Disclaimer: I am not JKR, ergo Harry Potter is not mine.

A/N: Many thanks to my wonderful beta Gwendolyn, who's still with me and the story after all this time. And to Voice of the Nephilim for helpful discussions.

VI.

Harry felt glances on him as soon as he stepped into the ballroom, dressed for the evening and a smile plastered on his face.

"Ah, our very own Mr. Potter," Minister for Magic Rufus Scrimgeour said, coming towards Harry with all the appearance of a doting uncle who'd spotted his favourite nephew.

"Minister," Harry acknowledged, shaking hands and accepting a pat on his shoulder. "It is good to see you again, sir. How are you this evening?"

"Excellent, simply capital," Scrimgeour said. "And what of you, Harry? I hear your Apparition lessons are going well."

"Oh yes," Harry said. "I'm very grateful for the opportunity to learn, Minister."

Witnessing their exchange, hardly anyone could have guessed that they had spent the hour leading up to the gala in the Minister's office, working out Harry's next inspirational speech to the populace.

Harry didn't know about the populace, but he was getting progressively less inspired.

"Well, I'm glad you could make it tonight, Harry," Scrimgeour said. "Do enjoy yourself—and go easy on the punch, hmm!"

"Of course, sir," Harry said, and drifted further into the room.

The ballroom, filled to the brim with the rich, the pureblooded and the otherwise distinguished, bathed in the light of twenty brilliant crystal chandeliers. They were doing a bit of a waltz on the ceiling, gliding gently in rhythm with the music. The patterned parquet floors sparkled—spellwork or house-elves, Harry wondered—and fragrant flowers decorated the entire room.

Some couples swirled on the dance floor, their feet in perfect synch for the formal dance, but most people mingled. This was, after all, more about politics and talking with the right people than about fun.

Unless you were the Boy-Who-Lived, and then it was mostly about putting in an appearance.

However, Harry did have another objective in mind tonight, and he glanced around subtly in search of his target as he made his way through the crowd, smiling and shaking hands with the people he knew.

"So nice to see you—"

"Feels like it's been too long—"

"Do pass my greetings—"

Harry gave out yet another smile and turned, snatching a glass of punch from a floating tray.

"Oh hello, Harry, dear chap," Lockhart said, materializing by his elbow.

Harry nearly spilled the alcohol. Lockhart was looking as glamorous as always, his robes in a daring shade of turquoise and his smile still aimed to kill.

He insisted that Harry call him Gilderoy, as he did at their every meeting, and responded readily when Harry asked about his latest heroic adventures.

("I would, of course, challenge You-Know-Who to a duel to the death—but don't worry, Harry, I won't go stealing your thunder!")

All through Lockhart's monologue, Harry had been surreptitiously glancing around the room. Finally, he saw her: Amelia Bones, currently talking to Ludo Bagman.

Harry had only just made his escape from Lockhart when a tall man in dark robes stepped into his path.

"Ah, Mr. Potter," Ezekius Yaxley said in a silky voice. "Such a pleasure to see you again."

Harry stopped, feeling a sort of resignation settle over him.

"Mr. Yaxley," he acknowledged. "Likewise."

Thoughts of the impending conversation with Amelia Bones would have to wait; Harry could not afford to be distracted for this.

"You remember my daughter, of course." Yaxley gestured to a tall young woman on his arm.

Oh, Harry remembered.

He gave a heartfelt smile to the former Slytherin queen bee who had turned her nose up at him for his first four years at Hogwarts.

"Lovely to see you again," he told Lavinia.

"The pleasure is all mine."

Her eyes were pure frost as she looked at him, and Harry wondered detachedly whether she'd followed in daddy's footsteps and joined the Death Eater corps.

She'd certainly always been uptight about blood purity and easy on violence.

Perhaps these days, she was drilling Death Eater basics into Edward Montague, Miles Bletchley and Adrian Pucey—the likely new recruits.

It was that thought, rather than Lavinia's glare, that made Harry turn away.

"I hope you are doing well, Mr. Yaxley," he said politely.

How's your body count this week? Your organization's latest raid—the one in Hertfordshire—was a little heavy on the Cruciatus, if you don't mind me saying.

Yaxley gave a satisfied nod.

"Oh yes, I would say things are going very well, wouldn't you, Lavinia? It's a pity you had to turn down the invitation to Lavinia's engagement party, Mr. Potter—it was quite the event, I assure you."

As Yaxley talked, Harry felt a brush of Legilimency against his mind. He hoped he maintained a politely interested expression through the effort it took him to fill his head with meanings musings on the amount of alcohol in the punch. For good measure, he threw in the memories of Lavinia in the Slytherin common room.

"… don't you agree, Mr. Potter?"

Harry felt his heart speed up. He had no clue in hell what Yaxley was talking about.

Occlumency was difficult, damn it. He could hardly focus on not letting Yaxley reach into his deepest secrets and dodge verbal traps at the same time.

"I—Mr. Yaxley," Harry said with determination, "forgive me for changing the topic so abruptly, but I just couldn't help wondering—" Harry willed himself to come up with something, anything. "—does… what do you think of the rumours that werewolves have joined the Dark Lord's side?"

Yaxley's gaze became abruptly sharp. It was a risky gamble, of course, bringing up the war, but then Harry was the Boy-Who-Lived. He could afford to seem curious.

Harry just hoped that Yaxley's attention would be on Harry's insolence in asking the question, rather than the unanswered inquiry of his own. If he were to suspect Harry of trying to employ Occlumency against him—

Well. The entire point of Occlumency was to appear artlessly innocent while not giving up any secrets. Letting people know that you were Occluding and hiding something was kind of contrary to that goal.

Besides, it might make Yaxley try harder.

"There are many rumours, Mr. Potter," Yaxley said, watching Harry closely. "One would be foolish to believe them all."

Again that gentle brush of Legilimency when Harry raised his eyes for a moment, and Harry tightened his hold on the glass of punch.

Once more, he was cluttering his mind with images.

Werewolves—scary werewolves in Harry's textbook—random pages in the Daily Prophet

"Of course, Mr. Yaxley," Harry forced out meanwhile. "I just wondered what you thought of that rumour."

He broke the brief eye contact to incline his head, as if paying due to Yaxley's superior judgement on rumours.

He really needed to master Occlumency better before he could do this high-stakes shit.

To justify not meeting Yaxley's eyes again, Harry looked into his glass of punch and took a sip.

Alcohol on one side, Death Eaters on another—that's how Harry liked to spend his evenings.

"They do say that the Dark Lord is recruiting among creatures," Yaxley noted. "Who knows what progress he's making?"

"Who, indeed?" Harry echoed, looking around the room.

He was startled to see that the very object of his earlier thoughts was on her way towards him and the Yaxleys. Amelia Bones did not look pleased as she took in Harry and his companions.

"Madam Bones," Yaxley acknowledged straight after Harry, inclining his head.

Lavinia, too, murmured a greeting.

"Yaxley," Madam Bones said. Her face reflected her distaste as she added: "I'll borrow Mr. Potter here, if you don't mind?"

"By all means," Yaxley said generously and nodded at Harry. "Enjoy your evening, Mr. Potter."

"You too, Mr. Yaxley, Miss Yaxley," Harry responded.

He and Amelia Bones watched in silence as the pair glided away into the crowd.

"Not a good company for you to keep, Mr. Potter," Madam Bones said briskly, then, turning to face Harry. "Besides everything else, he's dangerous."

Harry rubbed his scar, breathing relief at Yaxley's departure.

"I know, ma'am," Harry said. "He's… deathly."

Amelia Bones threw him a sharp glance.

"Are you sure of that, boy?"

"Yes," Harry said simply.

He'd told Scrimgeour this man was a Death Eater, but Scrimgeour had said he could not arrest Yaxley without conclusive proof. Otherwise there would be stink to the high heavens about infringing upon the rights of upstanding Purebloods.

And what proof did Harry have but his own word and that of Snape—who couldn't even speak out, being a spy and all?

Scrimgeour had agreed to try and curb the power of all the people that Harry had identified as Death Eaters. He'd also consented to keep an eye on them and not trust them. However, very few arrests had been made for lack of evidence.

This arrangement was like the Sirius Black situation all over again. That one had been concluded with no official pardon, but the manhunt called off; a study in compromise and careful balance.

"And his daughter?" Madam Bones inquired, snapping Harry back to the present.

He shook his head.

"I don't know," he said. "She's always had… tendencies, but that doesn't mean anything."

Madam Bones turned back to the crowd with a frown, perhaps trying to locate Lavinia.

Harry figured, though, now was the time. He cast a subtle privacy charm and faced the stern-looking woman.

"Madam Bones," he said. "I know—that you must be aware that I've written to Susan several times, asking her for a meeting at the Ministry."

Between the two places where they would be reasonably safe, the Ministry and the headquarters, the Ministry was the only real possibility.

"I also know," Harry continued, looking Amelia Bones straight in the eyes, "that you have been staunchly opposed to such meetings and so far have not permitted Susan to come. I would just like to ask—why."

Madam Bones surveyed him without betraying any emotion whatsoever.

"The moment Susan steps foot inside the Ministry, she will be seen in a political light. My niece, Mr. Potter, is only sixteen, and she has more than enough on her plate as it is. I will not see her drawn into political games."

"Yes," Harry said. "Of course. I understand that, ma'am. But I was not proposing—a public meeting, like this, or of any kind. No-one needs to know that she's here."

"And if anything goes wrong?" Madam Bones asked, voice hard. "If anyone gets a whiff of her presence? Would you see my niece exposed to more scrutiny, Mr. Potter?"

"No, of course not," Harry said at once.

Susan had been a front-page feature on wizarding publications far too many times this summer.

There'd been media articles tearing to shreds Susan's looks, the clothes she wore, and the way she spoke in interviews. There'd been candid shots of her going shopping, walking her dog, going to parties with friends. There'd been editorials speculating whether she'd snagged Harry Potter by the means of a love potion, whether she'd cheated on him with Ernie Macmillan, and whether Harry would dump her soon.

It was crazy, uncalled for and, what's worse, unstoppable.

Harry had never told her it would be like this, but he'd never thought it could get so bad. He'd imagined that some public reaction would follow the revelation of who he dated, but that it would turn into a nationwide sport to spot any blemish on Susan's face and post a photo of it in the Daily Prophet—that he could not have foreseen.

"The thing is, though, Madam Bones," Harry said, "right now, she's got to face all of this completely on her own, and I'm not even there to help her through it. I've—kind of—caused all of this, and it can't be helping that we haven't even seen each other in three weeks since school ended. If I could just—see her—"

He thought the expression on Amelia Bones's face softened a little.

"I understand, Mr. Potter. And you do seem to care for my niece—"

"I do."

"—but I cannot risk causing her more harm. We think things are bad now, when the media is hounding her. It is bad enough when she is seen as the mere love interest of the Boy-Who-Lived. Think, Mr. Potter, of how much worse things will be if she were to be seen as taking a stand in any realm outside of romance. When your political enemies become her political enemies."

Amelia Bones threw a pointed glance around—encompassing Ezekius Yaxley and his ilk, the scheming Purebloods, the Ministry functionaries.

"You, Mr. Potter, seem to be handling yourself well, despite your age," she continued, and her tone made it clear that he should not take it for a compliment. "But you cannot expect everyone to be up to the same challenges as you are."

Harry gritted his teeth.

"Has Susan said anything—"

"Susan is not sure what she wants. She never chose this. She chose you," Mrs. Bones acknowledged, "but she was not prepared for this kind of attention. She reviles it. It frightens her. I will not take her here, throw her to the wolves and see how she copes with more threats." There was steel in Amelia Bones's voice as she said this.

Harry wished he could argue the point, but he knew a lot of this to be true. From Susan's letters, Harry did know that she felt that her world had turned upside down and she was still learning to walk. She seemed to feel that events were spinning out of her control, which—well, they were.

Glancing at the floor, Harry wondered whether he was asking too much. Whether he was expecting Susan to rise to a challenge she was completely unprepared for, just because he could do it. Where was the line between believing in her and piling on expectations?

Still, none of this made him want to see her less. Hug her, dry her tears and tell her that everything would be fine, in the end.

"Is there anything I can do to make you change your mind about this, Madam?" Harry asked.

Amelia Bones was looking at Harry the way Professor McGonagall sometimes did—with a hint of compassion underneath the sternness.

"Stop being the Boy-Who-Lived," she said. "But you can't do that, can you?"

"No," Harry said.

"Unfortunately, in addition to being a boyfriend, you're a socio-political phenomenon," Madam Bones went on. "Any girl would have difficulties dealing with that. Susan is holding up well, considering, but she's not made of stone. Media hounding gets to her, you know."

"I know," Harry said tiredly. "I've tried to stop it, but it's bigger than me. Believe me, Madam Bones, if there was anything I could do to make it easier on her—"

"I believe you, Mr. Potter," Amelia Bones said, and the softness in her voice was ten times worse than her earlier brusqueness. "But there just isn't much you can do."

xXxXx

A week after the Ministry function, the Order convened for a meeting in the kitchen at Grimmauld Place. They gathered around the table, as always, and there was still a gap on Hestia Jones's right where Kingsley Shacklebolt used to sit.

Dumbledore was talking.

"I have reason to believe that Dementors are about to abandon Azkaban prison," he said. "It has not happened yet, but all signs are aligned in that direction."

Harry didn't raise his eyes to look around and see what effect these words had produced, but he noticed his neighbour Tonks lean forward in her chair.

For his part, Harry continued to fold his napkin. He folded one corner, then the other… then turned it around, unfolded again…

This was far from the first conversation on Dementors he'd had this week. What he'd really rather talk about was Horcruxes and any progress Dumbledore might be making with them. However, Dumbledore had been mum on the topic as of late.

"What about Scrimgeour?" Bill Weasley asked, meanwhile. "Can't he do something about the Dementors?"

Moody gave a derisive snort.

"The Minister seems determined to pretend that the danger is not real," Dumbledore answered. "It is as if he is actually unable to envisage the possibility of so great a failure."

"If Dementors abandon Azkaban," Tonks said, her voice betraying fear at the very thought, "they will most likely join V-voldemort. Surely, preventing this catastrophe is more important than—well—"

"—sticking to appearances? You'd think," Charlie Weasley agreed.

"I could be mistaken, naturally, in my assessment of the Minister's motivations," Dumbledore allowed.

A short pause descended.

"Mr. Potter?" Dedalus Diggle prodded. "Do you have any insights?"

Harry fought the urge to grimace as all faces turned to him. He put the napkin aside and reluctantly lifted his head.

"I wouldn't say Scrimgeour is ignoring the Dementor problem, exactly," Harry said. "He just doesn't see what he could do."

"What do you mean?" Black asked, frowning.

"He can't release the Dementors, because that would produce the same effect. He doesn't have the manpower to stand guard over them or to replace Dementors with Aurors," Harry listed. "Same goes for transporting the prisoners away from Azkaban. There's just not a lot of options." Harry shrugged. "Or that's what he says."

"So he figures, how about I stick my head in the sand and wait for the whole thing to blow over?" Charlie Weasley asked harshly.

Harry raised an eyebrow.

"Not like I know what he thinks. I just know what he says."

Dumbledore spread his hands in a peaceful gesture.

"Let us not get carried away, gentlemen. While Rufus Scrimgeour might have a wide array of reasons, it all stands to nothing as long as his actions remain the same. Or rather, I should say, his lack of action."

"Can we take it as given, then, that Azkaban will fall to Voldemort?" Lupin asked, pale.

"Without ourselves abandoning all other effort to concentrate on defending that fortress…" Dumbledore shook his head. "There is naught we can do, especially on our own, without the Ministry's help."

"Can't you talk to him, Harry?" Hestia Jones implored, turning towards Harry. She still looked exhausted from her Ministry battle injuries, her dark hair hanging limp and her skin nearly translucent. "Can't you talk to Scrimgeour, make him see sense?"

"Pinning all hopes on the boy, now?" Moody snapped.

Hestia flushed.

"He's the only one with a real link to the Minister, and he did listen about Sirius—kind of—"

I can talk to Scrimgeour about this until I'm blue in the face, Harry felt like saying. Haven't I just told you that I've already spoken to him?

Instead, he went for a tactful—

"If Professor Dumbledore cannot succeed at this task, I don't think I can."

Dumbledore gave Harry a look over his glasses that seemed to communicate amused appreciation.

"What can actually be done?" Emmeline Vance asked in a cool voice, cutting across the burgeoning swell of murmurs.

"We can endeavour to find out Voldemort's plans, so that we may alert Mr. Scrimgeour if we know that an attack is to take place," Dumbledore said with a glance directed Snape's way.

Snape hadn't yet uttered a word during the entire meeting, beyond the stifled greetings at the very start. He just sat at the table next to McGonagall and looked his usual sour self.

Harry hoped he appeared half as impassive as he lowered his eyes and returned to toying with the napkin.

It was hard to believe that, one year ago, he'd been doing his best to fight his way into these meetings. These days, most everyone took it quite for granted that he would attend—and not only that, but also report his share of information.

Harry never volunteered for the role, but he seemed to have become a sort of a double spy for Scrimgeour and the Order.

Scrimgeour trusted him over Dumbledore. That trust did not extend very far, but meant that the Minister expected Harry to bullshit him less and be less judgemental on matters that related to the war. He wasn't entirely wrong, either.

This made Harry closer to Scrimgeour than Dumbledore was, which meant that the Order turned to him for information on the Minister's frame of mind. This naturally came with a healthy doze of automatically shooting the messenger, but not nearly as much as Snape got for reporting the goings on in Voldemort's camp.

Harry could deal. Besides, using Harry's connection to the Ministry was probably the Order's way of coping with his perceived defection. Lemons, lemonade. That sort of thing.

The present meeting concluded with nothing decided beyond constant vigilance.

According to Snape, Voldemort was currently abroad, looking for something. However, he could return and mount an attack on Azkaban any day now.

According to Lupin, the werewolves would most likely side with Voldemort after all. A certain Fernir Greyback and his pack were already convinced and, as far as Lupin could tell, entertained themselves by attacking Muggle villages.

According to Emmeline Vance, unease persisted in the Pureblood circles. There was a pervading feeling among them that, this time around, both sides in the war would tolerate a lot fewer fence-sitters.

Harry tried to catch Dumbledore after the meeting to ask about Horcruxes, but Dumbledore disappeared before Harry could utter as much as sir.

"Busy man, Dumbledore," Hagrid said, patting Harry's shoulder in a way that was likely to dislocate it forever. "Don' yeh go worryin' 'bout it, now."

Harry smiled at the half-giant.

"I know. It wasn't really important. How are you, Hagrid?"

He didn't get to see much of the man these days. He hadn't got to see much of anyone for the past month, really, except Grimmauld Place regulars and Ministry personnel. Harry kept up communication with his friends through owl post, of course, but that hardly made up for being apart from them. At least he got to hang out with Cedric, since Cedric worked at the Ministry now.

An excellent career move, at least as Harry's sanity was concerned.

"I'm a dam' sight better now that Umbridge is gone," Hagrid said with feeling. "Hold on, Harry, there's Professor Snape goin'—meant to ask him 'bout some herbs for—oh yeh won' believe what we'll be studyin' next year—"

Hagrid hurried to intercept Snape, who seemed determined to leave, as always, before dinner.

Harry stared after Hagrid in consternation. It suddenly occurred to him that the amiable giant might be expecting him to take Care of Magical Creatures into NEWTs. And Harry was planning to do no such thing.

Blast-Ended Screwts at OWL level had been quite enough.

xXxXx

Sitting down at the breakfast table the next morning, Harry caught sight of the Daily Prophet and winced.

Susan was on the front page.

Again.

Wondering what it was this time, Harry absently said good morning to Black and Lupin and pulled the paper over.

His appetite abruptly vanishing, Harry read that Susan had apparently lost all cool when pursued by some reporters, whipped out her wand and attacked them.

The headline Potter's Princess Snaps at Last crowned the page, while the photo depicted Susan—sobbing and looking decidedly deranged—in the act of cursing the living lights out of some guy with a camera.

Harry wished he could curse him too.

"I—thanks for the breakfast, I've got to go," he said, getting up from the table.

Lupin sent him a sympathetic look as he departed.

Once upstairs in his room, Harry became conscious of still having the Daily Prophet in his hand. He threw it into the rubbish bin and, clenching his jaw, proceeded to torch the publication into ashes, fully aware that this was helping nothing.

Harry let out a long breath, sat at his desk. Grabbed a piece of parchment.

The parchment seemed to stare mockingly at him.

This, this was the part Harry hated the most—that he and Susan had no other contact than cold, unfeeling paper delivered with the speed of an owl's flight.

What could he even say at this point, beyond the deeply inadequate I'm sorry and I love you? That he hoped she wasn't too upset, even though anyone could tell that she was? That he hoped she wasn't taking this too close to heart, even though that was obviously the case? That he hoped she wasn't going to trash this letter unopened, even though this was nothing but a selfish wish?

Harry dropped his head onto his arms and stared at the surface of the desk up close. This was worse than giving meaningless speeches to the wizarding public, because this was someone who mattered to him on a very personal level and, despite being perfectly sincere, Harry nonetheless felt like he was feeding her bullshit.

Amelia Bones's face swam up in his mind, her eyes stern the way they had been when she recited why this was not good for Susan. She'd never said that the entire relationship wasn't good for Susan. But she'd certainly implied it.

Was she trying to convince Susan of the same thing?

Did Susan need much convincing at this point?

Could Madam Bones's judgement possibly be true?

There was a knock on Harry's door.

Startled, he sat up.

"Yes?"

Black looked in, his face pale and drawn as Harry hadn't seen it in weeks.

"Come down," Black said. "Come to the kitchen."

Harry got up at once, worried by Black's expression.

"What's wrong?" he asked as they descended the staircase together.

"Emmeline Vance," Black bit out. "She's dead."

Harry's hand gripped the banisters a little tighter, and he made an effort to keep walking.

He felt suddenly cold.

"Death Eaters?" he asked, keeping his voice purposefully even.

Black glanced at him.

"Worse."

They didn't say anything else until they reached the kitchen. Quite a few Order members were already assembled there.

Moody's face was grim as he stood in the middle of the room, hands clasped behind his back.

"Killed by Voldemort himself, judging by all the signs," he was saying as Harry and Black came in. "As an example, most likely."

"An example of what?" Charlie Weasley asked, sounding almost belligerent. "Of what would happen to a nice Pureblood if she sided with the wrong people?"

"Something like that." Moody shrugged.

"Where's Dumbledore?" Tonks wondered as Harry glanced down onto the floor.

He hadn't known Emmeline Vance all that well. But she had been his Defence Professor and an Order member, and now—

A corpse, somewhere in the Ministry's mortuary.

The discussion happening over Harry's head determined that Dumbledore was at the Ministry. It was he who had detected the traces of Voldemort's magic in Emmeline Vance's house.

"What about the wards?" Tonks asked, looking at Bill Weasley.

Bill was frowning.

"I don't know. I also don't know—fuck. I guess we'd better evacuate the others?"

"Ron and Ginny," Mrs. Weasley said at once, paling, and it was testament to her worry that she wasted no time reprimanding her eldest on language.

She turned to go, while Bill and Charlie exchanged quick glances.

"I'll come with you," Bill said, and they both hurried out of the kitchen.

"Is that alright with you, Sirius?" Charlie inquired, meanwhile.

Black waved a negligent hand.

"Of course. Make yourselves at home, this house would benefit from being that to someone."

Harry couldn't help thinking that the Weasleys' last stay at Grimmauld Place had not been happy and could bring no pleasant memories.

"I'd better go to the Ministry," Tonks said. "It's time, and besides—I should probably be there."

"I'll come with you," Harry said.

Today of all days he could not bear another long afternoon of staying shut inside Grimmauld Place with his thoughts and his books.

xXxXx

"Oh Merlin, Harry, that's awful," Cedric said, when Harry showed up at his office in the Department of Magical Accidents and told him the news.

Cedric squeezed Harry's shoulder and then nodded at his co-worker's empty chair.

"Sit."

"I hope I'm not interrupting anything?" Harry asked.

They usually agreed on a time for a meeting, making sure that the former Ravenclaw student sharing Cedric's office would be absent.

"Our Defence teacher was killed, Harry," Cedric said. "I think that allows for a bit of a break."

Harry conceded the point with a nod, sinking down into an uncomfortable chair opposite Cedric's.

Cedric and his colleague hadn't been working in that office for long—Cedric was only a month in, so there were hardly any personal knick-knacks around. Just typical Ministry-issued furniture, stationery and a fake window on the wall.

"There you go," Cedric said, putting a bottle of Firewhisky and two glasses on his desk.

"In the middle of a working day?" Harry raised an eyebrow.

Cedric shrugged, his face oddly expressionless.

"We always need to drink a sober-up potion after alcohol these days anyway," he said. "So really, it makes no difference."

Harry held up his glass.

"To Emmeline Vance?"

"To Emmeline Vance," Cedric agreed. "Do we have any idea who—"

"Voldemort."

They drank in silence. Harry finished his first glass and then poured himself another. He was halfway done with it when Cedric sighed.

"Are you meeting the Minister after this?"

Harry leaned his head against the wall and raised his eyes, contemplating the ceiling.

"Yes, I probably am. We'll have to tweak my next inspirational address. Something about despite the dark threat that strikes mercilessly into our midst…"

"I don't know how you can do it," Cedric said flatly.

"Neither does the Order," Harry muttered.

"Is it still difficult with them?"

"It's fine."

"Is that why you look like such a picture of cheer and sunshine whenever I see you lately?"

At that, Harry brought his gaze back to Cedric.

"I would appreciate it if you didn't insult my intelligence," Cedric informed him, frowning.

Harry lowered his eyes and ran a hand through his hair.

"I'm sorry, but you know what it's like. I've mentioned it before."

"Harry, truly—is there no-one in the Order you can rely on?" Cedric asked. "You can't—I mean, I'm sure you can never relax your guard around anyone, but I can't imagine how exhausting it has to be."

Harry shrugged.

"It can't be that bad," Cedric insisted.

Harry let his head fall back, looking up at the ceiling again. He didn't want to have this argument right now.

"I just wish I didn't have to live with them," he said, opting for partial openness. "How's the flat hunt going, by the way?"

Cedric took a hearty swig of whisky.

"I'm beginning to think that soon I will have to insist that it's I who's going to live in the flat, not my mother, and therefore I should be the one to choose. This will upset my mother very much, but I think my chances of renting my own place will increase exponentially."

"Exponentially," Harry tried. "Huh, I can still say that too."

"Right," Cedric said. "Enough Firewhisky. Our next drink is a sober-up potion."

"Killjoy," Harry murmured.

"I'm older and wiser than you," Cedric uttered with all the dignity of a man balancing on a chair's back legs with a bottle of alcohol in one hand and a glass in the other.

xXxXx

The Weasleys moved in two days after Emmeline Vance's death. Like Harry had expected, they had been reluctant to return to the headquarters, but it was the safest place to be.

Black seemed cheered by having more visitors around—Harry thought he was probably glad they were Gryffindors, to boot. Harry did his usual trick of disappearing to the library and rarely crossing paths with the other inhabitants of the house, so it could be said he was adjusting well, too.

Currently, Harry was hiding out in the tapestry room, while Black and the younger Weasleys were re-painting a downstairs parlour. Mrs. Weasley suggested it as a constructive activity for all, but Harry had managed to slip away in time.

It was good to have a peaceful moment to himself.

Harry's research interests were lately taking him to books he'd never dared touch before, and occasionally he needed a break from them—and from the ideas they awakened in his mind.

The study topic came from Harry's renowned foray into the Department of Mysteries. He'd seen a whole number of strange things in there, although of course he hadn't been paying attention at the time. Now, looking back—and having revisited the place often enough in his nightmares—he wondered.

(Mongolian amulet of power, Deathstick prototype 3, Staff of Merlin model 14)

Piecing his memories together and drawing a few conclusions, Harry felt it was likely that the room he'd passed while on the run from Donatus Goyle was dedicated to research on enhancing a wizard's power and tracking down the sources of it.

And it just so happened that, ever since watching Dumbledore and Voldemort duel at the Ministry, Harry had been greatly interested in any and all ways of increasing his own power.

He'd seen just how wide the gulf between his power and Voldemort's was. It would take years and years of tireless practice for Harry to achieve the same level of competence, even assuming that he had raw talent on par with Voldemort's.

He didn't have years.

If there was something he could do right now—

If there was some shortcut that could be taken—

There could be nothing wrong with finding out what options were available, after all—

Harry frowned, leaning his forehead against the window.

It wasn't so simple, of course. Couldn't be. Harry knew that magic didn't like shortcuts. If an increase in power was at all possible, there was going to be a price to pay.

He had no idea what price; he didn't know what else the whole process would entail. He'd never bothered with that kind of research, because—well, in all honesty, this was going above and beyond reading up on spells.

This was delving deeper than Harry ever had into magic of the darkest and most arcane, and he could confess to some trepidation.

("You are no longer innocent… You have touched magics that rendered you unclean… Harrywhat have you done?")

Apparently, he was in too deep as it was, though, and he couldn't let fear hold him back from learning more.

He needed more, if he wanted to see the end of this and defeat Voldemort one day.

One day—before it was too late, before too many people died, before people close to Harry were hurt…

Harry closed his eyes. So much for a peaceful moment. The war had a way of dogging his thoughts—although it had been worse recently, with Emmeline Vance's death bringing back the memories of Kingsley, and Hestia's wounds, and Voldemort's eyes.

And Susan had still not replied…

"There you are, Potter," Ron Weasley's voice said from the door.

Harry flinched, jarred rudely out of his thoughts. Watcing Ron's reflection in the windowpane as he approached, Harry composed himself, readying for a likely confrontation.

Harry could see that Weasley seemed annoyed.

He always seemed annoyed. Or maybe it was Harry's presence that did that to him.

"To what do I owe the pleasure?" Harry asked, finally turning around to face him.

"I wanted a word with you," Ron said.

"All right."

Ron just stared at him for a while, standing a couple of feet away. The lights in the tapestry room were low, and Harry had his back to the window, which meant that Harry likely had a better view of Ron than the other way around.

"I don't like you," Ron said suddenly.

Surprised by this opening gambit, Harry tilted his head to the side.

"You don't say," he responded. "And here I've spent all these years wondering—"

"Let me finish!" Ron snapped.

Harry wordlessly gestured for him to continue.

"I—I'm not trying to kiss up to you, 'cause I don't like you and I never will," Ron said, frowning. "You walk around like you own the school and act like Malfoy on the best of days—and I really hate your Quidditch team—"

"Anything else?" Harry inquired politely, wondering why on earth Weasley felt this was a conversation worth having.

"My point is," Ron said, ignoring him, "that, despite the fact that I personally don't like you and don't see why Fred and George would, with the way that you—"

"You mentioned having a point in there somewhere?" Harry reminded him.

Ron glared.

"What I'm trying to say is… You might be a Slytherin, but you're with the Order, and you did fight You-Know-Who at the Ministry. With everything that's been going on…" Ron's jaw tightened. "Well, it seems best if you and I just stop that—what we've been having. We can't always not talk if we're on the same side."

Interesting. Harry looked at Ron, assessing.

"True enough," he said at length. "You realize, of course, that I'm not the only Slytherin on this side."

"So?"

Harry spread his arms.

"You've listed the reasons why you don't like me," he said. "Do you know why I don't like you?"

Ron blinked.

"Just cause we've been having this—thing, I guess."

"You guess wrong," Harry said coldly. He looked straight into Ron's eyes. "I dislike you because you treat all Slytherins like scum."

"Only the ones who deserve it!"

"Oh yeah? What exactly changed in me, for example, after the Sorting?"

"You became best buddies with Malfoy!" Ron cried indignantly.

Harry stared at him.

"You can't still believe it, after all this time—"

"I'm not saying you still are pals with him, but you've always taken his side in every fight—"

"All right, fine, it doesn't matter," Harry said. "But putting me and Malfoy aside—what about the rest of the Slytherins?"

Ron looked uncomfortable.

"Look, if you grow up hearing about how bad Slytherins are—about how this bad wizard and that came from Slytherin—they're a fishy lot, is all. You don't trust them just like that. And they hate Gryffindors, too."

"Guess what, Ron," Harry said. "From the other side, it's the Gryffindors who are the fishy ones you can't trust. We might as well start meeting each other halfway somewhere, or else we'll never make it in this war."

"I don't see Malfoy meeting me halfway," Ron muttered.

"Oh for Merlin's sake, to hell with Malfoy," Harry said impatiently. "Using Malfoy as a representative of Slytherin is like—like—using Cormac McLaggen as an example of a typical Gryffindor."

"Oh that's low," Ron exclaimed. "McLaggen is a jerk."

"Believe it or not—so is Malfoy."

How could Malfoy possibly be such a massive influence on anyone? It was mind-boggling.

Then again, Harry did vaguely remember hearing about some feud between the Weasleys and the Malfoys. Something about someone's daughter that someone had stolen, or maybe it was a husband. Either way, these two families went a long way back.

"Look, Potter—"

"Everything okay, boys?"

Remus Lupin stood in the doorway, glancing between Ron and Harry. He appeared half-worried, half-amused, and Harry wondered how much of their discussion he'd witnessed.

xXxXx

Upon Lupin's arrival, Ron Weasley turned a deep shade of red and stomped out of the room, muttering apologies to the werewolf. Harry remained by the window.

"Everything okay, Harry?" Lupin repeated. "It seemed like you were having an argument."

"We always do," Harry said. "Although we'll see where we go from here."

"Burying the hatchet?"

"Maybe."

Lupin studied Harry, then came closer.

"That's good to hear. We could use more cooperation."

Harry agreed.

He expected Lupin to leave now that the conversation topic was exhausted, but instead the man smiled at him and said:

"That was really good work that you did for your Defence project, Harry."

"Thanks," Harry said, taken aback. "How do you know about it?"

"Emmeline felt that, being your former professor, I could be allowed to see it. It was not long before she…"

"Yeah."

Lupin swallowed. Harry looked at the floor.

"Anyway," Lupin said after a moment. "You're really interested in Defence, aren't you?"

"I've never tried to hide that, I think," Harry said cautiously.

Lupin seemed amused.

"Don't get me wrong, I think we've all noticed your… commitment. However, it has always seemed a little…. what would be the word… superficial? But you've really thought about this, haven't you?"

This looked like it would evolve into an actual conversation. Harry focused on Lupin a bit closer.

"I haven't been memorizing random spells, if that's what you mean," Harry said.

"That much is obvious, I would say. Your understanding of spell creation is far from perfect, of course, I'm not sure whose is perfect—but this was a really, really ambitious project. What made you choose this topic?"

Harry wondered whether it was a teacher's curiosity talking in Lupin, or the desire to understand Harry.

Being fair to him, it was probably both.

"Well, it's useful to be able to come up with new things, or new ways of doing things." Harry shrugged. "That's how magic evolves, isn't it?"

"True," Lupin said. "But not every student reaches that far into theory."

"Not every student has to fight Voldemort," Harry said before he could stop himself.

Lupin smiled, and this time his expression was grim.

"Yes. Yes, I think—I think I owe you a bit of a re-evaluation. It's easy to think—remembering ourselves, your father at your age—but you're quite different."

A sudden flashback to Harry's third year, Lupin's tone equally hesitant.

("I'd never expected you to beyou are so unlike James. Not just because you're a Slytherin, but you're more serious than he ever was and")

"That's all right," Harry said, more than willing to stem the flow of whatever other comparisons were to follow.

However, Lupin's face was set in a determined expression.

"No, it's not," he said. "All that we would ever have done, at your age… It's easy to see in you just the continuation of that same irresponsibility, but you're a completely different person and—by the sound of it, you've done a hell of a lot more good for the school for no particular reason than I ever did while being a Prefect."

Harry blinked. That seemed both impassioned and incomprehensible, but the gist of it was lurking somewhere in past events Harry was not privy to.

Curiosity—an insidious, long-repressed feeling—did nag, though.

"My father was irresponsible?"

Lupin appeared somewhat torn.

"He was responsible towards his friends. His grasp of the real world and its dangers was a bit more slippery."

"How come?" Harry asked, against his better judgement.

He was actually encouraging a conversation with Lupin, of all people. Next he'd be giving hugs to Black. And Snape.

"Privileged background, not a care in the world up to a point," Lupin said with a shrug. "James was the only child of adoring parents. He viewed the world as a game to be won—failure never occurred to him, in anything. Sirius was even worse about limits, but that's understandable, considering."

"Considering what?"

"His family," Lupin said emphatically. "I don't know what set of morals one learns in the House of Black."

Judging by their books, the main moral code went along the lines of "kill them before they get to kill you." Which was as reasonable as anything, on the whole, but perhaps not the most nurturing of ideas for young minds.

"Anyway, we were getting off topic," Lupin said. "I just came to tell you that—if you want help, or if you have questions about your research—I'd be glad to be of assistance, in any way I can. And I know that Sirius would be glad to help out, too."

Harry nodded politely.

"Thank you, Professor."

Who knew; he might even take Lupin up on that offer sometime. He'd been a very good Defence teacher, after all.

Lupin winced.

"Please, Harry, I've told you to call me Remus."

Funnily enough, Harry did always genuinely forget. It was just really, really weird to call the man that.

It almost beat addressing Lockhart as Gilderoy.

xXxXx

Academic matters became the talk of the day the following Saturday, when Harry and Ron received their OWL results.

Harry knew his score already, of course; he'd been told through unofficial channels that he'd done well. It was still nice to see it on paper, though Harry wasn't sure what he'd use the results for, beyond getting into NEWT-level classes.

During careers advice last year, he'd said that he wanted to play professional Quidditch after Hogwarts.

Incidentally, that had made Snape look positively murderous, though Harry wasn't sure why. When pressed—

("Have you actually entertained a thought for your future, Potter?")

—Harry had cautiously pointed out that really, with Voldemort and everything else, his career prospects were about the furthest thing from his mind.

Snape had pinched the bridge of his nose with an expression on his face that Harry could not identify, and told Harry that making plans for the future would significantly increase his chances of having one.

Harry admitted it was likely true, but he still hadn't properly thought about what he wanted to do once the war was over.

Either way, the OWL results paved the way for a nice selection of NEWT-level classes. Harry's lowest grades were Es for Transfiguration, Arithmancy and History of Magic. Black, who had requested to see his results in a now-rare godfatherly moment, said that Harry took after his mother in studying too much.

Lupin, reading over Black's shoulder, beamed at Harry and congratulated him, which naturally attracted attention and in effect made Harry's results public knowledge.

"Figures," Ron said with dark emphasis, holding his own letter close to his chest and scowling.

Harry thought that this probably added to Ron's impression of Slytherins as evil pillocks.

In the aftermath of the breakfast-time discussions on OWLs—which had involved accounts of the OWL results of every Weasley brother to date—Harry, once again, escaped to the library.

So far, however, instead of doing research he'd only lazed about and thought about Hogwarts and future classes and his friends and Susan. It was really time to get back to work.

He was likely fated not to do any research that day, because, just as he put the OWLs envelope aside and cracked open a book, the library door swung inwards and Dumbledore walked in.

Dumbledore, who Harry had been trying to talk to for the last month or so.

"Headmaster!" Harry said.

He shut his tome, keeping a finger on his page as a bookmark, and stood up.

"Good afternoon, Harry," Dumbledore said, inclining his head in greeting. "You look quite occupied, as always, but I think you might be interested in hearing what I have to say."

Harry allowed his curiosity to show on this face.

"Professor?"

"I trust that I have located a hiding place for one of Voldemort's Horcruxes, Harry," Dumbledore said. "Since you have asked me, multiple times, to let you accompany me should such a situation arise, I thought it fitting to put the option before you."

"Thank you," Harry said, heart beating faster in excitement. "When can we go?"

"I am leaving directly," Dumbledore said. "Albeit with a detour, which you are more than welcome to accompany me on."

"I'd be glad to, Professor," Harry replied.

Finally. Finding and destroying Horcruxes was so paramount to winning the war—and here came a real chance to land a blow against Voldemort.

xXxXx

Dumbledore's detour took them to a sleepy provincial town. Dumbledore side-along Apparated Harry there, in between explanations.

"You might remember, perhaps, that I told you some weeks ago about a person who might know more about Voldemort's Horcruxes?"

Harry was unlikely to forget that.

"It is imperative that he returns to Hogwarts this year," Dumbledore said. "As I have mentioned before, you might very well be the key to drawing the information out of him—but we must proceed slowly, you understand."

The house they approached didn't look like anyone inside was awake, since all the lights were out.

Once Harry and Dumbledore made it past the unlocked front door, it became doubtful that anyone inside was alive.

The place was absolutely wrecked—furniture in splinters, porcelain bits all over the floor, wallpapers torn and, unless Harry was wrong, splashed with blood.

Harry gripped his wand tighter, brushed a floating feather off his forehead and wondered why he felt that something was missing.

Dumbledore was making a careful exploration of the house as they went from room to room.

"This place," Harry said suddenly, staring at an overturned lamp. "It's a Muggle home, isn't it?"

Dumbledore turned around with surprising swiftness.

"What makes you say that?"

"Don't know," Harry said. "Electricity?" He poked a cable with his foot.

"Some wizards do not entirely give up on Muggle conveniences," Dumbledore pointed out. "However, as it happens, you are correct. This is most certainly a Muggle dwelling and not my friend's permanent address. Nor is that armchair his permanent form."

Dumbledore punctuated that last statement with a jab of his wand at a cushy-looking armchair. Harry's eyebrows rose as the piece of furniture gave a protesting noise and morphed into a man.

A portly one, with a walrus moustache and a decidedly familiar look to him.

Harry tilted his head to the side.

"Now, Harry," Dumbledore said once the two wizards were done embracing, "allow me to introduce to you my old friend, Horace Slughorn."

"Professor Slughorn!" Harry said. "Of course. I recognized you from the portrait in our common room. Nice to meet you, sir."

Slughorn shook Harry's hand, eyes wide—and, inevitably, straying to the famous scar.

"In your common room, indeed? Oh yes, I used to be the Head of the Slytherin House in my day, but sadly not during your tenure, Mr. Potter! I knew you at once, of course! The spitting image of your father, but naturally with your mother's eyes!"

At this point, Slughorn abruptly realized that he'd never stopped shaking Harry's hand, so he hurriedly dropped his hands and then, after a moment, put them behind his back.

"You taught my parents, sir?" Harry asked, partly to keep the conversation going and partly—well, genuinely wondering.

"Did I—by Jove, did I ever!" Slughorn exclaimed, clearly stirred. "Your mother was one of my absolute favourites! Lily! Such a charming girl, and even more remarkable for being a Muggleborn! Here, come!"

Slughorn beckoned Harry over to a shelf by the wall. Casting a look around, Harry saw that Dumbledore had conveniently disappeared.

"Here she is," Slughorn said proudly, pointing at a portrait.

There, Harry's mother—aged about fifteen or sixteen, maybe—sat among other people, laughing with them about something.

"Taken after one of our dinners," Slughorn said, looking at the photo with a reminiscent air. "So much fun we had then. You'll definitely have to come when I—if I—" Slughorn visibly deflated.

Harry glanced at him.

"These are dark times, Harry," Slughorn murmured. "Nowhere is safe. I've been on the run this past year, but it's getting more and more difficult—"

"Then let us protect you at Hogwarts, Horace," Dumbledore's voice said from behind them.

Harry gave him full points for theatrical timing.

Slughorn bristled.

"Protect me? After what happened to poor Emmeline? And don't think I haven't been reading the news!"

"We did not realize that Emmeline Vance required protection, or else we would have kept her safe behind the Hogwarts walls," Dumbledore said calmly. "You are quite a different matter. You say so yourself—you are in daily danger, constantly on the run. You can't do it alone, Horace. Let me help you."

Slughorn was twisting the framed photo of Harry's mother in his hands.

"I've said no once, I've said it a thousand times," he uttered. "You won't lure me back, Albus."

"I can't help trying," Dumbledore replied solemnly. "You can't blame me for not wishing to lose a dear friend."

A pause descended. Dumbledore was looking at Slughorn, Slughorn was looking between Dumbledore and Harry, and Harry snuck some peeks at the other photos on the shelf.

There were quite a few, some signed and clearly featuring famous people. Harry tried to do the mental math to figure out who else the former professor might have taught—would he have guided Snape through his early years? What about Arthur and Molly Weasley, what generation did they fall in?

And, come to think of it, if Slughorn knew something about Horcruxes… could that mean he'd taught Voldemort at one time?

Newly interested, Harry turned to look at the man—but just then, Dumbledore somehow determined that it was time to leave Slughorn with his weighty thoughts.

"Very well," he said. "If you are sure, Horace, I shall coax you no longer. Come, Harry. We ought to go."

"It was nice to meet you, sir," Harry told Slughorn. "I hope we meet again."

"Me too, my boy, me too," Slughorn said, visibly conflicted. "Oh, blast it, Albus. Goodbye."

As Harry and Dumbledore walked out the front door, Harry couldn't decide whether the trip had been a success or not.

"Do you think he will agree, sir?" he chose to ask, in the end.

"I know he will," Dumbledore said calmly. "Even if he himself does not. I just hope he consents soon, for it is truly dangerous for him to remain the way he is—especially knowing what he does."

"He taught Potions, didn't he?"

Harry couldn't recall for sure, but he thought that's what the plaque beneath Slughorn's portrait read.

"Indeed, Harry, he did," Dumbledore confirmed.

"Then—he'd be replacing Professor Snape," Harry hazarded.

"It would seem so," Dumbledore agreed serenely.

Harry cast a sceptical glance Dumbledore's way and saw that any further questions were futile.

Either way, there weren't many conclusions left to draw. Snape could get reshuffled to another post, or else he could go. The latter wasn't too unlikely, considering how many things he was already juggling, what with the extracurricular spying on Voldemort.

In Harry's opinion, that qualified as a full-time job on its own.

Harry and Dumbledore walked several paces down the street in silence and turned behind a corner onto a little cobbled road.

"Your arm, Harry, if you will," Dumbledore said. "The time has come for us to go on to our real adventure."

With those words, they took off again in a whirl of Apparition.

xXxXx

Harry's arrival was, as always, ungraceful. One day he'd figure out the whole landing-on-his-feet part of this activity.

Getting up from the ground—wand already firmly in hand—he surveyed his surroundings.

A dirt track, tall trees casting menacing shadows, a little hovel in their depths… Harry's eyes narrowed. He knew this place from Dumbledore's pensieve, from the memory of Voldemort's illustrious ancestors.

The Gaunts' house.

The memory of Bob Ogden's visit to Marvolo, Morfin and Merope Gaunt was one of the first Harry and Dumbledore had watched together. Harry had surprised Dumbledore on that occasion, since he knew of the Gaunts already from the heir of Slytherin research in his second year.

Dumbledore had smiled, then, and noted that things still seemed to boil down to the heir of Slytherin.

It seemed that Dumbledore might have had other uses for the Gaunts' dwelling in mind.

"You think—sir—"

"That a Horcrux might very well be hidden here. I do believe so," Dumbledore said. "I implore you, Harry, to be on your guard and remember what I told you. You have to listen to what I say."

"Of course, Professor," Harry replied.

They approached the cottage slowly, Dumbledore walking ahead.

The closer they got to the little house, the weirder Harry was feeling. He couldn't define what it was, but he felt a presence, of sorts.

Dumbledore was muttering incantations under his breath and gliding his wand over the air, as if probing for something. Harry watched him, wondering awkwardly whether he should offer to help or avoid interrupting what might be a delicate process.

"Tricky," Dumbledore pronounced finally, sounding almost pleased. "Please stand back, Harry, and have a shield ready. Dismantling these wards may produce a backlash."

Harry watched, fascinated, as one master unravelled the work of another. This magic was way beyond his level, and he wished he could ask Dumbledore to detail what he was doing, to teach him the steps—but of course, this was neither the time, nor the place.

Dumbledore was, meanwhile, spelling up a storm. Whatever incantations he was calling up clashed against the defences around the Gaunt hovel—Harry could almost feel magic's thumping beats coursing through him.

He could swear he sensed the two different magics battling each other, distinguished Voldemort's spells from Dumbledore's, heard the furious symphony of their collisions—

But it was madness, of course, wasn't it? One didn't feel magic through one's skin, one only saw its effects—

But either way, Harry did know it was coming before it came, the buildup, the zenith, and he couldn't help staggering back and calling out to Dumbledore—

"Careful, Professor!"

—even though he knew that Dumbledore couldn't fail to sense exactly when the spells would reach explosion.

Harry's shield charm went up just in time, and still he felt as the wave of Voldemort's and Dumbledore's combined magic hit his defences, still tangled, still scorching.

Harry shut his eyes against the onslaught.

In that moment, he almost felt like he was high on all the magic in the air.

He'd been submerged in similar sensations, with similar awareness of magic around him, only once before—during his Ministry duel with Voldemort. Then, magic had set his senses alight just the way it was doing today.

When Harry opened his eyes, he saw Dumbledore standing firmly—almost regally—before the house. The ancient wizard seemed not to have moved an inch, and yet he had to have been the eye of that storm. How much magic would he have to withstand?..

"Beautiful, Harry," Dumbledore said, his voice somewhat hushed. "Difficult, I shall not lie—but beautiful, fine magic. It is, at times, delightful to have such a skilled opponent."

Harry gripped his wand tighter, coming to the abrupt realization that, actually, Voldemort was his opponent. And it was far from delightful that Voldemort could produce magics Harry could only marvel at.

"How did you do it, sir?" Harry asked. He found that his voice sounded slightly hoarse.

"I'm sure you understand that I could not relate it to you on the spot, Harry," Dumbledore said, turning to Harry with a smile. "Certain spells, some experimentation, some guesswork, decades of experience and familiarity with his general style—it takes many an ingredient to produce a successful result. But I'm sure Bill Weasley could tell you more about curse-breaking if you asked him."

Making a mental note of that, Harry followed Dumbledore over the threshold.

Inside the house, a thick layer of dust coated the floor and all visible surfaces. The windows were closed, shutters drawn, and the air was stale.

"Hmm," Dumbledore said, and made a sweeping motion with his wand.

The dust rolled up neatly like a carpet and came to a halt by a far-off wall. Harry meanwhile lit up the room, and Dumbledore, thanking him with a nod, proceeded to look around—still not entering any further.

"What would you say, Harry?" he asked, after a few moments.

"There's something here," Harry said. "It's…"

He searched around for the source of the strong feeling he was getting. The hovel was so small and the feeling so great that he found it difficult to pinpoint the exact location it emanated from.

"Interesting," Dumbledore muttered. "Not unexpected, however. Indeed, I agree with you. I think there can be no shadow of doubt beyond this point that a Horcrux is indeed located right here, in this house."

"Are there more traps?" Harry asked.

"Most probably, although the vast majority of wizards would not have made it past the initial defence," Dumbledore replied. "It would be quite unwise for us to relax our guard…"

Dumbledore sent out some sort of a spell, then, that whizzed around the room they were in—one Harry recognized from the pensieve—and then flew over into other parts of the house.

"No snares here, it would seem," Dumbledore said. "Still, Harry, stay vigilant…"

As they moved further in, floorboards creaked and Harry was seized by an irrational fear that one of them would snap open and plunge them into a trap. He berated himself for letting his imagination run wild.

It was just that the place, combined with the vibes of sinister magic, was giving him the creeps.

They proceeded slowly through a narrow corridor with grimy walls, then a room with wallpaper so dirty it was black, and came into a chamber with a collapsed four-poster bed in the middle.

As soon as they'd crossed the threshold, Dumbledore stopped dead.

"Here it is, Harry," he said quietly. "Can you feel it pulsing?"

Harry couldn't. The general heaviness of magic in this hovel was making his head spin.

Dumbledore was looking around the room in consternation.

"The space is too small," he said. "I'm sorry, Harry, but I must ask you to retreat. The risk—I cannot work freely with you so near. Please go back to the chamber we were in last."

"I am here to help if I can, Professor," Harry pointed out.

"In this case, you cannot," Dumbledore stated, raising a hand to forestall Harry's protests. "Please, Harry, this is intricate work. You know what you mean to this war. I cannot expose you to the immense risk of a stray spell. I promise I shall call you as soon as I can."

Harry had to be content with that.

So he withdrew to the black-walled room with moth-eaten curtains—a singularly dreary place—and waited, straining to hear any noise. He caught the murmur of incantations, like before, and sensed new waves of magic.

Then, silence.

After a few moments, the silence became ominous.

And then came the scream.

Harry sprinted back into the bedchamber, heedless of any warnings to stay aside. Entering the doorway, he nearly gagged at the saturation of magic in the air—and froze, momentarily, before an eerie scene.

Dumbledore was on the floor, convulsing and screaming. In his agony he seemed to still be conjuring up some magic that was directed at a fading ghostly form of a young girl. The girl was, in turn, crying and stretching out her arms to Dumbledore—but no sound was coming from her.

The only noises in the room where the howl of magic in Harry's ears and Dumbledore's anguished screams.

Harry gripped his wand.

Finite Incantatem, he cast, knowing already that it wasn't going to make a difference.

Harry had no clue what the fuck was going on, just what magic was at work here—never mind how to counter it.

"Professor!" he shouted. "Professor Dumbledore!"

But Dumbledore seemed to be too far gone; his face was contorted in pain and his eyes were open wide, unseeing, even as magic continued to pour forth from his wand—

"Expelliarmus!"

Dumbledore's wand flew into Harry's hand.

Dumbledore stopped screaming and collapsed, limp.

The current of magic gave a mighty shudder that Harry felt all the way to his bones.

He grit his teeth and braced himself for the backlash.

Out of control, the forces unleashed by Dumbledore—and maybe Voldemort, who the fuck knew at this point—turned against the one who'd disrupted them.

Harry snapped his shield charm into place just in time to cover himself and Dumbledore, but felt immediately that a mere shield charm was no match for the crushing wave of magic about to engulf him.

With the other wand in his hand, he cast a more powerful protective spell.

The flash of light almost blinded him, and the sheer power behind the spell he was casting and the forces he was holding at bay left him breathless.

Harry fell to one knee, feeling sweat roll down the side of his face.

He didn't know how long he could hold it—

"Harry," he heard from beside him, but didn't turn to look at Dumbledore.

There was only one thing he could think of doing.

"Moena! Munite ipsa!" he whispered, banking on his power to hold the protective shield through it all.

On his knees, now, he held himself up by an arm, still pointing the wand up with a shaking hand.

Walls of sizzling, crackling magic rose around Harry and Dumbledore.

Just a little more—the protective dome was nearly done, and it might not hold long, but it would give Harry the few seconds he needed—

The moment the walls of magic had closed above Harry's head, he acted.

He dropped the shielding spell. Whirled around to face Dumbledore.

Grabbed Dumbledore's arm.

Closed his eyes, still gripping both wands.

And Disapparated.

xXxXx

Contact with the ground knocked the wind out of Harry's lungs—what was left of them. It felt like they were on fire.

Harry stayed prone for a while, feeling like he'd never be able to move again.

He was so exhausted.

A groan sounded from nearby, and Harry closed his eyes in sheer frustration.

He couldn't, physically couldn't do anything more.

But there was nobody else to do what remained to be done—check on Dumbledore, get help from inside Hogwarts, sort them both out.

Harry lifted his hands to his face, pressed his palms against his eyes.

He'd signed up for this when he'd agreed to go on the Horcrux mission.

It was probably never meant to go like this, a voice in his head told him.

Harry was pretty sure that Dumbledore had expected to do all the work, just taking Harry through the paces. Harry was not supposed to be the backup—if Dumbledore had felt the need for backup, he'd have taken somebody much more skilful.

No, this was unplanned.

Something during this mission had gone badly wrong.

Taking a deep breath, which resounded with pain all around his ribcage, Harry sat up and assessed his surroundings.

He'd Apparated himself and Dumbledore—successfully—to just beyond the Hogwarts gates. This was the first place that had popped into his mind at the Gaunt shack. Probably because the infirmary was near, and Dumbledore was very likely to need it.

The man himself was also getting up from the ground, looking worse than Harry had ever seen him. His face was ashen, eyes sunk in, and when Harry took a look at his hand—

Blackened and burned, as if from the inside—and with a strange ring on it, which, come to think of it, Dumbledore hadn't been wearing before…

Harry recoiled and glanced at Dumbledore's face, instead.

"Professor, can you stand or shall I—"

"Severus, Harry," Dumbledore whispered as Harry helped him up. "Call Severus."

"I think you need to go to the hospital wing, Professor," Harry said, swaying a little under Dumbledore's weight.

"Harry, please call Severus."

"How?" Harry asked, giving in.

"Send a Patronus message—tell him to come to my office."

Harry had seen Order members communicate through talking Patroni, but he didn't have any idea how to send one himself. He felt that now was a really bad time to start learning new spells, but—

"What's the incantation?"

"Expecto nuntium."

"Expecto nuntium," Harry repeated dutifully. Then he remembered that he was supposed to find a good thought to call up a Patronus. "Expecto nuntium!" he repeated, somewhat more confidently, and an ethereal stag materialized before him.

"Find Professor Snape," Harry told it. "Tell him… the Headmaster will soon return to his office, injured. He urgently needs Professor Snape's help."

The stag nodded gracefully and galloped out of view. Harry lowered his wand—and then, out of the corner of his eye, noticed Dumbledore's gaze.

He looked at Dumbledore, then back at the wand.

"Oh, sorry," he said.

He hadn't realized that he'd cast the spell with the Headmaster's wand. That was all kinds of wizarding rudeness, but really, considering the circumstances…

"Here is your wand, Professor." Harry handed it back to Dumbledore, who seemed unnaturally stunned by the simple mistake. "I'm sorry, I didn't notice."

Dumbledore took the proffered wand back with a trembling hand. He gave it a long look and seemed to be on the brink of saying something. In the end, however, he just pocketed the wand and remained silent.

xXxXx

Once in the office, Dumbledore collapsed into his chair and dragged the ring off his finger.

"The sword, Harry," he whispered, unfocused eyes vainly searching around. "The sword, give me the sword…"

The sword?

Harry wiped the sweat off his forehead and glanced about him. On the other hand—whatever.

Accio sword.

The weapon flew straight into Harry's hand, hilt hitting Harry's palm—and, surprised, Harry recognized the Sword of Gryffindor he'd pulled out of the Sorting Hat in his second year.

Oh. That sword. The fuck?

Wordlessly, he handed the weapon to Dumbledore.

The headmaster's eyes lit up with a flicker of awareness as both his hands closed around the hilt. Harry realized what Dumbledore wanted to do seconds before he did it.

CRACK!

The sword hit the ring on Dumbledore's desk with a deafening noise, and the ring gave a scream that seemed to pierce Harry's brain.

Wincing, Harry clapped his ears shut.

And just as suddenly, it was over.

Dumbledore's eyes rolled into his head as he sagged in the chair.

"Headmaster!" Harry darted towards him, but then the office door flew open.

Snape took in the situation at a glance.

"Move aside, Potter," he barked.

Harry gladly did so. Let Snape take charge of the ailing Dumbledore. Harry continued having no clue whatever the fuck was going on.

Well. Except that he was pretty sure he'd just witnessed the destruction of a Horcrux.

Dumbledore might have mentioned in earlier lessons that what you had to do to destroy them was whack them with the Sword of Gryffindor. Useful information, that. Harry might have liked to know.

"Potter! Take essence of dittany, add nettle leaves and three drops of dragon blood…"

Snape continued rattling off instructions for some potion—or some concoction, it didn't seem to require actual brewing—and Harry scrambled to put it together.

His hands mixed, ground and cut on autopilot, which was fortunate, since Harry needed to devote his entire attention to Snape's relentless dictation.

Notably, Snape didn't once turn around to check that Harry was doing things right.

Snape's one and only acknowledgement of Harry's Potions skills in his entire academic career.

Dumbledore remained unresponsive throughout Snape's ministrations. However, once Snape had finished rubbing Harry's salve into Dumbledore's blackened hand, pouring a gold-coloured potion into the headmaster's throat and muttering incantations, the ancient wizard did slowly open his eyes.

Harry figured it was as good time as any to collapse onto a chair.

"Why," Snape hissed at the Headmaster in the tone of utter fury, "did you put on that ring, when you had to know it was carrying a curse?"

Harry stared at the ring.

"I was a fool," Dumbledore croaked out and closed his eyes again. "Sorely tempted… put Harry in danger…"

Snape turned around to glance at Harry, and then continued interrogating the headmaster.

"Tempted by what?"

The ring, clearly. Somehow. Did the Horcrux bear a curse that made people want to put it on? Harry frowned as he surveyed the artefact.

"The curse is incurable," Snape declared in harsh tones, and now Harry did raise his head.

What?

"The best we can hope for is to contain it. I have bound it to your hand—for now. But it will spread. And it will kill you—"

"How long do I have?" Dumbledore asked, sounding perfectly nonchalant.

Snape looked at Harry, then back at Dumbledore.

Harry figured it was about now that Snape started wondering what Harry was doing there.

"Maybe two years," Snape said reluctantly. "We might be able to stretch it that long with proper care, but anything further…"

"Well, but that is splendid," Dumbledore said, sitting up straighter.

It seemed that Snape knew what he was doing, because Dumbledore looked tons better than before. While he was still unnaturally pale, his eyes were bright as ever. He observed his charred hand with interest, then smiled at Snape and Harry.

"I am most grateful for your efforts, my boys. An old man's foolishness—but no matter. My mistake will play most excellently into your plans, Severus."

Snape looked incredulous for a moment.

"My—my plans? If you think for a moment that I—"

"Voldemort will expect results of you, Severus," Dumbledore told him seriously. "You cannot fail to provide them lest you fail yourself—and that would be a blow to our side much larger than my death, should this be the outcome."

Harry closed his eyes, feeling that his head would actually explode any moment now.

Unless he was mistaken, Dumbledore and Snape had just come to a conclusion that the only wizard Voldemort had ever feared was going to die in the foreseeable future. Quite possibly, Snape was supposed to have some part in that death.

All business as usual.

Winning this war? What about winning this war? No, there was no talk of that ridiculousness.

"Harry?" Dumbledore called him, after a pause.

Harry opened his eyes and found both wizards looking at him closely.

"How are you feeling, my boy?"

A nerve in Harry's cheek twitched.

"Fine," he said.

Snape got up from his seat next to Dumbledore and reached Harry in two quick strides.

"'m fine," Harry repeated, just as Dumbledore noted:

"Harry has been exposed to some very taxing magic tonight—and he's performed some extraordinary feats himself. His first Apparition, too, I believe."

Snape's hand closed on Harry's chin. Harry tried to jerk away, but Snape tilted his face up to the light and looked into his eyes, frowning.

Occlumency, Harry remembered. Got to do that.

However, he didn't feel any intrusion into his mind; Snape seemed only to examine him. The Potions master then let Harry go and ran a diagnostic spell.

Judging by Snape's face, he saw something he didn't like. Harry noticed him throw a questioning look at Dumbledore.

"Poppy did warn me that Harry would sooner or later be affected by the exceptional magic he has survived in his lifetime," Dumbledore said. "She expected greater sensitivity on his part. I think I have seen signs of that tonight…"

Harry shook his head, trying to clear it.

"Here, Potter, drink this," Snape said, thrusting a vial at him.

Harry drank.

In no time at all, he was feeling better. The tiredness was still there, lurking at the edges of his consciousness, but the unbearable heaviness pressing down on him was gone.

"Thanks," Harry said.

Snape didn't acknowledge Harry in any way, but turned back to Dumbledore instead.

"Does this mean that the boy knows everything?"

"I am afraid now he knows rather more than any of us had bargained for," Dumbledore replied, looking at Harry. "However, I'm sure Harry knows very well the meaning of discretion… isn't that what members of your House are famed for, Severus?.. How are your Occlumency studies progressing, Harry?"

Snape gave a slight start of surprise and glanced at Harry. Harry shrugged.

"Fine. Headmaster, does this mean that you—that you will die?"

"I was never going to live forever," Dumbledore said.

The phoenix crooned sadly on his perch.

Harry glanced at the bird, then back at the Headmaster.

"This plan of Voldemort's," Harry began.

"Headmaster, are you sure it's wise to reveal everything to the boy?" Snape interrupted.

"I do not see how we can avoid it now, Severus," Dumbledore said calmly. "What Harry does not know, he can guess at. Openness would serve us best at this juncture, I believe."

Openness Harry had stopped hoping for, but an explanation for the current madness would be good.

"Lord Voldemort evidently harbours the desire to see me dead," Dumbledore said. "Not unnatural, of course. He has presented Professor Snape with the task of poisoning me… to kill or simply weaken, we cannot be sure. For now, it seems that, knowing the difficulty of taking me on in a duel—forgive my immodesty—he has chosen to ensure my infirmity at a crucial time yet to come. It is quite likely that he intends Severus to kill me…"

"But seeing as Professor Snape will not be actually poisoning you…" Harry prodded. "Or will he?"

"Of course I won't, Potter, you imbecile," Snape snarled.

"It is most fortunate, then, that my hand is in such a condition," Dumbledore continued serenely. "We can conceal it for now and then reveal it gradually, to lend credence to Severus's claims of administering poison…"

"Just to make sure I didn't misunderstand," Harry said. "You believe that Professor Snape's cover as a spy is more important than you are, sir?"

Dumbledore smiled.

"I am only one man, Harry, but Professor Snape is our eyes and ears in Voldemort's camp. Without him, we are blind."

"With all due respect, Headmaster, you are much more than only one man," Snape said.

Dumbledore picked his wand up from the table, observed it for a few moments and flicked it at the curtains, letting them fall shut.

"You will find, Severus, that my powers are already not what they once were," he said with an air of finality.