"Harry, what's wrong?" McGonagall looked up as Hermione's voice rose. "You're rubbing your scar. Is it bothering you? What's wrong?" She put a hand over one of his and looked into his eyes, searching for, he knew, a sign that something was different.
"Nothing," Harry said. He dropped his hand from his face and pulled away from her, keeping his eyes on the book on the table in front of him. "It's just tingling a little bit. It's nothing to worry about."
"Of course it's something to worry about." She turned his face towards her again and put a hand to his forehead. "What do you feel? Do you see or hear anything strange?"
He stared at Hermione without blinking for a few seconds. "I'm touched that you're so concerned, but I never would've shown you all those memories if I knew you'd become just as overprotective as you were before."
She flinched and pulled her hand back. "What?"
"You fuss over me all the time, Hermione."
"There's a problem with me not wanting you to die at the hands of a dark wizard?"
Harry sighed. Does she mean Snape or Voldemort? "No, but if I tell you it's nothing, I mean exactly that. It used to tingle off and on all the time and nothing happened. This is no different. I'll know if it's something significant."
Hermione frowned and went back to her reading. He knew she didn't believe a word of it, but she wasn't going to argue with him about it. That, at least, was a change for the better from the Hermione he'd known before.
Harry turned the page in his copy of Advanced Potion Making and squinted as he read the description of a potion on the next page. Whoever had owned his book had scribbled all over this page too, even going so far as to scratch out a third of the directions and rewrite the steps in the margins.
"Will retain…can either of you read this?" Harry asked. Hermione leaned over and squinted at where he indicated.
"Will…retain spell properties if fluxweed is not…used in the third step," Hermione said.
"What potion are you looking at, Mr. Potter?" McGonagall asked.
"Everlasting Elixir. Well, whoever had this book wrote so much over it, it's probably something entirely different," he said. "It looks like they were trying to get the finished potion to transfigure with a spell."
"That's impossible," Hermione said. "You could transform a normal liquid into something else temporarily, but a potion will stay as it's brewed. Otherwise you'd lose the purpose of the potion entirely."
"Not entirely true, Miss Granger," the Headmistress stated. "Transitive Potion Magic is rare, but not impossible. While it is true that most transfigurations would not work on a potion with specific properties, if it were…primed, shall we say, the right potion could retain a different type of magic than that with which it was brewed. It would, in effect, carry a spell that could not normally be transferred to a person in liquid form. It would have to be a special type of potion in order to receive a transitive spell, but it could be done."
Harry pulled the book back in front of himself and scanned over the page and small, hand-written notes again. "Wait, so it would be possible to add spells to an existing potion?"
"Like a curse?" Hermione asked. Her eyes widened as she caught on to what Harry was saying. She leaned over to look at the page again. "It could be given in doses!"
"Would that make it impossible to remove? Once a large enough amount was built up?"
"Or even impossible to trace if it was transfigured that way?" Hermione squealed and snatched the book from Harry's hands, slamming it on top of her own reading. She scanned the page and then read the potion recipe out loud, smiling as Professor McGonagall's eyes widened. "Is it possible this is the kind of potion that could be given to someone to produce Harry's condition? If it carried the right curse?"
"Let me see that book," McGonagall said. As her eyes scanned the page, she blinked rapidly several times in surprise. She flipped to the front of the book and frowned as she looked at the inside front cover. "Prince."
"Prince?" Harry asked.
"The Half-Blood Prince. A rather cryptic name inside the front cover," McGonagall responded
"Any idea who wrote all over the book?" he asked.
"Someone who found it important to make corrections to what he obviously saw as mistakes in his Potions book," she said, flipping through a few of the pages. "If Professor Snape used an elixir similar to what is in the description of this potion, he may be more cunning, and more dangerous, than any of us realize. Something resembling Everlasting Elixir this closely would stay in the body's system for a great deal of time. If it carried a curse with it, it may prove difficult to remove. Assuming this formula works."
"So it is possible?" Hermione asked. She flipped through Magick Most Evile and pointed at a spell on the page. "This spell produces about half of the symptoms Harry has and is pretty difficult to remove."
Harry leaned to examine the page. "What spell is it?"
"It's called the Senium Curse," Hermione said. "According to the description, it's supposed to cause a slow decay of the organs, and unless someone suspects it, appears to result in natural death. It's sort of like speeding up the natural aging process for all of the body's internal functions."
"Is there a cure for it on the page?"
"I'm afraid not, Harry, sorry." Hermione slammed the book closed. "At least, nothing that I think will help you. The thing is, it's not supposed to be incurable unless the person doesn't know they have it. If they have it long enough, then it becomes fatal. Otherwise, only a very strong and complicated healing potion can cure it. Your curse is different because we can't do anything to treat the symptoms. And we don't really know how long you've had it. If Professor Snape really did use some type of potion, it's possible he's been giving you doses for a while."
"How is that possible?" Harry asked. "Wouldn’t someone have noticed if he was dosing me with some kind of poison?"
"Not if he disguised it as something else," Professor McGonagall said. "If he used something similar to this elixir," she said, pointing at Harry's copy of Advanced Potion Making, "once it was ready to hold a spell, it could've easily been transfigured to look like something else."
"Like pumpkin juice?"
"Or even something as harmless as water," McGonagall said. "I'm going to have a look around his office and living area. If there is a substance of a questionable nature, we can extract the ingredients and find out if this is what was used to curse you."
"We should check the house too, just in case," Hermione added.
"Can we get a cure from that?" Harry asked. "If we use the basic potion?"
"I don't want to give you false hope," the Headmistress said. "If we try this, the best we can hope for is to create a potion that may counter the effects of the original. We may even be able to stop it from spreading further. Because it is resistant to cure, I don't know what will happen unless we can produce the exact counter curse. All we will be doing is keeping the illness from progressing."
"But that's something, at least," Hermione said. There was a false note of cheer in her voice as she lay one hand over Harry's on the table. "If we can stop it from getting worse, there's only a few steps from knowing how to cure it if—" She stopped speaking abruptly.
"If what?" he asked. He could guess what she was thinking, but he wanted someone else to say it out loud.
"If…if it hasn't spread too much already." At Harry's frown, she hurriedly added, "But even if you're close to—if it looks bad, if we can reverse the effects that make it resistant to cure, any potion that fixes the symptoms should work then. I mean, simple fever reducers and healing potions that can be strengthened with the same potion that administered the curse."
It all depended on a lot of what ifs and possibilities, but Harry knew what they'd just discovered was the only key they had to the cure so far. It wasn't much, but he would take it over a certain death.
Harry read over the potion in the textbook slowly, going over the instructions and assessing the difficulty. "Can we test this, Professor? I don't mean give it to someone," he added at her frown. "Just see if it will actually hold a spell and if it is truly undetectable. It only takes a few hours to make."
"I suppose we can try it. We'll have to if we want to attempt a cure before long anyway," she said.
"If this is made properly, could it hold something else? Like a shield spell or some other type of protection?" Harry asked.
"That's genius," Hermione said. "If he tried to give it to you again here at school, you'd be able to counteract it with the same type of potion."
"That's what I was thinking," Harry said. "He seemed so surprised to see me the first day of class, I don't think he was the one to actually put the curse on me." He glanced back down at the book. "What if he'd just been giving me doses over time and then someone else activated the curse? That makes sense, right? He was here at Hogwarts and if this potion was already in my system, all it would take is the right spell when I couldn't defend myself. That would explain why he questioned me."
"So when I walked in on the two of you in his office last week—?" Professor McGonagall asked.
Harry nodded. "He was trying to get me to tell him how I'd gotten away from King's Cross. He had assumed my scar was the only damage. He couldn't have been there or he would've known the condition I was in the day before."
"It must've been Draco's dad," Hermione said. "He's the only one who wasn't here at school with an alibi. Plus, he would've had an excuse to be at King's Cross while he was dropping off his son."
"If this potion is harmless without a spell, he could've given it to anyone. My mum, either of you, the whole school."
"No," Professor McGonagall said abruptly. Harry jumped, surprised at the conviction in her voice as she disputed him. "He can't have poisoned the entire staff and students at Hogwarts. Even if he could get into the kitchens, the house-elves would not allow it."
"What if they didn't know?" Hermione asked. "The Healers at St. Mungo's didn't find anything in Harry's system, so it's probably untraceable. Professor Snape could be setting us all up for slaughter and we wouldn’t have any idea."
"They would know," the Headmistress assured her. "They take precautions against any humans coming into the kitchens and no one is allowed to tamper with the food. They would be liable if anyone took sick from something they cooked. It would not happen."
"If you're sure," Harry said. "That doesn't mean he couldn't have put it in the food at my house." He turned to Hermione. "Do you think that's why he was upset about all of us moving out over the summer?"
She shook her head. "No. I mean, if this was already in your system, he probably didn't need the opportunity to give you more. He was just upset that you were trying to get your mum to leave him and she might have been starting to listen to you."
"And that I was going through his things, I'll bet," Harry said.
"This speculation is getting us nowhere," McGonagall said. "I want to see if we can make this potion before the day is out. Would you mind handing me that map of yours?"
Hermione jumped up and retrieved the Marauder's Map, activating it before she placed it on the table in front of the Headmistress.
"You said Fred and George Weasley have one as well?" she asked.
Harry laughed. "They'd kill me if they knew I'd told you that. But there's a solid chance they got it from Filch their first year."
"Hmm. Well, if they didn't get it from his office, I will. This will be useful," she commented. She looked at several of the floors before coming to the dungeons. "Interesting."
"What?" Hermione leaned over to get a closer look at the Map.
"Professor Snape is having a meeting with Professor Lestrange. She's pacing." McGonagall looked up at the two students across from her. "I wonder what she's worried about."
"Getting away with murder, among other things. It's almost funny. Hurting people didn't bother her before," Harry said. "She actually enjoys torturing people."
"That explains her tests," Hermione said. She looked at the Map again. "Would it be possible to listen in while they're having one of their meetings?"
"No," Professor McGonagall said. "But I will need to use this when I go downstairs. I don't want either of them seeing me get ingredients for this potion or searching either of their offices."
"You can just tell Professor Lestrange you're getting supplies for our assignments for her. We have a couple to turn in this week," Hermione said. "I could go with you. She might not believe you're down there getting supplies for us instead of making us do it ourselves." She scanned the book page quickly. "Everything we need should be in the class storage room. It's scary how easy this is to make."
"Easy to brew, yes, but not easy to use the way we suspect," McGonagall said. "Making the potion is only the first step."
"For all our sakes, I hope it's the first one in the right direction." Harry said.
Bellatrix jumped when the door to her office opened with a sudden loud click. She relaxed a fraction when she turned and saw that it was just Snape, his face mirroring her own irritation for once.
"What took you so long?" she asked as he closed the door behind himself. "Lunch is almost over."
"I had to discipline a few unruly students. With Minerva in her self-imposed exile, the bulk of the real work around here goes to me," Snape said. "I'll be glad when this is over and I can be shut of these brats for good."
Bellatrix began pacing back and forth behind her desk. "If the Key is not with his clothes, not in his trunk, and Lucius didn't find it on him at King's Cross, is it possible it was stolen by someone else? The week before school started?"
Snape drummed his fingers on the edge of the desk. "Not likely. I'm sure Potter is our thief. The boy had guilt written all over him the first day of classes. Arrogant little bastard told me himself he wanted to see the Minister." His eyes narrowed as she passed in front of his eyes again. "Will you stop moving around like that?"
She turned and glared at him. "Will you stop playing games? Go after Harry. I don't care what Minerva said yesterday. We have to start making the potion in a week and we have no way of completing it without the Key. We still need to find all of the ingredients." Bellatrix began pacing again, this time circling around the desk and walking in front of the guest chairs. "You don't want to hurt him yet? Fine. It won't even take that long to use Legilimency on him. You could even do it while he's sleeping."
Snape grabbed her arm to stop her movement. "The boy is being locked up all day and I dare say it would arouse suspicions among the students if I snuck into his dorm room at night," he said. "Besides, he's learned to block his thoughts, at least on a basic level. I need to get him out of that office. Saturday is my best chance."
"You want to wait until the weekend? Surely she won't keep her second in charge out of her office that long?" Bella asked.
"She's not even letting the school house-elves clean her office this week. All they're doing is sending up food for the three of them when she signals the kitchen." He sat back in the chair. "You would think Potter and Granger had been up to something serious, the way she's got them locked in there."
"Her office," Bellatrix said.
"Yes, Bella. I know they're in her office. That would be the problem."
"No, Sev. That's the solution. She's got the Key in her office. Potter's probably shown it to her by now. We'll have to find a way to get in to get it."
He shook his head. "If there's one room in the castle that can't be broken into, it's that one. It can refuse anyone she wishes and it will not admit a Headmaster under any type of influence. Besides, if she had it, wouldn't she have turned us both in by now?" Snape frowned. "No. Minerva would not protect anyone if she thought they would hurt a student. She doesn't have it in her."
"Which of us are you trying to convince?"
His dark eyes narrowed on her face. "I don't have to convince either of us of anything. Potter probably has the Key on him if it's nowhere else. I'll have to get him from under Minerva's constant supervision."
Bellatrix leaned against her desk and frowned, crossing her arms over her chest. "We could just kill her," she said after a moment.
Snape rolled his eyes. "If you can wait just another two weeks or so, your bloodlust can be slaked without garnering any unnecessary attention."
"What unnecessary attention?" Bellatrix asked. She moved to reach into a drawer in her desk and pulled out an unlabelled bottle of clear liquid. "If Minerva is struck with a sudden illness and cannot perform her duties as Headmistress, you will have to take over. If you don't want me to kill her, I won't," she said, smiling as she turned the bottle over in her hand. "But I can take her out of commission long enough for you to be put in charge and carry out our plan. You will also get the chance to have a nice, long chat with your stepson about putting his nose where it doesn't belong."
Snape sighed. If he gave even one inch on this idea of hers, she would run with it until the school was in ruins and half the Ministry was swarming the halls. Then where would they get the privacy they needed to finally complete their plan?
Snape leaned forward and plucked the bottle easily from her hand. "Why don't you let me hold on to this? If I can't find another way, the next time she has food sent up, I'll go into the kitchens and add some to the drinks."
"What if she doesn't drink any of it? You know how she is about her tea."
"Look, I'll put a curse on any of the three if it becomes necessary. I don't particularly care which of them it is. None of them eat breakfast in her office. It will keep Minerva out of her office for at least a few minutes while she deals with the situation." He slipped the bottle into his pocket and stood. "I don't want you making a move until everything is in place. We still have to remain low-key for the time being."
A glare was her only response.
"The Dark Lord will reward you for your patience, Bella. Keep that in mind if you feel one of your…impulses." At her continued frown, Snape left her office and headed down the hall to his own.
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