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Harry watched Snape drift about within his office holding a glass of blackberry wine and tucked Dumbledore’s note into his pocket. A cauldron spilt thick, white mist over the bench at the back of the office, giving off a thick tang of juniper.
He dances between Voldemort and Dumbledore so well they both think he’s their man. Harry stacked the books Snape had leant him onto the bench. And now here he is helping me. But he’s no more loyal to me than them.
A web of threads tightened around him in the eye of his mind. The classroom walls closed in until his breath caught.
I need to get out of here. Before Dumbledore, or Snape, or Voldemort, or someone manages to catch me and keep me from Fleur.
‘You’re still here,’ Snape drawled. ‘I expected you to go to the headmaster immediately.’
‘I will in a moment,’ Harry said. ‘I was curious about the Dark Mark.’
‘I presume you want to know how it works?’ Snape bared his left forearm.
‘I do.’ Harry leant close, pressing the tip of his wand into it.
The Dark Mark squirmed, the snake writhing through the skull, tongue flickering, scales rippling, and fangs agape. Snape hissed and snatched his arm back. Pure fury flashed in his dark eyes, then his face turned hard and unreadable.
‘How curious,’ Harry mused, slipping his wand back into his sleeve.
‘It allows the Dark Lord to summon us, giving us a glimpse of his location so we might apparate to his side, but it also symbolises an oath of fealty to him, a magical promise.’ Snape pulled his sleeve back down. ‘I studied it in great detail. As long as I still serve him and carry out his commands, then I haven’t broken it, even if I serve another, or myself, as well.’
‘What happens if you break it?’ Harry asked.
‘It was made by the Dark Lord, Harry,’ Snape drawled. ‘He is not known for mercy, nor compassion, what do you think happens if he learns I have?’
You can’t repeat your mistakes. If you can’t trust them, you shouldn’t wait around to be stabbed in the back.
‘Death.’ Snape sipped his wine. ‘I have to carefully avoid any commands that might clash with Dumbledore’s goals. Fortunately, as the Dark Lord believes I am his spy, he gives me some leeway.’
‘What happens if you are given an order?’
‘I must carry it out, no matter the command. Of course, I tell Dumbledore first, and he decides if I ought to obey completely or try to… re-interpret it.’
So that’s what happened with Katie. Voldemort commanded. Harry smothered the ball of ice tightening in his chest. And Dumbledore decided she wasn’t worth saving.
‘I have a little leeway,’ Snape said. ‘I can interpret his orders in a certain way, but sometimes things are simply black and white, or yes or no.’
‘Perhaps you should forget to learn the addresses of the students in future,’ Harry suggested.
Snape’s eyes jerked up from his goblet.
Harry held his gaze. ‘I imagine that there’re those who are less understanding of your situation, particularly if someone they cared about was hurt, or killed, because you gave away a location for Voldemort to attack.’
‘If I said I was sorry, it wouldn’t change anything.’
Pure apathy. How many others has he given up to die? Did he stop caring after he did it to my parents? Or did it take longer?
‘No, I don’t suppose it would,’ Harry murmured.
‘Number fourteen, South Street, Diagon Alley,’ Snape muttered.
Katie’s address. Harry forced his fury down.
‘That would be a good address to forget,’ he said.
‘The Dark Lord knows it now,’ Snape said. ‘It would be best if Katherine Bell does not return there. He is insistent that she be taken from you, though I am unsure as to why she is so important.’
Because he knows we’re similar. The horcrux in the diary knew it too. Harry pushed the books back across the desk with a faint smile. And he wants to see what will happen. For whatever reason, he sacrificed everything. He wants to see if I will. He wants to see what I’ll become when there’re no dreams left.
‘I should go see the headmaster,’ Harry said.
‘I suspect he has many important things to tell you,’ Snape replied.
Does he? Harry hurried through the halls, skirting a pair of ghosts. Did he find a horcrux over the summer while he was off hunting? A small smile spread over his lips. If he has, then Fleur and I are only a couple of steps away from our sunset. And the next time Voldemort’s Killing Curse reflects off a baby will be his last.
A quiet shuffle echoed from the corridor behind him. Harry whirled, wand in hand, and tongue taut with incantations.
Hermione crept from the shadows, pale-faced, with burst veins in her eyes and deep bags beneath them. Her gaze fixed itself on the tip of his wand and she chewed at her lip.
She’s really not sleeping well. A faint pang of pity bit at him. Bad dreams are nothing compared to having all your hopes torn away. She’ll be fine.
‘What are you doing out of Gryffindor Tower at this time?’ Harry asked, tucking his wand away.
Hermione sagged. ‘I could ask you the same thing,’ she said. ‘I’m a prefect—’ she tapped the red and gold badge ‘—you’re not.’
‘And I would tell you that I have been talking with Snape, who told me that I should go and see Professor Dumbledore immediately.’ He studied her expression. ‘I suspect, from the way you were creeping around, that you’re not on patrol.’
‘I was following Malfoy,’ Hermione muttered. ‘Ron reckons he’s seen him clutching his arm a couple of times, so when I saw him slinking about in the evening, I decided to keep an eye on him. I caught sight of you afterward.’
‘And you decided to follow me instead of Malfoy?’
‘I was about to ask you what you were doing out of the tower,’ Hermione retorted. ‘But you caught me by surprise before I could.’
‘Any idea what Malfoy was doing?’ Harry asked. ‘If he’s rubbing his forearm…’
‘He was skulking around the potions labs and Professor Slughorn’s office.’ Hermione bit her lip. ‘I think he was looking for the rest of the felix felicis.’
‘There are a lot of poisonous things down there,’ Harry said. ‘He’s probably going to end up poisoning himself.’
Hermione smiled and for a brief instant the dark bruises beneath her eyes seemed to lighten. ‘I can’t be too careful, though,’ she muttered. ‘What if he really is a Death Eater and up to something?’
‘He’s our age and fairly useless.’ Harry shrugged. ‘If Voldemort’s given him something to do, it’s more than likely he’s meant to be passing information on Dumbledore or me. Worrying about having to hurt him because he’s secretly an assassin for Voldemort is a bit paranoid.’
‘It’s only paranoia if I’m wrong,’ Hermione snapped.
‘You’ve been wrong before,’ Harry said. ‘I remember it quite well.’
She flinched. ‘I wasn’t wrong.’ Hermione crossed her arms. ‘I just made a mistake.’
‘Well, try not to make another one,’ he suggested. ‘Murdering Malfoy because you thought him stealing potions ingredients was part of some plot to assassinate Dumbledore isn’t going to look good on your Head Girl application.’
Hermione huffed and balled her fists. ‘I’m not going to murder anyone! You can’t joke about things like that.’
‘Sounds like something a murderer would say,’ Harry quipped.
She whirled on her heel and stalked off, muttering under her breath.
He listened to her footsteps fade, then continued on his way toward the gargoyle. ‘Sherbet Lemon,’ he commanded.
The gargoyle stepped aside to reveal the small, spiral stairs. Harry took a deep breath, clearing his thoughts, then made his way up.
‘Come in, Harry,’ Dumbledore called.
‘Professor Dumbledore.’ He dipped his head, crossing the room to stand next to a trilling Fawkes.
‘Take a seat.’ Dumbledore conjured a comfortable-looking armchair behind him and peered at him over steepled, bright-coloured, gloved fingers. ‘We have much to discuss.’
‘We always seem to,’ Harry replied.
‘How was your summer, Harry?’
‘Liberating.’ Harry’s lips twitched as he fought to keep the smile from his face.
‘We were most concerned about you, Harry,’ Dumbledore chided. ‘You promised to stay where you were safest, then you vanished at a time when you must’ve known what we would’ve fear.’
‘I kept my promise, sir. I spent the summer where I was safest.’
‘Your aunt and uncle, while not the most pleasant or polite of people, were of your blood, and the wards there kept you far safer than anything else you might find.’
‘Even the Fidelius?’ Harry asked.
‘You can cast it?’ Dumbledore’s eyes twinkled. ‘That is most impressive. Very few would be able to cast such a piece of magic at your age.’ His bright blue eyes sharpened. ‘Or even, perhaps, were they a couple of years older.’
No doubt the Weasleys went running right to him.
‘No,’ Harry admitted.
‘Miss Delacour, then.’
Harry nodded, not trusting his tongue.
‘I can understand your actions, Harry, but I fear you’ve not fully thought through the consequences of them.’
‘I disagree, sir.’
‘Allow me to elucidate.’ Dumbledore placed his palms flat upon the desk.
You can try. Harry studied the rainbow-patterned stripes on the gloves. But nothing you say or do will ever make me want to leave Fleur for so much as a second.
‘Your aunt and uncle, while no doubt happier without you, or any memory of magic—’ the twinkle faded from Dumbledore’s eyes ‘—were safe only as long as Tom never targeted them. I suspect he will not, since you are neither very fond of them, nor will they know anything useful, but it is hard to be certain.’
‘I don’t think he even knows they exist, sir,’ Harry replied. ‘If someone had let slip my location, then he would’ve surely tried to get to me during the summer. Blood wards tied to my mother’s magic feel like a very flimsy shield after watching him use my blood to resurrect himself.’
‘Perhaps, though I would be inclined to trust in the power of your mother’s love, Harry,’ Dumbledore said, running a gloved hand through his beard. ‘Your decision to vanish, however, was most ill-advised, even if spending the summer in the company of Miss Delacour must have seemed irresistible.’
I’ve never been happier. Harry smothered his rage. Of course you don’t like the idea. How inconvenient for your sacrifice to finally find something to live for.
‘She is a lot more attractive than Dudley,’ he said.
‘True as that may be, Harry, there are few protections that Tom cannot penetrate, for, despite his many failings, he remains a brilliant wizard.’
‘He can’t penetrate what he can’t find,’ Harry said. ‘And should he have found us, we would be gone long before he passed through the rest of our wards.’
‘There was more than the Fidelius Charm?’ Dumbledore leant forward, his eyes rapier sharp.
‘Of course. I know better than most that the Fidelius is not foolproof.’
‘Miss Delacour is supremely talented. It’s not often that we’re able to find someone so well matched to ourselves.’
Perfect. As she always is. A little smile crept onto his lips. And doesn’t she know it.
Harry cocked his head and admired Fawkes’ plumage. ‘Voldemort couldn’t have found us without finding our secret keeper, nor could he have penetrated our wards without alerting us in time for us to escape, we were quite safe.’
‘It is your choice of secret keeper that concerns me, Harry,’ Dumbledore said. ‘Sirius may be your godfather, but he can be quite rash. I would prefer it, since you seem set on staying there, that you allowed me to keep your secret instead. I let your parents choose Sirius, and then secretly Peter Pettigrew, but I have no wish to see the past repeat itself if I can avoid it.’
Unless it involves another person sacrificing their life to destroy Voldemort.
‘Sirius almost never leaves the headquarters of the Order, which are also under the Fidelius, making him almost the ideal secret keeper,’ Harry said. ‘However, I suspect now the tide of war is turning against us, that you can’t afford to keep him hidden. You’ll need every able wand when Voldemort finally storms Azkaban.’
‘He is not your secret keeper, is he?’ Dumbledore murmured.
Merde. Harry bit his tongue.
‘No, he isn’t.’
‘Am I able to persuade you that I will make a more cautious choice of secret keeper?’ Dumbledore asked.
‘I’m afraid not, sir,’ Harry said. ‘You’re a target for Voldemort and his followers. Should you die, my protections will unravel. The current secret keeper will never even have to witness the war; their connection to me isn’t even known by most.’
‘I shall have to hope that you are right, Harry,’ Dumbledore said. ‘I daresay I will find you equally adamant on remaining in the company of the charming Miss Delacour, so I will keep my concerns about her safety at your side to myself.’
‘Wise of you,’ Harry muttered.
Although no doubt you will attempt to drive a wedge between your sacrifice and anything not entirely selfless.
‘Alas, wisdom is one of the few benefits of age.’ Dumbledore sighed, removing the left glove to reveal a slender band of gold set with a dark stone. ‘Yet it is one I have ignored all too frequently.’ He removed the right glove, revealing shrivelled, blackened flesh that’d retreated back to the bone, leaving veins and tendons prominent beneath stretched, thin skin.
The withering curse. Mid-stage. How is he alive?
‘What happened?’ he asked.
‘You’re aware of the curse I have contracted, I believe,’ Dumbledore chided.
‘I meant how did you contract it?’
‘Ah, a moment of rashness on my part.’ Dumbledore adjusted his glasses with his uninjured hand. ‘Tell me, Harry, have you ever wondered just how Tom survived the reflected Killing Curse on that night all those years ago?’
‘The question had crossed my mind,’ Harry said.
So it’s finally time. Is he just going to tell me they exist, or does he hope telling me that I’m a horcrux will rip me from Fleur and convince me to sacrifice myself for all these selfish little people.
‘Allow me to explain the mystery, then.’ Dumbledore stroked Fawkes with his left hand, burying his fingers in the phoenix’s splendid plumage. ‘There’s a branch of magic known as soul magic that either relies on the concept, or actually interacts with, the soul of a being.’
‘The Killing Curse,’ Harry said.
‘Yes, that is a product of this branch of magic.’ Dumbledore’s lips thinned. ‘While relying on the concept has produced many fine and useful pieces of magic, interacting with the soul directly has produced very few spells that should be remembered.’
All the best bits of magic are abstract magic. Harry studied the books over Dumbledore’s shoulder. I wonder if he knows something Salazar and I didn’t work out?
‘Sorry, sir, but what exactly is a soul?’ he asked.
‘Ah.’ Dumbledore beamed. ‘A very good question. The soul is not something we have ever been able to quantify with any certainty. It is considered, by those who study the deepest, more complex mysteries of magic, to be a sort of fusion of sentience and purpose, fuelled by our magic. Regardless of its exact nature, it seems that it’s essential for true life. The Killing Curse tears it from the body of its victim and the Dementor’s kiss steals all but the faintest imprint of it.’
‘If the Killing Curse tears away the soul. How did Voldemort survive?’
‘The short answer is that he did not, not truly.’ Dumbledore sighed. ‘The magic of your mother’s sacrifice was stronger than anything I’ve seen before or since. There was nothing left of Voldemort in that room. His body was utterly destroyed. His spirit, however, his soul, endured. This is a complex topic, Harry, but I will attempt to summarise it as succinctly as I am able. A soul torn from a body cannot survive without some form of an anchor, like a word spoken into the wind, it will swiftly be scattered by the emotion and intent in the magic around it.’ He steepled his fingers, matching withered dead fingertips with wrinkled live ones. ‘Ghosts are, by my estimation, souls magically anchored by strong regret in the moment of their death. This is a strong emotion, enough to anchor them, but regret is a weak purpose, so often little more than a powerless imprint remains.’
‘Voldemort’s definitely not a ghost.’
‘Indeed he is not. There’s a particularly dark piece of magic capable of fragmenting a wizard or witch’s soul, in a sense, then binding it to something. While that artefact exists, the soul, the sentience and purpose of that individual, remains strongly tethered to this world. I must admit, Harry, that I am hypothesising here, but I suspect the precious nature of the artefact used and the intention of the magic required to create it results in such a strong anchor that the caster may find a way to return.’
‘So Voldemort has one of these objects,’ Harry said.
‘More than one, I believe.’ Dumbledore slid open the drawer to his desk and placed the battered, fang-riven form of the diary upon its smooth surface. ‘The memory of Tom Riddle you destroyed in your second year was likely far more than a memory.’
‘You knew? You knew what this was and you didn’t tell me?’
‘You were twelve, Harry, would you have understood?’ Dumbledore’s shoulders sagged. ‘Did I even have the right to make you understand at that age?’
‘I certainly would have been old enough to understand before now,’ Harry retorted.
‘It is dangerous knowledge,’ Dumbledore murmured. ‘Professor Slughorn has returned to this school to escape Tom, whom he realises will not let him live knowing the secret of his immortality.’
‘I suspect he will not let me live, either. He seems rather intent on me dying.’
‘There’re worse things than death, Harry.’ A gentle smile hovered beneath Dumbledore’s bright blue eyes. ‘It terrifies the young, who instinctively assume they have many years to come, but it’s no more than peaceful sleep.’
No. You don’t know that. Harry stifled a twist of emotion as it writhed in his gut. It could be endless emptiness, a hungry, hollow void. And even if it’s not, it’s a thief, come to steal us from our dreams, or our dreams from us.
‘This diary is not the only such object, or horcrux, I have encountered.’ Dumbledore rested his finger upon the dark stone set in his ring. ‘This ring was an heirloom of the family from whom Tom is descended and that heritage is something he places great value on.’
‘So it has a piece of his soul in it?’ Harry eyed it and hid a smile. ‘Is it safe?’
It seems very tame compared to the diadem or the diary. His gaze dropped to Dumbledore’s withered hand. Unless that curse is the price Dumbledore paid for destroying it.
‘Not anymore,’ Dumbledore said.
‘So he’s mortal now.’
The diary. The diadem. The ring. A brief flare of triumph rose within him. He is mortal.
‘I suspect Tom may have made more. He’d quite an interest in many fields of magic. I suspect, given the nature of those, that he intended to create a ritual from all the pieces of magic cast to create horcruxes, and thus made a specific number of them.’ Dumbledore slipped his gloves back on. ‘I think that is enough on this particular topic for now, Harry. If you wish, and I would certainly encourage it, you may join me to learn more about Tom. I have collected a series of memories from those who have encountered him, gradually piecing together the story of his life. I hope to use them to locate and destroy his horcruxes, but I may have need of your assistance.’
‘Do you really think a few memories will provide the locations?’ Harry asked.
‘I have spent thirteen years searching for these specific memories, Harry,’ Dumbledore said. ‘And I found many more beside them. They are not passing recollections, but ones of great relevance and import. For all his brilliance, Tom never truly shed the impulses and desires of the ambitious, dangerous boy I met almost half a century ago. His hubris will not allow him to place his horcruxes in locations that don’t hold great meaning to him.’
Of course. The quiet of the Chamber of Secrets, the willow tree beside the river in France, and Fleur’s smile hovered in Harry’s thoughts. Something that precious can’t be entrusted to just anywhere.
‘I would be happy to assist you,’ Harry said. ‘They need to be destroyed.’
‘Thank you, Harry.’ Dumbledore rummaged through his bowl of sweets and slipped a pear drop into his mouth. ‘Now, onto more cheerful things, I have heard from Professor McGonagall that you make a handsome raven?’
‘Only very briefly,’ Harry said. ‘I managed to transfigure myself into a raven, as the most fitting form, but it was no animagus transformation. I was the raven, but the raven was not me.’
‘An interesting way of putting it. It takes a great deal of thought and effort to truly have the raven become you, as you so eloquently put it.’
‘You aren’t an animagus, are you?’ Harry asked.
‘No, though Aberforth, my brother, insists that I will be a particularly feminine sphinx. It has to do with my penchant for speaking in riddles, I believe.’
Harry chuckled, then remembered the sphinx in the maze and fell quiet. ‘Is it possible to take the form of a magical creature?’
‘No.’ Dumbledore shook his head. ‘While there are magical animals that may suit our characters, most magical creatures possess qualities that humans do not. Frequently, they’re capable of natural forms of alchemy, Fawkes’ rebirth is such a thing, and thus are never similar enough to be an animagus’ form.’
Harry relaxed. At least the sphinx isn’t something sinister, then.
‘I must admit, Harry, that I actually do know the form best suited to me.’ Dumbledore smiled and Fawkes trilled with amusement. ‘You must promise to never tell my brother, but were I to ever attempt to become an animagus, I would become a most handsome bumblebee.’
Harry blinked. Dumbledore caught his eyes and fragmented images of a large bee with stripes of yellow so bright it seemed almost white, flitted through his thoughts.
‘A very handsome bee,’ Harry said, breaking the connection between their thoughts. ‘And I promise not to tell your brother, either.’
‘Thank you, Harry. Aberforth would never let me hear the end of it. He likes to ensure that, despite my not so modest accomplishments, my feet remain firmly on the ground. I suppose that it is a good thing he continues to remind me of my mistakes, I daresay I might have made more had he not.’
You made enough as it is. Harry flinched from the chime of the clock behind him and Fawkes twitched upon his perch.
Dumbledore glanced over Harry’s shoulder. ‘Ah, it’s grown later than I thought, Harry. You should be off to bed, if not for your sake, then for mine. You will find, when you are as old as I am, that you will need a great deal of sleep.’
Only, you don’t intend for me to get much older than I already am, do you? Harry buried the thought and the tangle of feeling behind a faint smile.
‘Goodnight, sir,’ he said.