Chapter 1 : Selfish Courage
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Most would say that he wasn’t great and, though he might not like to admit it, he wasn’t. Instead he was content to surround himself with greatness, to lead others in fulfilling their potential.
No- content is too soft, too gentle a word for what he felt.
No- he glorified his role, loving the hunt to find future leaders and superstars. He enjoyed finding the potential in those that others had passed over or judged prematurely and guiding them on their path in life. He created a place for success, a place that celebrated greatness, uniqueness, and handpicked those who entered.
And, when his pupils left his little nest and made their own way in the world, they always remembered him. Him, the one who had taken them under his wing. Him, the one who had listened to their plans long after everyone else had stopped. Him, who had seen their potential.
Him, the shining beacon of their past.
Yes, he wasn’t great but he had seen many become it. And that was enough for him.
Fear can make a rational man irrational, a calm man shivering and scared.
It can force the mind to create things that aren’t really there, great gapping illusions that leap from the smallest shadow and arise from the slightest sound.
It is both man’s greatest strength and its most dangerous weakness.
A man is named brave if he can face his fears and conquer them.
He was not a brave man.
He was much more at home in a warm castle room stirring his potions than on a cold, damp battlefield dodging curses.
He was not at all like Minerva, confident and stubborn in the face of adversity. He was not at all like Filius, quick with a wand and a master with spells. He was not at all like Poppy, calm in times of distress and defiant in search of healing.
Instead he was terrified.
Which was why it was incredibly stupid of him to be dueling He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, especially while wearing his silk pajamas. Goblin-made armor would have been much more suitable, for its thick and spell-resistant metal would have kept him safe.
Well, as safe as you could be while in the midst of a battle and dueling a Dark Lord.
He had seen Minerva’s slight widening of the eyes and the triumphant curve of her lip when she had seen him storming the front steps of the castle with reinforcements from Hogsmeade and the greater Wizarding world. She had obviously expected him to disappear after he led the under-age students to safety—he had been very tempted. To be safe from harm, safe from death, safe from Voldemort… It would have been the right thing to do.
But no, he had been worried about those students he had left behind. He had been worried about Hogwarts, the place that had given birth to his most spectacular relationships. His mind wouldn’t let him leave them behind, but it also wouldn’t let him return without some guaranty of his safety.
Marshalling the men and women of Hogsmeade hadn’t been difficult for the sounds of war could be heard in the little village—battle cries, screams of pain, shouts of triumph—and flashes of green and red spells highlighting the dark sky. Family and friends of those already in the thick of the battle apparated into his group as he led them towards Hogwarts, their faces lined with worry, pain and, in most cases, determination. Wands were already tightly gripped in hands, for if a spell was to come their way there would be no time for fumbling.
Minerva was the first soldier they had seen, standing tall on the stone staircase leading into Hogwarts. Her face showed no sign of weariness and there was no despair in her posture. She was in the very thick of the fight, marshalling troops, shooting spells that were bright in the darkness of the night and protecting her students whenever she could. She was a leader for the Light and had a true part in this war.
He just wished his part would disappear.
The battle was chaotic, a mess of danger, blood and grotesque actions squished into a place that had been made for learning.
The Death Eaters didn’t bother to cover their faces for they expected to win. It was disturbing to see the silver masks hanging down their backs and their true faces curling in ecstasy at the carnage they created.
But the students and professors of Hogwarts were holding their own, backed by the forces he had brought. More people were flooding through the courtyard each moment as the battle wound its way deeper into the castle, into the heart of the resistance.
Something akin to despair and repulsion sunk its fangs into Horace as he saw flashes of his previous students dressed in the black robes of Death Eaters. The blond hair of Lucius Malfoy whirled past him early in the fight, its owner barely glancing at him.
He watched as Lucius meticulously cut through the flesh of his steak, wielding his knife with a precision he would later use with his wand. The seventh year carefully chewed and swallowed as his eyes swept over the other occupants of the room.
Horace smiled. The man had fine upbringing, that was clear, and a ready-made path in the Ministry. Lucius would know how to use it well, he knew, and would rise high in the Wizarding world. He was already in contact with several prominent members of the Wizarding community and had chosen his stance on popular subjects.
But, perhaps most importantly, he never tipped his hand before it suited him and knew how to use his knowledge of others for his own gain. Horace had seen the order in Slytherin since he had become Prefect—first years knew the rules and were well-groomed each morning and each student portrayed a perfect image in class.
He had had no complaints from the other professors.
Yes, he had chosen well with this one.
But he hadn’t. Lucius had used the exact qualities he had chosen him for to pursue a path that led him away from the appropriate and legal paths of a wizard. He had sunk himself deep into the trenches of the Dark Arts and had never resurfaced.
Lucius Malfoy had been a mistake and if he could have blotted his membership from his club, he would have.
He didn’t see the faces of Avery or Lestrange among those in Death Eater robes, though he knew from the papers that they too had become something he would be ashamed to admit any relation to
And so he fought, doing his best to counter attacks and launch an offense of his own. There were many in the battle who were more talented in fighting than he, so he retreated to guarding and helping the younger students that he was sure were fighting against You-Know-Who.
It was almost a relief when his old student’s voice boomed through the castle, announcing his triumph over Harry Potter. But he couldn’t feel any gladness that Lily Evans’ son was dead. He couldn’t feel safe when he knew that the Death Eaters had targeted him before Dumbledore had offered him sanctuary at Hogwarts.
The period between the first sound and the first sight of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named was one of the most nerve-wracking moments of his life, worse than the hour he had waited after his final exam to know if he qualified to become a Potions Master.
So much worse.
Tall, pale-skinned and red-eyed, he looked nothing like his past self. The dark, silky hair was gone, leaving no strands on the scaly skull. The smooth, manicured hands were now dangerous weapons with nails like the claws of a wolf and it was no longer possible for him to hide his dark intentions behind a mask of goodness.
Horace could hardly reconcile him with the Tom Riddle of his memories until their eyes had met. For one instant, just before You-Know-Who made his great victory speech, he had seen the knowledge hidden in his eyes and had known that, if given the chance, Tom Riddle would resurface to ruin his life.
He had only seen the dark walls of courtroom ten in the Daily Prophet’s photos of the Death Eater trials after the first Wizarding War. The malevolence that leaked from them had not been tangible in those and for that he was grateful, though he knew that the Daily Prophet would most likely have been ruined had it scared its readers in such ways. The Daily Prophet, though the tool of the Ministry, was no fool in business matters.
The coldness seeped through the thin fabric of his boots (Death Eater sympathizers weren’t allowed good quality clothes—any luxury that they could deny him they did) and the manacles around his wrists and ankles burned his skin. He was seated on a stiff metal chair, awkwardly formed so that it was impossible to sit comfortably on it, and faced the members of the Wizengamot.
The eyes of one of them, Damocles Gorny, avoided his no matter how he tried to gain his attention (though there was not much he could do while chained to a chair) and he was hurt. One of his old favourites was denying their relationship… But then his chains rattled and the Head of the Wizengamot spoke and he forgot about those troubles.
“Do you, Mister Slughorn, deny your involvement in Tom Riddle’s production of horcruxes?” He winced, miserable, at the emphasis the Head had placed on his title. His family was not old, was not of court status, so he could not be addressed as ‘Lord’ and he was no longer a professor.
And what could he deny? Tom Riddle, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, Voldemort had spoken before the entire hall during the battle, taunting about his immortality. It mattered little that he was dead now—the damage had already been done.
But he tried anyways. The battle was not lost until the final decree was made and he was not stupid enough to just give up.
“I didn’t mean to—you don’t understand what he was like in those days… So charming, so good. The perfect student… He was a master of deception and I fell under that spell. I would never have willingly harmed anyone, especially not Lily Evans. I loved her.”
But he was stupid enough, it seemed, to create traps for himself where before there had been none.
Silently, he cursed himself. There had been no need to bring Lily up. And he saw that the Head’s interest had been piqued.
The Head leant closer to him, his eyes narrowing. “You say you loved her?”
Horace realized his mistake and beads of sweat trickled down the side of his neck. The sensation tickled him and he shivered. The Head glared.
“I didn’t mean it like that! No, not at all. Lily was a wonderful student, charming and kind and so generous. I loved her in the role of a teacher… Nothing more was ever felt.”
But he could already feel his sentence being formed in their heads. He was condemned, guilty of indirectly causing the second Wizarding War.
He could not, would not allow that to happen.
As a boy he had been nothing special, nothing special. He was average in all respects, displaying a mild interest in potions and enjoying the gambling games of young boys. But his mother told him that he was special and he believed.
As a young man he had chosen to surround himself with greatness, viewing his friends as the elite of Hogwarts, thinking that they would all go on to do fantastical things. He still believed that he was special, though the edges of that illusion were wearing away.
As an adult he had faded into anonymity, knowing that he was not special, not great in the eyes of society. But still something inside of him insisted that he was something, that he could be someone. His friends had risen high in the world, becoming respected potions masters, healers and aurors. They still contacted him, inviting him to catch a bite to eat with them, to discuss trivial topics over tea for hours. They still cared about him and with them he felt great in a way that he couldn’t dismiss.
He had chosen his friends well, he saw, and decided that he wouldn’t be great in the way society defined the word. No- instead, he would be great on his own terms. He would find his own path in this world of traditional, rigid standards.
That path had led him here, in the middle of a massacre. Never before had he questioned his choice of careers so thoroughly, with such desperation.
The battle that had broken out after Longbottom had killed You-Know-Who’s snake was even fiercer than the previous one.
His silk robes were smeared with dirt and ripped from the jagged edges of the broken stone walls. He barely saw the rush of people as he passed among them, only the flashes of spells flying and his destination. If he could just reach the doors to the Great Hall then he would have a better, more strategic position. His back wouldn’t be exposed—nothing could penetrate two feet of solid stone—and he could pick his enemies off as they walked through the door.
If it was him or them tonight, he planned on making it home to his potions.
There was no place for ethics on a battlefield.
Each face was shocked, stunned to be taken down. They never looked to their left, focusing only to the front and back, overwhelmed by the crush of fighters. They never saw him and the bodies began to pile in the door frame. A giant, stepping through, sent them sprawling with his foot as though they were gobstones and the doorway was once again clear.
Horace saw Minerva rush past him, heading towards He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, who had somehow worked his way to the center of the hall. He was taking advantage of the fact that no one had noticed his presence to strike and kill those opposing him and Horace shuddered as the circle around him widened.
He thought that Minerva had gone insane, for she tossed a cutting curse at You-Know-Who with the knowledge that he would turn his attention to her. As Horace watched, Minerva was being overwhelmed by his power, more and more spells cutting through her defenses to reach her body. Cuts appeared on her body, but she didn’t waver in her attack.
Horace couldn’t watch her lose—he had enough morals, enough of a conscience and a heart that her death would burden him for a long time—so he abandoned his post by the door and threaded his way through the crowd to her.
Tom Riddle turned his head to towards him as Horace neared the circular clearing, his red eyes glinting with taunts. He shot a spell at him, but it missed and cracked the stone floor. Horace stumbled as his foot caught in the fracture and another spell shot over his head.
Another few steps and he was a part of the most dangerous thing he had ever done. Any mistake would mean his death; any false move could mean Minerva’s demise. Trapped in a battle of his own choice, his mind blurred as he shot spell after spell at Tom. There was no time to think, no time to plan.
If he survived, it would be by the skin of his teeth.
He barely noticed when an Auror joined the fray, for a cutting curse was already heading in his direction.
He didn’t hear Molly Weasley’s shout, nor see the death of Bellatrix Lestrange (at least she had never been a part of his Slug Club), but he did feel the decrease in spells.
There was hardly time for him to breath before he was blasted backwards, surrounded in the heat of Tom’s fury. The edges of his robe blackened and curled and his skin reddened. He had never been this hot before, not even after standing over his cauldron for hours.
And then he crashed into a stone wall, his body cracking upon impact. His ears rung and every part of him hurt. He had never been in this much pain before; he had nothing to compare this to.
As his vision blackened and he lost consciousness, he heard the voice of Lily Evan’s son challenge Tom and smiled.
What a lovely boy.
It was to Poppy’s tired face that he woke up. He groaned and looked around for a pain-relieving potion. She seemed to understand immediately what he wanted and handed him a light blue flask. He fell back into his pillow, which had the softness of a bed of grass and stared at the ceiling. From what he had seen, the Hospital wing was crowded, filled to the brim with the dead and injured. Friends and family, many who he had been the one to bring into the battle from Hogsmeade, surrounded the beds, creating human shields of privacy.
There was no one beside his bed except for Poppy, who smiled at him tiredly.
“What were you thinking, fighting him? Were you trying to be killed?” He wasn’t able to answer, for her words spilled out of her mouth like lava from a volcano. He could see the pinched lines around her mouth and eyes—she had probably been just waiting to say this to someone. “That was a very brave, very stupid thing to do! What were they thinking, fighting in a school? A school! With students….”
As he listened to her, his eyes wandered across the wing. From the lack of Death Eaters and the lightness of spirit that infested even the hospital, he knew that Lily Evan’s son, Harry, had succeeded in ridding the world of Tom, of his greatest mistake.
Those who caught his eye gave small smiles and nods of recognition, from one fighter to another.
He nodded back and closed his eyes, letting Poppy’s voice sooth his mind.
He had fought Voldemort, defended Hogwarts and saved lives.
He was great in a way that mattered least to him and most to the world.
He was more than satisfied with that.