After Harry's breathing had calmed again, the three friends silently made their way back to the Gryffindor common room. Though not a word passed between them, it wasn't an uncomfortable silence. It was the kind of silence where everything to be said had been said, or rather, nothing could be said which would be adequate. Hermione and Ron knew that they couldn't possibly have words to comfort Harry, but perhaps in their simple presence, some good could still be worked, and they were right.
Due to the late hour at which they returned, the common room was almost empty. A couple people were still up studying, and a few more had failed in that attempt and were now snoring loudly, which was a perfect cover for any murmurs which the three would pass to each other before falling into unconsciousness themselves.
"Good night, Harry," Hermione said, touching his arm briefly. "Library to study tomorrow?"
"Yeah," Harry said, smiling a bit. He knew that this was Hermione's way of inviting him to what she felt to be her private lair, and he appreciated it for what the gesture really was.
"'Night, Hermione," Ron said, and with a nod, Hermione went to the girls' dormitory for the night. The two boys turn and climbed their own stairs. Before they entered the room with the other sleeping fifth years (who might not be all asleep quite yet), Ron stopped, and along with him, Harry.
"So that explains the nightmares and the sleeping potions," he observed. Harry flushed slightly and shrugged. "It's fine," Ron assured him. "That was some pretty strong sleeping potion wasn't it?" Without waiting for a reply, he continued, "I think it's actually really brilliant that you altered the instructions the way you did to make it suit what you wanted. For having the poorest grades in potions next to Crabbe and Goyle, you're actually really good at it."
"Thanks, I guess," Harry said, unsure how to react to Ron's awkwardness. It was obvious he wanted to say something, but didn't know what to say. "I'm tired," Harry said abruptly. "Talk in the morning?"
"Yeah, sure," Ron said. "Sleep well." It was the most sincere "sleep well" that Harry had ever received.
Harry had his typical restless night's sleep, only this time his nightmares also took a new level - one where he would lose Ron and Hermione as his friends. It was far from an easy night for him. He woke early, anxious to be away from the personal hell his mind created for him, and glancing at the still sleeping figure of Ron, pulled on his day clothes. As he closed his trunk, though, the top slipped through his hands.
"Shhhhhh..." he hissed at it, almost making more nose than the crash had. Neville and the others turned over or moaned in their sleep, but didn't wake up. Ron, on the other hand, was awake. "Sorry!" Harry mouthed as he tried to slip away. Maybe Ron wouldn't even remember if he went back to sleep quickly, or maybe he would think it was a dream. Harry wished he could get more sleep, so that he wouldn't be so clumsy.
"It's fine," Ron whispered back.
"Okay, see you later," Harry said quickly. He slipped out, and walked down the stairs. At some level, he regretted telling Ron and Hermione about his summer. He was still left waiting for the other shoe to drop, for them to reject him. He wasn't sure which was worse - his summer, or the aftereffects. Ah, but it was just all one big mess, why did he have to chose at all? Suddenly, he sat down on the next to the last step and hung his head. This was one of those mornings where everything didn't look better. His breathing became uneven, and in the silent, abandoned common room, it was the only noise heard.
A hand touched Harry's shoulder. Jumping to his feet with a cry of shock, Harry spun and saw Ron sitting next to where he had been. He calmed himself, still embarrassed.
"Yes?" Harry asked. Ron was dressed as well, he observed, and apparently had no intention of going back to sleep.
"Harry, I'm just worried about you," Ron said.
"Yeah, well, I'm fine," Harry lied. Ron knew it was a lie; Harry knew Ron knew it.
"Look, we don't have to talk about it," he began, "but don't hide it. Just be you."
"And what if I'm not who you used to know?"
"Then I'll just accept you for who you are now," Ron said simply. "What would you do if our positions were reversed?" Harry was quiet a moment, but sat down next to Ron. He rested his chin in his hands and gazed out over the common room.
"Breakfast?" Ron suggested.
"Sure," Harry agreed.
The two of them made their way to the Great Hall. It was Sunday morning and no one else had gotten up yet, not even the teachers, yet the house elves had the food ready for Ron and Harry by the time they sat down. They ate in friendly silence.
"Do you have any plans today?" Ron finally asked.
"Nope," Harry replied, stuffing some more toast into his mouth.
"Hermione's probably going to be in the library all day. Want to join her then?"
"Sure," Harry said, but then there was a soft pop at his elbow. Dobby hopped up and down clutching a rolled piece of parchment.
"For Harry Potter, sir!" he squeaked. He held it out, and Harry took it and unrolled it. The wax seal came away easily.
"Dumbledore?" Ron asked.
"Snape," Harry replied, his brow furrowing.
"What does he want?" Ron asked.
"Doesn't say," Harry said, puzzled and confused.
"Have a good day, Harry Potter!" Dobby interrupted. "If Harry Potter needs anything, just ask Dobby, sir!"
"Thank you, Dobby, I will," Harry replied, and the little elf popped away again. Ron gave him a questioning gaze as he glanced at the parchment.
"He just says he wants to see me today in his office as soon as possible and that it may take awhile," Harry explained. He showed Ron the parchment.
I expect you in my office as soon as reasonably possible after you receive this. Be prepared to spend the day.
"Well, that's certainly ominous enough," Ron commented. "Why so vague?"
"Who knows who might read it? The seal was broken what I got it. Umbridge probably read it, or Filch. I guess I won't be able to come to the library then," Harry continued, almost sorrowful. He had wanted to spend the day with his friends, as his sign of good faith to match theirs, but whatever Snape wanted would have to take precedence, he knew. It's not like the man was summoning him for a social call.
There was obviously some business Snape had in mind, something that wasn't going to wait if he sent the memo with a house elf at this hour of a Sunday morning. Harry figured that Snape would want to spend about as much time with him as Ron would want to cough up slugs again. Shrugging, Harry stuck the note in his pocket and stood up.
"Send Hermione my regrets?" he said. Ron nodded.
"I would say have a good time..." Ron said ruefully.
"Thanks," Harry said. "I'm sure I'll be back tonight."
Harry grabbed his school bag and meandered his way to Snape's office. He wasn't in any hurry, and stopped along the way to study the pictures, or odd gargoyles, or even the decoration on the wallpaper. Finally, when he didn't think he could put Snape off any longer, he knocked on the door.
"Come in!" Snape barked. Hesitantly, Harry opened the door and slipped through, closing it silently behind him. The room was dark, as usual, with two or three candles burning in corners of the room. It had the usual smell of potions as well, though the candles seemed to be scented and were masking the putrid odor. The room was comfortable warm, and the only sound was of Snape's quill scratching at a stack of essays he was grading.
"I got your note, sir," he said.
"Obviously, or you wouldn't be here," Snape said, not looking up nor stopping his writing. Harry winced, but Snape didn't see it. Obviously, he was still writing.
"Sorry, sir," Harry muttered. He sat on the edge of a chair near Snape's desk and began to wait. The silence was heavy and Harry didn't like it. He also had no intention of breaking it since his last comment hadn't gone over so well. After what seemed like an eternity, Snape put down his quill and looked at him. Harry squirmed ever so slightly, and dropped his eyes.
"I've been looking into this matter of horcruxes," Snape began. "With help from the Headmaster, I have a viable theory about them. In short, we will be looking for the Dark Lord's snake, a cup of Hufflepuff's, and Slytherin's locket. There will be another item, likely belonging to Gryffindor or Ravenclaw, though what it is, neither Dumbledore nor I know."
"You mean, things the founders owned?" Harry asked.
"Yes," Snape said patiently. "The Dark Lord had, and still has, a great affinity for the school, its houses, and its disciplines. He has an excellent sense of poetic justice."
"You speak of him in the present tense," Harry observed. "Why?"
"Because as long as there is even one horcrux left," Snape snapped, "then the Dark Lord still exists. Don't forget that, and don't become complacent simply because he lost his bodily form. He came back once, and he can come back again." Snape's lips made a thin line, and he picked up his pen again.
"You're afraid," Harry said. Snape sneered at his paper, but didn't reply.
"I want you to come with me to find the horcruxes," Snape finally said. Harry's jaw moved up and down but no sound came out.
Finally, he said, "Me, sir?"
"Is there anyone else in the room I could possibly be speaking to?" Harry looked around, just to make sure they were quite alone. They were.
"No, sir," he said.
"Then, if you will, the Headmaster gave me a lead on where to find the first horcrux."
"...because he wants the Dark Lord defeated as much as we do?" Snape said, his eyes narrowing at Harry.
"No, why do you want me to come with you?"
"You have as much right to be part of this as I do," Snape explained. "Do you not want to come?"
"No," Harry hesitated, "I do, it's just that - well, I never expected - "
"Me to ask you along?" Snape finished. He was seeming to get impatient now.
"Yes, sir," Harry agreed.
"And normally I wouldn't," Snape said, "it's that you also have this right which I won't deny, and it will help you get your mind off things." Harry snorted. So at some level, this was something of a social call, Harry realized suddenly. Snape was inviting him to spend time with him. "Are you ready?" Snape asked.
"Yes, sir," Harry replied.
"Then let us leave the school grounds before anyone notices our absence, and apparate. Follow me, Harry."
The two of them left Snape's office, Harry trailing a few steps behind. Harry had no idea where Snape was going, but continued to follow wordlessly. Finally, after taking a very indirect route, Snape stopped in front of what Harry knew to be one of the secret passageways.
"What are we - " Harry began.
"You think I don't know about them?" Snape asked, almost amused. "I did have the misfortune of coming here with your father." They stepped into the passageway and made their way to just outside the no-apparating limit.
"Take my arm," Snape ordered, and Harry hesitantly reached out. Once contact had been solidly established, and Snape found he didn't die at the boy's touch, they disappeared with a loud crack.
Only a dog was witness to this event.
I'm so sorry guys. Life, yada yada yada. I kinda promised a few people an update during Easter break, and today's the last day, so here it is, short though it is. You guys are amazing, thanks so much.