A.N.: I did it. I can't believe it! After months, a new chapter! Can I just say how sorry, I am? To my defense, work has been brutal. I mean, I wrote this chapter in doses and you can practically taste the parts I wrote when I was dead tired, functionally asleep on my feet. The whole experience -the working full-time part, not the sleep-writing, I have actually managed the later on various occasions in the past too- has been a bit of a cultural shock to me but hey, I'm not complaining.
Anyway, to all those who have messaged me, I will try to answer soon. I've just been crazy busy, guys. I can't believe you've been so patient with me. Just know I read and am thankful for every single review and message, even if I don't manage to answer. You rock and I love you all. This chapter goes to all of you, who have stuck with this story -and silly little me- while I flailed around, pretending to be a responsible adult.
Once again, this is a guilt-ridden, behemoth sized chapter. If you, for a single moment, thought things were looking up for Harry and Co, well tough 'cause they're not. New problems arise and old enemies plot as the summer ends and the fifth year begins. Also, a lot of things happen in this chapter. Important things, that may not seem important right away but will circle around and jump on you, my hapless readers, and poor, haplesser (that's a word now, don't question me) Harry in later chapters happen here. And there's a veritable steam of information, effectively completing the circle of Horcrux interrogations, for the time being. Oh, and Harry's starting to really feel the pressure. Man, I write such happy chapters…
Finally, to those among you that pleaded me not to start offing people right and left; guys, it's a war. Not everybody can make it (I already feel bad for what I have planned myself, don't lynch me, please). That's it, I suppose. Read away! I hope you'll enjoy this chapter and don't forget to review!
P.S.: I know JK said there are around six thousand (or was it eight? Well, under ten, for certain) wizards and witches in the British Isles, but I have upped that number to my all-time head canon for this story. I've always imagined that each country's magical population was somewhere around an additional 2% to their actual one. That would bring the grand total of magical folk on the planet to around 150 million to the 7.2 billion Muggles. That always sounded about right to me, I don't know. Allow me some artistic license, okay?
P.S.2: More on the rest of the Potters next chapter as tensions keep rising!
Disclaimer; I won the rights to Harry Potter in a poker game last night. The tooth fairy had them. No, seriously.
LAST DAYS OF SUMMER
"Are you all mental?" He asked indignantly, his miffed expression, further spurring their laughter paroxysm.
"Oh lighten up, Harry!" Neville exclaimed, smiling widely at his brother. The green eyed teen looked from him to the ring and back to the laughing people around him. And out of the blue, the absurdity of the situation hit home. What else could he do, Harry mused, what else could any of them do but laugh? There was still much that had to be done -one more horcrux waiting back home, for Merlin's sake!- and he wouldn't be able to breathe properly until he was certain his father was given the blood replenishing potions he needed. But at that moment, laying back and laughing seemed like a good idea. So, lay back on the dusty floor and laugh was just what he did.
Gathering themselves from the floor of the Gaunt house and returning to Silbreith had been a swift process, once they had managed to stop laughing. Severus was in need of blood replenishing potions and Harry simply couldn't stand the place any longer. With the ring secured in his jacket's inner pocket, Harry supported his father out of the hut -good riddance, he couldn't help thinking as they left it behind- and steadied him as they landed on the front porch of Silbreith. Minnie was there to greet them, as expected, the house elf paling once her eyes landed on her master.
"Is master Severus ill?" She asked, her voice squeaky and terrified. The potions master smiled tiredly.
"I will be just fine but I would require some blood replenishing potions, Minnie, if you'd please." He stated. "And bring up some diner too, for all of us, to the library."
"Of course, master Severus!" The actual walk to the library lasted longer than it normally would have, the potions master taking careful, measured steps, his son walking by him, still slightly dazed. Once they reached their destination, they found Minnie already there, food served, four vials of a cherry red potion placed by one of the plates.
"That would be all, Minnie, thank you." Harry said, smiling fondly at the house elf.
"And I truly am alright." Severus added, seeing how Minnie was about to inquire after his health once again. "I should probably cut down on spontaneity in the future, but I will be right as rain in no time." Looking slightly miffed at perceiving whatever ailment had befallen her master had been, at least in part, caused by his own impulsiveness, Minnie bowed and left the room, shaking her head in fond exasperation. After smiling at the spot where the house elf had disappeared for a second longer, the potions master turned to the table and poured the first vial in a goblet, seating carefully at an armchair before drinking it, cautiously steadying his trembling hands.
"Let's never do that again." Neville suggested before collapsing on the nearest bench, Harry nodding emphatically as he watched over his father like a hawk; he'd make sure the potions master drank the whole goblet before eating something solid and proceeding with the remaining potions.
"Agreed." Ginny offered, visibly shaken up, her arms wrapped around her own torso tightly. She took a seat next to Neville and shook her head decisively; there was much to be done still and she was over allowing Tom Riddle dictate her life. Hearing that voice again had been like a kick to the gut but, at least, this time she got to see that piece of his soul vanquished. It was with a sense of closure that she had left the Gaunt house, something she had never managed to get from her ill-fated visit to the Chamber two years ago. Until Voldemort was gone for good, it would have to do.
"So," Draco finally spoke, after allowing them all a few, much needed minutes of silence, "one more Horcrux down."
"Yay, team." Neville stated, rubbing his eyes tiredly, an equally tired smile etched on his lips. Severus, with a wry smile of his own, nodded in agreement.
"Two out of six." The potions master reminded them, shaking his head in disgust and immediately regretting the action and the ensuing headache. Noticing his discomfort, Evy grimaced in commiseration.
"That would be inadvisable for the time being; no sudden movements until the potions take effect." Harry eyed the food on his father's plate critically, dissatisfied with the amount he had eaten.
"Dad, you should be eating." It was worded like a suggestion but Harry's tone clearly implied it was an order and nothing else. Snorting in amusement, Severus made a show of taking a bite out of his food.
"Isn't telling you to eat all your food technically my job?"
"Theoretically, yes." Harry conceded. "Practically, I believe, it's Minnie's job to tell us both. I'm making an exception due to certain recent developments. And you're stalling; eat." The potions master rolled his eyes but did as instructed.
"Back to the Horcrux though." Severus said, sipping at the contents of his second blood replenishing potion vial, the pounding in his head subsiding to a more manageable thrumming.
"Those were some interrogating skills you showcased there, Mr. Potter." Ginny stated, rubbing circles soothingly over her temples. Harry shrugged the compliment off.
"I told you I'm good at infuriating him." He chuckled humorlessly. "Makes for an interesting pastime."
"A deadly pastime." Severus corrected his son, eyes narrowing; Harry held up his hands in mock surrender.
"I would rather avoid it myself." He admitted. "But you can't deny it's been proven useful information wise."
"Six Horcruxes." Neville muttered, recalling said information. "Just when you think he can't possibly get more insane."
"Two have already been destroyed." Evy reminded them. "One more is in our possession."
"And we know that the fourth is probably Hufflepuff's Cup," Ginny added, "even if we don't know where it is."
"The Locket Horcrux might help on that regard." Harry contemplated. "It was made later than both the ring and the diary and, if the Cup is truly a Horcrux, the Locket will know."
"You're not getting anywhere near that Locket tonight." Severus simply stated, relieved to see his son nodding in agreement.
"I'm practically asleep on my feet as it is." Harry admitted. "As much as I want to find out what the Locket knows, I won't do any good if I try interrogating it when I can barely keep my eyes open."
"I couldn't agree more." Severus said, nodding as emphatically as he could without causing himself further pain. He pushed a plate filled with sandwiches towards his son, silently ordering him to eat something too and Harry motioned for the rest of their group to join them. There wasn't much more they could say or do at that time and thus, after Harry felt satisfied with the potions his father had consumed, they withdrew to their respective rooms, minds filled with thoughts of dark smoke and fire red eyes.
Harry found himself on his bed, his own eyes trailed intently on the inconspicuous ring on his bedside table. Back during the first few days of walking through Orbein's many rooms, he had stumbled upon the strangest double doors he had ever seen. Towering over him at the very end of an otherwise empty hallway in the dungeons, cut out of the very same stone as the castle and fortified with cast iron, they stood as the entrance of what must have once been the castle's private vault. Carved on the doors were runes, casting almost every protective charm under the sun and entwining with unseen curses that had been forged into the metal centuries ago. They all converged to a large seal, one that would have been the pride of any alchemist, dedicated solely to allowing only the current master of the castle entrance.
"Curse breakers would trip over themselves to study these doors." Harry had mumbled to himself before touching the seal to enter the actual room. All gold and jewels had been long transferred to the vaults of the Osteler heirs, bound by the family magic; they had probably found their home in Gringotts vaults after the end of the goblin revolt. But the cavernous room he had found himself in wasn't completely empty. A wild assortment of furniture were stacked at the far back of the room and spreading forward, occupying at least two thirds of the vault that was at least three times as wide as Orbein's entrance hall and twice as tall. Harry strongly suspected it was curved into the granite of the hills behind the castle.
He had appointed Orbein's first four house elves -Minnie's nieces and their husbands- to sort through the furniture and make a plan for where they could be better distributed. The rooms' plans were delivered to him daily for approval -which was generally given with some minor corrections- and Orbein had finally started to look like the castle it once was. According to Willa, Minnie's older niece, not all furniture had been stored down at the vault; the immediate heirs of the last Lord of Orbein had carried away many a table, the house elf had insisted, and it was inevitable that new ones would have to be bought to cover for those missing. Harry, who had up to that moment not realized just how difficult it was to run an estate of Orbein's size, despite all his years of assisting his father with Silbreith, had promptly asked for another list to be made, this time with the furniture that he'd have to approve for buying. Despite the accompanying headache, the vault had been emptied and he now had a place to store the Horcruxes safely. The Locket was momentarily the only object in that vault and the ring would soon accompany it there.
Sighing once again, Harry forced himself to relax, trying not to think too much on the interrogation earlier that night or the one that awaited him tomorrow. He fell asleep looking at the black stone on the ring, the weirdest feeling of accomplishment paired with dread caused by that mere sight fading away in the face of his exhaustion.
It was only late on the next morning that Harry managed to pick himself from his bed and into the shower. But, with the grime from last night washed away and twelve hours of sleep, he found himself climbing down the stairs towards the kitchen, the ring in his pocket, feeling more well rested than he had been the whole past month. His family was already gathered around the table; Draco and Neville were speaking to Evy -whatever it was they were talking about seemed to hold the two teens shocked or captivated, Harry couldn't tell- while Ginny was serving herself and Severus pancakes while the potions master talked about what sounded like amendments to the instructions for a wide range antidote. Smiling to himself, he sat next to his father.
"Good morning, everybody!" He said cheerfully, smiling even wider as his greetings were chorused back at him.
"Someone's in high spirits today." Severus commented, looking -and feeling- mostly recovered from his ordeal.
"Despite everything," Harry said, seating down on the table and accepting a cup of coffee from Neville, "the fact that this is the first time we actually have solid information on the Horcruxes has finally hit home. And we made the interrogation work once; makes me hope we can do it again."
"Merlin's beard!" Draco exclaimed, fork frozen mid-air to his mouth, eyes wide. "Are you being, you know… Optimistic?" He had staged whispered the last word, as if scared naming the feeling would make it disperse.
"I've been known to show optimism now and again." Harry stated, not even bothering to pretend feeling affronted. He helped himself to some toast and jam. "So," he turned to his brothers, "what did I interrupt that had had you two spellbound?"
"We just realized History of Magic is actually an interesting topic." Draco stated, shrugging.
"The cultural shock was too great." Neville proclaimed, placing a hand over his heart dramatically. "Be still my beating heart!"
"It's kind of hard to believe it's an interesting subject when all you've been studying are goblin revolts." Evy conceded, smiling at Neville's theatrics. "I'll have to redesign the whole curriculum."
"Good." Severus stated. "We need the change. The whole five years worth of my History of Magic classes are a big gap in my memory and, I can assure you, it is the same with everyone else Binns has ever taught."
"Hear, hear." Ginny said, the three boys nodding emphatically. Evy just narrowed her eyes and muttered away in Norwegian again. Harry smirked as he caught Dumbledore's name -followed by an impressively rapid stream of what could only be insults- in her spiel.
"I'm suddenly feeling the urge to learn Norwegian." Severus stated, looking at the blonde with amusement.
"Perish the thought!" Evy exclaimed, smirking.
"And speaking of perishing," the potions master said, his expression turning serious, his gaze trailing to his son, "what are you planning to do with the Locket?"
"I was thinking on giving it a go later today, actually." Harry admitted. "There is no point in letting it sit in that vault when the questions I need to ask are so specific."
"You want to know about the Cup." Ginny guessed.
"And try my luck with the Diadem, see if there's anything backing the theory of it being a Horcrux too." Harry explained. "I don't know when the Locket was made into a Horcrux, so I can't tell if it has knowledge of where the Cup is hidden either."
"Well," Draco spoke, "he did make the Ring into a Horcrux almost immediately after he got it, right?"
"You're suggesting he might not have kept the Locket unturned for too long after he stole it, then?" Evy asked.
"I believe so, yes." The blond Slytherin confirmed.
"So, are we supposing he made the Locket into a Horcrux when he was around, what, twenty two? Twenty three?" Ginny asked, clearly sickened by the thought. Twenty three and he had already split his soul into five.
"That sounds about right." Harry confirmed, mirroring her expression. "I'm going to try and pry any information concerning where he might have hidden the remaining Horcruxes and what they might be." He grimaced, his previous optimism ebbing away. "It's a long shot."
"You're going to have to goad him into it." Severus stated, agreeing with his son's assessment of the situation. It was a long shot; not that Harry wasn't going to do it anyway. Not that he wouldn't be right next to him when he did.
"Goading, right." Harry agreed, nodding his head affirmatively. "So the choice is between making him angry and desperate."
"What you did last night seemed to work." Neville commented, remembering the blazing red eyes of the Horcrux.
"Both it is then." Harry decreed, smirking ruefully. Talking to any part of Voldemort's soul was a jarring process. And all the mental preparation in the world wouldn't be able to stop his heart from beating like crazy inside his chest, his head from spinning with the realization that so many things could go wrong at any given moment. But he knew that, unlike in the past years, now there was a countdown counter to the times he would have to face Voldemort. And that, with every Horcrux he destroyed, that counter ticked closer and closer to zero.
"You know," Evy said, looking at her tea, "I always figured Voldemort coming back meant war. That there was a chance even the Sisterhood would fight. I had been mentally preparing myself to do just that." Her gaze shifted and her eyes met Severus' across the table. "I just never thought how much fighting there would be before the actual war started."
"None of us really did." Harry admitted, shrugging helplessly. "At least you're willing to believe Voldemort is back and prepare for war." He grimaced, green eyes narrowing. "Most people have chosen to turn a blind eye and hope for the best." According to the Daily Prophet and Rita Skeeter's articles, at least, the Ministry was still utterly successful in convincing the general public the Dark Lord was dead and gone. Dumbledore had been cut off from practically everywhere and there was no sign of him gaining his political standing back any time soon. It was a nightmare. "I'm afraid that they won't be convinced in time to prepare." He admitted.
"Speaking of preparation for battle," the potions master said, trying to steer the topic of the conversation away from the Ministry and its propaganda to take Harry's mind off things, even for a while, "I think we have all fallen a little behind. After the Horcrux id dealt with, we should try to work out a schedule."
"I missed sword fighting." Neville stated, nodding emphatically. "After everything, I would welcome some quality time with the training dummies."
"Sword fighting?" Evy asked. "You have incorporated sword fighting to your training?"
"Yes." The potions master answered. "When it comes to fighting, magic isn't everything. Fighting in a battlefield needs endurance and sword fighting helps." He regarded the two women carefully. "Have you ever thought about it?"
"Sword fighting?" Ginny asked, smiling wryly. "Honestly? Living with six older brothers I've entertained the idea, once or twice. Not for years though."
"I have too, as a child; nothing more than play pretend though." Evelyn chuckled lightly as a half buried memory resurfaced. "When I was ten, I almost made it to the stables with my father's sword; I was grounded for a fortnight." She admitted, causing Severus to smile at the thought of a ten year old Evy playing the part of the fearsome knight. "I must admit, however, that my talents probably lay with magic and not a blade."
"The point still stands." Severus insisted, his countenance serious once more. "If I have ever learned anything of war, that would be you never know what you'll face; you just have to prepare for everything. Training your magic is only part of it; there might come a time you'll need to run -or kick and slash- for your life and you can't ignore that." He pointed at the two women in their group. "Understand that this has nothing to do with your magical prowess; I don't know what being in the Sisterhood entails, how you train and whatnot. But you need to prepare your body for war too, not just your mind and magic."
"I understand the principle." Evelyn offered, nodding her head in agreement. "But you must realize I've had no prior training with weaponry; I'll have to start from scratch and I don't know if we have time for that."
"We have a training suit of armour that has all the time in the world, right here in the dungeons." Harry assured her.
"I also doubt I'll be able to lift a broadsword, let alone wield it successfully." To that Severus had to concede.
"There are options other than broadswords; you just need an alternative to your wand in case things go south. As they're wont to do." He added, cocking an eyebrow in quiet introspection.
"And what about you, Ginny?" Harry asked, noticing the redhead still appeared apprehensive about the whole idea. "Any thoughts on your weapon of choice?"
"Look, I also, how did Evy put it? Oh, yeah, I understand the principle, alright?" She said, arms opened wide in a helpless motion. "But I highly doubt my ability to wield a sword."
"It's just a matter of training, I assure you." The potions master said. "You don't have to become a master swordswoman. Just adequate enough to pull yourself out of trouble."
"Yeah, and if Draco can do it…" Neville interjected, smirking at the blond Slytherin who punched his brother's shoulder in retaliation, casting him a dirty look through narrowed grey eyes.
"Watch it, Longbottom!"
"Yes, well, they've both been practicing swordfight and managed to be half decent at it," Harry commented at the unfolding scene, pointing at his brothers that were now trying to push each other off their respective chairs, "so that's proof that everyone can learn."
"Thank you, Harry." Said brothers chorused, pausing their bickering to look at the green eyed teen, before resuming their prior activities.
"Yes, well, I don't trust me with a sharp object and you shouldn't either." Ginny stated, sounding resigned. "But I'm willing to give it a shot if you have healers waiting on firecall."
"Why are you so adamant you won't take well to weapons training?" Harry asked, sensing there was more to her reaction than lack of experience.
"I'm accident prone. Also, gravity and I have been at odds since my infancy and adding a sharp object to the equation will just end in pain, blood and severed limbs, that's why." Ginny deadpanned with conviction.
"That was… quite the grim prediction you made there." Severus said, the corners of his lips twitching upwards.
"You can't be that bad, surely." Neville argued, he and Draco having finally called truce.
"I've been known to trip over flat surfaces." Ginny persisted. "And, as none of my brothers will ever let me forget, I once run after them from the house to the garden, demanding to be included in their quidditch match, and missed the door while talking to my mother over my shoulder, running into the wall instead." She shook her head at the memory of her younger self while the people around the table tried to hold back their laughter in various degrees for success. "Mum had been telling me not to run inside the house as to not hurt myself at the time too. Fred insists, to this day, that the wall by the kitchen door hasn't been the same since. Apparently, I dented it. Fred's a prat." She concluded, sending their little group into laughter.
"When was that?" Harry asked, amidst chuckles.
"Six years ago?" Ginny said thoughtfully. "Must have been around eight at the time."
"If it makes you feel any better," Harry offered, wiping an errand tear from the corner of his eye, "I was so startled the first time I ever made a precious stone during an alchemy class, I knocked over a small vial of acromandula poison into the basin and managed to singe both mine and Nicolas's eyebrows off."
"You didn't!" Draco exclaimed, only to resume laughing at the moment Harry nodded affirmative. Severus smiled widely at the memory; Harry hadn't narrated any of the funny little mishaps that had taken place during his early lessons with Nicolas since the alchemist's death. He used to go on and on about them when he was younger and he couldn't help but rejoice at their reappearance. That was the ay the Flamels were meant to be remembered, the potions master decided.
"I still have you beat, I think," Ginny stated, smiling widely at the people around the table.
"How exactly do you think you've managed that when my story had Nicolas Flamel in it?" Harry asked in interest.
"Have you ever heard people say "you just know your day will be bad when you fall off the bed and miss the floor"?" The redhead asked, looking at Harry, smirking ruefully; he only laughed and managed a chocked;
"An abrupt wake-up call and some dim-witted application of accidental magic." She explained before elaborating further. "It was a few days after Ron had left for Hogwarts the first time and I realized all my brothers had gone to school, leaving me back home." She narrated. "So I must've been having a nightmare, 'cause, next thing I know, I'm rolling off the bed. I was fully expecting to hit the floor; I hit the ceiling instead. I was stuck up there for five hours until whatever spell I'd unwittingly cast wore off."
"That's actually quite an impressive bout of accidental magic there." Evelyn commented after her laughter had somewhat died down.
"And you people want to give me a sword." Ginny lamented, shaking her head once more in complete exasperation.
"You'll be fine, you'll see." Harry insisted, smiling brightly. Goblins gold, but he had needed to laugh!
As it turned out, it wasn't just the two of them that had their moments of being accident magnets. Somehow Harry couldn't find it in him to be surprised of that fact either. Neville narrated the story of his first bout of accidental magic -"your uncle did what?" Severus had asked when Neville mentioned being held out a window by his ankles, Draco chocking on his tea- while Evy told the story of how both her and her brothers had ended up covered in mud and sporting a few broken bones during a formal dance, after deciding to play hide and go seek near the stables and subsequently climbing and falling from the roof. Harry had doubled in two from laughter -as he always did- when Severus narrated the events leading to the one time he had actually blown up a potions lab and stared at Draco in bemused awe as he admitted to having crashed through a window the first time he had ever flown on a broomstick.
"Not a single one of us should carry weaponry." Neville decreed. "What were we even thinking?" The jovial atmosphere lasted for a few more minutes until the conversation turned, inevitable, to the matter of the Locket once more.
Deciding where the actual confrontation would take place was the easy part. Orbein stood close by, all strong walls and empty halls. Harry had just the room in mind; it was a large chamber in the west wing of the castle. He couldn't be certain, but he speculated that it was once meant to be used as a secondary council chamber, in case the castle was under siege. It had been completely stripped of furniture at this point and had no windows, making a fortified wooden door the only entrance and exit and the room ideal for dealing with a Horcrux.
Keeping the Horcrux in the room -and preferably preventing any homicidal tendencies on its part- was another issue altogether. They had unanimously agreed that, should the shard of Voldemort's soul in the Locket try to either escape or attack one of them -five sets of eyes had turned towards Harry at the mention of a possible attack, making the teen huff indignantly- the Horcrux would be destroyed immediately. The potions master feared -a fear based on some vague paragraphs he had stumbled upon just that very morning- that the Horcrux might be able of possessing the body of another being, should the need arise.
"I'm not certain of the circumstances that could allow such a possession to take place," Severus had explained, all his protective instincts urging him to incinerate the Locket immediately, before his son stepped into the same room with it, "but I'd rather not chance it. The fact that we didn't take any measures against such a possibility last night will sufficiently provide me with enough nightmares for years, thank you."
It was Evelyn that suggested Voldemort's soul trapped in the Horcrux was still, in effect, a living thing. And though there were no shields they could think of that would keep an actual, disembodied soul at bay, there were a few charms and spells that could probably contain it, for a short time. By the time they had managed to assign a shield to each one of them to cast, along with practicing, it was already well into the afternoon, leaving them very little time to waste. The ride to Orbein was silent as everyone was lost to their own, private thoughts, Harry internally repeating the questions that needed be asked; the getting Voldemort angry part didn't actually bother him. Experience had proven that his presence was enough and, should that fail, he could taunt the Horcrux to distraction. It wasn't until Orbein was in sight that the silence was disrupted.
"Is that…" Evy trailed off, blinking at the castle standing proud in the distance. "Is that Orbein?"
"Yes it is." Harry confirmed, smiling at their dumbstruck expressions.
"Discreet." Ginny stated, cocking an eyebrow and smirking at Harry. "Cozy. I like it." Harry laughed at her antics as Evelyn's inner historian kicked into gear.
"When did you say the castle was abandoned by the Ostelers?" She asked eyeing the structure contemplatively. "Because from where I'm standing, it doesn't look like it has undergone any renovations." She explained. "There are no Renaissance elements, no Victorian elements and the outer walls still stand." Evy turned around to face Harry for an answer, only to find him looking owlishly back at her.
"What? It's my hobby!" She defended herself.
"You're an archaeologist whose hobby is history?" Severus asked, mirth clearly colouring his voice.
"I made my hobby into my profession and now I know I won't ever get bored of my work." She countered, smiling broadly. "How's that wrong?"
"That actually makes a great deal of sense." The potions master admitted, smiling back. Hadn't he chosen potions for the same reason after all?
"Thinking I might well enjoy History of Magic at Hogwarts this year is a very bizarre prospect." Neville interjected, the small group riding towards the castle, now feeling marginally better at the thought of what they had to face. Harry entertained himself with observing Evy and Ginny's reactions to the castle as they rode through the gates, trying to keep a level head; it seemed odd, but it was waiting to face the Horcrux than actually facing it that felt more nerveracking. Thinking about what he was going up against was only working him up more when all he wanted was to get the interrogation over and done with.
"I knew it!" Evelyn exclaimed, pointing at the two statues by either side of the main gates. "No modernizations; a perfect example of late medieval architecture! Do you see the arches over the windows on the left?" And she carried on explaining the architectural details that made Orbein unique and "an excellent specimen for any architectural thesis, I swear!", all excited and smiling because, apparently, history. Severus smiled softly at the woman, allowing himself to be affected by her enthusiasm for a few moments, taking a couple deep breaths to clear his head.
"Just how much do you know about medieval architecture?" Draco asked, finding himself impressed by her knowledge and intrigued by the subject and her lively way of transmitting information. Evy smiled shyly at the blonde Slytherin.
"Sorry. I tend to babble when I'm anxious." She confessed. "Nervous habit. Just wait till your first history lesson and you'll see." She added, eyes widening in terror at the thought. "Didn't really think it trough before I applied for the job. I've only ever taught small classes. And never teenagers."
"Don't worry." Severus advised, laughing openly as he led Kadar towards the stables. "I blew up a cauldron before teaching for the first time. I still don't know how, but I did. Everybody gets nervous."
"Blowing things up before a lesson might be the best idea I've ever heard." Evelyn stated, looking far off, as if visualizing such a prospect. "Great outlet for nervous energy."
"That's not what I meant, but whatever works." The potions master offered, chuckling slightly. The six of them walked together to Orbein's vault to get the Locket, Harry trying to distract himself by pointing out the renovations and the various rooms of the castle as they passed them by. He retrieved the box from the otherwise empty vault and took it to the designated room, without opening the lid. He could already feel the Horcrux stirring inside, trying to taste the waters, get a feel of the one carrying it. Upon reaching the room, he opened the box and placed the Locket on the floor, on the other side of the room, constantly keeping his attention on it as Evy and Severus walked around the west wing, making sure it was vacated as he had ordered.
The Locket lay unmoving and silent on the stone floor, just as the Ring had been a night ago. Harry hadn't been fooled last time and he wasn't fooled this one either. He knew, the moment he took a step further, the Horcrux would try to attack his mind. And once he addressed it, once he made his intentions known, it would add bodily harm to his repertoire. He sighed and rolled his shoulders; not as if he had much choice on the subject or anything. He wasn't leaving this room without some answers, at least, and, no matter how unwillingly, the Locket would provide them.
"Ready, brother?" Draco asked from his left, smiling reassuringly. Harry nodded.
"You know you've got this." Neville encouraged him, punching his shoulder playfully. "I was right there when you wiped the floors with the Ring's smoky face last night, I saw you doing it once before already." And he winked at him, brown eyes twinkling.
"Exactly." Ginny agreed. "And we'll be right here. Should push come to shove, I'll just throw you over my shoulder and make a run for it." She added, grinning widely, Draco and Neville laughing at the imagery.
"I'd like to see you try that, Weasley." Harry stated, chuckling at her pretend insulted face.
"I have no doubt you would, Potter." She piped, smiling once more. "I have no doubt."
Two sets of footsteps echoed in the corridor, Severus and Evy stepping into the room a few moments later. Harry could see his father's eyes travel from him to the Locket on the ground and hardening in seconds. His shoulders set decisively, he looked back at his son and smiled softly.
"The whole floor is vacated." The potions master stated. "The house elves have direct orders not to step anywhere near the second floor or even the staircases leading from and to it."
"Are we ready then?" Evy asked looked at the Locket with undisguised disgust. "At least we won't have to get through more psychotic security measures to get you to that one." She concluded, looking at Harry, trying and failing to come up with something more positive to say for the occasion. Instead she pulled her wand from its holster, deciding to be prepared for anything and everything, mentally going through the list of shielding charms and counter-spells she knew. If there ever was reason to put her knowledge on the subject in good use, she thought to herself, fingers tightening their hold around her wand, then this was it.
"That's something, at least." Harry agreed, his own wand now in his hand, green eyes locked on the pendant. "Alright then. You know the drill." He said, smiling softly at the people behind him. "If it tries to go past me and escape this room," Harry stated seriously, all traces of humor disappearing, "you stop it. It won't survive if I destroy the Locket, but it's our only source of information right now and, as much as I want to see it gone, I don't want to vanquish it before we get what we need." Four nods later, Harry straightened his shoulders and turned to face the Horcrux again, taking comfort in the knowledge that he couldn't find a group of people he trusted more to have his back than the ones currently in the room with him.
"Just, before I start," He said, not turning around to look at them, "I want you to know, no matter what I say-"
"Harry, it's alright, we understand." Severus assured him, smiling softly as the remaining members of their small team nodded in agreement. "Do as you must." And thus reassured, Harry nodded, breathing in deeply. It was time.
"Open." He hissed at the locket, steadying himself. Not one to disappoint, the Locket opened with a soft click and Harry just managed to catch sight of a pair of dark, human eyes looking out from behind the glass before the same smoke from last night emerged. Schooling his expression to utter neutrality, Harry faced the part of the Dark Lord's soul harbored in this Horcrux.
"Good morning." The green eyed wizard said, nodding his head at the apparition. "And how are you feeling this beautiful day?"
"What do you think you're doing, boy?" The Horcrux asked, eyes flashing red for a moment amidst the thick, black smoke. They weren't the burning embers he remembered from last afternoon however and Harry wondered how long it would take him to infuriate this part of Voldemort's soul to distraction and incoherency.
"Honestly?" Harry asked, smirking at the smoke. "Gloating." The Horcrux fell silent for a moment, the answer he had received halting whatever plan of attack it had had in mind.
"Who are you?" It asked, finally. Much more coherent than the Ring, Harry thought, batting away the first tendrils of Voldemort's magic trying to make their way into his head. Whether it was because this Horcrux hadn't been stranded alone for half a decade or because Voldemort had been older when he had made it, Harry didn't know. Whether a more rational Horcrux was ultimately good for his plan to extract information he didn't know either. Marvelous, he mused, focusing on the task at hand.
"Legilimency already?" He asked, tutting chidingly. "No manners, I swear."
"I asked you a question, boy!" The Horcrux demanded, the dark mist swirling faster, round and round.
"My name is Harry Potter." He said, bowing cordially, cold eyes never leaving the Horcrux's. "And a boy you may think me, but I'm the one who killed you."
"Liar!" The Horcrux screeched.
"Oh, but I did." Harry answered, tilting his head to the left slightly. "Five times and counting. Two to go, am I right?" He asked, smirking at the sight of those dark eyes widening, flashing crimson again. "Do I have your attention now?"
"You're lying." The Horcrux insisted, pushing into Harry's mind once again. Having expected the attack, Harry blocked him once again, eyes watering with the effort not to flinch or wince at the contact.
"No, I told you already; I'm gloating." Harry intoned. "Big difference."
"You're just a boy, how do you plan on having me believe-"
"Every time the same arguments." Harry said, shaking his head, doing his best to project disappointment. "Let me make things easier for you; every single of your Horcruxes has asked me how a mere boy could kill them, Lord Voldemort. Then I was accused of lying, you covered those parts yourself…" Harry trailed off pretending to consider what had come next. "That Diary of yours sicked a basilisk at me for my efforts, thanks awfully." He added. "Temper, temper."
"You can't have found all of them. You're trying to trick me." The Horcrux stated, straight to the point, the black cloud expanding, covering more and more of the room, embers making their appearance, burning orange. From the corner of his eye he could see his father gripping his wand tighter, aiming straight at the Horcrux; Harry's heart jolted to a stop of a moment, he could swear, before lurching into action in double the speed. The Horcrux itself was fishing for information, accusing him of lying, grasping at straws, just like last time, he assured himself. And even though it was correct in its assumptions, it hadn't seen into his mind, it couldn't possibly know for sure. He was going to stick to his plan until the end, Harry decided; no use of panicking, as always.
"And you're grasping on straws. Do you want me to enumerate them, then?" Harry asked. "I was going to anyway; comes with the gloating theme I have going." He shrugged as Voldemort's Horcrux tried to push into his mind again. "Down boy." Harry admonished, watching in satisfaction as the Horcrux's eyes turned burning coal red and stayed so. Perhaps an infuriated Voldemort would be better; that was the only version of the Dark Lord he knew how to deal with, after all. "I've spent years running around, chasing your Horcruxes. Now it's just you. I'm going to enjoy this."
"And yet you remain vague." The Horcrux accused. "You're lying."
"That again?" Harry asked. "Really?" He sighed, forcing his heartbeat back to normal. "Let's take this from the beginning, shall we? First came the diary." Harry begun, smiling widely at the Horcrux, putting his best effort at projecting self-assurance. "It had found its way back at Hogwarts, would you believe it?" He asked, eyes wide, mentally sending his apologies to Ginny, especially for what was going to follow. "Tried to kill all Muggle-born students and whatnot. A for effort on that one, by the way." Harry stated, his smile now predatory; the Dark Lord had failed that time, he reminded himself. Voldemort hadn't managed to kill anyone with that diary of his but, for what he had done to Ginny, this was revenge. "Had to go through your basilisk for it; ended up impaling it with a basilisk poison induced sword, actually. That pretty much sums it up." The Locket Horcrux remained silent, burning eyes fixed on his, while it tried to invade Harry's mind.
"I found the Ring next." Harry stated, pulling it out of his pocket to show it to the Horcrux who snarled in response, lurching forward. An array of shielding spells blocked its way, holding it back for the time being; Harry turned around for a second to smile and nod thankfully to his family. No better group to watch my back, he repeated inwardly, before facing the Horcrux again. "Don't be so dramatic. Now stay still and listen; I've wanted to get that out of my chest for years." He said before lurching back to his story; there was no telling how long the shields would hold; his best guess was not for long. "I had learned of your real name, Mr. Riddle, from the Diary; you left it on the cover, really. And then that merit award in Hogwarts? Took me some time to make the connection to the Gaunts. And you were kind enough to leave the Ring there; how could I not take advantage of that?"
"Then came the Cup." Harry stated, looking at the Horcrux intently; the shade growled and its eyes shone brighter, its efforts into getting into his mind redoubling. Despite feeling his knees close to buckling, Harry rejoiced. The Cup had been made a Horcrux too, now they knew for certain. "And though you stole it and this Locket together," he carried on pointing at the floor beneath the Horcrux, "you hid them apart. Clever, I suppose." Harry stated, gathering his thoughts; there were two things he could have done with the Cup, he reminded himself; he had either hidden it on his own, like he had done with the Ring, or he had entrusted its safekeeping to one of his followers, as he had done with the Diary. He recalled his father's advice from earlier that morning; he would have to bait him for the information, there was no other way to go about it.
"I hadn't expected that one, I must admit. Do you know how long it took me to find it? 'Cause when you want to hide something, you get creative. I had to ask myself, were could it be? Because I wasn't expecting to simply happen upon it as I did with the Diary. And because, sure, you had given the Diary to one of your followers to be reintroduced to the student body of Hogwarts, but that had a purpose; you wanted it to do what you had been prevented from doing when you were sixteen. But the rest of the Horcruxes? What purpose would they serve being given away? And then it hit me; were would youhide a Horcrux?" Harry looked at the Locket intently, trying to gauge its reactions; this was the most important part, he knew; if he hoped to gleam any information for the hiding place of the cup, this was it.
"The first one you ever made you hid at the Gaunt House." Harry said. "And I realised then, it had more to do with the Ring's and your connection to the place; because it wasn't safe. If one knew where to look, they'd find it. It's not like that house is Hogwarts or Gringotts!" Harry exclaimed, watching those nightmarish crimson eyes widen in shock momentarily. But at what? He'd just been trying to fly his point home. What could he have said that had elicited such a reaction out of the Horcrux? Somehow he doubted it was indignation at the slight towards his family's house; that place was a shack and they both knew it and, besides, that wasn't indignation that had flashed in his eyes, no. It was clear panic with a heavy dose of terror on the side, right after Harry had mentioned Hogwarts and Gringotts?
"He wouldn't!" Harry thought to himself, head tilted to the left ever so little. He could practically feel his father getting terrified at his abrupt pause but he figured that, at the face of such a revelation, he was entitled to a moment of contemplation before he uttered his next words. "Because, who am I kidding?"Harry mused, a bitter smirk etched on his lips, pushing Riddle's efforts back furiously, knowing those were some thoughts he was having the Horcrux could, under no circumstances, become aware of. "Of course he would." Had that been the plan all along? Hide the Horcruxes in such places so, whoever might wish to hunt them down, would never consider looking for them so close to home?
"Do you understand what I'm trying to say?" Harry asked, attempting to pass his moments of numb reverie as giving the Locket time to process what he had said. He had to know if his assumptions were correct. And for information like that to slip, he mused -wincing inwardly as he imagined the scolding he'd receive from his father for his stunt later- he needed the Horcrux furious. "Where would you hide your Horcruxes? You, the man that had nothing to call his own in the Wizarding world, nothing to bind him with the magical community?" And now he could actually see his father squirming; ruddy hell, but he would be grounded till he turned seventeen! And if his thoughts were a bit to the hysteric side, well, Harry chose not to examine that too closely at the moment.
"Silence!" The Horcrux commanded.
"No." Harry responded, smiling charmingly. "Because, you see," Harry explained, "that's when everything became clear to me; you weren't just hiding Horcruxes. You were hiding them in places that classified as important to you, stood as a reminder of what you were; Lord Voldemort, the Great and Terrible!" Harry mocked, bowing flamboyantly, his head pounding with the effort of keeping the Horcrux at bay, eyes never leaving the smoke that pounded on the shields erected around it, making them tremble. "First and foremost," Harry concluded, driving his point home, "a wizard. And as all wizards in this country know, two are the safest places to hide anything of value; Gringotts and Hogwarts." He repeated, exulting at the panic he read in those eyes once again. "Right under everyone's noses." Harry exclaimed, shaking his head, his own eyes widening at the implication. "You bastard."
"You know nothing!" The Horcrux shrieked, throwing itself against the shields again. "Nothing, do you hear me?"
"I know enough." Harry countered. "Getting to Hogwarts was easy." He persisted, voice level and cold. "I'm a student there, you understand. Getting to Gringotts though…" Harry grimaced and then shrugged. "Stubborn the goblins might be, but they'd do anything to keep Gringotts safe and in the hands of the goblin nation. And you tried to take that away from them; after I reminded them they'd be completely ousted from the bank sooner or later they were more cooperative, you understand. They gave me a list of your known followers' vaults, for you never managed to open one, did you now? Then they gave me access to them." The smoke had gone deathly still. "How long had you been planning to use Gringotts as a hiding place, I wonder. Years? Decades?" Harry queried. "It took me a month to infiltrate Gringotts." He smirked. "Thirty-one days well spent."
"The goblins wouldn't let you!" The Horcrux insisted. "Nobody has free access to Gringotts!"
"I do." Harry stated in Gobbledygook, shrugging unrepentantly, repeating his statement in English for the Horcrux to understand. "Just because you couldn't do something it doesn't mean it's impossible." He shook his head again. "It wasn't easy, I'll give you that. But very much possible. And thus went the Cup." Harry concluded; he didn't have the actual Cup to show for it, of course, but he wouldn't risk claiming it was the Locket he had found at Gringotts. There was no telling how aware of its surroundings this Horcrux had been and he wasn't prepared to gamble; well, at least not on something that didn't need be gambled on.
"I was at a bit of a loss then, as to where your next Horcrux would be. I was even at loss as to what the three remaining Horcruxes could be. First I found out about you, this Locket. You had stolen it together with the Cup but you hid this one," he said and pointed at the Locket, "quite out of my reach, at the time." Harry admitted. "But then I thought; the Cup, the Locket; there was a pattern there. So I did some reading; as I said, you had the Cup and you had the Locket. That was Hufflepuff and Slytherin accounted for. Two out of four and I had the Sword."
"No!" The Horcrux protested.
"Yes. Now don't interrupt." Harry admonished, his heart beating like crazy. He was so close now he could taste it. "I knew the Sword wasn't a Horcrux; remember how I stabbed your Diary with a basilisk venom poisoned sword? Yes, that was quite telling. That took Gryffindor out of the list and left only Ravenclaw." Harry ratiocinated. "Ravenclaw and her Diadem."
"No!" The Locket repeated, its efforts on Harry's mind the mental equivalent of a sledgehammer banging on a wall.
"How nice of you to follow a pattern." Harry insisted exuberantly, voice getting louder, more insistent. "Easier for me to pick up the clues."
"You can't have found it!" The Locket boomed, red embers flying everywhere, the shields that surrounded it cracking, small fissures on their surface. "It was hidden and you're a child!"
"You got sloppy." Harry insisted. One more Horcrux, his thoughts echoed, praying for the shields to hold. Just one more.
"You lie! She told you!" The Horcrux exclaimed, Harry's thoughts faltering at the accusation. She? Who?
"She did." Harry agreed, needing the Horcrux to believe his ruse for just a little longer, pushing this newfound information to the back of his head for later. "And that left only one Horcrux. Just one and I was miffed; no more of the Founders objects lay around, I realised, but then again, not all of your Horcruxes had belonged to the Founders." Harry said, his voice assertive, speaking faster now; there was precious little time and he was so very close. "The Ring, the Diary; things that meant something to you, something personal. Sloppy again." Harry accused, his smirk widening. "There are few things you hold dear, so very few. Slim pickings. And you're so. Very. Predictable."
"You can't have found her! I keep her always in sight! You lie!" The Horcrux howled, all frenzy and hysteria and madness. The Horcrux had taken over the whole expanse of the room behind the magical barrier; the shields cracked further, bright gushes bleeding dark smoke. The shields were failing; Harry aimed his wand towards the Locket almost automatically, completely bewildered at the latest discovery. He tilted his head to the left once again.
"Her?" He mouthed, knowing the interrogation was already over. The Horcrux stilled for a fraction of a second and Harry could easily pin point the exact moment it realised it had been deceived into giving information. With an inarticulate cry and a final shove at the shields, it broke through at the very same moment Harry cast his spell towards the Locket. The smoke and the curse hit their targets simultaneously and Harry found himself propelled backwards as the Horcrux screamed in pain one last time. And, just as he prepared himself for the impact with the back wall, something cushioned his fall. Judging from his father's expression -and his wand that was pointed at him- it was easy to tell whose spell had spared him the broken bones.
For an extended moment, all that could be heard was heavy breathing as six people tried to get their hearts to function normally, their minds to start working again. Neville and Draco had collapsed on the floor. The Gryffindor was hugging his knees to his chest, head hidden against them as he breathed ruggedly, looking as if he was trying not to heave. Draco simply lay there, knees bent, hands extended backwards to keep him upright as he looked at Harry's general direction blankly. Ginny was slumped against the wall, one hand still gripping her wand tightly, the other one over her heart while Evy stood frozen with her own wand trailed at the now harmless Locket still. Severus seemed rooted on spot, staring at his son as if he would disappear at any given moment. It was the potions master, finally moving towards Harry, that broke all five out of the odd enchantment the Horcrux had cast upon them.
"Harry!" Severus exclaimed, hugging his son close for a few seconds before pushing away to check him over for injuries. The remaining four of the group pushed themselves off the floor and the wall and rushed towards the green eyed wizard themselves.
"What just happened?" Neville demanded from no one in particular, his gaze wild as he too tried to scan his brother for any wound.
"No way!" Draco exclaimed, kneeling next to Harry, placing a hand on his shoulder, his voice pitched high with shock and disbelief. "No way!"
"Are you alright?" Ginny asked, not relinquishing hold of her wand yet.
"I thought… for a moment I thought…" Evy trailed off, looking at Harry, impossibly blue eyes wide and terrified. She shut her eyes tight and mumbled something softly in Norwegian. And even though Harry couldn't understand what it meant, to him it sounded like a prayer, spoken in a voice thankful and soothing. Harry closed his own eyes, his head throbbing from the insistent Legillimency attacks of the Locket.
"Ouch." Harry muttered, rubbing his temples gingerly, breathing slowly in and out. What had happened indeed, Harry thought, latching onto Neville's question. Nev always asked the right questions, he mused distractedly, trying in vain to focus on a strand of thought -any thought would do, presently- to begin processing the information overload he had received.
"Are you hurt?" Ginny repeated her question, voice now frantic.
"This Horcrux was either more skilled in Legillimency than the Ring or chose to apply it more liberally." Harry stated in place of an answer. "Could be the conversation itself, I don't know." He admitted. "My head hurts."
"You're lucky that's all that hurts." Severus declared, sighing and examining Harry's head for any internal injuries with a few silent spells.
"Nice catch, Dad." The green eyed wizard mumbled, smiling at his father. The potions master scowled.
"You could have been injured, Harry." He said sternly. "Seriously injured, so don't joke about it, please."
"I always knew there was a chance for that." Harry pointed out, trying to sit a pit straighter, despite his pounding headache. "Goblins' gold!" He exclaimed, clutching his head with his hands.
"So did I." Severus admitted heatedly. "It didn't make it easier to watch."
"I'm alright." Harry assured him. It was the words not spoken, the implied "this time", that hung between them that scared Severus the most. The potions master had always thought that there was no possible way he could hate Voldemort more and every single time found himself surprised at the new depths of hatred and abhorrence the Dark Lord instilled in him.
"Bloody hell, Harry!" Draco exclaimed. "Don't scare me like that!" Harry laughed softly at his brother.
"Don't you dare laugh, Potter." Neville interjected. "Do you have any idea what it was like, watching you like that, not knowing what you'd say next or how to help you?"
"But you did help." Harry insisted. "Do you think I didn't notice that none of the shields collapsed, assault after assault, until I had nothing more to ask?" He thought on the concentration the shields must have needed, all the power and will to keep them in place and mused, not for the first time, that, perhaps, he got the less tiring part for himself. Just as nerve-wracking however, he decided, and possibly taking his father's extended hand to pick himself from the floor. Fighting back the dizziness, he regarded the people around him, one by one. "Thank you for having my back."
"Always, kid." Severus assured him quietly. In the ensuing moments of silence, Harry finally managed to get his mind into some semblance of working order. The events of the past hour floated back into his memory, question after question forming atop every new piece of information garnered. They accumulated in such a speed that Harry couldn't help but have the most pressing one of them all spill from his lips. He looked straight at his father's eyes and repeated his very last question to the Horcrux;
"Her?" Severus sighed in response, immediately catching on, probably having been worrying the same question in the back of his mind ever since the Horcrux uttered the word.
"Any ideas on what that meant?" Ginny asked, breath still slightly labored.
"None." Harry imparted. "None whatsoever."
"Good. So I'm not the only one completely perturbed by the idea of Voldemort having a girlfriend." Neville stated, five pairs of eyes staring at him blankly upon his proclamation. "What? You thought it too, admit it."
"If he does turn out to have a girlfriend, I'm giving up on everything and going to New Zealand to become a fancier." Draco declared emphatically. "I'll breed re'em." He added after a few moments of deliberation. It came as no surprise that vacant staring followed that declaration too.
"For a moment I thought you meant you plan to become fancier, as in more extravagant." Neville admitted.
"Be serious, Neville!" Draco scoffed, looking at his brother imperiously. "Under that definition I can't possibly be any fancier. You frankly couldn't handle it."
"Why do I even bother?" Neville muttered, raising his hands in surrender. "And New Zealand, really?"
"I happen to think it's a beautiful country, Neville." Draco persisted, the four people in the room not included in the conversation observing the two teens in various degrees of confused bemusement.
"Still can't picture you in a farm." Neville deadpanned.
"That would be a hypothetical, parallel reality, in which Voldemort has a girlfriend." Draco explained. "So, yes, it is a bit of a stretch…"
"Mind you, Bellatrix Lestrange." Harry interjected, pointing at the blond Slytherin, as if to make a point.
"I'm sure I can find a nice expanse of land in a reasonable price, even at short notice." Was Draco's response. The following moments of silence were interrupted by a bout of nervous giggling, courtesy of one Ginny Weasley, that snowballed into a collective cacophony of howling laughter; it really did nothing to help with Harry's headache, but he couldn't care less if he tried. He didn't truly know what he would do without his brothers there with him, knowing just when to stop and give them all some time and space to breathe. He concluded he'd have driven both himself and his father crazy with anxiety by now.
Wiping a few stray tears from his face, Harry walked away from the still howling with laughter and pointed his wand to the locket on the floor. The wooden planks were singed where his curse had hit, a large horizontal slash having cut the wood -and the Locket- clean in half. The floor would be better left to the house elves, just in case Harry managed to make an even greater damage with his, admittedly, limited knowledge of household charms. But the Locket was now plain metal, and that he could repair.
He touched the tip of his wand on the blackened metal and thought of the incantation, focusing on how the Locket had been before it had met its unfortunate end; it wasn't hard to picture, considering he had near obsessed over it the past few weeks. There was no light show or fanfare as the metal of the pendant liquefied and reformed to its previous state. One more spell took care of the broken glass and, suddenly, Harry found himself staring the Locket of Slytherin again, free of Voldemort's soul, at last.
"You fixed it." Evy noted, blue eyes trained on the locket.
"It is an important historical artifact, after all." Harry explained, smirking at her. "I assumed you, of all people, would appreciate the thought. It also might prove useful in the future; the Horcrux practically flipped when it saw the Ring."
"Nothing practical about it!" Severus pointed out, eyes narrowing at the offending piece of jewelry. Important artifact or not, he wouldn't mind if it remained a puddle on the floor. Still, tactically speaking, Harry was right and the potions master couldn't help but feel pride surge inside his chest as he regarded his son.
"In all seriousness though," Ginny said, looking at the now harmless locket dangling from Harry's fingers, "who is "she"? Who could Voldemort trust so much to have allowed her knowledge of two of his Horcruxes?"
"Lestrange?" Neville suggested, lips set in a grim line. He had always known that during the war he would run into her, eventually, but now that the prospect seemed more and more realistic, he wasn't certain he would trust himself if he was ever alone with her. Harry looked at him, eyes bright and determined and Draco approached him, elbowing him gently, as if to shake him out of his thoughts. Despite himself, Neville felt his lips twitch into a smile, suddenly realizing that finding himself aloneagainst Bellatrix Lestrange was highly unlikely to happen, if his brothers had a say in the matter.
"It's more than that though, isn't it?" Harry asked, thinking back on the exact wording Voldemort's Horcrux had used, suddenly unsteady on his feet. Because, no, that was even more disturbing than the actual act of making a Horcrux. For it meant that he would have made not something but somebody into one and suddenly images of his first year, a man in a turban, and fire, so much fire, assaulted his thoughts.
"Harry!" Severus exclaimed, running forward to steady his son. "Harry, what is it? Are you hurt?"
"No, not hurt." Harry assured him, feeling the world spin out of control, his hands shaking. I just realised… Would you mind it if we returned home before I explained?" He asked, eyes shut tight, his headache redoubling. "I need to sit down, preferably not on the floor. And a few moments to try and stomach the implications." He added, hands entangled into his hair.
"Do you think you're feeling well enough to ride?" Ginny asked in concern, taking in the pallor of his skin.
"It will do me a world of good, I think." Harry admitted, the thought of fresh air suddenly more than inviting, the room stifling around him.
"Then let's get out of here." Neville urged them, opening the door. "I would do with some tea myself after this debacle."
"Debacle." Draco mimed, making his best attempt at sounding haughty; it was, admittedly, impressive.
"You make sounding condescending into an art form." Neville commended, slightly impressed.
"It took years of practice, you know." Draco confessed. "That and a healthy dose of natural talent."
"How's being naturally condescending a good thing?" Neville wondered out loud, looking at his brother in amusement.
"Because I said so. Quit smirking, Neville."
"Children!" Severus admonished, recognizing the two teens' attempt to make lift his son's spirits and playing along, smiling at their antics. Whatever Harry had realised had hit him hard, to the point where he had fallen to a near catatonic state, walking almost blindly towards the stables. Still, he appeared to be paying some marginal attention to his brothers instead of losing himself completely to whatever nefarious plot of the Dark Lord's he had discovered.
"Do they do that often?" Ginny asked, catching on to their intentions.
"Yes." Severus affirmed. "Yes, they do. More often than what's good for my peace of mind."
"What peace of mind?" Harry wondered distractedly, completely missing the satisfied looks exchanged amongst his family at the face of his little quip. The potions master made certain they maintained some form of lighthearted conversation during the whole ride home, Evy, pitching in to help as best as she could, regaling them with stories from a dig at a three thousand year old magical settlement in Northern China she had volunteered at as a student, where their group had run into a team of Muggle speleologists.
"It was ridiculous, really." She huffed, recalling the incident. "It took the Archeology Department of the Chinese Ministry of Magic centuries to locate that settlement and some spelunking Muggles just stumbled into it. It was chaos."
Harry couldn't truly concentrate on the story; he just allowed Ghaith's galloping to soothe his stiff muscles and used their conversation as background noise, warm and familiar, allowing his mind to relax and focus. He thought back to the Horcrux's admission. On the subject of the sixth Horcrux, the Locket had asked if he had found her. Not it. Her. A person. A living Horcrux. And he knew what he had to do to destroy a Horcrux and a living one -screams and smoke and heat and flames stretching to the ceiling- shouldn't be much different to dispose off, in theory. Which wasn't a comforting thought at all, really.
As they passed by the lake and Silbreith came into view, Harry found himself more and more lost into the memories of his encounter with Voldemort during his first year at Hogwarts. He had killed a man back then -to protect his twin, it was true but he had done it nonetheless. It had been an instinctual move, at the time. At eleven years old, all he had thought of was keeping Adrian alive; he hadn't indented to kill, not really. He had simply wanted Quirell to back off, to stop, and he had reacted. And a man had died. The reality of what entering a war meant wasn't lost to him. He was fully aware that killing was in the cards for his future; Voldemort, for one, would have to fall by his wand. He was already chipping away on that death, going through the Dark Lord's Horcruxes, killing him piece by piece without his knowledge.
Then there was the almost certainty of a fight too -a duel or a full front battle the effect would be the same- where he could be forced to take a life to protect his family or himself. He had even promised to do just that, feeling the burden of such an act at eleven years of age. But killing in cold blood? Aiming his wand taking a life as a means to an end -like he knew he'd have to should his suspicions prove to be correct- was something he could never picture himself doing, the very thought making him sick to his stomach. Not that there would be much choice, he mused, should things lead to that. He wouldn't allow his family to kill in his stead. He couldn't -wouldn't- ask that of them. If there was a human Horcrux, it would have to be destroyed for the Dark Lord to fall. Destruction of the vessel was the only way to do that. And if he passed the judgment, he'd have to cast the curse.
He led a nervous Ghaith -who had caught onto his master's troubled mind and was reluctant to let him go- to the stables and followed his family inside the castle. He allowed his father to lead him to the library numbly, lost in his ruminations. It was only when he found himself seating down automatically at the very spot he had occupied last night, having returned home from destroying the Ring that he realised he had to explain the reason behind his silence.
"It said her." Harry explained without preamble. "When I spoke of the sixth Horcrux. The Locket said I couldn't have found her, she was always in his sight. She. Her. Not it." He looked at the five stunned people around them. "I don't think the sixth Horcrux is an object at all. It's a person. A living Horcrux. And I have to kill her."
"But…" Draco was the first one to gather his wits enough to speak, and even then, only to utter his disbelief. "But he couldn't… and surely you shouldn't have to-"
"I shouldn't have to but I won't really be asked for my opinion on the matter, will I be?" Harry interrupted him, face devoid of any expression, voice sarcastic.
"Harry, let's not get ahead of ourselves-"
"Ahead of ourselves?" Harry exclaimed, looking at his father in astonishment. "You were there, you heard it too!" He stood up from the bench and started walking up and down in front of the table despite still feeling the world spin. "Why couldn't an inanimate object do? Why did he have to use a person?"
"Because he's sadistic!" Ginny exclaimed, causing Harry's attention to focus on her momentarily. "I know that, you know that, we all do." She spoke emphatically, the memories of her first year forever clear in her mind. "But we can't be sure that that's what the Horcrux meant! And even if it did, there might still be a way around killing her, whoever she might be."
"The only way to destroying a Horcrux is to destroy its vessel." Harry countered. "Everything we've read points to that."
"But there must be a way around it!" Neville exclaimed, automatically turning to Severus for guidance. "There must be!"
"Ginny is right." Severus spoke calmly, looking at his son. He understood why Harry reacted this way to such a prospect, of course he did. Maybe he was the only one in their group that did, the only other one that understood the burden of taking a life. And he had been there after Quirell to pick up his son's pieces from the ground and help him put them back together. He had helped and Harry had glued back the pieces the best he could himself, but that didn't mean he couldn't see the cracks. "We're not sure if that's what the Horcrux meant. And don't think for a second that you'll have to go through that alone."
"I can't quite well go through it with company." Harry parried, arms wide open, lips pressed in a thin line. "I'm not going to have any of you kill for me in cold blood. I would never. You know that. I won't turn you into murderers."
"Harry, what part of "we're here for you" don't you understand?" Neville asked. "I understand that-"
"No, Nev, you don't!" Harry exclaimed, feeling his anger towards the situation turn into cold, paralyzing fear; Neville couldn't understand and he shouldn't have to. His brother shouldn't even suggest aiming his wand to a person with intent to kill in his stead. "You've never had to kill in cold blood."
"And you've had?" Draco asked, looking at his brother in exasperation. "You've only ever protected people, Harry."
"Are we pretending my first year never happened now? Is that what we're doing?" Harry asked back, chuckling mirthlessly. He looked around at the five people in the room. Evy and Ginny were looking at him in confusion; he had, of course, told them that he had dealt with Voldemort when he was eleven but had withheld the specifics. Even Draco and Neville had never heard the complete story. Maybe it was time they did; maybe he should have told them long ago, before he had ever considered accepting their help. Did they not deserve to know just for whom they were putting their lives on the line, he mused. Shouldn't they know?
"Harry, please, you can't keep blaming yourself for that." Severus beseeched his son, knowing fully well the futility of his plea.
"I killed a man." Harry stated dryly. "Quirell might have been possessed by Vouldemort's soul at the time," he added, smirking at the irony, at how he would be forced to repeat the very same action he had sworn to himself never to repeat, for the very same reasons, "but he was very much alive and cognizant."
"You did it to protect Adrian." Severus reminded him. "He would have died, Harry, you know that! You can't keep treating yourself as a murderer; you know what I've had to do during the war. If you think yourself a murderer you should think the same for me." Seeing how his son was ready to complain, Severus carried on. "I know you'll insist it was the war and I was a spy and I did what I had to do. But so did you."
"I burned him alive!" Harry shouted, his head spinning, memories resurfacing. "I reacted to a threat and my first reaction as a child -not even twelve years old yet- wasn't to incapacitate. It wasn't even a clean death!" He extended his hands again, gesticulating, trying to make them understand, feeling his desperation flowing out of him in waves. He could see their eyes widening in shock, looking at him as they couldn't quite believe what they were seeing. Good, he thought. Now there would be no more talk of killing in his place.
"Harry…" Evy uttered, extending a hand to him as if to stop him.
"No, listen to me!" Harry stopped her, needing to tell them right there and then, knowing he might never find the courage to do so again. "You can't tell me not to blame myself when I can still see the flames in my head at night. I remember the screams and I remember the smell and allowing myself to forget will only make me a monster on top of a killer. I can't forget," he explained, "because I took a life and that should never be something one gets used to. So I've always reminded myself; I've always told myself that if I forgot how it felt, what would be stopping me from doing it again? Nothing!"
"Harry, please, calm yourself!" His father implored.
"Calm myself?" Harry asked incredulously. "Dad, I swore that the only person I'd ever kill like that would be Voldemort himself. I've always known it might come to killing someone during the war but murder in cold blood? Tracking somebody down with the sole intention of killing them?" He explained, hands clasping at his head, fingers twining through his hair, trying to soothe his pounding headache. "Only Voldemort. And now he's forcing my hand again. So, I beg of you, don't ask me to be calm." He pleaded, closing his eyes, feeling exhausted and suddenly very, very cold. "I can't be calm about this. What kind of monster would that make me?"
"Harry, look around you." The potions master entreated, his voice soft. Green eyes snapped open at the unexpected plea, Harry's trail of thought disrupted enough for him to realize there was something viscerally wrong with what he was seeing. What he had thought had been fear he saw in their eyes, didn't appear to be fear at all. Well, a little bit of fear too, but that wasn't the predominant emotion; the five people in front of him were looking shocked, that was true but in an awed way, in utter disbelief. And they weren't looking at him so much as around him. So, Harry looked around him too. And metaphorically froze. Apt metaphor, he numbly thought to himself, considering that's just what had happened to half the library. Not the metaphorical part. The frozen over part.
"What?" Harry muttered, hands slowly falling at his sides as he turned around to take a better look at the room behind him. Half the room -the half he had been looking at as he spoke- was as it had always been; bookcases upon bookcases filled to the brim with books, elegant carpets and furniture. There was even a strong fire burning at the hearth. The other part of the room, however, was a different story altogether. Ice had taken over everything; from the floors to the walls, creeping upwards to the ceiling in crystalline tendrils, covering everything in its path in glittering whites and blues. As if in a dream, Harry recalled what he had perceived as his fear and panic thrumming out of him to the room; not fear and panic at all, he realized belatedly, tasting his own magic in the crisp air. "What did I do?" He asked, looking at his father for guidance.
Severus, on his part, was looking at the room behind Harry in awe. Freezing spells were easy to cast but doing something of that extend without any incantation -silent or otherwise- was not. Doing something like that unconsciously? Damn near impossible. As far as acts of accidental magic were concerned, freezing half a room was unheard of; after all, what type of spontaneous reaction would justify such a feat? Besides, Severus thought, Harry was too old for accidental magic, had been using his magic consciously for far too long to have need for such bursts. Normally, this shouldn't be happening. And then he recalled other incidents of Harry's magic flaring out -like a cup of coffee boiling when his son got angry but then again this was on a whole different level- and his mind went ballistic. Was there something wrong with Harry's magic? Could it have anything to do with his interactions with the Horcruxes? He had just known nothing good could come out of those damn contraptions!
"Dad?" Harry asked, his tone just a tad more panicked, ice crawling upwards and towards the chandelier as he spoke.
"I'm not sure what's happening," the potions master admitted, walking closer to his son, "but you're controlling it, Harry. It's your magic; find whatever incantation you're casting and stop it." Harry's eyes widened at the thought, gaze travelling over the frozen room. "It's your magic, Harry." Severus repeated.
Harry, on his part, looked around him once more, his thoughts racing. How was he doing this? He hadn't thought of an incantation; he hadn't called upon his magic. How was he doing this? Seeing no other way out than following his father's advice, Harry closed his eyes and tried to delve into his magic. To his surprise, though he hadn't cast any spell, the moment his mind calmed down a fraction he could feel his magic coiling outwards, turning into ice. It felt somewhat different than the spells he was used to casting. Rawer and unrestrained, as if there were no barriers between his core and the spell. Immediately, Harry disliked the feeling; he could feel the spell feeding from his magic to sustain itself even now, uncontrolled and unrefined, almost like a bleeding wound on his magical reserves.
Delving deeper into his magic, following the tendrils backwards and away from the ice, trying to stop the spell, Harry gasped. He hadn't had much reason to monitor his core lately, not after the Second Task, at least. And he hadn't been doing so routinely since he was thirteen and learning how to recognize magical traces; back then it had made sense to start from his own magical signature and go from there. Now, he found himself thinking that he should have paid closer attention. His core was in turmoil. Were there had once been calm waters now there were violent waves crushing hither and thither, turbulent winds over fluctuating magic. Finding the roots of the enchantment he was using -whatever it was- was harder than it should have been but he persevered. He cut them off, only then feeling the actual drain on his magic. He found himself faltering; stopping the spell had only marginally calmed his core. Whatever the issue was, it didn't lie with an errant curse.
"Harry?" His own name echoed in his mind, in the voice of his father. It was the potions master's hands on his shoulders that shook him out of his stupor. He opened his eyes; the ice was still there but he knew it would start melting soon, no longer sustained by his magic. His father's concerned eyes bore into his own as Severus tried to understand what had happened. "Harry, are you alright?"
"I… Dad, I'm not certain." He found himself answering truthfully.
"What happened?" Neville asked, his brother's admission enough to jolt him back into action, the very same moment Draco exclaimed;
"What's wrong?" Instead of answering immediately -for what could he tell them, really- Harry looked back at the ice.
"It's starting to melt." He observed, his tone flat. "We should get rid of it. It might make a mess of things otherwise." He looked around him again and winced. "More of a mess, that is." Severus was just about ready to ask his son to forget the ice -they could always deal with it later, after all- but he soon realised that looking at it unnerved his son even more. So he pulled out his wand and cast the spells necessary, Evy helping him out along the way, until the library was dry once more. "Better," was Harry's response to the whole endeavor, as he plopped onto an armchair by the fire; even though the ice had thawed, he still felt the cold. His brothers and Evy moved closer to him, Neville and Draco sharing a look before seating directly in front of him on the carpet, as if unwilling to let him out of their sight.
"Harry, do you think you can explain what happened?" Severus asked, looking at his son carefully, hoping the day wouldn't take yet another turn for the worse. Ginny stood from her chair silently, filled a cup with hot tea and held it in front of Harry, looking at him to make sure he understood it was for him. Nodding gratefully he took it from her and gulped some of it down, disregarding the heat. Anything to ward off the cold.
"With the ice?" He answered his father's question with his own. "I don't truly know. But my core's a mess."
"A mess?" Severus asked worriedly. "Do you mind if I-"
"Please, take a look." Harry interrupted his father, knowing what he'd ask. "Maybe you'll make some sense out of it." The potions master nodded and pulled out his wand; delving into another person's magical core required a spell; it was a delicate process of which -even if he wasn't an expert in core diagnostics- he could claim some proficiency, having learned it while training his Legillimency skills.
"Cor Cordium Devele!" Severus cast, the tip of his wand placed just above Harry's heart. He closed his eyes and gasped. He knew his son was a powerful wizard. He had always known and how could he not? Even if Merlin hadn't tipped him off when Harry was just seven years old, his son's magical signature spoke of that itself. But seeing signs of powerful magic and actually feeling the source of that magic were two different things entirely. It was staggering to say the least; with that amount of magical reserves that lay waiting inside him, it was a wonder how Harry didn't have incidents like that more often, Severus thought. Pushing back on his own awe, he tried to locate the source of his son's unease; that only served in getting distracted once more. If he had been staggered by Harry's amassed magic, feeling it move was indescribable. And terrifying; for, surely, it wasn't supposed to be like this. Tempestuous and restless, it was verging on aggression. Harry wasn't using it on anything at the moment; his core should be calm and still and it wan anything but. Letting go of the spell he had used, Severus looked at his son in worry.
"What's wrong with me?" Harry asked, the moment he felt the spell dissipate.
"Your magical core seems to be in unrest." The potions master explained calmly, not wanting to jump into conclusions just yet, despite his own fears. "I'm not sure what's causing it. Yet." He hastened to add, practically feeling the anxiety oozing from his son. "But it does not seem to be of external origin."
"Then what is it?" Neville asked, rubbing his face tiredly, his heart heavier than lead in his chest.
"I can not be certain, Neville." The potions master admitted. "I can only speculate."
"I'm open to ideas." Harry stated, his gaze still vacant.
"Do you think Harry might showing signs of elemental powers?" Ginny, who had been mostly silent up to that point, asked Evy. It had been her first thought, the moment ice started spreading around Harry, thinking back on her introduction to the witches of the Sisterhood with similar gifts.
"No, I don't." Evy answered, having already considered and discarded the idea. "Harry, you said the spell felt abnormal and raw, like it was draining your magical reserves, correct?"
"Yes." Harry admitted. "It felt almost out of control, as if there was no barrier between the spell and my core. The best way I can describe it is like an open wound." He explained, green eyes wide. "As if I was bleeding magic through the spell. Does that mean anything to you?"
"It does." Evy said. "It means that, whatever you did, has nothing to do with any form of elemental control. From what I understand, controlling an element not only feels natural to the caster, it is also all about just that; control, bending a force of nature to one's will. Even in the early stages, when emotions get in the way, it shouldn't feel forced and definitely not like an open wound." She stopped, letting her words sink in. "Has anything like that happened before?"
"Not in this scale." Harry responded. "I did bring my coffee to a boil a few days back, I suppose."
"Not on this scale at all." Evy agreed, trying to put her thoughts to some semblance of order; what had happened before the ice? Harry had been frantic, angry. Definitely emotional. "When the coffee incident happened," Evy began, deciding pursuing that thought was worth a try, "were you angry too? Like now."
"We were talking about Fudge's insistence to cover up Voldemort's return." Harry recalled. "I was angry, yes."
"So that's it then?" Draco asked, looking around him for confirmation. "You get angry and your magic, I don't know, revolts?"
"It could be." Severus agreed. "Harry, you are fifteen after all. At that age your body and your magical core go through changes, from child to adult. Those changes make magic more volatile as a rule and with a core like yours…" He trailed off, pondering on the possibilities. They were entering a war and Harry was human; he'd get angry and often. Could those changes in his core endanger his life?
"Only right now," Harry spoke, looking up from his lap to his father, "I wasn't angry."
"You weren't?" Neville asked, looking at his brother in confusion.
"No." Harry answered. "You were considering murder in my stead. I was terrified. I was panicked, not angry." Silence followed his declaration as five people tried to stomach the newest information and integrate it into their theory.
"And Harry," Ginny asked, speaking carefully, considering every word, "how does fear feel? To you, I mean." Harry considered the question for a few moments; how did fear feel? Like fear, would be the easy answer. Wasn't fear an emotion by itself? He was just about to answer that when he remembered the exact moment he supposed he had started covering the room in ice. The moment he was feeling his most terrified and panicked he also felt-
"Cold." He voiced finally, looking straight at the redhead. "Fear feels cold."
"And anger?" She asked.
"Anger is hot." He answered, no hesitation this time. And yes, looking at the situation like that he could see the pattern forming.
"So it's every strong emotion?" Neville asked. "Not just anger?"
"Brilliant." Harry stated dryly, gaze vacant.
"If that's true," Severus said, looking at his son with worry, "that means your magic reads your emotions and translates them as spells." He explained. "The more intense the emotion, the stronger the spell. And since it's not a conscious process, the magic comes straight from your core, unfiltered, almost as if-"
"As if it's mainlining my magic to the spell, draining me." Harry finished his father's thought for him, aptly describing the feeling. Not having control over the amount of magic he exerted wasn't a feeling he'd like to repeat. He had gotten used to his magic obeying, flowing through him steadily. Sometimes slowly and sometimes torrentially, but always as he directed it. His magic was the one constant thing he felt he could fall back into when he was alone in battle. That ice spell had simply felt wrong. Scratching and stinging and slashing all at once.
"But you said this is a transitional state." Draco spoke, looking at the potions master. "That his core is adapting. Changing from child to adult, right? Will this carry through Harry's teenage years?" Emerald eyes widened in shock.
"There's going to be a war raging for the remainder of my teenage years." He stated matter-of-factly. "It better not."
"It's hard to tell." Severus admitted. "Magical cores mature faster than our bodies, thankfully. The process doesn't always coincide with adolescence exactly either."
"It didn't start when I was thirteen, for me." Harry agreed, rubbing his temples slowly.
"Sometimes all it takes for a magical core to mature is a single event, a turning point if you will." The potions master explained. "Some kind of shock, perhaps."
"Haven't I been shocked enough in my life? Haven't I yet met the shock quota for one lifetime?" Harry exclaimed, his frustration winning over his fear.
"One would think." Severus stated tiredly, sighing deeply. "You'll need to make routine checks on your core daily, Harry. As far as we know, it's just your magic's reaction to growing up. The timing is atrocious-"
"When isn't my timing atrocious?" Harry asked rhetorically.
"-but there's very little we can do but wait it out." The potions master concluded. "Talking to the Horcruxes alone was stressing enough." He added after some thought. "Maybe your magic will calm now that the Locket has been dealt with."
"You did interrogate two Horcruxes in two days, after all." Neville reminded his brother.
"And despite everything, successfully." Draco added. "We know more than we ever did about Voldemort's Horcruxes. And we shouldn't jump to conclusions." He pointed out, not wanting his brother to spiral back into the same frame of thought as before. "We know the Diadem is a Horcrux."
"We know that Voldemort at age twenty three was planning to make the Diadem a Horcrux." Harry corrected him. "We don't know if he found it."
"He found the Cup and the Locket." Severus said.
"But not the Sword." Harry countered.
"He did accuse you of having found out about the Diadem from a woman though." Ginny reminded them. "Doesn't that mean he already knew where it was?"
"That's actually a very good point." Harry agreed, focusing on the Diadem and not the mystery woman the Locket had kept alluding to.
"Don't sound so surprised, Potter!" Ginny mock scolded him, a soft smile on her lips.
"And we know he was planning to hide some of his Horcruxes at Hogwarts and Gringotts." Draco said. "We haven't found any Horcruxes there yet. Well, excepting the Diary." He amended, frowning and looking at Ginny. "I know I'm not the one that should be saying this, Ginny, but I'm sorry for-"
"You're right." Ginny interrupted him. "You shouldn't be saying this and you have nothing you need to be sorry for and you don't have to apologize for your father. You didn't know what the Diary was. You didn't know I had it, let alone how I got it, and I don't blame you." She stated, her tone leaving no room for arguing. Draco looked at her shocked, still not used to easy acceptance and the concept of friendship with anyone else than his brothers. "Just to be clear though," the redhead added, noticing how the blond Slytherin didn't quite know how to react, "I can't promise I won't hex your father should the opportunity present itself."
"Quite fair." Draco agreed, smiling slightly.
"Draco's ridiculous drive to bear the burden of every single sin of his ancestors put aside," Neville commended, causing the Slytherin in question to chuckle, "he has a point. Do you think there could be a Horcrux at Hogwarts?"
"Or Gringotts for that matter?" Ginny added.
"We have a lot of work in front of us still." Severus muttered, rubbing his eyes tiredly. And thus commenced the first of the last nights of that summer that had, unknowingly to them all present in the library of Silbreith, marked the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. All six of the small group returned to their rooms that night in various states of unease, bone tired but scarcely able to sleep. Severus had given up on his attempts at a peaceful slumber and had instead taken to patrolling the hallway out of his son's room for half the night until reason prevailed, forcing him back to his bed for a few hours of troubled sleep. Harry himself was tossing and turning on his own bed, checking his core for any fluctuations every half an hour. From all the times his magic could have thrown a tantrum, he mused, it had to be now, on the eve of war. And as his eyes finally closed, hours after he had laid himself down to sleep, he swore to himself that he'd do his best to rein his rampant magic in until his core was back to some semblance of balance.
The following few days were, despite the most recent developments, surprisingly productive. Severus and Harry had spent every morning, monitoring the green eyed wizard's magic, or going for long rides around the grounds; horse riding had always had a calming effect on Harry's mind and Ghaith and Kadar had been more than happy to indulge father and son to their more frequent rides in the mornings.
Not wanting to focus on anything too much in fear it might further unbalance his core, Harry threw himself into everything, including the repairs at Orbein. The damages at the village were the most extensive -as Evy found out, after walking around the village non-stop for a day, parts of the infrastructure hadn't been repaired since at least the early seventeenth century- but, with Harry being there daily, the repairs proceeded in leaps and bounds. After Severus admitting they hadn't even found out the actual name of the village, if it ever had one, Evy, instead of being daunted -like any normal person would have been, as Draco commented- showed an astounding delight in delving into ancient contracts and maps until she discovered it.
"Andùn!" She proclaimed out of the blue, five days after she had shouldered her self-imposed quest, smiling like a loon as she rushed into the kitchen.
"And a very good morning to you too." Severus commented, blinking owlishly at her over his tea.
"The name of the village." Evy explained, smiling even wider. "It's Andùn. I personally think it originally was An Dùn, meaning hill fort, which I think is quite apt, yes?" She helped herself to some tea, smiling up to the bemused potions master.
"Do you always get this excited about history?" He asked, already guessing the answer.
"Of course!" And there you have it, he thought, smiling softly at the blonde. "It's history, Severus. History." She intoned, looking at him as if he had gone crazy. "It's exciting."
"If you say so, Evy." The potions master responded, shaking his head in amusement.
Harry had found out about the village's name as he oversaw the draining of a marsh at the south most side of Andùn. Neville, who had opted to ride out and tell him the news himself, found his brother boots-deep in mad, ordering goblins around in Gobbledegook as if he had done it a thousand times before. Harry had chuckled at Evy's persistence, emerald eyes twinkling even as he cast a small scale fire charm to deal with some very insistent mosquitoes. The very same eyes rolled in indulgent frustration as he noticed Neville watching at him carefully, wanting to ask him something but not quite daring to. Knowing just what had his brother so worried, Harry beat him to the punch.
"My core is getting better." He said, looking at Neville. "Like I told you last night too." He added teasingly, knowing just how much he had managed to worry his family again. "It has calmed down progressively since the last Horcrux." Not that it had returned to its previous, natural state, however. The disturbance that had led to the "library incident" as it was mostly called lately, had simply been aided by the emotional rollercoaster caused by the Horcruxes. As the days went by, it had become more and more obvious that Severus theory had been correct. Harry's core was transitioning naturally and it was the very amount of his magic reserves that caused the actual disturbance. Had they not be entering a war, Harry might not have even noticed it, the potions master had realised. As things stood, all Harry could do was monitoring his core daily and hope his core would have matured enough by the time the actual war started. Keeping his head clear and calm was also advised, even if it seemed more and more difficult as the beginning of term approached.
Adrian was still unresponsive or right down hostile during the few times Harry had spent with him while his father was occupied at Order meetings. As far as the Horcrux hunt went, while they knew there was probably a Horcrux waiting hidden in Gringotts, Harry had resigned himself to having to wait until the first open hostilities for searching the vaults. But Voldemort was still laying low and, if there was yet another Horcrux waiting for them at Hogwarts, they would have to follow his lead and wait for the term to start, if they didn't want to draw even more attention to their actions.
That didn't mean they remained passive. Every night, the four teens gathered together at the library and tried to think of any place, nook and cranny suitable for hiding a Horcrux at the school. Despite the obvious choice of the Chamber of Secrets, they were getting nowhere. Hogwarts was vast and had many possible hidding places available for something as small as the Cup or the Diadem.
I don't think Voldemort would have simply chucked his Horcrux at the first hiding place available though." Ginny insisted. "I mean, think about it; he had been meaning to use Hogwarts as a hiding place for a Horcrux for years. Wouldn't he have come up with a place that was both rarely visited and secure? Somewhere he could place the same amount of protective enchantments he had used on the Ring? So many spells; you'd think Dumbledore, in the least, would have stumbled upon them by now." She added, looking at a floor plan of the school's fourth floor, as depicted in "Hogwarts; A History".
"We're back to the Chamber, then?" Neville asked, looking at the people around him expectantly. "Is there any other room of the castle that might have been out of Dumbledore's reach for all these years?"
"If there is, it should be on the Marauder's Map." Harry concluded, feeling his temper flaring just like it wasn't supposed to. Adrian had taken the incident with Draco and Neville borrowing the map to visit his twin to the infirmary quite bad. Harry had even returned to the Potter Manor in an effort to look at the map, only finding his twin had taken it and his whole trunk with him to the Headquarters. And even there, he refused leaving his twin from his eyes, fearing Harry would do Merlin knew what if he was left unattended.
"Still no luck with the map then?" Ginny asked, wincing at the grimace on Harry's face. She had been recently informed of the map, what it did -impressive feat of magic, especially for Hogwarts students, she thought- and how Adrian had apparently decided to not even let his brother step within a mile radius from it. Personally -after the irate Neville and Draco had filled her in on the Potter twins' interactions and Adrian's recent attitude towards Harry- she thought the elder Potter twin could do with a good slap to bring him back to reality.
"None whatsoever." Harry admitted, making Ginny grimace in commiseration. Because, yes, as the youngest and the only girl in a family with seven children, she often found herself at odds with one of her siblings. But they were family, even at their most obstinate; and say what you will about the Weasley clan, she mused, but, when it came down to it, they stood by each other through thick and thin. Adrian willingly pushing away his twin -and in such an asinine way- was completely foreign to her. The thought of pushing away one of her own brothers like that was unfathomable. Imagining Fred and George willingly fighting with each other? Not even within the realm of possibility. Thank Merlin for Neville and Draco, the redhead mused, trying to come up with something to take Harry's mind from his twin; as much as she wanted to hex Adrian, Harry shouldn't have to worry about him too, at the moment.
"Do you think you could find a way to enter the Chamber of Secrets without Dumbledore noticing?" She asked.
"Not really, no." Harry responded, looking thoughtful still, but with his brow unforrowing. "He's had his eye on the entrance since the end of my second year. But I see no way around it; if we can't find any other place where a Horcrux might be hidden, we'll need to come up with a distraction for Dumbledore."
"Besides, I doubt he knows you have the ability to open the Chamber." Draco pointed out.
"And his phoenix would cover for you, wouldn't he?" Neville asked.
"Fawkes?" Harry spoke, contemplative once again. "He might, I can't be certain. I have an inkling he doesn't agree with some of Dumbledore's decisions and helping me is his way to show that."
"I think the question here," Draco spoke, "is where could a Horcrux be hidden if not in the Chamber of Secrets?"
"The Slytherin Common Room?" Neville suggested. "Nobody has access but the Slytherins and Voldemort clearly feels like their rightful king." He turned towards Draco then, quirking an eyebrow. "Have you seen any ornate cups marked with Hufflepuff's coat of arms lately?"
"Dozens of them." Draco answered, equally sarcastic. "Though there's always a chance. Do you think we should sneak you into the Common Room, Harry?"
"We could." Harry assured him. "I'll grab the cloak and follow you, if I must." Rooms were discussed and discarded and so the days passed. Severus had taken to paying visits to the Ministry, supposedly overseeing the trials for his healing potions; he was making the officials testing the potions nervous, he could tell, but he wanted to be close to Fudge if he wanted to at least glimpse at what he had planned for the immediate future. If Thicknesse and Malfoy were guiding his hand, he wanted to know what they would be up against before it was too late to do anything about it. Surprisingly, it was Evy that supplied him with news on Fudge's agenda, on the morning of the last Friday before the beginning of term.
"Severus?" Evy's voice sounded from the corridor outside the kitchens, announcing her entrance. She walked into the room, a letter with the official seal of the Ministry of Magic in her hands. Her brow was furrowed, as the potions master had noticed it always was when she was trying to remember something and failing. "Why do I even know that?", he asked himself, failing to come up with as sufficient answer as Evelyn interrupted his musings, pointing at the letter in her hands. "Do you know a Ministry official by the name of," she paused momentarily to skim through what appeared to be a five pages long letter, "Dolores Umbridge?"
"I fear I do, yes." Severus admitted, alarm bells chiming in his head at the memory of the pink clad, shrill voiced toad of a woman. They had met once or twice, of course, and he had read her work; she had been dropping hints of supporting the idea of pureblood supremacy for years, despite never openly speaking for it. "Why?"
"The Minister thought it prudent to inform me that he was proceeding with his educational reform as planned and, for that purpose, he had assigned the new Professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts himself." Connecting the dots, Severus groaned, rubbing his eyes tiredly; was the Defense Against the Dark Arts position cursed? Because Umbridge? He had a feeling he might actually find himself missing Lockhart and he had never thought he'd steep that low.
"Is Fudge a complete moron?" Severus asked before sighing again. "He is, of course he is." He answered his own question. "Never mind that."
"Is she that horrible?" Evy asked, seating herself across him on the table, accepting a cup of tea from Minnie with a smile.
"From what little I know of her, Miss Umbridge is favourable to wizard supremacy over Muggles and magical races alike and partial to Voldemort's pureblood manifesto." Severus stated. "She's also never openly spoken in favour of either and has been Fudge's secretary for decades. She has his complete trust."
"Wonderful." Evelyn stated, voice dripping with sarcasm. "How was she ever considered viable as a choice for a teaching position? Doesn't the Headmaster have a say in this?"
"He used to." Severus admitted, sipping at his coffee. "But this educational reform, whatever it will entail, seems to have robbed him of that." His thoughtful expression turned into a smirk as he recalled the indignation Dumbledore had expressed on booting Binns in favour of Evy a few weeks back. Correctly interpreting his expression -and further befuddling him in the process- she rolled her eyes.
"Dumbledore wanted to keep the ghost professor, didn't he?" She asked, the potions master's deep laughter serving as her answer. "Figures." She mumbled, focusing on her pancakes and muttering what Severus was almost certain were insults in rapid Norwegian under her breath. That was just the scene Harry walked into; Evelyn scowling at her pancakes and his father smiling softly at her. Feeling his own lips tugging upwards to a smirk, Harry walked into the kitchen, trying his best not to let his mind frolic on the field of matchmaking plots. This was a private matter of the highest order and he wasn't going to intervene no matter what. Still, he found himself smiling widely at Evelyn as he sat next to his father with his own breakfast, wishing her a good morning.
"I think Fudge is an imbecile and Dumbledore's an enabler. Good morning, Harry." Was her way of greeting him back, making the teen's smile that more radiant. Severus chuckled over his cup of coffee, shrugging his shoulders slightly showing he had nothing to contest her statement with.
"I agree." Harry stated. "What brought this on?" Instead of answering, Evy handed him the letter and kept scowling at her pancakes with renewed vigor, a pastime Harry soon joined her at. "Is Fudge a complete moron?" He asked, causing both his father and Evy to chuckle besides everything. "What?"
"Nothing." Evy assured him. "It's just, that's exactly what your father," she said tilting her cup towards the potions master, "said too."
"That's because it's the truth." Harry assured her in turn. Ginny's arrival marked the beginning of a few rounds of explanations on who Umbridge was that ended with Draco asking;
"Wait, I think I've met her; constantly dressed in pink and vaguely toadish?"
"Yes, exactly." The potions master answered, chuckling at the apt description.
Their group parted ways on Saturday afternoon; Neville, Ginny and Evy returned to their respective homes to pack for the school year. Draco, however, remained at Silbreith, his mother having sent him everything he'd need from the Malfoy Manor, after a few lengthy letters.
"You miss her." Harry stated that afternoon, as they stood on Orbein's tallest balcony, looking at the goblins working away at Andún. Harry was planning on returning to Orbein over the next few weekends to oversee the final construction works completed and add the last wards remaining to the castle and its grounds. The private floo network connection to Gringotts had been established only a few days ago, linking Harry's new vault to a large fireplace on the east wing of Orbein. The east wing where, coincidentally, an infirmary had been set up; they were in the process of stockpiling the supplies needed, importing them anonymously from abroad when it was deemed necessary. Severus, in his limited free time, had been supplying healing potions, Evy taking up the mantle and helping with the brewing the best she could.
"She's my mother." Draco replied by the way of an explanation, not taking his eyes off the village in the distance. "Of course I miss her. But I understand I can't be home right now and so does she." He sighed and changed the subject, copying his brother and leaning on the rail. "So, how's Andún coming along?"
"Quite well, actually." Harry answered, smiling softly. The almost rebuilt village was coming along nicely and he couldn't help but feel some measure of pride for such an accomplishment. "We're expanding, as you know." The goblins, after discovering the long abandoned quarry by the far side of the grounds, had been a force to be reckoned with, building and repairing with unprecedented vigor.
During August, the Minister had made the first -misguided if you asked Harry- attempt to intricate himself into the workings of Gringotts. Recognizing Fudge's attempt for what it was, the president of Gringotts had contacted Harry via Nagnok, asking if he needed additional help with his efforts. Nagnok insisted more manpower could be demanded but Harry, who opted on keeping things on the down low as much as possible, simply asked for better rates for his rebuilding of Andún. With orders of their President to do whatever Harry asked, the goblins had been determined to not only rebuild the village but make it deserving of Orbein. They had rebuilt everything, from the houses to the city hall and a theater -that had never been completed to begin with, the ambitions of some past Lord of Orbein having been disrupted most likely by war- to perfection.
The potions master, upon realizing there were two architects among the goblin team, had had the brilliant idea to make rebuilding a competition between them. Dropping a few hints here and there, on which architect he considered the best, he then stood back and watched in amusement as the rumors spread. Suddenly, Harry was bombarded with plans for added stories and improved building facades, practically free of charge, citing goblin pride over their craftsmanship. The young Lord of Orbein had decided to fully take advantage of the offers and Andún had benefited from it.
Apart from the general aesthetics of the village improving -the current style, according to Evy, being a stunning amalgam of renaissance and medieval architecture with belle époque elements- the overall housing capacity had increased too, Andún looking more and more like a small town than anything else as the days passed. Sometimes Harry thought it almost a pity that the contracts they had signed would automatically obliviate the goblins once he released them from service.
"Should we need it," Harry stated, "we could now house up to one thousand five hundred people. The goblins being the competitive creatures they are, thrice that much when the new district is completed by the end of September." He smirked ruefully at the thought, as sounds of the ongoing constructions carried with the wind. "Still nothing considering the two millions of wizards that will find themselves in the middle of war. And that's only in this country." He shook his head. "I wish the Ministry would react. Dosomething."
"From what I understand," Draco said, looking at his brother, taking his eyes from the construction process of one more bridge connecting the old district with the new, "this is much more than what we had during the last war."
"We didn't have much notice that there would even bea war last time." Harry countered. "This time we do and we're even less prepared. It's unpardonable."
"We'll do the best we can." Draco insisted, looking back towards the village. "And damn the Ministry; we'll be prepared." Smiling sadly, Harry nodded, conceding to his brother's point.
"I still say Fudge's a moron." He added after a few moments of silence.
"Who claimed the opposite?" A scandalized Draco answered, the two teens sharing a look before bursting out to laughter.
And as such, the last day of summer dawned, finding Harry ridding through Andún, supervising the new buildings before he left for school. The very thought of returning to Hogwarts felt surreal in his mind, the concept of going back to class as of nothing was amiss, befuddling. While the majority of his peers would be solely interested in their OWLs and everyday troubles, he'd have to juggle schoolwork and war preparations while trying to keep calm. Harry sighed at the thought, signing yet another list of approved buildings for construction, vaguely registering a paragraph that wrote something about a park. He hoped there would be no equivalents of the library incident at Hogwarts.
That very afternoon, Severus and Harry were joined by Draco at the balcony overseeing Silbreith's lake for their now customary iced tea on the last day before they left the castle for Hogwarts. The words weren't spoken, but the thought that this might just as well be their last calm summer afternoon before the war wasn't lost to either of them.
"To a new term." The potions master said, lifting his glass to a simple toast.
"To a new term." The two teens agreed, watching the sunset in utter silence.
Despite the ominous times that lay ahead, the morning of the first of September dawned bright and warm. Trunks packed and goodbyes said, Harry followed his father and Draco to the fireplace and flooed to the Leaky Cauldron from where a towncar awaited them to take them to the station.
"You know," Harry mused, a smile etched upon his lips, "this is actually the first time I didn't return to Potter Manor for the beginning of term." His mother had sent him a letter a week prior to inform him that they would be departing from the Headquarters instead of Potter manor this year. Harry, in turn, had explained that he had arranged to go to the platform with Draco, believing that they would be returning to the manor as per usual. And since Draco was not allowed to the Headquarters -and he couldn't just leave him, he was the one that had invited him over for the holidays after all- they would have to meet at the platform instead.
The letter Lily had sent back had been short and rather embittered, but acquiescent. It had also been followed by a lengthier one, written by one James Potter, that had arrived only the night before. James had tried to impress upon his son the importance of family, filling his letter with not-so-subtle mentions to the coming war and even less subtle questioning of Draco's motives for befriending Harry. Draco, who had been reading the letter over Harry's shoulder, lowered his eyes to the floor, blushing in embarrassment. It had become steadily clearer to him, just how much his father's actions were impacting on his life and how much he would have to strive to change the reputation of the Malfoy family. Severus advised the young Slytherin not to think too much on the subject and darkly stated that James was very quick to forgetting his best friend's last name -and the reputation of his family that boasted being pure, "untainted" of inferior blood.
Harry had chosen not to comment on the letter, to throw it in the lit fireplace and simply take his brother to the kitchens for a late night bawl of ice cream. Or rather, that's what he had thought of doing, before his very magic decided otherwise. With his temper flaring his magic followed suit, the letter burning in his hand before he even rose from his chair to approach the fireplace. Draco and Severus had stared at him in mild shock while Harry sighed resignedly, for once not minding the uncomfortable feeling on his magic acting out, considering the end result quite worth it. Needless to say, he hadn't even bothered with a perfunctory response to Prong's missive.
"It's the first time I didn't leave for Hogwarts from home too." Draco admitted. "Not that I mind, considering the circumstances." He added, smiling ruefully. The remainder of the ride was spent in cheerful conversation, the three wizards not wanting to think of what expected them at Hogwarts -possibly a Horcrux, definitely Umbridge- or having the driver overhear anything he shouldn't. Severus had given them a swift introduction to the duties they'd have to undertake as Prefects, all the way to the barrier to the platform; the two teens had charmed their robes into Muggle clothing, lifting the charm only after they entered the platform, Prefect badges already pinned on their lapels.
"Harry, Draco!" Neville's voice echoed the moment they stepped foot on the other side of the barrier. Neville, who was dressed in his robes himself, left his grandmother's side to greet his brothers, smiling brightly. Augusta Longbottom, however, didn't share his exuberance, her eyes hardening upon landing on the blond of their little group, Harry noticed. Not wanting to say anything before they entered the train, he greeted Neville instead, his eyes scanning the platform for his twin and the large group from Grimmauld Place. Neville, noticing in turn Harry's cursory gaze towards both his grandmother and the platform, said;
"Adrian hasn't arrived yet. And remind me to tell you something once we board the train."
"Sure thing, Nev." Harry assured him, pushing his trunk towards the train, greeting a few people here and there. "Let's find our seats shall we?" Then his eyes brightened as he caught a glimpse of silvery blond hair, the very same glimpse that Neville had been surreptitiously trying to catch himself. "Oh, look Nev; there's Luna."
"Where?" Neville asked, suddenly animated, swiftly turning towards where his brother was pointing at.
"You're hopeless." Draco commented, rolling his eyes even as he smiled at his brother's antics. "Go. Harry and I will take care of your trunk."
"You're sure?" Neville asked, already heading towards the Ravenclaw.
"I'll help them." The potions master assured him, smiling at Neville's retreating back.
"Hey, Luna!" The brown haired Gryffindor called, causing his family to chuckle as they carried on towards the train.
"Aw, look how cute they are!" Harry commented, grinning widely.
"Now, don't you go teasing your brother, Harry." The potions master admonished mischievously, knowing fully well that Harry was going to do just that, should the opportunity arise. "If you do, he might retaliate someday."
"He's been laughing on my expense during the whole of Fleur's stay at Hogwarts last year." Harry defended himself. "But I promise I won't tease him too bad."
"I can promise the same." Draco assured them both. "Luna is kinda awesome actually, so there's not much to tease him about, other than that stupid grin on his face." The blond commented, thinking back on his imaginative rescue during the Yule Ball last term.
The three wizards levitated their trunks and owl cages onto the train and into an empty compartment, returning to the platform after making sure everything was settled, Harry casting a nifty seal on the doors to keep them locked, just in case. Chuckling at their youngest's antics, the three wizards stepped down the train, their gazes soon landing on silvery blond hair once more. Only this time, it wasn't Luna.
"Oh." Draco mouthed, eyes wide as he looked at his parents for the first time in over a month. His father was standing straight and proud as always, a permanent smirk edged on his face. Draco bristled, knowing exactly why that smirk was put there; his anger was only fanned to a near inferno as his eyes landed on his mother; Narcissa Malfoy was looking around her frantically, her normal poise abandoned, dark circles under her gray eyes. She was looking for him, Draco realised. She was scared, almost panicked, and his father didn't care.
"Easy, Draco." Harry spoke softly, placing a comforting hand on his brother's shoulder.
"He doesn't get it." Draco spat, his eyes the colour of rainclouds before a storm as they clashed with the emerald green of his brother's. "He still doesn't get it." There was no need to specify whom he was referring to. Lucius Malfoy stood tall and unrepentant, his ice blue gaze oozing contempt as it landed on the newly arrived group from Grimmauld Place.
"Barzûln!" Harry couldn't help but cursing, practically feeling the two groups getting on collision course. Severus and Draco, who had noticed the catastrophe in motion themselves, froze into place, waiting for the inevitable.
"Merlin, help us." Neville's voice echoed from their left, Harry turning his gaze to his brother and Luna momentarily, nodding his head in complete agreement.
"What hap-" Luna didn't even need to complete her sentence as she caught sight of the Malfoy and the Potter patriarchs gazes' meet. Showing the sharpness of wit that had her fitting so well in the house of the clever and bright, she tucked herself closer to Neville's much taller frame and asked; "Is there nothing we can do to prevent the train wreck?"
"I don't think so." Harry muttered, his expression set on grim determination. "Maybe we can run some damage control." He added, walking purposefully towards the gathering storm, just as James, Sirius and Mr. Weasley moved towards the ever smug Lucius.
"Why, what do we have here?" Lucius' voice was heard clearly as they drew near, oozing sarcasm as he addressed the three men.
"Save it, Malfoy!" James spat. "It surprises me you even dare to show your face in public."
"Whatever do I have to fear, Potter?" The blond answered imperiously. "I'm here to see my son off, like you are." He said. "Well, not you." He added, looking contemptuously at Sirius. "You don't really have a family to see off. Purged from the family tree, weren't you?" Sirius snarled, held back at the last minute by Remus who had placed himself strategically next to his impulsive friend.
"How dare you, Malfoy!" James exclaimed, reaching for his wand.
"Father!" Draco called, moving swiftly past Harry, effectively placing himself between the two wizards. "Mother." He greeted a relieved Narcissa too, smiling softly at her before turning his gaze back to his father, schooling his characteristics to perfect neutrality. "Did you just arrive?"
"Yes." Lucius answered, his smug smirk returning upon observing Harry coming to stand behind Draco and Adrian casting his twin a scathing glare, James' jaw tensing outward as he ground his teeth at the display of solidarity between the two teens. "Your mother and I wanted to wish you a good term since you've been having such a great summer you didn't return home for a month." The elder Malfoy stated, looking at James who bristled at the implication; a month away from Malfoy manor meant a month spent with his youngest son after all. "And we run into… well." He concluded, waving at the assorted crowd with an elegant flicker of his wrist. James, Sirius, Remus and Arthur Weasley were standing straight and imposing, a living wall between the Malfoys and the rest of their group that was remaining a few steps back, in various degrees of anger. Severus and Harry, Neville and Luna a few feet behind them, were positioned to the right of Draco, caught right in the middle of the conflict.
"You see, I simply had to stop and chat." Lucius carried on. "I've heard some very interesting rumors about a certain member of your family, Arthur," he said, eyes travelling over the other members of the Weasley clan present that had huddled together to hide Ginny, the member he obviously talked about, from his sight, "circulating around the Ministry, but I considered them false." He smirked at the rapidly turning crimson Arthur. "You see I'd have been informed of such a momentous incident first hand. Why, a few weeks back, I attended the Minister's annual summer gala," Lucius said, glaring coldly at the potions master who stared back unflinchingly, "and there I made and acquaintance that would have confided in me…"
"Nothing." Ginny's voice echoed from somewhere behind Ron, as she sidestepped her family to approach Lucius. There was no point in hiding, after all; the members of the Sisterhood were publically known and maybe this was a way to end this fight before it devolved into fists and curses. Also a way to wipe that smirk of Lucius' face, Ginny thought. Harry smiled mischievously as the petite redhead walked, calm and collected, her lilac gaze locked with the shocked pale blue eyes of the Malfoy patriarch.
"W-what?" Lucius asked, stuttering almost imperceptibly under the calm gaze of the girl whose life he had once endangered. Narcissa too, stared at the confrontation wide-eyed, stepping just a little closer to her son.
"I'll hazard a guess it was me the rumors referred to?" Ginny asked, now standing next to Remus.
"What?" Lucius asked once again.
"She's in the Sisterhood, you know." Ron's voices echoed from where he stood, between Adrian and Hermione. "Didn't expect that, did you?"
"Might come as a bit of a surprise." Adrian chimed, looking at Draco before turning to his twin. "She told us a few days back," he added, as if explaining the situation to Harry, an unmistakable self-satisfied expression on his face, making Harry's blood boil at the pettiness, "but you weren't around, so…"
"Harry?" Ginny intervened, not having quite forgotten what Neville and Draco had told her of Adrian's treatment of Harry. "Oh, Harry's known about this," and she pointed at her eyes, "for a while now. We've been writing to each other over the summer." And she reveled at the stunned expressions of her family for a few moments before she added; "What? Am I not allowed to write to my friends now?" She rolled her eyes and focused her attention back to Lucius who, she noted with no small degree of glee, had yet to gather his wits enough to do anything other than a very accurate charade of a goldfish. "As I was saying, Evy wouldn't have mentioned anything without my permission. We're a very close-knit group." She added conspiratorially.
"The Sisterhood?" Lucius asked, all his bravado gone.
"Yes." Ginny answered slowly, as if afraid he wouldn't understand her. "Evy wouldn't have mentioned me. She certainly didn't mention you." She added, smirking as Lucius' blank expression was replaced with shock and then with fury in rapid succession. "She did mention you though, professor." Ginny addressed Severus, dealing Lucius' pride the killer shot, smiling widely all the while. The potions master shook his head in exasperation, quite enjoying how the news were steadily driving Lucius to apoplexy.
"Evelyn of Norway?" Sirius interjected, unable to help himself. "You know Evelyn of Norway?"
"Let's assume neither Evy nor I imagined a whole night out of our lives." The potions master answered dryly, belatedly realizing just how his sentence sounded out of context. He shut his eyes in mortification for a moment, knowing that any attempt at changing his phrasing now would only make thinks worse. Harry tried to unsuccessfully mask his chuckling as a cough, while Lucius turned to glare at Severus.
"Draco," the elder Malfoy growled, his voice authoritative, "we're leaving. You can return to your friends," he intoned, using the word as a weapon, looking at a nearly spluttering James, "momentarily." And he spun around, walking away swiftly, his dark green travelling cloak floating behind him.
"Come, Draco." Narcissa's voice sounded, much softer than her husbands, as she too walked away.
"I-" Draco began to apologize for his father's actions, his words dying on his lips as James approached him.
"I don't know what game you're playing," James said, he and Arthur both scowling at Draco, "but I'll be damned before I leave Lucius' spawn mess with my son. Whatever plan of your master's you're carrying out won't work, mark my words, Malfoy!"
"James!" Severus' voice boomed, in a clear warning, eyes dark and cold as he stepped closer to the blond teen instinctively. Neville copied the potions master with an indignant cry, Ginny and Luna -always empathetic- freezing on the spot, looking at James in shock before turning to Draco. Harry could feel his pulse thrumming at his temples, he could practicallytaste his magic revolting at James' accusations. Draco, despite having paled completely, noticed just how his brother was clenching his fists, eyes blazing an Avada Kedavra green, and decided to intervene.
"It's fine, professor. Really, it's okay." He said, smiling softly at the potions master, his eyes trailing towards Harry as he nodded reassuringly. He turned towards James again, breathing deeply before he addressed him. "Mr. Potter." He said simply, with as much dignity as he could muster, inclining his head as good manners dictated. "Mr. Weasley. Professor." He nodded towards Lupin and, because he felt the day he'd find himself in Sirius' shoes was swiftly approaching, he faced the dog animagus last, smiling sadly. "Cousin." He greeted him, turning towards his parents. "Harry, Nev, I'll see you on the train." And he walked away swiftly, leaving behind him a group of people, faces frozen in expressions of fury, mortification and any emotion in between.
"Damn it, James!" It was the potions master that snapped out of his shocked induced silence first. He took three steps forward, bringing himself inches away from the Potter in question, standing straight in his full height, towering over James, face contorted in fury. James took an actual step backwards as he looked up, being reminded quite forcefully that Severus was actually taller than he was. "Did you really need to do that? What were you even doing? Asserting power over a fifteen year old boy?"
"I-" James stuttered, eyes widening at the face of Severus' anger.
"You nothing, James!" The potions master spat. "Before you go accusingchildren of allying themselves with the Dark Lord ever again," he all but snarled, his right hand reaching instinctively for his wand, "do remember that the family one comes from doesn't determine their character. I thought you already knew as much." He concluded, looking pointedly at a pale Sirius. And with another contemptuous glare, one also directed at an already cowed and guilty looking Arthur, he stepped back breathing in deeply. "I'll be waiting by the train." He said, eyes beseeching as they locked with his son's. Harry understood perfectly; his father's hand still lay inches by the hilt of his wand and staying in James' presence any longer would likely guarantee curses would start flying. So he nodded, breathing deeply to calm himself, trying his best to avoid setting anything on fire. As Severus walked away, Harry turned his own scathing gaze towards James.
"I hope you're satisfied." He stated tightly.
"Harry, I didn't mean to-"
"Draco hasn't been staying over for recreation this summer, you know." Harry interrupted him, moving closer as not to be overheard by the curious bystanders that had already started to pay attention ever since Lucius had all but run away in a tiff. "Do you understand what I'm saying?" He asked, not wanting to elaborate while in a public setting, especially with Lucius nearby. He didn't need to. The implication was clear to all, as James turned to look at Sirius who had paled even farther, if that was possible; the dog animagus had, after all, ran away from home too once, seeking shelter with his best friend.
"We should be getting to the train." Ginny suggested suddenly, breaking the tension that had been mounting, trying to extricate Harry from a situation that could only guaranteed his anger to flare. "We won't be able to find seats together otherwise."
"We've been saving a compartment, actually." Harry said, looking at Ginny thankfully, taking the way out she had provided.
"How?" Neville asked, going from glaring at James to looking at his brother curiously, catching on the redhead's intentions.
"I may have locked a couple of doors." Harry explained, turning his back on James and their previous conversation. With not as much as a look back, he started walking towards Hogwarts Express, sighing in relief when nobody made to call for him.
"Is that even allowed?" Neville wondered, waving at Draco who was walking purposefully towards them, his other arm around a still shocked Luna's shoulders.
"I'll take some points from Gryffindor later if that'll make you feel better, Nev." The green eyed teen said. "Prefect, remember?"
"Let's not be hasty." Neville piped back, smirking as they approached Severus, Draco catching up to them.
"Let's just get out of here." The blond muttered, rubbing his eyes tiredly.
"Don't let them get to you, Draco." The potions master advised softly. "Nobody can dictate what you're worth but yourself." The blond Slytherin smiled and nodded at that, shoulders straightening almost imperceptibly as Neville punched his shoulder playfully in a show of support.
"I personally think it's very brave," Luna spoke for the first time since the confrontation had started, "taking a stand, considering everything." Draco started at her words and the quiet way they had been spoken, smiling not only at the support the girl provided but also at the ridiculously proud grin that Neville was directing to the younger girl.
"Quite Gryffindor of you, actually." Ginny commented mischievously, nodding in absolute agreement. "Must be all the prolonged exposure to these two." She added, pointing at Harry and Neville.
"Oi! Worse things could happen!" Neville protested. "And is "exposure to Gryffindors" a thing now? Are we saying that?" Draco snorted, shaking his head at his brother's antics.
"We are." Harry confirmed. "Be thankful for Sev balancing things out for you, Draco." A shrill, whistling sound echoed in the platform, signaling the train was about to depart. With the potions master's help, Ginny and Luna's trucks were loaded onto the train, the group of students waving Severus a temporary goodbye. Harry breathed in deeply as the train departed, trying to calm down, pushing back the wave of magic trying to scratch its way out his body. If this incident was any indication to how this term would go, he mused, he might just have burned down Hogwarts by June. He looked out the window in silent contemplation;
"Here's to hoping I won't." He muttered to himself, watching King's Cross fade away.