Like most of his classmates, Harry was looking forwards to the end of term and going home for Christmas. It still struck him at times, how very different the idea of going home felt when home was The Burrow and not Privet Drive. The complete lack of dread was the biggest difference that came to mind.
Not that there weren’t other things to keep his mind off the anticipation. Their morning runs became more and more unpleasant as the weather turned. At least the martial arts practice kept their blood warm before they showered for class. Neville’s rustiness from the missed summer was more than gone. While he wasn’t quite as quick as Harry or Ron, he was noticeably stronger — Harry had a collection of bruises to attest to this.
Harry had been tempted to use the Room of Requirement for their morning runs, especially as it grew colder, but he also knew that their morning training had acquired some attention. Pansy and Flint’s ambush, not to mention the aftermath, had driven that point home. He didn’t want anyone wondering where they were, so they continued to half-freeze in the mornings. Harry tried to tell himself that it was good training, but it was a hard sell.
At least the occasional practice sessions with Remus Lupin had changed in focus. Rather than seeing how much power Harry could generate, they instead worked on fine-tuning his control over how much he expended per spell. This change came shortly after Remus said he received a reply from Mr. Ollivander. The odd man never came out and said it, according to the last Marauder, but he strongly implied that their previous course of action was ‘ill-advised’.
Given the wand-maker’s propensity for elliptical dialogue and enigmatic silences, he might as well have screamed “Stop!” at the top of his lungs.
While that was worrisome, other aspects of his education were going better. Under Professor Slughorn’s gimlet eye, Potions was becoming interesting. With his prohibitions against “foolish Gryffindor pranks” stymieing any potential Slytherin troublemaking, Harry — for the first time — was able to actually concentrate on what he was doing. Hermione was subtly encouraged to ask more questions on the theories behind the instructions, and before he knew it, Harry was actually learning something about what he was brewing. It was all quite shocking. He’d known from the first class that Slughorn was no Snape, but it was nonetheless a pleasant surprise to discover he was actually able to keep his House in order. While there were still… unsavoury elements… in the Slytherin dungeons, they were keeping their heads down and not causing trouble for others, at least as far as he knew. But Harry knew he had enough to worry about without borrowing more trouble.
More encouraging was the gradual thawing of his relationship with his own Head of House. Despite their differences, they still had to work together on the Duelling Association meeting plans. The first few meetings after their argument had been horribly uncomfortable, but ironically it was these discussions that eventually led to their rapprochement.
“Professor Lupin?” she asked, her surprise overcoming her normal reserve.
“Yes, Professor,” Harry confirmed. “He’s the one that taught me the Patronus Charm over the summer.”
McGonagall peered intently at him. Despite himself, Harry began to feel acutely self-conscious. “With the new additions to the school wards you have… arranged… Mr. Potter, is this still a pressing need?” The pauses in her question were not lost on Harry, making him want to wince.
“I’m more worried about Hogsmeade weekends,” Harry replied. “I’m not comfortable leaving anyone to the nonexistent mercies of those creatures if I can prevent it.” He’d already decided to ignore the subtle digs. His Head of House could deliver a surprisingly sarcastic turn of phrase when she wanted to, but trying to match that would only make things worse.
“I see,” Professor McGonagall said, still eyeing him. “Is there a reason, Mr. Potter, that you feel personally responsible for the safety of your classmates? Do you perhaps plan to confiscate their wands before they leave the grounds? Or are the Dementors here because of your actions?”
While her words were pointed, her tone wasn’t entirely so. Harry swallowed, biting back his first reply, and decided to take her question literally. “Well, Professor, we started the Duelling Association because we’ve had some… bad luck… with Defence professors. If I don’t do everything that occurs to me to address those shortcomings, well… then, in a way it would be my fault, wouldn’t it?”
The professor just stared at him, with only an upward twitch of one eyebrow displaying emotion. “I hardly think that makes you responsible for the Defence Against the Dark Arts training of everyone attending Hogwarts,” she said after a moment.
Harry shrugged. He should have known that they’d just end up arguing again. Still, she did ask. “I’m not,” he agreed. “I can’t make anyone join the DA. But I can help the people who do, so I have to do what I can for them. I suppose I am responsible for them, to some degree.” He made a frustrated gesture. He knew he wasn’t making a great deal of sense. “I know I’m not thinking of everything that could happen. I’m not clever enough, or experienced enough, to even come close. But if something does occur to me, and I didn’t follow through on it and someone got hurt as a result… Well, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.”
It was odd, how Harry’s thoughts had turned. He’d just managed to articulate one of his greatest sources of stress to someone who’d added a great deal of it lately. The irony wasn’t lost on him, but it did, oddly enough, make him feel just a bit better to express that.
Even stranger was the way she was now regarding him, clearly surprised by his words. “That is an… unusual… stance to take, Mr. Potter,” she said after a moment. “But not one totally out of keeping with your character. Moreover, it also sheds a different light on some of your actions of late.”
Harry did his best not to scowl. He didn’t like to be reminded of her accusing him of acting Slytherin with respect to the Ministry.
If she noticed his demeanour, McGonagall gave no sign of it. “While I still do not condone your actions… I do find your reasons make them less objectionable than I had originally thought,” she continued. “Given those priorities, I do agree that we can work Professor Lupin into the schedule to give a seminar on the Patronus Charm. I will caution him, however, that while he may wish to alert his upper forms, it should be made clear that their attendance is not mandatory for the Defence curriculum.”
Harry frowned. “I’m afraid I do not understand.”
“Official curriculum is decided by the Hogwarts’ staff, which is led by the Headmaster,” she explained. “Were it to get back to the Ministry that Hogwarts was requiring students to learn a charm designed to repel their designated agents, it would only create more difficulties. The actions of student-led organizations are under far less scrutiny, and moreover would not be our direct responsibility.”
Harry nodded slowly as it all sunk in. It made sense, albeit of a twisted, bureaucratic sort. It occurred to him that he wasn’t the only one capable of acting Slytherin towards the Ministry, but common sense forbade him voicing that thought.
The rest of the scheduling passed in a far less dramatic fashion, planning up through the winter hols. After promising to report to her after they returned to review their progress and schedule the new term, Harry was dismissed.
Harry smiled a little as he made his way to the Great Hall. Professor McGonagall’s manner towards him had noticeably warmed by the end of the meeting.
While he could sense that she still disagreed with some of his methods, she also respected his reasons. “Agreeing to disagree” was frankly more than he’d hoped for from the stern professor, so he was happy to accept that.
Of course, a few days later Harry was wishing some of his professors were a bit more aloof. He’d known, objectively anyway, that this was coming. The quid pro quo had to be fulfilled.
It still didn’t help when the owls arrived with their invitations to their first Slug Club soiree.
On the plus side, it seemed Professor Slughorn had picked up on a few hints and invited all six of them, rather than trying to cherry-pick a few. Harry didn’t think it would make Ron or the others jealous, not from the expression of distaste on his friend’s face as he read the invitation, his eggs cooling and his bacon going soggy. On the other hand, Harry knew they’d like it less if they weren’t all there to watch each other’s backs. Besides, if Harry was right about the real purpose of the Slug Club, it wouldn’t hurt to spread the largesse around a little.
Neville seemed pretty resigned to going, making Harry wonder how many stuffy parties he’d been dragged to as a child. The girls seemed awfully cheery about it, for reasons Harry didn’t want to think about too hard.
Only Ron was really reluctant. Harry asked him about it as they were getting ready. They decided to just go in their school robes, as it was a school function, though Harry vaguely remembered a few people being dressed up before. Or was it just the visiting adults? It bothered him a little that he couldn’t really remember, but then again it was a long time ago, and such a minor detail. Hardly worth worrying about, really.
It was almost a relief, really, to focus on something a bit more concrete, like Ron’s scowl as he combed back his hair, trying to get it to lie down over his ears.
“You seem less than enthused,” Harry said as he wet his own comb.
Ron shrugged. “Doesn’t feel too right,” he said shortly.
Harry sighed. “You want to spit it out, or are we going to play Twenty Questions all night?”
Ron blew out a breath. “Look, it’s not your fault, I know that. But I also know that you are the only reason I’m invited, and I’m trying not to be a prat about it.”
“What makes you think you don’t belong?” Harry asked. “Have you looked at your marks lately? Not to mention being Oliver’s anointed heir at the hoops?”
“I wrote Mum, you know,” Ron said, staring into the mirror. “To ask her what she thought of all this. She didn’t have much nice to say about Slughorn. Didn’t think much of Weasleys when Dad was one of his students. Never invited him to anything like this.”
“Oh,” Harry said. Now that he thought about it, he remembered Mrs. Weasley telling the other him something similar once upon a never. “Percy’s going to be there.”
“Head Boy, professional suck-up, and not exactly my favourite brother at the moment,” Ron said flatly. “Not helping, Harry.”
Harry muffled a snort. Despite the lessening estrangement, the differences between the Weasley brothers were still quite apparent. “Okay, so Slughorn snubbed your dad a long time ago. He’s got to be kicking himself about it now.”
“Yeah, it would definitely give him an in on getting close to you,” Ron replied, though not in a totally unfriendly fashion. More like someone pointing out a bit of dung on your shoe.
“More like getting close to you and your brothers, too,” Harry pointed out.
Ron turned to look at him.
“Professional Curse-Breakers dual trained as Ward Jockeys are not a dime a dozen,” Harry observed. “I don’t think Gringotts wastes time hiring ninnies, do you? And I don’t think ‘useless’ is how you describe someone who became a professional Dragon-Trainer right out of Hogwarts. There are at least two Head Boys in Arthur Weasley’s brood, and there’s no telling what the twins will get up to if they don’t blow themselves up first.”
“At least two…? No way in hell, Harry,” Ron objected. “I know you’ve got that locked up seventh year. More likely Dumbledore will pick Fred or George as a lark, wanting to liven things up a bit.”
Harry suppressed a shudder at the thought of either of the Weasley twins being Head Boy. “I don’t think I’ve got a chance,” Harry observed philosophically. “There’s no way Dumbledore will pick someone he doesn’t trust. Not after seeing what Riddle got up to under Dippet.”
“That’s a long way off, Harry, and…” Ron broke off. “And you‘re changing the topic of conversation, aren’t you?”
“Maybe,” Harry admitted. “But don’t sell you or your brothers’ achievements short. Look, I don’t idolize the man, but you have to admit Potions has been much more bearable this year, right?”
Ron nodded. “Too true, but after Snape, that isn’t saying much.”
“Yeah, but look at how he did it,” Harry reminded his friend. “He out-thought and out-manoeuvred them from the very start — the Slytherins. The house that’s supposed to embody cleverness and guile never had a chance, did they?”
“What are you getting at?” Ron asked.
“Just this,” Harry said, “Slughorn is pretty good at social games like that and making useful contacts is his way of keeping score. It’s pretty Slytherin, but it’s also mostly harmless as well. He trades favours and information back and forth in ways that benefit people in his little network, incidentally making sure he comes out ahead. It’s a lot more tolerable way of getting ahead than killing people and ruining lives, right?”
“Okay, I get it,” Ron said. “He’s no Death Eater, that’s for sure. Doubt he could even fit in the robes.”
Harry rolled his eyes. “Ron, I don’t want you to accept that he’s harmless. I want you to watch what he does and how he does it. He might introduce us to some people that can help us in the future, but more importantly I want you to get a look at how he operates. We need that skill, Ron. We need someone like Slughorn that we can explicitly trust.”
Ron blinked, clearly taken aback. “Why me? Why not Hermione or Ginny? People will tell pretty girls things they’d never tell me.”
Harry shrugged. “I know Hermione’s going to watch as well, but she’s not as good with people. Her idea of how people should act tends to get in the way. Ginny could be good too, but she doesn’t have your head for tactics or strategy.”
“Don’t let her hear you say that,” Ron warned him. “You know, the more you talk, the more this just sounds like a big chess game.” He scowled abruptly. “Do you and Hermione always have to make something about chess when you want me to do something? You make me sound like some complete nutter who can’t think of anything else!”
Harry jumped a little at his friend’s vehemence. Guiltily, he realized he had a point, too. “Well, maybe it’s because once you do look at something like a chess scenario, your brain goes into overdrive and you arrive at an answer so bloody quick it gives Hermione the colly-wobbles.”
“Oh,” Ron said, and turned back to the mirror. He finished straightening up as Harry fought a valiant rear-guard action against his perpetually unruly hair.
Just as Harry was giving it up as a bad job, Ron turned back to him with an odd expression on his face. “She thinks I’m clever?” he asked.
Harry worked very hard at suppressing a snicker.
As they entered Professor Slughorn’s magically expanded office, Harry was slightly amused to see that for once he wasn’t the most nervous person in the room. As soon as they passed the gaudy crimson, gold, and emerald wall hangings, his friends instantly adopted the tight formation they normally used in chaotic crowds such as at King’s Cross. He didn’t doubt for a moment that a single sharp noise would have instantly produced a wand in most of their hands.
Even more gratifying, in a totally childish way, were the reactions of the other attendees. Harry saw some of the Slytherin upper forms freeze in their tracks when they saw the Gryffindors arrive. He didn’t doubt that the stories of last year’s ambush in the courtyard had been wildly exaggerated over the summer. He idly wondered if they were looking for horns and a tail. Maybe some bat wings and eau de brimstone…
The scattering of older Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff students looked more curious than alarmed, much to Harry’s relief. Cedric and Cho were there, quite obviously together, and he gave them a smile and a nod at their friendly waves.
He caught Percy’s eye as the Head Boy nodded seriously, clearly attending to their host’s every word. It might have been Harry’s imagination, but he thought the Head Boy’s manner had a slightly watchful quality to it, something that had been missing from the mindless sycophant his other self had known and resented until he’d received word of his death. Still, Harry had little doubt that Percy could do his career no small amount of good here.
The Head Boy earned a smile of gratitude from their host when he pointed out Harry’s arrival to Professor Slughorn. Harry braced himself as the round little man descended on them.
The next few minutes were a whirl as Slughorn introduced his latest trophy to well over a dozen adults who were attending the party. Most of them seemed rather bored, but perked up when Harry’s name was dropped. The Boy Who Lived grinned and bore it, but made a point of introducing his friends as well. Slughorn seemed to take the hint that the Gryffindors were truly a package deal and began including them in the introductions as well. Ron was a bit startled when an older grey-haired witch asked if he was Arthur Weasley’s son. It turned out she knew the elder Weasley before she retired from the Ministry. Harry suppressed a grin as he saw Ron’s features grow more and more intent. It really was just like watching him get into a chess game.
Ginny caught his eye and smirked, but Harry just shrugged. He was being straightforward with his friend when he said he wanted him in this, and fully engaged. Luna, on the other hand, was quieter than he remembered, though she also stood next to Neville almost constantly. Harry wondered if she was self-conscious about bringing disapproval onto Neville again, or if she didn’t speak up as much because she felt more secure.
Hermione, on the other hand, had a faint but unmistakable look of disapproval on her face. Harry excused himself from a conversation between Percy, Cedric, Ron, and Professor Slughorn regarding Percy’s incipient entry into the Ministry and joined Ginny and Hermione at the overly ornate punch bowl.
“All right?” Harry asked quietly.
Ginny gave Harry a grateful look. Apparently Hermione had been working herself into quite a state.
“I’m sorry,” his friend said. “I’m just having trouble with… all of this.”
“’All of this’?” Harry asked quietly.
“This,” Hermione repeated, gesturing at the rest of the room. “Back room deals. Trading favours. Bartering influence. My parents had to deal with a lot of this with the National Health Service contracts, and I’ve heard them talk about this sort of thing. I don’t want to spoil your plans, Harry, but… this just isn’t right.”
Hermione actually looked to be on the verge of tears and Harry mentally kicked himself. She was a lot more upset than she let on, and he belatedly realized she’d been putting up a brave front. He racked his brain for a moment, trying to find a way to explain, quickly, why this was important. “Hermione, do you like hurting people?” he finally asked.
“What?” she asked. “No! Of course not!”
“But we still know a lot of curses, don’t we?” Harry asked. “Every day we practice magic that could put someone in a lot of pain.”
“But we only do that so…” her voice trailed off. “I see. So this is only about… that thing we discussed on the seventh floor?”
Harry nodded, and then leaned closer. “Do you think I really came here to get some cushy Ministry job in the future?” He shuddered. “If I had my druthers, I’d play Quidditch professionally for a few years, save up my salary, get married and have a family, then retire to coach or manage my investments.” He paused for a moment, and then continued. “Not necessarily in that order, but I’d rather do something I know I’m good at, something where any success I have I know is deserved.” Harry swallowed, a little embarrassed at his outburst. The faint smile of approval Ginny was giving him was not helping one damn bit.
Hermione was still frowning, but now it was more thoughtful than upset. “So all this…?” she asked, waving her hand around to indicate the room in general.
“Is to help ensure we’re allowed to do that,” Harry confirmed. “And it’s not just our immediate problem either, you know. Have you ever asked Mr. Weasley how many Muggle-borns work at the Ministry?”
Hermione slowly shook her head, her frown deepening.
“Well, it’s not as many as should be,” Harry continued, his voice growing more intent as it dropped to a whisper. “It would be better if government work was a strict meritocracy, but we both know that isn’t the case anywhere. But what we can do is try to stamp out these ridiculous blood-prejudices. And that means you, little Miss Highest-Scoring Student in however many years who just happens to be a Muggle-born, need to meet the people with influence and show them just who you are, so they can see blood means bollocks. And once you’re the Minister of Magic, you can bloody well fire the bigots, right?”
Hermione blinked at that last bit and actually giggled slightly, leaving Harry to wonder if someone had tampered with the punch. She smiled at him for a moment as she digested all that, then gave him a firm nod. “So this isn’t just about the ends justifying the means, is it? Thanks, Harry.” And with that, she strode over to where Ron was listening to Professor Slughorn’s reminiscences. As Harry watched, it wasn’t long before she joined into the conversation easily and without a hint of awkwardness.
“I don’t hold out much hope for your dream,” a voice said in his ear, making Harry jump and turn around. Ginny was still standing there. He stared at her dumbly. She’d been increasingly quiet around him over the course of the term. Not really unfriendly, really, more like just not having much to say. Things were still a little awkward between them. There weren’t any secrets, not anymore. But as she was well aware, he was still heavily conflicted where she was concerned. Part of him was still getting to know a girl he’d already opened up to more than anyone in this existence. But part of him saw her and remembered a different Ginny. The whole thing made him excruciatingly uncomfortable at times, because he wasn’t always comfortable with the… appropriateness of his feelings. Part of him, the memories of his older self was just that — older. Old enough that seeing this Ginny as that Ginny raised some moral quandaries of a sort he’d rather not think on too hard. Even if he’d never… well… nevermind.
Ginny seemed to accept this diffidence, at least for the moment. Perhaps she hoped, as he did, that it would become less of an issue as they both aged. But she always seemed to be watching him. Waiting. And she occasionally made him very, very nervous. “Y-you don’t?” he asked, rather stupidly in his opinion.
Ginny shook her head, and this close up, Harry couldn’t help but notice the errant colours of the individual hairs. “I don’t think you will ever be just a Quidditch player,” she confirmed in a low voice. “Not after hearing you give a speech like that.”
Harry frowned. “What are you talking about?” he finally asked. “All I did was explain why I think this isn’t a complete waste of time.”
Ginny shook her head, grinning. “You addressed her fears, gave her a solid moral justification, and then set a long-term goal for her to pursue. Did you actually read all of those Muggle psychology books you bought?”
Harry nodded warily. “Yeah, but evidently not as well as you did. Last summer?”
Ginny nodded. “I don’t just read poetry,” she informed him in a crisp voice. “Besides,” she added with a grin, “didn’t we agree that girls are smarter than boys?”
By the time they returned to Gryffindor Tower, each of them tightly clutching a pass signed by Professor Slughorn, Harry’s throat was dry and his jaws actually ached from a combination of smiling and talking too much. Hermione and Ron had their heads together, thick as thieves and oblivious to the rest of them as they verbally compared notes. Hermione mentioned drawing up some sort of influence chart and Ron replied he’d be eager to see it, nearly causing Harry to step off into thin air as a stairway moved out of the way.
Neville just looked a bit tired. He’d been monopolized by friends of his grandmother and his great uncle most of the night, and didn’t appear to have enjoyed it that much. He gave a tired grin though, when Luna shyly took his hand.
When Harry’s gaze wandered over to Ginny, he found her looking right back at him, causing him to quickly look away. The staircase returned at that moment, so he took the opportunity to begin climbing again. But Ginny didn’t let it go.
“Checking over the troops?” she whispered quietly, leaning close.
Harry eyed her sidelong. “Hush you,” he replied just as quietly.
“Not something to be ashamed of,” she replied easily. “Actually, I think it’s rather sweet,” she added with a grin.
Harry just shrugged, refusing to be baited.
“Nothing wrong with looking out for your friends,” she added. “That’s not just a Hufflepuff trait, you know. Just make sure you let them look out for you as well.”
“Yes, Mum,” Harry quipped.
“Prat,” she said with a small smile. “You don’t want me acting like Mum. Ron says I do a pretty good impression of her.”
“Must be the genes,” Harry said as they approached the floor with the Fat Lady’s portrait.
Ginny rolled her eyes. “In case you haven’t guessed, she’s made me pretty much responsible for your physical condition when we return to The Burrow.”
“I caught that much,” Harry admitted. “I suppose Ron is in charge of making sure I sleep at night.”
Ginny gave him a quick look that informed him his guess was spot on. “I imagine so. It’s not like she’s the only one that’s worried about you, you know. She’s just…”
“Being motherly,” Harry finished for her. He shrugged. “I don’t really mind that much.”
“I noticed,” Ginny said. “Which is sort of odd, you being a boy and all. It’s not very macho, is it?”
Harry grinned, a little wistfully. “Not really; I missed you guys a lot, you know?”
Ginny frowned, and then looked stricken for a moment. “Sorry, I forgot. I… uh, I didn’t really think, you know…”
Harry could see her struggling with her words, not wanting to mention anything too incriminating in the hallway. “I know. The longer I’m here, the more… well… I’m sleeping a bit better these days, if you know what I mean.”
Ginny nodded, biting her lip. “That’s good, I think. Er, it is, isn’t it?”
Harry nodded. “I think so. And I think it’s good that I’m acting… well, maybe a little more normal?”
Ginny grinned. “Normal for you, anyway.”
Harry grunted. “I suppose.”
The next Potions class ended rather oddly, with Professor Slughorn minutely examining Harry’s potion, swishing it in the vial. With a frown, the portly professor asked him to stay after class, implying that his results were less than acceptable.
Ron nodded to Harry as he and the other students packed up their bags and filed out. Nothing was said, but Harry knew the others would linger in the corridor until he emerged. It wasn’t so much distrust of their professor as a determination to never again be caught off guard.
Besides, was it truly paranoia if you knew someone really was out to get you?
Once they were alone, Harry approached Slughorn’s desk and asked if something was wrong with his potion.
“What? Oh no, my boy!” the man replied. “Your work is just as superlative as ever. I just wanted an excuse for us to chat a bit, away from curious ears. Did you enjoy my little gathering the other night?”
Harry relaxed slightly and nodded. “Yes, it was quite fascinating. You were not joking in the slightest when you said you knew a lot of people at the Ministry.” Harry suspected the man had another reason why he wanted to talk to him, but knew he had to play along for the moment.
Slughorn beamed. “I’ll admit I was a bit worried,” he said. “There was a bit of excitement from people when they realized you’d likely be there. I even received several requests for invitations from old friends who’d never shown an interest in attending before… but I didn’t want to overwhelm everyone.”
Harry could recognize a hint when he heard one. “Perhaps we can do that again, maybe next term, and you can accommodate some of the others?”
The professor nodded happily, and Harry wondered if that was it. Then the man cleared his throat nervously. “I, ah, understand there was a bit of unpleasantness last year,” he ventured, “involving a rather large Basilisk?”
Now Harry understood where this was going. “Er, yeah, there was,” Harry confirmed in a low voice. “We ended up killing it, but it was a close thing. I assume the Headmaster told you?”
Slughorn nodded. “He did mention it, in general terms. About how large was this beast?”
Harry shrugged. “Fifty or sixty feet.”
Slughorn blinked. “Did you say fifty or sixty… feet?”
The corpulent professor staggered back a step as all of the colour drained out of his face. Harry recalled the man’s reaction to Hagrid’s collection of magical animal by-products and began to worry about the Slytherin’s heart. “Good heavens, Harry! Do you know how much that’s worth?”
“Wouldn’t it be decomposing by now?” Harry asked.
“Not in less than a year, young man,” Slughorn assured him in his best lecturing tone. “The normal processes of decomposition will be delayed until the Basilisk’s venom has lost most of its potency. The poisonous essence suffuses the Basilisk’s entire body, and it’s so strong and so inimical to other forms of life that fully grown specimens are immune to diseases of any sort. In this case, it’s barely been half a year, so the body should be intact.”
Harry frowned. He wondered why no one had sought to reclaim it in the previous timeline, aside from the fact that doing so would require a Parselmouth to open the passage. Perhaps there had just been too much going on. “Would you happen to know buyers who might be interested in Basilisk parts?” he asked after a moment — already knowing the answer.
“Why, yes, I would,” Professor Slughorn confirmed with a wide smile. “Several of my former students are quite adept at brokering rare ingredients. Jacob Reeves, for example, holds the exclusive contract for St. Mungo’s. I’m sure, for a small commission, we can get you top prices — you’ll be the recipient of a tidy fortune.”
Harry waved his hands. “Wait a second, there are a couple of problems. First we have to get it out of the Chamber.”
Slughorn nodded. “But I understand that you can… facilitate access to the creature’s lair?”
Harry’s eyes narrowed. “Dumbledore told you that?”
Slughorn nodded. “Don’t worry; I’m hardly one to support that ridiculous superstition. I understand that one of my great-great uncles had the same ability.” The way the professor drew himself up proudly after that statement sorely tested Harry’s ability to keep a straight face. “From what I understand, the Headmaster has little interest in claiming a share on behalf of the school itself. I imagine he’d rather this was all taken care of with as little fuss as possible.”
That last aspect hadn’t really occurred to Harry before. The last thing Dumbledore wanted to do was publicize the fact that an enormous Basilisk had been living under Hogwarts for centuries. That might get people wondering what else might be laired below the dungeons. Not terribly comforting thoughts for the parents of the next crop of firsties.
But that didn’t change Harry’s other stipulation. “I’ll open the passage,” he said to Slughorn’s delight. “But remember that I wasn’t the only one down there. My friends were there as well. It was all six of us — I think we should all share equally.”
“That’s very generous of you,” Slughorn commended him. The way the old man’s fingers were twitching, Harry imagined he was already contemplating how many crystallized pineapple bits and fine liqueurs his share of the commission would net him.
“Not really,” Harry said firmly, hoping to make his point. “It was massed spell fire from all of us that took it down. They earned any reward as much as I.”
Slughorn swallowed hard and looked a bit queasy. Thinking about fighting a Basilisk that large, in close quarters, was more than enough to dispel his pleasantly greedy haze. “Yes. Well. Albus said he’d like to have this taken care of while school is not in session.”
“I can see that. Hardly anyone from Gryffindor has signed up to stay here over the holidays. Is the same true for the other houses?”
Slughorn nodded, regaining a little of his gleeful anticipation. “I’ve already confirmed with the other Heads. So when should I expect you all?”
Harry shrugged. “That’s really up to my guardians, not to mention the Grangers, Madam Longbottom, and Mr. Lovegood.” He made a face, wondering how much Hermione had really told her parents about what happened in the Chamber. Mr. Granger hadn’t ever tried to kill him, so he doubted she’d been totally straightforward about the danger she’d been in.
Slughorn frowned. “I’d better owl them immediately.” Harry wondered idly if his discomfort was because of the extra complications or because the inclusion of more adults meant more haggling over his commission. Harry didn’t really care — he considered payment for the Basilisk parts to be more like ‘found money’ — but parents whose children had been in danger might feel differently.
To be honest, he wasn’t sure how all of them would react, and it made him a little nervous. Hermione, at the least, might not have been totally forthcoming with her parents regarding the events of last spring. However, it wouldn’t be fair to not divide the windfall with everyone who was down there. At least he could warn everyone that Professor Slughorn would be contacting their parents and let them take it from there.
“I’ll let my friends know,” Harry assured him. “Thanks for organizing all of this, sir.”
“Oh, my pleasure, dear boy, my pleasure,” the portly professor assured him with a smile.
As he rather suspected, Harry’s news had Hermione and Neville writing some quick letters that evening. At dinner, Harry couldn’t help but notice Ginny’s face fall as she watched Hermione frantically revise the letter she was sending her parents. But when she glanced at him, the red-headed girl’s eyes hardened and Harry suspected he was in trouble.
Sure enough, as the group returned to the Gryffindor common room after a brief stop at the Owlery, Ginny held him back with a very firm grip on his elbow.
Watching the rest of his friends file in past the Fat Lady, Harry sighed and turned to her. “Was there something?” he asked mildly as she dragged him several paces down the hallway from the now curious portrait.
“What is this about it being split six ways?” she asked in a low voice, her eyebrows drawn together in a fierce scowl. For some reason, Harry thought it looked extremely cute on her. He wisely decided not to voice this sentiment.
Instead he just shrugged. He wasn’t nearly as good as Ron at that gesture, but it would have to do. “There were six of us down there. It seemed the fairest way to do it.” He looked over his shoulder at the Fat Lady’s portrait. With a nod, he indicated they should move a little farther down the corridor.
“Five of you killed that great nasty thing,” Ginny reminded him as they walked. “And the other one was the reason you were down there, rescuing an idiot,” she added bitterly.
Harry winced. “I… look, it definitely wasn’t your fault. Whoever set that up did a really good job of it, you know. If anyone’s at fault, it should be me. I should have secured that stupid diary better.”
“But I’m the one that read it,” Ginny insisted, looking more and more upset. Harry wondered how long she’d been carrying this guilt around. He was a little upset that she hadn’t said anything… a split-second before realizing the massive hypocrisy of that sentiment. He had no business complaining about anyone keeping things bottled up.
“You had no reason not to,” Harry said firmly. “I’m just sorry that the bastards who sent it to you were able to use my name on it to trick you.”
Ginny made a frustrated noise. “I just feel so stupid about the whole thing. And weak.”
“Definitely not weak,” Harry corrected her.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Remember what the spectre told us? Your will was so strong he couldn’t keep you controlled for very long, or even suppress your memory,” he reminded her. “That’s a big difference,” he added, then wanted to kick himself.
“Difference?” Ginny asked, her eyes narrowing. “You said this had happened, you know, before. Was that other… person… affected that way?”
Harry grimaced. He didn’t like where this was heading, but he’d promised that once he could tell them the truth he wouldn’t hold anything back. “Uh, several times. And she had no clear memory afterwards.”
“She sicced that… that thing on students?” Ginny asked in a stricken voice.
“Well, yeah, but no one was killed. They didn’t get a clear look, they were just temporarily Petrified,” Harry assured her.
Ginny sagged back against the stone wall, looking decidedly ill.
“It doesn’t matter,” Harry said quickly. “It didn’t happen. No one was hurt. Everyone is fine. You did… better. And it helped. A lot.”
“But why?” Ginny asked after taking a moment to gather herself.
Harry considered her question. “I think… I think it originally took advantage of some… insecurities she had. Things it could capitalize on.”
Ginny frowned. “That explains a lot. You went out of your way to reassure me and make me feel included the summer before I started. Was that why?” she asked suddenly, “Just in case?”
Harry swallowed convulsively. “No, that’s not why,” he insisted. “At least not all of it. I mean, well. Look. We talked, or rather a ‘you’ and a ‘me’ talked about that whole mess once. And that ‘you’ said those feelings were one reason why that thing was able to get its hooks in good. So, yeah, because of that, I knew how it was for you starting Hogwarts, how left out you felt.” He took a deep breath. “And that’s one reason why I wrote all those letters.”
Ginny just stared at him for an uncomfortably long time. Finally, she just sighed and shook her head. “I don’t need you protecting me from everything, Harry.”
Harry shoved his hands into his pockets to stop them from fidgeting. “I know you don’t need it, Ginny, but that’s not going to stop me from trying. I just can’t help it. When you’re cut, I bleed.” He couldn’t remember where he’d read that, but it seemed particularly apt. He’d nearly lost it in a Duelling Association meeting when she slipped and hit her head.
Ginny’s lips pursed in annoyance, but her eyes weren’t as hard. “You’re impossible, you know that, right?”
Harry shrugged again. He was getting better at it. “We’d better head in before curfew.”
Harry had a rather bad shock in the days before they went home for the Christmas hols. They’d been revising in the Gryffindor common room when Ron reminded Ginny to retrieve her Transfigured Christmas ornament from the tree. With a disgusted sigh, she flounced over to the tree and pulled something from the branch that she quickly concealed in her robes.
“What did you make?” Hermione asked curiously.
Ginny gave her a betrayed look, but reluctantly pulled the bauble out of her pocket and held it out for them to see.
It was a shiny metallic ball, coloured a rich shade of green. A very familiar shade of green. Harry felt his heart stop.
“I wasn’t having a very good day,” Ginny said truculently, “and I couldn’t really think of anything to add to it.”
“I think it’s quite nice,” Hermione reassured her. “That’s a lovely colour on it; does it signify anything?” Harry remembered discussing the Weasley ornament tradition with her last term. Hermione thought it was quite intriguing, and was glad she’d saved her own ornament to show her parents.
Luna spoke up. “I think it’s the same shade as Harry’s eyes.”
Ginny shrugged, but Harry thought her complexion was reddening a little. He tried to remember when he’d made an ornament like that. So close to the holidays, was he thinking about his mother’s eyes?
But such speculation was beyond him as he stood up, murmured something about a headache and quickly made his way up the stairs to his dormitory.
He spent a good bit of time on his bed, shivering and wondering if this was another warning of future parallels with his past. When he finally fell asleep, he dreamt of a time he’d looked at another metallic green bauble.
The morning could not come soon enough.
The ride to King’s Cross was blessedly uneventful — much to Harry’s relief. The worst part was the carriage ride past the patrolling Dementors, but with some forewarning even an incorporeal Patronus mist inside the carriage was enough to block them out. Harry just gritted his teeth and resisted the urge to unleash Prongs on the foul things.
However, when they disembarked from the train, they discovered a welcoming committee on the platform. All of the parents were there — Arthur, standing next to Molly, had evidently taken off from work, and there was a thin, slightly cross-eyed man with wispy white hair that Harry recognized as Luna’s father. Augusta Longbottom and the Grangers were there as well, and Harry mentally compared them to a firing squad.
Arthur looked around a bit nervously, and then stepped forwards. “Ah good, you’re… you’re all here. Well, we all got together and thought it might be a good idea to discuss some things.” Mr. Granger’s scowl deepened and Harry thought he could hear Hermione swallowing behind him. “I’ve got a private room reserved at the Leaky Cauldron,” he continued, “so we can get right to it.”
Molly bustled forward. “Bring the Anglia around,” she suggested, though her smile seemed a bit forced, and Harry wondered what the hell had been discussed before they arrived. “We’ll meet you out front.”
Arthur nodded and took off towards the platform exit at what Harry would describe as a very fast walk.
As they rolled their trunks towards the group of assembled parents, Harry felt like he was going into battle. Mr. Granger still looked angry and Mrs. Granger didn’t look too happy either. Harry supposed he shouldn’t be surprised by that, but Ron positioning himself beside Hermione was a little unexpected. He knew his friend was a little intimidated by Hermione’s father, but he was still willing to brave that to support her. It was a nice gesture, but this could get ugly quickly.
Fortunately, the fragile peace held for a while longer. None of the adults, no matter how upset, seemed eager to make a scene in public. There was a strained silence as they made their way to the street. The Grangers did not seem eager to pile into the Ford Anglia with everyone else, and took their own car. Augusta Longbottom eyed the Anglia rather warily, but followed Neville into it without a word. Hermione rode with her parents, but didn’t seem very enthusiastic about it. She seemed relieved when Luna innocently asked if she could ride with them, explaining that she’d never been in a Muggle car before. Her father, chatting animatedly with an uncomfortable-looking Arthur Weasley, didn’t seem to care.
Hermione was awfully quiet when they all disembarked on Charing Cross road. Luna kept asking Mr. Granger questions. Harry couldn’t hear them, but Mr. Granger seemed oddly disconcerted. Harry was amused to note that the two parking spaces in front of the pub appeared to have been affected by the Muggle-repelling charms as well. At least they didn’t have to go around the block to park the Anglia.
His good humour seemed to evaporate as they entered the pub, replaced by a sense of foreboding. It only increased as they all filed into a back room and sat down at a large table. The fragile peace ended the moment Tom the barman closed the door behind them.
“All right,” Mr. Granger said in an angry voice, “we want some answers. What exactly is a Basilisk?”
Harry closed his eyes and rubbed at his forehead.
Harry admired Arthur Weasley’s courage as he took it upon himself to answer the first barrage of questions. It didn’t seem to help much, as Mr. Granger seemed to get more and more upset with every word.
“Are you people bloody insane?” he finally demanded. “Why the hell would you keep something like this in a school full of children?” His wife gave him a sharp look when he said “bloody”, but didn’t look much happier.
“Daddy, no one knew it was there!” Hermione finally said.
“How could they not know?” He asked, exasperated. “The letter we got said it was over fifty feet long!”
“It was in a hidden chamber, buried under the castle,” Harry ventured, feeling like a bit of a coward for saying nothing so far. He changed his mind when Mr. Granger’s glare focused on him. It didn’t help that the man’s anger was mostly justified.
“And what were a bunch of eleven- and twelve-year-old children doing down there?” Mr. Granger asked icily.
“It’s all my fault!” Ginny wailed. Mrs. Weasley tried to shush her, to no avail. “If you have to blame someone, blame me!”
Ginny’s distress seemed to remove most of Harry’s restraint. “It’s not her fault either,” he grated. “Someone tried to kill her and they almost succeeded. That’s what we were doing down there.” Respect his reasons or not, Harry wasn’t going to let him rail at Ginny for that mess with the diary. He folded his hands when he realized his fingernails were making indentions in the table top.
Mr. Granger opened his mouth, but his wife put a hand on his arm. “We don’t really understand any of this,” she said. “Hermione explained that there was some unpleasantness last year,” this was accompanied by a direct look that made Hermione bite her lower lip. “But she didn’t go into any details, so we thought it was fairly minor,” she explained. “Why would someone want to kill your daughter?”
“Do you remember when we discussed the, er, prejudices some people have against Muggles?” Arthur asked delicately.
Mr. Granger nodded slowly. “Yes, but your family is, how do you say it? Pure-blood, right?”
Arthur nodded. “Yes, but we still support equal rights for Muggle-born witches and wizards, as well as fair treatment of Muggles in general. I helped author a bill presented to the Wizengamot to make certain practices illegal and it… well, it made a lot of pure-bloods very upset.”
Mr. Granger frowned. “Let me get this straight. This was politically motivated? Someone tried to kill your daughter over this bill?” To Harry, he looked even more outraged.
“Partially,” Arthur agreed. “It doesn’t help that the person we think was behind this... Well, he’s been an enemy of mine for years, so this is indirectly my fault.”
“Stuff and nonsense,” Molly interjected. “That vile man is a public menace. While I don’t approve of public brawls, Arthur, it did my heart good to see you hit him.”
“Wait,” Mr. Granger said, “it was that guy at the bookstore? The one who called us —“
“The one dressed like a French pornographer?” Fred asked innocently. Harry was rather happy not to hear that word again, but several adults turned gimlet stares at the twins.
“Looks like Lee was right,” George observed. “He must, or they wouldn’t all be so mad at you for saying.”
“Ah, yes, it was him,” Arthur said quickly, trying to draw attention away from the furious whispers Molly was directing towards the twins.
“So if you know he did it, is he in jail?” Mr. Granger asked hopefully.
Arthur shook his head and sighed. “I’m afraid not. We don’t have enough evidence to press charges, much less guarantee a conviction.”
“And I imagine you’d need an airtight case against someone like that,” Mr. Granger added dryly.
“There was enough suspicion to get his son expelled from Hogwarts and to have him removed from the Board of Governors,” Arthur said.
Mr. Granger’s hands fisted at his sides. “Someone like that was on the committee in charge of my daughter’s education?” he asked in an outraged tone.
“Not anymore,” Arthur assured him.
“And how many others are there like him?” Mr. Granger asked in an icy tone.
Arthur frowned and started to say something, but stopped.
“Right,” Mr. Granger said, standing up. “That settles that. Hermione, say your goodbyes. We’re putting you in a proper school next term, away from all these nutters.”
“Daddy!” Hermione fairly shrieked.
“No arguments,” Mr. Granger commanded. “I can see why you’ve been covering up for so long.” He gave his daughter a sympathetic look. “I know how you love learning new things, but it simply isn’t safe. This is really our fault,” he added, “We should have asked better questions of that Professor McGonagall and sent her packing at the very start.”
Hermione’s mouth was opening and closing, but no words were coming out. Ron was frozen in place. His face had gone so pale that his freckles stood out like beacons. The adults all looked exceedingly uncomfortable, but none of them seemed inclined to interfere. Ginny looked perfectly miserable, and Harry had no doubt she’d blame herself for Hermione’s removal from Hogwarts as well. Neville was frowning, gripping the edge of the table, and Luna…
Luna was staring right at Harry, meeting his eyes for once. It was just a bit startling, but the imperative was unmistakable. Do something!
“If you do that, you’re placing her in even more danger,” a voice said, and it took a moment for Harry to realize that it was his own.
Mr. Granger rounded on Harry. “I’m not sure what you would know about it, but I suppose I should have guessed all that physical training had a purpose,” he said bitterly.
Harry shrugged. “I thought you knew. I imagine Hermione had good reasons for not telling you though, even if you don’t agree. She never does anything without a reason. Maybe she didn’t want you to think she was ashamed of you, because she was looked down upon because her parents weren’t magical.” All three Grangers stiffened. Harry was cheating just a bit, recalling an emotional conversation a future Hermione had with his analogue after her parents died.
“But that’s neither here nor there,” Harry continued. “Hermione Granger is one of the most intelligent witches to attend Hogwarts in generations. Her very existence as a Muggle-born is an affront to the pure-bloods and their belief that their ancestry is more important than anything else. She regularly out-performs the scions of some very prestigious and bigoted noble houses. That already makes her a target. If you pull her out of Hogwarts and put her in a Muggle school, she’ll never realize her magical potential, and as a half-trained witch, she’ll be an easy target. They will come after her, and she won’t be able to defend herself, even if the Ministry even lets her keep her wand, which I doubt. With no one to maintain them, the wards on your property will slowly fade over time. You’ll have made it easy for them when they come for her.”
“You make it sound like we’re trapped,” Mr. Granger accused in a sick and angry voice.
“I suppose you are,” Harry said in a resigned tone, ignoring the imploring look Molly was giving him. All of the other people in the room were staring at him. Some knew the secret and therefore knew what his predictions were based on. For the others, they stared either because they didn’t seem to understand why Harry was so sure, or why half the room was staring at The Boy Who Lived.
Harry sighed. “It’s Hermione’s nature to be brilliant, and it shows in everything she does. She’s the proud nail that stands up and we all love her for it,” he said with a sad smile, watching Hermione’s face turn crimson. Then he looked at Mr. Granger and the smile disappeared. “But anyone wanting to play the hammer is going to have to get through me first,” he added, his eyes boring into those of the older man.
“Me too!” Ron croaked, having finally found his voice. Neville, Ginny, and Luna said much the same thing half a beat later. To Harry’s surprise, the twins and Percy added their agreement as well.
That seemed to take Mr. Granger back, and Mrs. Granger leaned over to put her arms around Hermione, who had burst into silent tears. After a moment, Hermione’s father sat down, propped his elbows on the table, and massaged his temples. “All right,” he said after a moment. “We won’t make any rash decisions. I don’t think Hogwarts is in any way an appropriate learning environment, but we may not have any better options.” He looked up and glared at Harry. “You debate rather viciously for a thirteen-year-old.”
Harry looked down. He picked at the edge of the table. “I’m trying to protect my friend the best way I know how,” he said after a moment, then looked up.
Mr. Granger nodded slowly. “All right. So can anyone tell me what’s so valuable about a dead snake?”
After the initial drama, getting schedules worked out was rather simple. The day after Boxing Day, Harry and his friends would Floo over to Slughorn’s office, accompanied by Mr. Weasley. Professor Slughorn would oversee the actual quartering of the body and evaluating what materials would still be suitable for potion-making or other uses. As expected, the Head of Slytherin was fairly cautious in his estimates, but even the low-end figure for the individual shares had Mr. Granger raising his eyebrows.
“That’s more than enough to pay for university after Hermione finishes school,” Mrs. Granger noted.
Mr. Granger was still less than enthusiastic, but nodded. He mellowed a bit more when Molly invited all the Grangers over for dinner on Boxing Day. Harry thought it was a nice gesture after all the earlier tension. For his part, he couldn’t really blame anyone. It was an ugly situation the parents of every Muggle-born had to deal with. Maybe Hermione should have been more straightforward with her parents, but it couldn’t be easy telling them either.
After Tom the barman brought a light meal to the meeting room, and everyone had a sup and a bite, Arthur and Mr. Granger fell into a bit of good-natured wrangling over who was paying the tab. Mr. Weasley had just made the point that his brood represented a majority when Tom returned with the bill and was intercepted by Madam Longbottom.
Both men turned to stare at her as Tom left, realizing they’d been outmanoeuvred. Augusta Longbottom merely looked at them with an arched eyebrow. Neither of them said a word.
Harry glanced over at Neville, who was openly grinning.
It wasn’t long after that before everyone went their separate ways. After Arthur helped him retrieve his trunk from the Anglia’s boot, Neville and his Gran used Tom’s Floo to get home. Hermione left with her parents while Molly offered Luna and her father a ride to Ottery St. Catchpole.
The long drive home passed more quickly than Harry expected. Mr. Lovegood and Mr. Weasley chatted all the way, Xenophilius asking Arthur about the Ministry, while Arthur in turn asked about the Lovegoods’ Muggle neighbours. Harry was too entertained by the verbal fencing to get nervous about being closed in. While Mr. Lovegood would no doubt love to get material for his next Quibbler article, Mr. Weasley worked for a department that regulated interactions between Wizarding folk and Muggles — including rules regarding enchanted objects that Mr. Lovegood no doubt bent more than once. But the back and forth between them was entirely amicable, more like an old game between friends. Harry remembered that Ginny knew Luna from before Hogwarts, so there was little doubt the men were at least acquainted with each other.
Harry’s thoughts strayed to the redheaded girl sitting quietly next to him. She hadn’t said much since her outburst during the confrontation with Mr. Granger. Now her expression was composed, but pensive. Harry awkwardly patted her knee and she looked up and gave him a wan smile. He smiled back at her and shrugged. She sighed and leaned her head against his shoulder.
Harry closed his eyes, listening to the faint sounds of her breathing, feeling better than he had all day.
Harry was sitting next to the door, something he doubted was an accident, so he jumped out to help Luna with her trunk when they stopped at the Lovegood house. Mr. Weasley complimented Xenophilius on how well his home blended into the neighbourhood and Luna’s father responded that he was thinking about moving to a small tower just outside the village he’d heard might be up for sale soon.
Luna turned and stared at her father, who quickly reassured her it wasn’t too far out of town, and it would give them a little more room. She was still frowning a little when she turned back to Harry.
“As long as you’re on the Floo, you’ll always be close enough,” Harry murmured as they wrestled the trunk onto the front porch. He wondered if Luna had taken up rock collecting.
“That’s not really it. My mother lived here,” Luna said in a quiet voice.
“I see,” Harry replied. He waited until they got the trunk into her room. Thinking about the troubles he had the first night at The Burrow, he lowered his voice to little more than a whisper when he spoke again. “Maybe that’s why. Your father might want to live somewhere that doesn’t always remind him.”
Luna cocked her head and gave him one of those disturbingly direct looks again. “Is it hard for you?” she asked.
Harry shrugged, wondering how this had suddenly become a discussion of his mental state. “Sometimes,” he admitted. “But I’m also building new memories, so I think…” he frowned. “I think those are helping dilute the effects of the bad ones. I hope so, anyway.”
Luna nodded thoughtfully. “Maybe that will help my father,” she mused. “If not, I can always find a Three-Tailed Mookabaru to cheer him up.”
Time moves on, and while Harry is making plans and forming tentative alliances, he has no real idea of the forces moving to oppose him. *cues sinister laughter*
For some reason the argument between the adults was difficult to write. There were no right or wrong parties there, so it was important to keep it balanced, both in my head and on paper.
Thanks as always go out to Runsamok, Kokopelli, and Sherylyn for wonderful beta work. Going back and fixing minor errors, the majority of which were in the very early chapters, has only emphasized how much my betas have contributed to what could otherwise become a completely unwieldy task. I’ll post the revised chapters when I’m fairly sure I’ve swatted all the bugs.
As always, there are news and progress updates available on the Viridian Dreams blog - the address is displayed in my profile, along with our new forums (there’s already a discussion thread set up for this chapter). Runsamok and I were recently interviewed about this story on the PotterFicWeekly podcast, and I’ll have a link to it posted on my blog when it goes live.