Only about a dozen people were taking or had made a grade acceptable for N.E.W.T. level. Crabbe and Goyle had evidently failed to achieve an acceptable O.W.L. grade, but four Slytherins had, one of them being Malfoy. Ernie Macmillan waved at the three and offered a greeting, but before conversation could strike up, Slughorn’s door opened, and his belly preceded him out of it. As the students filed into the room, his great walrus mustache curved above his beaming mouth, and he greeted Harry, Zabini, and another of the four gathered Slytherins most warmly.
The dungeon was, most unusually, already filled with vapors and odd smells. Hermione sniffed at the air with interest, and detected several particular scents, all belonging to strange potions at the front of the room.
The four Ravenclaws sat at a table together, as did the four Slytherins, which left the trio to share a table with Ernie to their delight, for they had bonded with him during the D.A. meetings.
“Now then, now then,” said Slughorn, whose massive outline was now quivering through the vapors. “Scales out, everyone, and potion kits, and don’t forget your copies of Advanced Potion-Making…”
“Sir?” Harry asked, raising his hand.
“I haven’t got a book, or scales or anything—nor’s Ron—we didn’t realize we’d be able to do the N.E.W.T., you see—”
“Ah, yes, Professor McGonagall did mention… not to worry, my dear boy, not to worry at all. You can use ingredients from the store cupboard today, and I’m sure we can lend you some scales and we’ve got a small stock of old books here, they’ll do until you can write to Flourish and Blotts…”
Slughorn strode over to a corner cupboard and, after a moment of rummaging, emerged with two battered copies of Advanced Potion-Making, which he gave to Harry and Ron along with two tarnished scales.
“Now then,” Slughorn continued once he made his way back to the head of the class. “I’ve prepared a few potions for you to have a look at, just out of interest, you know. These are the kind of thing you ought to be able to make after completing your N.E.W.T.s. You ought to have heard of them, even if you haven’t made them yet. Anyone tell me what this one is?”
He indicated the cauldron nearest to the Slytherin table, the contents appeared to be plain water boiling inside it. Hermione’s well-practiced hand hit the air before any other student could finish studying it.
“It’s Veritaserum, a colorless, odorless potion that forces the drinker to tell the truth.”
“Very good, very good!” said Slughorn happily. “Now,” he continued, pointing at the cauldron near the Ravenclaw table. “This one is pretty well-known… featured in a few Ministry leaflets lately too… Who can—”
Again, Hermione’s hand was the fastest.
“It’s Polyjuice Potion, sir,” she said, eyeing the muddy, bubbling mess in the cauldron, the same as she’d made in second year.
“Excellent, excellent! Now, this one here… yes, my dear?” Slughorn said, slightly bemused as the Gryffindor’s hand hit the air once more.
“It is indeed. It seems almost foolish to ask,” said Slughorn, who was looking mightily impressed, “but I assume you know what it does?”
“It’s the most powerful love potion in the world! The mother-of-pearl sheen and the characteristic steam spirals are easily recognizable. It’s supposed to smell differently to each of us, according to what attracts us. For example, I can smell horses, and fire, books, and… roasted marshmallows…” she said, blushing.
“May I ask your name, my dear?”
“Hermione Granger, sir,”
“Granger? Granger? Can you possibly be related to Hector Dagworth-Granger, who founded the Most Extraordinary Society of Potioneers?”
Hermione shook her head. “I don’t think so, sir. I’m Muggle-born, you see.”
“Oho! ‘One of my best friends is Muggle-born, and she’s the best of our year!’ I’m assuming this is the very friend of whom you spoke, Harry?”
Hermione turned to Harry, flattered.
“Yes, sir,” said Harry.
“Thank you,” Hermione murmured.
“Well, well, take twenty well-earned points for Gryffindor, Miss Granger,” said Slughorn genially.
“I really do appreciate that,” she whispered warmly to Harry, a beaming smile on her face.
“It’s true, you know,” Ron spoke up. “You are the best in our year.”
The lioness flushed, and thanked Ron as well.
“Now, it is to be noted that Amortentia doesn’t create love, of course. It is impossible to manufacture or imitate love. No, this will simply cause a powerful infatuation or obsession. It is probably the most dangerous potion in this room—oh yes,” he said, nodding to Malfoy and Nott, both of whom were smirking skeptically. “When you have seen as much of life as I have, you will not underestimate the power of obsessive love…” he trailed off, apparently lost some stupor.
“And now,” Slughorn continued, breaking out of his trace. “it is time for us to set to work.”
“Sir,” Ernie piped up. “You haven’t told us what’s in this one,” he said, pointing to a small, black cauldron set on Slughorn’s desk. The potion within it was splashing about merrily; large drops the color of molten gold were leaping like goldfish above the surface, although not a bit had spilled.
“Oho!” said Slughorn again. Harry was certain he hadn’t forgotten, and had simply waited for someone ask to create a dramatic effect. “Yes. That. Well, that one, ladies and gentlemen is a most curious little potion called Felix Felicis. I take it,” he said, turning to smile at Hermione, who’d let out a small gasp of wonder, “that you know what the Felix does, Miss Granger?”
“It’s liquid luck!” she said excitedly. “It makes the drinker lucky!”
In front of them, Malfoy had straightened upon hearing it, giving Slughorn his undivided attention.
“Quite right, take another ten points for Gryffindor. Yes, it is a funny little potion, Felix Felicis. Desperately tricky to make and disastrous to get wrong. However, if brewed correctly, as this has been, you will find that all of your endeavors will succeed…at least until the effects wear off.”
“Why don’t people take it all the time, sir?” Terry Boot eagerly.
“Because if it is taken in excess, it causes giddiness, recklessness, and dangerous overconfidence. Too much of a good thing, you know…highly toxic in large quantities, but taken sparingly, and very occasionally…”
“Have you ever taken it, sir?” Michael Corner asked with great interest.
“Twice in my life,” said Slughorn. “Once when I was twenty-four, once when I was fifty-seven. Two tablespoons taken with breakfast. Two perfect days.” He gazed off for a moment, reliving the experience. “And that,” he said, breaking away from it. “is what I shall be offering as a prize in this lesson.”
The silence that followed made every bubble in the cauldrons seem infinitely louder, booming in Hermione’s ear.
“One tiny bottle of Felix Felicis,” said Slughorn, taking a small, corked glass bottle from his pocket and show it to them all. “Enough for twelve hours’ luck. From dawn till dusk, you will be lucky in all you attempt. Now, I must give you warning that Felix Felicis is a banned substance in organized competitions…sporting events, for instance, examinations, or elections. So the winner is to use it on an ordinary day only, and watch how that day becomes extraordinary!
“So,” Slughorn continued, suddenly brisk. “How are you to win my fabulous prize? By turning to page ten of Advanced Potion-Making. We have a little over an hour left to us, which should be enough time for you to make a decent attempt at the Draught of Living Death. I know it is more complicated that anything you have attempted before, and I do not expect a perfect potion from anybody. The person who does best, however, will win little Felix here. Off you go!”
Hermione flicked her eyes over the page, reciting the ingredients needed as she went to the cupboards and retrieved what the other three would need. When she returned and passed out the ingredients to Harry, Ron, and Ernie, she saw that Harry’s copy of Advanced Potion-Making had been extensively written in. Notes and annotations were squeezed into the margins and over crossed-out words, and even Harry, whose own handwriting was atrocious, was having trouble deciphering.
“What is all that?” she whispered, none too keen to disrupt the pleasant, busy silence that had fallen over the room.
“I dunno,” Harry returned, still squinting. He thanked her for getting the ingredients, and began to chop up his valerian roots.
Hermione shrugged it off and set to work. She easily fell into a rhythm, one her father had taught her several years ago. She allowed the knife to glide over her nail and through the root with a gentle rocking of her wrist, and soon moved on to the next step.
Ten minutes into the task, and bluish steam filled the room. The lioness had to keep battling her hair away from her face as it became the untamed mane it had been during her first years in Hogwarts. Unarmed with a tie, she stuffed it down into her robes the best she could, and took to cutting the sopophorous bean.
“No, don’t do that,” Harry whispered.
“Why not? The instructions say—”
“Crush the bean with the side of your knife, it’s much easier to get to the juice, look—”
True to his word, his potion had turned to the lilac shade of purple the book described. Hermione took a moment to study his potion, and then her own, which was still a deep purple. Curiously, she tried to draw the dagger though the bean. As if made from steel, the little bean refused to give under her strength. She cocked an eyebrow and turned her dagger sideways and crushed the bean instead. More liquid than the shriveled bean appeared able to hold spilled out, and she hastily threw it into her potion. Instantly, the deep purple turned to lilac.
“How did you do that?” she whispered.
“The little scribbles, it also says add a clockwise—”
“It can’t possibly be right twice, Harry,” she whispered back. “The book clearly states counterclockwise.”
“Well you go by your book, I’ll go by mine, and we’ll discuss it later, then? One of us has to be right.”
She nodded and fell silent. Her potion paled, as the book described, and tried to block out Ron’s fluent, soft cursing at his potion. The concoction in his cauldron was a sickly black color, like liquid licorice.
Hermione continued stirring, pleased that her potion was paling nicely.
“And time’s…up!” called Slughorn. “Stop stirring, please!”
The potions master slowly made his way around every table, pausing now and again to sniff at a few cauldrons. When he arrived at the last table, he gave a rueful smile to the tar-like substance in Ron’s cauldron, passed over Ernie’s navy concoction, and gave Hermione’s an approving nod. He paused, incredulous, when he reached Harry’s.
“The clear winner!” he cried to the dungeon. “Excellent, excellent, Harry! Good lord, it’s clear you’ve inherited your mother’s talent! She was a dab at Potions, Lilly was! And here you are, as promised—one bottle of Felix Felicis! Use it well, dear boy!”
Harry smiled, pleased, and thanked him before he slipped the bottle into his pocket safely. The Slytherins were glaring at him, and Ron and Hermione looked dumbfounded.
Harry would not answer any questions until they were safely seated in the Gryffindor common room. Hermione’s eyes narrowed with every word he spoke.
“I suppose you think I cheated, then?” he finished, aggravated by her clearly displeased expression.
“It wasn’t exactly your work, now was it? However, that’s beside the point—”
“He only followed instructions different than ours,” said Ron. “Could’ve been a catastrophe, couldn’t it? But he took a risk and it paid off—”
“Hang on,” another voice said before Hermione could continue. Ginny continued once she had Harry’s undivided attention. “Did I hear right? You’ve been taking orders from something someone else wrote in a book, Harry?” Ginny looked both livid and incredibly concerned.
“It’s nothing,” Harry said, attempting to reassure her before lowering his voice. “It’s not like, you know, Riddle’s diary. It’s just an old textbook someone scribbled on.”
“But you’re doing what it says?”
“I just tried a few tips written in the margins, honestly, Ginny, there’s nothing funny—”
“Ginny has a point, Harry.” Hermione said sharply. “We ought to check that there’s nothing odd about it. I mean, all these funny instructions, who knows?”
Harry frowned, but pushed the book to her raised wand anyway.
Nothing happened. The book simply lay there, looking old, dirty, and dog-eared.
“Anything else you’d like to do, or shall we watch it all night in case it starts doing backflips?” Harry said, reaching across the table to retrieve it.
The following Potions lessons passed with enormous success from Harry, and increasing irritation from Hermione. Harry followed every deviation the previous owner of the book, the ‘Half-Blood Prince’ he called himself, had made, and nearly every page was corrected in some manner. He offered to share his book, but even after numerous tests Hermione had performed, she would not bear false integrity and use it, despite Harry’s obvious triumph.
The first Saturday came, and Harry participated in his first lesson with Dumbledore.
“How was it?” Hermione asked excitedly, wide-awake as soon as Harry stumbled through the portrait-hole.
Harry, his eyes still glazed as his thoughts continued to be filled of what he’s seen in Dumbledore’s Pensieve, ran a hand through his hair and sighed. “It was… it was something…”
“That doesn’t tell us much, mate,” Ron yawned from the couch.
Harry hesitated. “I’m only allowed to tell you two,” he murmured, looking at Hermione. “This is really important. Not even Fleur can know.”
Hermione’s eyes narrowed in question and her head tilted. “Okay. I won’t tell her.”
“You swear it?”
“Harry, we both know the other guards secrets. She’s been working at Gringotts for the sake of a mission Dumbledore gave her. Do I know what that mission is? No, but I trust her. Did she know about Sirius? Not until you felt comfortable. Ron, however, was still having issues with the Veela genetics.”
The redhead flushed lightly.
“Do you swear?” Harry repeated. “Dumbledore made it clear that it must only be us.”
“She knows Dumbledore’s teaching you something, I’m sure she’ll ask how it went. I’ll tell her it’s classified, and if permission comes to tell her or if it’s a dangerous situation involving myself, she’ll know.”
Harry considered that briefly, remembering the fierce look of utter rage and the deepest fear he’d ever seen on Fleur’s face that night in the Ministry, when Hermione lay unconscious across Neville’s shoulders. When she most willingly sacrificed her own blood, how the golden tendrils returned Hermione to her with the raw power of ancient Veela magic, and what weighed most upon his shoulders: the knowledge that her death would follow Hermione’s, the terror he’d seen in Fleur’s eyes as she thought her own guard of heart had perished, denied the chance to defend her.
Harry nodded. “Of course, and please, send her my apologies…”
Hermione smiled with a nod. “Now, what did Dumbledore tell you?”
“Well, he didn’t exactly tell me much of anything. He showed me memories in the Pensieve. Bob Ogden’s memories.”
Hermione racked her brains. The name sounded familiar, but very distant.
Harry continued. “The memory he showed me was about Voldemort’s mother and father. Apparently, his uncle, Morfin, had hexed a Muggle, and Ogden was sent from the Ministry to deliver the summons, since they weren’t answering the letters. They spoke in Parseltounge, and his grandfather, Marvolo, treated his daughter like dirt because he thought she was a Squib. Instead, she was a very good witch, and after her father and brother had been sent to Azkaban for assaulting Ministry officials, we think she slipped a love potion to Tom Riddle Senior, who was the Muggle she’d secretly fallen in love with.
“After a while, she stopped drugging him, hoping that he would have fallen in love with her too, after they’d married and she’d conceived. That didn’t happen, and Tom left before the baby had been born.
“What else was interesting to me, was that Marvolo had heirlooms left over from the previous generations’ hoards of gold; it’d been used up by the time Marvolo was born. But, both heirlooms, a locket and a ring, were Slytherin’s, and Marvolo was very proud of his royal, pure-blooded line. More than that, Dumbledore has the ring I saw; he said he’d just recently acquired it, just before he got me from the Dursley’s. And he wore it when we visited Slughorn before coming to Hogwarts. His hand was injured by the time we got there.”
Hermione’s brow knitted in thought.
“That…” Ron said, both sleepily and in wonder. “That is something…”
“I think I’ll need to sleep on this, Harry…” Hermione murmured.
Harry rubbed the back of his head. “I know the feeling.”
“So Dumbledore’s showing you memories of Voldemort’s past…” she ignored Ron’s indigent squawk. “That’s… scary.” She decided at last.
Harry could only nod.
As the days drew by, Hermione’s prediction that the sixth years’ free periods were not hours of blissful relaxation proved true. They studied as though they took exams every day, and the lessons were becoming more brutal by the day. Nonverbal spells were now expected in Defense Against the Dark Arts, as well as Charms and Transfiguration. It was a relief to get outside into the greenhouses, where they could at least curse loudly if they were grabbed by some monstrosity of a plant.
Harry’s best subject soon became Potions, all due to the Half-Blood Prince’s notes and corrections. Hermione was still weary of his use of the book, but had stopped trying to break the stubborn Gryffindor’s habit. It certainly wasn’t going anywhere, and with the workload ahead of them, Harry would not give up something he saw fit to help him survive.
One result of this enormous amount of work was they had yet had the opportunity to go and see Hagrid. He had stopped coming to meals at the staff table, an ominous sign, and on the few occasions when they had passed him in the corridors, or on the grounds, he had mysteriously failed to notice them or hear their greetings.
“We’ve got to go and explain,” said Hermione, looking up at Hagrid’s huge empty chair at the staff table the following Saturday at breakfast.
“We’ve got Quidditch tryouts this morning!” said Ron. “And we’re supposed to be practicing the Aguamenti Charm for Flitwick! Anyway, explain what? How are we going to tell him we hated his stupid subject?”
“We didn’t hate it!”
“Speak for yourself, ‘Mione, I haven’t forgotten the skrewts. And I’m telling you now, we’ve had a narrow escape. You didn’t hear him going on about his gormless brother—we’d have been teaching Grawp how to tie his shoelaces if we’d stayed.”
“Nonetheless, I hate not talking to Hagrid,” Hermione said, chewing on her lip. “After everything he’s done for us.”
“We’ll go down after Quidditch,” Harry reassured her, for he missed Hagrid too. “But trials could last all morning, with the number of people who’ve applied.”
Their conversation was cut short by the arrival of The Daily Prophet. Hermione took the newspaper in her hands and began to read, which allowed Harry the safety of disguising a new copy of Advanced Potion-Making as the old secondhand one, and the Prince’s as new. He was sure she’d find out anyway, and scold him, but it was Saturday, after all. He’d do what he could in order to avoid an argument on a Saturday.
The lioness made a disgruntled noise behind her paper.
“Anyone we know dead?” Ron asked in a forcibly casual tone.
“No, but there have been more dementor attacks and an arrest.”
“‘Stanley Shunpike, conductor on the popular Wizarding conveyance the Knight Bus, has been arrested on suspicion of Death Eater activity. Mr. Shunpike, 21, was taken into custody late last night after a raid on his Clapham home…”
“Stan Shunpike, a Death Eater?” Harry said, appalled. He remembered the spotty youth from three years ago the first time he met him, and never thought that there had been anything more dangerous to him than his driving. “No way!”
“He might have been put under the curse, you never can tell,” said Ron.
“It doesn’t look like it,” Hermione continued. “It says here he was arrested after he was overheard talking about the Death Eaters’ secret plans in a pub. If he was under the Imperious Curse, he’d hardly stand around gossiping about their plans, would he?”
“It sounds like he was trying to make out he knew more than he did,”
“They probably want to look as though they’re doing something,” the lioness continued, frowning. “People are terrified—you know the Patil twins’ parents want them to go home? And Eloise Midgen has already been withdrawn? Her parents came last night to get her.”
“What!” said Ron, goggling. “But Hogwarts is safer than their homes! We’ve got Aurors and Order members and all those extra protective spells, and we’ve got Dumbledore!”
Hermione sighed. Yes, they did have Aurors, and the Order was prowling the grounds, and among them, a very talented, very lethal Veela. She’d run the grounds, chasing the lioness as she squeezed in some time to run, as much as her workload would allow. They’d raced the sun and fought the wind, found release and escape as they followed one another across the grounds, reveling in the fact that they didn’t have to hide anymore. They’d collapsed together at the bank of Black Lake, recalling the trips they’d taken there with Shamin nearly two years ago. They’d lain together at its bank, Hermione stretched across Fleur’s lap, books discarded around them. They discussed and contemplated their crumbling world, the façade of sanity school and work gave them. They built a firmer refuge between themselves, a safe haven, a place of peace and love and kisses where sorrow had no space.
She pulled her thoughts away from her Veela and refocused.
“Honestly, I don’t think we have Dumbledore all the time. Haven’t you noticed? His seat’s just as empty as Hagrid’s all week.”
Harry and Ron cast a glance to the staff table. Dumbledore’s chair was indeed empty.
“Is he doing anything with the Order?”
Hermione shook her head. “No, not that Fleur knows of at least…”
They all followed trains of unspoken thought. There had been a horrible incident the day before, when Hannah Abbott had been taken out of Herbology to be told her mother had been found dead. They had not seen Hannah since. Hermione cast another glance to the staff table, and hoped for a miracle, even though she knew the chances of one was slim.
The three of them left the Gryffindor table five minutes later, Ron and Harry to the Quidditch pitch, and Hermione to the Tower to study for a bit. Alone, she hurried up the stairs, organizing what she needed to study most in her head. But when she opened the door to her quarters, all thought of study fled, for Fleur was sitting atop her mattress.