed. He sat down at the table while Ron readied the chess board. Harry's mind was racing. How would Hermione react to the news that he and Ginny had kissed? Would she tell Ron? Or maybe Ginny expected him to tell Ron while she and Hermione were out of the way?
"Your move," Ron said.
Harry looked at Ron, then down at the board and saw that Ron had already moved a pawn. Harry moved one as well and glanced back at the girls' staircase.
"So what do you suppose they're going to do about the attack on Hogsmeade?" Ron asked, making his next move. "McGonagall told us that Dumbledore already had wards and warning spells in place, but obviously they didn't do any good. Do you reckon they'll have Aurors patrolling the place?"
"I don't know." Harry absentmindedly moved another pawn and considered trying to intercept the girls, or at least Ginny, if and when they reappeared in order to find out what they'd talked about. He wondered if that might seem too suspicious.
Ron nudged his queen diagonally forward. "I just hope Dumbledore doesn't decide to cancel our visits to Hogsmeade next year. That would be tragic!"
Harry automatically moved another pawn. "Yeah, you're right."
Ron frowned at the board, then up at Harry. He moved his queen across the board.
Harry started and looked down at the board, realizing too late, that he'd let his king become trapped.
"Harry, are you all right?" Ron asked, looking at his friend in obvious concern. "You're not the sort to fall for a 'fool's mate'."
Harry shifted guiltily in his seat. He could keep some things from Ron, but not his feelings for Ginny. He glanced around to make sure no one was listening to them, then leaned closer to Ron and dropped his voice.
"I'm fine. It's just…" Harry didn't quite know how to phrase it.
Ron's frown deepened and he looked genuinely worried. He leaned forward and dropped his voice as well. "Harry, whatever it is, you can tell me."
Harry met his best friend's eyes, took a deep breath and screwed up his courage. "I fancy Ginny."
Ron blinked. "What?" This clearly wasn't what he'd been expecting.
"I fancy Ginny and she fancies me and, well, we're going to be seeing each other."
For an interminable moment Ron just stared at him.
"Oh." Ron said at last. "Well. All right, then."
"It's okay with you?"
"Yeah, I'll manage." Ron's expression was a peculiar blend of discomfort and satisfaction. "Just don't kiss her in front of me or anything, all right."
Harry was horrified. "Ron, are you mad? Of course I wouldn't! Now, let's have another go at chess."
The final Quidditch match of the year was fast approaching. Ravenclaw were no pushovers, as Katie continually reminded her teammates, so despite the attack at Hogsmeade, Monday lunchtime saw the Gryffindors out at the pitch practicing hard. Harry had never been more focused and was in top form, which amazed most of his teammates who seemed to think that nearly being killed by Voldemort should have had rather the opposite effect. Even Ron looked astonished, but Ginny only grinned at Harry and winked.
When practice was over, Harry was in high spirits. He was laughing with his teammates as they landed and didn't notice the lone figure waiting by the stands. It was Ginny who spotted him first.
"Professor Lupin!" she exclaimed, hurrying up to Remus. The other students followed, delighted to see their former teacher.
"What are you doing here?" Ron asked.
"I was just in the area and thought I'd stop by to see how our Quidditch team was faring," Remus answered lightly. "You're set to beat Ravenclaw for sure!"
"Harry," Remus said casually. "While I'm here, I was wondering if I might I have a word?"
"All right," Harry answered, curious as to what Remus might need to talk to him about.
Remus was already saying his goodbyes to the other students. "Good luck on Saturday, though as well as you were flying today, you shouldn't need it." With one last smile and a wave, he headed off across the lawn together with Harry. Remus continued to talk amiably about Quidditch until they reached the lake.
"It's always so beautiful here in the spring," he said as they stopped to take in the scenery. "It brings back so many memories."
There was a melancholy look in Remus's eyes and Harry finally couldn't contain his curiosity any longer. "Remus, why did you want to see me?"
Remus turned to face Harry. "I've just been to see Professor Snape," he said and Harry felt his heart skip a beat. "He contacted me yesterday and asked me to come up. He said there was something urgent he needed to talk to me about."
Harry stared at Remus in disbelief. "He told you," Harry whispered.
"Yes," Remus said sadly.
Harry turned away, unable to bear the pain that was so evident in Remus's eyes.
"He knew that if he didn't tell me, you eventually would," Remus continued. "I think he wanted to spare you that. In any case, he thought it would be better to get it over with now. And he told me –" Remus's voice caught and he swallowed hard before continuing. "He told me you forgave him. Is that true?"
Harry nodded and turned back to face his father's old friend, desperately hoping the man would understand. "I had to, Remus. He didn't mean for it to happen and he's already suffered so much. I can't hate him. I can't –"
"Harry, you don't need to explain," Remus interrupted reassuringly. "The choice is yours. They were your parents."
"They were your friends," Harry countered.
Remus stepped forward and grasped Harry's shoulders. "Harry, you did the right thing. You're right, Severus has suffered enough. We all have. It's long past time to heal these wounds." He smiled once more and although his eyes were moist, they also shone with happiness. "I have never been more proud of you."
Harry sighed in relief. "That means a lot, Remus. Thank you."
Remus flushed slightly with pleasure, then changed the subject. "While I'm here, I also wanted to ask about your plans for summer."
"I haven't really thought about it," Harry admitted. "Is it safe for me to stay with my aunt and uncle?"
"Not particularly, no."
Harry shrugged. "I'd rather not stay with them, anyway. In fact, I'd rather go just about anywhere else, actually."
"Well, I'm sure that Ron would invite you to stay with him, but Arthur's rarely home and establishing adequate security at the Burrow would take some doing. The best option, if you're amenable to it, would be for you to stay at Grimmauld Place. Voldemort can't possibly touch you there and there's always someone dropping by, so I'm sure you wouldn't be too bored. And Ron, Ginny and Hermione will be coming to stay at some point."
Remus fixed Harry with a look of polite nonchalance, but Harry had no trouble seeing the nervous hopefulness behind the placid expression. He smiled. "Remus, I'd love to come and stay with you."
Remus flushed once more and his face lit up with obvious delight. "Well, that's settled then. I won't keep you any longer. I don't want you to be late for class."
Harry grinned happily as the realization that he wouldn't be going to the Dursleys's began to sink in. "Bye, Remus. I'll see you in a couple of weeks."
Harry raced back to Gryffindor Tower where he enthusiastically told his friends that he was going to be staying with Remus for the summer. They were equally thrilled that he wouldn't have to endure the dreaded Dursleys again and immediately began making plans for the holidays. Harry grinned as Ron, Hermione and Ginny discussed where they might go and what they might do. A whole summer in London without the Dursleys was like a dream come true. He could sleep late, be with his friends, and spend his days wandering the city. It was going to be the best summer of his life.
Once afternoon classes were over, however, Harry began to think more about the other matter he and Remus had discussed. Harry hadn't seen Snape since Saturday afternoon. The Potions Master had been secluded in his quarters all weekend and Harry hadn't sought him out. But in light of his conversation with Remus, Harry decided that it was time to pay a visit to the dungeons. Unfortunately, before he reached Snape's office, Harry met Draco Malfoy.
"Potter, what are you doing here?" Malfoy sneered.
"None of your business, Malfoy," Harry said without checking his pace.
Malfoy stepped in front of Harry, forcing him to stop. "Go back to your Mudbloods and Muggle-lovers, Potter. You don't belong here."
"Get out of my way," Harry said.
"I'm a prefect, Potter. You're not and I'm telling you to get out."
"And if I don't, what are you going to do about it, report me to Professor Snape?" Harry asked with a smirk. "I'm on my way to see him right now and you're more than welcome to tag along."
Malfoy's eyes flashed with hatred and he bared his teeth in a snarl. "Of course, I should have known you were here to see him. Mark my words, Potter, he will regret betraying the Dark Lord."
Harry's eyes narrowed in anger, but before he could respond, Snape's annoyed voice interjected.
"Mr. Potter, Mr. Malfoy, surely you have better things to do than to stand in the hallway glaring at one another. If not, I'm certain that I can find something to keep you both occupied."
Snape came up to them, folded his arms and fixed the students with his most condescending sneer. "Well?"
"Yes, sir," the boys mumbled in unison.
"Mr. Malfoy, I suggest that you return to your dormitory until dinner," Snape said in a tone that indicated his comment was definitely not a suggestion.
Malfoy scowled at Snape, but didn't dare argue with him. With a final glare at Harry he turned to go.
"And Mr. Malfoy," Snape's velvet drawl stopped Malfoy in his tracks. The boy looked back at Snape with equal parts defiance and wariness as Snape continued.
"There is one thing which I deeply regret in being discovered a traitor to the Dark Lord. It is that I will not have the opportunity to see you receive the Dark Mark. That is something I would dearly love to witness."
Malfoy clearly had no idea what to make of this statement, but he managed to plaster a cocky smirk on his face that, nevertheless, did nothing to hide the utter bewilderment in his eyes. It didn't last long, either. The knowing and thoroughly nasty smile Snape favored him with wiped it away in an instant. Completely rattled, Malfoy turned and hurried away towards the Slytherin common room.
Under different circumstances, Harry would have been delighted at Malfoy's discomfort. But thanks to his lessons with Snape, Harry had a very clear recollection of what receiving the Dark Mark was like and felt nothing but horror as he watched Malfoy go. The Slytherin had no idea what lay ahead of him, Harry was sure. Even Draco doesn't deserve that, Harry realized, seeing his enemy in a new light.
Without thinking, Harry rubbed his left forearm and looked away only to find Snape watching him with a keen, thoughtful expression.
"Potter, why are you here?"
"Remus came to see me," Harry said, dragging his thoughts back to his original purpose.
"Indeed," Snape said without a trace of emotion. He turned and started back up the corridor towards his office and Harry fell into step beside him.
"Why did you tell him?" Harry asked and Snape answered in the same careful voice.
"I've never been one to put off unpleasant tasks. I needed to know what Lupin's reaction was going to be."
They had reached Snape's office. Snape pushed open the door and Harry followed him in.
"I wouldn't have thought you cared that much about his opinion," Harry said, shutting the door.
Snape turned to face him. "I don't, but you do."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Harry asked in confusion.
Snape studied Harry with an inscrutable look. "I wanted to know if he would try to change your mind."
Harry started. "Remus wouldn't do that and even if he had tried, it wouldn't have mattered."
"That's a noble sentiment, Potter, but do you honestly believe that the entreaties of your father's last, best friend would have no effect on your feelings?"
"Yes," Harry said without hesitation.
Snape's eyebrows rose in surprise at the resoluteness of Harry's reply. Harry let out a slow breath and continued in a quiet voice. "You'd know that if you'd ever looked into his mind the way I have."
Harry looked away, remembering the awful cold presence he'd encountered in Voldemort's mind the night Snape had nearly died. "He holds onto every grudge, every past injustice and he won't forgive anything. He's consumed with vindictiveness and hate. But do you know what the worst part is?"
Harry looked back at Snape. "He doesn't think of himself as evil. He thinks he's a victim, righting the wrongs that were done to him and making things right in the world. In his mind, everything he does, no matter how horrible, is justified in the pursuit of revenge. That's what hatred and blame do to you. They twist the way you think."
Snape gazed at Harry with a troubled expression, then looked away. "I suppose they do," he said softly.
Harry winced, suddenly realizing that everything he'd just said about Voldemort was also true of Snape. How long had Snape allowed hatred and vengeance to control his life?
"Professor…" Harry said, unsure if he ought to try to apologize to the man, but Snape looked up and glared at Harry's worried expression.
"Potter, spare me the concern," Snape snapped impatiently. "My sensibilities aren't that easily offended. I don't tiptoe around other people's feelings and I won't tolerate such maudlin behavior from you."
"Yes, sir," Harry said, relieved.
Snape regarded Harry with a hard, penetrating gaze. "Are you still convinced that the means to defeat the Dark Lord lie in your mental connection to him?"
"Yes, I'm certain of it."
Snape nodded. "I've already mentioned the idea to the headmaster and he seemed taken with it as well. I am hoping that he will have some insight as to how you may employ your rather provocative theory in practice. I personally have no experience at killing anyone with kindness. Now Mr. Potter, it is almost dinnertime, so I suggest you get back upstairs."
Harry nodded and left the office without another word.
The next two weeks were a blur of activity as the end of the year approached. Harry spent most of his time with Ginny, either flying or helping her study for her OWLs, though they did manage to escape Ron's watchful eye to be alone a few times.
The Gryffindor versus Ravenclaw match proved refreshingly disaster-free and ended in a decisive victory for Gryffindor, who also won the Quidditch Cup. However, the exhilaration of victory was quickly overtaken by exams. Harry managed well enough in most of his classes, but Potions was hopeless. He should have expected that, of course. There was simply no way to catch up on all of the material he had skimmed or skipped entirely during the year, in a matter of weeks and the moment Harry set eyes on the Potions exam, he knew that he was in trouble. The written portion was fiendishly detailed, requiring exact knowledge of the subject which Harry simply didn't possess. The practical portion was even worse.
Harry wasn't sure if his timing was off or if he hadn't roasted his Shrivelfig and Asphodel mixture properly, but he just couldn't get his Babel Potion right. While other students, after a swig of their potions, were able to converse in various languages from French to Russian to Chinese, Harry's potion did nothing but leave a sour taste in his mouth. It was also unmistakably lavender instead of blue.
Harry stared in consternation at the mixture bubbling in his cauldron, then cringed as he saw Snape approaching his workbench. Snape barely glanced into Harry's cauldron before looking up at him in evident disgust. But the man said nothing. Instead, Snape heaved a discouraged sigh, shook his head and walked away. Harry stared after him. All of the insults Snape had ever heaped on him had never left Harry feeling more humiliated and angry with himself than that sigh had done and he left the exam feeling thoroughly miserable.
He listlessly made his way to the Great Hall and slumped down at the Gryffindor table for lunch. Dean sat down next to him.
"That was the worst exam ever," Dean said, sounding slightly stunned. "Do you reckon the NEWT will be that bad?"
"No, I think Snape just likes to torture us," Harry said wearily.
"It was challenging, but it wasn't that bad," Hermione commented, sitting down opposite them and helping herself to shepherd's pie.
The boys stared at her wordlessly, then exchanged dark glances. Ron arrived and sagged down at the table next to Hermione. He looked even more dejected than Harry felt and Harry wondered what could possibly be worse than one of Snape's exams to make Ron so morose.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
"Ryan's leaving," Ron said. "Ginny told me that she heard it from Walter Sutton, so I asked Professor McGonagall and she said it was true. He's given notice."
All of the Gryffindors present expressed regret at the news, even Harry.
"That's rotten luck," Dean said. "Do you have any idea why he's leaving?"
"It's all Snape's fault," Ron groused, without hesitation.
"No it's not," Harry said irritably.
Ron scowled at Harry. "Snape's had it in for Ryan since the moment he arrived."
"Funny, I thought it was the other way around," Harry countered.
"Yeah well, we all know whose side you're on," Ron said, rolling his eyes in disgust.
"It's the truth, Ron! Ryan started it."
"Maybe he did, but what's that to us? Ryan has taught us more about Defense this year than all the other Defense teachers we've had put together. The only reason you don't like him is because he treats Snape like the git he is."
The two friends sat glaring at one another, waiting to see who would back down first. After a few moments, Harry stood up and tossed down his napkin. "I've got some things to do," he said, then walked away from the table.
Harry wandered through the halls, wondering if Ron was right. Did he just dislike Ryan because the man had chosen to pick on Snape? Other than that, what did Harry have against the man? It was true that Ryan was the best Defense teacher they'd ever had, even better than Remus, which was saying a lot, and he always treated the students well. Harry stopped in his tracks, hating to admit that he'd been unfair to the man, but realizing that it was the truth. He had distrusted Ryan out of personal dislike, just as he had so often distrusted Snape for the same reason. Harry grimaced and started walking down the corridor once more, this time with a purposeful stride.
As Harry approached Ryan's office he could hear faint music. He paused and peered in through the half-open door. A lively tune was playing on the wireless and Ryan was humming along as he filled a trunk with personal items. For a man who had just resigned from his job, he seemed to be in excellent spirits. Ryan glanced up and spotted Harry.
"Potter! Come in, don't hang out in the hallway," Ryan called jovially, beckoning Harry to enter.
Harry entered the office hesitantly and looked around. "You're packing."
Ryan's eyebrows rose in amusement. "Astute observation, Potter. I can see I've taught you a lot this year."
Harry flushed, both embarrassed and annoyed by Ryan's teasing. "I heard that you'd resigned. Why?"
Ryan shrugged. "It's time to move on."
"Is it because Dumbledore didn't make you Head of Slytherin?" Harry asked, wanting some confirmation of his opinion of Ryan.
"Merlin, no!" Ryan laughed affably. "I wouldn't want to be Head of House. Far too much responsibility. Besides, I wouldn't want to be that tied down."
Harry frowned in confusion. "But everyone said… I mean, you acted like…"
Ryan fixed Harry with a shrewd look. "The Slytherins already have the best Head of House they could hope for in these troubled times. It just took a bit of a push for him to realize it."
Harry blinked, momentarily wondering whom Ryan could be referring to, before the inescapable answer hit him. "You mean Professor Snape? But you've been horrible to him all year!" Harry said, with a mixture of bewilderment and outrage.
Ryan shrugged. "I reckoned he could use all the help he could get."
Harry stared at Ryan, completely lost. "What?"
Ryan stopped packing and regarded Harry with mild disappointment.
"You're a fine lad, Potter, but you'd be better off if you had a few more Slytherin traits. Can you honestly not see why it might have been to Snape's benefit to have me accusing him of being a Death Eater at every opportunity and for all to hear?"
Harry's eyes widened in understanding. "You knew that he was spying on Voldemort?" Harry asked incredulously.
"Right in one, Potter."
"How do you think?" Ryan asked.
Harry's eyes narrowed doubtfully. "Dumbledore told you?"
"I don't believe it," Harry said skeptically. "Dumbledore never would have told you that!"
"I've worked for Dumbledore for twenty years, Mr. Potter. I should hope he'd trust me by now."
Harry's jaw dropped. "Twenty years? Doing what?"
"This and that." Ryan grinned, clearly amused by Harry's astonishment. But in a moment, he grew serious.
"I never held with Voldemort," Ryan said. "I've always been too much my own man to bow down to another. I was an Auror back when he first came to power. Don't look so shocked. No one ever thinks of a Slytherin being an Auror, but what's an Auror if not cunning? A healthy sense of self-preservation doesn't hurt either. I was a good one too, took down quite a few Death Eaters those first few years.
"Then one day my supervisor called me into his office and asked if I might be interested in a special assignment, very hush, hush. It would mean going abroad and I wouldn't be working directly for the Ministry anymore. Instead I'd be part of an unofficial group working to oppose Voldemort.
"Well, I was intrigued to say the least and I'd always enjoyed clandestine assignments, so I said yes. That's when I discovered that Dumbledore was more than just the benevolent headmaster I remembered from Hogwarts.
"I met with him and he explained that Voldemort's reach had extended to the continent. He needed someone to gather intelligence for his group, recruit allies and help organize local opposition – all very discreetly, of course. He told me that it wouldn't be an easy job. I'd be living abroad for years with very little support from home, so I'd have to rely on my own wits and whatever allegiances I could forge in order to survive and succeed. He asked if I thought I was the man for the job, but I think he already knew the answer to that even better than I did. I left for Paris that night and aside from a few days here and there, I haven't been back. This year at Hogwarts was the first time I've lived in Britain in twenty years."
"But after Voldemort disappeared, why didn't you come home?" Harry asked.
"Dumbledore was certain that Voldemort wasn't gone for good. He asked me if I'd stay on to maintain our hard-won alliances and keep an ear open. I'd grown quite content with life abroad. I'd made some very good friends as well as staunch allies, so I agreed.
"The next seven or eight years were good ones. I taught at Beauxbatons for several years, wrote a number of articles about some of the more exotic experiences I'd had in my travels. I also worked extensively as a free-lance Auror, traveling as far south as Ankara and east to the Balkans. That's where I first started hearing the rumors of a dark shadow, an unnamed presence skulking in the depths of the forests.
"At first I thought they were only tall tales told to frighten or impress strangers, but the rumors persisted and grew more worrisome. There were reports of people who had been found wandering dazed in remote areas and who told terrifying stories of having been possessed by something evil. I reported this to Dumbledore, of course, and we both feared that his suspicion had at last been proven right and that Voldemort was somehow still alive and hiding in the Balkans.
"I set aside all my other commitments to pursue these rumors in earnest and soon became convinced that we were right. The information coming in from my various sources was alarming and Dumbledore began to take steps to prepare for a resurgence by Voldemort and his supporters. Then in early 1991, a name finally reached me, not of the evil itself, but a name that would become increasingly associated with it: Nicholas Flamel.
"The danger was obvious and by early summer, Dumbledore, had contacted Flamel and arranged to take custody of the fabled Philosopher's Stone. Shortly afterwards, the rumors of what I'd come to think of as Voldemort stopped only to start up again in Britain. Of course, you know what happened after that."
"So if you've been managing Dumbledore's network abroad all this time, why are you at Hogwarts?"
Ryan shrugged. "Dumbledore needed a Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. I gather he's been having a hard time finding a competent one the last few years and decided that you couldn't afford another year of mediocrity.
"He also needed someone to watch Snape's back. With Draco Malfoy and his gang snooping about, Dumbledore felt that an extra pair of eyes and ears here at Hogwarts couldn't hurt. Plus, I was able to insinuate certain things that helped to maintain Snape's cover. That became critical once your loyalties started shifting so obviously in his favor."
"I wasn't that obvious," Harry said defensively.
Ryan chuckled. "You looked ready to curse your own housemates once or twice for insulting the man, Potter. I wouldn't call that subtle. Fortunately, Mr. Malfoy and his friends aren't as observant as I am."
"So then, it was all just an act?" Harry asked incredulously.
Ryan flashed his most wolfish grin. "Put on a grand show, didn't I?"
"And Professor Snape was in on it?"
"Merlin, no!" Ryan looked horrified at the suggestion. "That would have taken all the fun out of it!"
"Fun?" Harry asked in disbelief. "He was practically ready to kill you!"
"I know," Ryan said happily. "Baiting Severus Snape isn't difficult, but it is satisfying."
Harry was at a loss for words, but Ryan didn't seem to notice.
"Which brings us to the second reason I've been so merciless to your Potions Master all year," Ryan continued as he shut and locked his trunk. "A man can become complacent. He stops trying because he thinks he doesn't need to any more. It doesn't hurt to give him a kick in the pants. A sense of entitlement is a dangerous thing, Potter. That's what I've always liked about you. You don't have one. You could sit back and rest on your fame, but you don't. You never take anything for granted."
Harry was taken aback by the praise, all the more so because he'd clearly misjudged Ryan.
"Professor, listen, I…"
"Don't apologize, Potter. I was trying to antagonize Snape. It's only right that you took offense." Ryan grinned and winked at Harry. "In fact, I'd have been disappointed if you hadn't."
"So, why are you leaving?"
"Snape has his hands full. He doesn't need me hanging about. Besides, I've accomplished what I set out to do here and I'm needed back on the continent. It's been good to be home, but I'm used to life abroad and I like the mystery of not knowing where I may wake up next week. It keeps me on my toes."
Harry nodded solemnly then held out his hand. "Good luck, Professor. I've learnt a lot from you."
Ryan took Harry's hand in a firm grip and smiled the warm, jovial smile that had endeared him to students and teachers alike. "I hope it'll be enough."
"It will be," Harry assured him.
Harry left Ryan's office and headed for Gryffindor Tower. He found Ron in their dormitory, lying on his bed and staring at the ceiling with a melancholy expression.
"I went to see Ryan," Harry said without preamble.
"You did? Why?" Ron asked, glancing at Harry in surprise.
"I wanted to know if you were right, if I'd judged him unfairly."
Ron sat up and regarded Harry defensively. "And?"
"You were right." Harry admitted. "He's an Auror plus he's been a member of the Order for twenty years."
"What?" Ron asked, his eyes widening in shock.
Harry sat down on his own bed and proceeded to repeat everything Ryan had told him.
"So you mean he was actually trying to help Snape?" Ron asked in disbelief.
"Yes. Look Ron, I'm sorry I acted like a prat."
"Forget about it, Harry, I was a bit of a prat too. Besides, I suppose in a way we were both right about Ryan. He certainly wasn't what he seemed. I only hope that we get someone decent for Defense next year."
The last day of the school year finally arrived. Trunks were packed and the students gathered in the entrance hall and out on the lawn to await the Thestral-drawn carriages that would take them to the Hogwarts Express. Harry, Ginny and Hermione came downstairs together and spotted Ron talking with Walter Sutton and Jeremy Banks. Ron handed them a package and the two Slytherins grinned delightedly then disappeared into the throng of students.
"What was that?" Ginny asked as she, Harry and Hermione walked up to Ron.
"What was what?"
"That parcel you just gave to Jeremy and Walter."
"Oh that." Ron shook his head dismissively. "It was nothing."
Ginny folded her arms and cocked an eyebrow at her brother.
Ron rolled his eyes in exasperation. "It was just some of Fred and George's latest inventions. You know how they're always looking for someone to test their new products." He jerked his head in the direction Jeremy and Walter had gone. "Those two are mad enough to do it."
"You mean you're actually associating with Slytherins?" Ginny asked in mock surprise.
"Not all Slytherins are Death Eaters," Ron said.
Ginny opened her mouth but didn't get the chance to reply.
Harry turned to see Snape striding towards him.
"Here," Snape said thrusting a sheet of parchment at him. "Since your performance in my class has been less than stellar this year, you'll need to catch up over the summer if you plan to be in Potions next term."
Harry took the parchment and glanced at it. It appeared to be a lengthy syllabus of work to be completed over the summer.
"I have to do all of this?" Harry asked, dismayed.
"Yes, Potter, in addition to the regular course work that I expect you to actually complete this summer. And I suggest you give it more diligence than you usually accord your studies if you seriously plan to sit your NEWT."
"Professor, I'll never be able to finish all of this!" Harry said, hopelessly as he scanned down the page.
"If you can't manage the work, then I suggest you consider a different career."
Harry scowled at Snape. "You can't honestly expect me to brew all these potions! They're too advanced. I'd wind up blowing up the house."
"It would probably be an improvement, if you did," Snape said sourly. "However, since we'll be sharing the same domicile for the summer, I'll make certain that you don't."
Snape started to turn away, but Harry grabbed his arm.
Snape smirked at the horrified look on Harry's face. "Didn't anyone tell you? Since every Death Eater in Britain is out for my blood, my usual summer plans have had to be cancelled. And with virtually everyone else away from school, the headmaster felt it wouldn't be prudent for me to stay at Hogwarts alone all summer, either. Therefore, I will be joining you at Lupin's. It seems to be the place for lost souls. Study your first lesson this weekend and we'll begin on Monday."
Snape turned and stalked away across the entrance hall, the sea of students parting before him. Harry watched him disappear into the dungeons taking Harry's hopes for a perfect summer with him.
"Are you sure you can't go stay with your aunt and uncle?" Ron asked.
The train ride to London was subdued. Ron, Hermione and Ginny tried to cheer Harry up, with only partial success. Harry kept glumly reviewing the syllabus Snape had given him and no matter how he looked at it, he was certain it was going to take the whole summer to complete.
At last the Hogwarts Express pulled into Kings Cross station and the students poured out. Remus and Arthur Weasley were waiting for them.
"Harry, how are you doing?" Remus asked heartily, smiling as Harry and the others approached.
Harry stared back sullenly. "Snape's spending the summer," he said accusingly and Remus's smile faltered.
"Ah, yes, so he told you, did he?"
"Remus, why?" Harry lamented. "There's got to be somewhere else he could go!"
Remus frowned. "I thought you two were getting on better these days."
"We are, but that doesn't mean that I want him breathing down my neck all summer."
"Harry it's not going to be that bad," Remus said soothingly.
"You haven't seen the list of homework he gave me. I'll be lucky to have a free moment before school starts. Not that I'd be likely to have any fun if I did. Snape doesn't even know how to have fun and I know he doesn't think anyone else should have any. With him prowling about, the whole summer's going to be miserable!"
Remus's expression was sympathetic, but his voice was firm. "Harry, which would you prefer, having Snape spend the summer at Grimmauld Place, or having Voldemort catch up with him?"
That stopped Harry. "Well, it's not as though I've never had a miserable summer before," he said resignedly.
"Don't worry, Harry," Hermione said, giving him a hug and a kiss on the cheek. "I'll be coming to stay before too long.
"Ginny and I will be along too, Harry," Ron said, clapping Harry on the shoulder in commiseration. "We wouldn't leave you alone to suffer with Snape all summer."
"I'm sure we can sneak away and have a little fun," Ginny said, her brown eyes dancing mischievously. She gave him a quick, chaste kiss on the cheek, which nevertheless left Harry blushing.
Ron rolled his eyes, "Come on," he told Ginny. "Harry, we'll see you soon, mate."
Harry waved goodbye to his friends and let his gaze linger on Ginny as she, Ron and Hermione headed out of the station with Mr. Weasley. Number twelve, Grimmauld Place was a big house, Harry knew, and surely Snape would have better things to do than watch him every minute. He and his friends would find a way to slip away from the Potions Master's prying eyes at least some of the time. Harry smiled to himself. Maybe summer wasn't going to be so bad after all.
Remus clapped a hand on Harry's shoulder. "Ready, Harry?"
"Yeah, I'm ready." Harry smiled and picked up his trunk, then he and Remus left the station side by side and headed home.
A/N - Thanks for reading! If you have enjoyed this story, then I invite you to read the sequel, Harry Potter and the Chained Souls. - Theo