For the next two days, Harry returned to the lakeside every chance he got, but he never saw the pale woman return to the lakeside. He never told anyone else about the strange sight for fear that they would think he'd gone mad. Even Harry had to admit that the story wouldn't make sense if he spoke it aloud. But the memory of her unearthly beauty brought him back again and again for the hope of another glimpse. Finally Ron and Hermione threatened to follow him if he tried disappearing on his own again. He grumbled, but acquiesced.
The three of them kept up their nightly conspiring until the Common Room fireplace burned down to embers. But without any new information, the sessions usually deviated into Harry and Ron cajoling Hermione for the answers to their homework. They still didn't know how to break into the impenetrable goblin bank, nor did they find a miraculous index of wizards with the initials RAB.
Molly avoided the Gryffindors' table in the Great Hall after that first encounter. Whispers were already circulating the school about the new girl's abysmal wand-work. American wizards, it seemed, couldn't handle their wands, a fact that even Harry's house found hilarious.
Harry didn't join in their laughter, but he didn't leap to Dresden's or Molly's defense either. The other rumor spreading was that Harry had spent time with their Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher in the summer, and the rest of the student body debated whether that made Harry a teacher's pet or the first unfortunate casualty of their DADA education.
Some of that sniggering ended, however, right at the start of their next Double Potions. Slughorn invited Molly to the front of the class to demonstrate her brew, producing a cubic meter of solid stone with his wand. A single drop of the bush potion cracked the block in half, and Slughorn levitated it so everyone could see the pinhole that had been burned all the way through it.
Harry heard a few halfhearted claims of cheating, but everyone already knew it wasn't true; they had all seen Molly's mundane ingredients, and Slughorn himself had kept her brew in his classroom overnight. Molly won thirty points for her house, and no one ever mocked bush potions again.
They spent the rest of that class talking about additives to the Liquid Fire potion that could adapt it to different uses; melting only specific materials, or reducing its heat to extend its effect for a longer burn. The lesson lacked the razzle-dazzle of working with dragon's breath , but it was interesting enough. Harry took notes with a small point of pride in knowing that, after six years, he was finally beginning to understand potion-making. The key had been having a teacher who wasn't a slimy, loathsome git of a murderer.
After the class, Harry packed up his scrolls. He heard Neville say behind him, "For the first time in years, I'm actually excited for Defense Against the Dark Arts."
"I must be mental for saying so, but I might be too," Ron admitted. He threw Hermione a teasing look and added, "I suppose you've already read everything written on the subject of mental constructions and energy and all that nonsense."
Hermione beamed excitedly. "I couldn't find anything in the regular collections about Professor Dresden's lessons. He's teaching us something I could never learn from books alone!"
She and Ron started out the door. Neville trailed after them, hovering at the edge of the conversation while Ron laughed. "And here I thought the very idea of learning without books would drive you batty."
Bundling up the last of his things, Harry hurried after them. He had just stepped out the door when a wall of black robes stepped in front of him. Harry bounced off of a green and silver Slytherin tie as the bulk of Crabbe and Goyle herded him back against the corridor wall.
"Your girlfriend is a right freak with a cauldron, Potter," Crabbe said.
Harry's friends were at the stairs when they saw him cornered. All three of them turned back, starting to speak, when four Sixth-year Slytherins announced themselves on the steps above them. All four boys had their wands drawn, forcing Ron and Hermione to lower their hands from their robes' pockets.
Scowling, Harry retorted, "I don't have a girlfriend. Maybe you should keep up on castle gossip before you start spreading new rumors."
"Right. Because it's always all about you, innit?" Goyle sneered.
"Ickle Potter the celebrity," jeered Crabbe.
Harry felt hot anger climbing up his neck, anger that doubled when he saw the other Slytherins surrounding his friends. They were all too old to put up with schoolboy bullying, and Harry had far more important things to worry about than the Slytherins' dislike of him. "Why don't you go find Malfoy and bark at him a while? Doesn't he get cross when you two break your leads?" he snapped.
Crabbe and Goyle loomed larger than ever, their faces turning red at the mention of Malfoy's name. "You shut your mudblood-loving mouth," hissed Goyle. Two wands appeared, pressing toward Harry's throat. Suddenly the distance between Harry's hand and his wand felt like leagues.
Keeping his face stern, Harry said, "If you're looking for a duel, just tell me when and where. And if Malfoy wants a duel, even better."
Crabbe's hand slammed Harry back into the wall, knocking the wind out of him. The back of his head struck the stone, throwing stars into his eyes. When Goyle joined in, the enormous boys pinned him to the wall hard enough to lift Harry off his feet.
"We're not looking to duel, Potter," Goyle grunted.
As Harry's head throbbed, he felt his stomach drop with the realization that they were indeed too old for schoolboy bullying. Crabbe and Goyle hated him as fiercely as anyone, save perhaps Voldemort, ever had. They wanted him dead, and they weren't interested in fair ways of going about that grisly task.
"What seems to be the issue here?"
Snape's voice made the Slytherin duo jump backwards. The other Slytherins backed away from Harry's friends, who parted to make room for the hook-nosed professor to descend the stairs. His black robes swishing with his ponderous steps, Snape brushed past the Gryffindors to stand before Crabbe and Goyle, who tucked their wands behind their backs.
Dark brows creased at the sight of the two hulking students. "And what business might two upstanding Slytherins have with Mister Potter?" Snape asked.
"We were just asking Potter something, is all," grunted Crabbe.
Snape glanced from one to the other, and then fixed Harry with a disinterested look. "I find that hard to believe. The mind boggles at the very notion learning anything of use from Potter."
Harry glared, but bit his tongue.
"I suggest you all proceed to your next class," Snape said loudly, making it sound like anything but a suggestion.
The Slytherins jumped at once at their former house head's command. The Sixth-years shuffled up the stairs, returning Ron's sneer with rude gestures once they were certain Snape's head was turned. As Crabbe and Goyle left, they threw murderous looks at Harry that made him shiver.
Ron, Hermione, and Neville started down the stairs to help Harry when Snape's voice stopped them in mid-step. "I believe Gryffindor students also have classes to get to," he told them.
For a moment, Ron looked like he might protest. Harry gave a subtle shake of his head, trying to warn his friends away. Their new headmaster doubtlessly couldn't wait to drop the full weight of his authority on his least favorite students. Besides, the pompous fool might have just saved their lives. What did Harry care if Snape blew a little hot air?
But Harry's opinion quickly changed when Snape stuck out an arm to stop him from following his friends. "A moment, Potter, if you please," said Snape.
Harry gritted his teeth and leaned back against the wall, helpless to follow his friends as they reluctantly left. Soon it was just Harry and Snape standing outside of the dungeon. The distant sound of bustling trickled down the stairs as students hurried to their next classes.
Seconds turned into minutes as Snape stood before him. The oily Death Eater said nothing, but made no move to leave. Harry knew better than to try and ask the reason for their impromptu meeting, but he could feel the anger creeping up his face again as he matched Snape silence for silence, staring back at the man as hard as he could. Pressure began to mount between them, a sensation that reminded Harry of their abortive Occlumency lessons.
At last Snape drew a pocket watch and checked its face. "I believe you are now late to your next class, Potter. Detention with me, tonight. Perhaps that will help convince you not to dawdle in the halls. It seems to have caused quite a bit of grief as of late."
Harry felt something pressing into his hand. He suddenly realized he had reached into his pocket to grasp his wand. His whole arm shook with the effort of keeping himself from drawing on Snape then and there.
"Anything to say, Potter?" Snape asked.
It took Harry a long moment to force the word up his clenched throat. "Nothing," he growled.
Dark eyes glimmering, Snape said, "Nothing, 'Headmaster.' "
"Headmaster," Harry echoed, his voice slipping out through clenched molars.
Snape had never looked more pleased. He left in a swirl of robes, sparing only a brief glance over his shoulder to say, "Ten o'clock, tonight. Be off to class." Then he slithered into Slughorn's classroom, doubtless to spread more misery in there.
Two near duels in as many minutes had made Harry's heart into a frustrated tempest. It hammered in his ears while he forced himself to climb the stairs.
A whorl of colors sung from lanterns and chandeliers behind him as he walked the empty corridors to class. He heard Peeves' laughter before he spotted the repugnant little imp, who laughed at him all the way to class, pausing only long enough to sing.
Oh Potter, it's hotter than ever before!
You're late once again to settle the score!
How can you hope to save all that's at stake?
When you're already trapped in the guts of a snake?
The stun charm Harry snapped at him burst harmlessly against the ceiling as Peeves whizzed behind a tapestry to avoid it. The poltergeist's laughter followed him into the classroom, adding insult to his pride's injury.
Dresden's board already swam with new equations, and his chalk was poised to add even more as Harry entered. The tall wizard made some joke about his tardiness that Harry was too furious to hear as he took his seat between his friends and began trying to catch up with parchment and quill.
Like before, Dresden lectured for a while, and then broke the class into individual exercises with leaves. Even wandless, the Gryffindors found the spell easier to manage this time. Dresden's suggestion of making their mental constructs resemble a wand were helping immensely, judging by the number of leaves flying across the room.
"That's bullocks!" Ron hissed after Harry finished recounting his run-in with Snape in whispers. "He can't do that!"
Harry still used his memory of the antelope to guide his spell, but he found it easier when he imagined himself grasping the memory and rolling it into the shape of a wand. His hand flicked with an irritated gust of air, tossing the leaf from his desk. Then he repeated the incantation and managed to return the leaf to the table with a second gust.
"Of course he can," Harry groused. "Snape was already a prig when he was the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. Giving him more power could only make him a bigger prig."
Ron hadn't managed to catch his leaf in midair yet, but he also hadn't given himself a nosebleed or thrown their table across the room. "McGonagall won't stand for this. If Snape starts terrorizing her house, she'll come down on him like a giant off a broken Quiddich broom."
The image made Harry smirk for a moment. "Not Gryffindors. Just me. And I'm not exactly McGonagall's prized student at the moment," he said. "Besides, she doesn't have nearly the clout she did when Dumbledore was here."
"Could you both please save your gossip for the common room?" Hermione grumbled at them. "Some of us are trying to learn."
Her leaf sat unperturbed atop her book. It had sat there throughout the exercise without the slightest bit of attention paid to her spellcraft. Dresden had given her a few words of advice, and she had kept her notes splayed in front of her, but no amount of effort or rereading seemed to be able to move her leaf.
Ron made a grand production of looking around the room. Nearly everyone in their class had mastered the wind charm. Even those that were struggling had at least managed to move some amount of air. Only Hermione's leaf refused to move at all.
She gave Ron a testy look. "Oh, very funny. It's a completely new technique. Of course it's going to take some time to work out the particulars."
"Would you like some help?" Ron asked. As her expression curdled, he grinned, and said, "Oh, come on! This is the first time I've ever done better than you in anything. What's the harm in letting me help and letting me enjoy myself a bit?"
Hermione's face hardened into a wall of ice. She didn't speak to Ron for the rest of the day.
When the time came for Harry's detention, he almost felt relieved. The glacier sitting between Ron and Hermione had become unbearable, and any excuse to leave seemed like a good one. But with every step he took toward Snape's office, he missed their silence more and more.
Snape waited for him outside the office doors. Another student waited behind him, someone taller than Harry by several inches whose long blond hair hid her face. Harry couldn't see her house colors or her face, and wondered who else had earned Snape's ire that day.
A shade of a smile crossed Snape's features. "Good to see you've discovered a new inner reserve of punctuality, Potter. Follow me," he said.
As Harry fell into step behind Snape, he stole a glance at the other student walking beside him. An electric shock hit his stomach as he exclaimed, "Molly?"
Molly glanced sidelong at him, brushing the long hair from her face with an annoyed gesture. "Hey, Goggles," she mumbled.
Harry hadn't recognized her. The bubblegum pink and snow white was gone from her hair, replaced with the color of soft gold, and it had been grown overnight from shoulder-length to now hang down at the small of her back. As she pushed the hair from her face, Harry thought she looked sickly. He had to stare a moment more before he realized she wasn't wearing her customary makeup.
He kept his questions bottled up as Snape led them through the castle with a illuminated wand. They twisted and turned through the dark halls with only the echo of their footsteps for company. At last they came upon a room glowing with lantern light. It was Hogwart's Trophy Room.
"Because you both seem to have little esteem for your instructors or your school, you will spend time contemplating new examples of scholarly excellence to which you might aspire as you polish the school's awards." With a wave of his wand, Snape produced two old rags that smelled faintly of mop water. "And since neither of you seem to value your magic education, you will do so as would a Muggle."
"What?" Harry snapped as he took the rag. "The whole room?"
Snape's dark eyes met his. That same pressure he had felt earlier returned, stronger than ever as Snape told him, "You will clean until I return. And if I find your efforts lacking, you will clean again tomorrow night and every night thereafter until I am satisfied you both understand the privilege of attending this school."
And with that, he broke from Harry's gaze. The pressure vanished as Harry watched him stride from the room, but hot embers of rage still burned deep in Harry's chest.
Steadying himself with a breath, Harry took his rag to the nearest wall and began wiping at a row of plaques. Each plaque commemorated a notable alumnus of Hogwarts who had gone on to do great things and, more than likely, donated a large sum of galleons to the school.
Molly moved to the other side of the room and worked at a collection of pictures. Trying to sound casual, Harry asked, "So what did you do to earn this 'privilege?' "
"Evidently I was a little too sassy when he tried to stop me in the hall for having an unknotted tie," she grumped. "We had differing opinions about what an appropriate appearance might be for a witch."
Harry snorted, imagining Molly trying to argue for wearing her T-shirt and cutoff jeans instead of her school uniform. The expression on imaginary Snape's face made him smile. "That must have been quite a disagreement."
"The word 'pompous' might have come up," she admitted, and then added, "loudly."
He couldn't help but laugh aloud. But when he glanced back, he saw Molly ducking her head behind a curtain of her transfigured hair, and his smile faded. "Is that what happened to your hair?" he asked.
"And my makeup," she groused. "It was gone from my room when I got back. He said my appearance and my wand-work was an embarrassment to the school." She began mimicking Snape's basso monotone, pinching her nose as she said, "If you wish to make a mockery of your hair, you will learn to do so with magic."
It took polyjuice potion to affect any real changes to a wizard's appearance, but the charms to change one's hair were relatively simple. Madam Pomfrey had taught them to Seamus in his third year after she grew tired of regrowing his eyebrows for him. Harry had seen them used, but he had never bothered to learn them himself. His hair had always been a long, shaggy, minor annoyance that he had learned to live with in his time with the Dursleys. Certainly Vernon and Petunia never took him to a salon like they did Dudley, and the couple of times Petunia had taken a pair of shears to his head had been a nightmare.
From the sound of her tone, though, Harry guessed she hadn't managed those charms yet. She was still new to wands, as new as Harry was to wandless magic. "Sorry," he said lamely.
"Yeah," grunted Molly.
After biting his lip, Harry added, "And, um, I'm sorry about what happened the other day at breakfast."
"Yeah, whatever," she grunted again.
Her eyes flashed angrily in reflection off of a picture. Harry lowered his rag from another self-congratulatory plaque as he turned and said, "I really am. It's not your fault you didn't know how the Houses work."
She looked back, her expression venomous. "Oh, it's not my fault. How generous of you. But are you sure it's okay if you talk to me now? I know Griffons and Snakes aren't supposed to talk to each other, and I don't want you getting in any more trouble."
He grimaced. "I'm not worried about getting in trouble, obviously," he said, gesturing with his rag. "And sitting with other Houses isn't against any rules. It's just... It isn't done," he said.
"So you don't have any friends that aren't Gryffindors?" she demanded.
His mind flashed to Luna Lovegood and her dreamlike smile. "I do," he said. "But Slytherins and Gryffindors are different."
Molly rolled her eyes. She picked a shelf of trophies even farther away from Harry and started slapping her rag at them. "Yeah, I've heard all about Gryffindors this week," she said.
He scowled. "And what does that mean?"
This time her voice was low-pitched and gruff. Harry thought she might be imitating Crabbe or Goyle. "Don't let those Gryffindors walk all over you. They already swagger about like they're kings of the bloody school."
"I don't think I'm king of anything!" Harry spat. "Slytherins are the ones who'll run the whole bloody world if we let them!"
She scoffed. "Yeah, I noticed that too. Your bunch are the jocks, and my House is the rich snobs. They're all assholes."
"Then why are you mad at me?" he insisted.
Molly whirled on him, flinging down her rag as she snapped, "Because I thought we were friends!"
The accusation stole the tongue right out of his head. He stammered for a minute, trying to come up with a response. "We are friends," he said at last, uncertainly. "But you're..."
He couldn't bring himself to finish, so Molly said it for him. "But I'm a Slytherin."
"I didn't mean it like that," he muttered into his chest.
"You didn't have to," she sneered. Her arms crossed under her chest as she glanced away. Hints of pink colored her cheeks. "It's not like I came here with all kinds of expectations. I was just goofing around in the tree house, y'know."
Harry's innards flipped. He tried to think of something to say, but memory of soft lips pressing against his drowned out any other thoughts.
Her brows creased, and her blush worsened. "But I thought we were friends. I thought that, even if it does suck moving half a world away to a place where even kindergarteners know more about magic than I do, at least I would have one friend." She hugged herself tighter, her eyes burning a furious hole through the floor, as she said, "Except now some magic hat decides I'm an Alpha Beta, and my one friend has to pretend I don't exist or the other Tri-Lams won't like him anymore."
Why did so little of what Molly said make sense to him? "I know you exist," Harry said. "And I am your friend. But the wizards and witches sorted into Slytherin..."
Her eyes snapped up to his. Tension bunched in her jaw as she said, "What about Slytherins?"
That intense pressure he had felt a moment ago with Snape filled his head again, growing until it felt like his eyes would burst out the back of his head. His clenched fists trembled as he spoke the truth he hadn't wanted to admit since Molly had been sorted.
"There wasn't a single Death Eater alive who didn't start in Slytherin," he said.
A chill ran up Harry's spine as he felt her blue eyes turning to ice. "So now I'm a warlock?" she said flatly. "Death Eater by association?"
His mouth tightened. "The hat doesn't choose for you, Molly. Not completely. It picks the house you know you belong in."
For a moment Harry thought he saw tears blinking in her eyes. It was hard to be sure in the soft lantern light.
"Fuck you, Harry," she spat. She snatched her rag from the floor and stormed to the far side of the room. The pressure in his head eased into sullen misery.
Harry wished he could have lied. He wished the truth weren't so horrible. But the Sorting Hat, and Dumbledore, had told him long ago that students in Hogwarts had more to say about their sorting than any of them imagined. His guilt and anger writhed together in the pit of his stomach, threatening to erupt in a spray of bile the longer he stared after her. So he hid himself behind a shelf of Quidditch Cups and began to polish them furiously.
By the third cup, Harry had decided that he didn't have any reason to feel guilty. Maybe he and Molly had gotten along well over the summer, but things were different at Hogwarts. And as much as he liked her, he knew he couldn't trust a Slytherin. Not anymore. Crabbe and Goyle had taught him that hard lesson in the corridor. The old House rivalries had grown deadly, which meant that whatever feelings he probably, definitely, didn't have for Molly anymore didn't matter.
And by the tenth cup, he almost believed himself.
As he reached for the next cup, he saw a snake embossed upon its front. The sight sent a spike of rage up his arm, and he swept the cup aside with a snarl. It clattered to the floor, disappearing beneath the bottom shelf.
For a fleeting moment, Harry considered leaving it where it lay, and the thought gave him a poisonous smile. Then he thought of how thorough Snape would be with his inspection of the room, and who would get the blame for even a speck out of place in the room. Sighing, he stooped and dug the cup out from under the shelf.
When he pulled it out and dusted it, he saw letters glinting on the back. The names of seven former Slytherin Quidditch champions gleamed in the lantern light. Harry's eye naturally fell across the name of their Seeker. When he recognized the name, he read it again more carefully.
Regulus Arcturus Black, Seeker
Black. His godfather's family. Harry's mind wandered, drifting back to another time when he had felt imprisoned and helpless, when the Order had seen fit to keep him under wraps in the detestable Black family home. The family tree in the hallway, with its scorched names and its places of honor, flooded back to Harry, along with a fresh threat of tears as he remembered Sirius talking of his family.
"From what I found out after he died, he got in so far, then panicked about what he was being asked to do and tried to back out." Sirius's voice echoed in his memory. "Well, you don't just hand in your resignation to Voldemort. It's a lifetime of service or death."
Regulus Arcturus Black.
I know I will be dead long before you read this but I want you to know that it was I who discovered your secret. I have stolen the real Horcrux and intend to destroy it as soon as I can.
The new words rang in Harry's mind. They were the boasts of whoever had stolen Voldemort's locket and left the fake in its place. The mysterious R.A.B.
I face death in the hope that when you meet your match, you will be mortal once more.
Regulus Arcturus Black.
Harry gasped as the Quidditch cup tumbled from his hands.