"Morning Hermione, Neville," Harry said as he walked down to the common room ruffling his still slightly wet hair. "I'll need to tell you something, but let's first go eat some breakfast and see if I can catch Daphne, too."
"What is it? Did Dumbledore tell you something important last night?"
"What?" Harry asked, having already forgotten the meeting with the Headmaster. "No, it has nothing to do with that. Dumbledore just gave his usual 'you need to forgive, everyone deserves a second chance' speech, and told me he's going to tell me more about Voldemort this year. No, I had another vision last night, and I think it might be important."
"What was it? Was it about another attack?"
"Not now, Hermione," Harry said as the trio walked across the entrance hall towards the Great Hall. "I'll tell you when we get some privacy. You go ahead and keep us seats, I'll go see if Daphne's willing to join us."
Harry peeled of from his friends and went to the Slytherin table, where Daphne was already sitting and conversing with Tracey. Tracey noticed him coming nearer, and Daphne turned to look at who had caught her friend's attention.
"Morning, Daphne," Harry said, kissing his girlfriend briefly on the lips. "Tracey."
"I have some news to tell, Daphne, do you have time for a quick meeting before any classes?"
"I still haven't got my timetable," she answered. "What sort of news?"
"It's about something that happened yesterday. I'd rather not discuss it here in the Hall."
"Oh. Well, it seems that Snape is coming this way, so I'll know soon."
Harry turned and saw the head of Slytherin house stalking towards them his usual angry scowl etched on his face.
"Potter! What are you doing here disturbing Miss Greengrass?"
"He's not disturbing me, professor," Daphne answered for Harry. "He is here saying me good morning like a good boyfriend should."
Snape turned his eyes to Daphne. "Truly, Miss Greengrass? I would have expected higher standards from my Slytherins. Fraternising with Gryffindors, really?"
"Is that a new policy, professor?" Harry intersected. "Because I remember talking to Remus during summer, and he said there was this one Slytherin boy who was pining for a Gryffindor girl during his whole time at school. Of course the guy was a jerk and got her killed by Voldemort, so maybe there is some merit in the rule. But I'm quite confident that Daphne has no nefarious intentions towards me," Harry said and turned to kiss Daphne on the cheek. "Right, dear?"
Daphne looked at Harry with mirth shining in her eyes. "Well I wouldn't be so sure about that, Potter. I sure do want to have my wicked way with you."
Snape glared at both of them with barely restrained rage. "Here's your schedule, Miss Greengrass. And Potter, don't be late at the class today."
Harry watched as Snape stormed out of the Hall his cloak billowing impressively and younger students hurrying for cover from before him.
"Well, that was intense," Tracey commented. "Would either of you care to comment just what made him that angry?"
Harry saw other students around them making more or less subtle attempts at listening in to his answer.
"Let's just say that the Slytherin boy I mentioned was Snape and the girl was my mother. Snape hasn't quite forgiven me yet that he is a jerk and couldn't compete with my dad."
"What about the getting her killed part?"
"That's a long story, and some of the details are not for public consumption. But our resident Death Eater said some things that should not have been said, and that eventually resulted in my getting this scar," Harry explained. "I really don't want to talk about it."
"Oh, sorry. Shouldn't have asked about that."
"It's alright, Tracey, I'm used to people asking about it," Harry assured the other Slytherin. "Well, Daphne, care to cause some more havoc and join me in the Lion's den? I still have to eat and get my own schedule."
"Why not. Lead the way," Daphne said. "See you later, Trace."
"You too, Daph."
- O -
The sixth year marked major change in pace for the students of Hogwarts. After finishing the OWLs no courses were mandatory any more, and subjects like astronomy and herbology were dropped by many. This meant that the even though the amount of work required for each individual class was increasing, there were more free time for independent research, or in Harry's case, plotting for the fall of a Dark Lord. And it just so happened that all four co-conspirators had a free period after breakfast Monday morning.
"What do you think?" Harry asked the others after he had explained his latest vision. They had found an empty meeting room on the second floor, and were sitting around a small table. "From how Voldemort behaved these 'horcruxes' seem to be pretty important. I mean, it was almost as if he was afraid."
"Do we have any way to know if it was a genuine thing and not a fake like the one last June?" Hermione questioned.
"Not that I know, except for looking for these objects to see if they really exist."
"Watching Draco would probably be the best indicator, if his father is really dead," Daphne said. "Other option would be to try and find this crown thing, as you said."
"True. I think we should try to research what horcruxes really are before we do anything. If the diary from second year was one, they can be very dangerous."
"What about Dumbledore?" Hermione asked. "Shouldn't you ask him about the things?"
"I'll give him a change to talk about them. Voldemort was sure that Dumbledore knows what the diary really was, so I'll try to prod him for answers without showing my cards. But I'm not going to volunteer any information to him."
"I understand, Harry," Hermione relented. "But I still think you should work with the headmaster."
"I would, but he insists on playing his own games instead on focusing on the important things. Just look at Snape; the man is a Death Eater and absolutely terrible teacher but still Dumbledore keeps him around as some sort of personal redemption project, despite the damage it does to everything around."
"Speaking of Snape, I think we should get going," Neville interrupted. "His class starts in a few minutes, and I don't really want to be late."
"Alright. Let's meet at the library before dinner, shall we?" Harry replied, and received nods in answer from the others. The four of them gathered their book bags and headed towards the DADA classroom.
- O -
The fifth floor Defence classroom had seem many changes during the years, as each and every professor had changed it to suit his of her style. Snape was no different, and when Harry entered the room he wondered if the door had been a magical portal to the dungeons. All windows were cowered, and even tough the weather outside was brilliant for a Scottish September, the room was lit with torches. And somehow despite the living fire in the room the air was still colder and damper than outside in the hallway.
Snape really had gone his way to make the place as miserable as possible.
Soon after Harry had settled down on a desk halfway down the class (it was a compromise of sitting as far from Snape as possible while still staying next to Hermione) Snape marched in and slammed the door shut with a wave of his wand.
"Defence Against the Dark Arts," he started, gesturing at the blackboard where the words had appeared. "So far you have had a collection of pathetic excuses of teachers trying to hammer this delicate subject to you thick skulls, and you have passable knowledge only on dark creatures, possibly because the teacher was one himself!"
Snape leered at Harry at the jibe against Remus.
"But the real danger is not some filthy beasts a competent wizard can terminate with a swish of his wand; no, what you really should be afraid of is what another wizard can do to you with his wand. And that is something you know absolutely nothing about. And that is what I will be focusing on in this course. I of course expect each and every one of you to fail miserably, except maybe some of the Slytherins who have had the power of the Dark Arts shown to them from birth."
"Potter!" the man shouted abruptly. "You were teaching these dunderheads defence last year. Lets see if your pathetic skills are worth anything against a skilled opponent, or if your vaunted 'adventures' have been just luck. We will have a demonstration duel."
Harry was already seeing red. How a man could be such a bastard Harry would never understand. Sure, Snape had been bullied by the Marauders while in school, but he had already got his dad killed and Sirius was also dead. What did he have to gain by trying to torment Harry, too? His position as a double agent was gone anyway, so even that wasn't an excuse any more. Harry silently rose up, palmed his wand and walked to the front of the class where Snape was clearing a narrow strip of floor for the duel.
"Oh, and did I forget to mention that in my classroom every spell shall be cast silently?" the sorry excuse of a man added with a smirk.
Harry didn't say anything, but simply took his place at the one end of the duelling strip, his wand at a ready rest position pointing down to the floor next to him.
"Right," Snape continued, when Harry failed to rise to the taunt. "As this is merely a demonstration duel, me taking Mr. Potter here down with the first spell would be in-conducive to the educational purpose. So, Potter, You can start when you're ready."
Harry looked at the sneering man in front of him, the man who ultimately was the number two most responsible person for all of Harry's misery in the world, and decided to not to pull any punches on him. And while Harry was certain Snape was probably at least at the same skill level as Tonks meaning that in a fair duel between them Snape would have upper hand, the sneer on the man's face told Harry everything he needed to know: the greasy bastard didn't expect Harry to have any skill with silent casting, and would be woefully unprepared for what was going to happen.
Harry started with a feint he had learned from the aurors. It would work only against opponents that underestimated you and were stupid enough to not to consider every spell a threat, but that was exactly what faced Harry at the moment. The spell was an obscure Middle Eastern variant of an explosive curse that had deceptively similar wand movements to the textbook 'stupefy', and unless the opponent knew exactly what to look for it would look like a sloppily cast stunner. Harry hammed it up with mouthing the incantation of the stunning spell, and shot the curse deliberately off target, towards the teachers desk to the left from Snape.
The wide smirk on Snape's face as he saw what looked like a pathetic attempt at silent stunner that wasn't even aimed correctly was all the proof Harry needed to know his trap was perfect. As Snape's desk exploded taking all his paperwork with it Harry's wand was already moving on the start of a spell-chain he had stitched together himself. It was a perfect example of why exactly the ministry's policy of blacklisting individual spells instead of trying to find out the intent behind incidents was a bad idea: the actual effect spells of the chain were all from the Black family collection, but even though they were as dark as anything, the ministry knew nothing about them and couldn't add them on their list of Dark Arts.
The chain consisted of a paralysing charm, an asphyxiation spell and a blinding curse tied together by minor schoolbook hexes. All in all it was a powerful non-lethal take-down combination and Snape, being thrown off balance by the unexpectedly exploding desk didn't stand a chance against it but was hit by all of the spells.
Harry quickly bound the professor with conjured ropes and glued him to the wall, before countering the paralysing and blindness curses. He then turned to face the class, who were staring at the events in the front of the classroom mouths agape.
"So, as a quick recap of what we have learned today: never underestimate your opponent, never be an arrogant arse, and never, ever give your opponent the advantage of the first spell. Class dismissed."
Harry summoned his book bag from his desk with a wave of his wand, and started to walk towards the door.
"Oh, and please someone peel the professor off the wall and take him to the infirmary," he added when he noticed Snape giving him a hateful scowl which was somewhat ruined by the 'fish-on-dry-land' impression caused by the asphyxiation curse, while the lack of air in his lungs prevented any sound from escaping his lips. "And don't worry when he passes out: the curse will wear off before he dies. Ten points to whoever does it."
- O -
"Honestly, Harry! Of all the irresponsible things you have done this is the worst. Attacking professor like that, what were you thinking? You will get expelled!"
"No I won't, Hermione. Besides, I already cleared it with Dumbledore, that's where I went right after the 'lesson'. He was disappointed, of course, but when isn't he? And I won't be coming back to the DADA lessons, so that's not an issue either."
"So, what are we looking for?" Neville interrupted before Hermione had time to come up with a reply for Harry. They were in the library, and Madam Pince wouldn't tolerate any arguments there.
"Horcruxes," Harry answered, snapping back from his argument with Hermione, who was still giving him angry looks. "What they are, what they do, and why they are important enough to Voldemort to kill Lucius Malfoy for."
"Do we have anything to base our research on?" Daphne asked.
"Only thing I know is that the diary was one. So anything that fits the description."
"Second year, the whole Chamber of Secrets episode. It was Voldemort's diary possessing Ginny that caused all that. It was trying to resurrect Voldemort from a memory."
"So cursed objects, possession, memories, necromancy," Daphne summed up. "I guess we'll start with that."
"Sounds good. Oh, and before I forget, I have something for you," Harry said and started digging his book bag and retrieved four small boxes and gave them to the others. Inside were four elegant Swiss watches.
"Remember when we talked about emergency portkeys and some method of communication in the summer? Well, I thought about it and bough and charmed these. It has password activated portkey that will take you to an alley in muggle London near the Leaky Cauldron and a protean charm like the coins we used last year so it heats up if one of us needs to contact the others. I also had Fred and George charm them the same way I used with Sasha, except that Dobby has all four of the counterparts back at home. He can bring them anywhere if we need to talk to each other."
"Oh, it's beautiful. Thank you!" Daphne said, hugging Harry.
"Glad that you like. I thought about jewellery, but I think a watch is more practical, and it's something that's easier to explain having on you all the time. But enough of that, let's get started on the research."
- O -
"This is hopeless," Hermione huffed. By Wednesday afternoon they had already skimmed through most of the relevant parts of the library without as much as a word on horcruxes, and were walking down from the library towards their Charms class. "You really should ask Dumbledore. We know he knows."
"I'm not giving up just yet," Harry said. "If I'm supposed to lead this war, I can't just keep on going to Dumbledore for help. And besides, I'm not going to trust him alone in this; even if I'll eventually have to ask him, I'm still going to check from another source so that I'll know if he's giving me only half-truths. He's done so often enough that I'm not going to trust him unconditionally any more."
"Harry's right, Hermione," Daphne said. "It's not wise to rely on only one source of information. That's one of Dumbledore's biggest failings: he's so certain he knows best he doesn't ask others."
"But where do we get that source? You saw it yourself, the library doesn't have it."
"To be honest, I really didn't expect to find anything outside the restricted section," Harry confessed. "The problem is how to get in there. I guess I could sneak in with my invisibility cloak, but I'd rather not."
"Why don't you just ask for a permission?" Daphne asked. "Isn't that the normal way?"
"How do I do that? I can't really ask about the horcruxes, now can I?"
"No, but after that display with Snape and you dropping DADA lessons it's not that surprising if you want to research Dark Arts in general. You know, to cover for missing lessons," Daphne explained.
"And Slughorn seemed pretty devastated that you didn't come to his class, he would probably give you a pass easily."
"Huh? Slughorn? Why do you think so?"
"You know, I've seen Slughorn with Gran before," Neville said. "He seems to 'collect' famous and influential people, trade favours and introduce people. Gran doesn't like him much, but I guess the Boy-Who-Lived and a Wizengamot Lord would be something he would like to add in his collection."
Harry groaned. "Great, another one only interested in what I am, not who I am. But well, it sounds like the best idea so far. I'll go see him sometime."
"What about Malfoy?" Hermione asked Daphne. "Have you seen anything that would confirm Harry's vision?"
"Not really. But he did receive a letter yesterday evening, and he's been quiet the whole day what I've seen him."
"That letter might have been the news from home," Harry agreed. "I guess we'll have to just watch him and see if he's doing anything differently."
The four of them arrived to the charms classroom, and introduced themselves to the crowd already waiting for the lesson to begin. The discussion ranged from summer holidays to lesson plans, and Harry found himself explaining the fight over the Hogwarts Express yet again. Eventually Flitwick arrived to open the door and the students started to file in. It was then that someone hit Harry from behind.
"Get out of my way, scar-head!" Malfoy snarled.
"What is your problem, Malfoy? I don't see anyone else having trouble fitting in the corridor."
"You are my problem, Potter! You got my father killed, and you are going to pay for it!"
Malfoy stormed in with Crabbe following close behind. Just who had to have been bribed to get the gorilla through his OWLs and to NEWT-level classes was unknown, but still he didn't leave Malfoy's side where ever he went.
"What do you think that was about?" Neville asked when he, Hermione, Daphne and Harry were alone.
"I don't know. On one hand it confirms that Lucius is dead and the vision is probably right, but the accusations go right by me."
"What if the vision was still false? What if Lucius died some other way?" Hermione asked.
"I don't think so. Lucius was not among the dead in the battle, and I'm pretty sure I recognized his voice when their leader ordered retreat. Lucius was there and got out unharmed. I really can't think of any way he could have gotten himself killed in the time between that and the vision."
"Well, whatever it is, Draco is even more unstable than usual at the moment," Daphne said. "He has always been too hot-headed for his own good, and if he's hell bent for revenge it's going to boil over."
"I'll get Sasha to guard your bunk during the night," Harry offered. "Just in case. She can try to listen in to the others, too."
"That's good. I can't wait to introduce her to that bitch Parkinson. She's getting to my nerve."
- O -
Later the same evening Harry found himself standing at the door to Slughorn's office. Clearly the office wasn't tied to the subject he taught, as the location on the airy second floor corridor was a polar opposite to that of Snape's dungeon cave. Harry schooled on his best I'm-here-to-impress-you face he had learned from Daphne during the summer and knocked on the door.
The professor replied immediately, and soon enough the door opened showing the old roundish teacher dressed in fine quality robes smiling at Harry.
"Ah, Mister Potter!" he said. "I've been intending to ask you to visit for a while now. Come in, come in."
"Thank you, professor."
The inside of the office showed similar personality as the robes. Everything was nice and orderly, and an elegantly carved table with six chairs around it was clearly waiting for quest to entertain. One wall was filled with old photos of students gathered around similar tables, as well as individual portraits.
"I see you found my little collection, eh?" the professor said. "Been teaching here already in the twenties, I have. I don't want to brag, but I do know more or less everyone worth knowing. Like there, class of -56, Amelia Bones. Bright girl she was, and now the minister! But you know her already, don't you, Mr. Potter?"
"Yes sir, I have made acquaintance with her."
"And so humble! You did get her in the office after all, didn't you?"
"Well, there were others who did most of the work, but I had my hand in it," Harry admitted.
"True, true. Why do it all yourself, when you can get others to help, right? Well, what can I do for you?"
"Have you heard about my defence lesson on Monday?" Harry asked back.
"Ah, yes! Such talent! Not many can say they have beaten their professor while still in school, and Severus is very competent with his wand. He was of course furious when it came up in the meeting, but I think it was poor sportsmanship from his part. I'm afraid his skills with people were never too good."
"Yes, it was Snape's lessons that soured potions for me. I'm sure you are a lot better teacher than he is, but I'm not interested at the moment."
Slughorn looked thoughtful. "It's sad how poor experiences in the classroom can turn down great talent. I can easily see how having Severus as a teacher would create negative associations for the art altogether. Awfully skilled with his cauldron, yes, but not the most pleasant personality. It's a pity I can't get a chance to see how well you can brew, but I'm sure we can create a fruitful relationship outside of classroom, yes?"
"Yes, that sounds good," Harry answered, and the professor's smile grew bigger. "And I did come here to ask for a favour. You see, after I dropped out of the defence class I've been doing some individual research in the library. But the thing is, the really good volumes on the Dark Arts seem to be in the restricted section, and I wondered if you could give me a pass there. Normally I would go ask the defence professor, but you understand that my relationship with professor Snape isn't the best at the moment."
"Ah, yes, yes. I'm sure I can get you what you need," Slughorn said and walked to his desk. "Now where did I put those slips... ah, there they are. Take one for your lady friend, too. Miss Greengrass, right? Her father did get in to the Wizengamot last spring if I remember correctly."
"That's right. And thank you for these, professor. I'm sure it'll help me a lot."
"Don't worry, m'boy. It's not like it was too much trouble for me."
"Well, I think I have taken enough of your time, professor. Thank you once again."
"No, no, it was my pleasure. And, Mr. Potter, I've been planning to arrange a little get together, to get to know the students better. I hope you can attend."
Harry shrugged slightly. "Why not. I'm sure I can arrange time for that without much problems."
"Splendid! We'll see then!"
"See you too, professor."
- O -
Harry's first private lesson with Dumbledore was scheduled on the first weekend of the term. Harry wasn't quite sure what to expect, but decided to give the old headmaster at least a chance to make himself useful.
The research in the restricted section had not yet resulted in anything, but they hadn't had too much time to read through old tomes as the amount of homework was starting to go up after the first week of the term. Hermione, Daphne and Neville were currently studying in the library, and Harry hoped that they would find something, as he really didn't believe Dumbledore would volunteer any information on the subject.
The gargoyle stepped aside when Harry said the password, and he rode the revolving staircase up to the Headmaster's door.
"Come in!", Dumbledore called before Harry had time to knock on the door, and he stepped in.
Immediately when Harry entered the room he noticed that Dumbledore's left hand had shivered and blackened. His eyes almost dropped out of his head when he noticed a familiar looking ring with a black stone in the same hand.
"Hello, headmaster," he said.
"Ah, Harry my boy! I have prepared some memories for us to view today, they are about Voldemort's family and his early days. But is there anything you wanted to ask before we dive in?"
Harry was somewhat hesitant, but decided to test if the headmaster was really going to answer his questions completely and truthfully.
"Sir, what's happened to your hand?" he asked.
Dumbledore glanced at the blackened appendage, as if he had forgotten the state of it.
"Ah, this?" he asked. "It's just something I picked up during the summer. Old age doesn't come alone, I'm afraid. I am no longer as fast as I used to be. But that's nothing you need to worry about. I usually keep a glamour on it to not to worry others, but it seems to have worn off."
"Oh," Harry answered, disappointed at Dumbledore's lack of real response. "Well, let's do this, then," he said, gesturing towards the pensieve.
The next couple of hours were spent looking at different memories on Voldemort's family before he was even born (pureblood bigots worse than Malfoy), his introduction to the magical world by Dumbledore at the orphanage he lived in and his first impressions at Hogwarts. It was a completely baffled and frustrated Harry that emerged from the pensieve.
"Well, Harry, what did you learn from that?"
"That Voldemort was a sick fuck already as a kid. Sir, I really can't see the point of all this. Why is it important for me to see what he did at school?"
"Ah, but you must understand that even I don't know everything, even though I admit knowing more that most. These memories are mostly unknown territory for me, too, and a learning experience for both of us."
Harry regarded the headmaster for a good while, and the older man looked back.
"Sir, I know you are not telling me everything you know, and frankly, I find it really frustrating," he said. "I don't think you need to schedule new meetings if this is the content of them. I don't believe I can help you with the memories, so you can view them on your own discretion and send me the memo when your done. I will spend my time getting ready to actually confront Voldemort and being with my girlfriend."
Harry stood up and started to move towards the door, when he got an idea.
"Oh, and I would be thankful if you could recommend me a good source on horcruxes, professor," he said. "I already got a pass to the restricted section from professor Slughorn, but it would help in my research if you could point me to right direction."
This time it was Dumbledore's turn to gawk at Harry, though he hid his shock well.
"Horcruxes? How do you know about them?"
"It's just something I picked up during the summer, nothing you need to worry about. You can add the information on the memo."
- O -
"—And that was the last of the memories," Harry ended his recounting on the 'lesson' with Dumbledore he had had when he found the others in the library, doing research.
"What was he thinking?" Hermione said, dumbfounded. "There you have a child with obviously violent tendencies, and he demonstrated magic by setting his wardrobe on fire? Talk about first impressions. When Professor McGonagall came to my home she showed her animagus transformation, levitated furniture and conjured some flowers."
"Well, yeah. I really don't know what the man is thinking, and apparently it's not just something that's caused by old age. But I did throw him a bone and mentioned the horcruxes. I asked for a good source on the subject, we'll see if he responds in any way. Oh, and he had the ring in his finger. Apparently they are pretty well protected; he didn't confirm it, but it seems the ring has caused his whole had to shrivel up and blacken. We'll need to be very careful if we go searching for the rest of them."
Hermione looked at Daphne, her face serious.
"I think we'll have to," Daphne said. "We found a reference, nothing much mind you, but apparently the horcruxes are some sort of immortality devices. The soul doesn't leave the earth as long as the horcrux exists."
There was a silence.
"Damn," Harry said. "And Voldemort knows that Dumbledore's looking for them. And now that the ring is also missing from it's hiding place, chances are he's going to hide the rest better than ever."
"Yes. The crown thing is here in Hogwarts and I seriously doubt Voldemort's going to try and infiltrate the castle just to get it out, and I don't know if Bellatrix can walk to Gringott's through the auror guards in the Alley. But the locket is something that he can hide again. The snake was always going to be a problem, but it's probably where Voldemort is himself."
"I guess we'll have to try and find the cave, then," Harry agreed. "That's going to tell us how impossible the rest of the mission is going to be."
"You think we could get Remus searching it for us?" he added after a small pause.
"I was actually going to suggest him myself," Hermione said. "He's loyal to you, and he doesn't have a steady job so he can spend enough time travelling the coast spelunking. And he knows how to take care of himself."
"True. I'll write him a letter immediately, and then I can go see him and explain the situation. And we'll need to start searching the castle for the crown, and thinking how to get the cup out of the bank."
A/N: It has been brought to my attention that despite my best effort and spell-checkers my language is far from perfect. So, even though it goes against my impatient nature, I have decided to try to get myself a beta-reader. Instead of asking by random I thought it was better to give first dibs to people who actually read and enjoy my story. So consider yourself asked.
Spelling, grammar, prepositions and other details are the primary concern, but any input on the structure of the chapters and direction of the story will also be highly appreciated (I will of course make the existing outline available to any volunteers).
Also huge thanks to everyone who has read and reviewed my story, feedback is always a nice thing to have.