The dungeon door opened and Slughorn's belly preceded him out of the door. As we filed into the room, his great walrus mustache curved above his beaming mouth, and he greeted Harry, Zabini, and I with particular enthusiasm.
The dungeon was, most unusually, already full of vapors and odd smells. People were clustered together by house, except for Ernie, who ended up with Ron, Harry, and Hermione. The four Slytherins took a table together, as did the four Ravenclaws. They chose the one nearest a gold-colored cauldron that was full of what I recognized as Felix Felicis. My eyes locked on it hungrily and I found my hand groping unconsciously for a bottle. If we had even a chance to walk up to the front, then I could use a spell so summon some from the cauldron into the vial… and the things I could do with Liquid Luck.
That wasn't the only intriguing potion already made. Veritaserum was in a cauldron, and again I itched to get my hands on some of it. I still bore a bit of a grudge against the potion considering its hand in last years reign of terror from Umbridge, but forcing someone to tell the truth had advantages. It was far from infallible though. As I'd proved last year it did have an antidote and it could also be defeated by a particularly skillful Occlumens.
I also recognized the slowly-bubbling, mudlike consistency of one of the other options. It was Polyjuice Potion, and when I looked sideways at Hermione, she was staring at it with a slightly hurt look in her eyes. I had no doubt that she was remembering the way she'd ended up in the Hospital Wing as some kind of anthropomorphic half-cat creature in second year. That had been an interesting time. I'd been the one who recognized that the Crabbe and Goyle Draco had brought back to the Common Room were in fact Harry and Ron and hunted them down to give them a good thrashing.
The final potion had a mother-of-pearl sheen and some rising in spirals that could only mean one thing. Amortentia. I wrinkled my nose in distaste at the potion. I'd never been fond of the idea of a potion that could force someone into a helpless infatuation with another person, but now since I'd found my own love, the potion seemed more personally offensive. It masqueraded as love, but it wasn't. Love was far more complicated and messy than even the trickiest potion could be.
"Now then, now then, now then," said Slughorn, whose massive outline was quivering through the many shimmering vapors. "Scales out, everyone, and potion kits, and don't forget your copies of Advanced Potion-Making..."
"Sir?" said Harry, raising his hand.
"I haven't got a book or scales or anything - nor's Ron - we didn't realize we'd be able to do the N.E.W.T., you see -"
"Ah, yes, Professor McGonagall did mention... not to worry, my dear boy, not to worry at all. You can use ingredients from the store cupboard today, and I'm sure we can lend you some scales, and we've got a small stock of old books here, they'll do until you can write to Flourish and Blotts..."
Slughorn strode over to a corner cupboard and, after a moment's foraging, emerged with two very battered-looking copies of Advanced Potion-Making by Libatius Borage, which he gave to Harry and Ron along with two sets of tarnished scales.
"Now then," said Slughorn, returning to the front of the class and inflating his already bulging chest so that the buttons on his waistcoat threatened to burst off, "I've prepared a few potions for you to have a look at, just out of interest, you know. These are the kind of thing you ought to be able to make after completing your N.E.W.T.s. You ought to have heard of 'em, even if you haven't made 'em yet. Anyone tell me what this one is?"
He indicated the cauldron nearest the Slytherin table. Hermione's well-practiced hand hit the air before anybody else's. Slughorn pointed at her.
"It's Veritaserum, a colorless, odorless potion that forces the, drinker to tell the truth," Hermione said, reciting the dictionary definition of Veritaserum.
"Very good, very good!" said Slughorn happily. "Now," he continued, pointing at the cauldron nearest the Ravenclaw table, "this one here is pretty well known... Featured in a few Ministry leaflets lately too ... Who can-?"
My hand hit the air first and Hermione gave me a startled look. I usually was content to let my knowledge show in my brewing instead of in answering questions. Hermione was the opposite. She had to display her knowledge through answering questions posed because she was at best a slightly above average brewer. She still maintained good grades, of course, but she couldn't touch me in terms of actual potion-making. But with a new teacher, and a new teacher from my own house who had contacts galore that might be useful to me some day down the line, it was important to make a good impression whether I liked the man personally or not.
I honestly still hadn't decided on that front.
"It's POlyjuice Potions, sir," I explained. "By adding a bit of another person – most commonly a hair, though less-common and more distasteful objects include nail trimmings and bits of dead skin – you transform into the other potion. It's a lengthy brew, and you have to be careful what you put in. For example, if you accidently get a hair from a person's pet instead of their own, you might turn into something not very nice."
I smirked and Hermione flashed me a dark look from across the room as her cheeks toasted. Her eyes flashed with the typical Gryffindor response to a challenge, and it was on.
"Excellent, excellent! I'd expexct nothing less from you, after reading the notes my predecessor had on his students. Now, this one here... yes, my dear?" said Slughorn, now looking slightly bemused, as Hermione's hand punched the air again.
"It's Amortentia!" she announced, and threw me a surperior look.
"It is indeed. It seems almost foolish to ask," said Slughorn, who was looking mightily impressed, "but I assume you know what it does?"
"It's the most powerful love porion in the world!" said Hermione smugly.
"Quire right! You recognized it, I suppose, by its distinctive mother-of-pearl sheen?"
"And the steam rising in characteristic spirals," said Hermione enthusiastically, "and it's supposed to smell differently to each of according to what attracts us, and I can smell freshly mown grass and new parchment and -" But she turned slightly pink and did not complete the sentence.
"May I ask your name, my dear?" said Slughorn, ignoring Hermione's embarrassment.
"Hermione Granger, sir."
"Granger? Granger? Can you possibly be related to Hector Dagworth-Granger, who founded the Most Extraordinary Society of Potioneers?" Slughorn asked eagerly.
"No. I don't think so, sir. I'm Muggle-born, you see."
"Like that will stop him from trying to get his hands on the biggest brain we've got in our year," Draco hissed to Nott, and they both snickered. I kicked him under the table and Draco winced, glanxcing at me.
"Present company excluded, of course," he corrected himself.
Slughorn beamed and looked from Hermione to Harry, who was sitting next to her.
"Oho! 'One of my best friends is Muggle-born, and she's the best in our year!' I'm assuming this is the very friend of whom you spoke, Harry?"
"Yes, sir," said Harry.
"Well, well, take twenty well-earned points for Gryffindor, Miss Granger," said Slughorn genially.
Malfoy looked rather as he had done the time Hermione had punched him in the face. Hermione turned to Harry with a radiant expression and whispered, "Did you really tell him I'm the best in the year? Oh, Harry!"
"Well, what's so impressive about that?" whispered Ron, who for some reason looked annoyed. "You are the best in the year - I'd've told him so if he'd asked me!"
Hermione smiled but made a "shhing" gesture, so that they could hear what Slughorn was saying. Ron looked slightly disgruntled.
I scowled and my hand hit the air.
"Something to add, Miss Potter?" Slughorn asked me, looking amusedly curious, like he was eagerly anticipating more displays.
"Granger and most people are wrong," I said firmly. "Amortentia and its less-powerful cousins are misclassed. No potion can create love, but they can create powerful feelings of infatuation that would encourage the drinker to do anything for the object of their obsession and treat them like royalty. That's why Amortentia and other love potions are so dangerous.
"Twenty points as well, for Miss Potter is right on all counts," he said, nodding gravely at Malfoy and Nott, both of whom were smirking skeptically. "When you have seen as much of life as I have, boys, you will not underestimate the power of obsessive love...
"And now," said Slughorn, "it is time for us to start work."
"Sir, you haven't told us what's in this one," said Ernie Macmillan, pointing at a small black cauldron standing on Slughorn's desk. The potion within was splashing about merrily. It was the color of molten gold, and large drops were leaping like goldfish above the surface, though not a particle had spilled.
"Oho," said Slughorn again. Harry was sure that Slughorn had not forgotten the potion at all, but had waited to be asked for dramatic effect. "Yes. That. Well, that one, ladies and gentlemen, is a most curious little potion called Felix Felicis."
"God, she's pretty," I said, staring at the potion affectionately. As most of my classmates had learned over the years, I did occasionally get a bit odd about my brewing. More than once Pansy had shrieked at me for making the dorm smell like polish for the sake of cleaning my equipment or the rasping sound it made when I sharpened my knife.
"You're a freak," Daphne muttered, and Nott snorted.
"I take it that you know what it does?" Slughorn said, smiling at me indulgently.
"It's liquid luck," I said with a crooked grin. "Makes you lucky. A standard-size vial full of the stuff is enough for one perfect day."
The whole class seemed to sit up a little straighter. Now all I could see of Malfoy was the back of his sleek blond head, because he was at last giving Slughorn his full and undivided attention. I didn't blame him. He could use some luck more than anyone else here.
"Quite right, take another ten points for Slytherin. Yes, it's a funny little potion, Felix Felicis," said Slughorn. "Desperately tricky to make, and disastrous to get wrong. However, if brewed correctly, as this has been, you will find that all your endeavors tend to succeed... at least until the effects wear off."
"Why don't people drink it all the time, sir?" asked Terry Boot eagerly.
"Because if taken in excess, it causes giddiness, recklessness, and dangerous overconfidence," reasoned Slughorn. "Too much of a good thing, you know... highly toxic in large quantities. But taken sparingly, and very occasionally..."
"Have you ever taken it, sir?" asked Michael Corner with great interest.
"Twice in my life," said Slughorn wistfully. "Once when I was twenty-four, once when I was fifty-seven. Two tablespoonfuls taken with breakfast. Two perfect days."
He gazed dreamily into the distance. Whether he was playacting or not, the effect was good. Once more I found myself trying to decide whether or not I liked him. For what he'd told Tom Riddle I wanted to hate him but I knew that realistically no one could have predicted Voldemort because no one ever saw the signs unless they were paying very close attention. Dumbledore had been the only one paying attention back then, and it was the wrong kind of attention, the kind that drove him further down the dark path.
On the other hand, Slughorn was the most perfect Slytherin I had ever met. He seemed to have all of the good qualities and none of the bad. Or at least, if he had the bad, he'd learned to cope with them. His desire for influence hadn't let into usurpations or illegal study, but into a collection of people with whom he traded favors and gifts to mutual benefit. He stayed in the background, never in the front. He was not arrogant – on the contrary, in his personality he was almost Hufflepuff – but he was assured of himself. It was impressive.
"And that," said Slughorn, apparently coming back to earth, "is what I shall be offering as a prize in this lesson."
There was silence in which every bubble and gurgle of the surrounding potions seemed magnified tenfold.
"One tiny bottle of Felix Felicis," said Slughorn, taking a minuscule glass bottle with a cork in it out of his pocket and showing it to them all. "Enough for twelve hours' luck. From dawn till dusk, you will be lucky in everything you attempt.
"Now, I must give you warning that Felix Felicis is a banned substance in organized competitions... sporting events, for instance, examinations, or elections. So the winner is to use it on an ordinary day only... and watch how that ordinary day becomes extraordinary!"
"Sweet Merlin, he's like a showman," Daphne said, staring at him in bemusement.
"It's actually a bit impressive," I commented.
"So," said Slughorn, suddenly brisk, "how are you to win fabulous prize? Well, by turning to page ten of Advanced Potion Making. We have a little over an hour left to us, which should be time for you to make a decent attempt at the Draught of Living Death. I know it is more complex than anything you have attempted before, and I do not expect a perfect potion from anybody. The person who does best, however, will win little Felix here. Off you go!"
There was a scraping as everyone drew their cauldrons toward them and some loud clunks as people began adding weights to their scales, but nobody spoke. The concentration within the room was almost tangible. Malfoy was riffling feverishly through his copy of Advanced Potion-Making. It could not have been clearer that Malfoy really wanted that lucky day.
I got to work and felt completely at ease. I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I would be able to produce the best potion – I always did. The disadvantage of Potions class, however, was that everyone could see what you were doing and I was very conscious that a lot of eyes were darting to me to see what I was doing. The bluish steam that began to rise from the cauldrons blocked the view from the other side of the room, but my fellow Slytherins were shamelessly copying me.
"Sir, I think you knew my grandfather, Abraxas Malfoy?" Draco commented as Slughorn passed the Slytherin table.
"Yes," said Slughorn, without looking at Malfoy, "I was sorry to hear he had died, although of course it wasn't unexpected, dragon pox at his age..."
And he walked away. I winced. It couldn't have been cleared that Draco wouldn't be getting the type of preferential treatment he'd always gotten from Snape. A few years ago, perhaps he would have, but he wasn't lying when he said that the Malfoy name was mud these days and Slughorn wasn't going to cater to him if he couldn't get anything in return.
"Crush it," I murmured to my table as Daphne and Nott lifted their knives to start cutting up to sophorous beans. They didn't question me, just shifted their grips and brought the flat sides of their knives down on the beans, and sure enough, the juice oozed out instantly.
I gave them that, but it was hardly the only addition I made. My valerian roots were cut so finely they were nearly shredded so that they could be absorbed more easily into the potion. On top of that, as I began to stir, I added a clockwise stir after every seventh counterclockwise stir. I smirked as my potion turned as clear as the Veritaserum at the front of the room.
"And time's... up!" called Slughorn. I drew my stirring rod out of my potion and wiped it on a rag before letting it rest across the rim of my cauldron. "Stop stirring, please!"
I sat back and watched, fully aware that Daphne and Nott were giving my potion dirty looks and even Draco looked less than pleased. Slughorn moved slowly among the tables, peering into cauldrons. He made no comment, but occasionally gave the potions a stir or a sniff. At last he reached the table where Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Ernie were sitting. He smiled ruefully at the tarlike substance in Ron's cauldron. He passed over Ernie's navy concoction. Hermione's potion he gave an approving nod. Then he saw Harry's, and a look of incredulous delight spread over his face.
"No way in fucking hell," I snarled, clenching my fists as I glared at Harry's perfect potion.
"The clear winner!" he cried to the dungeon. "Excellent, excellent, Harry! Good lord, it's clear you've inherited your mother's talent. She was a dab hand at Potions, Lily was! Here you are, then, here you are - one bottle of Felix Felicis, as promised, and use it well!"
I snarled wordlessly. My potion was as good as Harry's was, the only thing clear here was that Slughorn's desire to collect people was in full swing. After all, as much of a name as I might have made for myself, I still wasn't the Boy Who Lived. Harry would always win, I thought bitterly, but it was tinged with a weary acceptance.
Something was different. No way that Harry had pulled that off by himself, and no one he was sitting with was good enough to have helped him out. Hermione was the best at the table and if she had been helping him then her potion would have been better as well. Something had changed, he didn't get that good overnight, so what had-
The book. I was hardly the only person who annotated their textbook and Harry's was a hand-me-down. Perhaps some other potions genius had left their book behind full of improvements and Harry had taken their advice. I needed to get a look at that book, and it would be only too easy to do so I thought with a smirk as I decided it was time to break into the Gryffindor Common Room again. It had been too long, really, and they were due.
Harry slipped the tiny bottle of golden liquid into his inner pocket. He looked a bit pleased at the furious looks on the Slytherins' faces and guilt at the disappointed expression on Hermione's. Ron looked simply dumbfounded.
"Go on ahead," I urged the others as they hung back to wait for me while I dithered cleaning up my cauldron. Daphne and Nott gave me suspicious looks and Draco's eyes flicked from me to the pre-made potions knowingly. He really did know me too well I mused as I siphoned several doses of the Draught of Living Death from my cauldron into vials. I was never a fan of Vanishing potions after class, and Slughorn looked at me approvingly.
"Well done, Miss Potter," he congratulated as he headed for the door to his office. "An excellent potion, but perhaps next time, eh?"
I nodded and smiled and waited for him to pass through the office door before I raised my hand in a rude gesture. For the sake of keeping it subtle in case Slughorn came right back out, I Disillucioned myself. I gathered a handful of empty vials, kicked my bag under the desk, and headed for the potions at the front of the room. I couldn't take too much, particularly from the Felix Felicis, for the sake of keeping it secret from Slughorn, but I did manage to steal two doses from it. Since the others were made in full-size cauldrons, I smuggled five doses out of them all, even the Amortentia, because you never knew. With my prizes tucked in my pockets and clinking gently, I scooped up my bag and silently slipped from the dungeon.
I headed straight to the Apprentice's Lab and stepped inside, shutting the door behind me and feeling myself relax the moment I was in. I let the spell hiding me drop and dumped my bag on the counter, emptying the contents of my pockets into the racks on the shelves. I had quite the collection going. My stolen potions, murtlap essence, antidote to Veritaseum, and my various tests of Sine Fraxinus. I stared proudly at my current collection before turning to my bookshelf.
The thing was meticulously organized and books were stacked two deep. Dark Arts books were on the top shelf. The two below were on potions and brewing. Under that was Animagus books, and under that were books on Occlumency. A random assortment took up the shelf one from the bottom, and at floor level was the heavily-banded box that held the basilisk skin and sewing patterns, including the one I'd recently gotten at Madam Malkin's for a dueling vest.
My two stools had undergone some magic. One had been turned into a cot with a quilt and pillow that was shoved into a corner and the other had been replicated so that I still had two. My trunk was shoved in the corner, away from any potential cauldron mishaps. It had been easy to call Dobby and have him bring it down here instead of to the dorm. There was a mirror hanging on the wall now that I used to do my makeup and fix my hair in the morning. This place had become my home within a home, and I loved it.
I wasn't feeling up to dinner, and besides I needed something to do to keep me awake until it was safe to go and creep into Gryffindor Common Room, so I drew my potions grimoire from inside the drawer under the counter where it and my other books were kept under heavy ward. I flipped it open and got to work on my first batch of brewing for the Order. Veritaseum and Polyjuice Potion would take the longest, so I got those going in my first two cauldrons. It would be nearly a month before they were done, but until then I could use the third cauldron for alternated blood-replenisher and dittany. The potions I had brewed last year to fight Umbridge's reign of terror were in Stasis bottles, so they were still fresh and were less critical.
Once the potions were up and going, I sighed and stepped back, rubbing my shoulders and straightening up. I went to my trunk and changed from my robes into more comfortable clothes – jeans, trainers, and a jumper. Rubbing my eyes, I sat down at the counter and Summoned a book from the shelf, flipping it open to the page held with a few pages of parchment. These were the notes I was taking.
I had two main projects in the works. Firstly, the emergency kits for the Order. They would require pouches with Undetectable Extension Charms. Of course, you could buy the things, but they were ridiculously expensive, and I'd need at least a dozen of them. Quite frankly, I wasn't willing to invest that much into the project when I could potentially learn how to do it myself. It was a nastily tricky spell though and would take some work until I managed it. I had some time though.
The second project had been inspired by Hermione and Sirius. Harry had told me about the mirror Sirius had given him that he and our father had used to communicate across separate detentions. For schoolboys, it was a clever idea, but for my purposes they could be even more incredibly useful. Inspired by Hermione using Galleons to communicate among the DA, I had decided to collect a batch of small hand compacts and enchant them with the same spell as a whole. It would be more than a link between two mirrors, it would be like a web connecting all of them. The Basilisks would be able to 'conference call' each other. On top of that, I planned to use the same spell applied to Snitches to give the mirror's flesh memories so that only my Basilisks could use them for anything more than checking their hair.
Two hours later, I was feeling reasonably well-informed about the Undetectable Extension charm and I was ready to start playing with it and trying to get it to work. I rubbed my eyes, done with my inventing for tonight, and I stood up and stretched. Once again I tapped myself with my wand and Disillusioned myself, fighting a shiver at the feeling of liquid sliding over me. I went to my trunk and pulled out the Marauder's Map.
"I solemnly swear that I am up to no good," I whispered, and smiled when the Marauders greeted me and the ink began to spread across the parchment into the map. I grinned and headed out. With the map it was an easy thing to make for the Gryffindor Common Room. The Fat Lady was asleep in her frame. I reached out and poked her in the middle of her painted forehead and she came awake with a snort.
"Who, what?" she babbled, and squinted into the darkness. She scowled thunderously. "Is that you, Potter? It has to be!"
"You know me so well," I cooed.
She looked down at my triumphantly, or rather, where she thought I was, which was about a foot to my left. I resisted the urge to snort as she said smugly, "Well the password's just changed, so there's no way you can-"
I glanced down at the map and asked mildly, "Oh, you mean to coccineus?"
The Fat Lady froze mid-rant as she unwillingly swung open.
"One day," she sighed wearily, sounding defeated. "I'll figure out how you always know."
"I really rather doubt it," I commented as I stepped into the empty Common Room. I made my way up the familiar path to Harry's dorm and cautiously pushed the door open, peering inside. I didn't have any concerns about waking them up, seeing as I was invisible. Still, I was quiet as I shut the door behind me and went to kneel by Harry's trunk. I lifted the latch and began to rifle through it. I came up triumphant – all of Harry's books were brand new except this one, and sure enough, when I flipped it open, it was covered in spidery, cramped writing that looked incredibly familiar.
I didn't have time to go through it all, but I did tap the book with my wand and replicate it for my own study. Then I took Harry's copy and erased a few of the instructions crammed into the margins. I didn't mind Harry using any resource he could – I even applauded him for the rather clever and downright Slytherin tactic – but no way in hell was he becoming known for being as good a brewer as I was. I'd be damned before that happened.
With the book tucked under my arm, I ventured back to the Apprentice's Lab. It was a little before midnight, my self-appointed bedtime, so I took a few minutes to flip through it. Sure enough, whoever had owned this book was brilliant. All of the additions or changes would result in a better potion, and some were things I wouldn't have thought to do, but seeing them written down, it seemed so obvious. There were even what looked like invented spells scribbled in the corners.
The familiarity of the handwriting was what got me, and I flipped through to the front of the book were many students wrote their names. With a hundred other students all carting around the same book, it paid to know which one was yours if you lost it. It wasn't a normal name written in the cover though, but a nickname. The Half-Blood Prince.
I stared at the nickname in bemusement for a moment. Half-blood, that was easy. Whoever it was, they were halfblood, which helped rule some people out, but there was no telling how long that book had been at the bottom of that cupboard. This person could have graduated before I even started school, hell, they could be teaching now…
I paused and a grin split my face as it clicked suddenly. Severus Snape, whose mother's maiden name was Eileen Prince and who was a half-blood. It made perfect sense. Surely he would have been brilliant even as a student and it didn't surprise me that he hadn't followed Libatius Borage's instructions where they could be improved upon. I did surprise me a little that he'd left his book behind, however. Either way, it explained why the handwriting looked so familiar – I'd seen the adult version of it scrawled across a chalkboard several times a week for the past five years.
I set the book aside for the moment. All things in time. Perhaps this weekend I'd be able to have some time to read through it, but for now, I desperately needed sleep.
"It's funny, I swear Jones's essays have gotten worse since my first year," I commented as I liberally applied red ink to a Hufflepuff essay. I sat across from Snape in his office, a stack of essays split between us to halve the work, sharing a well of bright red ink.
"It's possible she's always been worse at Defense than in Potions, though that's a truly alarming thought," Snape commented as he slashed out a line of a Ravenclaw essay and scribbled next to it something disparaging.
"Personally I think she's just an idiot."
"Incredibly likely. So, you wished to discuss something with me?" Snape asked mildly as he set the Ravenclaw essay aide and picked up one that some idiot had written in glittering color-shifting ink. The expression of mixed disgust and delight on Snape's face as he raised his quill and got ready to rip the rainbow essay to shreds was hilarious enough to almost make me forget what the topic of conversation was.
"Yes," I nodded, and leaned back in my chair, fingering the quill in my hands. "So… you're going to kill Dumbledore?"
Snape jerked, nearly knocking over the red ink bottle. He quickly steadied it and stared at me with unreadable dark eyes. Moving slowly, deliberately, he set the essays aside and let his quill rest perfectly straight next to the ink. He laced his fingers together and set them on the desk in front of him. Snape gave a deep breath out through his nose.
"Miss Potter," he said slowly. "You've gone beyond knowing things you shouldn't to knowing things that no one should know. I suppose young Malfoy told you?"
I nodded. Snape sighed and reached up, pinching the bridge of his nose. "I suppose I expected too much, thinking he could keep this from you. You have always been very persuasive…"
"He needed to tell someone," I insisted. "You should have seen him sir, he was pacing and yelling, he looks like he just got out of a prison… I was scared for him. I asked him, and he told me."
Snape nodded to himself. "And you have, I would imagine, guessed that the curse on Dumbledore's hand is fatal?"
"It's a Living Mummy variation," I replied. "Which means that it is treatable but only by a very painful and possibly fatal battery of particularly wretched potions."
Again Snape nodded. "And you know, I imagine, that I am completely capable of brewing said potions, if not without effort."
"He's refused them," I guessed.
"Exactly so. Our esteemed headmaster seems to believe that it is in the best interests of everyone if he simply… passes on."
"Because going into a war we don't at all need a leader," I said bitterly. "He's scared, isn't he sir? He's afraid of the pain? That's why he wants a quick, clean death. He mentioned Fenrir and Bellatrix playing with their food."
Snape sat back in his chair, resting one finger contemplatively at his chin. "I suspect you are correct, though he will not admit it even to himself. If the curse progresses, it will be agony. To heal it will be agony. Avada Kedavra was created exactly for such a case."
"If Draco fails, you have to take over the mantle of killing Dumbledore, if I understand it all correctly," I said slowly.
"Yes, but it is the headmaster's intention to have me kill him instead. He says he sees potential in the Malfoy boy and doesn't wish him to split his soul." It wasn't hard to pick up the faint jealousy in Snape's voice. If Dumbledore had felt the same about him, how much better might his life have been? Hell, if Dumbledore had felt that way about Tom Riddle we might not be in this mess right now. But then again, Dumbledore was far from the driving force behind Lord Voldemort becoming what he was.
"What about yours?" I asked softly. "What about your soul, sir?"
Severus Snape was a man who was not even forty years old. By wizarding standards, one hundred thirty seven and three-quarters years was the average life expectancy. In theory, Snape should have a full century of life ahead of him, and yet he already looked old, with heavy lines on his face and very few white hairs starting to make an appearance. A life of abuse had been hard on him, robbed him of so much, and to ask him to do something knowing it would shatter a part of him that really couldn't take much more battery… Dumbledore had reached new heights of cruelty.
Snape licked his lips and said softly, "I do not know that I have much of a soul left to me, anymore. Not one that belongs to me anyway."
"Bullshit," I said bluntly, and Snape blinked in surprise, eyes flicking to me.
"Language," he said sternly.
"You wouldn't let me damage myself that way two years ago sir," I growled out. "You told me that it would shred my soul, and I was horrified at what I'd been willing to do. Now you're willing to do this, so I'll ask you the same question you asked me. Do you still care?" I demanded of him.
Snape blinked. "I hardly know anymore, Potter."
"You do!" I snapped at him, rising to my feet angrily. "It because you care more than anyone I've ever met that you are able to do what you do, sir. A wizard who cared less wouldn't have been able to handle all that you've been through. They wouldn't have survived what you've survived. You are amazing, sir, and I wish you'd figure that out, because it's getting tiring being your personal cheering squad when you're determined to keep ignoring me. Damn it," I finished rather anticlimactically.
"I know you think you're beyond saving, but that's not true, sir, it can't be. I don't want either you or Draco to have to tear your souls, especially not over that old codger and his thrice-damned chess match. So I guess…" My voice was shaking as I spoke and my mind was officially lagging behind my mouth, which was running in tandem with my heart. "I guess what I'm asking is if you'll let me try and save part of you for a change, sir? Let me kill Dumbledore."
Snape was frozen in his chair. His hand had slipped from his jaw and was now held in front of his chest absently. He stared at me, his expression blank except for the looseness in his jaw. I had stunned him with my offer. I'd stunned myself, I realized as I stood there panting, heart racing with the intensity of my offer. I had shocked Snape so badly that he had to actually think about how to respond.
The moments stretched long and liquid, then snapped as Snape shifted slightly in his seat. The chair squeaked slightly and he said, quite simply, "No."
My eyes widened. "Sir?"
"No, Potter, I will not let you tear your soul, not for me, not for this," he snapped out. "I appreciate… the offer…" He was gritting out his words. "But I do believe it would do more damage to my soul to know you have shattered your own for my sake." He shook his head helplessly. "I will never understand what you see in a bitter old man… but I must confess, I am glad that you do."
Snape was staring at the top of his desk because he couldn't look me in the eye with his words, because that made it real, because he couldn't handle the reality of the moment right now.
I let out a breath and sat back down slowly. "You're welcome, sir," I said quietly.
"Besides," Snape said, shaking himself and pulling the essays back towards himself. This topic of conversation was clearly done. "It is to my advantage to do it. Once the Dark Lord hears that I have dispatched his greatest enemy, not even Bellatrix whispering in his ear will make him doubt my loyalty."
"Loyalty," I said slowly, a smirk creeping across my features. "Isn't that a Hufflepuff trait, sir?"
His eyes were daggers. "It would be a shame to earn another detention while in detention, Potter. Now finish those essays and we'll see if your Occlumency has improved over the summer."
The Chamber of Secrets was alive with excited whispers and mutters as I stood in front of the statue of Salazar Slytherin.
"I didn't think you'd get it together this quickly," Daphne commented as she moved to stand by me, watching the others mill around for a while.
"You underestimating me, Greengrass?" I asked mildly, smirking faintly as I saw Emilia doing some sort of second year flirting with Dominic that involved tossing her hair and giving high-pitched giggles whenever he spoke. Going by the look on his face, it was freaking him out more than attracting him.
"Never," she replied calmly. "But it does seem awfully fast…"
"I'm a busy little beaver."
"Please, you look nothing like Granger."
I snorted and nudged her hip gently with mine. "Move it," I chuckled, and she went to join the others. I pursed my lips and a high-pitched whistle rang through the Chamber. Immediately, all eyes turned to me and I grinned at my Basilisks.
"So, another year, kids," I began mildly. "And what we're going to do today is tell the group how your projects went over the summer. I myself will be going last, and then we'll talk about how this year's gonna shape up. Anybody want to volunteer to go first, or do I draft people?"
"We will," Emilia said, grabbing Chastity and dragging her up to stand by me. I nodded and left their stage. With a flick of my wand, several squashy chairs were scattered in an arc around them and people took their seats while Emilia and Chastity got their thoughts together.
"So, first we thought about charming the rings to be protective," Emilia began.
"But the problem is that the Basilisk scale makes it pretty much impossible for that to happen," Chastity admitted.
"And because Daphne's jeweler used magic to permanently bind the scale to the ring, we can't enchant the setting either."
"Our first thought," Chastity picked up, "was simply that we were going to have to just find some really high-level spells."
"And we did find a couple," Emilia put in, but then admitted irritably, "but we couldn't do any of them ourselves."
"No shame in that," I called from my seat. "You are twelve, after all."
"Right, but then Molly wrote us a letter and mentioned that Dominic was mad because his parents were making him keep up his Ancient Runes work," Chastity said, and there were a few laughs. Dominic's ears turned red.
"That's when it hit us that we didn't need to actually enchant the rings if we engraved them with symbols that have inherent power to them. The scale wouldn't negate them and they would be easier to do than trying to come up with some crazy powerful protective spells!" Emilia chimed.
"Unfortunately, we've never taken Ancient Runes and we won't get to for another year," Chastity continued. "I don't really like the idea of handing over our project, but we didn't get very far when we tried looking into runes ourselves. Neither of us really got it because we don't know how to start."
"Nott's really good at Ancient Runes," Daphne piped up. Emilia and Chastity looked at him hopefully.
"That might be appropriate," he admitted. "My decision was to research counter-curses to Dark spells." He stood up and took the floor, while Emilia and Chastity took their seats. He held up a rather thick sheaf of parchment. "I found many. However, beyond that, I have nothing to do."
"Ah yes, nothing to do but prepare for our tests," Blaise muttered. Nott gave him a pointed look.
"They're not NEWTs, are they?"
"True," he allowed. "I retract my comment."
"Thank you," Nott said, and approached me to hand over the papers he'd put together. "I know you'll come up with something incredibly clever to do with these, Lorena." He smirked. "And since you are the teacher…"
I raised an eyebrow, images of my own grimoires dancing behind my eyes. Yes, a book I put together with all of our research in it. Dictaquills would make adding entries and information easy. And I could link them with a derivative of the spell I intended to link the mirrors, so that we would all receive any additions that were made to the research as we worked on our projects. A battery of security charms, and we would be all set to learn and study whatever of our various projects caught our personal attention while still adding to our own and spreading information outside of meetings.
"Oh look at her face, she'd already got something!" Daphne said, throwing up her hands helplessly. "Potter, you really do enjoy making us look bad, don't you?"
"Me?" I asked innocently. "No!"
"Alright," Nott said, rolling his eyes. "Get me a copy of your research and I'll see what I can do."
"And we can look for a spell to help set the runes in the gold once we've got them settled on!" Emilia said happily, leaning over to Chastity eagerly, who nodded in agreement.
"We're not done yet!" she said in pleasure, and they high-fived happily.
"Alright, who's next?" I called out, and Daphne stood up primly, smoothing her hands down her skirt and approaching the front.
"My job was to come up with healing spells," she reminded us all. "And I did." She held up her own pile of parchment. "But there's an easier solution – potions. Any idiot can down a potion, but healing spells can be tricky, and you can do more damage if you don't know what you're doing. Frankly, I don't think learning spells will be feasible. Unless some people feel like cutting themselves up for practice dummies, we won't be able to get proficient enough to be any use. Well, most of us won't." Her eyes lingered on Nott a little bit proudly, and he shifted in his chair.
"So, my proposal is potions," Daphne announced. "Standard things like Pain-Reliever, Blood-Replenisher, dittany, and murtlap would be good, maybe some other things that I've found. And Lorena, I fully expect you've got more ideas for potions."
"You want us to cart around an armload of potions everywhere?" Dominic called out. "I dunno, I get why it's better, but it seems impractical."
"I've got an idea," I called out, and looked at Daphne proudly. "Great minds think alike, Greengrass. As it happens, I'm already on that."
Greengrass snorted. "Oh good, then I don't have to ask if you'd be willing to brew these things."
I nodded and gestured for her to take her seat. I stood up and headed for the front, my Parseltongue dictionary under my arm. As I reached the front, I held it up and nodded to it vaguely.
"Anybody want to learn Parseltongue?" I asked mildly, and I was greeted with a roar of approval and pleasure form my Basilisks. I smirked and nodded. "Thought so," I said, and lowered the book. "It's all in there. Here's how this year is going to work. We don't need to work around Quidditch anymore, because none of us are on the team, so-"
"Wait, what?" Molly stood up, seemingly horrified. "You're not going to play?"
"And neither is Draco," I said simply. "To put it frankly, we've realized that some things are more important than Quidditch. We love the sport, true, but for me personally, I'd rather you all came through this war alive than I tossed a ball through a hoop. So, yes, if any of you are wondering, that's why our dear Quidditch Captain looks like he wants to do bloody, violent things whenever he sees me," I finished with a faint grin.
"Now, as I was saying, we'll meet Tuesday and Thursday. Tuesdays we'll be focusing on Parseltongue. I don't expect you all to learn it all – personally, I don't know that you actually can – but a few key phrases would be just what the doctor ordered, I think." I nodded to myself.
"So Thursdays will be spellwork?" Zabini guessed, and I nodded to him, pointedly avoiding Draco sitting next to him. Those in my year were apparently all aware of our relationship, but I that didn't mean I wanted anyone else in on the secret, for their own sake as well as ours.
"Exactly," I said. "Now, on your own feel free to meet up and duel, practice spells, and don't forget to work on your own personal projects," I finished, and then paused. I groaned and slapped a hand to my face.
"What is it?" Draco asked, looking vaguely concerned. "What's wrong, Potter?"
I threw my head back and stared at the ceiling. "I really am becoming a proper teacher," I bemoaned, drawing laughs from the others.
"All raise your hands for Professor Potter!" Blaise called out, and I laughed as they all raised their hands and began to chant it with him.
"Alright, alright!" I called over them, holding up my hands for quiet. When the last echoing 'Professor Potter' faded from the Chamber I continued, "Like I said, I'll look into carrying potions for you Daphne, and I'm making ridiculous batches of some of that stuff anyway, so that'll be fine. You've all got the schedule, and before you go I want a copy of whatever notes you've got on your projects. I'll add my own, as well as what I got from Maeve this summer to the pile.
"Now, who's next?"