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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.

“Hi,” he said. “Shall we get going then?”

“Oh yes,” she said happily. “Where is the party?”

“Slughorn’s office,” said Harry, leading her up the marble staircase away from all the staring and muttering. “Did you hear, there’s supposed to be a vampire coming?”

“Rufus Scrimgeour?” asked Luna.






“I — what?” said Harry, disconcerted. “You mean the Minister of Magic?”

“Yes, he’s a vampire,” said Luna matter-of-factly. “Father 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!”

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.


“Harry, m’boy!” boomed Slughorn, almost as soon as Harry and Luna had squeezed in through the door. “Come in, come in, so many people I’d like you to meet!”

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.

“Harry, I’d like you to meet Eldred Worple, an old student of mine, author of Blood Brothers: My Life Amongst the Vampires — and, of course, his friend Sanguini.”

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.





“Harry Potter, I am simply delighted!” said Worple, peering shortsightedly up into Harry’s face. “I was saying to Professor Slughorn only the other day, ‘Where is the biography of Harry Potter for which we have all been waiting?’ ”

“Er,” said Harry, “were you?”

“Just as modest as Horace described!” said Worple. “But seriously” — his manner changed; it became suddenly businesslike — “I would be delighted to write it myself — 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 you — ask Sanguini here if it isn’t quite — Sanguini, stay here!” added Worple, suddenly stern, for the vampire had been edging toward the nearby group of girls, a rather hungry look in his eye. “Here, have a pasty,” said Worple, seizing one from a passing elf and stuffing it into Sanguini’s hand before turning his attention back to Harry.




“My dear boy, the gold you could make, you have no idea —”

“I’m definitely not interested,” said Harry firmly, “and I’ve just seen a friend of mine, sorry.”

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.

“Hermione! Hermione!”

“Harry! There you are, thank goodness! Hi, Luna!”

“What’s happened to you?” asked Harry, for Hermione looked distinctly disheveled, rather as though she had just fought her way out of a thicket of Devil’s Snare.

“Oh, I’ve just escaped — I mean, I’ve just left Cormac,” she said. “Under the mistletoe,” she added in explanation, as Harry continued to look questioningly at her.

“Serves you right for coming with him,” he told her severely.

“I thought he’d annoy Ron most,” said Hermione dispassionately. “I debated for a while about Zacharias Smith, but I thought, on the whole —”










“You considered Smith?” said Harry, revolted.

“Yes, 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. . . .”

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.

“Hello,” said Luna politely to Professor Trelawney.

“Good evening, my dear,” said Professor Trelawney, focusing upon Luna with some difficulty. Harry could smell cooking sherry again. “I haven’t seen you in my classes lately. . . .”

“No, I’ve got Firenze this year,” said Luna.







“Oh, of course,” said Professor Trelawney with an angry, drunken titter. “Or 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 . . .”

Professor Trelawney seemed too tipsy to have recognized Harry. Under cover of her furious criticisms of Firenze, Harry drew closer to Hermione and said, “Let’s get something straight. Are you planning to tell Ron that you interfered at Keeper tryouts?”

Hermione raised her eyebrows. “Do you really think I’d stoop that low?”

Harry looked at her shrewdly. “Hermione, if you can ask out McLaggen —”

“There’s a difference,” said Hermione with dignity. “I’ve got no plans to tell Ron anything about what might, or might not, have happened at Keeper tryouts.”








“Good,” said Harry fervently. “Because he’ll just fall apart again, and we’ll lose the next match —”

“Quidditch!” said Hermione angrily. “Is 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’ nonstop ever since — oh no, here he comes!”

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.

“Seen Hermione?” asked McLaggen, forcing his way through the throng a minute later.

“No, sorry,” said Harry, and he turned quickly to join in Luna’s conversation, forgetting for a split second to whom she was talking.

“Harry Potter!” said Professor Trelawney in deep, vibrant tones, noticing him for the first time.







“Oh, hello,” said Harry unenthusiastically.

“My dear boy!” she said in a very carrying whisper. “The 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!”

“Ah, Sybill, we all think our subject’s most important!” 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. “But I don’t think I’ve ever known such a natural at Potions!” said Slughorn, regarding Harry with a fond, if bloodshot, eye. “Instinctive, you know — like his mother! I’ve only ever taught a few with this kind of ability, I can tell you that, Sybill — why even Severus —”

And to Harry’s horror, Slughorn threw out an arm and seemed to scoop Snape out of thin air toward them.





“Stop skulking and come and join us, Severus!” hiccuped Slughorn happily. “I was just talking about Harry’s exceptional po-tion-making! Some credit must go to you, of course, you taught him for five years!”

Trapped, with Slughorn’s arm around his shoulders, Snape looked down his hooked nose at Harry, his black eyes narrowed.

“Funny, I never had the impression that I managed to teach Potter anything at all.”

“Well, then, it’s natural ability!” shouted Slughorn. “You should have seen what he gave me, first lesson, Draught of Living Death — never had a student produce finer on a first attempt, I don’t think even you, Severus —”

“Really?” 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.






“Remind me what other subjects you’re taking, Harry?” asked Slughorn.

“Defense Against the Dark Arts, Charms, Transfiguration, Herbology . . .”

“All the subjects required, in short, for an Auror,” said Snape, with the faintest sneer.

“Yeah, well, that’s what I’d like to do,” said Harry defiantly.

“And a great one you’ll make too!” boomed Slughorn.

“I don’t think you should be an Auror, Harry,” said Luna unexpectedly. Everybody looked at her. “The Aurors are part of the Rotfang Conspiracy, I thought everyone knew that. They’re working to bring down the Ministry of Magic from within using a combination of Dark Magic and gum disease.”







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.

“Professor Slughorn,” wheezed Filch, his jowls aquiver and the maniacal light of mischief-detection in his bulging eyes, “I 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?”

Malfoy pulled himself free of Filch’s grip, looking furious.

“All right, I wasn’t invited!” he said angrily. “I was trying to gatecrash, happy?”





“No, I’m not!” said Filch, a statement at complete odds with the glee on his face. “You’re in trouble, you are! Didn’t the headmaster say that nighttime prowling’s out, unless you’ve got permission, didn’t he, eh?”

“That’s all right, Argus, that’s all right,” said Slughorn, waving a hand. “It’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.”

Filch’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.

“It’s nothing, nothing,” said Slughorn, waving away Malfoy’s thanks. “I did know your grandfather, after all. . . .”

“He always spoke very highly of you, sir,” said Malfoy quickly. “Said you were the best potion-maker he’d ever known. . . .”

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.





“I’d like a word with you, Draco,” said Snape suddenly.

“Oh, now, Severus,” said Slughorn, hiccuping again, “it’s Christmas, don’t be too hard —”

“I’m his Head of House, and I shall decide how hard, or otherwise, to be,” said Snape curtly. “Follow me, Draco.”

They left, Snape leading the way, Malfoy looking resentful. Harry stood there for a moment, irresolute, then said, “I’ll be back in a bit, Luna — er — bathroom.”

“All right,” 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.


“. . . cannot afford mistakes, Draco, because if you are expelled —”

“I didn’t have anything to do with it, all right?”

“I hope you are telling the truth, because it was both clumsy and foolish. Already you are suspected of having a hand in it.”

“Who suspects me?” said Malfoy angrily. “For the last time, I didn’t do it, okay? That Bell girl must’ve had an enemy no one knows about — don’t look at me like that! I know what you’re doing, I’m not stupid, but it won’t work — I can stop you!”

There was a pause and then Snape said quietly, “Ah . . . Aunt Bellatrix has been teaching you Occlumency, I see. What thoughts are you trying to conceal from your master, Draco?”






“I’m not trying to conceal anything from him, I just don’t want you butting in!”

Harry pressed his ear still more closely against the keyhole. . . . What had happened to make Malfoy speak to Snape like this — Snape, toward whom he had always shown respect, even liking?

“So 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, Draco —”

“So put me in detention! Report me to Dumbledore!” jeered Malfoy.

There was another pause. Then Snape said, “You know perfectly well that I do not wish to do either of those things.”

“You’d better stop telling me to come to your office then!”







“Listen to me,” said Snape, his voice so low now that Harry had to push his ear very hard against the keyhole to hear. “I am trying to help you. I swore to your mother I would protect you. I made the Unbreakable Vow, Draco —”

“Looks 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!”

“What is your plan?”

“It’s none of your business!”

“If you tell me what you are trying to do, I can assist you —”

“I’ve got all the assistance I need, thanks, I’m not alone!”







“You were certainly alone tonight, which was foolish in the extreme, wandering the corridors without lookouts or backup, these are elementary mistakes —”

“I would’ve had Crabbe and Goyle with me if you hadn’t put them in detention!”

“Keep your voice down!” spat Snape, for Malfoy’s voice had risen excitedly. “If 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 pres —”

“What does it matter?” said Malfoy. “Defense Against the Dark Arts — it’s all just a joke, isn’t it, an act? Like any of us need protecting against the Dark Arts —”

“It is an act that is crucial to success, Draco!” said Snape. “Where 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 Goyle —”

“They’re not the only ones, I’ve got other people on my side, better people!”

“Then why not confide in me, and I can —”








“I know what you’re up to! You want to steal my glory!”

There was another pause, then Snape said coldly, “You are speaking like a child. I quite understand that your father’s capture and imprisonment has upset you, but —”

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.






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