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Lines of text swam before Harry’s eyes. He blinked, then squeezed them shut.
‘I’m going to miss days like this.’ Salazar sighed. ‘How’s the book?’
‘The Time-Traveller’s Life?’ Harry set it down on the desk beside the small golden hourglass. ‘Probably not as good as A Thousand and One Snake Puns, but it does explain how the mental load of using the time-turner builds and builds.’
‘Which might explain your nightmares.’
‘Yes.’ He grimaced. ‘Although any new nightmares are likely to feature another essay about wand legislature and goblin rebellions.’
Salazar snorted. ‘Goblins. Greedy, stubborn, cunning, brutal creatures. One day, they will try to bite off more than they can chew again and someone will inflict another harrowing upon them.’
‘Someone has?’ Harry squinted at the painting. ‘I thought they kept winning?’
‘Winning?’ Salazar laughed. ‘In the tunnels, in the dark, where they can bring all their gifts of enchanting, their numbers, and their cunning to bear, yes, they will win. But above ground? No. They tried. They lost. Rome drove them so deep underground and shed so much goblin blood they still mourned their shame when I lived.’
‘Well, good thing that wasn’t in my exam.’ Harry closed The Time-Traveller’s Life. ‘I think I’ve learnt all I need from that book. Definitely time to take a break from the spinning gold hourglass of impending insanity.’
Salazar’s eyes darkened. ‘Yes. It is.’
Harry leant forward. ‘What is it, you old cave painting?’
‘You’re out of time, Harry.’ Salazar’s serpent looped round his neck with a soft hiss. ‘This quiet, slow week of work and books is the deep breath before the storm breaks.’
‘Surely I still have a year or so?’ Harry asked. ‘At least a summer?’
One more summer with Fleur.
‘Why?’ Salazar asked. ‘You have stripped the shadows from Voldemort and Dumbledore’s plan to hurl you into his path looms closer with every second.’
‘Dumbledore implied he had things to do first,’ Harry said. ‘Voldemort… I can hide from him. I can hide from him until I’m ready.’
‘Presumably Dumbledore also knows there’s likely another horcrux or two,’ Salazar replied. ‘Their existence is the only thing, aside from any action you take, preventing Albus Dumbledore from, say, leaving you somewhere only his followers and Voldemort can enter due to blood magic based wards, then waiting for an inevitable conclusion.’
‘Well, when you say it like that…’ Harry wrinkled his nose. ‘I’m not going back to endure Privet Drive. Never again. Never.’
‘I can see the sunset in your eyes, Harry,’ Salazar murmured. ‘You need a plan to reach it. A strong will and focus may make spells work, but it’s not enough for life.’
‘I have to kill him.’ Harry’s heart clenched. ‘If I don’t, I’ll lose everything.’
‘You’ll lose her.’ Shadows rose in Salazar’s eyes. ‘You mustn’t lose her, Harry. You’ve tied so much of yourself to her that life will be unbearable without her, I would know.’
Harry drew himself up. ‘What do I need to do?’
‘Solve your own problems,’ Salazar griped. ‘You think I don’t have anything better to do than fix your woes?’
He glanced ‘round the library. ‘I mean…’
‘Brat,’ Salazar muttered. ‘But I suppose you’ve no idea what you’re doing, do you?’
‘I have to destroy a horcrux. I got the diadem and the diary, but there’s one more.’ Harry offered the painting a wry grin. ‘Perhaps I’ll be lucky enough that this one drops into my hands, too.’
‘I doubt it.’ Salazar jabbed his wand toward Harry. ‘The fool who used that diary as a weapon will beg for death when Voldemort realises what he did with it. The diadem was hidden here almost carelessly, but if there is anything left of Tom in Voldemort, then I suspect he meant to take this place as his seat of power upon his victory. He must have intended it to be safe within his own grasp.’
Harry glanced up. ‘Hogwarts was important to him?’
‘Very.’ Salazar sighed. ‘A new world for Tom to belong to, only, of course, it wasn’t in the end.’
‘It has to be an object he was very attached to,’ Harry whispered. ‘His diary, that diadem, since you told him the story, and something else he treasured.’
Salazar’s lips twisted. ‘I don’t remember, I’m afraid. I should, but I don’t. I suspect Tom saw to that when he left.’
‘I’ll find it. Maybe Dumbledore will find it for me.’
‘You need to get out from under that man’s rule.’ Silver sparks sputtered from Salazar’s wand. ‘He has draped a noose around your neck, Harry. Step away from the gallows as quickly as you can! You have a well-protected home and Voldemort has other enemies to think about in Dumbledore and the Ministry. Get out of Hogwarts as swiftly and subtly as possible.’
‘I can’t let Dumbledore think I’m up to anything, in case he changes his plans.’
Harry clenched his fists until his nails bit into his palms. ‘I wish it would all just go away. Sometimes, when I wake up, I close my eyes, and hope that when I reopen them I’ll be in France with Fleur again.’
‘It will not go away,’ Salazar murmured. ‘You will have to destroy the horcrux. You will have to face and kill Voldemort. You will have to convince or fool Dumbledore into believing you are no longer a horcrux.’ A small smile crossed his lips. ‘Then you can close your eyes and dream of France, Harry.’
Harry sighed. ‘Whatever it takes, I suppose.’ He drummed his fingers on the desk. ‘My NEWTs will have to be taken early, then. I need those to be able to leave Hogwarts without causing a stir. And then there’s that horcrux…’
Salazar stroked the blunt head of the snake entwined about his neck. ‘He entrusted an anchor to one of the members of his inner circle and had a second where he likely intended to be able to protect it. It’s possible he gave the other to a different follower.’
‘Crabbe, Goyle, Nott, the Lestranges, and probably others I don’t know about.’ Harry grimaced. ‘It won’t be easy to prise anything out of them, Voldemort has all his servants hidden away somewhere.’
‘Not for long. The storm will break soon. Study for your NEWTs over the summer while you wait for the war to begin, then get out of Dumbledore’s noose.’ Salazar tapped a gentle staccato upon his serpent’s spine with his fingertips. ‘When the war comes, you can hover in its shadow. Pick off the members of Voldemort’s inner circle to find the horcrux, bleed his strength away, then face him and kill him however you can.’
‘And Dumbledore? He will still think I need to die.’
‘I do not know the man.’ Salazar’s lip curled. ‘But I cannot say I like him, not from what you’ve told me, nor from what Tom did. Sometimes, you have to do a little evil to serve a greater good. Albus Dumbledore seems to know this well, but he manipulates others into dirtying their hands to keep his clean. Trick him if you can, kill him if you must.’
‘Sounds great,’ Harry quipped. ‘Nice, cheerful summer holiday. Bit of studying, some time with Fleur, a small killing spree, destroying a horcrux, killing the wizard half the country thinks is the most powerful in the world, then tricking the one the other half of the country thinks is the most powerful.’
‘Men who don’t aim high, don’t reach very far.’ Salazar folded his arms. ‘You must also ward this chamber before you leave for the summer. Now Voldemort is revealed, he is much more likely to risk using it to attack the school and Dumbledore.’
‘That sounds like it would probably disturb me studying for my NEWTs.’ Harry frowned. ‘And while I’m pretty good at Transfiguration, Defence and Charms, Potions and Advanced Arithmancy will require a lot of study, especially if I ask to take them early.’
Salazar’s face remained sober. ‘When you come down here to leave for the summer, I’ll show you how to ward the chamber. I’ve had all year to think of how best to do it.’
‘We both know you’ve spent most of the time napping like an old woman in her rocking chair,’ Harry muttered.
‘Don’t mumble, brat!’ Salazar snapped. ‘Now shoo.’ He flapped his hands at Harry. ‘I wish to be alone to think.’
Harry rolled his eyes and traipsed out, sliding his wand from his sleeve. I’ll try out a new spell, then.
‘Contusio,’ he murmured, compressing his magic into a small point just beyond the ebony tip of his wand.
A silver speck of light trailed through the air in front of him as he moved his wand from side to side.
Voldemort managed several, but one’s a good start.
Harry flicked his wrist and sent it sailing across the chamber. The small spark drifted through the air like a glowing ember cast from a bonfire toward the chamber’s wall. A violent flash of bright silver seared at his eyes and an explosion rippled back past him, sending his head spinning and ringing.
He pressed his hands over his ears until the high-pitched whine faded. Well, that’s not what Voldemort did, but I quite like it.
A furious stream of parseltongue echoed from the study.
Time to vacate for a bit. Salazar hates loud distractions when he’s thinking even more than I do. He beat a swift, tiptoed retreat back up the steps toward Myrtle’s Bathroom.
The perpetual puddle spread from wall to wall. Harry sighed and splashed through it.
‘I’m so sorry,’ Myrtle whispered from within her cubicle. ‘I’m so sorry.’
Harry paused by the door and watched the puddle lap at his heels. Myrtle’s silver form drifted out of the cubicle and away into the wall.
No hello? Guess she’s not in a good mood today. He headed through the corridors back to Gryffindor Tower.
Hermione and the other Fifth Years sat around one of the corner tables, reading and playing exploding snap. Katie sprawled across the sofa by the fire. She caught his eye and gave him a wave.
‘Not packing?’ Harry flopped into the cushions beside her.
‘No.’ Katie beamed and pushed her cold feet under Harry’s thigh. ‘I can’t fit everything in my trunk and my shrinking charms won’t last long enough for the journey back, so I’ve given up for now.’
‘You want me to help?’ Harry offered. ‘Mine will last.’
‘If you want, it’ll only take a second, then we can come back down here next to the fire. It’s loud upstairs with everyone packing.’ She jumped up and grabbed his hand, towing him up toward the stairs.
Harry put one foot on the stairs and they shifted into a slide. Katie squeaked and jumped back onto his foot.
‘How inconvenient.’ He slipped out his wand and tugged his foot out from under Katie. ‘If this doesn’t work, you’ll have to do your own packing.’
Hermione huffed and poked her head up over the top of her book. ‘Boys can’t—’
‘Confundus,’ Harry said.
The stairs reverted back to their original form with Harry’s foot still on the first step. A low murmur ran round the common room and Hermione’s book thudded to the table.
‘Someone make a note of how he did that,’ Seamus muttered. ‘That’s got to be the most useful thing we’ve seen all year.’
‘That’s against the rules!’ Hermione cried.
‘What’s he going to do?’ Ron asked. ‘Steal your underwear? Calm down, Hermione.’
‘Have you somehow not heard what his father was like from Padfoot?’ Hermione replied. ‘There won’t be a pair of panties left in Gryffindor Tower by tomorrow.’
Katie giggled and dragged Harry up the rest of the steps.
‘Where is Hermione’s spot?’ Harry asked.
She laughed and led him up to her dormitory. Stacks of quidditch jerseys and other clothes filled her bed halfway from mattress to canopy. A strangled exclamation echoed from the far corner.
‘Sorry, Leanne,’ Katie said. ‘But at least you’re dressed for once.’
Her roommate turned scarlet and fled toward the common room.
‘Now I’ve got room to watch you pack,’ Katie said.
‘I’m going to shrink things.’ Harry sat down in the window. ‘You’re doing all the actual packing.’
She fluttered her eyelashes at him. ‘What if I asked really nicely?’
‘Not even then, Dark Mistress.’ Harry waved his wand at the stacks of clothes and watched them shrink down to about a third of their former height.
‘Fine…’ Katie scooped the piles off the bed and stuffed them into her battered trunk. ‘I hate packing.’
‘You’re terrible at it.’ Harry laughed as something black and lacy fell out of one of the piles. ‘But you do have some nice clothes.’
‘Not one more word.’ Katie growled, flushing bright red and shoving it back out of sight.
‘So who did you buy that for?’ Harry teased.
‘Katie!’ Alicia gaped from the doorway. Two high spots of colour rose on her cheeks.
‘Harry’s helping me pack, Alicia,’ Katie said. ‘I needed him to shrink everything so the spell lasts all the way back to London.’
‘Oh.’ Alicia clapped her mouth shut. ‘I just wanted to ask if you had any room in your trunk for an extra pair of shoes?’
‘Nope.’ Katie tried to force the lid of her trunk down with both hands; it didn’t budge. ‘Couldn’t you have shrunk them a little more, Harry?’ she demanded.
‘And miss out on this?’ Harry grinned. ‘I don’t think so.’
Alicia glanced between them with pursed lips, then turned on her heel and stalked out.
She’s still pissed, then.
Katie pouted. ‘Are you going to help?’
‘I suppose I could.’ Harry got up and put one foot on the trunk so Katie could lock it shut.
‘Thanks.’ She beamed up through a scatter of mahogany hair and sat back on her knees, flushed and panting. ‘Shall we go back down?’ A wicked little glint appeared in her eyes. ‘Or is there something else you’d rather I do now you’ve got me on my knees in front of you, Harry.’
He snorted. ‘I’d like to have my Firebolt back.’
Katie laughed. ‘I’d rather you took the other option. That Firebolt’s fantastic.’
‘Well, in that case we might as well head back down.’ He mussed her hair as she pushed herself to her feet. ‘Don’t look too dishevelled, Katie dearest, let’s not have another article written about us.’
She straightened her robes and smoothed her hair; a little of the pink faded from her cheeks. ‘If anyone believes that your reputation is going to suffer. We’ve only been up here alone for about a minute or two.’
‘You never did tell me who you had in mind when you bought that very fetching underwear?’ Harry asked. ‘Maybe you should be propositioning them instead of me?’
‘And I’m not going to tell you.’ Katie stuck her tongue out. ‘So you can stop picturing me in them.’
A brief flash of her passed through his mind. Snatches of Fleur’s nude body muddled with Katie’s darker hair and eyes, the little bundle of black lace slipping down past her knees. Fleur would look very nice in them. He swallowed down the little flare of desire before it curdled into frustration. It’s going to be a good summer.
‘Lost in thought, Harry?’ Katie giggled. ‘Do I look good in them?’
‘They don’t match the seashell bra,’ Harry replied. ‘It’s very disappointing.’
Katie sighed and bit her lip. ‘I guess in that case I’d just have to take the bra off.’
Harry rolled his eyes. ‘I’m immune to you now.’
She pouted. ‘Only because Frenchie stole your innocence and ruined my fun.’ She folded her arms and stuck her lower lip out a little further. ‘You were supposed to be mine to tease.’
A quiet cheer and a round of applause rose from the boys when they came back down the stairs. Harry laughed and settled back into the sofa with Katie beside him.
‘I think that did more for altering your Dark Lord reputation than anything else,’ she said.
‘No self-respecting Dark Lord spends his time sneaking into girls’ dormitories and bathrooms,’ Harry said.
‘Alicia’s going to give me an earful about that later, though. She wasn’t happy to see us up there together.’
She needs to drop her silly grudge. It’s not our fault Rita Skeeter wrote that stupid article.
‘Want me to say something or do something?’
She waved a hand at him. ‘Don’t worry about it. She’s leaving this year, you won’t have to worry about it anymore.’
‘You will,’ Harry said.
‘It’ll be fine. Now how was your History of Magic exam?’
‘Tedious.’ Harry groaned. ‘I lost all feeling in my hand halfway through the essay. That’s a subject I won’t be missing next year.’
‘That’s the best thing about going from OWLs to NEWTs,’ Katie said. ‘No more Binns. Not that you went to any of his lessons this year, anyway. Have you chosen which ones you want to take?’
‘Similar to yours, actually. Transfiguration, Defence, Charms, Potions and Advanced Arithmancy.’
‘Five’s a lot, especially with Advanced Arithmancy in there. The only thing I hate more than Arithmancy is Slytherin winning at quidditch.’
‘And getting through an entire conversation without some kind of innuendo or lewd comment,’ Harry quipped.
‘You love it,’ Katie retorted. ‘I’m your best friend.’
The portrait swung open and Dennis Creevey bounced across the room wearing a vast grin on his face.
‘Looks like the raven didn’t get him after all,’ Harry muttered. ‘Ah well, there’s always next year.’
‘It got Pansy Parkinson’s wand for a bit, though,’ she said. ‘And a few others, apparently.’
The younger Creevey bounded across to their sofa and began babbling at Harry while staring at him in a rather starstruck manner.
‘Once more please, Dennis?’ Harry asked, ignoring Katie’s giggling.
‘Professor Dumbledore would like to see you,’ Dennis blurted. ‘Professor McGonagall said something about you both enjoying sherbet lemons, but I didn’t really understand.’
‘Thanks, Dennis.’ Harry grimaced and exchanged a brief glance with Katie.
‘He probably just wants to know why you aren’t in the hospital wing this year,’ she suggested. ‘Want me to come, just in case?’
Harry shook his head. ‘I’d better go and find out by myself. If I come back quite late and don’t see you guys before you leave tomorrow, then I hope you have a good summer, Katie dearest. I doubt we’ll be able to exchange letters, but I’m sure we can try and meet up or something.’
‘Why won’t we see you on the train?’ Katie asked.
‘I can apparate,’ Harry whispered.
She shot him a look of pure envy. ‘That means you have no excuse for not coming to see me in the summer. You’ll be able to find me on Diagon Alley easily enough. My parents own one of the cafés on the South side of the alley and I’ll be helping out.’
‘Helping out… in a café… with goblets or cups?’ Harry asked.
She laughed. ‘My cup count is currently at twenty eight. Mum keeps a tally.’
‘I better go, then.’ Harry heaved himself out of the sofa and hurried out through the passage.
Professor McGonagall stood outside with pursed lips and a sherbet lemon caught between her forefinger and thumb. ‘I believe this is for you, Mr Potter.’
‘Thanks, Professor.’ Harry unwrapped the sweet and slipped it in his mouth.
Probably should’ve given it to Gabby. Ah well, I can buy her some from somewhere, I’m sure.
‘You shouldn’t encourage the headmaster to give you muggle sweets, Mr Potter,’ Professor McGonagall chided. ‘They’re very sickly and not at all good for you.’
‘This is the first year I’ve not ended up in the hospital wing.’ Harry grinned. ‘It’s also the first year I’ve accepted a sherbet lemon. Coincidence? I think not, professor.’
McGonagall gave him a long-suffering expression and led him toward the gargoyle. ‘Sometimes, Mr Potter, you act a great deal like your father.’
‘So Snape tells me.’
‘Sherbet lemon.’ Professor McGonagall sighed and gestured at the stairs. ‘I will see you next year, Mr Potter. I’m assured that there’s a very good chance you will be in my class.’
‘I’ll be there,’ Harry said.
But maybe not for as long as everyone else is. He crunched the sherbet lemon and swallowed it down. Not if I can help it.
Harry poked his head through the door to the office. Dumbledore leant back in his chair on the other side of the desk, holding his hand out in supplication to Fawkes, who held the bowl of sherbet lemons hostage in his talons.
‘Harry.’ His eyes twinkled. ‘If you’d be so kind as to bear with me for a moment, Fawkes is experiencing a bout of adolescent rebellion. Sadly, being a phoenix, they come about more frequently than one might hope.’
Fawkes trilled, tilting his head at Dumbledore, then hopped from his perch to replace the bowl on the wrong side of the desk, just out of reach of the seated headmaster.
Dumbledore chuckled. ‘I suppose that will have to do.’
‘What did you wish to speak with me about, sir?’ Harry asked.
‘About the summer.’ Dumbledore eased his chair a few inches closer to the desk.
‘What about it, professor?’ Harry raised his eyebrows. ‘Voldemort?’
‘You know, of course, that you have to return to your relatives to be as safe as we can make you,’ Dumbledore said. ‘I’ve also asked that a couple of the members of the Order take turns making sure you’re still safe.’
That’s how he knew I was apparating around last year. Harry stifled a brief flare of heat. Ah well, let them try and find me. I’ll be in and out before they can stop me.
‘When can they first get there?’ he asked.
‘The day after tomorrow.’ Dumbledore smiled, inching his hand across the smooth desk surface towards the bowl of sherbet lemons.
So there’ll be plenty of time for me to arrive and leave again. Excellent.
‘Who will it be?’ Harry stifled a laugh as Fawkes extended a foot in front of the bowl to impede Dumbledore’s progress.
The old wizard sighed in defeat and looked away from his prized stash of sweets. ‘Nymphadora Tonks, Alastor Moody and Hestia Jones are the three who’ll spend the most time there, Harry. I must ask you to try and make things easy for us by not apparating off anywhere. Voldemort will be much more active now he’s been exposed, and you remain, of course, in the forefront of his mind.’
‘I promise, headmaster,’ Harry said. ‘I’ll stay where I’m safest.’
The Meadow. Behind my wards. Where Voldemort can’t get me. And where you can’t dangle me like a worm on a fishing hook.
‘Excellent, Harry.’ Dumbledore’s hand flashed forward and seized the bowl of sherbet lemons. ‘I know it must be trying for you to endure the company of your relatives. They are not the most affable of people.’
Fawkes let out a low cry of mourning and hopped back onto his perch. Harry got the distinct impression the bird was now sulking.
‘Was that all, Professor?’ Harry asked.
‘Not quite, my boy.’ Dumbledore adjusted several books on his desk, uncovering a familiar looking tome. ‘There’re some more pleasant things I’d like to congratulate you on before you head back home.’
The Secrets of the Darkest Arts. Harry glanced away from it and admired Fawkes’ bright plumage. So he’s been reading about horcruxes, too. Although his version probably doesn’t come with helpful, how-to annotations.
‘So!’ Dumbledore beamed. ‘Professor Tofty, an old associate of mine, and some of his colleagues have been most impressed with your performance in your OWLs. I recall a long, interesting conversation about a large raven you transfigured from a desk stealing the wands of other students before eventually dispersing. Normally, of course, I would frown on such a thing during an exam, but since the fault largely lies with the examiners for not being able to bring themselves to vanish your remarkable piece of magic, I can only congratulate you on your accomplishments. That is well in advance of your studies, Harry. You’re going to be remembered as a great wizard one day.’
Remembered. Harry swallowed a lick of heat and pretended no cold fist clenched in his chest. Remembered for my noble sacrifice, no doubt.
‘Thank you, sir.’
‘I remember performing a similar feat back in my youth. I transfigured a particularly attractive, Chippendale-style chair into a swan. My professor was very impressed, but only up until the moment my creation broke his arm. I had, of course, not accounted for the aggressive nature of the bird.’
‘Did you get full marks, sir?’ Harry asked.
‘I did. I also received a string of detentions with the Alchemy Professor. I imagine your raven’s spate of wand theft will have equally little effect upon your grade, Harry.’ Professor Dumbledore steepled his fingers and peered over them at Harry with sharp, bright blue eyes. ‘My interest in your skill with Transfiguration is slightly selfish, I’m afraid. Professor McGonagall has been pressing me heavily to assist her with a personal project of hers for some years, but, alas, I never seem to have the time.’
Harry laughed. ‘I don’t think I’d be a suitable replacement for you, professor.’
‘Have faith in yourself, Harry,’ Dumbledore murmured. ‘You’re a very powerful wizard. Professor McGonagall has requested my help in her study of her subject not because my skill is any greater than her own, but because she needs a wizard or witch capable of sustaining partial, human transfiguration for a long time that she can then study.’
‘I’m only an OWL student, sir.’ Harry shrugged. ‘Surely another professor or a seventh year student would be preferable to her.’
‘Your modesty is admirable, Harry, but you’ve already accomplished magic the vast majority of witches and wizards can only dream of. You performed an innovative feat of self-transfiguration last year for the Triwizard Tournament, something I understand Madam Pomfrey was quite horrified by, and I’m sure you would find Professor McGonagall’s assistance with any interests in the field quite useful yourself.’ A twinkle appeared in Dumbledore’s eyes. ‘No doubt the notion of following in your father’s and Sirius’ examples has occurred to you, my boy.’
‘Becoming an animagus,’ Harry mused.
That could be useful. That could be very useful. Harry allowed a flash of Fleur in the sun to pass before the eye of his mind. Even if it’s just for afterward.
‘It is quite the useful talent,’ Dumbledore said. ‘My brother, Aberforth, is more adept at it than I and takes the form of a quite spectacular billy goat.’
‘Do you have a form, professor?’ Harry enquired.
‘For all my skill at the subject, I’ve never found the inclination or need to master it. It is no small project, as those who have undertaken it will tell you.’ He selected a lemon sherbet, unwrapped it with a deft twist, and dropped it onto his tongue. The sweet clicked against his teeth as he wiggled his jaw around. ‘Would you be amenable to the idea, Harry?’
There’s no good reason to refuse, not without raising suspicion. It doesn’t seem like much of a trap, either. He weighed it up. And if I say yes, maybe it’ll be a good moment to ask about my NEWTs.
‘I suppose I might be,’ Harry said. ‘I have a request of my own, actually.’
‘Oh.’ Dumbledore leant forward. ‘Well, you’re more than welcome to another sherbet lemon, Harry.’
‘I was actually hoping to be able to take some of my NEWTs early, professor,’ Harry said. ‘I find myself quite advanced already and still with a whole summer to spend studying.’
‘It’s not unknown, but it does depend on your results, my boy. Anything less than an outstanding and it would not be encouraged by the faculty. Which subjects were you considering?’
‘Transfiguration, Charms, Defence, Potions, and Advanced Arithmancy, sir.’
‘I have heard, from Professor Flitwick and Professor McGonagall, that you are casting and have been casting some NEWT level spells since your fourth year, non-verbally as well.’ Dumbledore ran a hand along the upper length of his beard, smoothing the silver hairs. ‘Defence Against the Dark Arts has always been your best subject, too, but Professor Snape has never intimated any precocious gift for potions, and Professor Vector rarely lets any student take an exam early.’
‘Is that a no, sir?’ Harry asked.
‘Quite the opposite.’ Dumbledore pulled his fingers from his beard. ‘I think it’s a splendid idea, provided, of course, you can study hard over the summer, but you will need written permission from each teacher for their subject. How early would you like to take them?’
‘As early as possible,’ Harry said.
Fleur did it. I can do it. Maybe I’ll even beat her. That ought to make her pout.
‘Next January?’ Dumbledore’s fingers stilled. ‘That is an ambitious undertaking, Harry.’
‘The sorting hat did want to put me in Slytherin,’ Harry murmured.
‘A test, then,’ Dumbledore declared. ‘I haven’t done any teaching in some time and I daresay I could use the practice to keep in touch.’ He reached into the bowl and drew out another sherbet lemon, placing it on the desk between them. ‘I would like you to transfigure this into the most complex thing you can think of.’
Harry stared at the sweet. Small, inanimate, and technically food. He flicked his wand into his palm and transfigured the sherbet lemon into a real, smooth-skinned citrus fruit the size of his palm.
‘Very good.’ Dumbledore transfigured it back into a sweet and dropped it into the bowl. ‘You chose something difficult, but obtainable. I shall assume you have put the same amount of thought into this choice to take your exams early and allow you to take them early, provided you have that written consent from the teacher of each subject I mentioned before.’
Smart test. A chill trickled down Harry’s spine. And I missed it completely.
‘Was that all, Harry?’ Dumbledore asked. ‘It’s getting late, and while I assume you will be making the most of your ability to apparate, you will still have to get up early to say goodbye to your friends.’
Harry allowed himself a small smile and pictured Privet Drive fading into the distance. ‘I do have a fair few goodbyes to say, I suppose.’