A/N: I cannot express in words how grateful I am to my beta Gwendolyn (agedsolarwhisk), who managed to hold my hand and provide much-needed advice in the middle of her own very busy life. Thanks also to Voice of the Nephilim for his continued support.
Since Harry had alerted the infirmary first, Madam Pomfrey was already hard at work on Slughorn's prone form when Dumbledore and Snape arrived.
"How is Horace, Poppy?" Dumbledore asked, once he'd exchanged greetings with everyone present.
"He'll recover," she said. "Fortunately, he ingested only a minuscule amount of poison, and Potter reached him in time."
Harry hadn't wanted to get in the nurse's way or to touch anything on the crime scene, so he'd sat down at the table, which was still crowded with dishes from the Slug Club dinner. Going from a heated argument to the adrenaline rush of a crisis left him jittery; he fiddled with a teaspoon as he watched Snape head over to offer his assistance to Madam Pomfrey.
Dumbledore examined the box of poisoned fruit.
"And you say these sweets were sent directly to Professor Slughorn and signed with your name," he murmured, slowly twirling the box in the air.
Harry gave a jerky nod.
"What happened exactly?" Snape demanded, walking back to Harry and Dumbledore's side.
Harry had already told Madam Pomfrey, of course, but it didn't take long to rehash his tale.
Private conversation. Gifted candy. Slughorn's collapse.
"And with his preference for crystallized pineapple so well known… yes, quite clever, quite effective," the Headmaster concluded, in that same absent tone. "I am sure it would have done the trick, had you not been here so fortuitously, Harry."
"Yes, it's clear that someone wanted to murder Slughorn and implicate Potter," Snape said. "That's hardly something we need to puzzle out at length."
"Oh, but you must see what it means, Severus," Dumbledore said, piquing Harry's attention, but just then Madam Pomfrey spoke up.
"I would like to take him down to the hospital wing for observation," she said.
"Perhaps it will behoove us to be discreet about Horace's condition," Dumbledore said, his tone mild.
Deliberately mild, if Harry was any expert.
"My patient needs the infirmary's resources," Madam Pomfrey said.
"And I shall not argue with your expertise, Poppy," Dumbledore replied. "I merely believe that, in the interests of preserving Horace's health, it might be best to conceal the exact nature of his indisposition from the rest of the school. After all, it will serve Horace better if the perpetrator thinks his plan might yet succeed…"
Madam Pomfrey's face adopted an expression that clearly communicated, the things that happen in this school are beyond the pale.
"Very well," she said. "And on your head be it, Dumbledore."
The Headmaster inclined said head and asked whether she required help to transport Slughorn to the infirmary. Madam Pomfrey waved him off and departed, the unconscious man floating beside her. Harry, Snape and Dumbledore remained as the sole occupants of Slughorn's living room.
Dumbledore sighed and took a seat on a high-backed dining chair. The box of poisoned pineapple drifted through the air after him and settled down on the surface of the table.
"Well, I shall not pretend that it gives me pleasure to discuss what we must address tonight," he said.
His good hand stretched to pick up the note that came with the deadly fruit: generic well wishes, signed Harry Potter.
The perpetrator of the attack had to be on tenterhooks, waiting daily to hear whether their scheme had worked, whether the blame would fall onto Harry.
Harry could think of only one person whom the thought would please quite so much.
"Draco Malfoy," Snape said, and Harry blinked, because for a moment he'd thought the words had come from his own mouth.
"Yes, regrettably, all signs do point in that direction," Dumbledore agreed.
"What signs?" Harry asked, wondering how it was that he ended up feeling like a very slow student playing catch-up whenever he talked to Snape and Dumbledore.
Snape scowled and glanced at the Headmaster, who gave a subtle nod.
"We knew that Draco Malfoy had a task to fulfil at Hogwarts," Snape said. "Until now, we weren't sure what it entailed."
"You—" For a moment, Harry's mind went blank with anger. "With all due respect, Headmaster, was this not something you could have let me know?"
"Potter," Snape said, whip-sharp, "if this is how you show respect—"
"Ah, Harry, but this intelligence was quite recent, and what would telling you achieve?" Dumbledore asked, entirely too equable. "Professor Snape was keeping a close eye on Mr Malfoy, and he could claim to be doing so on the request of Draco's mother. If you, on the other hand, developed a suspicious tendency to watch Mr Malfoy, it might have compromised Severus, since he was the only one from whom you might have learnt of the scheme."
"I always watch Malfoy," Harry said. "That's what we do."
"Forgive me, Harry, but we could not risk you being indiscreet," Dumbledore replied. "It was imperative that there was no change at all in your behaviour."
Harry opened his mouth, but Dumbledore held up a hand before he could speak.
"Harry, this is something that you must understand. Professor Snape's cover as a spy is the single most effective advantage in this war that our side possesses." Not a glimmer of the usual twinkle shone in Dumbledore's eyes as they bored into Harry's. "I would be extremely reluctant to take any action that might cast suspicion onto his role, and I will ask you to do the same. It is vitally important that we retain a watchful eye in Voldemort's camp."
"Yes, okay," Harry said, expelling a long breath. "But while I understand that—"
"And we are so grateful for your forbearance, Potter," Snape said silkily, but bit back whatever else he'd been about to utter at Dumbledore's warning glance.
Harry shook his head, recognizing that further argument would be futile.
"You said it was recent, that you knew Malfoy was planning something," he said. "How recent are we talking?"
"Professor Snape conveyed this intelligence to me over the winter holidays," Dumbledore said. "But it seems that Draco was given the task significantly earlier—quite possibly, at the start of the school year."
"What changed, then?" Harry asked. "Why do we find out now?"
Snape glared at him. "I'm sure that even your feeble brain can think of a reason why the Dark Lord was in a towering mood with Draco's family after Christmas."
Harry swallowed and looked away.
The Lestranges. Bellatrix, Malfoy's aunt, who'd acted against Voldemort's orders—
Had Voldemort taken his anger out on the Malfoys?
"The Dark Lord was of the opinion that Draco had been too slow in the execution of his task," Snape said. "He let his displeasure be known."
Dumbledore steepled his fingers. "And the boy?"
"I believe that he has come to realize that the task was given to him as a form of punishment for his family," Snape said, locking his hands behind his back. "Something to hold over the heads of his parents if he fails, even as he lives in fear for their fate."
"And what will befall him if he fails?" Dumbledore asked, eyes keen on Snape's face.
Snape was silent for a moment.
"The Dark Lord would probably let him live, as leverage against Lucius," he said at last. "Or he might offer Lucius a choice, Draco or Narcissa. The Dark Lord does like his little games, after all."
At that, Harry winced, but—
He wasn't going to feel sorry for Draco Malfoy who'd nearly committed premeditated murder. Malfoy had probably been overjoyed to get the task; Harry could imagine him delighting in the idea of showing up Nott, of being accepted in the Death Eaters' circle and earning Voldemort's esteem.
"Besides," Snape continued, "Draco bears the Mark, and Narcissa does not. That is something to consider."
"Malfoy's taken the Dark Mark?" Harry repeated, incredulous, and then caught himself: "Sir?"
"Watch the Malfoy boy, do you?" Snape asked, mouth twisting. "And yet you've failed to notice such a significant detail. I just don't see why we didn't engage your services in espionage."
Harry gritted his teeth over Dumbledore's, "Now, Severus—"
"When did he take it? Sir?" Harry asked, because—
Okay, so Harry might not have devoted all his time to observing Malfoy's moods, but such a thing should have been impossible to miss. Malfoy would have crowed about his initiation and advertised the fact far and wide. Even if Harry had missed the memo, there should have been a change in the junior Death Eater dynamic, and his classmates weren't that good at acting, not by a long shot.
"Draco was indicted on New Year," Snape said.
Harry frowned, looking at the empty plate in front of him.
Malfoy—a Death Eater, officially, and by all appearances he hadn't told anybody. Not so long ago, he would have used the Mark to boost his standing. Now, he'd been sullen and withdrawn and snappy, and the best his sidekicks could do by way of explanation was he's got stuff.
The Dark Mark was not stuff. No way did Crabbe and Goyle know.
Which left them—where?
("Your father wouldn't be where he is now if the Dark Lord didn't want him to be.")
Maybe Malfoy was starting to realize just how screwed he was.
Which: too little, too late.
"Albus, you cannot possibly be thinking to let the Malfoy boy run unchecked," Snape said, unknowingly echoing Harry's thoughts. "He's a menace, and he's desperate. He knows the Dark Lord will show him no mercy if he fails."
"Most assuredly, we will have to take some action," Dumbledore agreed.
As Harry was about to open his mouth to offer helpful suggestions—like, how about booting him out of Hogwarts— the fireplace flared green and Poppy Pomfrey's head appeared in the flames.
"Horace is awake, Dumbledore," she said. "And he requests to speak to you immediately."
Dumbledore must have recognized that neither Harry nor Snape would have agreed to stay behind, because he took them along to Slughorn's ward without protest.
The greyish tinge still clung to Slughorn's skin, and he looked as though he'd shed a chunk of weight through the sheer force of the trauma.
"Albus!" he rasped as soon as he saw them. "I was nearly killed… And you swore to protect me…"
"I know, Horace, and I was exceedingly sorry to hear about what happened," Dumbledore said, settling into a chair next to Slughorn's bed. "Poppy assures me that you will make a full recovery."
"Poison!" Slughorn's eyes bugged out. "I—"
"I will thank you not to agitate my patient," Madam Pomfrey said, frowning at Dumbledore.
"Certainly, Poppy," he agreed. "If you would give us a few minutes?"
The dismissal must have been as clear to her as to everyone else, given the way she huffed before leaving the ward.
"I do apologize for failing to see that you were in danger not only outside Hogwarts, but also from within," said Dumbledore. "However, now you may rest assured that—"
Slughorn attempted a frantic movement of some sort, ending up flapping a hand against the blankets.
"Your… apologies do nothing," he said. He coughed, and Dumbledore solicitously conjured a glass of water. "I cannot stay here."
"I understand your fears, Horace," Dumbledore said after a small pause. "But I shall secure this room and take other steps to guarantee your safety. I give you my word that you will rest unharmed."
Slughorn gave a shuddering sort of half-wheeze, half-snort.
"Your word! I'd be… I'd be a fool to trust it now."
"I'd be dead if not for Harry." He turned to face Harry at that and said, reaching out with an ineffectual gesture: "My dear boy…"
Harry shifted awkwardly on his feet.
"I'm just glad you'll be okay, sir."
"Oh Harry," Slughorn said, with—were those actual tears in his eyes? "So like your mother…"
Harry gave a smile that felt brittle on his face, and Snape stiffened for some reason, as if the words had struck him as well.
Dumbledore observed this byplay with his usual amiability.
"Well, Horace, let us speak again later, when you are not so distressed," he said. "You need rest, and we ought not perturb you further."
"Do not… do not dare patronize me." Slughorn's glare was weak, but he'd given it a good try. "I have made up my mind."
"Horace, do consider. When you evaded Voldemort before, he sought merely to recruit you, and even then you found your whole life uprooted. You fled from place to place, living as a hunted man…" Dumbledore's expression turned solemn. "If you leave now that he wants you dead, what odds do you face against him, alone? I wish that you would allow me to aid you."
Out of the corner of his eye, Harry saw Snape cross his arms in impatience; all this emotionalism had to be grating on his nerves. Harry, for his part, stood frozen next to him.
With the discussion of Malfoy's actions, Harry hadn't even considered—he'd completely forgotten to think about why Voldemort had instructed Malfoy to kill Slughorn. It hadn't hit him, until now, just how big a disaster they had narrowly avoided.
If Harry hadn't been there—
Slughorn would have died. And the information about Voldemort's Horcruxes would have died with him.
He knows, Harry thought in a moment of panic. Voldemort knows. He must know we're onto him, because why else is he—
But reason re-established itself scant seconds later. Of course Voldemort wanted Slughorn dealt with; this was nothing new. He'd pursued the man for a whole year, hoping to lure him into his camp. Slughorn's decision to come teach at Hogwarts instead must have sealed his fate.
And yet, Voldemort couldn't have been too worried, because he hadn't ordered Snape to kill the man. He'd chosen to heap the task onto Malfoy and punish him with it; if he'd thought there was real danger of Slughorn blabbing—of Dumbledore figuring out what questions to ask—
No, Voldemort didn't know, or he wouldn't have acted the way he had.
Harry took another, easier breath, and caught Snape frowning at him. Dumbledore and Slughorn were still locked in their debate.
"Horace," Dumbledore was saying, "I cannot hold you here if you wish to leave. But if you will not reconsider, please at least accept my offer to help you hide."
Slughorn appeared, at that moment, as if he'd lost all faith in the world. His hands shook, and his eyes were wild; far from the self-assured Potions master, he now resembled an animal trembling in front of a large predator.
"What can you do?" Slughorn whispered, lying back against his pillows in defeat. "If… if he hunts me…"
Dumbledore leaned towards Slughorn with an intent look on his face. His eyes gleamed with confidence; even the ridiculous robes with stars all over them didn't detract from his air of authority.
"We can hide you more completely than you imagine, Horace. It will not be a decision made lightly, but, if you are determined to conceal yourself from Lord Voldemort, we can engineer a ruse so masterful he would never see past it." And, when Slughorn gave him a listless glance, Dumbledore said: "We can make him believe that his attack was successful. We can use the opportunity he has so generously provided us with, and put up a pretence of your death."
In the ensuing silence, Harry stared at Dumbledore.
The ploy wouldn't only shield Slughorn; it would also protect Draco Malfoy from Voldemort's wrath.
"Albus," Slughorn breathed out. "I… I don't know…"
"You must think on it, of course," Dumbledore said, standing up. "We shall let you consider it in peace. But you must know that, if you truly desire to depart from Hogwarts and retire from the public eye, there is no surer way… Voldemort will not be surprised to hear of your death, since he himself has ordered it; he will see nothing but the realization of his own plans, and this will make you safer than any other deception we can conjure…"
"Yes," Slughorn murmured, dazed. "Yes…"
Harry thought that Slughorn didn't even register his and Snape's departure; he gave a nod to Dumbledore, but otherwise stayed motionless, as if watching potential futures play out in his mind's eye.
"What now?" Snape asked as soon as they stepped out the infirmary doors.
"My office, perhaps," the Headmaster said. "We have a few more things left to discuss."
Harry tagged along, because fuck anyone who tried to exclude him at this point.
Even so, he had to restrain a yawn; it had to be nearing midnight, and he'd had a rousing discussion with Slughorn even before the real shit had hit the fan… not that he'd had any time to process what they'd talked about, but the fun just kept rolling on, as it always did.
Once they arrived, the Headmaster sat down behind his desk, while Snape and Harry took the chairs in front. A wave of Dumbledore's wand brought forth a tea set of exquisitely thin china.
"Is this your preferred strategy?" Snape asked Dumbledore head-on, before anyone had got in a word edgewise. "Faking Slughorn's death?"
"It certainly allows us to shoot more than one bird with a single stone." The Headmaster poured tea for everybody. "Violent as the analogy is, it is also quite apt."
"You are so confident that Slughorn will agree to your scheme?" Snape said.
"Oh, he will agree to it," Dumbledore replied. "It goes without saying, Severus, that I shall rely on your expertise for a way to make Horace appear to have breathed his last."
"It is done," Snape said.
Dumbledore beamed and took a sip from his cup.
Harry wondered what Slughorn was thinking right at this moment, when here they had already decided on his future.
"What about Malfoy?" he asked.
"Yes," the Headmaster murmured. "The tricky matter of what to do with Mr Malfoy."
"I cannot act against him, you know that," Snape said.
"No." Dumbledore stirred and gave Snape a faint smile. "No, of course not. You must be kept entirely out of the scheme."
"Why not give him up to the Ministry?" Harry asked. Snape and Dumbledore gave him looks of… he wasn't sure what, but it wasn't approval. He continued somewhat defensively: "If we set it up as murder, the Ministry will investigate. You want the Dark Lord to think Malfoy killed Slughorn, fine, but that doesn't mean he should just walk free. What if Voldemort gives him another task?"
"Do consider," Dumbledore said, putting his cup aside, "that, with the Ministry's current situation, Draco would not remain in their custody for long. Ousted from Hogwarts, he would have no recourse but to become a full-time combatant in Voldemort's forces. We would be effectively pushing him into Voldemort's arms, and I admit I am in no hurry to do that."
"He's taken the Dark Mark," Harry said. "He's already part of Voldemort's forces."
"Enough," Snape barked, cutting him off. He turned to Dumbledore. "The boy does, however, have a point. Draco Malfoy cannot be allowed to run unchecked; he has planned and executed a cold-blooded murder."
"An attempted one, yes," Dumbledore said. "But I believe we would be erroneous in calling it cold-blooded. I have observed clear signs of distress and agitation in Draco over recent weeks. I am certain that, should you think on it, you will find the same."
"So he was upset he had to assassinate Professor Slughorn!" Harry said. "He still did it and might do something like this again! If I hadn't been there, Malfoy would have killed Professor Slughorn, and then what?"
Snape must have agreed with the sentiment, because he failed to reprimand Harry this time.
"Mr Malfoy found himself in a terrible situation, Harry," Dumbledore said, folding his hands on the desk. "People do unspeakable things when they feel cornered, and Draco is far too young and far too wretched over this affair to consider him a lost soul. The Mark was forced on him as a punishment, not bestowed as an honour. I believe that he can still be redeemed, but that path would be closed to him should we push him off the edge instead."
("The Headmaster tends to believe in the goodness of humans. Even of those who are not, exactly, human.")
Harry rubbed his scar. Snape's expression conveyed nothing whatsoever, a perfect stone mask.
"Besides which, we can hardly furnish the Aurors with proof of Mr Malfoy's wrongdoing," Dumbledore said. "Not without exposing Severus and putting you in the metaphorical line of fire, Harry. The note is the sole viable connection to Draco, but it implicates you in a far more direct manner, more so since you were ostensibly the last person to see Horace alive."
Bullshit, Harry wanted to say. There had to be a way. But Dumbledore had clearly made up his mind.
"What will you do?" Snape asked. "The boy is a menace. There's no telling how unbalanced he will become after the news of his success with Slughorn, and he has already injured two children who had nothing to do with the affair."
Harry started. Yes, of course; the attack outside Slughorn's quarters last semester must have been Malfoy's doing. And if Malfoy hadn't been planning to set Harry up before then, the aftermath of that debacle would have given him the idea.
"An excellent question, Severus," Dumbledore said. "But not to worry, I imagine an answer will come to me in due time. And, in the meanwhile, Harry…" Dumbledore focused on him, piercing him with a look. "In light of recent events, the timing has become critical. I'm afraid we can afford no more subtlety as regards Horace, my boy."
Harry nodded, ignoring the sinking feeling in his stomach. He had to get the Horcruxes information out of Slughorn, and fast.
Snape looked between Harry and Dumbledore; his expression grew thunderous.
"Albus, what are you playing at?" he hissed. "What does Potter know?" And why don't I know it too went unsaid. Harry thought Snape couldn't lower himself to utter it.
Ha. Let him feel what it was like to be left out of the loop, for a change.
"Please do not be offended, Severus," Dumbledore said with a gentle smile. "But this is another case where information must, at all costs, remain uncompromised."
"Would that be information on why the Dark Lord chose to target Slughorn in particular?"
Dumbledore inclined his head. "Indeed, my boy."
Snape eyed Harry in distaste. "And you would trust Potter with it."
"Well, Severus," the Headmaster said, "you are aware that, like you, Harry is of utmost importance to this war."
Snape stiffened. "If this is about that blasted prophecy—"
"Let us not argue, Severus; it will do us no good," Dumbledore said. "The fact remains that there is a reason why Voldemort might have wished to recruit Horace and keep him close, and for that same reason he might be uneasy letting him linger too long in my vicinity. A mere precaution on his part, I imagine, but not an unreasonable one, and it lets us know something about his state of mind…"
"It does?" Harry asked.
As far as he could see, this was just a matter of tying up loose ends.
"Well, certainly, Harry," Dumbledore said, smiling. "It tells us that he spins his web with care; the events since his return have made him cautious. I imagine that you have had a crucial part to play in that."
"Er," Harry said. "I have?"
Snape's face indicated that he was equally dubious of this claim. Dumbledore observed them both with some amusement.
"You can hardly deny having presented him with an unexpected challenge," he said. "After all, Harry, he has struck you down with the Killing Curse thrice now, and thrice you have lived, each time contriving to do him harm in return. The first time he attempted to kill you, he was almost erased from existence; the second time, he lost consciousness alongside you; the third, you unwittingly attacked his mind… He lifts his wand against you, and he fails. He lifts his wand against you, and you win…"
Harry shivered. Put like that, he did sound like something strange and mystical.
Something, apparently, unusual enough to give the Dark Lord pause.
"That thing he's looking for abroad," Harry began.
"He will not find it," Dumbledore said, and there was an odd note in his voice. "He cannot learn enough to discover the full truth."
Harry had no idea what this meant, and he could see that Snape didn't either.
At last they were on the same page.
"I imagine we shall not accomplish anything else tonight," Dumbledore said. "Horace's decision, whatever it will be, will come tomorrow, and, Harry, I do recommend visiting him at your earliest convenience, given the probable brevity of his stay…" At Harry's nod, the Headmaster went on: "I suggest we retire for the evening."
As he left the Headmaster's office, Harry didn't think of what would've happened if he hadn't been on the spot when Slughorn had tried the poisoned sweets; if the note implicating him in the murder had been found next to the Potions master's corpse; if Slughorn had died without first divulging the keys to defeating Voldemort.
Bizarrely, it could be said that they got off easy with this latest turn of events. Now Harry just needed not to balls up his part in the drama about to unfold under Dumbledore's direction.
The next morning, Harry rolled out of bed feeling like he'd been up all night fighting trolls. He'd got all of four hours of rest, the events of the previous evening stood even more ugly in the daylight, and he'd very nearly overslept and run late for Transfiguration.
He glared at Malfoy, who sat several desks over. It was all his fault, and so help him, if Dumbledore even considered sparing Malfoy's poor misguided soul—
Blaise nudged him in the side.
"Harry? You want to start practicing before McGonagall catches you?"
"Urgh," Harry said, and tried out the spell they were supposed to master.
His attempt to turn his own hand into a paw produced a very hairy limb, instead.
He glared again and undid the enchantment with a jerky wave of his wand.
He didn't have time for this. There were bigger things going on, he had Slughorn to interrogate—
"Well, you're a little ball of sunshine," Blaise muttered, edging away. "Try not to poke anyone's eye out with that thing, okay?"
"Concentrate on the desired outcome!" Professor McGonagall said, addressing the whole class. "Visualize the end result!"
Theodore Nott was already sporting a perfect wolf's paw. Malfoy was attempting to copy him. Daphne Greengrass was going red in the face from the exertion of the nonverbal spell.
None of them knew, yet, what had happened to Slughorn. It wouldn't be long, not with how fast rumours travelled around Hogwarts.
Sure enough, on the way to the next class, Harry bumped into a troubled-looking Hermione.
"Where have you been?" she asked, by way of good morning. "Have you heard? Slughorn's been attacked! He's in the infirmary!"
"Yeah, I know," Harry said in an undertone, and out of the corner of his eye saw Blaise whip his head around to stare at him.
"We need to talk," Hermione said. "I've got Ancient Runes now, but—Hidden Room, at lunch. I'll tell the others."
"Sorry, can't," Harry said.
"Why not?" Hermione asked, frowning.
"Prior commitments, just—let's do it later, okay?"
Hermione looked like she heavily suspected his commitmentshad to do with Slughorn. Well, she wasn't wrong.
"All right," she said, "we'll meet up anyway, so join us if you can."
"Sounds good," Harry agreed.
"And there will be explaining to do," Blaise promised, looking unhappy. "You couldn't have mentioned Slughorn earlier?"
"Look, I—" Harry shook his head. "We'll talk, okay?"
They'd probably have talked right then if not for the fact that Blaise had Magical Runes with Hermione instead of Arithmancy with Harry. The Ravenclaws in his class tried to get answers from him too, but Professor Vector maintained no less strict a discipline in her class than McGonagall, and talking opportunities were thin on the ground. So much the better, since Harry didn't feel like discussing the whole thing in public.
He'd sat through the class—Merlin, why were things so slow today?—and dodged everyone afterwards to make a dash for the infirmary.
If they were going to pretend that Slughorn had died, he had one day, at most, to squeeze information out of the Potions master. If he failed—
No, that wasn't an option. He had to find out what Slughorn had told Voldemort about the Horcruxes, by fair means or foul.
However, in the hospital wing Harry's plans ran aground of Madam Pomfrey, who blocked his way to Slughorn's door with a most resolute look on her face.
"Er," Harry said. "I've come to visit the professor?"
"Even if I have to let you see him," the matron said, "which I do, according to Dumbledore, and isn't that the most outrageous thing I've ever heard—meetings in the night and what not—you can't, Potter, because my patient is asleep, and he won't be disturbed. Come back later, if you must."
"Right," Harry said, tamping down on his annoyance. "I'll do that."
"Though I would prefer it if none of you bothered him at all," Madam Pomfrey added.
"I'm afraid it's important," Harry said. "Besides, I don't mean to—"
"With Dumbledore, it's always important," she huffed. "Now off with you. I won't have you making a racket."
Harry left, meandering down the corridor.
He could, he supposed, see Dumbledore and check on the situation, but he should probably minimize open visits to the Headmaster's office; it wouldn't do to make it look like they were plotting something. And with Slughorn unavailable to him for now…
Well. Perhaps Hermione would get her wish; Harry suddenly had free time on his hands.
He climbed the stairs to the seventh floor, dodging various duelling club members and saying absent-minded hellos. Yes, yes, he'd heard about Slughorn, no, there wasn't much info he could give them, hopefully they'd all get some news soon, and how was he to know anything?
Given his detour, Harry thought his friends would be inside the Hidden Room already. He hadn't expected to see Blaise, Millie, Hermione, Terry, Anthony, Padma and Neville standing with their backs to the portrait of Barnabas the Barmy and staring at the blank wall in front of them.
"Guys?" he said. "What's up?"
"There's no door," Terry said, sounding betrayed.
Neville only shrugged at him.
Harry walked over to them. Then he did a bit of experimental pacing.
The corridor, no matter how much he courted it, refused to turn up a door.
"Well, this is strange." Harry touched the wall, the stones cool and uneven under his hand. "Has this ever happened?"
Padma exchanged glances with Hermione. "Just before you got here, we were saying that there's probably someone inside. We know the Room doesn't open if it's taken on some other shape for someone else."
"We do?" Harry asked, because he knew no such thing—though it did make sense.
Padma gave him a condescending look. "It was one of the first things Granger, Lovegood and I found out."
"So someone's shagging in the Hidden Room and we can't get in," Terry said. "Great."
Hermione gave him a smack on the arm.
"Charming," Millicent snapped.
"This is very inconvenient," Padma said, cross. "I suppose we have to go to the library. It's about the only other place we can talk."
"At least there won't be many people there right now," Anthony pointed out.
They found the quietest, most secluded corner, and Harry cast a reinforced privacy charm. The new setting was a far cry from the Hidden Room with its soft couches and many cushions, but it would have to do.
"So," Padma said, sitting up straight in her chair. "What's going on?"
"Yes, Harry, stop with the mysterious not-talking," Blaise drawled.
"The attack on Slughorn is a fact, right?" Anthony said.
"Lisa and I tried to see him," Padma said. "Pomfrey wouldn't let us in beyond the threshold. It looked like half the hospital wing was sealed off."
"They're being really creepy about it," Terry said. "Is he even alive?"
"It's just so awful," Hermione said. "He was fine when we left him yesterday evening. Harry, what happened?"
Harry looked from one face to the next.
"Slughorn got poisoned," he said bluntly. "Someone sent him sweets laced with enough toxins to knock off a hippogriff, apparently."
"Yesterday?" Neville asked. "After the Slug Club meeting?"
The meeting Neville hadn't attended. It spoke volumes that he was here now, with the rest of them.
Millie pinned him with a look. "And you were there when he took the poison?"
"Yeah." Harry glanced at Blaise. "Which—I didn't want to let everyone else know that, hence no talking earlier."
"Oh, Harry," Padma said. "And then what?"
"Well, I called Madam Pomfrey, Dumbledore—the usual," Harry said.
"And?" Terry asked.
Harry ran a hand through his hair. This would be difficult.
"And they carted him away," he said. "And Dumbledore asked me what happened. I told him. Then I went to bed."
A pause hung for a couple of seconds.
"And that's it?" Padma asked, crossing her arms. "That's all you're going to give?"
Harry set his jaw.
("Forgive me, but we could not risk you being indiscreet…")
Harry would have told his friends in a heartbeat, spilled the whole tale with all its twists, but the bitch of it was that now he wasn't sure he could risk them being indiscreet. The Dumbledore-esque logic of it made him scowl, but—
He didn't even know yet that Slughorn would definitely agree to the fake death ruse. And if he did, it had to be flawless. What if Harry's friends made an incautious remark, or acted too blasé with the situation? What if they fell short of genuine bafflement and grief when the announcement was made?
Slughorn might pay for their mistake—Harry's mistake—with his life.
So. Not much for it. Harry took a deep breath and made himself say:
"Slughorn is either already dead, or dying."
Even though they had to have known it was on the cards, what with their discussion earlier, Harry's friends still recoiled in shock.
"How do you know?"
"Are you sure?"
"No, I'm not sure," Harry said. "They wouldn't let me see him either. But it really, really didn't look good, and I don't think anyone would tell me if—" He drummed his fingers on the table. "It's not high on anyone's agenda to let me know. But I think there will be an announcement today."
They looked sickened, upset. Neville had blanched, while Hermione appeared to be near tears.
Harry met their eyes, one by one. Imprinting the moment in this memory, he thought, I did this.
He had a choice, and he chose to do this, in the name of the higher good.
("And what does that make me?")
There was a time when Harry had thought Dumbledore soft for preaching about love and refusing to use Dark magic. He'd thought it meant the Order didn't do any dirty work. It was hilarious, it retrospect.
"Do we know who sent the poison?" Blaise asked.
He and Millie, of course, held it together best, but Harry could still see he looked a bit rattled. Inured as they were becoming to hearing about war casualties, it wasn't every day that a teacher was murdered within the school walls.
"I have some ideas," Harry said grimly.
Blaise gave him a searching look. "You think it's the puppies changing bark for bite?"
"Let's not," Harry said.
"You mean Malfoy and his sidekicks, don't you," Hermione said, rounding on Blaise. "You think they did it."
"I don't know, Granger, or was it you? Did you have enough of Slughorn going on about Harry's potions skills?" Blaise asked. "Envy is such an ugly feeling."
"Hey, cut it out," Terry said.
"I don't think Granger's ever needed a defender, but if that's how your relationship works—"
"Blaise, can it," Harry said.
Blaise leaned back in his chair, not looking abashed in the slightest.
"You're all so stupid, squabbling when there's so much—" Padma pursed her lips. "I can't believe Slughorn really—he's always been so nice to me—"
"I'm sorry," Harry said. She reached over to slip her hand into his, and he gave it a light squeeze. "Maybe I'm wrong? Maybe the teachers will say he's fine."
She gave him a weak smile.
"What's going to happen now?" Neville asked.
"I have no idea," Harry said. "A Ministry investigation?"
"Will they question you?" Millie inquired.
"Yeah. Probably." Harry shook his head. "They might question all of us, the Slug Club."
"Isn't it bad for you that you were there when Slughorn was poisoned?" Anthony asked, delicately. "I mean—with the newspapers and all—"
"It's not ideal," Harry admitted. "But I'll figure it out. Dumbledore will back me up. Uh, though it would be better for me if you guys didn't come out and say I confessed to being there at the time."
"If they ask us—" Hermione began.
"You can say you took off first and Slughorn was with me," Harry said. "It's the truth. You weren't there for anything that happened after."
"We can say you left with us," Padma interjected, glaring at Hermione.
"You'd lie to the authorities?" Hermione asked.
"For Harry?" Padma said. "What do you think?"
"Thanks," Harry said, smiling at her even as guilt grew heavier in his gut. "But I hope it won't come to that. Anyway, it's all hypothetical, we don't even know what's going on yet."
"Something tells me things won't stay like that for long," Blaise muttered.
Eventually, Harry and his friends broke up the meeting to grab lunch. A few of them said they weren't hungry—Hermione, for one, stayed in the library to revise—but Harry chose to get some food instead.
If he lost his appetite each time something terrible happened, he'd die of malnutrition.
In the Great Hall, he glanced at the high table, wondering what Dumbledore and Snape were doing. Snape wasn't there; Dumbledore was talking to Professor Flitwick about something. The teachers looked grimmer than usual, but besides that it might have been any other day.
Malfoy, meanwhile, was nowhere to be seen…
Harry wolfed down his meal, hoping to still make it to the infirmary before the next class.
"I don't know where you think the fire is, but we've got Herbology in ten minutes," Millie said.
"Harry's far too important for classes," Blaise said seriously. "Look at him giving you that magnificent glare."
"Urgh, lay off," Harry said. "I'm not glaring."
"I know, it's hard to live like one of us lowly students," Blaise agreed, and here Harry did threaten to whack him with a dessert spoon.
A look at the watch told him that Millie was right, of course.
But Herbology—during which more people tried to ask him about Slughorn, expecting him to know things—gave way to a free period, and Harry finally turned his steps towards the hospital wing again.
This time, it occurred to him that maybe he shouldn't be too blatant in his attempts to visit the Potions master if others had tried and been turned away. As such, a few corridors away from the infirmary, Harry cast a Disillusionment Charm and kept close to the walls, making sure to avoid bumping into people. Not the end of the world if someone saw him, but still.
Arriving at the Potions master's ward, Harry smiled winsomely at Madam Pomfrey.
"Fine," she said, short. "But don't you dare tire him out."
"Of course not, ma'am," Harry said.
Nothing tiring about Horcruxes. Nope.
Today, the Potions master looked somewhat better than he had the night before. He was sitting up in bed, a journal in his hands, but he was still very pale, and winced every so often as if in pain.
"Harry!" Slughorn said, seeing him and putting the magazine aside. "Well, this is a pleasant surprise."
His voice, too, sounded a lot stronger. Harry thought back to Madam Pomfrey's words yesterday; the poisoning could have been a lot worse had Slughorn not tried to spit the candy out at the last moment, or had Harry not been so close at hand. Even a minute's delay would have set Slughorn back significantly.
"Hello, Professor," Harry said. "How are you feeling?"
"It doesn't bear talking about," Slughorn said, casting anxious glances about him. "You didn't see anyone come in with you, did you? No one knows I am on the mend?"
"Only the Headmaster," Harry assured him. "Well, and Madam Pomfrey and Professor Snape."
"Yes, yes, naturally." Slughorn heaved a gusty sigh. "This has been a terrible ordeal for me, my dear boy, I don't mind telling you. Terrible."
Harry nodded, giving a sympathetic murmur, and sat down in the chair by Slughorn's bedside.
"Attacked in the sanctity of my own quarters!" Slughorn's whole frame trembled. "And did you hear, that stone fall outside my door was also intended for me!"
"It's horrible," Harry agreed. "But now that we know, Professor Dumbledore will protect you, right, sir?"
He held still, waiting for Slughorn's answer.
"So he says." Slughorn scowled. "He has a plan that I—well. Such risk! And yet, I do not see what else I can do to escape this persecution."
"Well, sir," Harry said cautiously, "for what it's worth, I think it would work. I mean, if your attacker thinks he succeeded—"
"Yes, yes," Slughorn said. "No doubt, it is so. But to pretend that I am no more! Even on the run, I could stay in contact with my favourite pupils, carry on a semblance of normal life!"
"I'm sure it will be inconvenient—" Harry began.
"Inconvenient!" Slughorn interjected. "To say the least!"
Harry didn't know what to answer, but, luckily, the Potions master didn't seem to require much input from him. Presently, he gave another sigh and deflated.
"But, of course, needs must," he said. "If certain doom is my only other choice, I shall submit to Dumbledore's scheme."
"Have you already told him, sir?" Harry asked, careful not to push.
"Yes, just this morning." Slughorn waved a hand. "Oh, Harry, I have so little faith!"
"It will be hard," Harry said. "But if the Dark Lord has marked you as his next victim—"
"Yes," Slughorn said, shuddering. "Yes, if the Dark Lord…" He stared off into the distance. "It is almost too impossible for me to believe…"
This was probably the best opening Harry would ever get.
"Yes, I can imagine," he said. "Really, after how close you were, it's hard to think that he could mean you harm."
Slughorn flinched. His eyes widened in betrayal as he stared at Harry.
"Professor, it's okay," Harry said, leaning forward on his elbows. "Tom Riddle lied to you and took advantage of you. He did that to many people. I don't think any worse of you for that."
"Harry," Slughorn said, ashen-faced, "why do you—"
"I'm sorry, sir," Harry said. "I know it's hard for you to talk about it, but the Dark Lord tried to kill you. You must realize why."
"I did know him, once, at a vulnerable age," Slughorn murmured. "Perhaps he can't bear the thought—"
"Please, Professor," Harry said. "You know that's not all there is."
Slughorn's expression hardened.
"Been talking to Dumbledore, have you, Harry?"
"After yesterday, I asked him," Harry said. It wasn't a complete lie. Harry had asked Dumbledore a whole number of things. "I assumed that you knew something, because, well. Like I said. I knew Tom Riddle was your student. He told me—" Harry hesitated and glanced aside. "He said you might have information that will win us the war."
"Well, he's wrong," Slughorn said, drawing himself up. His trembling got worse. "I don't know anything, whatever Dumbledore thinks. And if he's set you to question me, we may as well end this conversation here, Harry."
Harry sat back in his chair and tilted his head to the side.
"Why, Professor? I honestly don't understand. The worst, what you must have feared, has pretty much already happened. If you were worried that this knowledge would get you killed, now you know you were right." He went on, ignoring Slughorn's flinch: "Do you really want him to win this? You're the only person who can help us, and you'd rather protect his secrets to the last?"
"I don't know anything," Slughorn repeated, agitated. "And, Harry, if you persist in this, I will have to ask you to leave."
"I'm sorry," Harry said. "But I know what you say isn't true, and I really don't get it."
"Professor, I've seen the memory you gave Dumbledore," Harry said, cutting to the chase. "Why tamper with it if you're telling the truth?"
"Because it's none of his business what we discussed!" Slughorn said, letting out a laboured breath. "Some matters should remain private!"
"And you're still defending him," Harry said in a bitter tone. "Like he's worth something, like you'd rather shield the man who killed my mother than admit you made one wrong choice!"
"Harry, I won't have you trespassing on—"
"Professor, I genuinely like you! I don't care what you told and to whom fifty years ago! I wouldn't be asking you this at all if it weren't so important, if it wasn't something that could save my life, your life, so many other—" Harry glanced down at his hands, clenched tightly in his lap. "Do you even know that him making these Horcruxes made all the difference to me? That I wouldn't be here, like this, if—do you know that I—that he—"
Harry had never talked about Voldemort's Horcrux imbedded inside his soul with anyone but Dumbledore and the shades of his parents. It made his throat close up just to consider bringing it up now.
He didn't even know why he'd gone in this direction. God, he was slipping. It had already been a long day.
"Harry, what are you saying?" Slughorn asked, still on edge but also sounding somewhat confused, now.
Harry made a conscious attempt to get his vocal cords working again.
"I know he has several Horcruxes because he's nearly made me one of them," he said, and Slughorn recoiled in horror. "He didn't, I'm—I'm fine, it's not that. But I know he has several, and I've destroyed… I've destroyed some, and, and almost died doing it, but I don't know how many there are, and it could be anything, any number, and as long as he has them he'll stick around, and I know I can get rid of them, but unless I know how many, I'll never get them all, and—" Once working, his vocal cords seemed determined to keep going. Harry bit down hard on his lip to stop himself rambling.
"You—he—" Slughorn seemed at a loss for words. "He tried to make you—?"
"Please," Harry said. "Professor, please, if Voldemort told you anything, if he mentioned any number, please tell me. You're the only one who can, and without you, I can't do—I can't end this."
"And it has to be you," Slughorn said, looking fixedly at him.
"It has to be me," Harry agreed, running a shaky hand through his hair.
"When you saved my life, just then," Slughorn said slowly, "was that—was that about the knowledge I might have, or—"
"What? No," Harry said. He jerked back, staring at Slughorn. "Professor, do you think so little of me that I—what, that I'd let you die if you didn't tell me something? What kind of a world would I be trying to save if this was how I—"
"No, no, of course not," Slughorn said. "An old man's paranoia—but you really are extraordinarily like your mother, Harry. Your eyes… you resemble her so much sometimes." He wiped sweat from his brow. "I suppose I have been too afraid for too long…"
Harry nodded as if to say that he understood, that all was forgotten. Slughorn was still frowning.
"My boy, you… if there was anyone I would trust… for you, Harry, if not for anyone else…"
Harry's breath caught, but Slughorn went on:
"In the current circumstances, however, so soon after I have been attacked, and when I am putting my life into the hands of Dumbledore, rendering myself so incredibly vulnerable that the risks of the deception seem sometimes to outweigh the risks of facing the Dark Lord… Harry, truly. You I would confide in. But, much as I value Albus, I cannot help but fear what might happen should he learn the extent of what I have wrought…"
It took Harry a few seconds to parse this. When he did, his earlier incredulity returned.
"Sir, you think Dumbledore might kill you if you tell the truth?"
Slughorn appeared distressed.
"I would never speak so ill of Albus," he said. "And yet one cannot help but think—I would be putting an awful amount of trust—and should he lack sufficient… incentive, shall we say, to see me through to the other side…"
Just how deep did the man's paranoia run?
"Sir, I'm sure—" Harry took a better look at Slughorn and let assertions regarding Dumbledore's character die on his tongue. Clearly, it was better to take a different tack. "Sir, you said you could trust me. If you told me, I—I'd give you my word, swear on anything you wish, that I wouldn't tell anything to the Headmaster until after you were awake again."
Slughorn met Harry's gaze.
"You would do that?" he asked. "You would withhold information from Dumbledore, for me?"
"Yes," Harry said without hesitation. "I'm asking for myself, because I need to know. Not for him. If you didn't want me to tell him, I wouldn't."
"You mean it, don't you," Slughorn said, visibly taken aback. "And if I asked you to—to swear on the memory of your mother—"
"I would swear it," Harry said.
"And if I asked you to swear a—"
"Sir, I would do it, whatever it is," Harry said. "Whatever it would take for you to believe me."
"If it had to happen," Slughorn said, looking somewhere past Harry, "I suppose it is well that it happens this way."
Harry's heart hammered in his chest loudly enough that Dumbledore could probably hear it in his office. The whole of Hogwarts could probably hear it. He was so, so close.
"Pass me a vial, Harry, would you?"
Harry got up, forcing himself not to take off at a run, and took a clean glass bottle from Madam Pomfrey's supplies. It occurred to him a moment later that he could have Summoned one, but perhaps it was for the best that he hadn't; just now, he might have fetched all vials available in the United Kingdom.
Upon his return, he held his breath the entire time Slughorn withdrew a silver thread of memory from his temple and deposited it in the bottle.
"Sir," Harry said, grasping for words.
Slughorn was considering the memory now ensconced within glass.
"I will give you the entirety of my recollection, my boy," he said. "However, as I am unsure you will be able to view it without the aid of Dumbledore and his Pensieve, I may as well tell you what you most want to know…" He seemed to steel himself and looked up at Harry. "The figure you are looking for—the one he particularly mentioned to me in regard to the number of times a soul could be split—is seven."
Harry closed his eyes for a moment.
"Thank you," he said. "I—sir, I cannot tell you how—just, thank you."
"Of course, you will not be able to verify my words until you view the memory," Slughorn said. "But you will have to forgive me, Harry, if I ask you to give me your word before I hand this vial over. Until you see it—until it is confirmed—you cannot know the full truth of it, and you must allow an old man this much assurance…"
"Anything," Harry agreed. "What would you like me to swear?"
He rattled off the words, hardly taking them in.
He'd succeeded. He'd got Slughorn to talk.
Seven pieces of soul. Six Horcruxes?
Oh, god, six Horcruxes.
"I guess this is something of a goodbye, Harry," Slughorn said when Harry got up to leave.
He looked miserable, and frightened, and tired to the bone. Harry smiled, trying to appear encouraging even as his thoughts fled in a dozen different directions.
"It's a goodbye for now, sir, but unlike everyone else I'll know you're really alive," he said. "It could be we'll meet again. I hope so."
"So do I," Slughorn said heavily. "But it is so hard to be certain…"
"Dumbledore will do all he can to hide you," Harry said. "You'll be okay, sir, you'll see."
"I wish I shared your optimism, my boy." Slughorn sighed. "Please wish me good fortune as I go…"
"Good luck, professor, though you won't need it," Harry said emphatically. "Everything will work out fine. We—" He nearly said, we've got everything under control, but perhaps this wasn't the time to lump himself with Snape and Dumbledore. "We'll meet again," he amended. "I'll make sure of it."
Slughorn gave him a weak smile.
It was the last expression Harry saw on his face before he left the ward.
Harry knew that he had to report to Dumbledore; in so doing he'd be giving the effective all-clear for stage two of the plan.
Still, he walked slowly, studying the floor under his feet as he went.
He needed five minutes to himself, at least, to assimilate the information he'd just got out of Slughorn.
He got about four.
"Potter," Snape demanded, appearing from around the corner, "what are you doing loitering in the hallways?"
"Yes," Harry said. "I mean, I need to see the Headmaster."
Snape frowned at him. Harry nodded, both unable and unwilling to articulate, in such a public place, the magnitude of everything that had happened.
"As the whereabouts of the Headmaster's office have apparently slipped your imbecilic mind, I shall have to accompany you." Snape gave him a sneer and turned around.
Harry followed, dragging his heels.
If Voldemort had split his soul into seven, it meant six Horcruxes plus the piece of soul remaining inside his body.
Harry tried to calculate, figure it out—
Two Horcruxes were destroyed, the diary and the ring, so, assuming Voldemort had made all six, four remained out there—
"Potter, sometime today," Snape said, and Harry walked faster.
On the way, he passed several people he knew, including Terry and Anthony. He shrugged at them, grimacing at Snape behind his back. Snape disliking Harry was nothing new, so the sight of him marching Harry through the hallways didn't provoke that much surprise.
Snape gave the password to the statue in front of Dumbledore's office and gestured at Harry. "In."
Harry stepped on the moving staircase.
"Headmaster, I checked on Potter as you suggested," Snape began as soon as they entered the office, "and, unless I'm mistaken, the boy has something to tell you."
"Harry?" Dumbledore gave him a keen look, turning around.
He stood near Fawkes's cage, stroking the bird's crimson feathers; the phoenix squawked upon seeing Harry, and let out a little questioning trill. Harry gave the bird a blank look.
"I've talked to Professor Slughorn," he said.
"Ah." Dumbledore's eyes lit up with an animated sparkle. "Very expedient of you. Please, make yourself comfortable."
Harry could not recall a time when he'd felt comfortable in this office, but obligingly sat down.
"Severus," Dumbledore said, "if you could—"
"You want me to leave?" Snape asked, narrowing his eyes.
"I do apologize," the Headmaster said softly.
Snape banged out of the office, making no effort to conceal his temper.
"It is unfortunate that we cannot talk without reservation," Dumbledore murmured, "but some secrets, as we've said, must be guarded more closely than others… So, Harry. How did your conversation with Horace unfold?"
"We've made… something of a deal," Harry said. "He's very—um, anxious at the moment, sir. He's worried about how things will go in the next few days, and…"
"I suspect you are talking in this circuitous manner in an effort to deliver whatever news you have with most tact, Harry," Dumbledore said. "I wish you would be candid with me."
"I think he views the information as something of a collateral for the successful cover-up," Harry said. "He's owned up to knowing about the Horcruxes, but he refuses to share the memory with you until after he's safe and sound on the other side of this fake death ruse."
Dumbledore had to be scanning Harry's mind; his gaze was too intense, even though Harry felt no intrusion. Still, he stared back, unflinching.
The vial with Slughorn's memory sat in his trouser pocket. He could feel it pressing against his leg as he waited out Dumbledore's scrutiny.
"I see," the Headmaster said. "Well. It is unexpected, but not wholly without reason, given Horace's situation. He is, after all, putting his life in our hands."
"He did say that," Harry acknowledged.
"And you are confident he will indeed divulge the information, once he is safe again?"
"There was an oath involved," Harry said.
If not for that, Harry would have talked to Dumbledore about the Horcruxes right now, Slughorn's doubts be damned. They couldn't move forward in the war until they got rid of the bloody things, which meant that every moment wasted not doing something about them was a moment too long.
"Ah," Dumbledore said. "Would you, all told, consider today a success? Do you think we can leave it at this and move to the next stage in our plan?" Do you have what we need?
"Yes," Harry said, firm.
Dumbledore beamed. He hadn't missed, then, the implications of he refuses to share the memory with you.
"Excellent, my boy. In that case, I had better alert Severus. A delay would only hurt us. I shall contact the Ministry, and Horace's death will be announced at dinner this evening."
Harry started a little at that; he hadn't expected things to move quite this fast.
"So how will it work?" he asked. "We say Professor Slughorn is dead, and… what? The Ministry swoops in and takes him away?"
"Horace has no living relatives, but many friends, including those in high places," Dumbledore said. "His funeral ought to proceed with all the pomp and circumstance appropriate to the occasion. While the Ministry will certainly investigate, I believe they will have little interest in arranging his burial and will gladly surrender this duty to me. He will be interred in his family's crypt."
Harry fought down a shiver. "You're actually going to bury him?"
"We will, for a very short while," Dumbledore said with a smile. "And only to save his life, paradoxical as it sounds."
To Harry it sounded grim and morbid more than paradoxical, but whatever. In light of these details, no wonder Slughorn felt the need to secure as many guarantees as he could.
"Sir," Harry said, "what do we tell the Aurors?"
"An excellent question, Harry," Dumbledore said, sitting back. "It believe it would be most prudent of us to equip you with an alibi for yesterday evening. I, on the other hand, can take over as the person who last saw Horace alive."
("You'd lie to the authorities?")
"I was the one who called Madam Pomfrey," Harry pointed out.
"Poppy is aware of the importance of this affair," Dumbledore said. "You can trust her not to create extra complications."
"It's not that easy to lie to law enforcement officials," Harry said, thinking of his friends.
"No," Dumbledore agreed, "but you need not worry about Poppy. Now, let us simply assume that, while you may have stayed back to talk to Horace, I encountered him soon after, hale and healthy."
"And nobody's ever seen any notes that came with the sweets," Harry said drily.
What was his life that he needed to suppress evidence in a murder investigation lest he end up the likeliest suspect?
"With so few clues at hand, I believe the Ministry will fail to penetrate through our deception," Dumbledore said. "Not least because, from what I have been able to determine, Mr Malfoy has covered his steps well. The shopkeeper he must have obtained the sweets from has no memory of the incident. A notable absence of memory, even."
Harry blinked. Malfoy going around Obliviating people was… a terrifying thought.
"Headmaster, are you sure—I know you want to save him from Voldemort's retribution and everything, but are you sure—"
Dumbledore gave him a benevolent smile.
"Right," Harry muttered. "Have you decided on what you'll do with him, sir?"
"At present, the solution does persist in evading me," Dumbledore said. "Let us hope that it will not stay elusive for long."
Harry gave him a strained smile.
"You've done well, my boy," the Headmaster concluded. "We shall speak of the Horcruxes again at a later date, but for now let us part and ready ourselves for the next step in our plan."
Having left Dumbledore's office, Harry turned his steps to the library. The knowledge of Horcruxes sat like an itch in his brain, and maybe he would read a bit while he waited for the Aurors to arrive; maybe he'd find something he'd overlooked before…
However, first things first. Retreating behind stacks, Harry unfolded the Marauder's Map and searched for the dot labelled Dumbledore.
It turned up in Snape's office, alongside Snape's dot. They disappeared and materialized in the hospital wing. Probably Floo. They joined the dot labelled Horace Slughorn.
Madam Pomfrey approached them after a few minutes.
Snape and Dumbledore vanished again, each professor returning to his own office. Horace Slughorn stayed where he was, unmoving.
Harry didn't take his eyes off the map even though nothing happened for a good long while. Then—
Robert Proudfoot and Emma Savage appeared outside Hogwarts gates. Aurors.
Well. They'd find him when they needed him.
Harry walked over to the history section, absently touching the books' spines.
Seven pieces of soul, six Horcruxes… well, seven, counting the shard of soul that had been expelled from Harry, but Voldemort didn't know about that. He'd wanted six. He'd made the ring, the diary, and probably four others…
Harry stopped before a row of tomes on the history of Hogwarts. He wasn't sure what he was expecting to find here now; he'd combed through this section when Dumbledore had shared his thoughts with him months ago.
("Four objects from the four founders would, I am sure, have exerted a powerful pull over Voldemort's imagination…")
Four Horcruxes still out there, and the Hogwarts founders' belongings made up exactly that number.
Hufflepuff's cup and Slytherin's locket had to be among them; that red gleam in Voldemort's eyes when he'd seen them at Hepzibah Smith's spoke of too much. The sword definitely wasn't a Horcrux, but what else of Godric Gryffindor's was there? Rowena Ravenclaw had obviously had the diadem, but that had been lost for centuries now, and no accounts of it survived.
Harry hesitated over a copy of Godric Gryffindor's biography.
He wondered: could Voldemort have tracked down the descendants of Gryffindor and Ravenclaw, the way he'd done with Hepzibah? Dumbledore couldn't trace them, and Harry hadn't had any luck either, but Voldemort had devoted months, years to finding the objects he needed. He might have succeeded where they'd failed…
"Mr Potter?" came the call from a few feet away.
Harry stepped out from behind the shelves to see Dumbledore and an unfamiliar Auror approaching him. Emma Savage, presumably.
"Good afternoon, Mr Potter," she said. "Will you please come with me? Professor Dumbledore can accompany us, of course."
Of course. Harry being a minor who was legally allowed an adult with him.
He managed not to snort over this thought as he followed them back to Dumbledore's office. On the way, they picked up Auror Proudfoot, who'd apparently been interviewing someone else; he nodded amiably at Harry and talked to Emma Savage in an undertone. Harry heard nothing, though he'd tried to eavesdrop.
"Now, Mr Potter," Auror Savage said, sitting behind Dumbledore's desk, "can you tell us what happened yesterday evening?"
Harry dutifully recited everything that had transpired until he'd had to stay behind. The Aurors asked clarifying questions only rarely, and, as Harry talked, he realized that, from their point of view, he was hardly implicated at all; as long as he wasn't the last person to see Slughorn alive, he became just another witness. A famous witness, yes, but in this case it meant that, for his interviewers, he was at least something of a known quantity.
Certainly, Auror Savage didn't display any hints of suspicion, while Proudfoot seemed more sympathetic than anything.
"And then the rest of your classmates left, is that right?" Emma Savage asked, looking up from her notebook.
"Yes," Harry said.
"Why didn't you leave with them?" she asked.
"I wanted to talk to Professor Slughorn," Harry said.
Harry hesitated. Oh, this and that, a bit of Dark magic, don't you know how it goes.
"My mother," Harry said, dropping his eyes. "She used to be in the Slug Club too, back in the day, and Professor Slughorn liked her, and—sometimes he'd talk. About her. That's all."
In the ensuing silence, Auror Proudfoot cleared his throat. It sounded very loud.
"I see," Auror Savage said. Her face remained inscrutable. "What time did you leave his quarters?"
"I'm not sure. It was close to, or already after, curfew."
"Did you see anyone else arrive?"
"Did anyone call on him while you were there? Did he mention any appointments?"
"Not that I recall."
"Just as a matter of routine, can anyone confirm what time you left Professor Slughorn's office?"
Ah. "I'm not sure—"
"Oh, for Merlin's sake, Emma, leave him be," Proudfoot boomed. "Miss Patil already told us he was with her, what more do you want?"
Miss—? Oh god, what had Padma done?
"I need to hear it from him, Robert," Emma said, giving Proudfoot an unimpressed look. "Mr Potter?"
"I didn't want to—I mean." Harry shrugged uncomfortably. "Do we have to? Is this going on record anywhere? She has a—"
"Boyfriend, we know, but we aren't here to deal with student morality," Proudfoot said. "We only need to know if you were in fact with her."
Harry nodded, shoulders slumping in very real defeat.
If Padma had claimed he'd been with her, not like he could make her into a liar by denying it now.
Also, it did make things easier; having secured his confession of an illicit tryst, the Aurors didn't seem interested in hearing much else from him.
"Thank you for your cooperation, Mr Potter," Emma Savage said, shaking his hand. "We'll keep in touch if there's anything else."
"Of course," Harry said. "Please give my regards to Mr Scrimgeour."
"I would like to speak to you further, Harry, so if you would stop by my office at—oh, let's say eight o'clock, shall we?" Dumbledore suggested.
No rest for the wicked, was that what they said?
"You didn't have to cover for me," Harry told Padma as they strolled by the lake later that afternoon. "I mean, I'm grateful and all, I'm just saying—"
"I know," she sad. "But we all discussed it and figured that, if one of us was going to do it—which we were, by the way—I was the best option. Zabini and I were the only ones who had private rendezvous that evening, and it seemed a bit more credible that you'd be with me than with him."
Harry snorted. "Yeah, okay. Still—"
"Get over it, darling," Padma said, flipping her hair back. "Maybe we're not as good in a fight as you are, but we can protect you too."
Harry suppressed repeated assurances that they didn't have to. Instead, he murmured, "Thanks, then."
"There, there." Padma patted his arm. "Was that very hard?"
"I think I sprained something," Harry answered wryly, earning her laugh.
They walked a few paces in silence, treading over freshly grown grass.
"What about Justin, won't he mind?" Harry asked.
Padma's smile turned sharp. "He won't be a problem."
"The Aurors won't check with him?"
"Even if they do…" Padma rolled her eyes. "Honestly, though, I think they won't unless they suspect a lie, and why would they? Especially with our history."
True, that. Padma and Harry's breakup had made headlines a couple of years ago. Connecting their names would be the work of a moment.
"Do you ever think it's weird?" Harry asked. "I mean, we actually, like, dated at some point."
Padma glanced at him and gave a laugh. "Oh Merlin, don't remind me."
"It's like we were different people. In a different life." Harry shook his head.
"We were children, Harry," Padma said. "And it's far too embarrassing to think back to how silly we both were. I mean, you at that Yule dance? That was horrifying. And me! I spent half of our so-called relationship trying to be someone I wasn't. Some sort of a diva from magazines."
"You weren't that bad."
"Of course not," Padma said.
"And neither was I, at that dance! I had nice dress robes and everything."
"Yes, dear," Padma said. "Whatever helps you sleep at night."
Harry gave up and laughed, tilting his head back to look at the sky.
Padma threaded her arm through his.
"Let's go back, shall we? I'm getting a bit cold."
Spring or not, the air still carried enough of a winter's bite that Padma's cardigan offered little protection. Harry grinned.
"Would you like my coat, m'lady?"
"Keep it, you ruffian," Padma said, turning her nose up. "I'll let you know if your services are needed."
"As you wish," Harry murmured.
They turned towards the castle. However, as soon as the front entrance came into view, their pace abruptly dropped.
"Is—is that—" Padma cut herself off.
Harry stopped walking when she did. They watched as Auror Proudfoot levitated a covered stretcher down the stairs, Dumbledore walking next to him. A crowd of students had gathered, whispering on the sidelines.
"Yeah," Harry said.
"This whole thing, Slughorn—it seems so sudden." Padma bit her lip. "One day he's—and then. What will happen now?"
"A funeral, I guess," Harry said. "In his home town or something. I don't even know where that is."
"He liked you."
"I know." The vial with Slughorn's memory never left Harry's pocket.
"It's—it's so hard to believe—"
"Hey." Harry put an awkward arm around Padma's shoulders. "It'll be okay."
"Oh, really? What exactly about this—"
The honest distress in Padma's voice resounded with another pang of guilt in Harry's chest. The thought from earlier surfaced again. I did this.
"I'm sorry," he said quietly, even as she buried her face in his shoulder. "I just—I'm really, really sorry."
"What for?" she asked, her voice muffled.
Harry kept silent.
Auror Proudfoot and Dumbledore proceeded down the path to the gate, the stretcher floating next to them. Harry, Padma and the assembled audience stayed in place until they'd made it to the gate and disappeared from sight.
"I don't even know why it's hitting me so hard," Padma said, drawing away from Harry. "I mean, it's—there's already been so much, I'm not sure why—"
"We're all stressed out," Harry said. "Maybe it's like the last drop or something."
"True," Padma said. "This year's been plenty stressful. I think I'm getting wrinkles."
Harry smiled tightly. Padma didn't do vulnerability for long; already, she was gathering herself up.
"All right, darling," she said, brushing down her skirt. "It's been lovely, but you know how it is. I'm too popular to spend all day with you."
"I'll try to bear the pain of separation."
Padma blew him a kiss as she walked away.
By the time the Aurors left the school, they'd interviewed the entire Slug Club and all the teachers. At dinner, Dumbledore—apparently back from the Ministry—stood up and announced Slughorn's death, but by then everyone already knew.
Malfoy didn't turn up to dinner. The junior Death Eaters talked in low voices, throwing cautious glances around.
Harry grew increasingly tense as he neared Dumbledore's office; the things they might discuss ranged from the Ministry's inquiry to Slughorn to Horcruxes, and Harry felt like he'd seen more of the Headmaster in the past 24 hours than he wished to in a whole school year.
"Ah, Harry! Come in, my boy," Dumbledore said, beckoning him into the office. "Severus has just arrived."
Snape scowled at Harry as if resenting his presence. Well, tough luck. Harry didn't want to deal with Snape, either.
"The students suspect nothing," Snape said, turning back to Dumbledore to continue what was clearly an ongoing conversation. "Though they wonder why Slughorn was killed."
The accompanying glare communicated that Snape, too, would like an answer to that question.
"Harry?" Dumbledore prompted.
Harry sat down in a chair next to Snape's.
"Yeah," he said. "I mean, I agree, everyone's wondering why Professor Slughorn or how it happened, but that's it."
"Very well," said Dumbledore.
"And the Aurors?" Snape asked, apparently giving up on his other line of inquiry.
"They have gathered that the poison was sent to Horace by someone close enough to him to have known, or heard, about his love for crystallized pineapple. However, given Horace's circle of acquaintance and the fact that the parcel was delivered by post, they realize the field of suspects is almost impossibly large," Dumbledore said.
And, enthusiastic as Filch was about scanning everything and everyone coming into Hogwarts, Secrecy Sensors wouldn't pick up on poison, since it wasn't a Dark object…
Harry frowned. "What do they reckon about the motive, though?"
"Again, with Horace as well-known as he is…" Dumbledore spread his hands. "They seemed first to consider that he is another casualty of war, but naturally there might be someone with a personal grudge, and now would be a fortuitous time to strike if one wished to divert the blame towards the Death Eaters."
Huh. Harry felt almost bad for Aurors Savage and Proudfoot; there was no way they'd be solving this murder, not without the suppressed evidence.
On the other hand, they also didn't know it wasn't a murder, so, really, out of the loop didn't begin to cover it.
"Draco Malfoy has spent the day in a state of nerves," Snape said pointedly. "Waiting for the metaphorical axe to fall, or then not. If we take no prompt action, he will start believing himself victorious, and there is no saying what he might do then."
"Yes," Dumbledore said. "With all these other matters attended to, I believe we must next focus on Mr Malfoy and the conundrum he presents… I suppose I could speak with him," he said in a thoughtful tone. "As a warning and a way to establish communication…"
"Your reasons for not talking to him before all stand, Albus," Snape said. "And if you thought to tell him that Slughorn is in fact alive, because you don't want him to fancy himself a killer, know the boy's Occlumency will not be a match for the Dark Lord. He will pluck this intelligence from Malfoy's mind as soon as they meet again."
"Unless they do not meet again," Dumbledore said. He steepled his fingers, withered digits meeting healthy ones.
Snape gave an honest-to-god sneer. "Draco Malfoy might fear the Dark Lord, but he hates and fears you too, and he'll never abandon his family. Talk to him if you wish, but don't expect him to fall to his knees in front of you."
Dumbledore put his hands one on top of another on the desk, regarding Snape with what seemed liked studied calm. "Very well then, Severus. What do you recommend?"
"I recommend not telling the boy Slughorn is alive."
"It would be cruel," Dumbledore said gently.
"And you believe the boy's actions weren't?" Snape raised an eyebrow.
"We do try to hold ourselves to a higher standard than our enemies," Dumbledore said. "It is what makes a rather crucial difference. However, I understand your view. Any risk of Voldemort learning the truth is a risk we cannot take." He gave an infinitesimal frown. "I could warn young Malfoy that I have my eye on him, but if we are to make it appear that he succeeded in killing Horace…"
"Your readiness to overlook his crime may rather lessen the effect of the lecture," Snape agreed, drawing another one of Dumbledore's reproving glances.
Harry sighed. He really, really didn't feel like doing what he was about to propose. And yet:
"You can let me deal with Malfoy," he said, eyes fixed on an ornate golden clock. "Please give me the note that came with the box, though. The one with my name on it."
Dumbledore made an inquiring noise.
"I don't need to know anything about his task in order to be mad at him," Harry said. "So I won't be blowing anyone's cover or risking letting him in on too much or whatever. Sometime during today, I found out about the note and suspected him, and… It doesn't have to be politics or Voldemort, it can just be us at each other's throats, like always. He'll buy it."
"My boy, are you suggesting we let you inflict violence on your classmate?" Dumbledore asked, a touch of humour in his expression.
But Snape looked considering. "The idea is not without merit."
"Severus?" Dumbledore tilted his head to the side.
"Potter could threaten Malfoy with going to you, Headmaster, and telling you of his suspicions. And if that fear doesn't keep the Malfoy boy in check, you can always do what you wanted and talk to him then. We lose nothing."
"You would charge Harry with such an assignment?" Dumbledore asked, the weight of his gaze resting on Snape.
"I did not say he should torture the Malfoy boy!" Snape said. "But you know the nature of the job, Headmaster."
"Your job,certainly, Severus," Dumbledore said mildly. "Not Harry's."
"Someone has to do it." Harry fiddled with his cuffs. "I'm not saying I want to, but if strategically it can't be you, and it can't be Professor Snape, that leaves me. So."
"It does relieve me that this is your chief consideration," Dumbledore said. "You are truly learning to shoulder responsibility with grace, Harry. However—"
"Let the boy try, Albus," said Snape. "Potter would do this if he'd seen the note and suspected Malfoy. If nothing else, it will lend credence to the situation."
Dumbledore observed them both in silence for a moment.
"Very well, Severus," he said at last. "You know your students best. Be that as it may, Harry, I would remind you that Hogwarts has explicit rules against fighting. And you'll have to be very careful with what you tell him."
"I know how to be careful," Harry said.
Snape gave him a dark look for insubordination, but Harry had no wherewithal left to care.
He, Snape and Dumbledore acted more or less as co-conspirators now; Dumbledore may have arranged for the practical matters regarding Slughorn's death, and Snape provided the means, but Harry was pulling his own share of weight. Over the course of this past day, Harry had lied to his friends and essentially betrayed Slughorn's trust, all to better carry his part in the ruse. Now, he'd volunteered to deal with Malfoy, the one person who could get him spitting mad even on a good day and who was sure to test his temper to the limit. Harry was just… not in the mood to play he obedient pupil while attending secret meetings in the night.
"It might not even work, with Malfoy," he said. "But I'll let you know."
Harry returned to his common room after curfew. On the way, he reflected that boundaries had to be blurring for Dumbledore, too; neither he nor Snape remembered to give Harry a note to excuse his tardiness, as if they'd forgotten that he might need one; as if, in their minds, he was no longer a student.
At Quidditch practice the next morning, Harry didn't need to fake his angry tension. He'd hoped to catch Malfoy alone before the session began, but luck had been against him, and now he had at least an hour of Quidditch between the present moment and the looming confrontation.
It didn't help that his teammates pestered him with questions about Slughorn even as Malfoy looked faintly green in the background.
"So who might want to do Sluggy in?" Vaisey asked.
"I don't know," Harry said, dropping the box with Quidditch balls on the ground with far less care than usual.
"Seriously? No ideas?" Urquhart insisted.
"No," Harry bit out. He threw the Quaffle at Astoria Greengrass, who chose that moment to wring her hands and thus dropped the ball.
Vaisey sneered. Malfoy, normally quick on the insult, seemed not to even notice.
Crabbe and Goyle listened avidly, giving no indication of knowing anything; with their skills at subtlety, they couldn't have been in on the plan. One less thing to worry about, at least.
"But we're definitely talking murder?" Vaisey asked.
"Yeah, we're talking murder," Harry said. "And I might commit another if everyone doesn't get up in the air right the fuck now."
That got people moving. The practice that commenced, however, took the record for the shittiest session of the year so far. Everyone was distracted, understandably so, and Harry knew that his terseness didn't help; ordinarily, he took care to appear unruffled, and his current disposition set a poor tone for the whole team. It felt like they were more worried about being near him than the Bludgers, which… It was a thought Harry wasn't going to deal with right now, not when he had an agenda to pursue.
He dismissed them all early. Malfoy all but fled the changing rooms, ditching Crabbe and Goyle. Harry watched him go, thinking of the Marauder's Map in his jeans pocket.
Malfoy wouldn't go far.
Vaisey and Urquhart looked like they might have asked Harry more questions had they not reckoned that striking up conversation might bring on their immediate demise. Harry heard them talk, though, as they all trudged back to the castle, Astoria trailing behind. They wondered who did it, whether Harry knew who it was, and why Slughorn to begin with.
"Someone wanted into the Slug Club that badly?" Urquhart snorted. "Man was a puffed-up nobody, what harm was he?"
"You'd think," Vaisey agreed.
Little did they know.
Harry nodded goodbye to his team when they reached the common room; he dropped off his broom, waited till Crabbe and Goyle left the dorm, and then opened up the map.
When he saw Malfoy's location, he blinked and took a moment to double-check.
Apparently, in a time of crisis, Malfoy sequestered himself in the girl's toilet on the second floor, the one with the wailing ghost and the Chamber of Secrets entrance. On the way there, Harry pondered why Malfoy had chosen that particular place. His reasons had better have nothing to do with Salazar Slytherin's hideout.
Harry stepped into the bathroom and locked the door behind him with a wave of his wand. Malfoy flinched away from the sinks, where he'd been just—breathing into the drain or something.
"What do you want?" he asked, whirling around. But Harry's binding curse was already flying at him.
Eyes wide, Malfoy dove to the side.
Segrego, Harry fired, not giving Malfoy a moment to breathe. Mulco. Stupefy.
"What the fuck are you doing?" Malfoy shrieked, very nearly slipping on the tiles. "Crucio!"
Obumbrare, Harry cast, and, as Malfoy fumbled in the resulting thick fog, Harry's next cutting curse caught him in the arm.
He watched as Malfoy's sleeve tore, as blood welled up in the wound, heard Malfoy's sharp inhale.
God, this was easy. What kind of training did Death Eaters give their recruits these days? Harry was embarrassed on behalf of their organization.
"Crucio," Malfoy fired again, but he still couldn't aim properly, didn't know where Harry was, and Harry sidestepped the curse, fingers tightening on his own wand.
The magic pulled at him, tingled under his skin. Malfoy had started it; if Harry responded with another Unforgivable, it was only—
("You say you cast a lot of Unforgivables. You say they felt satisfying.")
Cold all over, Harry blasted Malfoy a couple of feet away.
It was time to end this.
Another curse, and Malfoy's wand went flying, hitting bathroom tiles and falling down under the sinks somewhere. Harry slammed Malfoy into the wall, wand jammed into his throat.
"No," he said, when Malfoy tried to twist in his grip. "I don't think so."
"Are you insane?" Malfoy rasped, straining away from the wand jabbing his neck.
"No, but I think you are," Harry said in clipped notes. "Did you think I wouldn't find out about this?" He took Slughorn's note out of his pocket and thrust it under Malfoy's nose. "Did you think you could pin this on me?"
Malfoy clenched his jaw. "I have no idea what you're on about."
Harry looked him straight in the eye. "Try again."
"Why are you so sure it was me, you crazy fuck?" Malfoy demanded. "That's a note with your name on it, not mine—"
"Okay," Harry said, real anger surging up in him again. "It'll be your word against mine, then. But, hey, your dad's a convicted Death Eater, and you've got the Dark Mark on your arm—" And when Malfoy recoiled: "You thought I didn't know that? Who do you take me for, Malfoy?"
"You still can't prove—"
"Keep up," Harry snapped. "I don't need proof. I'm the Boy-Who-Lived. You think the Ministry is going to trust you over me when I drag you in and say you poisoned Slughorn? You think Dumbledore will?"
Harry saw the threat hit home. Malfoy's face contorted, but he got hold of himself quickly enough.
"You won't do it," he said.
"Why, 'cause I'm so nice?" Harry laughed, and this, too, had nothing to do with pretence. It was just that funny.
He was apparently the kind of person who saw a fallen enemy and thought, prey. He was up to his elbows in blood and he lied, constantly, to everyone he met, and right now the unfulfilled desire for Dark spells still felt like a shiver on his skin.
"If you haven't told the Aurors yet—" Malfoy began.
"If I knew about the note when I talked to them, you bet I would have told them," Harry said. "As it is, I get to tell you first, and aren't you glad? Isn't it lovely to hear the news ahead of everyone?"
Malfoy tried to buck him off, but Harry kept him pinned, fingers digging into Malfoy's forearm hard enough to leave bruises.
They'd been here before. Once, when they were thirteen and so, so angry, Harry had forced Malfoy still and watched him hurt.
But he wasn't here for himself, now. This wasn't mindless rage: he had a task, a reason for doing this.
He'd been right, though, earlier.
("It can just be us at each other's throats, like always. He'll buy it.")
Malfoy would buy this, because Harry was almost buying it himself.
"Fuck off, Potter," Malfoy snapped, trying to dislodge Harry's grip.
Harry gathered up his control.
"Sure," he said. He pressed on Malfoy's jugular one last time and then released him with a rough shove. "I think we're done here, anyway."
He turned for the door.
"You're—where are you going?" Malfoy demanded, stumbling slightly on his feet.
"I'm going to report you for poisoning Slughorn," he said. "I thought I made that clear."
"You can't," Malfoy said, and that—that was real fear flashing in his eyes just now.
("Malfoy's not like me at all. I'm much better at this shit than he is.")
Harry made another step towards the door.
"You don't want to do this," Malfoy said. He tried for a harsh tone, but to Harry it sounded like a fish flapping on the shore, straining to get to water. "You know I won't end up in prison. The Ministry is a joke, they won't keep me. I'll be with the Dark Lord."
"Have fun licking his boots full time, I guess."
Malfoy's wand lay on the floor directly in Harry's line of vision. Harry looked down at it, gripping his own wand tightly.
"If I'm not here, I'm out there, with his forces," Malfoy said. "Killing, torturing. Harming people. I'll be one more enemy for you to fight against."
"Because setting me up for Slughorn's murder wasn't you being my enemy?" Harry asked, and now he faced Malfoy fully again.
Malfoy looked wrecked, smeared blood contrasting sharply with the pallor of his face. "I didn't—"
"Yeah, you did. Fuck up, that is." The sight of Malfoy, as he was now, made something low and vicious stir in Harry's gut. "What did you expect after killing Slughorn? A pat on the back?"
He let the pause hang for a moment.
"We can make a deal," Malfoy said before Harry could turn to go again. "I can—I can owe you a favour."
"Yeah, and I'll just expect you to honour it," Harry said.
Malfoy lifted his chin. "Are you implying a Malfoy's word is not good enough for you?"
"Are you seriously asking me to trust you?"
Maybe Dumbledore was right. Maybe Malfoy had reached the point of being scared enough, desperate enough, that he'd consider switching sides. Maybe he'd let his self-preservation instinct triumph over his pride.
("He'll never abandon his family. Talk to him if you wish, but don't expect him to fall to his knees in front of you.")
The knees part might be negotiable. The family… not so much.
More importantly, if Harry started talking like he might be willing to compromise, his psychotic persona would fall apart, and Malfoy needed to be one hundred percent convinced that Harry would go through with his threats.
Harry tried not to wonder what any of his friends would think if they saw him now, doing this.
"Oh man, you're really pissing yourself, aren't you?" he said with a laugh. "All but begging me not to tell. And it's not even the Ministry you're afraid of. The fuck do you expect Voldemort will do to you?"
"You don't know anything," Malfoy said, fists clenched.
"But apparently I still have you by the balls." Harry snorted. "You're full of surprises, Malfoy. You voluntarily signed up for this shit and now you're bailing? Talk about terrible life choices."
Harry saw the very moment Malfoy's restraint cracked. He stepped forward, face contorted. "I didn't choose—"
"Yeah, you did," Harry said, and they were nose to nose again. "You spent years spewing Death Eater ideology, but things got rough, and suddenly it's not your choice? Suddenly you're the victim? Fuck you, Malfoy."
The glare-off led nowhere, as usual.
"Wow, look at you being all silent," Harry said, stepping back with a brittle smile. "A real first. This is—damn, you know, if I didn't think you'd start shit up again as soon as you could, the idea of keeping you here, having you owe me—"
"I won't start anything if you don't tell." Malfoy stared directly at him. "You're the one with the power here. I do something, you can always sell me out then."
"Right," Harry said. "What could possibly go wrong? You've only killed a teacher and injured two kids. Letting a maniac like you loose on the school—"
"You're calling me a maniac? You?" Malfoy said, a hysterical tinge to his voice. "You killed my—"
"I—" Harry hoped his expression didn't falter. The Lestranges, Malfoy's family.
"And you're going on about me and Slughorn? Hypocritical much?"
"That was battle. This—"
"This is war," Malfoy snapped. "People die."
("You and Draco Malfoy? Kids playing a sport?")
Assassination, murderous rage, self-defence. People die.
There was an argument there, for sure. But Harry wasn't about to start claiming moral high grounds.
"Fine," he said, and the tiredness in his tone was probably too honest, but Malfoy looked stretched pretty thin too. "Give me that Malfoy word, whatever, but—do anything, give me the hint of an idea that you're planning something again, and I'm done. The deal's over."
"I'm not asking you for anything else," Malfoy said.
"The idea of you asking me for anything at all…" Harry shook his head.
"Fuck you," Malfoy said. "And if you now expect me to kowtow to you at every turn—"
"I'm sure I could make you do it," Harry said coldly. "Luckily for you, I'm not into that. Not like you don't get enough practice. That's your whole relationship with the Dark Lord, right there, isn't it?"
Malfoy didn't seem to find the dig funny. Strange of him.
When Harry left, promise secured and deal shaken on, Malfoy still stood in the bathroom, unmoving. He probably needed a moment to process everything. Harry certainly did.
He walked away in a determined stride, trying to calm his breathing.
That… had gone well.
For a given value of well.
("I never knew that you could be like that.")
He needed to just—not talk to people for a while.
He ducked around the breakfast crowds and plotted his course to the lake. People would find him if they needed to, which hopefully they wouldn't.
He'd take an hour. Or three. As long as he could get. He'd stare at the sky and run through Occlumency exercises and not think, as far as he was able.
It wasn't until Harry was heading for Monday's Potions class that it sunk in that, hey, Slughorn had been their teacher. Which meant that they no longer had one.
"What do you think will happen with Potions now?" he asked Blaise and Hermione, who flanked him on both sides.
"Chaos, mayhem, anarchy," Blaise listed gleefully. "Theft of valuable ingredients. Injuries all around—"
"They'll get a substitute," Hermione said.
Blaise sighed. "Or that."
But even so, they drew up short when they entered the classroom and saw Dumbledore smiling at them from behind the teacher's desk.
"Come in, come in," he said. "Please sit down."
Malfoy had already arrived and chosen a table as far from the front as possible. Hermione, with a baffled look at Harry, went to her station next to Terry. Harry and Blaise, after a moment's hesitation, selected their usual seat.
"Given that Professor Slughorn's time has been cut tragically short, I shall be taking over his class for the foreseeable future," Dumbledore said, surveying the students. "We shall follow his syllabus and I shall attempt to answer any questions you might have… There was a time I was quite acceptable at the art of Potion-making," he added with a good-humoured expression. "Now, if you would be so kind as to turn to the page 312 of your textbook…"
Prior to this, Harry wouldn't have known what to expect from a class taught by Dumbledore. All in all, it was an odd experience; everyone was a bit shy, reserved—or, in Malfoy's case, scared shitless—around the venerable Headmaster, but he turned out to be a patient instructor and clearly enjoyed the task.
When Dumbledore came by to inspect his work, Harry caught his eyes. He then flicked his gaze Malfoy's way and gave a very brief nod.
"Excellent," Dumbledore said, ostensibly in regard to the potion, but for a moment he looked somewhat more sombre. Message received, then. "I never expected anything less, of course, my boy."
The exchange was quick and innocuous enough that it flew even under Blaise's radar. Harry breathed a little easier as he started to clean up his desk.
He wondered if Dumbledore would hold him back after the lesson to talk, maybe update him about Slughorn, but the Headmaster gave no sign of wanting to converse with Harry beyond praising him for a potion well-brewed. Or a Malfoy well-intimidated, whichever.
"Well, that was interesting," Ernie Macmillan said after the lesson. "By the way, Harry—" He lowered his voice. "—with everything that's happened… will you be holding any—" He waved a hand vaguely. "—sometime soon?"
Harry wondered just when the duelling club had evolved into an institution whose members required guidance and reassurance on current events in addition to spell practice.
"Sure," he said anyway. "We'll meet up."
Not that he had any idea what Ernie expected to hear when they did. What could Harry tell them that Dumbledore hadn't already?
"I don't know, but you've been doing this confidence and authority thing," Blaise said when Harry brought this up a couple of days later. "So keep doing it, I guess."
Harry had approached Eddie Carmichael about arranging a duelling club meeting, and Eddie seemed to think that it was precisely what people needed. Harry was beginning to feel like he wasn't getting something.
"Confidence and authority?" he repeated. "Me? I don't know what I'm doing half the time."
"Well, you've tried your best to convince people you did know," Blaise pointed out, turning another page in his book. "Are you picking now to be annoyed that it's working?"
"I'm not annoyed, I just… Never mind."
Harry dropped his head against the back of the couch.
He'd convene the duelling club session and say… what? Slughorn's really dead, guys, now back to Patronus lessons? What were they looking for here? Because, god, if they wanted answers, they'd come to the wrong place. These days, Harry wasn't even sure he had the right questions.
("You're calling me a maniac? You? You killed my—")
"Look, what is this about?" Blaise asked, dark eyes focusing on Harry. "Are you having some sort of a crisis of confidence? Because now is so not the time."
Harry snorted. "That's your argument?"
Blaise expelled a breath and shut his book, looking irritated.
"Yeah, actually, it is. Things are looking pretty grim at the moment, and you've set yourself up as someone who holds their shit together. People need that. No one wants to see you having a crisis, so if you're going to have one, do it quietly, okay?"
"Wow, tell me how you really feel," Harry said. "What brought this on?"
"You, with that face," Blaise said, scrunching up his nose. "You've been like a drowned rat since Christmas, and then Slughorn happened, and now this. Also, what did you do to Malfoy? He's been avoiding you like the plague."
Harry winced. "That obvious, huh?"
"It is to me, but I am blessed with uncommon intelligence."
"Your modesty is overwhelming, too," Harry said. "But—no, I mean. Long story short, you were on the mark, earlier, about Slughorn and him. So."
Blaise stared at Harry, frozen mid-motion. "Malfoy killed Slughorn?"
"I did say it's a long story."
"Why are you letting—" It wasn't often that Harry had seen Blaise at a loss for words. "Does anyone—"
Harry looked steadily at Blaise.
"Right," Blaise muttered. "Right, of course Dumbledore knows. But then why—?"
"'Cause he believes Malfoy is a lost soul who can still be saved, and no, I'm not kidding."
"Why are you not kidding?" Blaise said. "Please be kidding. I need to know that we are not living in a world where this is a thing that happens."
"The long part of the story is that Malfoy was kind of blackmailed into it, in the end. I mean, he also dug his own grave, but he wasn't all skipping merrily through the fields and assassinating Slughorn. So there's that."
"That wasn't nearly as long as it needed to be," Blaise said. "Keep talking."
Harry grimaced. "I can't. I've already told you more than the others."
"Well, I should hope so, given that I sleep in the same room as the guy," Blaise said. "Merlin's balls."
"We've kind of reached an understanding," Harry said. "By which I mean, I'm holding this over Malfoy's head as long as he behaves."
Blaise looked sceptical. "You expect this to keep him in line?"
"No clue," Harry said. "But if it doesn't, we roll out the big guns."
Blaise whistled. "Damn, that's why he was such a shrinking violet in Potions, with Dumbledore being there and all."
"Fun times," Harry agreed.
Harry had made a habit of arriving early for duelling club practices; it made sense, since he ran the whole thing. He'd never asked it of anyone else, but Cedric had done the same in his time, and now Eddie was doing it too.
Which was why it was the two of them stuck in front of the wall which, once again, refused to give up a door.
"Come on," Eddie said, pacing. "Open up!"
"You can stop doing that," Harry told him for the third time. "It won't help, that's not how it works. There's someone in there."
Or else the room was broken, which was a possibility Harry didn't want to consider.
"Do we know that for sure?"
"Well, no, but…"
People started coming one by one, looking surprised and mildly alarmed that their usual meeting space seemed unwilling to materialize.
"Sorry I'm late," Hermione said, arriving with a harried look, though she was perfectly on time. "I run into Justin Finch-Fletchley, by the way, he can't make it—Luna said the same thing earlier, and goodness, is the Hidden Room locked up again?"
"We'll have to reschedule, I guess," Harry said.
He wished he could have explained the situation remotely through enchanted coins. Hopefully, the twins would soon come up with that communication device they were developing. It sounded dead useful.
"But does anyone outside the club know the Room exists?" Seamus Finnigan asked, looking around. "All of us are aware there's a meeting on."
Hermione waved him away. "Someone's bound to know, aren't they? The house-elves do, and all those people who've put their things into the storage version."
"It's not common knowledge, but probably not a secret as such," Padma agreed.
"I think I've seen Professor Trelawney stagger in there with a bottle in hand," Morag McDougal said, provoking a few titters and Padma's scandalized glare.
Harry was just about to announce that, never mind, meeting cancelled, they'd do it some other time—when Professor McGonagall appeared at the other end of the corridor.
Seeing a crowd of students milling about with no apparent purpose, she stopped, looking surprised.
"And what is this?" she asked, not unkindly. "A demonstration?"
Harry opened his mouth to reply, but then realized that, should he speak up now, McGonagall would immediately assume that he was the ringleader of this… whatever it was. On the other hand, as seconds ticked by and McGonagall's gaze sharpened on him and Eddie, Harry's mere presence had probably made her think he was involved, if not in charge.
"We're just waiting for everyone before we head to the Quidditch pitch, Professor," Harry said, going with the first excuse that came to mind. "We figured we'd play, for fun? Outside of matches."
Murmurs broke out among the students, and McGonagall raised an eyebrow as a whole lot of stragglers appeared further down the corridor and froze at the tableau.
"Well," she said. "That's something that Hogwarts hasn't seen in many decades."
Harry gave her a weak smile. "Yeah, we're… trying, with the inter-House unity."
"An honourable goal," McGonagall said. "Did none of you bring your brooms?"
"We thought we'd try with the school brooms, Professor," Eddie said, in all seriousness. "To, er, not give anyone the unfair advantage."
They might as well have announced themselves to be a homework club or a protest rally against the mistreatment of baby seals. Either way, their excuse was lame and unbelievable in the extreme, and Harry thought it just figured that they'd survived a year of Umbridge in absolute secrecy only to be defeated by a wall.
But it seemed that McGonagall was willing to let it slide, for now.
"Excellent," she said, eyes glittering with amusement. "Good luck, Potter. I think you're going to need it."
She went on her way, the crowd of students parting to let her through.
"Urgh," Eddie said, when she was gone. "That was smooth."
"Oh yeah," Harry said. "Also, guys, this is clearly not happening today, so…" He shrugged.
"By the way, if anyone's up for the Quidditch thing, I'm totally in," said Dean Thomas.
"Hear, hear," Ron Weasley said. "Now we practically have to, anyway, or McGonagall will ask."
"We can put a couple of decent teams together," Cho said. "I'm game."
Harry and Eddie exchanged glances.
"Why not?" Harry said.
That decided the matter. Most of the duelling club—minus those who had too much homework or just didn't fancy it—trooped down to the Quidditch pitch, picking up a few bewildered spectators on the way.
"It's an inter-House unity event!" Harry heard Lisa Turpin explain to someone behind him. "To cheer everyone up after all that sadness!"
"It's going to be super!" Astoria Greengrass said somewhere to Harry's left.
In the end, the impromptu match did turn out to be good fun. Harry and Cho squared off as Seekers, still on opposing teams, but normality ended there. Ginny Weasley chose to play Chaser for Harry's team. Dean Thomas—Ginny's boyfriend—played against Harry and Ginny alongside Astoria. Ron, too, was on Harry's team, while Hufflepuff's Keeper migrated to under Cho's command.
Beater pairs got split up. Chaser formations crumbled. No real strategy stayed in place.
It was great.
The air felt fresh on Harry's face as he soared through the sky, exhilaration flooding his veins; and this time, it wasn't about rivalries or winning or—anything, really, except the game itself and spending time with people.
This had to be what pick-up matches with friends were like. Harry had heard the Weasleys talk about how they used to goof around back at home, but he'd never been part of that. Well, unless you counted those times he, Cedric and Viktor Krum had flown together during the Triwizard Tournament, but that… that had been something else.
At some point, Harry realized that their game had attracted a good few spectators; McGonagall, too, ended up in attendance, waving merrily from the stands. Zacharias Smith, who'd commentated on the last few matches, had taken up the microphone and seemed to be having a swell time of it.
"When I said you should hold up morale, I didn't mean stage a bleeding heart event," Blaise told Harry, catching him after the game.
Harry grinned at him, still high from the rush of flying.
"Should've been more specific, then," he said, and only to get distracted by other people.
Professor Sprout, moved to high spirits, awarded every House with fifty points, which made no difference whatsoever to the rankings, but spoke volumes of her feelings on inter-House unity.
"Never in all my years!" she said, clasping her hands to her chest. "What friendship! How beautiful to see young people getting along!"
"There, there, Pomona," said Flitwick, patting her on the arm. "Though I agree. Simply delightful!"
Snape looked extra dour at dinner that evening, presumably in counterpoint to everyone else's cheer. Dumbledore beamed approvingly at all assembled. Harry hoped that the jubilant mess had effectively hidden the identities of duelling club members at the core of the whole thing.
Harry and Eddie ended up rescheduling the meeting for the following week, that being the earliest various prefects and Quidditch team members could make it. This time, the Hidden Room had let them in with no problem.
"Right!" Harry said. "Those of you who have already managed the Patronus, please gather on the left. The others—"
"Hey, before we start," Katie Bell said, raising a hand like the good pupil she was, "is there any news about Professor Slughorn? Has the Ministry found anything?"
"No," Harry said, submitting to the inevitability of holding a Slughorn-related info session.
("You've been doing this confidence and authority thing. So keep doing it, I guess.")
"They're still looking for the person who killed him," he continued.
Scrimgeour had written to Harry a few days ago, in fact. If you have information you couldn't disclose to the Aurors, Harry, please let me know.
Harry had hesitated over that letter for, like, a whole minute. It would be so easy. Scrimgeour would probably even understand the complications surrounding Malfoy, and he'd already be clued in if things went to shit.
On the other hand, he still represented the Ministry. He could only be trusted so far.
"Do they have any idea who it was?" Demelza Robins wanted to know.
"Not particularly," Harry said.
"So it could be someone at Hogwarts?" asked Wendy Travers.
Judging by people's faces, the thought had been weighing on more than just her mind.
"It could be," Harry admitted, "though it could also be someone from the outside. There's not enough evidence to point either way."
"So there could be someone walking around the school trying to kill people," Morag McDougal said.
"Guys, let's not panic, okay?" Harry said. "Chances are, someone had a personal grudge against Slughorn. I mean, what reason would anyone inside Hogwarts have to want him dead?"
"He wasn't that bad of a Potions teacher," Michael Corner said blandly.
"Yeah, if no one offed Snape…" Ron Weasley agreed.
"Hey!" Tracey Davis protested. "Snape's not—"
"Speak for yourself, you're in Slytherin—"
"Okay!" Harry said loudly. "About that spell practice, huh?"
Still murmuring, the crowd separated into those who had to work on the Patronus and those who had mastered the charm. Terry let out a whoop when a large silver wolf burst from his wand; Lisa Turpin produced very credible non-corporeal smoke; and Hannah Abbott practiced nonverbal offence and defence with Anthony, instead, since they'd both got the anti-Dementor spell down last month.
All in all, Harry felt that the group were making progress, which was just as well; he was in dire need of progress somewhere.
These days, he considered messing up in Potions on purpose, just to get Dumbledore to talk to him. The notice of Slughorn's funeral had appeared in the Daily Prophet last Thursday; an article relating the event popped up soon after. Enough time had passed that surely Slughorn had been resurrected already, and Horcruxes waited for no man. If Slughorn was awake and well, they could get moving.
But apparently they couldn't, and the delay grated on Harry's nerves.
"Well done, guys," he said, addressing the duelling club before everyone left for the day. "You've been working hard and it really shows."
When people began filing out of the meeting, Neville lingered behind, absently picking up cushions from the floor.
"You know, you don't have to do that," Harry told him. "As soon as we leave, it's all going to disappear anyway. Or it won't have existed in the first place, if you trust Luna."
"Huh? Oh, yeah," Neville said, and looked down at the stuff in his arms as if he hadn't realized he was holding it.
Harry nodded to the last student leaving the room and turned back to Neville.
"Speaking of Luna, do you know what's going on with her?" he asked. "She wasn't here and I haven't talked to her in a while. Not since the whole Slughorn thing happened, at least."
"You too?" Neville said. "I thought it was just me. Er, I guess I'll put these down, then."
He let the cushions tumble awkwardly from his arms and stood, blinking down at them.
"Uh." Harry cleared his throat. "What's up?"
"What? Oh, nothing." Neville's gaze skittered away. "I mean—" He shuffled on his feet and then looked back at Harry, more intent this time. "This whole thing, the duelling club, it's different now, isn't it?"
"Is it?" News to Harry.
"Now that I've seen what's out there…" Neville hesitated. "We're so far away from that."
"Sure, I guess," Harry said. "But we're training, not fighting."
"I'd never been in a real duel before Christmas." Neville poked one of the cushions with his shoe. "I'd never had to fight for my life. It's not the same."
"No," Harry agreed, still not sure where this was going.
He sank down onto a beanbag, figuring they may as well not do this standing. Neville followed with a sigh a moment later.
"I thought you were training us up to fight," Neville said. "But, really, you're just trying to make sure we know how to not die. Aren't you?"
Way to ask a blunt question. Harry ran a hand through his hair.
"Not—I mean, I want you to be able to defend yourselves."
"So, what, that's the best we can hope for?" Neville said.
"Of course not," Harry said. "But I'm not training up an army."
"You don't think we can do it?" Neville pressed. "You think there's no way I can ever do the stuff you do?"
"Maybe I think you don't have to do it," Harry said. "Maybe I don't want you to have to fight, to kill people. Maybe it hasn't been any fun for me, and maybe I don't wish it on anyone I care about. I don't know, Nev, I could be thinking a lot of things here."
Neville frowned and didn't say anything for several long moments. Harry took that time to contemplate the ceiling.
"Back there, in the fight… you used a lot of Dark magic." There was no judgement in Neville's tone.
"Mmm." Denial would be pointless.
"You used the Killing Curse."
Harry didn't turn to check Neville's expression. "So did you."
"I tried. But you actually cast it."
Harry had wondered when this whole thing would come up.
"So is it recent?" Neville asked tentatively.
"What, me flinging the Killing Curse around?" Distaste for the subject turned his words flippant, and Harry felt momentarily bad for taking that tone with Neville. But Neville's issues didn't cancel out Harry having his own mazes of barbed wire nobody was allowed to cross unharmed.
"You and Dark magic," Neville said, more firm.
"No, not recent," Harry said.
"So have you always—"
"Not always. Not from the cradle."
"But at Hogwarts."
"You never said."
He hadn't gone back to the library except to engage in research on potential Horcruxes. He hadn't touched the Dark magic books already in his possession, either, unwilling to wade back in until he'd figured out where he stood on the whole thing.
The fight with Malfoy had touched a few exposed nerves.
("On occasion, we are forced to make terrible choices. Dark magic is another such choice.")
Harry had spent a lot of time thinking about choices lately.
"So it's what, a Slytherin thing? Did Blaise and Millicent know but not anyone else? Do all of you practice Dark magic in your common room where the rest of us can't see you?"
"Yeah, Nev, it's a conspiracy, us against the Gryffindors," Harry said, irritation flaring up again.
He felt the weight of Neville's eyes on him, could imagine his hurt expression. But, when he spoke, Neville took Harry by surprise.
"You're not teaching any of that in the duelling club."
Harry started. "Of course not."
This time, Harry did turn to stare at him.
"You want me to teach Dark magic to the duelling club?"
"Would you want me to learn it?" Neville asked.
"No," Harry said, the answer out of his mouth before he'd even had time to process the thought.
"No," Neville repeated. He crossed his arms, but it looked more like he was hugging himself. "Because, what, it's bad for me?"
"Sure, it's bad, and why are we talking about this?" Harry rubbed his scar.
"Why do you do it, then?" Neville challenged. "Why is it okay for you, but not for the rest of us?"
"Because it's too late for me, okay?" The realization settled on Harry's shoulders even as he uttered the words. "I'm not… I'm not saying it's all good, that stuff I know. But I can't unlearn it, and I wouldn't if I could, because I've needed it and I'd be dead without it. And if there's another fight, I'll use it again. And if I have to learn more, I'll learn more. That's… that's just how it is."
Harry swallowed. There was his answer, he guessed, to what he'd do about Dark magic now.
Neville's eyes were still fixed on him.
"But you think I shouldn't do the same thing. Like you don't think I should fight the way you do."
Harry stared back and realized that, whatever he said now, it would make him a massive hypocrite. This was a replay of every single one of his arguments with the Order, in pitch-perfect detail.
("It is the job of responsible adults to make sure he is not as involved…")
They wanted him safe, protected. Innocent. They tried to shield him from the cruel realities of war, because in their eyes he was someone who shouldn't have to deal with all this. They were ready to step in front of him and bleed and kill and maybe die—like Kingsley, like Hestia—so long as he didn't have to make the calls they did.
Harry understood this now, because he felt the same way about Neville, about the rest of his friends, about duelling club members. About those who still had innocence worth protecting.
("You shielded me like you weren't important. Like you knew you could take whatever they threw at you, and you knew I couldn't.")
"Harry?" Neville said, but Harry wasn't listening, still distracted by the magnitude of his realization.
God, what a mess. If the Order truly saw him this way, no wonder they didn't take him seriously; doing so would equal to admitting that they'd failed, that he'd gone down the road they'd tried so hard to spare him from.
They were in for a rough awakening. Still, they'd all better get on the same page soon, because this working at cross-purposes deal wasn't at all productive.
"Sorry, Nev," Harry said in a voice that sounded far away, even to him. "Just… a lot on my mind. But this really isn't me thinking you aren't good enough for something, okay? I mean it when I say nobody should have to be like me."
"I know I don't have to," Neville said quietly. "But I want to do whatever I can, even if it isn't a lot. I want to help you, and I want to fight, and I want to defeat Voldemort."
"Then you will," Harry said, imbuing the words with all the certainty he had.
It helped that he was entirely sincere.
The moment Harry had been waiting for came during the first Potions class after the Easter holiday, when Dumbledore gave him a smile over his cauldron.
"See me after the lesson, Harry, won't you?"
"Yes, sir," Harry said, straightening up and ignoring Blaise's curious look.
Once the class ended, he hardly restrained himself from tapping his foot on the floor in impatience as the room emptied of students.
"Your brewing skills are admirable, Harry," Dumbledore said, "but, as you can imagine, school assignments are not why I held you back. You will be pleased to know that Horace sends his regards."
Harry nodded, shoulders relaxing minutely. "So everything went well."
"Certainly, my boy," Dumbledore said. "I hope you were not unduly worried."
"It seemed like it was taking a while," Harry said with as much tact as he could.
Judging by his smile, Dumbledore picked up on the implicit whatever the hell took so long.
"After Horace's distinguished burial, we naturally had to let some time pass while the stream of mourners dwindled down," Dumbledore said. "I have now managed to awaken him with no one being the wiser, though it did take some doing. Horace is enjoying solitude in a remote cottage, the location of which I will not, if you forgive me, divulge."
With everything Harry knew about Slughorn, the likelihood of him enjoying social isolation was very low. On the bright side, Slughorn's death wouldn't cut off his access to money; goblins, after all, were tricky creatures, and they'd happily continue supplying a dead man with funds from his vault without ever informing the humans, provided he could satisfy their demands for identification.
"Now that Horace has rejoined the land of the living, however, I believe you have fulfilled the terms of your agreement with him, such as it was," Dumbledore continued, eyes twinkling. "Or am I mistaken?"
"No, that's right," Harry said. He reached into his pocket and held up the vial that hadn't left him ever since Slughorn had entrusted it into his hands.
"Marvellous," Dumbledore said, and he looked genuinely elated. "You have done even better than I expected, Harry. Let us not delay."
They Flooed over from what used to be Snape's office next door. As soon as they arrived in the Headmaster's rooms, Dumbledore crossed over to his Pensieve.
"Now, Harry," he said, "if you please?"
Harry stood next to the Headmaster and poured the memory into the bowl. This was it. The moment of truth.
As he watched the events play out—familiar to begin with, and utterly predictable after—Harry couldn't help but feel like a burden had lifted from his shoulders. Yes, Slughorn had told him that Voldemort had inquired after seven pieces of soul; yes, he'd spent night after night wracking his brain and hiding in the library to figure out what or where the missing Horcruxes might be—but this was the moment when Dumbledore knew it too. This was the moment when Harry had solid proof that he'd succeeded in his task.
This was also when he was no longer alone with the responsibility of acting on the knowledge.
"Well done, Harry," Dumbledore said, emerging from the memory. He stood still, peering into the basin. "Now we have the piece that will help us complete the picture."
"I hope so," Harry said. "That's quite a few Horcruxes, though."
"Lord Voldemort has indeed gone further than any other in his quest to achieve immortality," Dumbledore said, face darkening. "It is no wonder his soul was so unstable the night he went to attack you, my boy."
"How many Horcruxes do you think he had at that point, sir? Because I'm coming up with at least four, maybe five," Harry said, voicing long-rehearsed thoughts. "He made the diary and the ring first, obviously, and he had the locket and the cup really soon after, so that leaves the mystery two—"
"I do agree with you," Dumbledore said, walking over to his usual chair. "However—"
"So then, either he got his hands on unknown founder stuff, or he chose to make Horcruxes of something else, and that's not even starting on where they could be—"
"Disinclined as I am to belabour the obvious, Harry, I must point out that breathing is highly beneficial to your health," Dumbledore said, smiling. "I am gratified to see you so intent on this matter, but let us keep a calm mind as we ponder it together."
"Sorry, sir, I just—I've been pondering it a while," Harry said, sitting down opposite Dumbledore.
"Perfectly understandable," Dumbledore said. "You have outlined our existing knowledge quite well: two Horcruxes destroyed, two we can identify, and two more that elude us. I have only one further consideration to add as to what they might be."
Harry looked at him, waiting. He noticed that the portraits on the walls of the Headmaster's office all listened with equally keen expressions.
"We know from your own experience that a living being can house a fragment of a foreign soul." Dumbledore reached out with his healthy hand to touch an instrument on his desk. "In your case, Voldemort was not conscious of it; however, he could very well have created a living Horcrux deliberately."
Harry sat back. This possibility hadn't occurred to him before.
"Isn't it way too risky?" he asked. "I mean, in his place, if I had the choice between an object I can hide somewhere and a living being that can get itself killed—"
"No doubt you are correct," Dumbledore said, frowning slightly. Perhaps he didn't enjoy hearing Harry try on his Horcrux-making options. "However, Lord Voldemort is no ordinary wizard. Consider the diary, which was intended for use as a weapon… He'd wanted it to be found, even at the risk of destruction…"
"That confident, was he?" Harry asked. "Just because nobody else has made this many Horcruxes?"
"He does pride himself on his achievements," Dumbledore said.
"He wanted to split his soul into seven," Harry said. This was something else he'd thought about a lot. "In the end, he didn't know, but he split it into eight, because of me. Does this—" Harry gestured uncertainly. "Did this make a difference? He wanted seven because it's a powerful number, and if he'd managed exactly seven, would that have—I don't know, made him stronger, more stable?"
Dumbledore observed Harry with a small smile on his face.
"A very astute question, my boy, and one I am afraid we shall have no clear answers to. I believe that, for a time, his soul had indeed been split into the originally intended number, but that was not a true test of his plan, for it did not happen the way he had intended…"
"You mean when he didn't have a body," Harry said. "You think he was missing a single Horcrux when he came to kill me? And then I became the sixth?"
"You were never a true Horcrux, and his soul was not sealed in you the way it would have needed to be," Dumbledore said gently. "But, of course, he did inadvertently leave a piece of his soul inside you, only to destroy it soon upon his return. And it was shortly after he regained his body, I believe, that he created his final, effectively seventh, Horcrux…"
"The snake," Harry said, staring. "You think it was his snake."
Dumbledore beamed at Harry the way a proud grandfather might.
"Indeed, my boy; when I spoke of a living being, I had his faithful reptile in mind." The Headmaster once again glanced at the instrument from which thin wisps of smoke were issuing. "Severus's description of their closeness, the peculiar way in which he controls it, the use of the snake to penetrate the Ministry… Yes, I learned much from the death of Arthur Weasley," Dumbledore said, grave.
"Right," Harry said. "But, if you think the snake is one of the Horcruxes, that leaves us with only one unknown, doesn't it? Could he have made a Horcrux out of someone else?"
"I believe it unlikely," Dumbledore said. "I have not heard of his attachment to any other sentient creature. Voldemort may be cavalier with his soul, but not quite to the degree of making a Horcrux out of a living being he didn't keep an eye on."
"If he takes so many risks with his Horcruxes, does it mean he's pretty careless about hiding them, too?" Harry asked. "I mean, sure the ring was protected, but it was casually lying about in his relatives' house, and the diary was in Lucius Malfoy's hands—as you say, meant for future use—and the snake slithers about places…"
"Harry, please do not oversimplify the matter," Dumbledore said, a warning in his eyes. "Voldemort needs but one Horcrux to remain tethered to this world. The others are precautions; they are not vital to his continued survival. All he needs is to have hidden one Horcrux very well, and he can afford to keep the others in places where it will be easy for him to look in on them."
"So you're saying it's fifty-fifty on whether the rest of the Horcruxes are just sitting in his fridge or if they're in some dark tower guarded by a fire-breathing dragon," Harry said, glum.
"Both these possibilities strike me as remarkably implausible, but I do acknowledge your gift for metaphor," Dumbledore said, smiling.
"So how do we find them?" Harry asked. "I mean, fine, we know where the snake is, but the rest—"
"The snake," Dumbledore interjected quickly, "ought certainly to be left for last, barring Voldemort himself. The moment we attack the snake, Voldemort will be alerted to our plan, and I need not reiterate how important it is that he be kept in the dark."
"Yeah," Harry said. "But what about the other Horcruxes? I mean, there's three of them out there somewhere."
"I must say that, in this regard, you know very nearly as much as I do," Dumbledore said. "I have a notion that at least one Horcrux location will have something to do with Voldemort's childhood, but that does not get us very far."
"Like the orphanage?" Harry said. "He hated that place. Would he hide something there? Does the building still exist? Can we go there?"
"Harry." Dumbledore held up a hand. "As it happens, I have already visited the place, and I have found no trace of a Horcrux there; regardless, I agree that Lord Voldemort would not hide a piece of his soul in a location so distasteful to him. And when it comes to other possibilities…" Dumbledore joined his fingertips together. "You must realize, Harry, that you cannot accompany me on every search mission I undertake. Quite apart from the fact that you are, in fact, a student in this school and thus have daily responsibilities to attend to, together we would be doubly conspicuous, which would not be to our advantage. There are some places it is far easier for me to go alone; certain people who will not speak to me with a witness present."
"So what would you have me do? I've been researching, but it's all covering the same old ground. I'm getting nowhere new."
"I assure you that I shall alert you as soon as I have found something of value," Dumbledore said.
"Sir," Harry said tightly, "you brought me in on the whole Horcrux thing because you thought I needed to know. You've made me a part of this, and you can't—you can't do it halfway. I get it that you have your reasons, but if any of this is about protecting me for my own good—"
"Ah, Harry." And here Dumbledore gave a smile that looked somewhat sad. "You need not fear that I will exclude you from further involvement. Quite the contrary… I have not taken anyone as far into my confidence as you. You alone hold the same keys to defeating Voldemort that I do, and, believe me, I recognize exactly how much responsibility that entails."
"I can't just do nothing," Harry said.
Dumbledore regarded him with a strange sombre expression.
"No, indeed. But, if you'd listen to an old man's advice, Harry, do not waste a rare moment's peace… You need not endlessly seek out battle. After all, you must have learned by now; for you, who is on the front lines of the war, the battle will always be nearer than you think."