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Soft, sour fumes drifted across the room over plush velvet chairs and the frenzied efforts of the class. Slughorn trundled between the cauldrons, peering into each one and snacking on crystallised lime pieces.
Harry stoppered his flask and tidied his things away, making sure to clean every trace of today’s ingredients off.
‘Excellent, Hermione!’ Slughorn squeezed his belly past her cauldron and Ron’s. ‘Exemplary work! Everyone here could learn a thing or two from you—’ he chuckled ‘—well, everyone except Harry, of course.’
‘Thank you, sir.’ Hermione’s eyes flicked to Harry, then she snapped shut her tattered tome and stuffed it into her bag.
She’s still using that battered back-up book instead of getting herself a nice new one… Harry trailed her to the front and set his own flask down next to hers on Slughorn’s desk. And all the tweaks she’s making this year are very similar to the ones I’m coming up with, which she definitely wasn’t doing last year.
Hermione studied his. ‘Nearly identical.’ She sniffed. ‘If anything, mine’s slightly better.’
‘Joint top of the year.’ Harry sighed. ‘Such a catastrophe. Although, I’ll admit Slughorn seems to be favouring me a fraction when we’re neck and neck. My mother, probably.’
Hermione nodded and followed him back to their table. ‘At least you can admit you’re getting all the marginal calls in your favour. I’m surprised you know how to do everything you’re doing.’
‘I had a little bit of outside help to make sure I can take this subject early with the other three NEWTs.’ He glanced at her bag. ‘Speaking of which, you don’t mind me looking at your Potions textbook, do you? You never used to do anything but follow the rules of the recipe, now suddenly here you are experimenting away…’
‘Get your own,’ she said.
‘But mine’s in my bag.’
‘I’ll steal it,’ Harry said. ‘In the night, I’ll come up to your dormitory and take it. And if you make me stoop to that level, I may as well steal every pair of panties in the tower, just to continue my father’s legacy.’
‘Fine.’ Hermione sighed. ‘It has a few annotations, they’re useful, but I don’t know who wrote them.’ She extracted the book from her bag and flicked through the pages, then thrust it under his nose. ‘See.’
A familiar cramped, slanted script filled the margins.
She has the same assistance I do.
‘Mystery solved,’ Harry said. ‘I was curious.’
‘Just curious?’ Hermione narrowed her eyes. ‘You’re never just curious. You have a motive for everything you do.’
‘You make me sound like some storybook villain, Hermione.’
‘Life’s not a story,’ she muttered.
‘That book belonged to our former professor of this subject when he was younger,’ Harry said. ‘The handwriting is the exact same as his.’
‘Snape?’ Hermione gasped and stuffed the book back into her bag like it was Class A contraband. ‘Really?’
‘Yeah, be careful with anything you read. He may be a member of the Order now, but he’s always loved the Dark Arts and we both know how dangerous blindly believing what a book says can be.’ He caught her gaze. ‘If you’ve forgotten, just ask Ginny.’
‘I know.’ Hermione scowled and the bags under her eyes darkened. ‘Snape goes on about the Dark Arts as if he were in love. Parvati’s started having nightmares about her sister becoming an inferius and strangling her. She’s in the bed next to mine and she wakes me up when she does.’ She shuddered. ‘I’ve never seen Parvati look so terrified.’
‘He’s not wrong though,’ Harry murmured as they left the lab. ‘The things the Ministry classifies as dark are often powerful, it’s better Parvati know how to destroy an inferius and lose a little sleep than get ripped apart by one.’
Hermione’s frown deepened. ‘They’re illegal for a reason. Snape makes them look attractive to students like Malfoy who have few morals and too much ambition.’
‘He’s a lost cause already,’ Harry said. ‘You saw how he was stealing around again while we were at Slughorn’s party? I doubt he was intending to gate-crash when Filch found him.’
‘I did. He seems particularly hateful of you, now.’
I killed one of his friends and stood alongside Sirius when he scarred his father.
‘He’s always disliked me,’ Harry said. ‘He has no spine, though. He’s not going to do anything unless his own life’s on the line, and even then he’d probably just make a mess of it.’
‘Draco.’ Snape’s soft whisper echoed down the corridor.
Harry glanced in the reflection of the window and caught a glimpse of Malfoy being half-dragged into an empty classroom. Interesting.
‘I’ll see you later, Hermione.’
She caught his arm. ‘Stop avoiding Katie.’
He tugged himself free. ‘Stop involving yourself in things you’re not invited to be involved in.’
Hermione huffed and stalked off. Harry disillusioned himself and slipped into the back of the empty classroom.
‘What do you think you’re doing?’ Snape hissed, pinning Malfoy against the wall by his shoulder. ‘You know the task that the Dark Lord has given you. Stick to it!’
‘This is the only way I’ll survive carrying it out,’ Malfoy spat. ‘He murdered Theo. He’s probably the one who maimed my father. He’ll curse me again without hesitation.’
‘It was Sirius Black who charred your father’s face.’ Snape sneered. ‘Petty revenge will get you killed. The Dark Lord may not have commanded his followers to leave Potter be, but that’s simply because he believes them incapable of killing him. If his followers are foolish enough to hurl themselves at Potter, then the Dark Lord is just curious as to what Potter will do.’
‘Potter isn’t that powerful.’
‘Barty Crouch Junior. Peter Pettigrew. Bertha Jorkins. Bellatrix Lestrange. Avery. Yaxley. Macnair. Jugson. Theodore Nott. Nott Senior.’
He knows about almost all of them. And he’s perfectly placed to tell Dumbledore and Riddle about anything I do in the future. Harry balled his fists and swallowed a stab of panic. He has to go. He’s too dangerous. The second Dumbledore realises I’ve no intention of dying to save everyone, he’ll kill me to get rid of the horcrux, and Snape can convince him at any moment.
Malfoy shook his head. ‘I don’t believe you.’
‘The Dark Lord has attributed those losses to Potter himself.’ Snape’s lips curled. ‘Disagree with him at your own risk.’
‘Then the Dark Lord is wrong!’
Snape tutted. ‘Do you really think so? You’re being foolish, both in not believing what is plain to see and in drawing attention to yourself. Complete the task the Dark Lord has given you and remain safe at Hogwarts for the rest of the war.’
‘Like you care whether I am safe or not,’ Malfoy muttered. ‘I know about the oath you gave my mother. You just want me to be successful so you don’t have to follow through on your Unbreakable Vow and risk your own skin.’
‘Be quiet,’ Snape hissed. ‘You petulant, arrogant infant. You know nothing about what you speak and clearly very little about what you’re doing.’ His black eyes burnt with rage. ‘I am trying to keep you alive and antagonising Potter is a very very stupid thing to do.’
Malfoy cowered. ‘If he’s so powerful and dangerous why doesn’t the Dark Lord do something about him?’
‘Potter hides his true nature from Dumbledore. He will move directly against the Dark Lord and drop the act he so convincingly wields the moment the headmaster is gone. Albus Dumbledore is the only one Potter believes himself outmatched by on their side.’
‘Then he is as arrogant as always,’ Malfoy spat.
‘Is he?’ Snape frowned. ‘You’ve fed him enough aconite to kill half the school and he hasn’t even noticed. Those Death Eaters he killed; they didn’t die in their sleep and nor were they killed from behind. Your aunt was a formidable duellist, despite her madness and the effects of fifteen years imprisonment in Azkaban, and she was pulled out of that fountain the same day Potter was walking around school without a scratch on him.’
Aconite. Cold shock coursed through his veins. I’m immune, but anyone nearby could’ve died. Katie…
‘Maybe he has noticed, then.’ Malfoy swallowed hard. ‘Do you think he has?’
‘You would already be dead,’ Snape murmured. ‘Potter does not seem to play with his food like some of our foolish allies, especially not those who endanger his friends. If he knows, then he’s saving you for something worth risking his life for. That would worry me far more than the alternative.’
‘You speak about him the same way you talk about Dumbledore, and the Dark Lord,’ Malfoy whispered.
‘Occasionally, a wizard is born with the potential to be more than great,’ Snape said. ‘You are a strong wizard for your age, as am I, but the Dark Lord, Dumbledore, and Potter are all a little bit beyond the rest of us. Potter is very young and already formidable. He is the weakest of the three, it’s true, but also the most dangerous. Dumbledore and the Dark Lord have clear goals and ideologies. They’re predictable to a certain extent. Dumbledore is a champion of his Greater Good — a purer form of the philosophy Grindelwald once advocated. The Dark Lord seeks dominion, obedience, and recognition, because he believes himself the strongest. Potter… Potter has no objectives I’ve been able to glean. He is ruthless, cunning, powerful, and unpredictable. Stop baiting him, before you get us both killed.’
He lied. Harry frowned. He must know. He’s seen my patronus. He’s heard about Fleur. Other wizards might not understand, but he would. He loved my mother just the same.
A bitter laugh burst from Malfoy’s lips. ‘It will just be me who dies. My father’s connections in the Ministry are cut and those outside it are in direct contact with the Dark Lord, our wealth is useless now Gringotts have frozen our vaults, and my mother is not a fighter. I am the only useful Malfoy remaining and this is my family’s punishment for failing the Dark Lord.’
‘If you’re cunning, nobody will suspect you, and you will escape notice, remaining safe here when Potter leaves these walls to openly oppose the Dark Lord,’ Snape replied.
‘I am already being watched,’ Malfoy said. ‘The mudblood Granger is watching me as often as she is Potter.’
‘Do not use that word,’ Snape spat. ‘The Dark Lord despises muggles, not muggleborns, power is power, and magic is magic, no matter the source.’
‘Purebloods have more magic, and more power,’ Malfoy retorted.
‘Go,’ Snape ordered. ‘Do what you’ve been ordered to do, and stop drawing attention to yourself and your task if you want to live.’
‘Our task,’ Malfoy shot over his shoulder. ‘Don’t forget your vow, professor.’
‘Childish little brat.’ Snape’s fingers curled into fists and he ground his teeth. ‘Even if he succeeds, it needs to be without the faintest hint of suspicion.’
Malfoy always fails. Once he has failed enough times Snape can’t convince himself he’ll succeed, he’ll be forced to try himself because of his vow. Snape isn’t an idiot. He won’t care about the harm he does to others. He’ll succeed.
He slipped from the room and hurried toward Snape’s office. I need to know what Malfoy’s task is. But if Snape knows, then Dumbledore likely knows.
Harry paused before the door. ‘Best not to go in without my cloak,’ he murmured. ‘There’ll be wards.’
Aconite. He summoned one of the glass goblets and tucked it under his arm, then rummaged through the store cupboard. Aconite, aconite, aconite. Harry scooped enough aconite to kill a hippogriff into the goblet, sealing it shut with a piece of paper and sticking charm, then wedged it into his bag. If I have to, I can get rid of Snape, pin it on Malfoy, then wait for Dumbledore to run out of that potion. Perfect.
Harry strode through the corridors, pausing to release his disillusionment, then slipped into Myrtle’s Bathroom.
‘The faintest imprint of a soul. Anchored by regret.’ He caught the eye of his reflection in the mirror and recalled Myrtle’s fading. ‘Did she stop regretting?’
It doesn’t matter. Harry slipped down the steps into the Chamber of Secrets and dropped his bag on the desk in the study. I need to speak to Fleur.
He whirled the world back past him until he was stepping into the kitchen at the Meadow. A slim pair of arms threw themselves around him and the faint, sweet scent of marzipan drifted to his nose. ‘Bonjour, mon Rêve,’ Harry murmured, twisting about to press a light kiss to Fleur’s nose.
‘Did you miss me, bird-wizard?’ A small, warm smile curved her lips. ‘You better have missed me.’
‘You know I always miss you,’ Harry whispered. ‘Every second I’m away.’
‘Is that why you came back so suddenly? You missed me?’
The humour faded from him and a faint shot of panic coursed through his veins. ‘No.’ He swallowed. ‘We need to talk about Katie.’
Fleur’s eyes darkened several hues and her fingertips dug into his back. ‘What did she do?’
‘Nothing.’ He grimaced. ‘Well, nothing out of the ordinary. I took her to Slughorn’s party, which maybe was a mistake. She drank enough to get talkative and — and I think you might be right…’
‘Did she do anything?’
‘No.’ Harry shook his head. ‘She was just clingy and… Katie. I tucked her into bed when she fell asleep on me. I’ve avoided her the last couple of days.’
Fleur’s eyes flashed black. ‘When she fell asleep on you, mon Cœur?’
‘Pardon,’ Harry whispered. ‘I didn’t want to hurt her.’
‘But you’ll hurt me.’
His heart seized. ‘No!’ He pulled her tight against him. ‘No. I just — I wasn’t sure — I wanted to talk to you before I did anything.’
Her eyes faded back to summer sky blue. ‘Was she happy?’
‘I haven’t seen her so happy in a long time,’ Harry admitted. ‘She mumbled something about being happy or sad a lot, but she wasn’t making much sense.’
‘Will there be more parties?’ Fleur asked.
‘I need to stay on Slughorn’s good side to get him to give me permission to take my NEWT early, but I’m sure I can take someone else, or go alone.’
‘Non. Take Katie.’
‘Why?’ Harry studied the gleam in her blue eyes. ‘Are you — are you testing me?’
Fleur kissed him hard enough she left his lips tingling. ‘I don’t have to test you. I know you. You will never choose anyone or anything over me. I would rather you went with Katie, who just wishes I’ll disappear and let her have you, than someone who might do something worse with a love potion or spell.’
He tilted her face up to look at her and kissed her cheeks. ‘I’ll take Katie, then. I — I like Katie. She’s my best friend. She’s loyal. I can’t—’
‘I didn’t ask you to stop doing anything you’ve been doing,’ she whispered. ‘I don’t like how she flirts with you or how you respond to it.’ Fleur’s eyes darkened. ‘You are mine. However, I trust you. I’m not asking you to stop being her friend. I know how important she is to you.’
You’re better at this than me. Guilt gnawed at his gut. I panicked. I couldn’t trust you.
‘Je suis désolé,’ he murmured, tugging her close and breathing in the scent of the marzipan.
Fleur pulled his head down against her breast. ‘Don’t feel too bad, mon Cœur. You’re getting better.’ She rested her cheek on his head and sighed. ‘We’re perfect for one another. I make up for the bits of you that were lost or cut away. You make up for the pieces I gave up on.’