The Road to Hell
Chapter 12: Tilling Trouble
Harry’s head throbbed as he looked up from his roll of parchment.
Fuck, I miss Bill. Curse breaking was proving more difficult than he had imagined and the notes in front of him provided little reassurance. Gaze dipping back towards them, he wondered whether he was ready to slip past Riddle’s wards.
I might never be ready.
There was no way of knowing what to expect until he took his chance and launched his assault against the outer layers.
Harry cast a scathing glance around the countless rows of shelves. It’s not like I’m going anywhere. There were still no leads regarding a way back home and he could think of nowhere better to search than here, sans the Department of Mysteries itself.
Forcing his mind clear, he shoved his notes aside. There was no use trudging through complex runes with his current headache, and a part of him knew that there was nothing to be done. Weeks had been spent pouring over these same notes; either he would succeed or he would fail.
Back in his school days, he might have attempted the heist without a second thought, but many long, hard years had taught him all about the costliness of ill-thought risks.
But this isn’t ill-thought. So why were his feet carrying him towards the dinner Riddle must still be enjoying and not in the direction of the marble staircase?
No answers had come by the time he entered a Great Hall that lacked its normal air of careless chatter. Over half the gilded plates sat unattended as their owners bent over stacks of books or rolls of parchment.
End-of-term exams were coming fast, and the course load was more demanding here than it had ever been during Harry’s proper school years.
Once that would have made him gripe or moan, but now he found that he was grimly satisfied. Too many good men had died unprepared.
“You look miserable,” Marlene said when he sat down.
Harry raised a goblet full of cool, soothing water to his lips; he had not realized how parched he was. “Thanks.”
Mary squinted at him from across the table. “Marlene’s right. Have you been sleeping all right? I think that’s what made me sick a few weeks back; I was studying too hard for that test in defence.”
“Not really.” Never had he imagined sleep could be scarcer than in the midst of war, but his ruthless pursuit of a way past Riddle’s wards and a path back home had dispelled that naive notion. “But it’s all right, I’ll manage.” Lily levelled him with the sort of suspicious stare that had been common since his meeting with Dorea. “How are you lot handling the stress?” he asked, preempting any probing questions.
Marlene seized his bait the second it was cast, just the way he had known she would. “I think I’ll do all right in defence and charms, but some of the others are just brutal. It’s like Professor Cain never stops giving us homework, and I can hardly make sense of anything in runes these days. I think I might actually fail that one.”
Harry snatched at the chance to steer things further from his own array of problems. “I can help if you’d like.” Looking at something simpler would be a welcome respite. “I have an awful headache now, but maybe this weekend.”
Marlene’s smile could have lit a moonless, midnight sky. “You’re a lifesaver.”
Two broad-winged owls soared a wide circle above their heads, then descended into their midst. Harry had to grapple with the bird that was meant for him as it flapped around in a vain attempt to rid itself of the wet snow embedded between its moss-brown feathers. Lily smirked at him while stroking the smooth grey wings of a stately bird who was nibbling away at an offered piece of bacon.
Finally having removed his owl’s burden, Harry unrolled the parchment it had carried. The longer he read, the deeper he frowned.
Harry had become so engrossed in his list of plights that the upcoming holidays had never crossed his mind.
Casting his thoughts back to the party he had attended in his sixth year, he recalled being paraded down a line of important people whose presence Slughorn had exalted.
So too did he remember his dread leading up to that occasion, but the night had not been so bad; not with Luna’s breathy commentary there to alleviate the pressure Slughorn had placed upon him.
Her name brought the weight of mountains down onto his shoulders. A lifesaver, Marlene called me. His headache paled under the pain brought on by the imagined sound of Luna’s screams. If only.
Shoving memories of those dark times into the deep recesses of his mind, he forced himself to focus on Slughorn and his parties.
Why had Luna been there? It felt like an odd choice by Slughorn, who so often favoured surer bets.
He smacked a hand against his forehead when he remembered and regretted it at once. “Slughorn is going to expect we turn up with dates, isn’t he?” Harry gritted out through the pain of his head’s most recent throb. That was why Luna had attended.
Faint splotches discoloured Lily’s cheeks. “You don’t have to…”
“You’re just frowned on if you don’t,” he finished.
His first instinct was to spurn the expectation and either go alone or not attend at all, but the memory of what Dorea had said back in the Three Broomsticks forced him to reassess.
“You’re quite the enigma. Anyone important enough to know what happened in Greece has an opinion about you, but they all seem different.”
No, that won’t work. Spurning expectations would be unwise. Doubtless some of those important people would attend and have questions for the boy-who-had-appeared-from-nowhere.
I’ll just have to suck it up. Standing out for the wrong reasons was not a risk he could afford in this world where merit was so valued. If problems arose sooner than he could return home, he wanted every advantage he could muster.
Harry roamed the hall with an appraising stare. There were plenty of pretty faces seated along each bench, but even considering them sickened him.
They’re all kids. He had been incredulous during his fourth year when legal adults had lined up to be his Yule Ball date.
This would be worse. His appetite evaporated; there were choice terms used when discussing twenty-four-year old men who sought out teenage girls and he would be damned before falling under any of their jurisdictions.
Shoving his plate away and recalling that night in his sixth year, inspiration struck. “Fancy going to the party, Marlene?” Mary hid a gasp behind her hand. “As friends,” he clarified, “I don’t fancy anyone but don’t want to look like some sore loner. Best of both worlds, I figure; go with someone who I get along with while making myself look good.”
Marlene’s star-bright smile had returned. “Of course. I’ve always wanted to see what all the fuss was about.”
He smiled back at her, then looked up to where Riddle was conversing with his deputy headmaster at the staff table. If only all my problems were solved so easily.
Harry looked over his runes for the thousandth time as Marlene’s quill scratched against her roll of parchment. No mistakes stood out to him. None had for weeks.
Then why do I keep looking?
Every day he found himself back here in the library. First he would look through any shelves that might have books on time, just to ensure none had been checked out during all of his innumerable inspections. When that fell through, the way it always did, he would pour over his work for hours until he could no longer bear it
It’s all pointless. He should be acting, or else finding more ways to study time. But he felt trapped here, glued to the countless shelves and the work he hoped was perfect.
He had felt like this twice before.
Ron’s gruesome murder had prompted the first time.
Harry had spent months loping around warded patches of forest and reviewing fruitless schemes, or else fantasizing about what he would one day do to Voldemort.
A part of him had felt those dreams slipping further out of reach as weeks and then months were wallowed away, but that truth had never spurred him into action.
The second time had stemmed from a killing of his own.
Not a killing, he urged himself to think, recalling the tremor in his hand as he aimed the Elder Wand between brown eyes. A mercy.
This was more like that time — everything felt pointless.
I made a promise. A promise to what? Kill a monster who raged through a world he cared nothing for?
Guilt seized his innards and twisted them into painful knots. That had been unfair. There were people here he cared for deeply — he just wanted to go home.
Marlene swept a dark curtain of hair out of her eyes as she looked up from her assignment. “I think I’ve got it this time.”
Harry stowed his work away and brought hers closer. “It’s about as good as Professor Rancus can expect.”
Marlene scowled. “Sometimes I think Professor Rancus expects us all to create new languages that will change the world.”
Harry forced a weary smile. “Whatever he expects, this should be at least an E.”
“Thanks, Harry. You’ve worked a miracle here.”
“I’m glad I could help.” Harry was glad that he could do anything but stare at the same runes for hours every day. “The mark you get on that should give you some breathing room for the exam. Just don’t bungle that too badly and you’ll be fine.”
She sighed and stuffed the assignment into her school bag. “Easier said than done, but I guess we’ll know soon.”
“I’m sure you’ll be fine.”
“Here’s hoping.” She pushed back her chair and stretched up onto her toes. “I’m going to head up to bed. I think I’ll need the rest.” Hands on hips, Marlene looked him up and down. “You should probably come with me. I’m going to bludgeon you if you turn up to Slughorn’s party looking half-dead like you do now.”
Harry looked past her and out the nearest window. It had grown late. The night sky was clear and the moon three quarters full, rendering the layer of snow outside luminous. “I’ll be up soon. I just have a bit more to do.”
Harry listened to her retreating footsteps, returning to the maze of runes that he had long since memorized.
Marlene’s white dress shimmered in the candle light, the fabric fading in and out of translucence. Harry averted his eyes. Why did she keep doing that?
“Do you like it?” Her breath was warm and sour with the scent of too much wine.
“It suits you,” he admitted. “The white works well against your hair.”
“There’s an enchantress who works down south that made it for me. She makes the most beautiful things and is apparently really young.” Marlene released an elongated sigh. “I wish I could do something like that.”
Ease crept back into him. It was coming together now; she must have been testing the dress on him and gauging his reaction.
Recalling Mary’s japes about Marlene and Riddle restored every ounce of his tension.
Harry clenched his fists in the pockets of his robes as his mind wandered down dark, unpleasant roads.
Andromeda couldn’t have been half Riddle’s age. The rage coursed through him, hot and pure, and he welcomed it. It was the most he had felt in weeks.
Bright red hair bobbed up over a nearby shoulder and he felt himself relax again. Lily had been a welcome buffer between him and an inebriated Marlene throughout the evening.
“How are you two?” Lily asked.
“We’re doing all right,” he said, shifting a further handful of inches from Marlene. “What have you been up to? Has Slughorn been parading you around?”
“A bit,” Lily admitted. “He asked about you, you know? He joked about how you were avoiding him.”
“Oh, really.” Harry shuffled. “What do you have there?” he asked, noticing a sheet of parchment clamped between her fingers and not keen on their present discourse.
“Oh.” Lily blushed in a manner that was most unlike her. “It’s an invitation from Headmaster Riddle. We’ve been having lots of talks lately and he’s invited me to another.”
The breath was torn from Harry’s lungs. Lots of talks? Had he been so caught up in his own worries that he had missed the presence of these meetings?
Is he grooming her, hoping for another Death Eater?
Or, worse, another Andromeda…
Marlene stood up straight. “Just wish some of the people around here weren’t so dense.”
Lily was giving him a strange look that he hardly noticed. Looking at her just conjured images of Riddle lurking over her shoulder. “I wouldn’t worry,” she assured Marlene. “Sometimes people just don’t think the same way.”
Marlene’s face scrunched up. Was she about to cry? What’s going on? Had he missed something while lost amid the thralls of anger?
“That doesn’t mean they can just be stupid,” Marlene half-slurred.
Harry’s eyes flicked towards the source of a derisive snort nearby.
It was Prince, flanked by his burly friends, Avery and Macnair.
There was something different about his face — something pale, ugly, and a far cry from his usual aloof facade.
Harry moved without thinking, summoning the Elder Wand. He had seen Snape look like this once — standing atop the Astronomy Tower mere seconds before murdering a man who had so trusted him.
Prince sneered at him. “You’re no better than Potter!” He spat the last word so fiercely that Harry could smell the distinctive liquor on his breath.
Firewhiskey. “If you don’t want someone to draw their wand on you, you should try not sneaking up behind them.” Lounging back against the wall, Harry could not help but smile, knowing it would wind Prince up. The prick had proven to be a convenient outlet. “Just some food for thought.”
Prince’s eyes flashed dark as pitch. “And if you don’t want your dates to cry, try opening your eyes and realizing when they’d rather be back up in their tower fucking you.” Harry felt his spine go stiff. “Just some food for thought.”
I’m a fucking idiot. Harry had grown so accustomed to working with adults that he had forgotten how hair-brained teenagers could be.
Marlene shoved past him and sprinted off through the bustling crowd faster than he could part his lips.
Lily was chasing after Prince, cursing him out loudly enough for half the room to hear.
The Elder Wand shook in Harry’s grasp. It would be so easy; Snape would never betray his parents, never kill Dumbledore, never haunt a generation of potions students.
Get a fucking grip!
All Prince had done was point out what Harry should have seen himself.
And what he should have seen was merely teenage drama that would soon blow over.
The bigger problem was that sheet of parchment clutched between his mother’s fingers and that monster, lurking high and mighty with his trinkets as he corrupted everyone.
The wand grew searing hot against his palm. Fuck him!
Harry would breach those wards and he would do it soon.
“Venom can be drawn from flesh, but poisoned words lodge deep in our hearts, where no antidote can reach.”
— Jennifer Donnelly
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