Disclaimer: Still not mine.
A/N: I have to restrain the urge to preface this chapter with a lot of words. Instead, I'll just issue the usual thanks to my uber-patient beta Gwendolyn, who has provided invaluable input.
Harry flew across the pitch, rejoicing in the way chilly November wind rushed against his face and his Firebolt responded to the subtlest command.
The Slytherin-Gryffindor match was on. And Harry's team was so going to win.
He cut a sharp angle and pivoted to the left, dropping down and leaving Ginny Weasley behind him.
The Snitch glittered tantalizingly ahead of Harry. He grinned.
Victory was within grasp.
The small golden ball dashed off to the side, and Harry sped after it, narrowly avoiding a Bludger.
Nothing personal against Gryffindor, but—
"Harry Potter catches the Snitch! This is one hundred fifty points to Slytherin, and it's a clincher—Slytherin has won the match!"
A cheer went up from the Slytherin side of the crowds, while the Gryffindors predictably booed. Most students of the other Houses seemed happy enough to applaud the winners.
Still beaming, Harry spiralled down towards the ground, where his team was gathering.
"Well done, everyone," he told them and clapped Arthur Vaisey on the shoulder. "Great work. We had the match in the bag from the start."
"Not bad going yourself, Captain," seventh-year James Urquhart said, mock-saluting Harry.
Astoria gave Harry an elated smile.
"I can't believe we won!" she exclaimed.
"Well, you'd better get used to it," Harry said with a laugh. "We're the best team around."
Even Malfoy's face was flushed with victory. Crabbe and Goyle stood next to him, looking proud.
"C'mon, team," Harry said. "I'm willing to bet there's gonna be one hell of a party in the dorms."
He led them off the pitch, where the rest of their House greeted them. Much back-slapping and hand-shaking ensued, and the jubilant crowd swept them along to the Slytherin common room.
"To beating Gryffindor!" Urquhart shouted, raising a butterbeer.
"To our team!" Pansy Parkinson echoed, a glass in hand.
"To our captain!"
Harry reeled back a little, stunned at the ovation.
The House always basked in greater unity immediately after a Quidditch triumph, but he couldn't have imagined being so lauded by so many.
"Bet you're loving this, Potter," Malfoy hissed from his spot next to Harry.
Harry cocked at eyebrow at him.
"We beat Gryffindor, Malfoy. Of course I'm loving this."
"Guys," Urquhart groaned. "Just this once, can't we all be friends and enjoy ourselves?"
Harry and Malfoy exchanged glances.
"Of course we can," Harry said.
"Well, then!" Urquhart cried. "To victory!"
Smiling, Harry clinked bottles with him—and then paused a little as he realized he was expected to play equally nice with Malfoy.
At least Malfoy looked as disturbed as Harry felt during their brief toast to joint victory.
"See, that's better!" Urquhart cried. "Go team! Party time!"
And he bounded off, brandishing his empty bottle.
"Well, someone's going to end this evening with his head in a bin," Malfoy murmured.
"It's his final year and first Quidditch win," Harry pointed out. "I guess he's entitled to it?"
"Better him than me." Malfoy shrugged and gave Harry a cold look. "So long, Potter."
Harry nodded at him and turned to Blaise and Millie, who'd finally fought his way through to him.
"Not a bad show," Millie said.
"As usual, you flatter me too much," Harry replied with a crooked grin.
"All hail our wondrous captain!" Blaise exclaimed at that moment, throwing an arm around Harry's shoulders.
"Knock it off," Harry said, laughing. "But your adulation is taken as read."
For the first time in a long time, he felt like they were all just kids celebrating a sports victory and not giving a damn about anything that went on beyond the school's walls.
Not a bad feeling at all, as it happened.
The high from having led his team to victory stayed with Harry for the next week as he dealt with his extracurricular activities, conducted independent research and navigated his classes.
Nonverbal spells were spilling over from Defence into other lessons, which was okay by Harry, but some of his friends found it difficult. Neville and Millicent both struggled with this new form of spell-casting—which made them the most hilarious study partners.
("She keeps glaring at me, Harry. Why does she keep glaring at me?")
Terry and Hermione seemed to be making romantic overtures towards each other, to Padma's great surprise. Blaise was on the snappy side after a recent misadventure involving a mop, a bunch of feathers, and an enraged Hufflepuff. And the Weasley twins were travelling around Asia and collecting some terrifying fresh ideas, according to their latest letter.
All was going well enough, for the moment, if one ignored things like Voldemort still being around, Dementors and Inferi swarming all over Britain, and Azkaban's former prisoners roaming the country at large.
Harry stuck firmly to his programme of prioritizing the Patronus Charm in the duelling club, but it wasn't smooth sailing.
Three weeks in, the Dementor defence was proving to be a real challenge. For the first time, all age groups—barring last year's advanced students—were having the same trouble mastering a spell.
"This is extremely difficult magic, Harry," Eddie Carmichael said as they watched students try again, and fail again. "If it wasn't for how necessary it is right now—"
"Well, there you have it." Harry shrugged. "If it wasn't so necessary right now, I wouldn't have insisted."
These days everyone, Harry included, emerged from duelling club sessions exhausted, but there was a new sense of purpose within the group. They were doing something tangible that could help them with one of the immediate dangers out there, beyond the walls of Hogwarts.
"Maybe I'll be able to protect my family if I learn this," Colin Creevey said, gripping his wand hard. "They're Muggles, so they wouldn't know the first thing to do. They wouldn't even see the Dementors."
"I know," Harry said, and tore his mind away from the memory of Aunt Petunia.
"My parents are wizards, but that's not a fat lot of help," Terry said darkly. "They can't cast the charm, I've asked them. So if a Dementor comes calling at Christmas, I'm their best shot at survival."
A couple of other kids nodded, and Harry sighed.
"Well. Back to practicing with you, then. Try to think of a really happy memory, okay?"
"Maybe we should specify that I must get this spell or everyone will die does not count as a happy thought," Eddie said to Harry under his breath, surprising Harry into a chuckle.
Tracey Davis seemed to be having trouble. So was Justin Finch-Fletchley. So was Romilda Vane.
Harry approached them in turn, helping out with wand movements and ideas for what could constitute a suitable memory.
They were all working so hard, and they didn't even know the full scope of the Azkaban breakout. Harry sincerely hoped that the media shitstorm, if it was coming, wouldn't erupt anytime soon—he didn't want any such distractions to jeopardize his students' sense of purpose.
Harry looked at the books spread before him on a secluded library table. Seeing him, anyone might think he was a hermit scholar, with his mind on the higher planes of esoteric study.
Thrice-damned Magick Moste Evile took apparent joy in explaining things through metaphor and allusion. As such, it required a lot of supplemental reading, and Harry thought he'd start beating his head against walls if he had to slog through any more medieval English.
Medieval English, might he add, of the gruesome kind…
But then, he was slowly, slowly getting somewhere.
He'd carefully perused the annoying book and found references to a particular means of increasing power. Unfortunately, it involved a ritual—something Harry had been uncomfortable thinking about since it reminded him far too much of Voldemort's rituals that he had witnessed.
("Bone of the father, unknowingly given… Flesh of the servant, willingly given… Blood of the enemy, forcibly taken…")
Still. This was not the time to get bogged down in sentiments.
Harry was even now hunting for details of the ritual, which wasn't easy to pin down. It was, apparently, big and bad and had to be written in code. The mention of a bodily sacrifice made him fear that he'd have to chop off a hand, but his general familiarity with Dark magic suggested that his blood may be enough.
The soul requirement was more problematic, because Harry wasn't going to start splitting his soul into pieces—that would definitely be crossing way into Voldemort's level…
And he hadn't even begun figuring out the third and final component.
This was where—well. This was where Harry started getting a little bit in over his head, he could admit. Straight-out spell-learning he could do; juggling elaborate theoretical constructs, not so much. It would be good to clear up a few points with a knowledgeable source; someone who would answer questions without asking too many in return.
He could think of only one such person—and, as it happened, he was supposed to be pumping him for information anyway.
Slughorn seemed to favour Harry plenty. This being the case, Harry thought that now might be a good time to capitalize on his gains. He had a tentative plan in place for probing the Potions master about Horcruxes after the next Slug Club meeting.
And if he was successful… well, he couldn't be faulted for pursuing his own lines of inquiry…
Harry started as the privacy charm around him gave a tinkle of alarm.
He sat up straighter and gave a hurried sweep of his wand, sending the books off his table to their proper places on the shelves. Whoever was approaching, it would be no good if they caught him reading anything but—say, Arithmancy.
A textbook, quickly fished out of the bag, completed the picture.
"Harry!" Terry said, appearing from behind a bookshelf. "There you are!"
"So I am," Harry agreed. "You were looking for me?"
"You're asking me? We're supposed to be meeting in the Hidden Room, remember?"
"Oh." Harry glanced at his watch. "Damn it. Sorry. Time flies, you know, when you're having fun."
Terry sized up Harry's ruffled hair and the Arithmancy textbook before him.
"Yeah, I can see you're having fun by the bucketload," he said. "Why did you even take Arithmancy to NEWTs if you have so much trouble with it?"
"I ask myself the same question every day," Harry said, as they walked out of the library together.
The meeting in the Hidden Room quickly devolved into a homework club. Turned out, everyone was pretty swamped with assignments.
"Okay, so I was suicidal with Arithmancy," Harry said, putting his head on the desk. "But why did I also have to take Transfiguration?"
"Because it's going to help you later in life," Anthony said, rolling up his own essay.
"Because you thought you could deal with the workload?" Terry suggested.
Harry raised his head and pointed a finger at Terry.
"That last one," he muttered, "that last one is probably it. Damn it."
"Look, at least you're already done with your essay for Snape," Neville said glumly. "And I still haven't managed a nonverbal Stunner."
"You will soon," Harry said encouragingly.
"Yes, well. Snape took ten points off Gryffindor anyway." Neville shut his book with a disgusted expression on his face.
"Tough luck," Terry sympathized. "He took points from Hannah Abbott, too, and Susan—er, I mean—" He glanced awkwardly at Harry.
Harry rolled his eyes.
"It's okay, you can say her name," he said. "I'm not about to break, or anything."
"Well, I didn't think you were, but—" Terry stopped and turned to the other side of the room with a frown. "Oy! What's with the commotion over there?"
It was true that the noise coming from Hermione, Padma and Luna had been escalating for the past few minutes.
"Nothing!" Padma said loudly, without taking her eyes off Luna. "It's just that Miss Lovegood here has gone off on one of her theories about the Hidden Room—"
"Oh Merlin," Terry said. "That horse is so, so dead, and they're still having at it."
The girls had had occasional discussions about the mechanics of the Hidden Room for over a year now. Each debate started off with a new fact or observation brought forth by someone, and inevitably degenerated into ad hominem arguments.
Harry didn't quite see the fun, but then he'd had enough of magical theory.
"If I left a book in one version of the Room, you could not have seen it in another, because I didn't leave it there!" Padma exclaimed.
"Your book wasn't very difficult to miss, what with that bright crimson colour," Luna replied mildly. "Personally, I have never been interested in the Dark Love Blossoms series."
"That is not the point," Padma protested, a light blush on her cheeks. "The point is—you simply cannot have seen it!"
"There were very many other things there, besides your book," Luna noted. "It was a place where people have hidden things for a very long time."
Harry was going to turn to Anthony and ask him about Transfiguration, but the Ravenclaw was looking unexpectedly intrigued by the discussion.
"Luna, could you repeat that? You saw Padma's book in the Hidden Room, but not where Padma had left it?"
"I forgot my book after the duelling club last time," Padma said, hijacking Luna's response. "And she claims she later saw it in some storage version of the Room."
"I've been in that hiding place many times before," Luna said. "It's always the same, you know."
"Do you think that's what the Room looks like when there's no-one around?" Terry asked excitedly.
Harry and Neville exchanged looks.
Ravenclaws. Now there'd be no redirecting their attention, or Hermione's, for that matter.
"Could it be some storage for house-elves?" Anthony suggested. "If you say there are many things in that room—could it be a kind of local lost-and-found?"
Padma stared at him.
"Lost, but never found?" she said. "Honestly, Tony, how can that possibly work? Not that many students know about the Room. Certainly not the whole castle, so if the elves find anything, they probably take it to Filch. Never even mind how they could possibly find anything in the Hidden Room, when it's individual for anyone who imagines it. You can only enter and find it the same if you know what the person imagined, and how could they?"
"The house-elves have a lot of magic we don't know about—" Terry began.
"Yes, but come on."
"I wonder, would the rules of entering the Room be quite different for house-elves…" Hermione said, jotting something down on a piece of parchment, and smiled at Terry.
"You could ask them, you know," Luna pointed out. "I'm sure they'd be happy to help you. Very nice creatures, they are."
"Yes, well, while we're on the subject of research," Hermione responded, a glint in her eye. "How about we conduct a little experiment? I'll leave something here before we go, and then tell you what it was. We'll see if you can find it in the storage version of the Room, as you claim."
"It is a very big room," Luna said. "Almost like a cathedral, with a lot of things there."
"Suddenly feeling less sure about what you saw?" Padma asked snidely.
Luna gazed between her and Hermione with a rare air of crossness.
"Not at all," she said. "We can have as many experiments as you wish. Leave something of yours here before we go, and I will try to find it in the storage. I'll do it, you'll see."
"Just as long as the Room doesn't provide it for you just because you wish for it," Padma pointed out.
"It's not good to be so narrow-minded," Luna chided.
From then on, the discussion predictably deteriorated into a comparison of one another's mental and spiritual attributes.
Harry sighed and turned back to his Transfiguration homework, which, funnily enough, had not completed itself in the meantime.
"So what are you planning to do after school, Miss Chang?" Professor Slughorn asked, falling back in his chair.
"Right now it's between professional Quidditch and the Ministry's experimental charms department, sir," Cho said. "I'm still not sure."
The Slug Club dinner in the Potions master's quarters was winding down; they'd already moved onto dessert. A fire crackled pleasantly in the hearth, the chairs were soft and comfortable, and the food had been delicious. Even Blaise looked content for the moment as he sat next to Padma and listened idly to her conversation with Cormac McLaggen.
Judging by Padma's sweet expression, McLaggen didn't have much longer to live.
Hermione was on McLaggen's other side, and Cho sat directly to Slughorn's left. Harry got the prestigious right-hand spot, and Neville, next to him, completed the circle.
"I hear that you have a special young man at the Ministry, Miss Chang?" Slughorn asked with a smile. "A Triwizard champion, isn't he?"
Cho blushed prettily.
"Yes, I suppose Cedric is rather famous for that. But, of course, Harry won the Cup, and he and Harry shared the victory," she said, gesturing towards Harry with a smile.
"Well, that's just Harry for you!" Slughorn beamed, clapping Harry on the shoulder.
His exclamation was loud enough to attract the others' attention; Blaise rolled his eyes, and McLaggen frowned.
"It's all pretty ancient history by now," Harry said. "What with recent events…" He shrugged.
Slughorn clucked his tongue, shaking his head.
"Dangerous times we live in," he said in disapproving tone. "Nowhere is safe, mark my words. Nowadays, one has to give up on comfort in search of security."
"Is it very much like the first war, Professor?" Hermione asked hesitantly.
"No," Slughorn said, his gaze lingering on the fire. "So far, it is not like the first war at all, but there are, of course, some similarities… Unpleasant business, altogether unpleasant…"
Looking at the teacher, Harry tried to gauge whether his Horcruxes plan was a viable one. A lot would hinge on how much Slughorn actually wanted Voldemort gone.
He had alluded to being on the run; apparently, Voldemort was trying to recruit him, and he really didn't want to have to say no. Dumbledore had implied that Slughorn had good intentions but was ruled by fear...
He carried Voldemort's deadly secret inside of him, so no wonder he was keen to hide out at Hogwarts; but was it only that, or did he genuinely oppose Voldemort?
Under normal circumstances, Slughorn would have been the archetypal non-radicalized Pureblood—the type who wouldn't really suffer no matter who won, and as such one who could afford to theorize about it all without participating…
"A penny for your thoughts, Harry?" Slughorn asked, and Harry started guiltily.
"Just—thinking about the war, sir," Harry said.
Slughorn's jovial expression darkened.
"Yes, I'm sure you must have a lot on your mind, eh, Harry? The Chosen One, they call you…"
"They do," Harry agreed levelly.
The Potions master gave him a shrewd look. Harry smiled and lowered his voice.
"The Minister has once told me it's not the truth that's important, but what people believe…"
Slughorn tugged on his moustache, expression thoughtful.
"That's as it may be, my boy, and yet—"
But the Potions master did not get to finish his sentence. Right at that moment, they were interrupted by an awful scream.
The high-pitched wail of acute pain came from somewhere nearby Slughorn's office. Harry jumped, as did everyone else, and started for the door.
Neville was the first to burst out the office, with the rest crowding behind him.
A cloud of brownish dust half-obscured a scene of utter destruction. A portion of the ceiling in the corridor before Slughorn's door appeared to have caved in, releasing a crush of rubble onto the floor beneath. From under the mass of stone emanated anguished cries. Some unfortunate soul was apparently trapped under the rubble, most likely injured—
Harry was already casting a nonverbal spell to move the stones, as was Hermione. He heard Padma next to him incant a Vanishing spell.
"Wingardium Leviosa," McLaggen chimed in, flicking his own wand.
The fallen stones didn't budge.
"Help!" came the feeble call from the rubble.
"We're trying!" Cho shouted, and shook her wand in frustration. "Professor, what's going on?"
A frowning Slughorn cast a couple of nonverbal spells in quick succession. Then, after another swish of his wand, the air cleared of dust particles, and the rubble came into focus.
From where Harry stood, it suddenly seemed that—that the stones continued falling even as they lay on the floor.
They seemed to be pressing down, deliberately, as if trying to squeeze the life out of the people trapped underneath—
"Professor," Harry said urgently. "I think—"
"Harry," Padma said, grabbing his arm. "Is this—"
"MURDER!" Peeves whooshed onto the scene, hovering above them and cackling madly. "MUUUUUUURDEEEER IN THE CORRIDORS!"
"Oh shut up," Hermione said, and aimed a spell at the poltergeist, which he dodged.
Harry dimly heard the sound of approaching feet—Peeves's cries had attracted attention. But his mind was fixed on the pile of rubble.
He'd heard of this curse. Montague had taught it to him, one evening, when they'd been hanging out after Quidditch, back in a different life…
But if this was the curse used—if a curse was used—why was a curse used?
"We can't waste any time!"
"What is going on, why can't we move the stones?"
Pained screams ringing in his ears, Harry aimed his wand at the rubble and whispered an incantation he was not supposed to know.
He wasn't even sure it would work, but—
The stones shuddered, and another moan came from underneath them.
Harry cast the spell again, concentrating hard, and then—the rubble froze.
There was a momentary pause as Harry drew a breath.
"Let's try now," he said. "To move them."
The stones made no resistance this time as several spells rang out in unison.
The rocks lifted in the air—and then the whole pile flew over to the side.
The stones collapsed with a crash that shook the entire corridor, and in their place two small bloodied figures came into view.
One of the kids was stirring weakly; the other didn't even move.
"Oh Merlin," Slughorn said, dashing towards them. "Abercrombie! Nichols! Miss Granger, essence of dittany from my office, at once! Alert the hospital wing!"
Harry became aware of their audience; a crowd had gathered around them as they'd tried to extricate the unfortunate students from the rubble. Quite of a few were now staring at him.
"I know these kids," Cho was saying tearfully, meanwhile. "I told them off just the other night—Gryffindor second-years, such trouble-makers—always sneaking off to the kitchens—"
Blaise came up to Harry, expression about as blank as Harry suspected his own was.
"You'd better have an explanation for how you knew what to do."
They both looked ahead at Slughorn bent over the second year students.
Harry thought of the Dark spell he'd cast, of the kids' pitiful whimpers.
"I couldn't just leave them there."
"No. I suppose you could not."
Harry slanted a glance at Blaise and clenched his teeth.
"Really? I should have let them bleed to death?"
"POTTER MURDERING STUDENTS IN CORRIDORS!" Peeves crooned delightedly.
"Shut up!" Padma shouted. Her spell hit the poltergeist on the head, and he sped away from the scene, spreading the news of murder far and wide.
"I don't suppose this could be an accident," Hermione said, returning from Slughorn's side.
She looked a little wild around the eyes, and her uniform—like everyone else's—was covered in dust.
Harry shook his head.
Just then, they heard a stir from behind them. The crowd of students parted, giving way to the majestic figure of Albus Dumbledore with Madam Pomfrey at his side.
"Everyone will please return to your common rooms," the Headmaster said, predictably. "I shall ask your students here to stay, Horace."
"Certainly, certainly," Slughorn muttered, and moved aside to let the school nurse approach the injured second-years. "I have administered some first-aid charms, as you can see—"
Madam Pomfrey took over, her wand moving confidently over the prone bodies.
"How are they, Poppy?" Dumbledore inquired in a mild tone.
The Headmaster projected the image of a leader calmly in control, but Harry, who'd learnt to watch out for his tells, thought he was worried, maybe even angry…
"They'll live," the nurse said. "But they took some heavy damage."
"Will you require any assistance getting them into the hospital wing?"
Dumbledore nodded and turned to the dishevelled Slug Club.
"Horace, if we could perhaps use your office to discuss the events—?"
"By all means," Slughorn said and waved an arm in the direction of his door.
Harry and the others trooped back into the Potions master's office, and the sight of dessert dishes still on the dinner table struck Harry as completely incongruous. But, of course, hardly a quarter of an hour had passed.
He glanced around—Neville appeared badly shaken, Padma grim, Cho upset… In fact, only Blaise's expression—and, he guessed, his own—betrayed no emotion. But then, they never did wear their hearts on their sleeves.
Slughorn collapsed on his chair, looking like a man badly in need of fortification, and Dumbledore took a seat next to him.
"Do make yourselves comfortable," the Headmaster said, looking around at all the students in turn. "Please tell me what happened, Horace."
He listened carefully as the Potions master related the story of the evening's events. Once Slughorn had finished—
"And what would be your theory, Mr. Potter?" Dumbledore asked.
Of course, Harry had anticipated the question. He leaned back in his chair, conscious of all eyes on him.
"I'd say someone staged a deliberate attack."
"On these particular students?" Dumbledore asked quickly.
"I wouldn't know, sir."
"One has to be thankful you knew how to recognize the means of the attack, however."
Dumbledore smiled, but Harry knew that look. He raised his chin a tiny bit and gave a thin smile in return.
"I'm glad to be of help, as always."
Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed then that the others were observing the conversation between himself and Dumbledore with keen, somewhat surprised attention. It occurred to him belatedly that most people, his friends included, had never seen him and the Headmaster interact.
The Order had, and they still bore the scars…
"We were very lucky that Harry was there," Slughorn said, and Harry thought he sounded defensive. "I must say I did not recognize the curse—but Harry did, rather quickly, and time was of the essence."
"No doubt it was, Horace," Dumbledore agreed. "If you would be so kind to tell us, then, Mr. Potter, about the nature of the curse?" At Harry's momentary frown, he added: "I confess it appears to me a rather novel, if unpleasant, enchantment."
A Dark curse unknown to Dumbledore? This was getting better and better.
"It's a spell that gives inanimate objects a desire to kill," Harry said, trying to keep his voice casual. "Only temporarily, of course, and it can't do anything complex. But if you cast it on a blanket, it will suffocate whoever is under it. If you cast it on a pile of rubble—" He shrugged.
"Is that why normal spells didn't work on the stones?" Cho inquired, a light clearly dawning.
"Yeah. It needed a counter-curse."
"Fascinating," Dumbledore said, steepling his fingers. "How did you know to recognize it?"
"It was a lucky guess," Harry said. "I'd heard of such a curse, that's all."
"Indeed?" Dumbledore inquired. "Very foresighted of you to have memorized the incantation."
Harry met his gaze calmly, not giving an inch.
"I presume this is a curse of recent creation," Dumbledore said. "Though it draws, of course, on old ideas… It is fashionable, would you say, in a certain crowd?"
Harry drew his eyebrows, wondering that himself. He hadn't realized this was a new curse when Montague had boasted about it, but it made sense in retrospect. If so, it could very well be in vogue among junior Death Eaters, and perhaps senior ones too.
"I wouldn't know," he chose to say.
"Wouldn't you?" Cormac McLaggen interjected, sounding something between menacing and hysterical. "You seem to be the only one who knew this Dark spell, Potter! That doesn't strike you a suspicious at all?"
"I'm far from the only one," Harry said coolly. In a certain crowd.
"In any case," Slughorn said hurriedly, wiping his forehead with a handkerchief, "poor Abercrombie and his friend will be extremely grateful to Harry, I'm sure. I suppose someone must have been in the corridor to cast that spell?"
"It can be time-delayed," Harry said, reluctantly. "Or, well, activated only when it comes into contact with a living being. So, technically, the ceiling could have been charmed in advance."
"In which case, we may also suppose that the cave-in itself had not been accidental," Dumbledore mused.
"Really, Albus," Slughorn said, alarmed. "There's nothing to tell us either way. The mischief may have been done once the stones had already fallen."
"Perhaps," Dumbledore conceded. "Who knew that you were hosting a meeting tonight, Horace?"
Slughorn blinked, looking nonplussed.
"I could not account for that, by any means," he said. "The list would include those my students may have told, I imagine, and those who may have heard me inviting them. But, Albus, surely you don't mean—"
"I do not yet mean anything in particular, Horace," Dumbledore said, smiling. "Do not trouble yourself."
"But," Harry said, frowning, "if it was a timed trap—it can't have been for those two kids, could it?"
"Let us not be too hasty," said Slughorn. "It is entirely possible that the unfortunate attack was perpetrated, so to say, on the spot."
"There was no-one in the corridor but us," Cormac McLaggen said, butting into the conversation again.
"Us and a giant cloud of dust," Padma put in sweetly. "We could have missed any number of people in that haze."
"But," Hermione said, "who would do such a thing? And what for?"
"That, Miss Granger, is a truly excellent question," Dumbledore answered.
In no time, rumours had spread around Hogwarts. By breakfast next morning, the whole school knew that two Gryffindor second-years had been attacked, that they'd almost died, and that the corridor outside Professor Slughorn's office had been the scene of the crime.
Everyone also knew that Harry Potter had been involved somehow, but no-one seemed sure whether Harry had saved the two Gryffindors or tried to kill them.
"Peeves ought to be exorcised," Harry told Neville as they took a walk by the lake.
It was a chilly day, but not bad for the beginning of December. Twilight had set in, even though it was only past three. In another hour, it would be too dark to be outside.
"I don't think you can do that to a poltergeist," Neville said distractedly. "Harry—how did you know about that curse?"
Harry blew out an annoyed breath. Everyone around him seemed determined to make mountains out of molehills.
Hermione had cornered him yesterday almost as soon as Dumbledore had dismissed them.
("How did you recognize that spell? Wasn't it a Dark curse, Harry?")
Padma hadn't been not far behind.
("It was very dashing of you, Harry, and everything, but where did you pick up such sweet little spells?")
McLaggen had confronted him this morning.
("You were the only one who knew how to get rid of the curse… How do we know you hadn't cast it in the first place?")
Millie had lectured him once they'd told her everything, Anthony and Terry had looked at him intently all through lunch, and Neville had just broached the topic.
Harry thought they were paying far too much attention to trivialities.
"Nev," he said. "Never mind how I know stuff. I study a lot, okay, and you pick things up in Slytherin. All kinds of things. But that's not the point. The point is: what the hell was that attack?"
"We've been talking about in Gryffindor, obviously." Neville bent down to pick up a twig, then tossed it aside after a moment's consideration. "Euan Abercrombie and Roger Nichols are just ordinary kids, you know. They're a bit annoying, and they've lost a few points, but no-one hates them or anything. And we're all quite sure nobody wants to kill them." Neville shivered. "But… Nichols is a Muggle-born, and Abercrombie's his friend. People say it's related to the war, you know."
Harry rubbed an eyebrow.
"Yeah. You think it's not?"
Neville looked at the lake, then back at Harry.
"Well, thing is, if we start talking about the war and the Death Eaters and so on, the first place to look is Slytherin. No offence."
"None taken," Harry muttered.
"You said you learned the curse in Slytherin. Who else may have?" Neville pressed.
"Anyone on the Quidditch team," Harry said readily. "And anyone friendly with the upper years, which is kind of all of the junior Death Eaters. And anyone from other Houses who's leaning the same way, for all I know."
Harry had watched his Housemates closely yesterday, as, truth be told, he was also inclined to suspect someone who could have learnt the curse from Montague. Say, Draco Malfoy, who didn't seem to be having a good year so far, and could very well want to vent his frustration on a couple of Gryffindor kids.
Malfoy had been in the common room when Harry had returned, and Millie said he'd been there the whole time Harry had been gone. But the Malfoy scion did seem out of sorts these days…
The only thing Harry was sure of in the entire mess was that the attack had been deliberate, because such curses did not cast themselves.
"Fair enough," Neville said, once Harry had outlined this to him. "It is confusing. We don't even really know the attack was on Abercrombie and Nichols in particular, do we?"
"No, we don't." Harry sighed. "Have they woken up yet, by the way?"
"Yeah," Neville said, "thankfully, they have. They'll be fine, don't worry. They said they were going to the kitchens, sneaking off as usual, and then—they don't remember anything, and then they were in pain. So that doesn't clear up anything."
Harry rubbed his hands to warm them up.
"Could it have been a prank? Like a joke gone wrong, from one of the older Gryffindors?"
"With a spell that Dark? In Gryffindor?"
"Oh, don't give me that," Harry said. "Gryffindors don't have a monopoly on virtue."
"Yeah, okay," Neville said. "But still, this is clearly a spell that intends to harm. Nobody would use it in a prank. Well," he amended, "not now that Fred and George have graduated, and Umbridge is gone…"
Harry quirked a quick smile at Neville.
"The thing is, if the two kids weren't the targets, if this was a timed attack, why was it staged there and then and who the hell was supposed to get hurt?" Harry said.
"Well," Neville said cautiously, "there was a person in that room who's often in the headlines these days, and whose loss would be a huge blow to our side—"
"You, Harry. Hasn't it occurred to you that you may have been the target?"
It had, which was another reason why Harry had thought of Malfoy. There was hardly anyone at the school who hated him more.
But then, he didn't know what orders Voldemort had given; previously, the Dark Lord had declared that he wanted to kill Harry personally, which made him off-limits to others.
On the other hand, the attack, so close to the office of a teacher, would have injured Harry more likely than killed him—which made a crucial difference…
"I don't know, Nev," Harry said. "I doubt it. If it was an attack on me, it was so ridiculously convoluted and poorly timed that it seems unlikely."
Neville didn't look convinced, but he nodded and looked out to the lake.
"Either way, it looks bad, you know," he said. "This kind of thing, it's not helping, with things as tense as they are…"
Indeed. The atmosphere at Hogwarts was cheerful enough with the Daily Prophet reporting people's disappearances and Dementor sightings and attacks on Muggle villages. If students thought the school's corridors were also turning into a battlefield, there was no saying what would follow.
Harry was glad to find that Slughorn had not started thinking any worse of him for having used a bit of Dark magic. Quite the contrary, the teacher had praised Harry for thinking on his feet and for showing initiative.
("It's not every student that would rush so readily to the defence of another! You're truly your mother's son, Harry, so like dear Lily…")
With this in mind, Harry figured there was no sense in putting off his plan to question Slughorn. He didn't get to it last time for obvious reasons, but the next Slug Club meal would present another opportunity.
To this end, Harry hung back after their lunch two weeks later, hovering by Slughorn's office door.
"Actually, Professor, I wanted to ask you a question, if it's all right with you," he said.
"Of course, Harry," Slughorn said, spreading his arms wide. "As they say, fire away!"
Harry stepped further into the room and stopped by the mantelpiece.
"Thank you, Professor. Well, actually, my question has nothing to do with Potions, or with the current school curriculum. But I've heard—from other students—that you are rather knowledgeable in many areas of magic."
Slughorn nodded uncertainly.
"I wondered if—well." Harry took a deep breath in nervousness that wasn't all feigned. He really wanted to play this right. "You've noticed, I think, that I have been researching some… unusual spells. Due to my history with the Dark Lord, I—well. We've talked about this before, the Chosen One business. I will have to fight him, you see, and I can't… I don't want to be flying blind."
"I quite understand," Slughorn muttered, though he did appear unsettled.
"Professor Dumbledore does not entirely approve of my research," Harry said carefully. "He believes—I don't know what he believes." Harry injected a bit of frustration into his voice. "I don't think he likes it that I'm a Slytherin, and I don't think—I don't want to say anything bad about him, he's a great wizard—but I don't feel I can talk to him or ask him anything. Because he disapproves of me, I think, really."
"Now, Harry, I'm sure it's not so bad," Slughorn said, frowning. "Dumbledore's quite fair-minded, you know—though, of course, he does quite like getting his way… I confess I did notice certain coolness between him and you that night, after that awful tragedy…"
Slughorn gave a delicate shudder, and Harry nodded.
"You see what I mean, then, sir. But I can't not research what I'm up against only to please him, and I wondered—would you agree to maybe—answer some questions, when I have them? I won't bother you all the time, or anything, sir. It's just—a lot of it is so complicated—and I really don't know who to talk to…"
Slughorn was already nodding, and Harry's heart beat faster as he sensed success.
"Of course, my boy, you are in a terrible position." The Potions master's round chest swelled even more with apparent indignation. "I've thought rather often lately that you've been quite ill-used. So many responsibilities, for one so young! It is no wonder you're buckling under the strain!"
A momentary feeling of genuine gratitude towards Slughorn blindsided Harry; he blinked, and berated himself for falling for his own charade.
He was doing just fine. He didn't need any support from understanding adults.
"Dreadful business, this war," Slughorn was saying meanwhile. "Makes the young grow up too fast, and disturbs the peace of the old… But of course, if you think I could help you, I'd be glad to…"
"Thank you, sir," Harry said, expression as relieved as he could make it. "It will mean so much to me. I've had to research some really convoluted things… the Dark Lord has gone quite deeply into some of the less—pleasant aspects of magic."
This jolted Slughorn out of his mellow demeanour. His brow clouded, and he murmured:
"Yes, yes, of course… though, naturally, I will not pretend to know anything about his actions…"
"Oh, I don't expect you to, sir, not at all," Harry said. "I doubt anyone really knows what he has researched and what rituals he's undergone. I have been gathering as much information as possible, but I am, of course, directly involved. I've discovered terrible things, sir…" At Slughorn's grave nod, Harry continued, seemingly carried away: "I even happen to know he's made several—"
He checked himself, donning a deer-in-the-headlights look. Slughorn stared at him.
"Several what, Harry?"
Harry averted his eyes before glancing hesitantly back at Slughorn.
"Please, sir, I'm really not sure I should tell you… I was just—it's very secret, you see, but finally talking about all of it—please promise you won't tell anybody, sir."
Slughorn appeared torn between his curiosity and the feeling that ignorance was bliss.
"You have my word," he uttered finally, and Harry knew that curiosity had won.
"The Dark Lord has made several Horcruxes," Harry said. At Slughorn's gasp of what seemed like genuine horror, Harry added: "I wouldn't even have known what it was, but I've actually destroyed one."
"You've destroyed one of the Horcruxes of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named?" Slughorn repeated faintly and reached for the mantelpiece for support. "You—Horcruxes? Merlin's beard, Harry."
Harry nodded solemnly.
"And I know there's more of his Horcruxes there. I'm not sure how many altogether, though. I think he must be the first wizard to make more than one."
"Not the first," Slughorn said faintly. "But never before, to my knowledge, has anyone gone further than to make two! By Jove. So he did make them…"
That last remark was clearly involuntary, but Harry seized on it.
"Do you—know anything about it, sir?"
There was a pause, during which Slughorn stood very still. Then he slowly raised his eyes to Harry's.
"I'm sorry, my boy," he said with a pitiful attempt at a smile. "This has all been rather too much to take in. I confess I'm quite bowled over! I could never—this could surely never—I'm sorry, Harry, but I have to say, I am quite fatigued all of a sudden."
Slughorn's obvious shock seemed to point to his forlorn hope that Tom Riddle had never acted on the information about Horcruxes.
"Professor," Harry said very seriously, holding Slughorn's gaze. "I will leave if you want me to, but if you happen to know anything about this—anything at all—I wish you would tell me. The knowledge of the Dark Lord's Horcruxes is the best weapon against him we have, and this could save hundreds of lives—this could win us the war."
Slughorn made an abortive movement towards Harry, seemingly eager to stop the flow of words.
"Harry, please," he said. "You don't know what you are saying. You don't know what you are asking."
Harry shook his head.
"The Dark Lord taints every life he touches; I know that better than most. Whatever it entails, I'll be grateful for any help you give."
Slughorn's apprehension was visibly rising, and Harry knew without a shadow of doubt he wouldn't get anything else out of him today. The subtle confession would have to be enough—for now.
Harry was already at the door when the Potion master's quiet voice stopped him.
"Harry… has Dumbledore put you up to this?"
"Up to what, Professor?"
Slughorn gazed uncertainly at Harry, and Harry looked him straight in the eye.
"I'm sorry if I've upset you, sir," he said finally. "Please believe I never meant to."
With that, he walked out the door.
Staring at the spread of the Daily Prophet at breakfast the next morning, Harry wondered whether he'd chosen the best possible time to approach Slughorn, or the worst possible one.
The latter seemed, unfortunately, more likely.
The entire wizarding world knows who Harry Potter is. But very few could say for certain what he stands for, Rita Skeeter wrote in a second-page feature.
Under the headline (The Peculiar Politics of Harry Potter) was a picture of Harry from the Slytherin-Gryffindor match, taken as he was walking off the pitch. Malfoy, Crabbe and Goyle followed at his back. The shot had a very dramatic look, as if Harry was at the forefront of ominous forces rather than a mere Quidditch team.
This was in line with Rita Skeeter's evocative tale.
After Harry Potter battled You-Know-Who at the Ministry of Magic, we were quick to hail him as our hero—or even our future saviour. But perhaps, in so doing, we hastened too much to ignore his past.
Moving past the usual tributes to the heroic deeds of Harry's infancy, Skeeter swiftly segued into the meat of the story. She outlined how Harry had remained an unknown quantity for years after starting Hogwarts, and how he'd been rumoured to be the Heir of Slytherin. She spent some time revisiting the reports of his character that came out during the Triwizard Tournament—highlighting his secretive nature, his skills as a Parselmouth, and his apparently unhealthy appetite for fame.
She pointed out how his negative press had fallen by the wayside in the aftermath of his battle with Voldemort—and then, in a move that made Harry's eyebrows climb into the hairline, she went on to cast doubt onto those events.
The truth of the matter is, nobody knows to this day exactly what happened at the Ministry. From questioning various government employees and witnesses, your reporter has found only two facts we can answer for: Harry Potter and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named engaged in some magical exchange nobody can explain, and the then-Minister for Magic, Cornelius Fudge, died as a result.
That was one way of describing what had happened, Harry supposed, but Merlin's fucking balls.
Suddenly, he had a feeling that this wasn't just going to be yet another vaguely libellous article about the Boy-Who-Lived. This shit could have consequences.
But that's not even the worst of this story, Rita Skeeter promised.
"For fuck's sake," Harry muttered.
Millie, next to him, gave a grunt of what was either assent or an invitation to shut up.
Dear reader, here's a shocking truth your faithful reporter has uncovered: prior to these events, in the autumn of last year, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named had approached Harry Potter with an offer of reconciliation.
Indeed, we can say more. It was an offer of recruitment. Yes, several independent sources have confirmed this flabbergasting fact. Perhaps, You-Know-Who was attracted by the same reports of Potter's character that so repulsed the public. Or perhaps he knew something about the teenage hero that we did not. After all, it is hardly a secret that many of his followers hail from Slytherin—the Hogwarts House where Harry Potter shares a dormitory with sons of known Death Eaters.
Harry Potter did not refuse the offer.
Before you cry out in outrage, dear reader, be reassured: we do not know for a fact that he accepted the proposal. No definitive proof exists, and the young man's arm is still free of the Dark Mark. We know simply that Harry Potter was approached, and he did not say no. Perhaps, due to his situation in Slytherin, he felt he couldn't; perhaps he had friends who persuaded him to give it a thought. Perhaps, after all, an offer of relative safety could not but tempt a troubled teen who had already endured so much. Alas, he would not be the first to seek solace in darkness.
After the Battle at the Ministry, Harry Potter professed to have taken a stand against He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, and we were eager to believe him. We chose to ignore earlier reports of his character, and the odd reality of his continued good standing among those he was allegedly ready to fight. Most recently, we chose to turn a deaf ear to sinister reports that he'd been casting Dark spells in Hogwarts corridors.
But now, at this difficult moment, the time has come for us to tear down façades and see the truth. We need to know we can trust the young man we are pinning our hopes upon. The question is: how much is he trusting us?
Harry stared at the words, his mind blank for the moment.
This was—unexpected. This was worse than unexpected. This was—
He gazed at a photograph that accompanied the body of the article. It was another shot taken after the Quidditch match, and it depicted Harry and Malfoy clinking bottles at the party celebrating Slytherin's win. The caption didn't say anything outright, but implied just enough.
Of all the fuck-awful timing in the world, Harry thought, gritting his teeth.
As if he didn't have enough shit to deal with as it was.
"Harry?" Millicent said cautiously.
"Yeah. No. It's fine," Harry said, trying to gather his bearings.
"Spoken like a man who doesn't lose his head in a crisis," Blaise noted, surfacing from his own copy of the Prophet. "I think we can take this as our motto. It's catchy."
Harry ignored Blaise with effort, and took a deep breath.
It wasn't quite the worst article about him that had ever come out.
But there would be questions—again. He'd have to explain himself—again. His reputation was at stake—again.
What was that Skeeter cow thinking?
Harry momentarily felt like bashing his head against the wall, or throwing the mother of all tantrums, or fleeing the wizarding world and never looking back.
Instead, he sat up straighter and folded the paper neatly in two.
The seconds it took him to do that were not enough to go through even the most rudimentary of Occlumency exercises, but there was no putting off the inevitable.
He raised his eyes and surveyed the Great Hall.
Naturally, quite a few people were surveying him.
Harry affected an unconcerned look and searched for his friends. Terry was pretty pale, while Neville seemed fit to burst with anger. Padma, too, appeared cross, and Hermione upset.
A lot of teachers were sporting frowns, and Hagrid, for one, looked positively thunderous. Snape's face reflected nothing whatsoever. Dumbledore alone seemed his usual self, leafing merrily through the Prophet.
Harry lowered his head, closed his eyes and tried to clear his mind.
"So, this is going to be fun," Blaise said, in a voice filled with a biting kind of cheer. "Harry Potter cast as the main villain. Maidens faint, old warlocks shake their grizzly heads. The youth of today is hopeless. The world is headed to the dogs, etcetera. Bring on the Firewhisky."
"Rumours have an odd ability to validate themselves," Blaise continued, undeterred. "It's a rumour that's gone around Hogwarts before. Hark! The newspapers write the same thing. The plot thickens. There must be something in it, says a suspicious student. Could Harry Potter actually be the villain?"
Harry raised his eyes and looked at Blaise.
"What are you saying?"
"This is going to sound worse to those who've heard similar rumours about you before. There's that spell you cast, in Slughorn's corridor. And the recruitment stuff reached some ears last year. You can be sure the junior Darklings will do their best to substantiate it. Flatly denying everything is probably your only option, but—damn it, Harry," Blaise said, and for a moment his mask gave a crack. "We warned you about this. We knew it would come up."
"Yes, but—now?" Harry said, very carefully not balling his hands into fists. "Skeeter had to publish this right now, when things are as bad as they are? By all that is holy, what kind of a strategy is that?"
Blaise's face went oddly blank.
"Well," he said. "It does make sense if you consider for a moment that she may genuinely feel the public needs to be warned about you. If you are actually on the wrong side, at this point, with your high profile, you're more than a little dangerous."
Harry stared at him.
"But—how can she possibly—"
"You seem to think that everyone can see inside your head," Blaise said irritably. "Believe me, everyone has wanted to, for years, but they never could. In many ways, for all anyone knows… you could be planning or thinking anything."
"Let's not exaggerate. I've been pretty straightforward lately."
"Oh, have you?" Blaise murmured, eyes narrowed. He opened his mouth to add something, but visibly held himself back and changed tack. "Don't think you're in the clear just because you've been saying all the appropriate anti-Dark Lord things."
All the appropriate—
Harry drew a breath, but then swallowed his response. This was not a conversation to have in public. Much less in the Great Hall.
To regain a semblance of calm, Harry gazed around the Slytherin table. A few students were shooting glances at him, varying from curious to antagonistic. Malfoy looked pale and almost sick—perhaps he keenly felt the way he'd been implicitly singled out as a representative of Death Eaters at Hogwarts. Nott was quite impenetrable. Some duelling club members, including the Greengrass sisters, looked pale and grim.
Hardly anyone was talking, and then only in whispers.
But, well. There wasn't much to say, was there? It was an odd situation which on the one hand directly pitted Harry against the children of Death Eaters, but on the other prevented them from doing anything but showing a united front to the rest of the school.
All Slytherins had been painted with the same brush; the article heavily implied that Harry was evil for being one of them. Or that being one of them made him that much more evil, whatever.
Harry didn't know how the rest of the wizarding world was going to react to the story, but he hoped that Hogwarts students wouldn't go crazy with rumours and suppositions. A significant number of the students were in the duelling club, and so were likely to give Harry the benefit of the doubt.
He could hope, anyway.
Whispers followed Harry as he walked through Hogwarts corridors after breakfast.
It was nothing new. People often gossiped about him. Harry affected nonchalance as he carried on.
He'd called a duelling club meeting for that evening, figuring that it should be his first move in damage control.
And until then…
Harry quickened his pace.
Until then, he needed time to think.
Even as he walked towards the Hidden Room, thoughts assaulted him—memories, attempts at planning his actions, calculations about the future.
("What do you think everybody is going to say if their golden boy is still playing Quidditch on the side of the evil Slytherins?")
("A man can court many only so long before he is mistrusted by all.")
("Has it even occurred to you why all the bad guys think you'd make such a splendid bad guy along with them?")
The Hidden Room had resolved itself, going on Harry's subconscious wish, into his bedroom at number 12, Grimmauld Place.
Harry sat down on the bed, then lay back across it and stared at the dark grey ceiling.
("You say you're against You-Know-Who, but there's rumours going around, and how do we really know we can trust you or any other Slytherins?")
He'd thought he'd dealt with this last year. He'd figured that, surely, after his confrontation with Voldemort at the Ministry, no doubt about his loyalties could remain in anyone's mind. In a way, maybe he'd been counting far too much on the title of the Boy-Who-Lived.
("Whatever that title is supposed to mean, it doesn't mean shit with you.")
Harry closed his eyes, put an arm over his face.
Maybe he'd miscalculated. It wouldn't be the first time. Blaise was right, he did have a bad track record of recognizing how he was perceived by others.
But he'd been so busy doing other shit, all motherfucking kinds of other shit. He just hadn't had the time to stop and look around and wonder whether he was coming across as too Dark, too mild, too weak, too strong, or—
Harry took another deep breath and squeezed his eyes shut.
He was so tired.
("You've made a mistake. You've chosen wrong. You won't last among Dumbledore's lackeys.")
Bullshit. There was so much bullshit. He just had to ignore it and not let any of it matter. Otherwise he'd lose it completely, and be easy prey for Voldemort.
That was, if his own side didn't lynch him first.
("The entire wizarding world knows who Harry Potter is. But very few could say for certain what he stands for.")
Harry gave himself a mental shake. Nobody in any position of power was going to believe that article. Dumbledore was on his side. So was the Order, even if they didn't approve of everything he did. So was Scrimgeour.
More or less.
Harry made himself open his eyes.
It was fine. It would be fine. He'd deal with it all, one way or another.
He just needed to do what he always did: put on a calm expression, smile, and face the music as if he welcomed it.
Most of the duelling club turned up to the meeting, despite the short notice.
"If you have any questions to ask," Harry said from the podium, "you may as well ask me directly, instead of going around wondering. We can't afford not to trust each other right now."
"Was any of it true?"
"Were you actually recruited by the Death Eaters?"
"Can you prove that you're against You-Know-Who?"
Some of the students looked genuinely concerned—chiefly Slytherins who'd closely observed the dynamics in the House and knew for a fact that Harry had been friendly with Montague and his lot. Others, though, were old doubters, like Zacharias Smith and Morag McDougal. And then some were clearly enjoying the thrill…
Harry felt his patience slipping as he fielded the questions.
"For Merlin's sake, why would I be here today if I was secretly evil? What good on earth would it do me to train all of you guys to be able to, presumably, one day fight me? Why would it occur to me to teach you to repel the Dementors if I was all for unleashing them onto the public?"
"To keep up appearances?" Lisa Turpin suggested uncertainly.
"What appearances?" Harry asked. "Let's face it, this is not something that I have to do. It's something I choose to do. I'm here because I want to be and because I want all of you guys to be able to defend yourselves. If we can't get past this point, we should really think about what we're all doing in this room."
Harry was satisfied to see quite a few students looking chastised. Some were still frowning, but there were also vaguely apologetic glances cast his way…
Padma was whispering something furiously to her sister, while glaring at Terry and Anthony. At the meeting of Harry's friends not an hour ago, it had come out that the Ravenclaw boys had known about the recruitment offer since last year, and hadn't told her.
("I don't know. It was Harry's thing.")
Blaise and Millie were their usual selves, as was Luna. She'd stood up for Harry at the meeting with his friends—supporting Neville's vehement defence of Harry.
("In the end, there's only one question that we need to answer. Do we believe Harry or do we not? I, for one, believe him and always will.")
Hermione, like Padma, was hurt that Harry hadn't told them about the recruitment affair, but Harry was glad that both of them were standing by him regardless.
"Hey, Potter, don't worry about it—it'll blow over," Eddie Carmichael said, coming up to Harry.
Eddie's girlfriend Katie Bell gave Harry an encouraging smile, and he nodded at her gratefully.
To Harry's pleased surprise, some other duelling club members were making a point of coming up to him to express support.
"We have doubted you before, and it's never been justified," said Ernie Macmillan. "I have given up on believing you could ever be evil."
"I'm sorry you had to go through all the fuss," Cho Chang said sympathetically. "Cedric is probably livid. You shouldn't have to deal with all this."
"I can't believe the press are on your case for playing Quidditch for your own House," said Jack Harper, a fourth year Slytherin. "The world has gone mental."
Susan also came up to him, and looked him in the eyes.
"Anyone who'd believe Rita Skeeter is insane. I'm sure nobody will believe her, but all the same—I hope you're holding up okay."
The most unexpected supporter came in the form of Ron Weasley.
"You're all right, Potter," he said. "For a Slytherin wanker, and all." That last was delivered with a bit of a grin.
Harry cocked an amused eyebrow.
"Thanks, Weasley. That's what I call a real compliment."
Harry knew that not everyone was happy with his answers, and some still thought he had explaining to do. But an immediate crisis was averted, and that would have to be good enough for now.
Some peace and quiet, and time to gather his bearings. That was all he was asking for.
Harry frowned as Theodore Nott paused by his desk in the Transfiguration classroom.
"What did you think of the homework assignment?" Nott asked, seemingly offhand.
As if they were on friendly terms.
Harry sought refuge in being monosyllabic.
"It was all right."
He was conscious on eyes upon them—McGonagall observing them from the teacher's desk, Hermione frowning from the other side of the room, Lavender whispering something urgently to Parvati…
"Those human transfiguration spells are getting tricky, don't you think?" Nott asked, but Blaise's arrival interrupted whatever else he'd been planning to say.
"Oh hello," Blaise said pleasantly, curving an eyebrow. "You abandoning Malfoy in favour of our distinguished company today, Nott?"
Don't give him an excuse, Harry thought, but Nott only shrugged.
"Just making conversation. Either way," he nodded at them and made to leave. "Good luck."
Blaise and Harry watched him go.
"Well," Blaise said under his breath. "You can't blame them for this farce, but damn it, associating with them is ruining the beauty of my complexion."
Rita Skeeter's article, apart from everything else, had prompted an elaborate game of smoke and mirrors on the part of Harry's Voldemort-leaning classmates.
Nott's pleasantness this morning was a fine example. He and Harry had not been on friendly terms for the past few months. And yet, here Nott was, making a point to greet him in public and engage in amiable small talk—making sure everyone saw them get along.
Harry could not exactly rebuff him openly—that would be forsaking the one cardinal rule of Slytherin politics, a rule that had saved him in the past. But at the same time, this was doing nothing to help his damaged reputation.
The debate over Harry's moral purity or lack thereof had spilled all over the wizarding press. Journalists had pounced on Scrimgeour, Harry's ostensible ally; to his credit, the Minister was backing Harry and lambasting the rumours as Death Eater propaganda.
In a private letter to Harry, Scrimgeour had promised him a good long talk when they next met.
Harry couldn't wait.
Gilderoy Lockhart had spoken out, too, reminding everyone that Harry had been an attention-seeker since his tender years. He'd also warned the interviewer of Harry's dangerous charisma.
There was a pick-up line likely to work on the ladies.
Letters from the readers poured in to the Daily Prophet, some angry at the slander against the wondrous Boy-Who-Lived and others chipping in with their own suspicions.
At Hogwarts, Slughorn was Harry's main worry. Luckily, the man had not begun treating Harry any worse after the article. But the Potions master had held no more dinners or lunches since their conversation about Horcruxes, either…
Snape was paying Harry closer scrutiny than usual, and so was McGonagall. Harry didn't know whether this had more to do with them being members of the Order or Heads of Houses.
As regards the student population, the backing of duelling club members was giving Harry much-needed help. Tensions had already been running so high than the barest spark was needed to ignite conflict, and Harry—Harry was glad that several dozen of trusting people stood between him and providing that spark. He was glad they were there to smooth out conflicts, to buffer Harry from idiots who were calling for his blood.
Patience was in shorter than usual supply with him these days, and he—
Thinking about all the people watching his every move, and manoeuvring between all these different audiences increasingly made Harry feel like a Boggart, a shape-shifter who didn't actually know what he looked like when no-one was around. He smiled, he laughed, he looked confident around his friends and classmates; he was deferential to teachers; he was cold to his adversaries.
But some days, he really wanted someone to give him a reason, give him the barest shred of an excuse to press them into a wall, put a wand to their temple, and make them hurt.
Harry turned up to Slughorn's Christmas party with Gryffindor seventh-year Victoria Frobisher on his arm. This created quite a stir, as Harry's love-life was apparently still interesting to people.
"I didn't know you and Frobisher were an item," Padma said, visibly annoyed.
"She asked me out," Harry said. "I figured, why the hell not."
Victoria had a svelte figure, a pair of dark eyes glittering with intelligence, and a sense of humour. Her interests seemed to include Charms, Quidditch and Harry's questionable virtue. A winning combination by all standards.
"Very romantic of you, I'm sure," Padma said. "I know you're still not over Susan, but do you think it's wise to hook up with the first girl who offers?"
"What makes you think she's the first?"
Harry gave Padma a small smile, saluted her with his glass and set off in search of his date.
He didn't get very far as McLaggen waylaid him, eyes bright with the effects of the punch.
"Ah, Potter! Long time no see. Torture any second-years lately?"
"Not in the last couple of days," Harry said, giving him a sharp smile. "More to the point, have you?"
A couple of Slytherin kids had ended up in the hospital wing the preceding week. They couldn't tell what had happened to them, but the popular opinion in Slytherin blamed Gryffindors. After all, the Gryffindors (and quite a few others) widely believed that the attack on Gryffindors Abercrombie and Nichols had been perpetrated by Slytherins, or Death Eaters—which, hey, it's the same thing, after all.
Two kids out the infirmary, two kids in. Harry was sure someone thought it was fair.
"What do you mean?" McLaggen asked belligerently. "I don't play your type of games."
"Good for you," Harry said pleasantly, and looked McLaggen dead in the eye. "Because if I find out that you were involved in that attack, I'll be very unhappy with you. And I can make pretty bad things happen to people I'm unhappy with."
Something in Harry's expression must have told McLaggen that he meant every word, and how deeply he meant them, because McLaggen lost some colour.
"I'm not scared of you," McLaggen said, clutching his glass.
"Yes, you are," Harry said coolly. "But I don't care about you unless you've actually done something to those kids."
"Now, see here, Potter—"
"Getting alone fine, boys?" Slughorn asked jovially, appearing at Harry's elbow.
Harry turned to him with a smile.
"Of course, sir. And enjoying your party."
"You're looking a bit peaky, Cormac," Slughorn said, peering at McLaggen anxiously. "I hope none of the food disagreed with you. Well, Harry, come along, I must introduce you to a rather good friend of mine—he's very keen to meet you—"
Harry allowed Slughorn to herd him away, and chatted with a writer friend of Slughorn's, who apparently wanted to pen Harry's biography. He managed to escape a few minutes later, saying he'd spotted some people he needed to greet.
Hermione had, apparently, brought Terry to the party. She looked quite elegant in her dress, and Terry kept shooting her admiring glances.
"Neville and Luna are here too, but we lost them coming in," Hermione said, reaching up to feel her hair, which was done up in a neat bun. "It's not falling apart, I suppose? Feels like it is."
"Not at all," Harry said. "Good to see you, and you, Terry."
"Looks like a great party," Terry said, looking around in interest.
"Padma's already here, with Justin," Harry informed them. "Haven't seen anyone else we know—and hey, there's my date. Vicky, I suppose you know these two from the duelling club, so introductions are unnecessary. Can I get you a drink?"
"Why not? The night is young, and so are we, reasonably," Victoria said.
"That's the spirit."
Harry whisked her away towards the drinks table, after which they drifted around the room, spotting acquaintances and stopping to chat. Blaise had come to the party with Serena Fawcett, a pretty Ravenclaw who didn't seem quite sure what to make of him. Cho had brought Eddie Carmichael, so the Head Boy and Girl were both in attendance.
"Of course, I'd much rather Cedric was here," Cho told Harry privately. "He's been so busy lately, you know. I hoped he could come, but…"
"Yeah, so did I," Harry said.
"He was held up at the last minute," Cho said mournfully. "There was some awful attack on Muggles, again, and of course his department is always on call…"
"Are you going to see him over the break?" Harry asked, hoping to direct the conversation to more cheerful ground.
"I hope so," Cho said. "We may even spend Christmas together, if my parents allow me… but we'll see. How about you?"
"Yeah, maybe," Harry said.
Visiting the Ministry was generally easier from Grimmauld Place than from Hogwarts, and he was expected for a chat with Scrimgeour, anyway. Perhaps he and Cedric would have the time to catch up; it was a nice thought.
Something to potentially plan for when he got to the Order headquarters tomorrow.
Aurors were patrolling the train station when the Hogwarts Express rolled in.
Harry and the Weasley kids were to be picked up by Order members, but the fact of their association was not advertised. As such, Ron and Ginny went into the family car, a blue Ford Anglia, with their mother and Bill, while Harry received the escort of an unfamiliar Auror.
"It's me, Tonks," the burly man whispered, and changed his nose momentarily into a snout as proof of identity. "We're Apparating together."
"Oh, good," Harry said with relief. "And nice to see you, by the way."
"Not yet," Tonks said. "It'll be nice to see me later, when I no longer look like Auror Robert Proudfoot. Let's go and make it happen."
They left the station, Harry waving goodbyes to his friends, and Tonks insisted on Side-Alonging Harry with her.
"Regulation," she said shortly. "You're underage, you're my charge, etcetera."
Harry submitted without further argument, and soon they were walking into the doorway of number 12, Grimmauld Place.
"Harry!" Sirius Black greeted him almost the moment he entered. "Long time no see!"
"What, don't I merit a hello?" Tonks asked, morphing into her usual purple-haired self. "Some uncle you are."
"I've already seen you today," Black informed Tonks. "And I'm not your uncle, I'm your second cousin-something-or-other. Young people these days…"
Black trailed after Harry as he climbed the stairs. He also helpfully filled Harry in on the latest events at the headquarters.
"I don't know if you've heard, but Dung Fletcher got injured recently… so he's off recovering… the Dementor breakout, that you know about… well, and we've all been quite in an uproar about you, of course."
"Yeah, I figured you might be," Harry said, dumping his suitcase on the floor of his room and removing the feather-light charm. "How bad is it?"
"Moody's been swearing up a storm," Black said, leaning against a doorjamb. "Remus is smoothing ruffled feathers. I tend to rise to your defence."
That last was delivered in a light tone, but something gave Harry pause.
"Thanks," he said, and raised an assessing gaze to his godfather.
Sirius Black was looking at him in a manner that belied his affected nonchalance.
"Not that you make it easy to rise to your defence, or anything," Black said. "I'm always glad to hear about my godson practicing Dark magic in Hogwarts corridors."
"How nice, then, that I'm there to make your day," Harry said.
He kept the smile in place even as he fought to rein in his temper. He'd gain nothing by antagonizing Black. He'd gain nothing by fighting anyone in the Order, period. This was the first day of his holiday. He wanted nothing but a bit of peace and quiet—
"What were you thinking, Harry?" Black asked, stepping into the room. "The papers are full of stories about you—"
"Big fucking surprise," Harry said in clipped tones. "When have they not been full of stories about me? Why you choose to believe them now is the real question—"
"I didn't say I believed them," Black said, raising his hands placatingly. "But there's quite a few people pointing out how things have never really added up—"
"What things?" Harry demanded. "Name one."
"Last year, you denied that you were being recruited by Voldemort," Black said. "Now, there's serious claims you were. You're the Boy-Who-Lived, but we see you playing Quidditch with Lucius Malfoy's son—"
"Not this again," Harry said. "I don't suppose it occurs to anyone that we're kids playing a sport?"
"You and Draco Mafloy? Kids playing a sport?" Black snorted.
"No, of course," Harry muttered, gaze fixed on the window. "We're political tools, we're not real kids. God forbid we're not at each others' throats all the time. It's not enough, I suppose, that we are expected to hate each other; we can't even be civil…"
Black was frowning.
"I didn't say—but, Harry, Malfoy's a Death Eater, or will soon be one. He's not like you."
"Yeah," Harry said. "Funny, that. He's not like me at all. I'm much better at this shit than he is."
"At what?" Black asked, looking lost.
As well he might.
Harry was feeling rather lost himself, truth be told.
After that auspicious start, Harry had hoped to spend most of his holiday in the library to avoid further confrontations.
This was, of course, not to be.
"Dark magic is never the answer," Moody told Harry gruffly, cornering him on the third day before dinner. "It may seem like the answer, because it's quicker. It looks like you're taking a shortcut, see—but you lose as much as you gain, and more. The stink never comes off."
"I'm not saying it's the answer," Harry defended himself. "But if the other side uses it, I'd rather know what I'm up against."
"You think you're the first one to think of that?" Moody said. "You think we've never lost good witches and wizards because they were too damn determined to know what the other side was up to? You can't fight fire with fire, kid. As it is, you're staining your soul, and you're doing it fast."
Reaching the end of his endurance, that's what Harry was doing fast. There was a limit to how much he could deal with, and he could see it looming up ahead…
The elder Weasley siblings had already talked to Harry, communicating that he was free to do whatever, as far as they were concerned, but he'd better not be dragging Ron and Ginny into it.
Ron had, of course, only alarmed Bill and Charlie further by sticking up for Harry.
("You're not at school, you don't see what it's like. Potter is doing a really good thing there…")
Apparently, membership in the duelling club had made Ron a believer.
After that, Harry had had a—well, not exactly a bust-up with Lupin, because it took quite a lot to rouse him to anger, but Lupin had played the good but stern cop.
("Sirius is worried about you, and coming from a family like his he knows what he's talking about, trust me…")
And Harry had been tempted to say, what is it that you're not trusting me with? All through their helpful advice, nobody had expressed any concern that Harry might be going over to the wrong side, or betraying the Order, or striking up a friendship with Voldemort. And if that wasn't a problem, what was?
As long as he was doing the Boy-Who-Lived thing and fighting the bad guys, surely it didn't matter what books he chose to read.
Presently, Moody made to say something—undoubtedly filled with wisdom and dire warnings—but then Mrs. Weasley's voice cut through all conversation in the kitchen.
"Dinner is ready!" she announced. "Gather round, gather round!"
"Looks great, Molly," Sirius Black said, casting an admiring glance at the roasted turkey. "If not for you, we'd be eating dust bunnies à la Kreacher."
"Have you still not mended your relationship with the elf, Sirius?" Dumbledore asked mildly, taking his habitual spot at the head of the table.
This was the Order's Christmas meal, and so most Grimmauld Place regulars were in attendance. The Weasley had all turned up, except Percy and the twins. The former was busy at the Ministry, and the latter had been expected, but something held them up in Nanjing.
Tonks sat down by Harry's side with a wink to him, and Hestia Jones claimed a chair next to hers.
Black scowled at Dumbledore.
"I'd gladly throw that blasted elf out of the house if he didn't know so much about us."
"That would, indeed, be most unwise," Dumbledore said. "I imagine your relatives would be quite glad to receive him. Good evening, Remus, how are you?"
Harry snuck a look at the Headmaster's withered hand. Still black, still not showing signs of improvement… Of course, it was never going to, but that didn't make it any less unwelcome of a sight. Harry wondered how many people in the Order knew what the cursed hand meant for their future…
"And how are you enjoying your holiday, Harry?" Dumbledore asked, turning to him.
"It's been going okay," Harry lied. "I'd like to talk to you later, sir, if you have time?"
Dumbledore peered at Harry over his half-moon glasses.
The dinner, like all meals at Grimmauld Place these days, was an awkward affair. One did not want to discuss mass murder and zombified corpses over turkey and stuffing, but the political climate made these subjects weigh heavily on everyone's minds. The Order's main activity at the moment was trying to prevent attacks on Muggles and Muggle sympathizers, and they feared that the Death Eaters were planning something extra special for Christmas.
All of that was enough to be going with, but the anniversary of Mr. Weasley's death also hung over them like an invisible cloud, casting a shadow over the festivities.
"Another mince pie, Harry?" Mrs. Weasley asked, shoving the dish at him.
"No, thank you."
"Just a wee bit more pudding, then?" Another plate made a threatening pass at Harry.
"I'm fine, Mrs. Weasley. Really."
Harry stretched his lips in a polite smile, and Mrs. Weasley beamed at him manically in return. Bill was stirring his coffee with a blank look on his face, Ginny and Charlie were whispering on the other end of the table, and Ron volunteered for more dessert with dogged determination to perpetuate the forced cheer.
Harry wished that the twins were here, or that he was not.
Dumbledore was deep in conversation with Moody when Harry got up from the table. Smiling at everyone perfunctorily, he thanked Mrs. Weasley and fled to the living room.
The party would inevitably move there anyway, and maybe Harry would get at least a couple of moments' peace—
He stopped at the threshold of the living room, taking a deep breath as he surveyed the decorated tree. Its Christmas lights were the only source of illumination in the lounge—that, and the streetlamps outside.
Pushing off the doorway, Harry strode over to the window.
Early winter twilight had set in, and the sky was a heavy dark-grey blanket over London. Harry could see trees bending in the wind, and the pavement looked black with recent rain—or maybe it was sleet. The weather had been unstable, and the wizarding wireless could not promise a white Christmas…
Harry pressed his forehead against the window and shivered a little at the cool sensation.
It was time to face facts: he was actually beginning to crack, and something had to be done.
He wouldn't withstand two weeks at Grimmauld Place. It was only the third day, and he was already going insane.
Times for desperate measures.
A creak from behind him alerted Harry that he was no longer alone.
"Harry? You wanted to speak with me?"
"Headmaster." Harry turned around and faced the ancient wizard.
Dumbledore looked at him, head tilted ever-so-slightly to the side; an expression of mild curiosity and concern.
"I hope all is well with you, my boy?"
Harry looked to the side.
"Actually, sir, I was just wondering whether it would be okay with you if I went to stay at Neville's for a few days."
This clearly came as a surprise to Dumbledore.
"At Mr. Longbottom's?" he repeated, stroking his beard thoughtfully. "Well, while I'm sure his intentions are most hospitable, in these times it's quite imperative that you stay safe."
"The Longbottom Manor is quite well protected," Harry said. Certainly more so than Cedric's flat, which had been his first thought. "I've stayed there before, sir, and nothing happened. And, if necessary, I'm sure I could arrange for an Auror escort—"
"I see," Dumbledore said, once again giving Harry a penetrating look. "Has your time here really been so trying, Harry?"
"Well, be it as it may, I'm sorry to say that I cannot allow you to leave," the Headmaster pronounced. "These are dangerous times, Harry."
"I understand," Harry said with mounting frustration. "But—"
"I cannot, of course, stop you from going on a short visit independently," Dumbledore continued, "any more than I can prevent you from calling on the Minister. But in that case, I hope, you will indeed surround yourself with competent escort, and I ask you to be careful. I know you may think you can defend yourself, but our adversaries are not without skill."
"Certainly, sir," Harry said, spirits lifting.
In his mind, he was already composing a note to Neville.
"Thanks for today. Seriously," Harry said, when Neville tried to wave his gratitude away. "I really needed a breather."
"Don't worry about it," Neville said firmly. "What are friends for?"
Neville looked so natural in this habitat, sitting in an old leather armchair in the stately oak-panelled living room. He'd clearly spent many evenings here, reading before the fire, or maybe dozing on the sofa, or maybe just sitting on the wide windowsill and looking out onto the grounds, with its lawns and greenhouses and woody groves…
Harry hadn't been to Neville's home since his visit before fourth year, and it now hit him for the first time that Neville was the master of all this. In a year's time, he'd reach the age of majority, and then—well, there was still the grandmother, of course, but Neville would one day inherit this entire manor.
But then Neville smiled in his usual unassuming way, Harry blinked, and the moment passed.
"It's a pity you can't stay longer. What are your plans for the rest of the holiday?" Neville asked.
"Nothing much. Next week I'm going to have to go to the Ministry… I guess that's easier from the headquarters anyway."
Neville nodded reluctantly, chewing on his lip.
"Have they invited you to join the Order?"
Harry looked up, startled.
"Join—no, but then I'm still technically a minor." Harry gave a crooked grin as Neville snorted. "Honestly, it hasn't even occurred to me… I imagine it hasn't to them, either."
"Do you want to join?" Neville asked.
Harry looked into the fire.
"Because you don't like them?"
"Because I don't see the point? I'm kind of in it, anyway, even if I'm not a member of a cool secret organization, or whatever."
Neville hummed noncommittally, and Harry eyed him, wondering what this was about.
"My parents were in it, you know," Neville said. "In the first war. They were right in the thick of things…"
Harry groped for something to say to that. Before he'd managed to find the right words, Neville spoke again:
"What about the twins, are they in?"
Harry frowned. This was a slightly uncomfortable subject.
"No, they're not."
Neville appeared surprised.
"Really? But most of their family is."
"Well. No. Some of the family is, but—I guess they didn't see the point, either."
Or, more precisely, they said they'd join if Harry particularly wanted them to, but not otherwise. Which was kind of what Bill had predicted would happen.
("He's got them on a leash… I don't think that they'll join the Order unless Harry tells them to…")
That had been a pretty quarrel, last summer—and just one indication of the rift in the Weasley family.
Percy on one side, Bill and Charlie on the other, the twins somewhere in between, and Mrs. Weasley worried about them all…
Harry had pondered, at various points in the past, where Ron and Ginny would eventually fall. It was beginning to look like Ron might be inching closer to the twins' point of view.
"Say, Harry, did you just feel that?" Neville asked, sitting up a bit in his armchair.
Harry shook his head, partly to dispel his thoughts and partly to answer in the negative.
"No, what do you mean?"
"Don't know," Neville said, and chewed on his lower lip again. "Maybe it was nothing. You get kind of jumpy these days, you know. I thought I felt—"
The door to the living room flew open with a bang, revealing Augusta Longbottom on the other side.
She was not wearing her famous stuffed-vulture hat, and the fox-fur scarf was tied somewhat haphazardly around her throat; she'd clearly got dressed in a hurry.
Her eyes shone with hard determination.
"Still sitting around, boy?" she demanded, looking at Neville. "Get up this instant! And hope to all heavens you've got your wand nearby!"
Neville jumped up, and Harry rose after him, automatically going for his own wand.
"At least you're still here," Augusta said with a grim little smile, addressing Harry. "Come along, then. I hope half the things they say about your skills are true. We need all able hands."
"Are we being attacked?" Neville asked, eyes wide.
Harry cast a glance out the window. He could see, in the distance, the flashes of spells, and a strange shimmer in the sky—
"Come along," Augusta repeated impatiently. "We haven't time to waste."
Harry and Neville hurried after her as she left the living room and strode swiftly from corridor to corridor. Harry took a moment to send off a message to Dumbledore with his stag Patronus.
Mrs. Longbottom didn't comment beyond giving him an impatient look.
"Sorry," Harry said quickly, "but you have wards, protections, don't you? Outsiders can't get in?"
"So they can't," Augusta said. "Unless someone opens the gate from the inside."
Harry felt himself going cold even as he sped up his pace.
"Has someone done that?"
Augusta's face looked as if it were carved from stone.
"Someone is trying. And we must stop them before they succeed."
The Aurors, Harry thought furiously.
Neville must have come to the same conclusion, because he inhaled sharply and said:
"We have to take out three Aurors?"
"Two," Harry said. "It can't have been Hestia Jones, she's in the Order. It had to be one of the other two, or both."
And Hestia had vouched for them—
"And the Order has never been betrayed?" Augusta snarled. "You of all people, Potter—"
"Me of all people," Harry muttered. "I've been in a battle with Hestia. She's highly unlikely—"
"We'll see about that," Augusta said, and then they were stepping outside the main doors.
The night's chill hit Harry, making him shiver. From here, the sounds of the fight ahead were quite audible, and curses bright in the darkness—
And suddenly, Harry knew that they were too late.