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Chapter 23: Star Light, Star Bright

Star light, star bright,
First star I see tonight,
I wish I may, I wish I might,
Have this wish I wish tonight.


‘Oh Harry, that’s awful!’ Hermione gushed as Harry trailed off his final sentence. She had barely interrupted him the entire story, stopping him only once or twice with a pertinent question or need for clarification. She seemed to have latched on to his tale like a lifeline for the distraction it provided, but even with a heavy blanket wrapped round her shoulders her hands were still shaking and her voice occasionally echoed with the same mild hysteria that had threatened to topple her laugh earlier. Ron, on the other hand, had just stared in wide-eyed disbelief that had still to leave him completely as he regarded at Harry, once again encased uncomfortably in Hermione’s arms, with a mixture of awe and fear on his friends behalf.

‘That’s why you’ve been so foul to Snape!’ he stated, more as a declaration of his understanding than a question. Harry let out an inaudible sigh of relief that at least one of his friends was obviously and firmly on his side; there had almost been glee in Ron’s tone. He could tell it was only one though by the thin set of Hermione’s lips when she pulled away as Ron continued. She fixed him with a determined and unforgiving glare that Ron remained completely oblivious too as he gesticulated wildly over the implications of his newly acquired knowledge. ‘Always knew the greasy git was worthless. Wonder why Dumbledore even keeps him around…’

‘Ronald Weasley, hold your tongue,’ Hermione snapped sharply, earning herself silence even though it was more shocked than obedient. Ron, still too wrapped up in his abandoned rant, seemed to need a few seconds to change mental gear. Harry had to give him credit though; he seemed more than prepared to continue his diatribe on a completely different topic after those seconds had passed. ‘And before you get it into your head to throw one of your little temper tantrums…’

'Temper tantrums?’ Ron managed to choke out indignantly.

‘Yes Ron, tantrums,’ Hermione shot him another warning look before continuing. ‘I am not dismissing Harry’s story, or any of the things he has told us, as untrue’ she met Ron’s incredulous look with a firm one of her own. ‘What Professor Snape did was terrible, atrocious even…’

‘Yet I still can’t call him a git?’ Ron interrupted, annoyed.

‘I doubt I could stop you.’ Hermione said flatly. ‘Nevertheless, I still don’t think you should have spoken to him in that way,’ she had turned back to Harry, her voice sympathetic but hard. ‘He risked his life to warn my family on time.’

‘And the question you need to ask yourself, Hermione,’ Ron interrupted with smug superiority, ‘is ‘why?’’

He found himself leaning backwards from his comfortable position on the bed as Hermione rounded on him for a second time. ‘No, I don’t.’ Each word was laid down as an immovable and unchangeable force as she clenched her fists at her side. ‘The Professor Snape that Harry met was a cruel and horrible man, but he was not the same person who I saw tonight.’

‘Not cruel and horrible?’ Ron snorted. ‘Are you absolutely certain he didn’t slip you something whilst playing the almighty saviour?’

‘Shut up, Ron,’ Hermione all but shouted as he shuffled further away, all but hitting the wall behind him and casting Harry a frantic look of pleading as he finally noticed the shadows beneath his friends eyes, and the tear that worked its way down the previously dried tracks on her cheeks. ‘Can’t you think for once, before opening your mouth and judging things you don’t understand?’ She cut herself off as Harry placed a hand gingerly on her arm, turning sharply with a muffled sob and burying her face in his shoulder. Harry patted her stiffly on the back, casting Ron, who looked bemused and guilty, an embarrassed glance.

‘I’m sorry Hermione,’ Harry offered when Ron failed to offer any more than a shake of his head and a look that indisputably confirmed all girls to be completely bonkers. ‘I shouldn’t have said anything.’

The fabric of his dressing gown muffled Hermione’s reply. ‘Don’t be silly,’ she sniffed, lifting her head and wiping at her eyes, as Harry discretely tried to peel his damp pyjamas from where they had stuck to his shoulder. ‘I’m glad you told us.’

‘It could have waited till you were feeling better though,’ Harry floundered at the mildly insulted look Hermione cast him as she sat down and curled up against the headboard of the unoccupied bed. Ron had scrambled forward so that he was once again perched on the edge of his bed and was trying to look supportive through his expression of disgust for all things Snape. Harry sat down heavily next to her, the springs bouncing beneath them both so that he earned himself another weakly scolding glare. ‘I was just so angry when I saw him,’ he tried to explain. Hermione just let out a weary sigh. ‘I had to get you away, and…’

‘You don’t understand, you weren’t there,’ Hermione blurted out suddenly, cutting Harry off mid sentence before letting out a hysterical little giggle that sounded strange coming from her. ‘Listen to me, when you could say exactly the same thing back.’ She wiped her nose on her sleeve; grimacing at herself seconds after before looking hastily round the room. Ron snagged a box of tissues from his dresser with surprising consideration, throwing it to land at her feet. Hermione smiled slightly before blowing her nose.

'You didn’t see Professor Snape when he arrived.’ She shuddered involuntarily as Harry glared meaningfully at Ron, who had opened his mouth to say something but quickly shut it again. Not that Hermione would have heard him particularly. Harry had a feeling she needed to talk, not to argue. ‘It didn’t occur to me till you mentioned it, but he must have come straight from a meeting, it explains a lot.’ Harry didn’t have the nerve to ask exactly what this lot was that had been supposedly explained, nor to remind Hermione that he nothing he had said was supposed to vindicate Snape in any way. ‘I don’t think he was supposed to be there, and I guess he was worried that all the other Death Eaters, or even Voldemort himself, would have all ready arrived. He just apparated straight into our living room. I heard the crack and then he was just standing there, mask and all.’ Ron stifled a small growl of anger, but it was still enough that Hermione looked up from her fingernails. Her tone was coloured with a small amount of condescension towards him when she continued. ‘He probably figured he stood a better chance of throwing together an excuse if he was wearing the outfit when he had landed, uninvited, in the middle of a group of Death Eaters. As opposed to appearing in his teaching robes?’

She shook her head as though the motion dispelled her annoyance, gaze returning to examining her hands. ‘But still, it was a huge risk. I can’t imagine Voldemort would have been all that forgiving had he found him there. What could Professor Snape have said to that? “Sorry, I know I’m not supposed to be here, but I didn’t want to miss the fun?”’ She winced at her own bad humour and then paused for a moment, blushing slightly before looking sheepishly at Harry. ‘I screamed when I first saw him. Made a right fool of myself. Didn’t help that he just grabbed me and put his hand over my mouth to quiet me. Still, I would like to have thought I would have reacted a bit better to such a thing.’ Hermione frowned, hands now fiddling with the hem of her pyjamas, her voice dropping and her face clouding with an expression that indicated she almost doubted what she was about to say herself. ‘Anyway, it was only for a second, but when he removed his mask I swear, he almost looked frightened. Terrified even. Like his being discovered was a certainty, and he knew exactly what he was going to suffer for it,’ her eyes had taken on a haunted look. ‘I guess it was a certainty, in a way. After all, when Voldemort discovers I’m not there, how many other people will he have to blame?’

‘I’m glad you’re all right,’ Ron said softly, breaking the silence that had hung ominously following the question, as he stood and moved closer.

‘Which is why you won’t insult Professor Snape any more, all right?’ Hermione’s eyes snapped up uncompromisingly to pin Ron, who looked sick at the demand. ‘At least not in front of me,’ she conceded reluctantly. ‘Say what you like to yourselves, but I don’t want to hear it. He saved my life, and my parents, and I am not naïve enough to believe he won’t suffer for it. I will not have you belittle what he did!’ Hermione was all but shouting when she finished.

‘What about everything that happened to Harry?’ Ron questioned indignantly. Instead of angering her further, Hermione seemed to deflate slightly. Guilt was gnawing at the edge of her voice when she spoke.

‘It’s really not that I don’t believe you,’ she said carefully, looking back to Harry. ‘I do. And if it looks to be happening again I will be the first to stand beside you and hex him to oblivion,’ the words came out in a rush, and her gaze practically begged Harry to understand. ‘Until then I owe Professor Snape more than that.’

Harry swallowed, eyes flashing between his two friends. ‘I guess I can sort of understand,’ he mumbled reluctantly. The memory of Snape’s face when he aimed his wand at Dumbledore’s portrait pushed him to continue though. ‘It’s just…’ He cut himself off with a sigh.

‘Just what?’

Harry tilted his head in a mixture of teasing and annoyance. ‘If I am going to be keeping this promise, I really ought to start now,’ he said gruffly, his mood rising slightly at the smile he got in return. Smiling was far better than tears, and the knowledge that more tears still threatened the immediate future pushed him to continue. ‘Ron too, right?’ He looked up to where Ron was hovering awkwardly, watching as his friend blushed to the tips of his hair when the smile moved to him.

‘I suppose.’ Hermione was practically beaming at them both, swiping at her nose again. Ron bent down and picked up the discarded tissues, thrusting them at her before retreating back to the safety of his bed. He seemed almost relieved when a knock issued from the door, his ‘come in’ sounding far too desperate. Remus stuck his head through the door cautiously, as though worried over what he might find.

‘Hello Hermione, how are you feeling?’

‘I’m fine Professor.’

‘Not Professor any more, just Remus will do,’ he smiled, coming fully into the room and flicking his wand so that a tray hovered in behind him before pushing the door ajar. ‘I thought you could perhaps do with something to drink.’ He passed a glass that Hermione took gratefully, sipping slowly at the contents. ‘I also wanted to let you know that we have set your parents up just down the hallway. I hope you don’t mind sharing with Ginny again.’

‘Not at all,’ Hermione managed a weak smile in return. ‘We’re they both all right?’

‘Your father seemed a little anxious,’ Remus’ eyes drifted to Harry at that comment, ‘but it is only to be expected after everything that happened.’

‘What about Professor Snape?’

‘He has all ready left.’

‘Oh,’ Hermione looked disappointed, ‘I wanted to thank him.’

‘Sometimes such things are better left till morning, when they can be appreciated without the burden of frazzled emotions.’ Remus looked between the three of them, relief evident in his posture. ‘I take it Harry has informed you both of everything that has happened.’ Ron nodded, but did no more than scowl under Hermione’s glare. ‘Then I shall take your continued desire to display gratitude as a positive sign that at least one of you has approached this rather unique situation rationally.’ He only got a single nod in return, but seemed satisfied that the other two were not demanding instant vengeance and so pushed no further. ‘I know it has been a long evening for all of you, but I need to speak to Harry. In private.’ Hermione and Ron both rose as if too leave before Remus waved them back down. ‘Don’t be silly, I meant for him to come with me.’ He swung the door back again, his hand the only thing that stopped it from hitting the wall with a crack as Harry pushed himself upright with a frown.

The corridor was unlit as Harry stepped out behind Remus, the only available light coming from downstairs where Harry could still hear muffled voices. A couple of candles chased away the gloom of the Master bedroom when he entered though, but Harry still squinted until Remus flicked his wand and a number of torches spluttered to life. The scraps of parchment strewn across the bed also vanished at a second wave of the wand as Remus toed off his shoes, gesturing for Harry to make himself comfortable.

‘You still aren’t sleeping?’

‘I’m doing fine,’ Harry said flatly, sitting heavily on a threadbare chair as Remus crossed to the nearby cupboard, hanging up his robes and pulling a large box from the highest shelf which he opened carefully, causing the soft sound of gently chinking glasses. He pulled a small vial from a carefully padded slot and held it out.

‘Take this.’ Harry had poured enough Dreamless Sleep down the toilet to recognise it instantly.

‘I’m not taking any potion made by Snape.’

‘Severus didn’t make this,’ Remus responded with infinite, infuriating calm. ‘You need to rest, so I brought you some from Diagon Alley.’ Harry’s mouth fell open as Remus spoke. ‘The quality probably isn’t quite as good, but it will suffice.’

Harry now looked aghast, ‘But that stuff costs a fortune!’ he spluttered indignantly. ‘You can’t afford it!’ He immediately looked embarrassed at his blunt outburst, a deep blush tinting his neck as he dragged a hand roughly through his hair, wisely choosing silence instead of floundering in an attempt to recover.

Lupin just regarded him with tolerant amusement. ‘It is fortunate teenage boys are not generally known for their tact,’ he said with a faint smile, closing the box with his empty hand and flicking the tiny bronze latch inlaid into the dark wood. ‘Your concerns are misplaced, for reasons that I will explain shortly. Take it,’ He gestured with the vial and Harry reached across slowly to snag it, obviously still unsure. It didn’t look quite the same as the ones provided by the potions master, now he could see it closer, the colour slightly lighter and the liquid noticeably thinner. ‘The potion is not the main reason I wanted to speak to you though.’ Harry glanced up from his scrutiny of the vial to see Remus take a deep breath, as though steeling himself for something unpleasant. ‘I think it is time we had that talk about Sirius.’

The effect was instantaneous, Harry’s face blanching slightly before draining of all colour and emotion, leaving a flat, blank stare in its place as he rose from his uncomfortable seat, angling his body towards the door in readiness to bolt. ‘I don’t want too.’

‘Nevertheless there are things that I think you need to hear.’ Remus was studying him carefully, his own expression showing nothing more than a distant concern. Somehow it was worse than seeing disappointment, or even accusation. Harry felt his temper rising in defence against his own disquiet.

‘Can anything you say bring him back?’ His disjointed nights were making him edgy and snappish, but he still felt the smallest twinge on his conscience at the pained look his words elicited.

Remus, for his part, covered the hurt quickly, taking a step towards Harry as he spoke softly. ‘Of course not.’ Harry took a sharp step backwards, stubbornly maintaining the distance and narrowing his eyes.

‘Then this seems kind of pointless, don’t you think?’

Remus just looked thoughtful, his breathing low and steady as Harry prepared himself for the litany of sympathy he had come to expect in this sort of situation. Mention Sirius in his presence, and all of a sudden there were more pitying looks and silent gestures of consolation than Harry felt he could cope with. ‘A couple of days ago you apologised to me over him,’ Harry hadn’t been expecting that, ‘why did you feel the need to do that?’

‘Why do you think?’ Harry found himself backing further away, his socked feet scuffing on the wooden floor. Remus was still watching him attentively, apprehensively even, waiting for something. Harry suspected he knew what. ‘Or do you just want to make me say it, is that it?’

‘Make you say what?’

‘That I killed him, or at least that it is my fault he is dead,’ Harry amended hastily at Remus’ sudden shocked expression, as though someone had pulled the floor out from underneath him. ‘You don’t have to worry, I won’t forget it.’

Remus seemed to need to swallow a few times to clear his throat, his words still coming out strained. ‘That is quite possibly the very least of my worries, Harry.’ He sank down onto his bed, a hand rising to rub at his forehead in a dimly helpless gesture before he looked back up to meet Harry’s gaze, clearly searching for something.

‘I won’t be doing it to anyone else either.’ Harry added bitterly, since the man obviously wanted to hear something more. ‘I learnt my lesson.’ If anything the comment just made Remus grimace slightly.

‘Sit down,’ he said gently, indicating to the bed. When Harry made no move he patted the covers encouragingly. Harry moved forward only reluctantly at that, taking the furthest seat possible and resting his back against the beds pillar, ignoring the painful way the wood pressed into his spine. ‘I had not realised you felt so strongly over this; else I would have spoken to you much, much sooner.’ Harry frowned, uncurling his feet from where he had pulled them under him and sitting more stiffly. ‘I knew you felt guilt, but thought it more generalised, and I did not think that forcing the issue would be best for you, not at the moment. I certainly didn’t think you had pinned the blame on yourself quite so specifically.’

Harry scowled. ‘If I hadn’t gone to the department, if I had just listened to everyone else, none of this would have happened.’

‘That may be true,’ at least Remus didn’t try to deny it, ‘but if many people hadn’t done many things it could also have been avoided. You are not the only one to have made errors.’ Harry thought bitterly back to Snape’s refusal to listen to him, to his selfish dismissal of Harry’s warning. ‘However errors do not equate to fault. It is not because of you that Sirius died. It is the fault of Voldemort most certainly, and of Bellatrix even more.’ Harry wondered if Remus truly believed he didn’t blame Bellatrix in the slightest. He had plenty of blame left over for the woman, he just knew how to share it.

He didn’t bother to point that out though. Remus probably wouldn’t believe him anyway, not without proof, and Harry didn’t fancy bringing up his aborted attempt at an unforgivable in that regard. ‘I was so sure though!’ he said angrily instead. ‘I dragged all my friends with me to that stupid place, and there was no need. Ron and Hermione nearly died too! Ron still has the scars from it.’ Harry had seen the thin silver lines that ran down the back of Ron’s neck, a couple curling behind one of his ears, the longest creeping towards his left temple. They had faded to almost non-existence, but Harry knew that nearly would never be enough for his surprisingly self-conscious friend. He had stumbled across Ron frowning at them in the mirror once, and crept silently away not having a clue what he could say.

‘Better men than you have fallen to Voldemort’s traps, Harry.’ Had better men had several people all clamouring at them to close their minds, yet steadfastly and stubbornly refused to listen? Not that Harry was hording the blame for himself in this instance either. No, he hadn’t made any particular effort to learn Occlumency, but on that basis nor had Snape made any real effort to teach it. ‘He played on your love and dedication to your friends, but just because he used them in such a way does not mean that they are bad things to have.’

‘If I had perhaps shown a shred of intelligence along with all those wonderful traits then Sirius would still be here,’ Harry bit back on an ironic chuckle that he was throwing out an abridged version of many of Snape’s own words. ‘He gave me his mirror you know.’

‘Mirror?’ Remus’ brow creased in confusion.

‘Part of the set he and my dad used to talk to each other.’ Remus nodded in remembrance, remaining silent as Harry struggled to find the words he wanted to explain himself. ‘He gave it to me right at the start of term, and I forgot about it,’ a hint of desperation entered his voice, but Harry jerked away at Remus’ brief movement as though to try to comfort him. ‘If I had used that I would have known he was fine, then he wouldn’t have had to come running after me to save me from my own stupidity.’

‘He did not think of it in that way.’

Harry jerked his head up. ‘What?’

‘He did not think of himself as saving you from your stupidity, as you put it.’ Remus smiled fondly. ‘Have you not considered that he was doing, in his own way, exactly the same thing that you did?’

Harry really didn’t think he liked the direction the conversation was taking. ‘He was just trying to clear up my messes after I ignored what everyone else was trying to tell me.’

‘He ignored the warnings of Albus, Severus and even myself for him to stay put and not leave Grimmauld Place.’ So what, Harry thought, he wouldn’t have wanted to be cooped up in this miserable old house either. ‘Had he listened to them he may not have died that night. By your own logic that should make him just as responsible for his own death as you.’ Harry glared through his fringe. ‘So, do you blame Sirius at all?’ Remus repeated.

‘Don’t be ridiculous. He was just trying to save me!’

‘Just as you were trying to save him.’ Harry scowled, crossing his arms over his chest as Remus continued. He had imagined more justifications and arguments, and was frantically trying to piece together his jumbled thoughts into some semblance of a reasonable comeback. ‘He mentioned you in his Will, you know.’

‘I don’t want his money,’ Harry declared sullenly. Did Remus really think he could buy him off?

‘Which is good, since Sirius seems to have felt the same way. Something about teenage boys with more gold than sense I believe were his exact words.’

‘That’s not fair!’ Harry’s voice rose with self-righteous ire. ‘It’s not like I’ve ever thrown my money around, or wasted it on stuff, or anything like that. I’ve hardly touched it, except for schoolbooks and other things it’s not like I could ask the Dursley’s for…’

‘Harry,’ Remus interrupted him warmly, reaching out with a hand to lay it on Harry’s. ‘It was meant as a joke, not something for you to take as a personal insult on your character. Both Sirius and I were…are well aware that you are very mature when it comes to issues of material wealth.’ Harry shot him a suspicious look. ‘He was merely trying to lighten the mood of a rather depressing and awkward conversation at the time when he said it, and I mistakenly thought it would work for you the same way it did for me. I have never been very comfortable discussing money in such large quantities as both your father and Sirius were accustomed, and I had the sense you felt somewhat the same. I just wanted to put you at ease.’

‘I didn’t think he was that rich,’ Harry observed grudgingly.

‘He was heir to the Black line; for all that he refused to touch or acknowledge it. Didn’t want anything that came from his parents. He at least accepted it, however. It was that or have the whole lot transfer itself to Bella.’ Remus lifted his eyebrows pointedly. ‘And I’m sure we can both imagine the uses she would put it to. The Dark Lord is formidable enough without the brunt of the Black wealth supporting him.’

It had to be asked, even though Harry wasn’t sure he wanted to know. ‘Who did he give it to then?’

‘He set a small portion aside for the Weasley’s,’ Harry couldn’t help but smile over what it meant that his godfather had been so thoughtful to the family that meant so much to him. ‘A sizeable sum was also left in more open terms for use by the Order.’ Remus looked nervous, as if his next declaration were truly atrocious. ‘He left the rest to me.’

Harry found himself speechless for s second before blurting out the first thing that popped into his head. ‘That’s how you got the potion!’ he exclaimed, his anger giving way slightly to a wave of excitement. This was perfect. ‘That means you won’t have to worry about finding work or anything, at least for a while. And you won’t have to go to Snape for the Wolfsbane either any more, you can buy it from someone else.’

‘He left you the House, Harry.’ Remus interrupted, apparently opting to ignore the Wolfsbane comment.

Harry trailed off, stunned as he just stared in incomprehension. ‘Pardon?’

‘The house, Grimmauld Place. He left it for you.’

‘But why?’ Remus closed his eyes almost painfully at Harry’s confusion. ‘Surely there are others who need it more.’

‘He wanted you to have somewhere you could call home, even if he couldn’t be here to share it with you. He was adamant about that.’ Harry found his throat closing up. It all seemed too big.

‘I…’

‘He cared for you deeply,’ Remus filled in the oppressive silence smoothly, if rather more forcefully than Harry had ever expected from his quiet Professor. ‘Had things been different he would have gladly taken you in. But things weren’t different, so he tried to do the best he could for you otherwise.’ Harry wasn’t crying, but only because he was putting conscious effort into it. There was certainly no chance he could have any of the things he had dreamed of now. ‘And he would not want you to wallow so desperately in such guilt the way he did for so many years, blaming himself for a betrayal he could not have foreseen.’ Harry could barely bring himself to nod, clenching the vial he still held tightly in his fist. He might not have been able to have his dreams, but he supposed what he was being offered instead wasn’t too far off.

‘I think I should go to bed now,’ he managed to whisper. ‘Since I have the potion and all.’

‘Perhaps things will seem a little brighter tomorrow,’ Remus said hopefully.

‘Yeah,’ Harry gazed towards the window and the starless sky outside. ‘Perhaps they will.’ He walked towards the door somewhat mechanically, turning only to watch Remus cautiously for a second, as if he still expected the man to rise and erupt in a barrage of accusations and blame. Remus just smiled encouragingly.

It wasn’t until the door closed behind him that Remus let out the breath he had been holding, standing and compulsively smoothing down his shirt. He paced a few times but felt no better for it, so instead just dressed for bed, taking liberal gulps from the glass on his beside table before refilling it from the sink in the adjoining bathroom. Of all the things he had wanted to discuss with the boy he seemed to have tackled so few of them. There was still the horrible issue of Occlumency to bring up, not to mention the even more daunting one of Severus Snape. And much as he hated to admit it, but he was slowly coming to terms with the fact that he simply did not know Harry as well as he had thought. He couldn’t bring himself to feel anything but relieved, however, that it seemed he had at least manage to confront the largest problem facing him, despite the fact that it had been one he hadn’t even known existed.

***


The morning had slipped by in its usual haphazard manner, with pranks from Fred and George followed by considerable whining from Ron, who more often than not filled the role of target. Letters had arrived complete with OWL results, and Hermione’s joy had been infectious enough to at least coax a smile from Harry. After the lecture he received from his mother, Harry was unsurprised Ron hadn’t even managed to force one.

Remus had arranged the visit to Diagon Alley. Harry was in no doubt it was intended to cheer him after the conversation of the night before, and Harry was grateful for the trip. Not because the bustling streets gave him any reason to feel any less miserable, but because at least it provided a different backdrop to his exhausted moping. Clean though Grimmauld Place now was, it was still dark and gloomy. Harry supposed he could do something about that, now the place was technically his, but he didn’t think a coat of paint would cut it. Exorcism seemed to be nearer to what the place needed. At the very least Kreacher would have to go. The whole topic was still oddly distant though, so he didn’t dwell on it.

Apparently Hermione’s constant cheerful chattering had been too much for Ron, who had volunteered to accompany Ginny to Eeylops, offering to buy Harry some food for Hedwig whilst he was there thusly saving him the hassle later. Harry wasn’t exactly stunned by the revelation; of the three of them Ron’s scores had been the most disappointing, even if not that far below Harry’s own. He was therefore suffering the most not only from Hermione’s disdain towards failure, but also because her boundless delight was proving rather wearing on those not gifted with natural genius. Besides, his friend’s dreams of being an Auror had been crushed not only by his lacking Transfiguration skill, but by his Potions grade. Ron was considerably less upset by the latter, however. Harry had yet to decide how he felt about his own substandard mark in that particular subject.

‘Everyone knows Snape doesn’t accept anyone with an OWL below an O,’ Harry repeated himself for what felt like the fiftieth time, wishing he had had the foresight to escape with Ron. When it came to matters of learning Hermione did more then just apply her own rigorous standards to all around her; she expected everyone to all ready have them. ‘It’s not like Snape didn’t tell me that, gleefully, enough times over the years. I only got an E Hermione.’

‘But you haven’t even spoken to Professor McGonagall yet, or the Headmaster,’ she seemed to be struggling to understand the thought that he might not even want to continue with potions. Any love he might have felt for the subject had been systematically and mercilessly ripped from him over the years. ‘I’m sure, with everything that happened last year, they could at least convince Professor Snape to allow you to take some sort of test to prove you are of an acceptable standard. You need this to be an Auror.’

Yes, Ron had definitely gotten his tactics right with his timely escape. ‘Don’t think I don’t know that.’

‘This is your future Harry, you could at least pretend to take it a bit more seriously. Don’t just throw it away because of your feelings towards the Professor.’ Harry rolled his eyes at Hermione’s chastising words and kicked at a loose stone, sending it skittering down the path ‘If you give up now, then he will have won,’ she added somewhat slyly, fully earning herself the dubious look Harry cast over the rims of his glasses.

‘I’m not giving up, but you have to face facts. I suck at potions,’ Hermione looked ready to argue again, but Harry plowed onwards. He had heard the lecture she was no doubt preparing to launch into in pretty much every form he could imagine. ‘Snape could give me as many mock tests as he wanted; in fact he would probably quite happily give me several just to watch me fail.’ Hermione gave a conceding nod to that point, sidestepping to avoid a group of over excited second years and stopping by the window to Flourish and Botts. Harry slouched next to her, leaning against the glass as Hermione scanned the volumes displayed. ‘Besides,’ he continued grumpily, ‘that doesn’t even matter, Snape isn’t teaching potions this year.’

‘All the more reason to talk to the Headmaster!’ Hermione exclaimed, her hand closing round his wrist and dragging him towards the door. The inside of the shop was no less crowded than it had been outside, but at least it was quieter. Harry guessed that any small amount of time spent in the presence of Madame Pince led to an urge in anyone to be hushed in the presence of books. ‘I know you’re not that bad,’ Hermione pushed gently. She had released her death grip on his arm, but Harry suspected that was only because she needed both hands to carry everything. ‘You mentioned yourself how much easier you found the exams without Professor Snape breathing down your back.’

‘We don’t all have your ability to be good at everything. I can’t brew, and I have accepted it,’ he sighed as Hermione thrust a heavy text into his hands, barely glancing at the title before sliding it carefully back into the nearest empty space. ‘And I am not buying the books on some vague hope that the new Professor is any less of a git than Snape.’

‘I wouldn’t use the word git myself,’ a loud voice suddenly boomed behind them, causing Hermione to emit a surprised yelp as she spun round, almost toppling a nearby pile of books and poking Harry in the eye as she drew her wand. ‘I’ve heard it plenty of times over the years, mind you, but I’ve always had something of an affinity for the more original insults. Long-winded, you know, that’s the way to go. Your father, now he never really got the hang of that. Somehow once you’ve heard the term ‘slimy slytherin’ several hundred times, it looses punch.’ Harry looked vaguely bemused at the sudden stream of information coming from a man far too short to be able to produce such vast quantities of invasive sound. ‘Your mother on the other hand, she was quite something when she was riled.’

‘Excuse me, sir?’ he managed to ask dazedly in the unexpected lull in conversation. He had fully expected the man to continue all afternoon.

‘Oh, right, introductions. Not that I don’t know who you are,’ the man gave Harry a conspiratorial wink. ‘Horace Slughorn is the name, although that’s Professor Slughorn to you.’

Hermione’s wand disappeared in a flash, only to be replaced by an equally daunting expression of complete and unwavering attentiveness. It was the sort of look she got when a Professor set extra credit assignments. ‘The new Potions Professor?’ she asked hopefully, her hand all ready rummaging in the bag thrown over her shoulder, pulling out a length of parchment Harry was horrified to discover she had filled with book titles. ‘I am so glad to have run into you sir!’ she was positively beaming now, her finger tracing down the list critically as she spoke. ‘Which text would you recommend to supplement the required list? I have heard good things of Raynold Pootridge’s work, but the other day I overheard someone mentioning…ah yes, this one,’ her finger jabbed unforgivingly at a seemingly random name on the parchment. ‘I overlooked it at first after hearing of the author’s tendency to poorly footnote his sources, and that some of his arguments lack properly formed conclusions, but I feel I was perhaps a little hasty?’ The look she gave Slughorn clearly indicated she might well consider her universe ended should he confirm she had, in fact, made an error in judgement.

‘Stick with the Pootridge, Miss…?’

‘Granger,’ Hermione let out a sigh of relief. ‘Hermione Granger.’

‘Ah yes,’ Slughorn’s gaze warmed instantly. ‘I have heard much of you all ready, Miss Granger. Albus speaks rather highly of you. One of the most talented witches he has had the pleasure of meeting, I think he said, although I am prone to lapses in memory at my age.’ He regarded Hermione with open curiosity. ‘And you are muggle born too, I believe.’

Hermione’s enthusiasm dropped several notches under the close scrutiny. ‘Yes sir, I am.’

‘Amazing, simply amazing. Had sheer talent not fooled me in the past I might have mistaken you for pureblood, but we live and learn,’ Hermione had her lips pursed by this point. ‘Hmmm, yes indeed, you were quite the temptation.’

‘Pardon?’

Slughorn smiled under his moustache, his bald head gleaming oddly in the light of the room. ‘As any Professor knows, there is nothing more intriguing than the prospect of a student who actually wants to learn. Albus was pulling out all the stops to convince me to take the job. You, my dear,’ Slughorn looked proud of himself, as though he had unearthed some hitherto unknown treasure, ‘were the icing on the cake.’

‘Um…thank you,’ Hermione looked somewhat bewildered.

‘And what about you, Mister Potter?’

Harry scowled. ‘What about me?’

‘Don’t tell me the promises of a Boy-Who-Lived to teach were empty!’ Slughorn looked moderately offended. ‘I cannot help but notice you fail to carry a single potions text.’

‘I was just talking to him about that before you arrived, sir,’ Hermione sent Harry a challenging look, clearly under the belief she could change his mind now she had backup. Harry opted to cut the conversation short.

‘I didn’t make the grade,’ he said simply, glaring for good measure.

‘Ridiculous!’ Slughorn dismissed easily. ‘The son of Lily Potter failing potions? It would be unheard of.’ Harry bristled at the casual and repetitive use of his parents’ names.

‘Snape told us several times that the NEWT requires a grade O at OWL level. I didn’t get it.’ Harry wondered if he repeated it enough times, people would actually start listening to him.

‘Ah yes, well, Snape’s NEWT would require that,’ Slughorn was grinning as he said it though, which took the malicious edge from the words. ‘I myself, however, am neither so onerous nor obsessed over perfection. Potions is something you feel, not something you grade.’ Harry was surprised the man wasn’t pinching his cheeks or ruffling his hair from the way he was speaking. ‘We simply need to coax those brewing genes of yours to the surface.’

‘So he got in?’ Hermione was practically bouncing with excitement again, all previous reservations over the man forgotten.

‘What grade did you say you got?’

‘An E,’ Harry mumbled.

‘Well, had you said a D we would be in rather more trouble, but as it is I have always set my NEWT entry requirements at that grade, and see no reason to change now,’ Slughorn looked proud enough that an onlooker could have justifiably believed he had just discovered a counter to the Killing Curse. ‘I look forward to seeing you at the start of term.’

‘Thank you sir,’ Hermione said when Harry failed to reply, his attention snapping up to an unnamed distraction at the back of the shop. ‘I look forward to our lessons.’

‘As do I,’ Slughorn beamed at the two of them, and if Harry’s lack of acknowledgement offended him he didn’t show it. ‘It has been a pleasure to meet you both, but unfortunately my duties insist that I must run. I look forward to seeing you again on the train.’

‘Of course sir,’ Hermione nudged Harry who mumbled his own farewells as Slughorn bustled his way through the crowd, using his ample frame to clear the way where his ringing voice failed. ‘That was very rude Harry,’ she chastised gently when the man was well and truly out of earshot. ‘You could at least have acted a little happier,’ she perked up quickly though. ‘At least now I know I’ll have some company in the classes.’ Realisation flashed behind her eyes and her hand came up to cover her mouth. ‘Oh no,’ she breathed, looking mortified ‘I forgot to ask about Ron.’ Harry snorted, although his eyes didn’t stop scanning the customers surrounding them, imagining full well what Ron’s reaction would be to the news of two years more potions, regardless of the Professor. ‘Oh well,’ she sighed to convey she was making the best of what she believed to be a very bad situation, ‘lets get you your books since we are here and you’ll just have to share if Ron gets accepted. I’m sure we will be able to order him one in or something. Harry, are you even listening to me?’ Harry just grabbed her hand in response, dragging her through the gathered group of students picking out their texts under their parents ever-watchful gazes.

‘There is something else I need to do first,’ he said firmly, scanning the people around him until he spotted the thing that had caught his attention him earlier: a head of platinum blonde hair making its way lazily through the bookshelves.

‘What on earth could be so important?’ Hermione asked, puzzled. ‘And don’t say it’s Professor Snape,’ she added harshly.

Harry gritted his teeth behind his response.

‘No. It’s Malfoy.’




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