Snow was swirling against the icy windows once more; Christmas was approaching fast. Hagrid had already singlehandedly delivered the usual twelve Christmas trees to the Great Hall; garlands of holly and tinsel had been twisted around the banisters of the stairs; everlasting candles glowed from inside the helmets of suits of armor and great bunches of mistletoe had been hung at intervals along the corridors. Large groups of girls tended to converge underneath the mistletoe bunches every time Harry went past, which caused blockages in the corridors; fortunately, however, Harry's frequent nighttime wanderings had given him an unusually good knowledge of the castle's secret passageways, so that he was often, without too much difficulty, to navigate mistletoe-free routes between classes..bvlgari rings replica.
Ron, who might once have found the necessity of these detours excuse for jealousy rather than hilarity, simply roared with laughter about it all. Although Harry much preferred this new laughing, joking Ron to the moody, aggressive model he had been enduring for the last few weeks, the improved Ron came at a heavy price. Firstly, Harry had to put up with the frequent presence of Lavender Brown, who seemed to regard any moment that she was not kissing Ron as a moment wasted; and secondly, Harry found himself once more the best friend of two people who seemed unlikely ever to speak to each other again..Christian Louboutin Replica.
Ron, whose hands and forearms still bore scratches and cuts from Hermione's bird attack, was taking a defensive and resentful tone..bvlgari rings replica.
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Harry did not answer, but pretended to be absorbed in the book they were supposed to have read before Charms next morning (Quintessence: A Quest). Determined as he was to remain friends with both Ron and Hermione, he was spending a lot of time with his mouth shut tight..bvlgari bracelet replica.
â€œI never promised Hermione anything,â€ Ron mumbled. â€œI mean, all right, I was going to go to Slughorn's Christmas party with her, but she never said... just as friends... I'm a free agent...â€.hermes bracelet replica.
Harry turned a page of Quintessence, aware that Ron was watching him. Ron's voice trailed away in mutters, barely audible over the loud crackling of the fire, though Harry thought he caught the words â€œKrumâ€ and â€œCan't complainâ€ again..hermes bracelet replica.
Hermione's schedule was so full that Harry could only talk to her properly in the evenings, when Ron was, in any case, so tightly wrapped around Lavender that he did not notice what Harry was doing. Hermione refused to sit in the common room while Ron was there, so Harry generally joined her in the library, which meant that their conversations were held in whispers..cartier love bracelet replica.
â€œHe's at perfect liberty to kiss whomever he likes,â€ said Hermione, while the librarian, Madam Pince, prowled the shelves behind them. â€œI really couldn't care less.â€.www.fsagraduates.co.uk.
She raised her quill and dotted an â€˜iâ€™ so ferociously that she punctured a hole in her parchment. Harry said nothing. He thought his voice might soon vanish from the lack of use. He bent a little lower over Advanced Potion-Making and continued to make notes on Everlasting Elixirs, occasionally pausing to decipher the Prince's useful additions to Libatius Borage's text..www.sigmund-freud.co.uk.
â€œAnd incidentally,â€ said Hermione, after a few moments, â€œyou need to be careful.â€.http://www.panchro.co.uk.
â€œFor the last time,â€ said Harry, speaking in a slightly hoarse tone after three-quarters of an hour's silence, â€œI am not giving back this book. I've learned more from the Half-Blood Prince than Snape or Slughorn have taught me inâ€”â€.www.onescreen.cc.
â€œI'm not talking about your stupid so-called Prince,â€ said Hermione, giving his book a nasty look as though it had been rude to her. â€œI'm talking about earlier. I went into the girlsâ€™ bathroom just before I came in here and there were about a dozen girls in there, including that Romilda Vane, trying to decide how to slip you a love potion. They're all hoping they're going to get you to take them to Slughorn's party, and thay all seem to have bought Fred and George's love potions, which I'm afraid to say probably workâ€”â€.www.onescreen.cc.
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â€œThey didn't have the potions with them in the bathroom,â€ said Hermione scornfully, â€œThey were just discussing tactics. As I doubt the Half-Blood Prince,â€ she gave the book another scornful look, â€œcould dream up an antidote for a dozen different love potions at once, I'd just invite someone to go with you, that'll stop all the others thinking they've still got a chance. It's tomorrow night, they're getting desperate.â€.cartier love bracelet replica.
â€œThere isn't anyone I want to invite,â€ mumbled Harry, who was still not trying to think about Ginny any more than he could help, despite the fact the fact that she kept cropping up in his dreams in ways that made him devoutly thankful that Ron could not perform Legilimency.
â€œWell, just be careful what you drink, because Romilda Vane looked like she meant business.â€ said Hermione grimly.
She hitched up the long roll of parchment on which she was writing her Arithmancy essay and continued to scratch away with her quill. Harry watched her with his mind a long way away.
â€œHang on a moment,â€ he said slowly. â€œI thought Filch had banned anything bought at Weasley's Wizard Wheezes?â€
â€œAnd when has anyone ever paid attention to what Filch has banned?â€ asked Hermione, still concentrating on her essay.
â€œBut I thought all the owls were being searched. So how come these girls are able to bring love potions into the school?â€
â€œFred and George send them disguised as perfumes and cough potions,â€ said Hermione. â€œIt's part of their Owl Order Service.â€
â€œYou know a lot about it.â€
Hermione gave him the kind of nasty look she had just given his copy of Advanced Potion-Making.
â€œIt was all on the back of the bottles they showed Ginny and me in the summer,â€ she said coldly, â€œI don't go around putting potions in people's drinks... or pretending too either, which is just as bad...â€
â€œYeah, well, never mind that,â€ said Harry quickly. â€œThe point is, Filch is being fooled isn't he? These girls are getting stuff into the school disguised as something else! So why couldn't Malfoy have brought the necklace into the schoolâ€”?â€
â€œOh, Harry... not that again...â€
â€œCome on, why not?â€ demanded Harry.
â€œLook,â€ sighed Hermione, â€œSecrecy Sensors detect jinxes, curses, and concealment charms, don't they? They're used to find dark magic and dark objects. They'd have picked up a powerful curse, like the one in the necklace, within seconds. But something that's just been put in the wrong bottle wouldn't registerâ€”and anyway love potions aren't dark or dangerousâ€”â€
â€œEasy for you to say,â€ muttered Harry, thinking of Romilda Vane.
â€œâ€”so it would be down to Filch to realise it wasn't a cough potion, and he's not a very good wizard, I doubt he can tell one potion fromâ€”â€
Hermione stopped dead; Harry had heard it too. Somebody had moved close behind them among the dark bookshelves. They waited, and a moment later the vulture-like countenance of Madam Pince appeared around the corner, her sunken cheeks, her skin like parchment, and her long hooked nose illuminated unflatteringly by the lamp she was carrying.
â€œThe library is now closed,â€ she said, â€œMind you return anything you have borrowed to the correctâ€”what have you been doing to that book, you depraved boy?â€
â€œIt isn't the library's, it's mine!â€ said Harry hastily, snatching his copy of Advanced Potion-Making off the table as she lunged at it with a clawlike hand.
â€œDespoiled!â€ she hissed. â€œDesecrated, befouled!â€
â€œIt's just a book that's been written on!â€ said Harry, tugging it out of her grip.
She looked as though she might have a seizure; Hermione, who had hastily packed her things, grabbed Harry by the arm and frogmarched him away.
â€œShe'll ban you from the library if you're not careful. Why did you have to bring that stupid book?â€
â€œIt's not my fault she's barking mad, Hermione. Or d'you think she overheard you being rude about Filch? I've always thought there might be something between them...â€
â€œOh, ha ha..â€
Enjoying the fact that they could speak normally again, they made their way along the deserted lamp-lit corridors back to the common room, arguing whether or not Filch and Madam Pince were secretly in love with each other.
â€œBaubles,â€ said Harry to the Fat Lady, this being the new, festive password.
â€œSame to you,â€ said the fat lady with a roguish grin, and she swung forward to admit them.
â€œHi, Harry!â€ said Romilda Vane, the moment he had climbed through the portrait hole. â€œFancy a Gillywater?â€
Hermione gave him a â€œWhat-did-I-tell-you?â€ look over her shoulder.
â€œNo thanks,â€ said Harry quickly. â€œI don't like it much.â€
â€œWell, take these anyway,â€ said Romilda, thrusting a box into his hands. â€œChocolate Cauldrons, they've got firewhiskey in them. My gran sent them to me, but I don't like them.â€
â€œOhâ€”rightâ€”thanks a lot.â€ said Harry, who could not think what else to say. â€œErâ€”I'm just going over here with ...â€
He hurried off behind Hermione, his voice tailing away feebly.
â€œTold you,â€ said Hermione succinctly, â€œSooner you ask someone, sooner they'll all leave you alone and you canâ€”â€
But her face suddnly turned blank; she had just spotted Ron and Lavender, who were intertwined in the same armchair.
â€œWell, goodnight, Harry,â€ said Hermione, though it was only seven o'clock in the evening, and she left for the girlsâ€™ dormitory without another word.
Harry went to bed comforting himself that there was only one more day of lessons to struggle through, plus Slughorn's party, after which he and Ron would depart together for the Burrow. It now seemed impossible that Ron and Hermione would make up with each other before the holidays began, but perhaps, somehow, the break would give them time to calm down, think better of their behavior...
But his hopes were not high, and they sank still lower after enduring a Transfiguration lesson with them both next day. They had just embarked upon the immensely difficult topic of human transfiguration; working in front of mirrors, they were supposed to be changing the color of their own eyebrows. Hermione laughed unkindly at Ron's disastrous first attempt, during which he somehow managed to give himself a spectacular handlebar mustache; Ron retaliated by doing a cruel but accurate impression of Hermione jumping up and down in her seat every time Professor McGonagall asked a question, which Lavender and Parvati found deeply amusing and which reduced Hermione to the verge of tears again. She raced out of the classroom on the bell, leaving half her things behind; Harry, deciding that her need was greater than Ron's just now, scooped up her remaining possessions and followed her.
He finally tracked her down as she emerged from a girl's bathroom on the floor below. She was accompanied by Luna Lovegood, who was patting her vaguely on the back.
â€œOh, hello, Harry,â€ said Luna. â€œDid you know one of your eyebrows is bright yellow?â€
â€œHi, Luna. Hermione, you left your stuff...â€
He held out her books.
â€œOh, yes,â€ said Hermione in a choked voice, taking her things and turning away quickly to hide the fact she was wiping her eyes with her pencil case. â€œThank you, Harry. Well, I'd better get going...â€
And she hurried off, without ever giving Harry any time to offer words of comfort, though admittedly he could not think of any.
â€œShe's a bit upset,â€ said Luna. â€œI thought at first it was Moaning Myrtle in there, but it turned out to be Hermione. She said something about Ron Weasley...â€
â€œYeah, they've had a row,â€ said Harry.
â€œHe says funny things sometimes, doesn't he?â€ said Luna as they set off down the corridor together. â€œBut he can be a bit unkind. I noticed that last year.â€
â€œI s'pose,â€ said Harry. Luna was demonstrating her usual knack of speaking uncomfortable truths; he had never met anyone quite like her. â€œSo have you had a good term?â€
â€œOh, it's been all right,â€ said Luna. â€œA bit lonely without the D.A. Ginny's been nice, though. She stopped two boys in our Transfiguration class calling me â€˜Loonyâ€™ the other day â€”â€
â€œHow would you like to come to Slughorn's party with me tonight?â€
The words were out of Harry's mouth before he could stop them; he heard himself say them as though it were a stranger speaking.
Luna turned her protuberant eyes to him in surprise.
â€œSlughorn's party? With you?â€
â€œYeah,â€ said Harry, â€œWe're supposed to bring guests, so I thought you might like.. I mean...â€ He was keen to make his intentions perfectly clear. â€œI mean, just as friends, you know. But if you don't want to...â€
He was already half-hoping that she didn't want to.
â€œOh no, I'd love to go with you as friends!â€ said Luna, beaming as he had never seen her beam before. â€œNobody's ever asked me to a party before, as a friend! Is that why you dyed your eyebrow, for the party? Should I do mine too?â€
â€œNo,â€ said Harry firmly, â€œThat was a mistake. I'll get Hermione to put it right for me. So I'll meet you in the Entrance Hall at eight o'clock then.â€
â€œAHA!â€ screamed a voice from overhead and both of them jumped; unnoticed by either of them, they had just passed underneath Peeves, who was hanging upside down from a chandelier and grinning maliciously at them.
â€œPotty asked Loony to go to the party. Potty lurves Loony! Potty luuuuuurves Looooony!â€
And he zoomed away cackling and shrieking, â€œPotty loves Loony!â€
â€œNice to keep these things private,â€ said Harry. And sure enough, in no time at all the whole school seemed to know that Harry Potter was taking Luna Lovegood to Slughorn's party.
â€œYou could've taken anyone!â€ said Ron in disbelief over dinner. â€œAnyone! And you chose Loony Lovegood?â€
â€œDon't call her that, Ron!â€ snapped Ginny, pausing behind Harry on her way to join friends. â€œI'm really glad you're taking her Harry, she's so excited.â€
And she moved on down the table to sit with Dean. Harry tried to feel pleased that Ginny was glad he was taking Luna to the party but could not quite manage it. A long way along the table Hermione was sitting alone, playing with her stew. Harry noticed Ron looking at her furtively.
â€œYou could say sorry,â€ suggested Harry bluntly.
â€œWhat, and get attacked by another flock of canaries?â€ muttered Ron.
â€œWhat did you have to imitate her for?â€
â€œShe laughed at my mustache!â€
â€œSo did I, it was the stupidest thing I've ever seen.â€
But Ron did not seem to have heard; Lavender had just arrived with Parvati. Squeezing herself in between Harry and Ron, Lavender flung her arms around Ron's neck.
â€œHi, Harry,â€ said Parvati who, like Harry, looked faintly embarrassed and bored by the behavior of their two friends.
â€œHi,â€ said Harry, â€œHow're you? You're staying at Hogwarts, then? I heard your parents wanted you to leave.â€
â€œI managed to talk them out of it for the time being,â€ said Parvati. â€œThat Katie thing really freaked them out, but as there hasn't been anything since... Oh, hi, Hermione!â€
Parvati positively beamed. Harry could tell that she was feeling guilty for having laughed at Hermione in Transfiguration. He looked around and saw that Hermione was beaming back, if possible even more brightly. Girls were very strange sometimes.
â€œHi, Parvati!â€ said Hermione, ignoring Ron and Lavender completely. â€œAre you going to Slughorn's party tonight?â€
â€œNo invite,â€ said Parvati gloomily. â€œI'd love to go, though, it sounds like it's going to be really good... you're going, aren't you?â€
â€œYes, I'm meeting Cormac at eight, and we'reâ€”â€
There was a noise like a plunger being withdrawn from a blocked sink and Ron surfaced. Hermione acted as though she had not seen or heard anything.
â€œâ€”we're going up to the party together.â€
â€œCormac?â€ said Parvati. â€œCormac McLaggen, you mean?â€
â€œThat's right,â€ said Hermione sweetly. â€œThe one who almost,â€ she put a great deal of emphasis on the word, â€œbecame Gryffindor Keeper.â€
â€œAre you going out with him, then?â€ asked Parvati, wide-eyed.
â€œOhâ€”yesâ€”didn't you know?â€ said Harmione, with a most un-Hermione-ish giggle.
â€œNo!â€ said Parvati, looking positively agog at this piece of gossip. â€œWow, you like your Quidditch players, don't you? First Krum, then McLaggen.â€
â€œI like really good Quidditch players,â€ Hermione corrected her, still smiling. â€œWell, see you... got to go and get ready for the party...â€
She left. At once Lavender and Parvati put their heads together to discuss this new development, with everything they had ever heard about McLaggen, and all they had ever guessed about Hermione. Ron looked strangely blank and said nothing. Harry was left to ponder in silence the depths to which girls would sink to get revenge.
When he arrived in the Entrance Hall at eight o'clock that night, he found an unusually large number of girls lurking there, all of whom seemed to be staring at him resentfully as he approached Luna. She was wearing a set of spangled silver robes that were attracting a certain amount of giggles from the onlookers, but otherwise she looked quite nice. Harry was glad, in any case, that she had left off her radish earrings, her Butterbeer-cork necklace, and her Spectrespecs.
â€œHi,â€ he said. â€œShall we get going then?â€
â€œOh yes,â€ she said happily. â€œWhere is the party?â€
â€œSlughorn's office,â€ said Harry, leading her up the marble staircase away from all the staring and muttering. â€œDid you hear, there's supposed to be a vampire coming?â€
â€œRufus Scrimgeour?â€ asked Luna.
â€œIâ€”what?â€ said Harry, disconcerted. â€œYou mean the Minister of Magic?â€
â€œYes, he's a vampire,â€ said Luna matter-of-factly. â€œFather wrote a very long article about it when Scrimgeour first took over from Cornelius Fudge, but he was forced not to publish by somebody from the Ministry. Obviously, they didn't want the truth to get out!â€
Harry, who thought it most unlikely that Rufus Scrimgeour was a vampire, but who was used to Luna repeating her father's bizarre views as though they were fact, did not reply; they were already approaching Slughorn's office and the sounds of laughter, music, and loud conversation were growing louder with every step they took.
Whether it had been built that way, or because he had used magical trickery to make it so, Slughorn's office was much larger than the usual teacher's study. The ceiling and walls had been draped with emerald, crimson and gold hangings, so that it looked as though they were all inside a vast tent. The room was crowded and stuffy and bathed in the red light cast by an ornate golden lamp dangling from the center of the ceiling in which real fairies were fluttering, each a brilliant speck of light. Loud singing accompanied by what sounded like mandolins issued from a distant corner; a haze of pipe smoke hung over several elderly warlocks deep in conversation, and a number of house-elves were negotiating their way squeakily through the forest of knees, obscured by the heavy silver platters of food they were bearing, so that they looked like little roving tables.
â€œHarry, m'boy!â€ boomed Slughorn, almost as soon as Harry and Luna had squeezed in through the door. â€œCome in, come in, so many people I'd like you to meet!â€
Slughorn was wearing a tasseled velvet hat to match his smoking jacket. Gripping Harry's arm so tightly he might have been hoping to Disapparate with him, Slughorn led him purposefully into the party; Harry seized Luna's hand and dragged her along with him.
â€œHarry, I'd like you to meet Eldred Worple, an old student of mine, author of Blood Brothers: My Life Amongst the Vampiresâ€”and, of course, his friend Sanguini.â€
Worple, who was a small, stout, bespectacled man, grabbed Harry's hand and shook it enthusiastically; the vampire Sanguini, who was tall and emaciated with dark shadows under his eyes, merely nodded. He looked rather bored. A gaggle of girls was standing close to him, looking curious and excited.
â€œHarry Potter, I am simply delighted!â€ said Worple, peering short-sightedly up into Harry's face. â€œI was saying to Professor Slughorn only the other day, Where is the biography of Harry Potter for which we have all been waiting?â€
â€œEr,â€ said Harry, â€œwere you?â€
â€œJust as modest as Horace described!â€ said Worple. â€œBut seriouslyâ€”â€ his manner changed; it became suddenly business-like, â€œI would be delighted to write it myselfâ€” people are craving to know more about you, dear boy, craving! If you were prepared to grant me a few interviews, say in four- or five-hour sessions, why, we could have the book finished within months. And all with very little effort on your part, I assure youâ€”ask Sanguini here if it isn't quite â€” Sanguini, stay here!â€ added Worple, suddenly stern, for the vampire had been edging toward the nearby group of girls, a rather hungry look in his eye. â€œHere, have a pasty,â€ said Worple, seizing one from a passing elf and stuffing it into Sanguini's hand before turning his attention back to Harry.
â€œMy dear boy, the gold you could make, you have no idea â€”â€
â€œI'm definitely not interested,â€ said Harry firmly, â€œand I've just seen a friend of mine, sorry.â€
He pulled Luna after him into the crowd; he had indeed just seen a long mane of brown hair disappear between what looked like two members of the Weird Sisters.
â€œHarry! There you are, thank goodness! Hi, Luna !â€
â€œWhat's happened to you?â€ asked Harry, for Hermione looked distinctly disheveled, rather as though she had just fought her way out of a thicket of Devil's Snare.
â€œOh, I've just escapedâ€”I mean, I've just left Cormac,â€ she said. â€œUnder the mistletoe,â€ she added in explanation, as Harry continued to look questioningly at her.
â€œServes you right for coming with him,â€ he told her severely.
â€œI thought he'd annoy Ron most,â€ said Hermione dispassionately. â€œI debated for a while about Zacharias Smith, but I thought, on the whole â€”â€
â€œYou considered Smith?â€ said Harry, revolted.
â€œYes, I did, and I'm starting to wish I'd chosen him, McLaggen makes Grawp look a gentleman. Let's go this way, we'll be able to see him coming, he's so tall...â€
The three of them made their way over to the other side of the room, scooping up goblets of mead on the way, realizing too late that Professor Trelawney was standing there alone.
â€œHello,â€ said Luna politely to Professor Trelawney.
â€œGood evening, my dear,â€ said Professor Trelawney, focusing upon Luna with some difficulty. Harry could smell cooking sherry again. â€œI haven't seen you in my classes lately...â€
â€œNo, I've got Firenze this year,â€ said Luna.
â€œOh, of course,â€ said Professor Trelawney with an angry, drunken titter. â€œOr Dobbin, as I prefer to think of him. You would have thought, would you not, that now I am returned to the school Professor Dumbledore might have got rid of the horse? But no... we share classes... It's an insult, frankly, an insult. Do you know...â€
Professor Trelawney seemed too tipsy to have recognized Harry. Under cover of her furious criticisms of Firenze, Harry drew closer to Hermione and said, â€œLet me get something straight. Are you planning to tell Ron that you interfered at Keeper tryouts?â€
Hermione raised her eyebrows.
â€œDo you really think I'd stoop that low?â€
Harry looked at her shrewdly.
â€œHermione, if you can ask out McLaggenâ€”â€
â€œThere's a difference,â€ said Hermione with dignity. â€œI've got no plans to tell Ron anything about what might, or might not, have happened at Keeper tryouts.â€
â€œGood,â€ said Harry fervently. â€œBecause he'll just fall apart again, and we'll lose the next match â€”â€
â€œQuidditch!â€ said Hermione angrily. â€œIs that all boys care about? Cormac hasn't asked me one single question about myself, no, I've just been treated to A Hundred Great Saves Made by Cormac McLaggen non-stop ever sinceâ€”oh no, here he comes!â€
She moved so fast it was as though she had Disapparated; one moment she was there, the next, she had squeezed between two guffawing witches and vanished.
â€œSeen Hermione?â€ asked McLaggen, forcing his way through the throng a minute later.
â€œNo, sorry,â€ said Harry, and he turned quickly to join in Luna's conversation, forgetting for a split second to whom she was talking.
â€œHarry Potter!â€ said Professor Trelawney in deep, vibrant tones, noticing him for the first time.
â€œOh, hello,â€ said Harry unenthusiastically.
â€œMy dear boy!â€ she said in a very carrying whisper. â€œThe rumors! The stories! The Chosen One! Of course, I have known for a very long time... the omens were never good, Harry... but why have you not returned to Divination? For you, of all people, the subject is of the utmost importance!â€
â€œAh, Sybill, we all think our subject's most important!â€ said a loud voice, and Slughorn appeared at Professor Trelawney's other side, his face very red, his velvet hat a little askew, a glass of mead in one hand and an enormous mince pie in the other. â€œBut I don't think I've ever known such a natural at Potions!â€ said Slughorn, regarding Harry with a fond, if bloodshot, eye. â€œInstinctive, you knowâ€”like his mother! I've only ever taught a few with this kind of ability, I can tell you that, Sybillâ€”why even Severus â€”â€
And to Harry's horror, Slughorn threw out an arm and seemed to scoop Snape out of thin air toward them.
â€œStop skulking and come and join us, Severus!â€ hiccuped Slughorn happily. â€œI was just talking about Harry's exceptional potion-making! Some credit must go to you, of course, you taught him for five years!â€
Trapped, with Slughorn's arm around his shoulders, Snape looked down his hooked nose at Harry, his black eyes narrowed.
â€œFunny, I never had the impression that I managed to teach Potter anything at all.â€
â€œWell, then, it's natural ability!â€ shouted Slughorn. â€œYou should have seen what he gave me, first lesson, Draught of Living Deathâ€”never had a student produce finer on a first attempt, I don't think even you, Severus â€”â€
â€œReally?â€ said Snape quietly, his eyes still boring into Harry, who felt a certain disquiet. The last thing he wanted was for Snape to start investigating the source of his newfound brilliance at Potions.
â€œRemind me what other subjects you're taking, Harry?â€ asked Slughorn .
â€œDefense Against the Dark Arts, Charms, Transfiguration, Herbology...â€
â€œAll the subjects required, in short, for an Auror ,â€ said Snape with the faintest sneer.
â€œYeah, well, that's what I'd like to do,â€ said Harry defiantly.
â€œAnd a great one you'll make too!â€ boomed Slughorn.
â€œI don't think you should be an Auror, Harry,â€ said Luna unexpectedly. Everybody looked at her. â€œThe Aurors are part of the Rotfang Conspiracy, I thought everyone knew that. They're planning to bring down the Ministry of Magic from within using a combination of Dark Magic and gum disease.â€
Harry inhaled half his mead up his nose as he started to laugh. Really, it had been worth bringing Luna just for this. Emerging, from his goblet, coughing, sopping wet but still grinning, he saw something calculated to raise his spirits even higher: Draco Malfoy... being dragged by the ear toward them by Argus Filch.
â€œProfessor Slughorn,â€ wheezed Filch, his jowls aquiver and the maniacal light of mischief-detection in his bulging eyes, â€œI discovered this boy lurking in an upstairs corridor. He claims to have been invited to your party and to have been delayed in setting out. Did you issue him with an invitation?â€
Malfoy pulled himself free of Filch's grip, looking furious.
â€œAll right, I wasn't invited!â€ he said angrily. â€œI was trying to gatecrash, happy?â€
â€œNo, I'm not!â€ said Filch, a statement at complete odds with the glee on his face. â€œYou're in trouble, you are! Didn't the Headmaster say that night-time prowling is out, unless you've got permission, didn't he, eh?â€
â€œThat's all right, Argus, that's all right,â€ said Slughorn, waving a hand. â€œIt's Christmas, and it's not a crime to want to come to a party. Just this once, we'll forget any punishment; you may stay, Draco.â€
Filich's expression of outraged disappointment was perfectly predictable; but why, Harry wondered, watching him, did Malfoy look almost equally unhappy? And why was Snape looking at Malfoy as though both angry and... was it possible? ... a little afraid?
But almost before Harry had registered what he had seen, Filch had turned and shuffled away, muttering under his breath; Malfoy had composed his face into a smile and was thanking Slughorn for his generosity, and Snape's face was smoothly inscrutable again.
â€œIt's nothing, nothing,â€ said Slughorn, waving away Malfoy's thanks. â€œI did know your grandfather, after all....â€
â€œHe always spoke very highly of you, sir,â€ said Malfoy quickly. â€œSaid you were the best potion-maker he'd ever known...â€
Harry stared at Malfoy. It was not the sucking-up that intrigued him; he had watched Malfoy do that to Snape for a long time. It was the fact that Malfoy did, after all, look a little ill. This was the first time he had seen Malfoy close up for ages; he now saw that Malfoy had dark shadows under his eyes and a distinctly grayish tinge to his skin.
â€œI'd like a word with you, Draco,â€ said Snape suddenly.
â€œNow, Severus,â€ said Slughorn, hiccuping again, â€œit's Christmas, don't be too hardâ€”â€
â€œI'm his Head of House, and I shall decide how hard, or otherwise, to be,â€ said Snape curtly. â€œFollow me, Draco.â€
They left, Snape leading the way, Malfoy looking resentful. Harry stood there for a moment, irresolute, then said, â€œI'll be back in a bit, Lunaâ€”erâ€”bathroom.â€
â€œAll right,â€ she said cheerfully, and he thought he heard her, as he hurried off into the crowd, resume the subject of the Rotfang Conspiracy with Professor Trelawney, who seemed sincerely interested.
It was easy, once out of the party, to pull his Invisibility Cloak out of his pocket and throw it over himself, for the corridor was quite deserted. What was more difficult was finding Snape and Malfoy. Harry ran down the corridor, the noise of his feet masked by the music and loud talk still issuing from Slughorn's office behind him. Perhaps Snape had taken Malfoy to his office in the dungeons ... or perhaps he was escorting him back to the Slytherin common room... Harry pressed his ear against door after door as he dashed down the corridor until, with a great jolt of excitement, he crouched down to the keyhole of the last classroom in the corridor and heard voices.
â€œ... cannot afford mistakes, Draco, because if you are expelled â€”â€
â€œI didn't have anything to do with it, all right?â€
â€œI hope you are telling the truth, because it was both clumsy and foolish. Already you are suspected of having a hand in it.â€
â€œWho suspects me?â€ said Malfoy angrily. â€œFor the last time, I didn't do it, okay? That Bell girl must've had an enemy no one knows aboutâ€”don't look at me like that! I know what you're doing, I'm not stupid, but it won't workâ€”I can stop you!â€
There was a pause and then Snape said quietly, â€œAh... Aunt Bellatrix has been teaching you Occlumency, I see. What thoughts are you trying to conceal from your master, Draco?â€
â€œI'm not trying to conceal anything from him, I just don't want you butting in!â€
Harry pressed his ear still more closely against the keyhole... what had happened to make Malfoy speak to Snape like thisâ€”Snape, toward whom he had always shown respect, even liking?
â€œSo that is why you have been avoiding me this term? You have feared my interference? You realize that, had anybody else failed to come to my office when I had told them repeatedly to be there, Dracoâ€”â€
â€œSo put me in detention! Report me to Dumbledore!â€ jeered Malfoy.
There was another pause. Then Snape said, â€œYou know perfectly well that I do not wish to do either of those things.â€
â€œYou'd better stop telling me to come to your office then!â€
â€œListen to me,â€ said Snape, his voice so low now that Harry had to push his ear very hard against the keyhole to hear. â€œI am trying to help you. I swore to your mother I would protect you. I made the Unbreakable Vow, Dracoâ€”â€
â€œLooks like you'll have to break it, then, because I don't need your protection! It's my job, he gave it to me and I'm doing it, I've got a plan and it's going to work, it's just taking a bit longer than I thought it would!â€
â€œWhat is your plan ?â€
â€œIt's none of your business!â€
â€œIf you tell me what you are trying to do, I can assist you ...â€
â€œI have all the assistance I need, thanks, I'm not alone!â€
â€œYou were certainly alone tonight, which was foolish in the extreme, wandering the corridors without lookouts or backup, these are elementary mistakesâ€”â€
â€œI would've had Crabbe and Goyle with me if you hadn't put them in detention!â€
â€œKeep your voice down!â€ spat Snape, for Malfoy's voice had risen excitedly. â€œIf your friends Crabbe and Goyle intend to pass their Defense Against the Dark Arts O.W.L. this time around, they will need to work a little harder than they are doing at presâ€”â€
â€œWhat does it matter?â€ said Malfoy. â€œDefense Against the Dark Artsâ€”it's all just a joke, isn't it, an act? Like any of us need protecting against the Dark Artsâ€”â€
â€œIt is an act that is crucial to success, Draco!â€ said Snape. â€œWhere do you think I would have been all these years, if I had not known how to act? Now listen to me! You are being incautious, wandering around at night, getting yourself caught, and if you are placing your reliance in assistants like Crabbe and Goyleâ€”â€
â€œThey're not the only ones, I've got other people on my side, better people!â€
â€œThen why not confide in me, and I canâ€”â€
â€œI know what you're up to! You want to steal my glory!â€
There was another pause, then Snape said coldly, â€œYou are speaking like a child. I quite understand that your father's capture and imprisonment has upset you, butâ€”â€
Harry had barely a second's warning; he heard Malfoy's footsteps on the other side of the door and flung himself out of the way just as it burst open. Malfoy was striding away down the corridor, past the open door of Slughorn's office, around the distant corner, and out of sight.
Hardly daring to breathe, Harry remained crouched down as Snape emerged slowly from the classroom. His expression unfathomable, he returned to the party. Harry remained on the floor, hidden beneath the Cloak, his mind racing.
The Half Blood Prince
. . . . . . . . . .