You want me to do WHAT?
Over the next few days, while waiting for Zab’s report, I ostensibly prepared to try out for the seeker position for the Tornadoes. When the day of the tryouts finally arrived, it took a considerable amount of coaxing on Blaise’s part before I summoned the courage to face the inevitable media blitzkrieg. Though I completely expected it, the sheer intensity of the media frenzy over one of my rare public appearances still shocked me to the core. Distracted as I was, my performance was pretty average from my perspective. It had been a while since I’d spent any time on my Firebolt in a real competitive atmosphere. As much as my natural talent at flying made me successful at Hogwarts, the world of league Quidditch was miles beyond what I’d experienced as a teenager.
The tryout session was even more grueling than one of Oliver’s worst nightmare-come-to-life training sessions I had become used to in my first years at Hogwarts. By the end, even though I made the short list, it was obvious to everyone that I was more than a little rusty on a broom. I didn’t feel too bad about my performance though, since the three others who made the short list had all practiced everyday for over a year in preparation. The Seeker coach for the Tornadoes announced my inclusion in the short list with more than a little disgust in his voice. One of the senior players told me that he heard a rumor that he lost a great deal of money betting against me in my second year at Hogwarts after Malfoy Senior bought Junior onto the Slytherin team with the new brooms.
Hey, at least I know I didn’t just make it due to my name.
It wasn’t the only Quidditch I got to experience after visiting Zab. Ron invited me to his debut match with the Cannons against the Harpies, and I received an invitation by the team manager to sit with the reserve players in the box as the game progressed. Ron started on the bench, sitting next to me nervously, but eventually got a go after the first string keeper took a well-thrown quaffle to the head, and who then started complaining that the Harpies were fielding six chasers. Ron’s nerves were definitely on show; he failed to block the next three shots at goal. But once he managed to block one shot, his anxiety settled, and his success ratio ended up being well into his favor by the time the Harpies’ seeker finally managed to catch the snitch.
That night, after a long and raucous party in which enough alcohol was consumed that both Ron and I somehow managed to dare two of the Harpies’ chasers to a broom race around Muggle London (which did not impress the locals, or the Ministry obliviators who were sent to clean up. Thank goodness using a broom isn’t considered casting a spell in front of Muggles), I got home to discover Hermione asleep on one of the sitting room couches.
Though a bit more than tipsy, I was still in enough control of myself not to wake her up. The last thing I wanted to do was trash our relationship further, which I’m sure would happen if she saw me in my current state.
Instead, I sat down in a chair opposite her and simply stared, thinking about how our relationship reached its current point. I certainly wasn’t going to apologise, I had long ago reached an acceptance of my role in Snape’s death, and the fact that he was still sort-of-alive and teaching softened the finality of it somewhat. Without knowing what Hermione had thought about, I honestly didn’t know how to approach the conversation. I knew from hard-won experience how hard it was to shift an idea once Hermione had hold of it. Her intelligence was like the Hogwarts Express, extremely powerful, but it was fucking hard to make it change direction.
A soft shuffle on the carpet behind me signaled Blaise’s entrance to the room. “As you can see, the Gryffindor princess returned,” she said sourly in a low voice.
I turned my head to face her. “When did she get here?” I whispered.
Blaise smirked. “About three minutes after you left this morning. She obviously hasn’t been keeping in touch with Weasley, and had no idea there was a Quidditch match on today. I may have forgotten to inform her what your plans were.” Blaise came over and sat down on my lap, the fluffy robe she wore tickling me lightly.
I reached around and grabbed her possessively in a tight hug. She sighed softly and leaned into me, wiggling slightly to get comfortable.
“Remember the first time we shared an armchair?” she giggled, putting a hand to her mouth to soften the noise when Hermione shifted in her sleep.
I couldn’t help but smile. “Of course. I remember wondering what to do with my arm.”
Blaise rested her head in the crook of my neck. “Hmm, you are still just as comfortable now as you were then.”
I smiled, a little sadly. “What are we going to do with her? Not that I mind that our relationship is now a bit more orthodox, but she was my very first female friend.”
Blaise raised her head from my neck. “Harry, I won’t say that I’m not pleased to have you all to myself now. And if you do both make up, I suppose I would be fine with you being with her again. But remember, she hurt you. She hurt you badly. You always said that she knew you better than anyone else did. Sure, the situation was extreme, but she cut and ran before the argument had ended.” She ran a hand down my cheek. “You will always be more than welcome in my bed, but I won’t be in a threesome; I won’t share a bed with both of you again.”
I nodded absently, and Blaise rose from my lap. She kissed me gently and said, “I’m going back to bed. If you want to join me, I’d like that. If you want to stay and talk to Granger, that’s fine too.”
I frowned. If Blaise had reverted to calling Hermione by her surname, then things were not good between the two. I suppose that the pair had been here together all evening, and judging by the tension in Blaise’s voice, some hostile words had been exchanged.
I found myself wondering how the upcoming conversation would have gone if she had come to see me the day following Snape’s death, or even the following few days. It probably would have been easier on us both to have cleared the air quickly, rather than have this whole awkward situation hanging over us. While I was quite sure our friendship could survive intact, I was worried that enough things had changed to ensure it would never be the same between us.
I must have sat there for an hour, watching Hermione sleep; watching her chest rise and fall softly with her breathing. My mind wandered back to when we first met on the Hogwarts Express, to the troll in the bathroom, and all the other memorable incidents during our Hogwarts years. She had stuck by me then, all the way up to the Department of Mysteries, when even Ron had succumbed to jealousy a time or two.
Despite being a Gryffindor, I found I didn’t have the courage to wake her.
In the end, I silently summoned a thick blanket with a permanent heating charm, covered my bushy-haired friend, and let her sleep in peace.
I had real difficulty sleeping that night, even curled up next to Blaise. I couldn’t help but think about the difference between the two girls. As much as I loved both of them, only one of them had asked how I felt after killing Snape. Hermione had been worried about herself, or at least her career, first and foremost. Being associated with me was probably not going to be advantageous to her or her career in the long run, especially if the Prophet decided they needed a whipping boy to increase sales again in the near future.
Blaise hadn’t even bothered thinking about what others thought. I had been her primary focus.
The difference had been both startling and thought provoking. Waiting so long to patch things up had probably made it impossible for us to get back together as we had been. I wondered if there would always be some sort of thought in the back of my mind that if something untoward happened (hardly a rare occurrence in my life), I wouldn’t receive the support from her that I would need.
With a soft groan, I realized that there was one more relationship in my life that an apology would go far to fix, so long as it was done sooner rather than later.
Despite the early hour, I rose silently, and dressed.
It was the first time I’d ever watched the Hogsmeade fountain as the sun rose over the horizon. Grawp’s image’s happy munching on some unidentified carcass made the need for breakfast redundant, but Cho’s playful dance again put a small, sad smile on my face. As I waited for the castle in front of me to wake up, I continued to watch the images of the heroes of the final battle, those who had given their lives.
After a few more minutes, Hagrid’s roosters began crowing, signaling the start of the day. I began trekking up the path to Hogwarts.
It was with a red face that I saw that the castle doors had been repaired since my last visit. Even though the Horcrux had been influencing me and fuelling my rage, I was still embarrassed that I had once again been manipulated by Voldemort. After my experience with the bloody diary, I should have known that a Horcrux could change someone, even during such a short time.
This time, the doors were already open. I entered the ancient castle, which at this time of morning was still silent, and the only movement was that of the portraits. A few yelped at me presence, and one figure even disappeared from the frame, probably to warn Dumbledore.
Even though the halls were empty, I felt like I was out of place. That I was… unwelcome. It was a wholly uncomfortable sensation. Hogwarts had always felt like home to me, but now a damp, dank miasma of disapproval lingered around me. It was with a start that I realized that the castle itself didn’t want me there, and the thought that I was no longer welcome seriously disturbed me. Unsure what to do, I placed my hand on one wall and whispered, “I’m so sorry for what I did.”
After a few moments, the discomfort flickered and left, though I still felt watched. I guess the castle herself had forgiven me, but I was on probation, as it were.
“Thank you,” I said softly before I took my hand from the wall. I had always felt as though Hogwarts was somehow alive, but I had no idea, no inkling, that it had some semblance of sentience. Mind you, I suppose having each and every witch and wizard in the country spend seven years of their lives here, casting every possible kind of magic would impart some sort of identity. Magic was, well, magical like that.
I had no difficulty finding the Headmaster’s office; I’d bet that if I just walked on autopilot I’d either end up at Gryffindor Tower or outside the gargoyle. The stone statue watched me carefully, but moved aside when I gave the last password the Headmaster had given me. He had obviously not changed it since.
The office itself was as it usually was, except for the absence of Dumbledore. As many times as I’d been here, I could only count a couple of times I’d been in the office alone. With a smile, I remembered the pensieve incident, and I wondered if the Headmaster kept it in the same cupboard.
Before I could even turn to look at the closed cupboard, a bookshelf on one wall swung in like a door, and Dumbledore stepped through, still dressed in his nightclothes. I was momentarily dazzled by the nightclothes he wore; the electric blue and orange stripes spun round the material like a barber’s pole, though not as tasteful. The canary yellow bobble on his nightcap bounced over one ear, emitting sparkly dust whenever he moved his head. I blinked several times to ensure I didn’t suffer from eyestrain.
“Harry?” he blurted, sounding delighted.
“Albus,” I replied in a monotone. Hey, if he was going to ignore my request and use my first name against my wishes, I wasn’t going to bother with niceties.
Dumbledore sat down behind his desk. “I must admit, I’m rather surprised to see you here. I had not expected you to voluntarily seek me out.”
I leveled a gaze at him. “I came to apologise. For my behavior, that is,” I clarified.
His eyebrows rose up and under the edge of his nightcap. “Indeed?”
I nodded seriously. “Yes, I severely underestimated the level of influence Horcrux would have on me.”
Dumbledore looked at me silently for a long time before speaking. “May I ask how you actually acquired it? Since whoever RAB was took it, I have had no luck at all in tracing it.”
I shrugged. “Ron and I stole it from a Gringotts vault the day before I threw it at you.”
The ancient eyes bulged, and he half stood, looking like an idiot hovering over a chair. “What? You were responsible for the theft?”
It was rather satisfying to see the hitherto unflappable Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore flabbergasted. The scene ranked right up there with the expression on his face immediately following Ron’s performance of a percussive experiment on his noggin involving a sturdy fire poker. Or even the instant when Lucius realized that blood supremacy did not stop someone using your eye-socket as a thumbhole to gain enough leverage to smash your skull on a cobblestone. Ah… Happy memories. “You heard me,” I said without inflection.
Dumbledore twice began to say something before thinking better. Eventually, he simply collapsed back into his high-backed chair. “I don’t know what to say,” he said, obviously truthfully.
I nodded, only partially suppressing a smirk. “Stating the obvious there. Trust me, it isn’t as bad as it sounds. While it is true we blew up the door to the vault to get the locket out, it turns out the vault belongs to me anyway. Regulus Black opened it before he died, and stored the locket there. He willed it to Sirius, who didn’t bother opening it. I inherited it from him.”
Dumbledore still seemed to have trouble accepting it. Finally, he said, “Well, it is a weight off my mind to know that you were aware at how you were being affected by your proximity to the Horcrux. More so that you appear to have completely shrugged off the affects of possessing the locket for a time. Er, sherbet lemon?” he finished lamely, gesturing towards his seemingly unending supply.
I hesitated for a second, but nodded in acceptance, more to keep him off balance than any real desire, and picked up one of the sour sweets. “I trust the locket is ruined?”
To my surprise, Dumbledore actually smiled. “In fact, no. The portion of Riddle’s spirit stored within was banished in an exceedingly simple manner. At first, I thought it had been too simple, yet all tests show the same result. The locket of Slytherin is both whole no longer polluted with a portion of Tom’s soul.”
I raised my eyebrows in surprise. “Just how did you manage to break the enchantment?” I asked, popping the sherbet lemon in my mouth. It took a bit of will power not to pucker up at the initial sour taste.
Dumbledore actually snickered as he took a lemon sherbet from the ever-present bowl on his desk and popped it in his mouth with relish. “I merely opened it.”
I blinked. “Excuse me?”
“As you wish,” he said, deliberately misinterpreting me. “However, I did not misspeak. The simple act of opening the locket released the soul fragment.”
I rose to my feet. “That’s it? Are you sure?”
“Quite sure,” he replied, grinning in a manner reminiscent of a Weasley twin.
I shook my head, but sat down. “No, it can’t have been that simple.”
The Headmaster composed himself. He winced at what he was about to say, with good reason. “Actually, you are correct. It was not quite that simple. I needed something that the locket would recognize as coming from Tom. I had to use some of your blood.”
I sprang to my feet again. “WHAT?” I roared, startling several portraits into wakefulness.
Dumbledore held up a hand. “Please, let me explain.”
I took three deep breaths before sitting again. I’m sure my gaze spoke louder than any words that I expected the explanation to be a good one.
“As you know, you have a unique connection to Riddle,” he started.
I cleared my throat. “How about you start at where you got my blood from?” I said evenly.
He nodded. “Very well. Your Potions score on your NEWTs indicates that you are aware that the potency of certain healing draughts can be amplified with the addition of the blood of the imbiber.”
My patience was beginning to wear thin. “Yes, yet you feel the need to repeat it.”
Dumbledore swallowed, and nodded having the grace to actually look abashed. “Yes, well, after your little adventure in the Chamber of Secrets in your second year, Madam Pomfrey took the liberty of taking some of your blood to use as a fortifying agent in the various elixirs that she employs. As the requirements at the time dictated, we informed the Dursleys of our actions, only to receive a rather blunt response requesting that they not be disturbed again.”
I breathed in and out deeply at this revelation. There was no point getting angry, since the incident in question had happened long before I’d established my independence from Dumbledore. But it still rankled that I hadn’t been informed.
Dumbledore took my silence to mean that I’d accepted that bit of information, and was unlikely to explode any time soon, and continued. “The blood was used to great effect in the more serious of your subsequent visits. After you fell from your broom during the Quidditch match against Hufflepuff in your third year, for example. Usually, any such samples we retain are destroyed once the student in question matriculates. However, against protocol, Poppy decided to hang on to your sample. She believed that you would not be able to keep yourself out of trouble, even after leaving these halls.”
Despite my anger, my lips twitched at that. Madam Pomfrey was one staff member at Hogwarts to whom I had always held the utmost respect. “A fair assumption, given her experience,” I managed to say evenly.
Dumbledore allowed himself a chuckle. “Yes, besides Remus, you were one of her most frequent customers. That aside, with the connection Riddle gave to you the Halloween of 1981, your blood held a close enough match to his magical signature to open the locket without force. I presume each of his Horcruxes were designed to give up their soul fragment in different ways. A touch of blood on the clasp was enough for this one.” Dumbledore reached into a drawer and drew forth the heavy gold locket. “I believe that only you could possibly claim ownership to this,” he said, pushing it to me.
Despite his reassurances, I drew my wand and cast each of the detection charms he taught me, and a couple I’d learned in the meantime. The locket remained stubbornly unresponsive. “It seems you are correct.”
“Alastor would be proud of your caution. As would Aloysius.”
I nodded absently at the use of Zab’s hated first name while looking directly at the locket. “Are you sure about that? Ownership of the locket, I mean?”
“Quite. The only other person who would possibly have a claim on it would be Mr. Borgin of Borgin and Burkes, since he purchased it semi-legally from Merope Gaunt. However, he would have a great deal of difficulty in justifying just how he came about it, even if he knew of its current existence and whereabouts. Since it has technically been in your possession since Sirius’ death, and in his for over a decade before that, I suppose it is yours by rights.”
I shook my head, still looking at the heavy piece of jewelry. “What am I going to do with it?”
Dumbledore shrugged. “Study it, perhaps? There isn’t an academic in the country who wouldn’t jump at the chance to examine an artifact belonging to one of the four founders.”
I mentally shrugged. I had no real interest in studying a thousand-year-old locket. Zab may though. “Ok, thanks.” I stood up and prepared to leave, not interested in prolonging the conversation any further. With any luck, Hermione would be awake when I got home.
“There are two other matters that we should discuss before you leave, Harry.”
I stopped, but didn’t turn back to face him. “And they are?” I asked.
He actually sounded ashamed. “The first is Professor Snape.”
I shrugged. “What’s the problem? He’s dead, but still teaching. He’s no doubt still as hostile as ever to children, which in any other institution would have resulted in his arrest, or at least his dismissal. Of course, Hogwarts is supposedly the ‘best’ institution of magical learning in the entire world, yet can’t get competent teachers for Potions, History, Divination or Defense.”
Dumbledore shut his eyes. “I was referring to your accusation of my being under the Imperius.”
I stopped still for a second. “Oh,” I said after a second.
“It is to my eternal shame that I must admit that I had been subtly subjected to it. As a ghost of Hogwarts, Professor Snape is bound to answer honestly any question put to him by the Headmaster, and he has admitted to casting it on me.” Dumbledore glanced down at his hands, unable to keep my gaze. “I held such high hopes for him, and I truly believed that he was striving for redemption. It would appear however that he was in fact acting on Tom’s orders, posing as a double agent.”
I clenched my teeth together. “You subjected hundreds of students to his abuse because he tricked you into believing him?” I snarled.
He simply nodded and said, “Yes, it would appear so.”
I could feel the familiar tendrils of rage building, and I deliberately stoked them into a raging fire. I forced the split in my mind, keeping my shields up and staying cool and collected as my power flared brightly. Magical objects on the shelves began vibrating as I allowed my magic to fill the air. “You gave a fucking Death Eater access to children?” I shouted. “You were so cock-sure of yourself that you allowed a murderous sociopath like Snape into my mind?”
Dumbledore did nothing to calm me down. “Yes,” he admitted humbly. “Harry, no matter how angry you are, no matter what you say to me, believe me when I say that it is nothing compared to what I’ve said to myself over the past week.”
I glared at his so hard my eyes hurt. “I’ll believe that only once you’ve been listening to me shouting at you for a week, you arrogant, egotistical bastard!”
Dumbledore closed his eyes and lowered his head, a submissive gesture more designed to escape from my gaze than anything else. “I believe you,” he said.
His posture slumped as I started swearing, not bothering to keep my voice low. More than half the portraits murmured their disapproval, but through it all Dumbledore sat still and non-threatening. “What’s the matter?” I snapped, trying to goad a reaction from him. Something, anything. Anything but his calm, humble acceptance of his errors. “Nothing to say for yourself? No virtuous claims of good intentions gone bad? No self-righteous admonishment to call the dearly departed Death Eater by the undeserved honorific ‘Professor’?” I spat.
Dumbledore simply sat silently and shook his head.
I growled deep in my throat, but pulled my magic back in and clamped down on my rage. It wasn’t goading any sort of reaction from him. “Why?” I asked simply.
Dumbledore suddenly looked very old. Or at least, much older. “I have made many more mistakes over the past two decades than I thought possible. Decisions at the time that seemed to be the best course turned out to be perhaps the most disastrous course possible. I trusted when I shouldn’t have, and didn’t speak up when I should have.”
I gestured wildly, the anger not entirely under control. “Yet the arsehole is down in the dungeons, still teaching!” I screamed.
Dumbledore nodded again. His passive aggressive tactics irritated me even more. “Only for the next two weeks. Just until the OWLs and NEWTs are done.”
He stood slowly, pushing off the desk with his good left hand. “There is only a fortnight until the exams. Disrupting the students’ preparation with a new teacher at this time would do them a disservice, even if I could have secured the services of a Potions Master at such short notice,” he said softly.
I rolled my eyes. “Have you learned nothing?” I asked incredulously. “You just sat there and admitted that decisions you made for altruistic reasons tend to backfire!”
He winced. “This was not a decision I made alone, nor lightly. The Board of Governors were consulted, and the decision was made collectively. While close, the vote was to allow Severus to continue,” he said softly.
“What did you vote?” I pressed.
“Harry--” he pleaded.
“No!” I snapped. “How did you vote?” I demanded again.
He slumped back into his chair. “I had intended on voting for his dismissal, but two of the governors convinced me that the disruption to the fifth and seventh year students would outweigh the benefits of exorcising him from the castle,” he said, obviously expecting an explosion of some sort.
I snarled at him. “Are you sure you can throw off the Imperius? That sounds like an awfully weak-minded excuse to me,” I said harshly.
“The OWLs and NEWTs are important to those taking them,” Dumbledore said reprovingly.
I rolled my eyes. “Then why have you foisted people like Binns, Snape and Trelawney on us over the years? I won’t even mention some of your choices as Defense Professor,” I said evenly.
Dumbledore sighed. “Severus was, is, a certified Potions Master, Harry.”
I gave that statement a dismissive gesture. “That alone does not a good teacher make,” I replied, watching with amusement as the flash of irritation that crossed his features at my gesture.
He actually nodded glumly, but stayed silent.
I continued to glare at the silent wizard for a long time. He seemed to be waiting for something. After a minute or so, I decided to take my leave. The day wasn’t getting any shorter. I rose and got to the door before remembering something.
“What was the second thing you wanted to speak to me about?” I asked evenly.
“Your upcoming visit to the Vatican.”
I sighed, but turned back to him and sat down once more. “What needs to be discussed? They’ve asked me back to speak with the Church’s wizards.”
Taking my non-hostile tone as being as close to forgiveness as he was likely to get this century, Dumbledore leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers. “I’m afraid the blame for your ignorance in the history of the magical world sits squarely with me. Professor Binns’ fixation with Goblin rebellions, though an important part of our history, prevents him from imparting other, equally important events. May I give you a crash course first, before explaining why we need to speak of your upcoming visit?”
I nodded, waving my hand in a circle to get him to hurry up. “Ok, but I’d prefer it if you changed into something less eye-catching. I’m starting to get a headache.”
He actually glanced down at the fashion disaster he was wearing before transfiguring them with a casual wave of his wand. I frowned at the glimpse of his forearm. Previously, it was only his hand and wrist that had been withered. The affliction had spread up his forearm, nearly to the elbow.
He ignored my questioning glance, instead adopting a lecturing tone. “While there is no way of determining the truth of the matter, there is a theory that Jesus of Nazareth was in fact a powerful wizard, who gathered a dozen wizards as his followers to carry on his legacy.”
I held up a hand, interrupting him. “Hang on, if you’re going to go back that far, we need popcorn or something.”
He smiled at my quip. “Please, I promise the story shall move more quickly very shortly.” At my nod, he continued. “At his crucifixion, one of his followers laced the vinegar soaked sponge he was offered with a Draught of the Living Death. Even then, he was nearly killed when the spear pierced his side. While the healer Mary Magdalene managed to stabilize him, he did die a few days later. On his death, the Catholic Church was established in Rome, where it has for most of its history been the single safest place for magical children from impoverished communities.”
I frowned. “What about the witch-burnings? Or the inquisition?”
Dumbledore gave me an approving nod. “Historically, the Church has preyed upon witches and wizards who were perceived to have been involved with dark arts. Catholic parents of magical children often had priests visit as exorcists, in an effort to rid the child of the ‘demons’ present. Incidents of accidental magic were more often than not associated with the devil.
“Now, once identified, such children were encouraged to be indoctrinated into the Church hierarchy. They were sequestered and trained as you have been, though part of their education ensured they were fanatically loyal to the Church’s ecclesiastical leaders. There were of course periods where that policy was… rethought, especially during times of difficulty. The inquisition for example, was held during one such purge.”
I nodded. “There were a lot of powerful wards around the Vatican. I’m not sure how many wizards I saw there, but I defeated quite a few.”
Dumbledore nodded grimly. “Yes, yes you did. Now, you are aware that I am the Supreme Mugwump of the International Confederation of Wizards. As a sovereign nation, Vatican City has a seat on the Confederation. Initially there were some rather vocal demands for your arrest by one faction of the Church’s wizards, but the revelation that the Pope does actually have a private store of dark objects, a fact that had been hotly denied for centuries, took the wind out of their collective sails rather effectively. As a result, the Vatican has been under a great deal of pressure to reveal exactly what they have stored.”
I frowned, thinking about recent events. “Did this happen before or after I got the owl requesting my presence?”
“I honestly don’t know, Harry. I do know that cataloguing the collection has now become a priority, now that its existence can no longer be denied.”
I pursed my lips. “So they want me to go down and talk to the basilisk and stop it from eating those who want to go down there to identify the pieces?” I had a sudden cold sensation in my stomach. “No, they want me to go down there myself, don’t they?” I blurted.
Dumbledore frowned. “Why would you say that?”
“The Pope can go down there any time he likes. The basilisk identifies him as his master, and won’t attack. But it won’t let anyone else down there, unless they are a parselmouth. Not even the Pope could bring down an escort.”
Dumbledore turned grave. “That is a disturbing thought, Harry. I must ask for your cooperation though.”
I raised an eyebrow. “You want a copy of the inventory?”
The old wizard nodded gravely. “To start with. But I must ask you for something else. If you identify another Horcrux, or any other object that is so dark that it has a palpable aura of evil, I must humbly ask that you bring them to me.”
I forced myself to stay calm, made easier by the fact that it had been phrased as a request, and that I had fully expected it. Even so, I felt the familiar flash of anger return. “Are you asking me as the Headmaster of Hogwarts, the Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot or as the Supreme Mugwump?” I asked after a short pause.
“None of the above. Harry, I’m asking you as a wizard who has seen so much death and destruction in his life that he wants nothing more than to relieve the burden on future generations.”
I shook my head. “No. I still can’t trust you that much. I am willing to compromise, however.”
His dismay was quickly overshadowed by hope. “What do you wish?”
“Two things. A portkey from you, keyed to take myself and any dark object through the wards at both the Vatican and Hogwarts.”
The Headmaster nodded slowly. “That can be done. While the Church wizards cast the wards surrounding the Vatican themselves, they did consult me on their construction and layering. I can create a portkey to get you through both sets of wards.”
I nodded. “Good. Key it to the Chamber of Secrets,” I said, thinking of the only place the Headmaster couldn’t reach in Hogwarts.
He blinked. “The Chamber? Why?”
My eyes narrowed. “Because I still don’t know your motives in this. Putting any questionable objects there will keep them safe from others, but also from you, until I’m satisfied that your motives are in everyone’s best interest.”
Dumbledore stared at me for a long time. “Aloysius has certainly put his mark on you, Harry. Your caution and determination to examine motives before acting speaks volumes of both yourself and the lessons you have learned.”
I gave him a tight, insincere grin. “Thanks. Oh, you’d better make that a two-way portkey, like the Tri-wizard trophy. I’ll need to get back to my original location to avoid questions.”
He leaned forward, resting his elbows on the desk and gave me a sober look. “I’m not sure I can agree to that, Harry.”
I raised an eyebrow, and deliberately misunderstood him. “What? Creating a two way portkey is just as easy as a single use one,” I said.
He shook his head. “I mean that I cannot agree to your demands.”
I raised an eyebrow. “And yet if your motives were as you described, you’d have no difficulty in agreeing.”
Dumbledore shook his head. “No, I’m afraid you misunderstand. The situation would remain exactly as it was, with one person, who has no allegiance to anyone but themselves, would retain access and control over the items. Only the person in question would have changed.”
I snorted. “And you think that I should just hand them over to you?”
“Not to me, to the ICW, the International Confed--”
“I know what it stands for, old man,” I snapped. “You just said that you weren’t asking me as the Supreme Mugwump. Now you want me to just hand the stuff over?”
“I am asking you as someone who sincerely wants to destroy dark objects. The ICW are in the best position to do that. They have access to the best curse breakers in the world. Not even Gringotts have better.”
I shook my head. “You can’t expect me to place my trust in any government body, not after what we were both subjected to in my fifth year here.”
Dumbledore sighed. “The Confederation is not the Ministry, Harry.”
I sneered in a manner reminiscent of Malfoy at his best. “Yet you were given the arse by both bodies for telling the truth. Forgive me if I don’t have the same level of trust that you seem to possess.”
He leaned back in his chair again. “I suppose I cannot persuade you otherwise, but the situations were very different. Any time a Mugwump is removed from a ruling body in their own country, they are automatically suspended from the ICW, pending an investigation.”
I barked a humorless laugh. “And you want me to trust such a bunch of gullible idiots with a heap of dark objects?”
Dumbledore frowned, and I could feel his aura swirl with anger. “Harry, everything the ICW does is open to the public. We would have to announce the receipt of such a hoard, and detail what we were planning on doing with it.”
I nodded insincerely. “Riiight. Which would leave me in the lurch, since the Vatican would then know what I’d done. May I draw your attention back to your own words? Something about the Church preying on people who were perceived to have been involved in dark arts? What do you think they’d do to someone who managed to steal the darkest objects from their treasure trove?”
“We would of course offer you protect—”
I interrupted him. “For the rest of my life? I had enough of your protection as a child. Besides, it is protection I wouldn’t need if I just put the bloody things in the Chamber of Secrets.”
“I’m afraid I cannot allow that, Harry,”
I shrugged. “Fine. You don’t get the objects then.”
He sighed deeply again. “I wouldn’t have them either way if they were in the Chamber.”
“You misunderstand,” I said, mimicking his tone. “I won’t retrieve them. They can stay in the hands of the Church for all I care. They’ve been well protected for a long time now. Why should I rock the boat?”
Dumbledore actually growled. “Harry, these objects need to be destroyed. The Church will not entertain the notion, so we must take other measures.”
I clasped my hands behind my head, leaned back and lifted my feet up and plonked them on his desk, one after the other. “Then you’d better decide which is more important to you. Getting the objects out of the hands of the Church and not having direct access to them, or leaving them in the hands of the Church, and still not having access to them. Remember, you need me on this. I certainly don’t need you.”
His eyes narrowed. “You need me to make the portkey,” he pointed out.
I made another dismissive gesture, since it annoyed him so much. “Only if you pick the first option, which would mean you do need me.”
We sat silently for a few moments again, before I rose and continued. “Think about it old man. Let me know what you decide. I’m not sticking around for hours while you make up your mind.” I headed for the door.
“What was your second demand, Harry?”
I stopped just before descending the stairs. “That. You. Stop. Calling. Me. ‘Harry’,” I shouted over my shoulder.
Somehow, Dumbledore acquiesced to my demands, and I left his office with an old sock in my pocket partially charmed as a two-way portkey. Dumbledore had decided he wasn’t prepared to create a portkey directly to the Chamber. Since he had never been in the Chamber, and didn’t know exactly where it was on his mental map of Hogwarts, he couldn’t safely set the destination. Rather than giving me a portkey that could deposit me directly into the foundations of the castle (and since I wasn't going to take him down there myself), he taught me the charm to anchor the uncompleted portkey to the current location.
Making sure I wasn’t followed, I entered Myrtle’s bathroom and hissed at the relevant sink before she could come out to see who her visitor was. I ordered steps to appear, and walked down into the Chamber. I didn’t bother going all the way into the bowels of the grotto, this was close enough. I drew my wand and cast the charm that would anchor the portkey, completing the enchantment. I exited Slytherin’s lair, but rather than leaving Hogwarts straight away, I wandered off to Gryffindor Tower, where the sounds of activity behind the Fat Lady indicated the usual frenzied rush to gather belongings before heading down to breakfast.
Without the password, I had to wait in the hall, but it was only fifteen seconds or so before the portrait opened. Natalie MacDonald stepped out chatting with a much younger witch, probably a sister in first year, judging from their similarities. Nat had been one of the youngest members of the DA to join once we threw it open to the whole school, and the few times I worked with her she displayed quite a natural talent for dueling. The fact that she was smaller than Ginny made it damned hard to hit her with a spell from a distance. She stopped with surprise when she saw me, but smiled and proudly showed me the gleaming onyx ring on her finger. “Harry! Look! I earned this last week. I’m the youngest onyx ring in the school!”
I gave her a genuine smile. “Well done, Nat. I’m proud of you. How is the DA going?”
She smiled happily. “Great! Over half the school is signed up now, though only the NEWT level years get credit in their DADA class,” she said, grumbling the last bit.
I reached out and playfully messed up her hair. “That’s my girl. Tell me, is Ginny still upstairs?”
Natalie’s companion squeaked, “I’ll get her,” before bolting back into Gryffindor Tower.
I blinked, but Natalie laughed. “My cousin. She has always had a bit of a crush on you,” she said.
I rolled my eyes. “Boy-Who-Lived, right?” I asked condescendingly.
She actually shook her head. “Nope. She’s a Quidditch nut. She knows everything about the game. She could tell you your average time to catch the snitch against Slytherin in bad weather. was still a little tyke when she was in the crowd for your first game, but at that moment she decided that you were her favorite Seeker in the whole world,” she said, her eyes amusingly wide as she mimicked a star-struck, pre-pubescent little girl. “She didn’t even know who The-Boy-Who-Lived was. I told her, but defeating an evil wizard as a baby was nothing compared to your Quidditch skills,” she finished with a smirk.
I sighed, letting the breath out with a chuckle. “Ah, yes. It’s such an inconsequential thing, ridding the world of an evil psychopath. Well, at least I have a new generation of groupies who love me for what I can actually do,” I said mock-seriously.
We shared a laugh as another gaggle of witches exited the Tower and headed on down to breakfast. Natalie began talking about this year’s Defense Professor, and how the woman was nearly as strict as McGonagall. “She’s got nothing on Snape, but at least she is willing to answer questions in class,” she chattered happily. While her constant yammering annoyed me as a student, I now found it rather amusing to listen to someone whose ability to simply talk about everything without a care was on display.
I grinned as she gossiped away, as happy as a young witch should be. For all the trials and tribulations of my life, this was what I was fighting for. The ability of others to be themselves, to live life as they chose. To live without having to worry about your family being hunted down by an insane half-blood bigot. Or any other bigot, for that matter.
“Harry!” Ginny shouted as she exited, followed by Natalie’s unnamed cousin. Ginny gave me a tight hug, before stepping back with a frown on her face. “Have you spoken to Hermione since you kicked her out?” she demanded.
“Huh?” I said eloquently. “I didn’t kick her out!”
Ginny narrowed her eyes. “That’s not what she said,” she remarked.
I rolled my eyes. “She left of her own accord. It was her interpretation of why I killed Snape that sent her running,” I said flatly.
Ginny eyed me warily, trying to detect a falsehood. “She didn’t tell me why she left, just that she left because of you.”
I sighed. Yep, Ginny was definitely a member of the wizarding world. That sort of tortured logic that passed for free thought was well and truly entrenched in the youngest Weasley scion’s thinking. Even as a first year, Hermione noticed it, when we tried to get past Snape’s defense to the Philosopher’s Stone. Wizards just don’t have a single iota of logic in their makeup. It’s no wonder no one believed me when I said I didn’t put my name in the Goblet of Fire. Never mind the fact that my name came out after Cedric’s. I mean, if I had entered, I’d have entered as a Hogwarts student. Merlin, Crouch actually told everyone at the time how he did it. He all but confessed with Dumbledore, a skilled legilimens, in the room with him (evil bastard that he was, I’ll give him one thing, he had balls of brass the size of coconuts). But no, rather than actually think about it, let’s just alienate Harry because he obviously thought of a way around whatever protections the Goblet had.
“Yes, well, I suppose that says it all,” I muttered, speaking more to myself than Ginny. She gave me a hurt look.
“I didn’t mean anything by it. No need to get offended,” she said, her voice rising easily.
Despite the warning signs of an imminent eruption coming from Mt Weasley that would have sent any island natives searching for a handy virgin to sacrifice, I didn’t back down. “Gin, you just accused me of kicking my girlfriend out of my house. Yes, she left because she didn’t condone my actions, but saying that I kicked her out is the sort of thinking the Prophet readers are famed for.”
She coloured, her face breaking out in ugly red splotches of anger. Unlike her blushes that, while entertaining, turn her face a solid brick-red. “Don’t you dare--”
I flicked my wand at her, whispering, “Silencio.”
She turned from red to purple. “Gin, do be quiet. I’m not here to pick a fight with you. I just wanted to talk to you about Hermione.”
She drew her own wand and waved it over herself, managing to silently cast the counter-charm. To say I was impressed would be an understatement. It had taken Zab several hours of constant drilling before I could perform the same feat. Either she was better at charms than I was, or this year’s Defense Professor was exceptional.
“How dare you--” she started, before I flicked my wand again, cutting her off mid-rant.
“I dare, because you are acting far more like your mother than you realize. If I don’t cut you off now, I won’t have a chance later. Seriously Gin, calm down. You don’t need to turn into Molly to defend yourself against me. The twins, maybe, but not me.”
She again swished away my spell, still glaring at me angrily. “Fine. What do you want to know?”
I took a deep breath. “What has Hermione told you about her feelings? About what she wants from our relationship?”
Ginny stared at me for a while before nodding. “Why don’t you go ask her yourself?”
I rolled my eyes. “Because I don’t know how to approach the conversation. When I left this morning, she was asleep on my couch. I didn’t want to wake her because I didn’t know how she felt. Do you know if she still wants to be my girlfriend? Or even friends?”
Ginny mimicked me and rolled her own eyes. “Honestly Harry, you are the densest boy in the world. Of course she still wants to be friends. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t be on your couch.”
Something I didn’t know was there lifted from me. It was like a weight around my lungs had been removed, letting me breathe easily for the first time in weeks.
I smiled at her and simply said, “Thanks, Gin.”
I made my way out of Hogwarts and out into the wonderful morning sunshine. I took a couple of seconds to close my eyes and hold my head up, letting the newly-risen sun warm my face. Hogwarts was a wonderful place, but even in the middle of summer, like any castle built of stone, it was damned cold at night.
An owl hooted above me, and I looked up to see Zeus, the fastest owl that roosted at Zabini Manor circling above my head. I held out my arm, allowing the horned owl to perch there. “Good morning, Zeus,” I said to him. “I assume you have something for me?”
Zeus leaned to one side and stuck out a leg. I quickly untied the tightly wrapped scroll. I stuffed it into one pocket.
“Sorry, I don’t have a treat for you,” I said before the morning sounds attracted my attention. With a grin I drew my wand and cast, “Accio frog,” aiming my wand towards the lake.
About a dozen frogs croaked their displeasure as they were pulled from their comfortable homes. I ended the spell before I was hit by a handful of aerial amphibians, allowing them to fall at my feet. I picked one up and gave it to Zeus, who gave a muffled hoot of appreciation before leaping from my arm and climbing high into the sky.
With a wave of my wand, I banished the other frogs back to the lake, then pulled out the scroll. Zab’s old-English handwriting stared back at me.
My contact wishes to meet with you.
Noon, three days time.
I frowned as I read the note again. The meeting was scheduled for two hours before I was to be interviewed by the Church’s wizards. It certainly wasn’t inconceivable that Zab knew of my upcoming visit to the Vatican (and the time of the meeting), but that meant that either he told his contact, or chose the time and location himself.
I incinerated the scroll, and prepared to Apparate.
I wondered if Ron was up for another road trip.