The Death Eaters were at Eberhard Biddiscombe's funeral. Not together, an imposing pack in dark robes and masks, but scattered here and there amongst the crowd. Harry had come expecting a tedious service for a man he'd never known, and found himself instead in the midst of his enemies.
He picked at an imaginary bit of lint on his robes and tried not to meet anyone's eyes.
"I think it's ridiculous I had to come." The collar of his dress robes felt too tight, or the air too thick, too hot. "We never even met."
"Yes, it's ridiculous," agreed Arthur. "The whole thing is ridiculous. Biddiscombe would have hated it."
Harry didn't know what Eberhard Biddiscombe would or would not have hated. Harry didn't care what Eberhard Biddiscombe would or would not have hated. Eberhard Biddiscombe wasn't around to have to do either anymore.
"I hate funerals," he said. "I hate funerals and I hate summer and I hate all these people." And what he really hated were people made him endure all three of those things at once.
"I know," said Arthur mildly. "But just think, it could be worse."
Arthur said nothing, but they both already knew how it could be worse. How it already had been worse, this summer, and they had not seen the end of it yet.
"What are they doing here?" Harry asked finally, and trusted he would not have to say who.
"Officially?" asked Arthur. "They're here to pay their respects to the dearly departed, a pillar of society and a model for all wizardkind.
"No," said Harry. "Why are they here?"
"I think you know why."
"They want to scare us."
"No," said Arthur. "They want us to know that we don't scare them."
Harry didn't know the names of the Death Eaters he saw, he just remembered their faces. Most of those he knew by name were in Azkaban, leaving their children to attend in their stead. There was Crabbe, fidgeting impatiently, looking a bit lost without his father or Goyle by his side. And Malfoy, of course Malfoy, standing beside his mother, both looking as pale and aloof as Harry remembered.
He didn't let his gaze linger. Draco's eyes were sharp, even if his mother's were not, and Harry didn't care to be noticed.
Until he found something to pause upon again.
"Is that Dumbledore?"
"Shhh," Arthur quieted him, "the Minister is going to speak."
It didn't matter; Harry didn't need an answer. It was Dumbledore, looking much the same as he had earlier that day when he'd ushered Harry out the door of Grimmauld Place, insisting that Arthur Weasley, already required to attend the service, made the perfect escort. When Dumbledore clearly could have taken Harry himself.
He probably shouldn't have been as surprised as he was.
The Minister of Magic was inclined to speak for much longer than Harry liked, but at least she was no Fudge. And at least she did not bore her eyes into Harry with an expression that mixed need and jealousy and hate. Both she and Dumbledore had insisted Harry make an appearance at the funeral; now he wasn't sure if that was so that the Death Eaters could see him present and unafraid, or so that everyone else could.
"Who's that with him, then?" Harry asked when Minister Bones paused for a sip of water.
Arthur looked up briefly and shook his head. "I haven't any idea."
Sometimes Harry fancied he knew the Headmaster fairly well. And compared to the other students, he did. Moments like this reminded him he knew nothing. For all he knew, the woman with the long, grey hair and austere robes might be his wife. His sister. His concubine.
Minister Bones started speaking again and Harry actually listened to the last bit, mostly because he thought he heard his own name and wanted to know what was being said. He hated having everyone look at him like he was a hero, but he hated having them look at him like he was a madman even more.
When the Minister finally stopped speaking, the body of Eberhard Biddiscombe was set alight. After watching the pyre for a few respectful moments, people started to disperse.
Dumbledore talked to his companions, and to the Minister, and to someone who appeared to be no more than a random passer-by. When he did spare Harry a glance it was full of sorrow and apology, as it always seemed to be now. Harry, at least, did not turn away.
"Do we have to stay?" Harry asked quietly, as people started to look like they were going to approach him. Arthur seemed to think same thing, if his quick grasp of Harry's arm was any indication.
"I've got our portkey," he said, moving away from the crowd.
He started fishing it out of his pockets, but not before Malfoy and his mother passed by. Draco looked at Harry like he wanted him dead. Harry gave him the same look right back.
The rest of the Weasley clan wasn't back from the Burrow when Harry was returned, alone, to Grimmauld Place. He hadn't really expected them to be, but it would've been nice if someone had been there, someone to make the house less dead.
"All right, fine," he said when his return was met with only silence, and took the stairs two at a time in a sudden, furious bound. The steps creaked and groaned, suffering like he wished this entire house and everything in it would.
"Harry, is that you?"
Remus appeared in a doorway on the second floor, one hand braced on each side as he peered out into the dark hallway. Harry had no doubt he had been heard, seen and identified before he'd even started up the stairs, if it was Remus.
"Where is everyone?"
"Meeting," said Remus shortly. "Dumbledore must have put a silencing charm up."
Which meant Dumbledore had Apparated straight from the funeral, when Harry'd had to get a portkey back, escorted by Arthur Weasley because nobody wanted to leave him alone. Except Dumbledore, apparently.
"Why?" said Harry. "We're part of the Order, too. It's not as though anyone else can even get in!"
"I don't know," said Remus. "Let's get you something to eat."
"No," said Harry, staying stubbornly put. "No. No, I am not getting something to eat. I am going to be involved in that meeting, and I don't care what it takes to do it. What's the matter with you people? Do you want me to have to find everything out on my own? You know I will."
"Not everything is about you, Harry," said Remus, calmly but firmly. "The Order is working in a number of ways toward our goal. Now, a sandwich perhaps?"
"Yes, it is always about me," Harry shot back. "It is, and I hate it but it is, and I'm tired of people making decisions without me having any say in it."
Remus lowered his hands from the doorway to hold them stiffly at his sides, and in the way Remus was now looking at him, Harry knew he'd crossed a line. Neither of them had forgotten what happened when Harry made decisions; Harry wished he had bitten his tongue.
"I remember being sixteen," Remus said finally. "I didn't like it either. Sirius would have--"
"I don't care."
"I don't care that you don't care."
Harry sulked all the way down, but he didn't argue again. Arguing to get his way was useful, but not against Remus. Who, despite looking older and thinner and more tired than ever, was as stubborn as Harry himself.
"So what are they meeting about, then?" Harry asked finally, once Remus had got them both a roast beef sandwich and glass of pumpkin juice.
"Something that doesn't involve us, I would presume," said Remus. "Harry, I don't know. There aren't more than three, maybe four people in there. It's not a slight that we've been left out."
It probably wouldn't have felt like one, if Harry hadn't experienced just that too many times already. Too many people not telling him the things he clearly needed to know. It was difficult to believe this wasn't simply more of the same.
He didn't trust himself to say anything civil, so he took a big bite of the sandwich.
"I'm planning to clean out... one of the bedrooms, today," said Remus casually. "If you'd like to help."
"Don't touch it," said Harry.
"I really ought to--"
"Don't touch it!"
It was the third time they'd had this conversation already this summer. Sooner or later Remus was going to have to realise that Harry's answer wasn't going to change.
"All right, then," he said after a long moment. "All right, Harry. We won't touch it. Yet."
"Hullo," said Harry without looking up from where he was sitting, staring at a hole in his sock. "You're back."
"Well, obviously," said Ron, tossing his sack on the floor by Harry's feet. "I'd've thought you'd be happy to see me."
"I am," said Harry, swinging his leg and kicking his heel against the frame of his bed. "How's the Burrow?"
"Same as always," said Ron. "'Cept the twins up and built themselves an addition to do testing and the like that they don't want to do in their shop. Had quite the row with mum over that. It's still standing, though. She finally figured better that than in their bedroom like before."
"Haven't seen them much since I got here."
"They've been busy," said Ron, shrugging. "New shop and all. It's real work. Not sure who was more shocked about that, the twins or mum."
"Haven't seen much of anyone, really."
Ron shut up at that, though Harry could hear him shift his weight from one foot to the other as he continued to stand there. The only sound breaking the awkward silence was the creaking of the ancient floor. Finally, "What's going on with you, Harry?"
"Well what do you think? I hate it here. But I hate it at the Dursleys even more. I can't wait until September first."
"You say that now," said Ron, taking a seat on the bed next to him. "Wait until we start lessons and we have more homework than ever. Hermione's looking forward to it, of course."
"Did you get another letter from her?"
"Only the one from last week," said Ron. "You've already read that one ten times. I wish she was here. It's strange, not seeing her all summer."
"Can't really blame her family for keeping her home," said Harry. Couldn't real blame her family if they wanted to take more extreme measures than that. "I wonder how much she's told them."
"Not much, I reckon," said Ron. "She never does, really. They're Muggles. They'd probably pull her out of school."
"Not all Muggles would do that, you know," said Harry. "And besides, Hermione always gets her way, when it matters."
"They're not just Muggles, they're her parents," said Ron. "Hell, Harry, my parents are fighting with Dumbledore and even they thought about keeping me and Ginny home, I think."
"Well, I guess I wouldn't know about that," snapped Harry. "What with not having anyone to care about me."
"Come on, Harry, you know that's not true," said Ron. "Everybody cares about you."
"Oh, do they?" said Harry. "Could've fooled me."
"Now that's not fair. You're insulting my mum if you say that, if you say that she's lying when she worries about you, Harry. And you wouldn't want to be insulting my mum. Or my dad. Or anyone else in my family."
"I suppose not," said Harry grudgingly. "It doesn't matter anyhow. I haven't got anyone wanting to keep me from Hogwarts and I'm glad for it. Poor Hermione."
"She'd've owled if anything was going on," said Ron, with a heavy sigh of what might have been relief, or possibly frustration. "Do you s'pose she doesn't want to be here?"
"Wouldn't blame her," admitted Harry. "She's doing all right, though?"
"I only know what you know, Harry," said Ron. "But she says she is, and she's not very good at lying."
"She wrote that she'd see us on the train. So it's not like it's personal."
"Right," said Ron. "Right."
This lengthy silence was punctuated only by Harry's kicks against the bedframe and Ron's intermittent sighs.
"You want to go flick thunder beetles off the terrace?" he said finally. "Mum says there's a new infestation, just little ones so the rumble won't set Moody off like last time."
"Sure," said Harry. "Why not?"
"Have you seen that Weasley boy?"
"Which Weasley boy, exactly?" asked Harry without looking up. It was hard to concentrate and look at Moody's eyes at the same time. "I can point you to two, maybe three."
"The old one," grunted Moody. "The oldest. Not the one playing with dragons, the other one. Billy."
"Bill," said Harry. "I haven't. Not since last week. He doesn't live here, you know. Not everyone does."
"Insolent boy," growled Moody. "He's late for a meeting."
"There's a meeting?" That was worth looking up for, even if he still couldn't focus on Moody's roaming eye.
"Not for you. Where are the other Weasley boys? I won't have them interrupting with one of those jokes of theirs. Think they're funny, those ones do."
"They're at their shop," said Harry. "They won't be bothering anyone except their customers. What's the meeting about?"
"None of your concern," said Moody, turning and thumping out of the room again leaving Harry with his books.
"What's that about, then?" asked Ron, dropping a thick tome to the table next to him and claiming a seat. "You didn't upset ol' Moody, did you? He's like to kill you in your sleep."
"What's your brother doing in a secret meeting?"
"Dunno," said Ron. "Hardly secret if they told you about it, though, is it. Which brother?"
"Bill," said Harry sullenly.
"He's off with Fleur, I think," said Ron. "He bought her a trinket when he went to visit Charlie, a bracelet I think. Charmed to sing her to sleep. I think she's about through with him, though. I saw her with that big Quidditch bloke the other day, in Diagon Alley. The new beater for the Arrows."
"Does Bill know?"
"Didn't want to be the one to tell him," admitted Ron. "Suppose he'll know soon enough."
"Gentlemen. Preparing for the new school year already? How industrious."
Though Dumbledore came and went from though house at Grimmauld Place as the situation demanded it, Harry rarely saw him, and they even more rarely spoke. And never for small talk.
"Mum made us, once we got our OWL results," said Ron. "Had a pretty good idea what I would be going on in, anyhow. They weren't much of a surprise."
"And you, Harry?" said Dumbledore. "Do you know what areas of study you'll be pursuing?"
"Yes, sir," said Harry, without quite meeting his eyes.
"And of course I'm certain that Divination will be one of them."
"Divination?" Harry blurted out. "I hadn't... Auror training doesn't require a NEWT in Divination."
"Ah, but a boy of your talents, don't you think it would be wise to continue your education in the field? The pathways into the mind, once they are opened, seldom entirely close."
"I've got the Occlumency under control now," said Harry shortly. No thanks to Snape or Dumbledore, really. "I won't be having any more dreams."
"Of course, your studies are entirely up to you," said Dumbledore. "Just because an education in Divination might train you to understand those dreams that come from other sources, doesn't mean it's something that will interest you." He tapped a finger on the table, then looked away. "Good luck, boys. I must be going; Bill Weasley will be arriving momentarily and Alastor does not like to be kept waiting."
"Good-bye," chimed Ron at Dumbledore's back.
"Looks like I'll be adding Divination to my schedule," muttered Harry, pushing away the book that had been in front of him so he could rest his elbows on the table and his chin on his hands. So much for something being entirely up to him.
No sooner had Dumbledore left than Bill stormed into the house and up the stairs with a decidedly displeased look on his face.
"Looks like he knows," said Ron.
"Or he's unhappy about having his date interrupted for some meeting that we're not invited to," said Harry pointedly.
"Either way," said Ron, "I'm pretty happy we're not in there right about now.
Harry, this once, was inclined to agree.
"Now you've got everything, haven't you?" Molly fussed with Ron's hair until he pushed her away.
"Mum, I haven't lost anything since the last time you asked."
"Well, I just wanted to be sure," she said, unruffled. "Your father and I will be away for a little while after today, I won't be able to send things along for you."
"Away? What?" said Ron, his voice getting louder as the train pulled up. "Where are you going?"
"Not to worry," she assured him. "It shouldn't be for long. Off you go, now. You too, Harry. The train won't wait for even you."
Harry had to tug Ron along with him as he boarded, trying to avoid banging Ron's head as he kept it turned as long as he could. But his mum said nothing more, just waved entirely too cheerfully at them and at Ginny and linked her arm with her husband's. Arthur at least looked more solemn, though no more eager to keep them back.
The train didn't seem as full as normal, but maybe that was because everyone had claimed their compartments as quickly as they could. Because there was little jostling about in the corridors. Because everyone, for once, was being quiet.
"In here," said Harry when he spotted Hermione's unmistakable hair. "Come on, Ron. I want to sit down."
"I'm coming," he said as he flung himself awkwardly into a seat. He'd grown yet again over the summer, towering over Harry now, who hadn't. He didn't even see Hermione until Harry was sliding the door to the compartment shut.
"Hermione!" he said, and leapt up to give her a completely unrestrained, nearly inappropriate, hug. "How was your summer?"
"Dull," she admitted with a smile as Harry took a seat on her other side. "Just the way I wanted it. And yours?"
"The same," said Ron. "Spent most of it in that awful house. No offence, Harry."
"It is an awful house," Harry agreed with him. "It was all kind of weird, this summer. Everything was so quiet. After everything, I hadn't imagined it would be."
"Are you doing all right, Harry?" said Hermione gently. "I know--"
"I don't want to talk about it."
"It's all right, Harry," she went on. "It's me--"
"I don't," Harry interrupted her again, crisply, "want to talk about it. And how are your parents?"
Hermione frowned. "They're fine," she said. "They were glad to have me home, even if we didn't go on holiday this year." The train started moving, swaying her into Ron's side for a moment. "Did you see Malfoy and Goyle when you were boarding?"
"No," said Ron, scowling. "Probably the best thing that happened all summer, that."
Harry was barely listening. "Don't see what's so exciting about spotting Malfoy and those two gorillas he calls friends."
"No, not two, just one," Hermione informed him. "Crabbe isn't coming back this year. I asked Susan about it and she told me he's working for his family now."
"So Malfoy's got a little less protection this year," mused Harry. "That's good to know."
"I don't want to talk about those gits," said Ron. "I want to hear all about your summer, Hermione, even the boring bits."
Hermione was happy to indulge him, and Harry was happy to be able to just sit quietly while his two friends chatted, without being forced to talk about his own.
Harry would have been happy to never see Thestrals again, and he knew he wasn't the only one to feel that way. Seeing them wasn't even necessary; Hermione had shuddered, and even Ron had looked faintly ill just in their presence. And when he saw Ginny and Luna whispering together as they arrived at the castle, he could guess what they were talking about even before Hermione went over to join them.
They chilly, uneasy feeling he got from the creatures and the memories they provoked lingered as he and Ron made their way through the castle.
That voice did nothing to alleviate the feeling, never mind the sight that went with it. There was only half a flight of stairs between them, Malfoy above and Harry below.
"Malfoy," he said flatly, and deliberately looked away. But he didn't walk away, he didn't move a bit, not even with Ron tugging his arm.
Draco whipped his wand out, whistling through the air and halting pointed directly at Harry. "It's all your fault," he hissed. "Everything that's happened, it's all your fault."
"Oh, and how's that?" said Harry, trying to sound bored even as he clenched his own wand in his fist, at the ready. "I somehow made your father into an evil prat? I think he did that all by himself."
"My father--" began Draco furiously, making as though he was going to fling himself down the stairs at the pair of them. "At least I've got one," he said, for once getting a rein on his temper.
"You take that back!" Ron defended, his own wand in hand.
"My father died a hero," spat Harry. "Yours will die a criminal. If he's not dead already."
Draco went red, then white, his wand hand shaking. But he did nothing, except look over Harry's shoulder.
"Potter." This time the voice came from behind him, deeper, silkier and ten times as repulsive. "I should have known I'd find you skulking about already, bullying the other students."
"Bullying!" said Harry, whirling around, feeling his face grow hot. "Bullying?! You know perfectly well I was doing no such thing, you ugly, greasy, filthy, deceitful, pitiful excuse for a professor!"
"Harry!" said Ron, and even Draco gasped.
"What's he going to do?" said Harry, not taking his eyes off Snape. "Take points? We haven't got any yet."
Snape smirked, a singularly disturbing expression. "That will be ten points to Gryffindor, Harry, for your... creativity."
"What?" said Harry. "What?!"
"And it is a decided pleasure to now take ten points from your house for insulting a teacher and taunting a poor boy who has so recently had his father taken from him. Go."
Malfoy smirked; Ron growled.
"I can't believe this!" Harry blurted out. "He's been doing it to me for years."
"Very well," said Snape. "Detention. Tomorrow. For your complete inability to show proper respect for your betters."
"Uh, maybe we should go," interrupted Ron, tugging his arm again. "Hermione's waiting for us."
"Yes, maybe you should go, Potter," Draco called after them. "Your girlfriend's waiting."
"She's not my--" Harry started, but left it at that when Ron yanked him to the side to take an alternate route to the Great Hall.
"Ron, I wasn't finished!" he said, yanking back once they were round the first corner.
"Yes, that's what I was afraid of," said Ron. "Come on, we're going to be late."
The moment 'Young, Maureen' was sorted into Ravenclaw, after an unbearably long wait, conversation erupted at all four tables in the Great Hall.
"Can you believe how long it took those firsties?" said Ron. "I was starting to think there was another Creevey in the lake."
"What are the odds that there'd be three of them?" Hermione reminded him. "Two was implausible enough."
Harry was hardly listening, his eyes still roaming the Great Hall. Despite the conversation, there was a pall over the room. The cheers and applause had been more subdued, the students nervous. Many were looking around as Harry was, perhaps to see who mightn't be there, through choice or mishap. It had been an odd summer for everyone, with the shadow of war over them all now.
The professors were doing much the same. All except Dumbledore, who sat placidly in the high seat and toyed with something on the table in front of him, a faint smile on his face.
"Do you suppose that's the new Defence Against the Dark Arts professor?" Ron asked, pointing discreetly at the table. A young man who couldn't have been older than one of Ron's brothers was fussing about at the one empty chair.
"I suppose it must be," said Harry, squinting to get a better look. He looked a bit twitchy; in a way, he reminded Harry a bit of Quirrell. Which wasn't a particularly good sign.
"Doesn't look like much, does he?" sniffed Ron.
"You of all people should know that doesn't matter, Ronald Weasley," Hermione chastised him. "It's what he can do that counts."
"Doesn't look like he can do much, then," said Ron. Hermione just huffed and looked away from him, back at the professors' table.
Harry privately agreed with him, and wondered what kind of disaster that class would be this year, but then the young man left again and an older woman entered and claimed the seat.
"Oh!" said Harry. "I know her!"
"Who?" said Ron, looking up again. "What, her? What happened to that other bloke? Did anyone see what happened? Did you see him drink anything?"
"He left, Ron," sighed Hermione. "Honestly, are you going to be this way all year?"
"What way?" asked Ron. Harry thought it was more to irritate her this time than that he really hadn't any clue what she was talking about. "How do you know her, Harry?"
"She was at the funeral," murmured Harry. "I don't know her name, though."
"What funeral?" asked Hermione.
Harry brushed the question aside. "I'll tell you later," he said. "She was there with Dumbledore, though. I bet that's why."
"I don't know, Harry," said Hermione. "You don't go to a funeral with someone because of a job."
"No, I mean they must know each other," said Harry. "Right? That makes sense. And that means we're not getting another Lockhart or another Umbridge."
"It could never be that bad again," said Ron fervently.
Dumbledore greeted the new arrival effusively before finally standing to do his start of term notices, none of which were a surprise to Harry. Despite the dark foreboding of war in his voice, a war that had already started but was definitely still building, he managed to be hopeful all the same. A new year, a new group of students, a new start for everyone.
"As well," he said, "Due to an unfortunate incident in the Forbidden Forest, Professor Umbridge will not be returning this year." An impromptu cheer went up from the students, not to mention some of the staff. "I would like to introduce you to your new professor of Defence Against the Dark Arts, Professor Hilde Hebblethwaite." A less hearty cheer went up at this, but a cheer nonetheless, especially since Dumbledore seemed genuinely pleased to have her in his presence. "I have known Professor Hebblethwaite for more years than she would care to have me tell you, and believe she will make a fine addition to our staff."
The cheering grew louder -- part of it, Harry thought, was an anyone-but-Umbridge cheer -- as Professor Hebblethwaite stood up and gave them a cheerful if dignified wave. Not only did Dumbledore look pleased, but Professor McGonagall as well.
It was a better start to the year that Harry had expected, but it didn't make up for everything that had come before. Not by far.
So far, in the course of one evening, Harry'd learned that Seamus was going with a fifth-year Hufflepuff, that Dean Thomas had spent half the summer with a sprained wrist because his mum wouldn't let him go to St. Mungo's and that Ron thought Hermione had a nice arse. He'd already at least suspected the last one, but it wasn't something Ron was prone to saying aloud. Unless goaded by his dormmates, apparently.
He waited until Seamus had sneaked off to the Hufflepuff dorms, until Ron and Dean were engrossed in the latest Quidditch Weekly, until most of the younger years would have gone to bed, before venturing down into the common room in his lightest and largest robes and curling up inside them in a chair by the fire.
"You've got--" Harry looked up at the sound of Neville's voice, and watched as Neville plucked something out of his hair. "A feather, I think," he added in explanation, letting it float off toward the fire. "Hello, Harry."
"Neville," he greeted him. "I hardly saw you at the welcoming feast."
"Missed the sorting," he admitted. "Gran brought me up personally this year. We were a bit late."
"Not like your Gran to be late, is it?" said Harry as Neville perched himself against a nearby armchair.
"Well, I suppose she wasn't late, only I was," said Neville. "She wanted to come up to visit an old friend of hers, got special permission for me to miss the train and everything so we could come together."
"Luna and Ginny were looking for you, I think. We hadn't heard from you since..."
Neville nodded. "I wanted to come see you, earlier in the summer, but Gran thought it would be a bad idea."
"You would only have been bored," Harry admitted. "It was a lousy summer."
"Better boring that exciting," said Neville softly. He looked at Harry like he meant to say more, maybe meant to say one of those useless things that people had been saying to Harry all summer, but then he left it at that. "Do you want to see my new wand? I just got it yesterday."
Not talking, but just knowing that Neville shared the same memories of the Department of Mysteries as he did, was ten times -- a hundred times -- better than having to say a word.
"Of course," he said, sitting up. "I'd forgotten. What did you get?"
"Twelve-and-three-quarters inches," Neville said proudly as he pulled it out of a pocket in his robes. "Oak. Isn't it beautiful?"
It was, probably some of Ollivander's finest work. Assuming he got it from Ollivander, but knowing how traditional Neville's Gran was, there were be no going anywhere else for her, Harry was sure.
"It's got unicorn hair," Neville went on. "My dad's old wand had a dragon heartstring at its core, and Gran made me try nearly every one of those in the shop it seemed like, but none of them were right for me."
"Well, you're not your father," Harry said, continuing to admire the freshly polished wand. "I haven't got the same core as mine either."
"No, we all know what you've got," said Neville, quite matter-of-factly. "Have we got any lessons together anymore? I haven't seen your schedule."
"Charms, probably," said Harry. "And Transfiguration? I suppose you're not taking potions..."
Neville pulled a face and shook his head. "I've got Arithmancy, though. And Muggle Studies."
"No, I'm not in either of those," said Harry. "I don't suppose you're in Divination?"
"I thought about it," said Neville, "but then I decided to concentrate on the studies I'll actually be needing. Gran thought that was a good idea as well."
"Ron's not carrying on in it either," Harry told him. "I've got to, apparently."
"You've got to?"
"More or less," muttered Harry. "Dumbledore. I suppose I could pitch a fit about it, but I'd only end up taking it anyway, in the end."
"Best to just do what's got to be done," agreed Neville, which wasn't really what Harry meant, but now that Neville thought he was doing the grown-up thing Harry didn't have the nerve to say it was just because Harry didn't have the energy to go head-to-head with Dumbledore again just yet.
"Have you got Care of Magical Creatures?" he asked instead. Neville nodded. "I'm in that one as well. And of course Hermione's in most everything, I think. She got as many OWLs as Ron's brother Bill. Ron's mum was so pleased, she thinks of Hermione as one of her own, really."
"Suppose Hermione's parents were pleased as well."
"I suppose," said Harry. "She never really said. They seem like a nice enough sort, though, and any parent ought to be pleased by that."
"Gran was happy with my results," said Neville. "Surprised, but happy. But then, so was I."
"Professor Lupin took me out for ice cream when I got mine," said Harry. "I think he was pleased. But then, he's not a parent."
"Doesn't matter so much, really," said Neville, "so long as you're all right with it." They sank into a comfortable silence for a moment before Neville tucked his wand away again. "I'm off to bed," he said. "Are you coming up?"
"In a few moments," said Harry, looking away and at the fire. Neville only hesitated a moment before leaving Harry to himself.
"If you don't get up this second I'm going to have Dean stick his foot in your face. And he hasn't showered yet!"
"None of that!"
Harry blinked his eyes open and looked blearily up at what he figured had to be Ron from the size and the hair. "It's morning?" he asked as he groped for his glasses.
"And you're going to be late for breakfast if you don't move."
Everything came sharply into focus; Ron looming over him in nothing but his starched white underpants, Neville still lying facedown on his bed with one leg dangling over the side, covers torn right off by a madly giggling Seamus, Dean in pyjamas shooting death glares at Ron.
"Five more minutes," he muttered and closed his eyes again, the tableau of his half-naked friends burned behind his eyelids. Just five more minutes of this, that was all he asked.
"Five more minutes and I'll already be well on my way to meet Hermione," said Ron, "and even Neville will be up. And you'll miss breakfast."
"Not hungry," mumbled Harry, tugging his covers back up again, but opening his eyes just a crack so he could watch what everyone was doing. Ron obviously didn't see him do it, or he probably wouldn't have pulled that horrid face. "Go 'way."
"Fine," said Ron, "but it's on your head. Don't say I didn't try."
Harry watched Ron's backside make it all the way across the room toward the shower before letting his eyes fall shut again.
Five minutes and they'd all still be doing exactly what they were already doing -- arguing and messing about and reclaiming their space that had sat vacant all summer. Harry didn't need to worry about missing breakfast. Or, for that matter, about Dean's feet. Or even about Seamus pulling his covers off -- though that might give the lot of them an eyeful. On second thought, perhaps he ought to worry about the covers.
There was a splash, then a bellow, then Neville was streaking by in wet underpants and nothing more. Harry couldn't help but watch, riveted, and could only hope that no one would notice. He shifted his legs and gripped his blanket tighter.
Honestly, Harry already had quite enough in his life to worry about, and more than enough ways he was different from other wizards. So why did it always have to keep being him?
After enduring fourteen flights of stairs, five corridors, three stuck doors and a pesky ghost who kept calling him "Oswald", Harry finally arrived at Divination, bursting headlong into the classroom, dropping his books and stumbling over a tasselled welcome mat that spread itself out helpfully in front of the door as soon as he arrived.
The resulting silence was interrupted only by the barely-muffled titters of his classmates. Harry bit the inside of his cheek so hard it drew blood, but in the end managed not to go off on them for it.
"And now that Mr. Potter has arrived as I predicted," said Professor Trelawney, gesturing broadly at the remaining seat as he gathered his books, "we can begin." Her bracelets rang together ominously. Seeing who he would be sitting with if he took the seat, Harry suddenly understood the portent.
"Well, what are you waiting for? The chair won't come to you, you know. At least, not after that rather unfortunate experiment a few years past."
The only other Gryffindors carrying on to NEWT-level Divination were Lavender and Parvati, who sat together in a corner giggling at him. The entire class, in fact, other than a pair of Slytherin girls, was largely made up of students from Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff. And they all stuck together when it came to seating.
And so, with a sinking feeling, Harry was forced to take the seat next to Gregory Goyle. Who looked about as pleased about the arrangement as Harry was, but then it was hard to tell. Goyle always looked mean-tempered.
"We shall begin our year," started Trelawney, then frowned at the three hands already waving in the air. "Yes, yes, what is it?"
"Will Professor Firenze be returning?" asked one of the Ravenclaw boys.
The look on Trelawney's face was nearly outmatched by the scowls that Lavender and Parvati shot him. "The centaur," she said after drawing herself up to her full and unimpressive height, "shall be assist- shall be sharing teaching duties with me, each in our areas of expertise. Though what use the vague arts of the centaurs will be to you, I cannot see. As I was saying... yes, Mr. Boot?"
"What areas should we be focusing on for our NEWT?"
"I sense you are overly concerned with your books." Harry didn't need any sort of divination to know that; five years of lessons with the boy in question did the trick. "Divination is not about what you will be tested on. It does not perform on demand, especially for those who doubt its worth. It is about a new and broader understanding of the world around you. Now. Are there any further questions or may I continue with my lesson?"
There had been two other hands in the air, but they slowly lowered as Professor Trelawney stared at them in stony silence.
"Very well, then. We can continue," she said. "It is enough, when you are beginning pupils, to understand the fundamentals of divination. At this level, you must learn how to apply those fundamentals. "Therefore..."
Harry had a very bad feeling about this.
"... the person you are seated with shall be your subject for your readings this year. Your Querant, if you will." Mandy Brocklehurst's hand in the air was pointedly ignored. "Open your minds," she went on. "Get a sense of how fruitful your partnership will be." Then her gaze grew sharp again. "I expect great things from you all," she said. "Great things."
The only thing great about Goyle, Harry thought with a sinking feeling, was his size.
"There are many methods of divination that we cannot cover in their entirety in this course," Trelawney said, with a pointed looked just for Harry. "At this level, it becomes a highly individual discipline. Some of you will work better with cards, some with teas, some with something entirely different. Though of course I expect competence in all the major techniques."
Mandy's hand shot up into the air again; this time she didn't wait to be acknowledged before speaking. "May we have a list of the methods we will be exploring this year."
"I sense you are not open to the possibilities of divination," said Trelawney airily, peering at her. "While I may already know the particular methods each group will eventually choose to pursue, I would not dream of interrupting that journey for each of you."
"Do we have a list of choices to pursue?"
"You do not," said Trelawney, her impatience once again becoming apparent. "Each pair of you will have to uncover the best route to your inner eye by yourselves. Over the course of this year you will pursue it to my expected level of competence. It is not my place to restrict the possibilities you might explore."
Harry hadn't imagined he would enjoy Divination, by any means. Now he suspected it would be nearly unbearable.
The rolling hills beyond the last tower of Hogwarts, with their no walls and no books and no Slytherins, were a sight for sore eyes after the day Harry'd been having. Not a single other soul was about, save one, making it all the more appealing.
If one more person asked him if he was all right... well, he didn't know what he would do, but it was bound to get him and anyone in a twenty-foot radius in a load of trouble. No, he wanted to yell at them, no I am not okay. What person in my situation would be okay? But he didn't, he just said of course he was and moved on.
"I haven't got a lot of time," said Hermione from behind him. "I promised to meet Anthony later to go over our Arithmancy notes."
"Hermione, lessons have only just started!"
"You know, it's a lot easier if you don't put off all your schoolwork until the end of term," she scolded him. "Are you all right?"
Harry whirled on her. "Why does everyone keep asking me that?"
"Well, are you?" she asked him, crossing her arms over her chest. "You've been so down ever since we first met up on the train."
"I haven't got much to be happy about, now, do I?" Harry reminded her.
"It's not just you, you know," she said. "The war affects all of us, Harry. I'm Muggle-born. How do you think I feel?"
"It's not just the war," Harry muttered, looking away again. He might know more about how she felt, he wanted to point out, if she'd actually talked to him since the end of their fifth year. And maybe she wouldn't have to be reminded just why Harry might be a little more down than ever before.
"Oh, Harry, I know," she said, her voice softening. "I didn't mean that it was, and I know you've had an awful summer. But it's not all bad, right?"
"I suppose not," admitted Harry grudgingly. "Still..."
"If you ever want to talk--"
"I don't," Harry cut her off. "Sorry, but no. You might as well go, Hermione. I'm just going to take a walk."
"I thought you wanted to--" she began, then thought better of it. "All right. I'll see you at supper, then?"
"Probably," said Harry, looking out over the hilly land to the edge of the forest. He wondered how far he could make it in before he had to turn back round again.
"Are you sure you don't want me to--"
"I'm fine, Hermione," he said. "I was fine before and I'm fine now. And I'd appreciate it if people would believe me when I say so."
"If you want people to stop asking you if you're all right," she said as she started to leave, "you'd best begin to act like you are."
Harry arrived early for his first Defence Against the Dark Arts class of the year. And he certainly wasn't the only one. "What do you think she'll be like?" Ron whispered in his ear. "Can't be any worse than last year."
"Nothing could be worse than last year," agreed Harry. Hermione, slipping into the seat on the other side of Ron, made a noise of agreement as well.
"You should still be teaching, Harry," Ron told him. "You did a better job than nearly anyone."
"Yes, but I've got to learn too, Ron," said Harry. "I can't run the D.A. very well if I've got nothing left to teach. Besides, I've sort of lost my taste for it."
"Yeah. Me as well," said Ron with a soft sigh, and turned his head to watch Hermione carefully set out her things while the last couple of minutes counted down to the beginning of the lesson.
"She wouldn't be late, would she?" Ron was saying as the door opened one last time and their latest Defence Against the Dark Arts professor strode into the room. The doors clanged shut behind her.
"I," she said as she moved quickly to the front of the room, "am Professor Hilde Hebblethwaite." With a gracious sweep of her wand, her name appeared in blocky, glowing letters in the air in front of the class. "We shall begin," she went on, "with a demonstration."
There was a collective sigh from the class, much more relief at the fact that this year would not be a repeat of the last than apprehensive at just what this 'demonstration' might entail. She did not ask for volunteers, but her sharp eyes roamed over the class.
"Miss Granger," she said finally. "Would you join me at the front of the class?"
"Oh no," said Hermione under her breath, to be comforted by Ron's following, "You can do it, Hermione."
Hermione's progress to the front of the room wasn't nearly as swift as Professor Hebblethwaite's, but she kept her head high and didn't show any nervousness. She was as ready as any of them could be, Harry knew, and probably more than most.
"Can I assume, at this level, you are familiar with classic duelling?"
Instead of answering, Hermione just took the pose.
Professor Hebblethwaite nodded her approval. "Good," she said. Without any further preamble, she took her pose opposite Hermione and, moments later, shot off her first hex. Hermione was clever and quick enough to throw up a general protection, but the hex went right through it. Harry wasn't sure quite what it was doing to her, but her back arched and her shoulders shot back and it looked quite painful, though she made no noise.
Professor Hebblethwaite said nothing, just waited a few moments until Hermione looked recovered, then retook her pose and cast the same hex again. Hermione tried a different protection spell this time, one Harry hadn't even thought she knew, to the same effect.
Professor Hebblethwaite lowered her wand this time and said something under her breath, then gestured for Hermione to step aside. Hermione hung her head as she did, but Harry thought she'd done well for herself. The professor scanned the room again, her eyes falling on someone on the other side this time.
"Mr. Malfoy," she said. "Would you join me at the front."
Malfoy strutted to the front of the room, there was no other word for it.
He didn't even wait for instruction before taking up a duelling pose opposite his professor. She nodded, but her expression was unreadable.
She cast the exact same hex. Malfoy ducked. This time her expression was readable; she was nearly smiling.
"Five points to Slytherin," she said. "You may both take your seats."
"Oh no!" breathed Ron, amid the general hushed chatter around the room. "She's another Snape!"
Harry could only nod in horrified agreement as Professor Hebblethwaite tucked an errant strand of hair behind her ear and stood to address the class again. "Are we all clear on what happened just now?" she asked.
"Crystal," muttered Ron.
"Magic is a very powerful thing," she said. "But it is not always the answer. Gurney's jolting hex. Fairly innocuous, but it'll set someone on their arse long enough for you to come up with something better. As you will all have noticed, the entire array of standard protective spells are useless against it. In battle, no one will care if you are graceful or elegant. The only thing that matters is that you survive."
Despite the fact that he'd been admitted to Snape's NEWT-level potions class -- a surprise to not only Harry but nearly everyone he knew -- Harry dreaded every moment of it. And rightly so; he'd been as ready as any of them for the first lesson and Snape had still picked on him at every opportunity.
Snape was a mean, petty, vindictive man and there was no getting around it. At least Harry knew the truth of him now; he would know not to trust him, Order member or not. They hadn't spoken the whole summer, despite Snape's frequent coming and going from Grimmauld Place -- a home where, as far as Harry was concerned, he was quite unwelcome.
"Potter," said Snape just as Harry was nearly through the door and free. "A word."
Harry gritted his teeth and turned; it helped nothing that Malfoy was still in the room, taking his time about packing his things away and smirking into his cauldron. Listening to every word.
"I haven't any idea how you convinced the examiners that you were competent to take this course," he said, "but I'll have you know that you won't achieve a passing grade so easily with me."
"I am competent to take this course," said Harry to Malfoy's unremarked-upon snicker. "I don't expect anyone to be easy on me."
"Indeed," said Snape, clearly dubious. "Because no one has ever been easy on the famous Harry Potter, is that it?"
Harry struggled to keep a rein on his temper. "You know very well that's not true. Sir."
"Do I," he sneered. "If you are determined to take this course, Potter, I will not stop you. It's on your own head."
"I brewed the potion correctly," Harry pointed out. "I was competent. Unless you're planning on doing something to sabotage that, sir, I expect I'll continue to be.
"You were barely adequate," said Snape. "This time. Get out of my sight, you appalling child."
Harry was only too happy to do just that.
The classroom smelled so heavily of incense Harry was hard pressed not to sneeze. He still couldn't fathom what the atrocious scent had to do with seeing the future, but Professor Trelawney deemed it necessary and so it stayed. Harry looked forward to the classes with Firenze, even if they would do nothing to help his most immediate problem: his partner, his subject, his seventh-worst nightmare.
Harry sat on one side of the round table and Goyle on the other, and for a good fifteen minutes they just sat there and glared at one another. As other students around them murmured in low voices, plotting the course of their projects, the two of them did nothing of the sort.
Goyle was the one to cave. "I'm not going to flunk this course on account of you, Potter," he said, possibly the longest sentence Harry had ever heard him utter, and opened his book. The spine let out the telltale crackle of a volume than had never before been opened.
Harry smirked. He'd at least opened his own to write his name in it. The previous night.
"What are we doing, then?" he asked when the silence started to stretch.
This was not going to work. Harry should have just dropped Divination, despite Dumbledore's insistence. The headmaster had proven himself somewhat inept at determining what was best for Harry anyway. But then, quitting Divination would probably mean more lessons with Snape.
There were definitely worse things that having to work with Gregory Goyle.
"What method? Do you have a preference?"
"Well we've got to try them out, haven't we?" said Goyle, turning a page. Harry heard a sharp rip, though Goyle made no indication that he'd torn his book. He made no expression at all, really.
"Then where should we start, do you think?" Harry shouldn't have even bothered. This was Goyle, after all. He'd probably have to be making all the decisions, the entire time, and the Slytherin oaf would be riding his coattails to the end of the year. Just what Harry needed.
His response was just what Harry dreaded. "The beginning," he said, and turned another page.
"Please take your seats," said Professor Hebblethwaite the moment the last two students rushed in the door, pushing it shut with an echoing thump. "Mr. Malfoy, will you join me at the front of the classroom.
Malfoy practically preened as he got up from his seat, egged on by the coos from Pansy Parkinson at his side. Just as in their previous lesson he took his time getting to the front, ensuring everyone's eyes were on him by the time he got there.
"Take duelling position," said their professor without preamble. This time Malfoy was quick, wand in hand and poised and ready. Whatever Harry might loathe about him, and there were so very many things to choose from, he was good with his wand.
She threw the exact same hex she had used in their first class; once again, Malfoy ducked and the spell went whizzing by over his head without touching him. He straightened up and looked quite smug as he faced the professor.
"Hmm," was all she said, eyeing him for a moment. Then she turned back to the rest of the class. "Miss Granger, if you would?"
Harry gave her a sympathetic look, but to her credit Hermione didn't hesitate at all to meet Professor Hebblethwaite at the front of the classroom, wand already in hand as though expecting a spell to be cast at her at any moment. The professor looked almost approving.
"Duelling position," she said briskly, while Hermione was already halfway there.
Harry was familiar with Gurney's jolting hex by now, but not with the counter-hex that Hermione quickly cast, dissipating the original hex harmlessly. Professor Hebblethwaite threw a second hex, one Harry was familiar with, which Hermione blocked just in time. Hermione's stunning spell didn't meet its mark, but Harry was impressed that she'd even got one off, after what had just been thrown at her.
Professor Hebblethwaite signalled the end of the duel, which Hermione complied with promptly. "Five points to Gryffindor," she said, while Draco looked on in blatant astonishment. "You can only duck the first time, Mr. Malfoy," she explained. "It's been two days since our first lesson, plenty of time to learn the counterspell. Well done, Miss Granger."
"Thank you, Professor."
"That," said Professor Hebblethwaite, turning to address all of them, "is the sort of work I expect from my classes at this level. Learning is not just about reading what I tell you. It's about remembering what you see and hear and pursuing it from there. Miss Granger, Mr. Malfoy, you may take your seats."
Harry gave Malfoy a smirk as he walked much less smugly back to Parkinson and Goyle. Perhaps this class was going to be all right after all.
They decided against the Great Hall right away, neither Harry nor Goyle relishing the idea of spending their study time dodging hexes and well-meaning interference. The library was out for the same reason. And even if Harry did want to let Goyle know of the existence of the Room of Requirement -- which he did not -- it was already too well-known among his fellow students, and he probably didn't precisely require it anyhow.
That left them with only the Divination classroom, which was inconvenient for both, and uncomfortable besides. But at least it was quiet and private and not strictly against the rules. They figured it would have to do.
Harry found a better option while chasing Trevor with Neville, halfway up the Astronomy Tower and down a dusty corridor.
"This way," said Neville as they followed Trevor's trail in the dust through a half-open door into a wide, shallow room. Empty rooms weren't unusual in a castle the size of Hogwarts, but ordinarily they were shut up tight, and often completely hidden from view until needed.
"What is this--"
"Trevor!" said Neville, and far from having to pounce after him, Trevor hopped docilely into his waiting arms.
"--place," finished Harry. The purpose of the room wasn't immediately obvious; it was neither a classroom nor a storeroom. The outer wall was lined with windows but offered a good view of neither the main grounds nor the night sky. It didn't seem to be good for much in particular, except maybe getting loads of daylight when all the shutters were open.
It wasn't until he found some musty star charts charmed flat against the tables under the windows that he understood it to be a work room of sorts. One that hadn't been in use for some time.
"Don't know," said Neville, tucking Trevor into a robe pocket and patting it fondly. "You can see the forest from here."
You could, but then you could see the forest from a lot of places inside the castle, including Gryffindor tower. The forest from this room just looked dark and deep and rather forbidding, really.
Neville sneezed. "I don't know what's got into Trevor. He hasn't run -- er, hopped -- off like that for ages."
"He's probably looking for a mate," muttered Harry. Poor creature wasn't any more likely than Harry to find one at Hogwarts, though.
"I suppose maybe he is," laughed Neville. "I mean, aren't we all these days, eh?"
"Right," murmured Harry. "Aren't we all." He wandered closer to the great windows and dusted off part of a window seat with his hand, nearly sitting down until Neville tugged his sleeve.
"It's nearly curfew," Neville reminded him. "You can come back tomorrow, if you want to get a closer look."
It was closer to Gryffindor tower, if not the Slytherin dungeons, and far more private than the Divination classroom. And surely it wouldn't be against the rules to study in a room that was clearly designed for that purpose. Surely not.
"Have you thought about what you're going to do about the Goyle situation?" Ron asked him as they settled into the common room. "Hermione thought perhaps you could petition to Dumbledore about it. I mean, you can't really be meant to work with him all year. He could be spying on you and telling his dad all sorts of things about you!"
"Like what, that I can't see anything in the crystal ball for the life of me?" snorted Harry. "Dumbledore's the one making me study Divination in the first place, he's hardly going to help me out."
"He didn't really say you had to, did he?" said Ron.
"It was sort of implied, Ron," Harry reminded him. "And it's still better than lessons with Snape again, isn't it."
"Not much better."
"No, not much better," he had to admit. "But better. I wish I could... well, I haven't got anybody I can ask for advice anymore, have I. So I've just got to do what I've got to do."
"You've still got people, Harry," said Ron, quieter and more hesitant. "Just because... I know what he meant to you, but he wasn't all you've got."
"Yes, he was," snapped Harry. "He was all I had, Ron, and now I don't even have that. I haven't got anybody to go to."
He was going to have to deal with everything himself, he thought, and felt a familiar feeling of dread in the pit of his stomach. He was probably going to make loads of mistakes -- about all sorts of things, now -- because he really hadn't any idea what he was doing. Somehow it felt worse now that he'd had it and lost it, than when he hadn't known what it was like at all. And being sixteen was a lot different from being eleven.
"You have," insisted Ron stubbornly. Harry bit the inside of his cheek to keep from yelling at him. "But I know it's not the same, all right? And you haven't got to talk about it with me, I won't ask. But none of this helps with the whole Goyle thing."
"Nothing's going to help with the whole Goyle thing," said Harry dismally. "Worse than his father, imagine what he's going to be reporting back to Malfoy. His father might be locked up now, but I don't trust him one bit."
"Goyle's father's a Death Eater, though. Malfoy's a loathsome prat, but he's no Death Eater."
"Yet," muttered Harry. "At least Goyle's father's stupid. Malfoy's... Well, I'll be careful. There's too much going on right now to risk anything, no matter who it is."
"Right," said Ron. "And you might be stuck with him, but if you need anything, just remember that there are a lot of us who've got your back."
Once he was well settled into all his classes, Harry did make it a point to go up to Dumbledore's office. The last password he had been given -- by McGonagall, not so long ago -- still worked, allowing him upstairs and right up to the door. It was already open a just crack, just enough to allow Harry to hear voices on the other side.
"It will be safe where it is," Dumbledore was saying. "As safe as it can be anywhere."
"But the break-in--" McGonagall, Harry recognised. After five years, he knew her voice well.
"Was years ago," said Dumbledore, "and measures have been taken to prevent that sort of thing from happening again. Isn't that right?"
"It's the safest place I know." Harry knew that voice, too. Bill Weasley. "Excluding Hogwarts, but even that..."
"Is not an appropriate location in this instance," Dumbledore finished for him smoothly. "Have you any further progress to report, Mr. Weasley?"
"I wish I did," he said. "You heard it all at the last meeting. There's got to be some way... I want this all to end."
"We all want this to end," said McGonagall. "And every day it drags on, it gets worse. At least the children are all right."
"All right?" Bill repeated, a little louder. "My brother is barely sixteen years old and he has war wounds. How is that all right?"
"Ron is doing quite well," McGonagall protested, but she sounded shaken. Harry hadn't thought about it quite that way before. He supposed he'd got his first war wound at the age of one, but that wasn't quite the same thing as the day they'd fought, really fought, in battle for the first time. "They are safe at Hogwarts. And if there are any... repercussions, of the events of last spring, I would hope that the students would come to me."
"I wouldn't count on it," said Bill. Harry had to agree; he knew he wouldn't. "I should be getting back to London. Was there anything else?"
"No," said Dumbledore. "I shall be in touch, Mr. Weasley."
"I count on it," said Bill.
The door suddenly swung open, forcing Harry back into the shadows to avoid being seen as Bill stalked past. He hadn't any real idea what they'd been talking about, but he had a good notion it was something he wasn't meant to be hearing.
He waited for McGonagall to leave as well, but there was only silence from Dumbledore's office, until, "Was there something you were needing, Mr. Potter?"
Harry took a couple of sheepish steps out into the doorway at the sound of Dumbledore's voice. "I was," he started, wincing as his voice cracked. "I was looking for permission."
"Permission for what, Mr. Potter?" asked McGonagall. She was even still seated, quite comfortably in one of the chairs by Dumbledore's large desk.
"There's a work room in the Astronomy Tower," said Harry. "I was looking for permission to use it."
"Ah yes," said Dumbledore. "Yes, I know the room you're speaking of. I expect it will do well for your purposes."
His purposes. He should have figured that Dumbledore would already know exactly what this was about. But better that, than assuming Harry had been lingering at his door for other reasons entirely.
"So long as you aren't out after curfew," McGonagall put in quickly. "You haven't got permission for that.
"No," agreed Harry. "I won't be needing it after curfew. It's all right, then?"
"You have my permission," said McGonagall, giving Dumbledore a sidelong look. Harry might be in the habit of coming to Dumbledore when he needed things, but he supposed this really was within the realm of his Head of House.
"And I shall take it upon myself to secure the permission of Professor Snape, as well," added Dumbledore. "Unless the two of you would like to do that yourselves."
"No! I mean, thank you," said Harry, and left while he was ahead, practically fleeing down the stairs and back to Gryffindor tower.
"Bill? Was here?" said Ron, stealing a bit of roast chicken off Harry's plate. "What in the world for?"
"Ronald, quit talking with your mouth full," said Hermione. "What was he doing here, Harry?"
"I just asked that!"
"I don't know," admitted Harry. "I only caught the very last bit of the conversation. Something about something being safe where it is. And something about a break-in."
"A break-in?" said Hermione. "I haven't read anything recently about a break-in anyplace important."
"Dumbledore said it was years ago," said Harry. "And then Bill said..." But then, he wasn't sure that bit needed to be shared with Ron, if Bill hadn't done it himself. "Bill said he needed to be getting back to London. That's all I heard."
"I don't see what that's got to do with Bill," grumbled Ron.
Hermione just rolled her eyes. "It's obvious, Ron," she told him. "Bill works for Gringotts London branch now, doesn't he?"
"They doesn't it make sense that they were talking about Gringotts?"
"Oh! Right! And that's a place that people have tried to break into."
"Frequently," Hermione informed him. "Only no one ever comes close. Except--"
"Except what?" said Harry.
"Except for the Philosopher's Stone! In our first year!"
"You think this has got something to do with the Philosopher's Stone?" said Harry dubiously. "The know how dangerous that would be. I don't think they would--"
"No, no," said Hermione impatiently. "But it was years ago now, wasn't it? I bet that was what he was talking about. They were talking about Gringotts."
It certainly made sense. But it didn't bring them any closer to understanding what was going on. "We oughtn't be talking about this here anyway," Harry said, lowering his voice and looking around to see if anyone was listening. "If I hear anything else, I'll let you know."
And Harry would make it a point to try to hear as much as he could. Something was going on again that he didn't know about, and he didn't like that one bit.
"It's all right," said Goyle, looking around for just a moment before thumping into a creaking wooden chair. "It'll do."
"Well, I think we ought to clean it a little before we use it," said Harry, eyeing the cloud of dust that flew up from the vicinity of Goyle's arse. "It's a little old." He pushed up his sleeves and looked about for a place to start.
Goyle just snorted and pulled out his wand and a moment later the room was spotless. "You don't think like a wizard," he said.
Harry flushed and threw his books onto the table. "Well I wasn't raised one, now, was I?" he said.
"And how was I to know that?"
"What?" said Harry. "Everyone knows that. Don't even try to tell me and you and Malfoy and that Crabbe didn't have a good laugh about it all."
Goyle shrugged. "Maybe," he said. "I don't remember."
Well, that was just perfect. Harry hoped Goyle would at least remember that they had to work together now, and not hex him on sight one day when Harry showed up to study.
"Well, I suppose we ought to start," he said, grudgingly taking a seat at the same table under the window. Goyle had taken up over half of it already.
"I suppose," he agreed, sounding just as grudging. "I would have picked someone else if I had a choice, you know."
"Of course you would have," said Harry. Obviously. "But we didn't have a choice, now, did we? You don't kill me and I don't kill you and we'll get along well enough for this."
"I wouldn't kill you," said Goyle.
Harry snorted. "Yeah, right," he said. "One word from your Death Eater father, and--"
"You don't talk about my father!"
Harry held his ground. "He already helped try to kill me once, you know. Of course you know. You probably had a laugh about that as well. But I'm not so easy to kill."
"Shut it," said Goyle. "I'm not going to try to kill you." He slammed a book down on the table. "I haven't seen my father since spring anyhow."
"Well, I sure as hell have," snapped Harry. "He was--" But as his mind ran through the events of that day in the Department of Mysteries, he realised that Goyle Senior hadn't been there. "Oh. Maybe I haven't."
"Yeah, maybe you haven't," grunted Goyle. "We're not going to talk about this anymore. Open your bloody book, Potter."
Harry did. Like he said, they would have to get along well enough for this, if nothing else.
"I've got scorch marks on my back, don't I?" said Seamus, tearing off his robes and turning his back to them. "Don't I?"
Harry tried not to look any harder at Seamus than the rest of the boys in his dormitory.
"You haven't," Ron told him. "You've barely got a scratch. That and what looks to be a blindingly white arse, but you can hardly blame that on anyone else."
"Quit looking at my arse," snapped Seamus, whirling around again dressed only in his pants. "A scratch! The woman is a menace. I oughtn't have any marks at all."
"It is Defence Against the Dark Arts," Neville pointed out. "Wouldn't be much of a lesson if there was nothing to defend against."
"But it hasn't got to leave marks," insisted Seamus. "I'm meeting Rose in an hour. I'm not supposed to be all marked up."
"I think you'll have more problems with the arse than the scratch," offered Ron.
"You'll get more than a scratch when you're in a real battle, you know," said Harry, stretching out on his bed so he could stare up at the ceiling or something equally uninteresting.
There was a moment of awkward silence, then, "We, uh, we heard about..." began Dean. "Was it really awful?"
"Yes," said Harry.
"Pretty much," said Ron.
All eyes turned to Neville, who simply looked away and nodded.
"Professor Hebblethwaite isn't being any harder on us than I was last year," said Harry, though he had his doubts about whether that would last. "And she knows loads more."
"She's probably a Death Eater, then," said Seamus. "A Death Eater teaching us defence."
"Again," added Neville.
"Right, again. It would just figure we'd have a Death Eater on staff, the one place we're meant to be safe.
"I don't think anywhere's really safe anymore," said Harry to another awkward silence. "But this is loads better than most places. And Professor Hebblethwaite isn't a Death Eater. I'm positive."
"You can't know for sure," said Seamus, though he didn't sound convinced of his own theory. "It's not like she would tell you, if she was."
"She might," said Dean. "Malfoy would probably announce it to all of Hogwarts, if he was."
"Draco Malfoy is an idiot," said Ron. "Professor Hebblethwaite isn't. Probably."
"She's a friend of Dumbledore's," Harry reminded them. "He wouldn't let a Death Eater teach us."
"Again," agreed Harry. "Not an active one, anyhow."
Harry's first sign that someone else had found their semi-secret study space was the door to the room opening just a crack as he and Goyle sat reading, or at least staring at books. He hoped it was just Neville, who had been there when he'd found the room, but something in his gut told him it was not. Goyle looked unconcerned, but Harry reached into his pocket and curled his hand around his wand.
"Potter," Draco spat out, pushing the heavy door open far enough for his pointy face to be revealed. "So this is where you've been hiding. It's dangerous to be caught without your little friends by your side, you know." He stalked forward; Harry stayed put.
"Piss off, Malfoy," he said, lifting his wand just into sight. "We're working."
"Working!" he scoffed. "You? I'd like to see that. Come on, Goyle, we're leaving."
Goyle didn't even lift his head, though he did grunt.
"Goyle, you oaf, did you hear me? We're leaving this filthy hovel; the company here is atrocious."
Goyle closed his book, and Harry clenched his jaw in frustrated defeat. But then he opened the next one. "We're working," he said, and turned a page.
Harry almost didn't want to watch as Malfoy's face grew red. "What's this?" he said, his voice tight. "You're choosing Potter over me, is that what this is? You'll regret this--"
"Oh stop," said Goyle, finally looking up. "We're working, Draco. We've got to work. Can't you wait?"
Harry definitely didn't want to get involved now, not when Malfoy looked about to throw a temper tantrum. Not when anything he did would probably result in him being forced to leave Divination and go back into lessons with Snape.
Though hexing the life out of Malfoy would almost be worth it.
"Wait?" said Draco. "What, here? Wait here with Potter? This is utterly unacceptable. You can study in the Slytherin common room, Goyle. The sight of you studying will make the junior years think they've gone mad, of course, but that's part of the fun."
Goyle sighed heavily. "We're partners, Draco. We've got to read each other's fortunes."
"So make it up, like everyone else does," scoffed Draco. "Or better yet, drop Divination, like anyone with any sense did as soon as they realised what a sham the whole class is."
"I'm not dropping Divination."
"This is ridiculous, Goyle. I demand that you come with me immediately so I don't have to look at Potter's ugly face for one more minute." Harry couldn't help but snicker. In a room with Goyle, and he was the ugly one. "Think that's funny, do you?"
"I'm not dropping Divination," Goyle said again. "I only got three OWLs, Draco. I'm not dropping anything." And he stuffed half a roll into his mouth and turned back to his book.
"This is all your fault, Potter," hissed Draco, turning on him. "You've done something to him. And when I find out what it is--"
"We're studying," said Harry, rolling his eyes at him. His wand hand trembled furiously. "I know you used to be familiar with it, though with your appalling performance in Charms today perhaps you've forgotten."
"You... you..." said Draco, and turned on his heel and slammed the door behind him in a cloud of dust.
"You shouldn't have done that," said Goyle a few moments later, grabbing another roll.
"What?" said Harry. "I shouldn't have done that? It's Malfoy who was being a total arse about this..."
"He doesn't like you."
"Of course he doesn't like me. I don't like him either. You've all been complete bastards to me and my friends since first year."
Goyle shrugged. "Not in first year now," he said, and turned a page. "You've just got to let him cool down, then he's all right."
"Yeah, sure he is," muttered Harry, and turned back to his own book. Draco Malfoy was anything but all right.
"Something's going on," said Ron. Or at least that's what Harry thought he said; despite the fact Ron had been progressively tugging his blankets off for what felt like hours, Harry was not yet quite alert. "Harry, come on."
"What?" he managed to get out finally, and slapped the back of his hand to his mouth to mop up a bit of drool.
"Something's going on and you're going to want to see it," said Ron. "Get your wand."
"And some clothes on as well?" suggested Harry, attempting to suppress a wide yawn. "What's going on?"
"Something to do with Malfoy, I think," said Ron. "Hurry up or we'll miss it. All the teachers are up and about, and I heard Dumbledore mention his name before he sent me back to Gryffindor tower and said not to worry about rounds."
"He sent you back here?" said Harry, mind jumping to alertness at hearing that. "Why would he do that?" He swung his legs over the side of the bed, forcing Ron to leap out of the way, and tapped one foot on the floor a few times to try to wake it up. "We've got to go."
"I've been saying that," said Ron, tossing Harry a mostly-clean robe. Hopefully one of Harry's own or he'd be tripping over it the whole way. "Get your cloak. Should I get Hermione?"
"She'll only tell us not to go," said Harry quickly, pulling the robe on and catching the clasp on the third try. "Where did you see Dumbledore?"
"Heading down toward the dungeons," said Ron. "He's probably there by now."
Harry could move quickly when he needed to, and when he was fully awake, and when he wasn't tripping over Ron's feet. And for the moment he was all of those things.
"Over here," whispered Ron, leading the way. It was definitely the way down to the Slytherin dorms, and they'd already passed Professors Vector and Sprout along the way, paused in the corridor and speaking in hushed, urgent tones to one another.
Harry heard only the scattered, "Is it true the intruders ... frantic ... Ministry had used Veritaserum?" before they were out of earshot again.
A few moments later Harry caught sight of the edge of Dumbledore's robes, around the next corner. "Shhh," said Ron, unnecessarily.
They crept closer, as quickly as they could without sacrificing silence.
"You're lying!" shouted Draco, so loud they might have been another twenty feet away and heard it without difficulty.
Dumbledore's voice was much quieter. "You know that I am not," he said. "I am sorry to have to bring you this news, Draco, but--"
"You're lying to me!" Draco said again. "You're trying to poison my mind. I know all about what you do to people! My father--"
"Nevertheless," said Dumbledore, "the fact remains that someone tried to break your father out of Azkaban tonight, and when they failed, they attempted to kill him."
"Must have been one of your kind, then," said Draco. Harry could almost picture the sneer on his face. "I want to see him."
"I don't think that would be appropriate."
"You and my mother both," said Draco. "Have you toyed with her mind as well? I want to see him now."
"Under the circumstances I don't think that would be wise, Mr. Malfoy."
"If it was Potter, would you let him go?" Harry held his breath through the awkward silence that followed. "I thought so. I'm through listening to you. I want to see Professor Snape."
"Very well," said Dumbledore after a moment, with a resigned sigh that Harry knew well. "But Professor Snape won't tell you any differently.
"We'll see about that," said Draco, with the confidence of a boy who's been brought up to believe he is always absolutely right. Harry wasn't entirely sure he wasn't, this time.
"We'll never get into Snape's quarters," moaned Ron.
"We've got to stay with them as long as we can," said Harry.
They followed the pair as they wound through the hallways to a particularly dark corner of a particularly uninviting corridor, and watched as Snape was quick to usher Draco inside and dismiss Dumbledore. Who went entirely too quickly, as far as Harry was concerned, but then he probably wouldn't have done anything to stop Snape anyway. He never did.
"Well," said Ron after Dumbledore passed by them without even a glance. "I suppose that's it then. We ought to be getting back before someone misses us."
"I suppose," said Harry, but his gaze lingered on the door for as long as he could before Ron started moving, and the cloak with him, and Harry was forced to follow.
Harry was up and about before breakfast for once, skipping the meal and heading for Dumbledore's office to catch him before the day began. He hadn't really slept at all, but he didn't feel tired; too much was going on inside his head to allow that, and despite his competence in Occlumency, clearing his mind was never going to be a strong point.
He went slowly up the stairs, pushing back the urge to storm in, to yell, to ruin any chance of getting what he wanted. He'd tried that route and it hadn't really got him anywhere.
"Mr. Potter. Do come in."
One of these days, Harry was actually going to get to knock again before Dumbledore pre-empted him with a greeting.
"Professor Dumbledore," he said tightly.
"Did you have a good sleep?"
"What was going on last night, Professor?" he asked, skipping the diversion and obfuscation and anything else that Dumbledore always tried to accomplish with his small talk.
"There was an unfortunate incident," he said. "However, it's nothing for you to be concerned about, Harry. No students at this school were harmed."
"That doesn't mean it doesn't concern me," insisted Harry. "I haven't forgotten... how can anyone forget what happened last year? I need to know these things. I need to be involved."
"And what makes you think it has anything to do with you, Harry?" Dumbledore asked him, quite seriously.
"Because it's got to," said Harry, without revealing anything of what he heard. "What else could it be, that would concern all the teachers at this school, and you? I'm already in the middle of fighting this war, Professor. I'm already there and it can't be undone!"
"That is true," Dumbledore conceded. "You've been fighting this war since you were eleven years old, and you returned to our world. Perhaps even since you were born. This situation does not directly concern you, Harry, so why not let someone else fight it for now? Your time will come again, and far too soon, I fear."
"And will I be ready, if you keep me in the dark like this all the time?" Harry asked vehemently. "Will I be ready when my time comes, or will someone else try to fight that one too, realising too late that I have to be the one, thanks to that bloody prophecy..."
Dumbledore looked both sad and disapproving; Harry didn't know which of those angered him more. "There are ways of being ready," he said finally, "without being involved. You are still quite young--"
"I am not!"
"Though not so much as you once were. You have a great and terrible destiny, Harry Potter. Do not be in so much of a rush to meet it."
Harry scowled and crossed his arms. If he argued with that, he sounded impulsive and stupid, and he'd already been that to horrific effect; if he didn't, he sounded like he agreed. Either way, he lost. "Wanting to know what's going on isn't the same as rushing in headlong," he said finally. "I don't think it's too much to ask."
"It did not involve you, Harry. And for the time being we shall have to leave it at that."
Harry's glare was met with an impassive stare. Dumbledore, in this state, was immovable. Harry turned on his heel and left the office wordlessly, and thought maybe he heard Dumbledore sigh behind him on his way out.
Harry, too, sighed when he was out of earshot, and started for the Great Hall and a breakfast he had no desire to eat. If Dumbledore still refused to help, he would have to find another way.
When Harry arrived Goyle already had a large book open in front of him and was hulking over it. "You're late," he said, but Harry wasn't really. Only a minute or two.
"I had Charms," he said as he sat down. "Flitwick kept me after." Also mostly true, though not long enough to delay him much. That had been caused by running into Ron and going on a quick kitchen raid. He pulled out the filched cakes and sandwiches as a peace offering.
By the look on Goyle's face, the offering was accepted. But no sooner had Goyle started on his first cake than Draco Malfoy stalked into the room and claimed the seat next to him.
"What's the matter with you?" Draco asked as Harry stared at him incredulously. "Or is that just your normal expression when you're trying to think?"
Harry shut his mouth and hardened his gaze, but he was more astonished than furious. Since the night he and Ron had overheard his conversation with Dumbledore, he'd hardly seen the boy outside of their shared classes. And even in those he'd been tight-lipped and as invisible as Malfoy could ever be.
"I'm not leaving," said Goyle, pre-empting whatever he clearly expected to come next.
"Fine," said Draco. "Neither am I. This is a study room isn't it?" He pulled a thick and slightly pungent book out of his bag. "I have a Potions essay to write."
"You can't work in here," snapped Harry. "We're working in here."
"It's a big room, Potter. I can work in here if I like."
"Malfoy," growled Harry. "What are you playing at? Go work in the library."
"Since when do I have to listen to you, Potter?" Malfoy ostentatiously opened his book and let it thump to the desk again. "Now be quiet, I'm busy."
Harry sputtered for a moment, but nothing coherent came out. Malfoy looked up and smirked, but said nothing more. Even with Goyle staring at him the way he was. It was nice to know that Harry wasn't the only one surprised by this appearance.
"I thought you said you were working," said Malfoy finally, feigning boredom. "If this is what you call work, no wonder you're behind me in all your classes."
"I can't work with you here."
"That's your problem," said Draco. "I'm not going anywhere. Right, Goyle?"
"I guess," was all Goyle said, and bit into his second cake. He gave Harry a shrug and pulled out a couple of divination books that he'd obviously got from the library. Harry was impressed in spite of himself.
"What's that, then?" he asked.
"Books," said Malfoy, uninvited. "I realise you haven't much experience with them, Potter, but if Goyle here can figure out how to--" He stopped abruptly, turning to look at Goyle in outraged astonishment. Harry hadn't seen anything, but if he didn't know better he would have guessed Goyle had elbowed Malfoy to hush him up.
"I know what books are," snapped Harry, taking advantage of his silence. He felt a pang of guilt about insulting Goyle, who had just apparently stood up for him, but he left it at that. And ignored Malfoy in favour of Goyle. "Have you decided where we ought to start?"
"I got the books," said Goyle. "I did my part."
Harry rolled his eyes and reached for one of them, ignoring Malfoy's malicious snicker. "There are other groups who've already got which methods they'll be following, you know."
"There's other groups who knew that before we even started," said Goyle. Which was probably dead on, actually. Harry knew Lavender and Parvati had only taken a few minutes to decide, and had been annoying everyone in the Gryffindor common room about readings ever since.
"Well, we've got to start somewhere," said Harry, grabbing one of the books and opening it to a random page. "Okay, here, ichthyomancy. We can start with that."
Draco snorted. "Do you even know what that is?"
"Of course I do," said Harry, "it's--" He scanned the page and made a face. "Okay, maybe not. I don't even know where we'd be able to find fish entrails."
"Oh, I don't know, how about the lake?" said Draco. "Since you're so keen on trying it."
"Okay, forget it!" said Harry, turning his attention back to Goyle. "I'll start with one book and you start with the other and when we come across something that sounds worth trying we'll speak up, how about that?"
Goyle didn't answer, but he did take the other book and open it to a random page and start reading. Or at least, staring at it, which was a start. Harry renewed his vow to ignore Draco for the rest of the evening, no matter what he did, and started into his book in earnest.
"I'm going mad!" said Harry, ripping a cushion out from behind him and tossing it across the room. It bounced off the arm of Lavender's favourite chair and came to rest in front of the fire.
"I always knew tossing cushions was a sign of madness," said Ron. "What is it?"
"It's Malfoy," said Harry. "He's driving me mad. Absolutely mad."
"What's he done now?" asked Hermione, elbowing Ron aside when he looked like he might say something else to that. "And what did you do to him?"
Harry scowled at her, and at her unrepentant concern for Malfoy ever since they told her about his conversation with Dumbledore. You'd think she'd forgotten all the awful things he'd done to them -- to her, especially -- over the years.
"I didn't do anything!" said Harry. "All I do is try to work on my sodding Divination project with stupid Gregory Goyle and Malfoy shows up to bother us. Every time!"
"You've been studying with Malfoy?"
"Not by choice!" protested Harry. "We can't get rid of him! I don't even think Goyle wants him there, but he hasn't got any choice."
"Of course Goyle wants him there," said Ron. "Obviously. He hasn't got a brain without Malfoy."
"He has!" said Harry, to strange looks from both of them. "Well, not much of one, but he wants to do all right in Divination, and Malfoy thinks it's ridiculous."
"It is ridiculous," said Hermione.
"But Goyle won't tell him to get lost," said Harry. "And it's not as though Malfoy listens to me. He just sits there and does his Potions or his Charms or sometimes even his Transfiguration."
"Oh, the horror," said Hermione. "He sits there and studies? How can you stand it?"
"Oh, stop," said Harry. "And he bothers us. Or have you forgotten how awful he is? His dad being locked up for trying to kill us doesn't change that."
"Maybe," said Hermione, looking dubious at least. "It's quite obvious why he spends his time there, of course."
"Is it?" said Ron, putting voice to Harry's thoughts.
She looked at them both as though they were dim, but didn't look surprised. "If Goyle's with you, Harry, then he's not with Draco." Harry watched her expectantly. "Oh honestly you two. If Draco's alone then he's vulnerable. Crabbe's gone and Draco's father has no influence anymore, not now that he's in Azkaban. Draco needs Goyle.
"Oh," said Harry, considering that. "Do you think Goyle knows?"
"Like you said," said Hermione. "He's not stupid. Not completely stupid. He is in Slytherin, after all."
Goyle did seem to be speaking his mind to Draco more than Harry'd ever seen him do before, but then he was seeing more of them -- and certainly not by choice -- than he ever had before.
"It doesn't mean he's not driving me bloody mad," Harry said finally. "Whether he thinks he has a reason to be there or not."
"Well, forget about it for now," said Ron, moving the last cushion away before Harry could hurl it as well. "Come on, Harry, we've got Quidditch. You can always fly around in circles till the urge to kill Malfoy passes."
Harry doubted it would be that easy, but Quidditch was Quidditch and after a year away from it he wasn't going to pass up any chance to play.
"We could do captromancy," said Goyle after a long silence.
"It's got to be better than myrmomancy," muttered Draco. "I haven't any idea where you thought you were going to find ants this time of year." For someone who claimed to be doing his own work, he certainly spent a lot of time listening in on their conversations.
"What's that, then?" Harry was asking when the door flew open.
"What are you doing here?" Draco had the closer seat; he saw moments before Harry who was standing on the other side.
"This is a study room, isn't it?" said Ron, striding in with Hermione close behind him. "We're here to study."
"There's no room," snapped Draco.
"Nonsense," said Hermione, taking a seat at another table, pulling out her wand to give it a quick dusting. "There's plenty. Oh, it's so interesting in here." She ran a finger over the star chart in front of her, tracing a constellation. "I shall start with my Astronomy revision."
"You can't stay!"
"Why not?" Harry challenged him. Malfoy's face grew pinched but he didn't respond.
"Captromancy," said Goyle again, deciding to surge ahead despite the interruption. "It's using mirrors."
"Mirrors?" said Harry, stiffening. "No, I don't think so. We'll find something else."
"Why not?" pressed Goyle. "It's just like using a crystal ball, and we already know how to do that. It'll be dead easy."
"I don't like mirrors," insisted Harry.
"If I looked like you, I wouldn't like mirrors either," interrupted Malfoy.
"That's not--!" began Harry, then bit his tongue. Damned if he would let Malfoy, of all people, know why he didn't care to use mirrors for divination for the rest of the year. "If you looked like me," he said instead, "you wouldn't have to spend an hour in front of one every morning to look presentable."
"Presentable?" scoffed Draco. "You? Hardly! What's the real reason, Potter? Were you traumatised by a mirror as a child? Oh, I know! You're afraid Greg will be better at it than you!"
Harry slammed his book shut. "It's none of your business," he snapped, standing up so fast his chair fell over. He could see both Ron and Hermione staring at him, surprise and concern on their faces, but he didn't care. "I need to get out of here."
He didn't even grab his things before storming out of the room and heading for the dorms. He wouldn't let Sirius's memory be stained by the idea or that conversation, which was sure to get worse if he let it. He hope that his friends had grown enough sense not to follow.
Harry thought if he moved quickly enough, his performance in Transfiguration would go uncommented. He hadn't been doing so poorly. And if his mind was on other things, well, he didn't think there was any professor in the school who didn't know why. Even if some of them didn't care.
He paused at the door and turned back as the rest of the class filed by. McGonagall didn't look like she was going to chastise him, though. When the last of the students left, shooting Harry a sympathetic look as he passed, she pushed the door closed and sat down at her desk.
"Mr. Potter," she said again. "Can you explain this?"
"Bad day?" Harry offered weakly, his heart sinking. "I'm sorry, Professor."
She sighed. "I don't need to tell you the standard to which I must hold all the students in my class, at this level," she went on. "Do you still have ambitions to become an Auror, Mr. Potter?"
"Well, you're not going to make it if this keeps up." Harry winced. "As your professor, I am disappointed. As your Head of House, however, I am concerned. I know you have had a difficult summer, Mr. Potter. Is there anything--?"
"I don't want to talk about it," said Harry, shaking his head at her rather emphatically.
"Nevertheless," she went on. "I want you to know that my door is open to you should you change your mind." She hesitated at that moment, but she didn't dismiss him. "I was always fond of Sirius Black as a student," she said finally. "And though I spent many of the following years infuriated and dismayed by the choices I believed he had made, I am glad to have known him these past two years when amends began to be made. He is missed by many, Harry."
"Yes, well, he wasn't your only family, now, was he?" Harry snapped before he could stop himself.
"No, he was not," she admitted. "And I can't imagine the loss you must have felt. If you do not choose to talk about it with me, Harry, then perhaps your friends...?"
"They wouldn't understand," he said. "It's all right, professor. I'm fine. And I promise I'll start doing better in your class. I really was just having a bad day today. I'll get Hermione to help me prepare for next class."
"See that you do, Mr. Potter," she said. "While I will accept personal reasons as the occasional explanation for difficulties in my class, I shall not accept Quidditch for the same."
That was clearly the dismissal Harry had been waiting for, and he fled the room before she decided that they needed to discuss the matter any further.
"Please open your books to page three hundred and forty-five." Harry looked up, startled, and saw five hands immediately go into the air. "Yes, what is it?"
"I don't have my book, Professor Hebblethwaite."
"You do all possess the book?" she asked, his eyes looking over the entire class. "I know I placed it on your start-of-term lists."
"But we've never used them before."
"That didn't mean that we never would," she pointed out. "I expect my students to be prepared for anything." As she continually reminded them. "Very well, those of you without your books may share with someone else... should you find someone willing to share with you. Otherwise you will simply have to catch up later."
There was some shuffling of persons and some desperate, whispered pleas, but within a couple of minutes everyone settled down again. Which was good because that was all the time Professor Hebblethwaite seemed willing to allow.
"Page three hundred and forty-five," she reminded them sharply. "Wand safety."
At least half the class groaned. "We did wand safety in first year," someone grumbled loud enough for Harry to make out. Privately, he agreed, though he wouldn't tell her that.
"You should do wand safety every year," she said curtly. "Particularly after the display you put on for me last lesson."
"It's Potter's fault," offered Draco. Harry braced himself for a scathing comment on his leadership of the DA. "He doesn't know the first thing about wand safety. We all know what he does with his."
"Perhaps you should concern yourself more with your own wand and less with Harry's."
"No, wait," said Harry, flushing red at Malfoy's smirking face. "And just what is that supposed to mean?"
Malfoy turned his head and gave him a mocking, sorrowful look. "Oh, you didn't think no one knew did you?"
"You filthy little," said Harry, and had his wand out almost before he knew it. Draco coolly assessed him before pulling out his own.
"Filthy little what, Potter?" he said. "I think we both know who's the filthy--"
"Put your wand away, Mr. Potter." Harry's hand, his whole body, really, shook with rage. "Put your wand away, Mr. Potter!"
Finally Harry did, and braced himself for the inevitable punishment. Which never came -- Professor Hebblethwaite just stared at each of them in turn then continued teaching her lesson.
"You may not have noticed this, Harry," said Hermione, blocking the door to the boys' dormitory before Harry could make a swift exit, "but you haven't left the castle in weeks."
"I have too!" he protested. "I've left it loads of times."
"Only to go visit the lake, or lurk about the edge of the forest. You haven't left the grounds since you arrived, Harry."
"We aren't meant to leave the grounds, Hermione. And aren't you the one who always reminds me about the rules?"
"My point is," she went on, "that you missed the last trip to Hogsmeade village entirely. Holed yourself up in that dusty little room of yours. And sulked, most likely, since you don't seem to get much actual work done in there."
"That's hardly my fault," said Harry, frowning. "And I didn't, I spent it with Hagrid, if you must know."
"You can see Hagrid any time," she told him. "You might have missed the last Hogsmeade weekend, but we'll not let you miss this one. Get your cloak."
"Dumbledore would never allow it," he muttered. "I'm probably as much under house arrest here as I was over the summer."
"It's funny you should mention that," said Hermione. "It's what I thought had happened last time. I even went to Dumbledore, to plead your case to him -- it's not healthy, for you to be cooped up like this -- and he told me that you'd stayed behind of your own free will."
"And so what?" said Harry. "I don't want to go to Hogsmeade, Hermione. It reminds me of... things."
"So does everything, Harry. Everything reminds you. Everything. And I am sorry about that because it's perfectly awful, it is. But you ought to get out and do the fun things you used to."
"I do Quidditch."
"Other than Quidditch," she said, rolling her eyes. "We might not have Hogsmeade weekends for much longer, you know. You ought to enjoy it while you can."
"Gee, thanks for bringing that up, Hermione. That's really going to get me in the mood to have a good time." But he was reaching for his autumn cloak anyway, brushing a few leaves off the hood.
"It's true," she said stubbornly. "I'll even buy you some chocolate. Rumour has it Honeyduke's has some new sweets this weekend."
"You'll buy me chocolate?" said Harry, eyeing her suspiciously. "You'll buy me chocolate?"
"Only because I'm such a good friend," she said, smiling at him. He gave her a grudging one in return. "Ron's meeting us at the Three Broomsticks, he's probably already there."
Harry fastened his cloak and finally, finally, she moved out of the doorway to let him through. One they were on their way, progress was swift, down the hill and through the sparse woods and onto the path that led to the village. They both knew the way quite well by now.
"Did it occur to you," said Harry when they were quite near to the pub, "that I might have been giving you and Ron some time in Hogsmeade alone?"
Hermione blushed, just faintly but it was there. "But you weren't," she said, "or you would have said that ages ago. Come along, hurry inside, I feel the breeze picking up."
Harry could feel no such thing, but he was quick to duck inside anyway and scan the room for Ron's telltale hair. The first thing his eyes fell on, though, wasn't Ron but Snape. And Draco Malfoy. Sitting at a small round table by the fire and talking over what definitely wasn't butterbeer.
"Bloody hell," he muttered. "What do you suppose they're doing here?"
"Having a drink, I would imagine," said Hermione, clutching him a little closer. "Forget about them, Harry. They don't matter. Look, there's Ron."
Harry did look, but only after giving the pair by the fire an extra long glare. They were so engrossed in their conversation -- probably a conversation plotting his demise, Harry thought viciously -- they didn't even seem to notice.
The library seemed the best place for the three of them to discuss what they'd learned about what was going on, little as it was. Everyone was always too engrossed in their own work to pay attention to anyone else's conversation. Unlike the Great Hall. Or the boys' dormitory, where Seamus Finnigan was currently snogging his girlfriend anyhow.
"Mum and Dad won't tell me a thing," said Ron dismally. "Not even what they were doing, back when the year started. You'd think they'd like that I'm showing an interest."
"They'd probably rather you were showing an interest in your classes," said Hermione. "I've done some research to try to narrow down what might be at Gringotts--"
"Any luck?" asked Harry.
"Not a bit," she admitted. "You can store anything in a Gringotts vault. Anything at all."
"Well, not dead bodies, obviously," said Ron. "And not--"
"Actually," said Hermione, "there was one case where--"
"I really, really don't want to know," Ron interrupted her. "Okay, then. Anything means... anything. Sounds like a waste of time, then."
"Well, not really," she said "The security they have in there is absolutely fascinating. You can't find anything like it anywhere else in the world."
"The first time I went, Hagrid told me they were rumoured to have dragons guarding the higher security vaults," said Harry.
"I don't think that's just a rumour, Harry," said Hermione. "I read that--"
"Fascinating, sure," interrupted Ron, "but not what we're trying to find out. I think Mum and Dad know what Bill's involved with, but they won't say a word."
"They're in the Order," reasoned Hermione. "They ought to know."
"We're in the Order now," Harry reminded her.
"Only barely," said Hermione. "And only because they could hardly keep us out once we'd fought a battle with You-Know-Who's followers. They don't tell us any of the important things, I'm sure."
"Remus says he doesn't know either," Harry added after a moment. "So not everyone does."
"Remus could be lying," said Hermione, though she sounded like she doubted that. "Well, the people that need to know probably do. And your parents are Bill's parents as well and so they probably needed to know."
"No more than I do," muttered Ron. "What about the break-in at Azkaban? Has anyone found out anything else?"
"The Daily Prophet hardly even mentioned it at the time," sniffed Hermione. "Except to mention that security certainly wasn't what it had been when the dementors had been guarding it. And there hasn't been a peep since. Obviously it was important if it got all the professors in a tizzy, but the Ministry is keeping it under wraps for now."
"Guess they don't want people to know that You-Know-Who's trying to break ol' Lucius out of prison," said Ron.
"Well, the attempt did fail," said Harry. "And the Ministry did get two more Death Eaters in Azkaban. You'd think they'd report that kind of success. Wouldn't you?"
"You'd think," agreed Hermione. "That means there's something else about this whole thing that they're not telling."
Harry couldn't imagine yet what that was. But he knew he would be spending a lot of time thinking about it. Better that, after all, than about other things.
"I should have known I'd find you out here."
"Hello, Hermione," said Harry without averting his eyes from the sky. "I'm busy."
"Yes, I can see that," she said, dropping her book bag to the crunchy, brown grass next to him.
Just because he was flat on his back by the lake, staring up at the late autumn sky, didn't mean he wasn't doing something very important.
"Hermione," he said when she started looming over him. "You're blocking the view."
"And just as well," she said, hands firmly on her hips. "Maybe then you'll get some homework done. We're well into term now, you know."
"Which is why I'm out here," Harry insisted. "Honestly, Hermione, if you're so keen on me doing my homework you ought to let me get on with it."
"You'll thank me for this one day, you know," she said with a much put-upon sigh reaching for his arm.
Harry moved away and pointed up. "Look," he said. "Rooster."
"Rooster? What? You've been out in the sun too long..."
"The cloud," said Harry. "It's shaped like a rooster. You see?"
Hermione looked at him, then up at the sky, then back at him again, her mouth falling open in either outrage or astonishment. "Harry!" she cried. "I used to do that when I was seven, to get out of cleaning my room. You can't honestly think you can get away with that now."
"It's divination, Hermione," said Harry, pushing himself up onto his elbows and trying to shove her away. "Aeromancy. And if I don't have something written up by the time we're supposed to meet this evening, Goyle is going to stomp on me. Literally."
"No, I'm really not," Harry interrupted her. "He'll stomp on me, and then probably get Malfoy to hex my face blue."
"Or something," said Harry. "Something awful. Like boils."
"There are loads of things more awful than boils."
"That's not the point," said Harry. "The point is, I'm actually doing my homework. We've got NEWTs coming up, after all. Don't you think we ought to be getting serious about our studies?" Hermione started turning red until Harry gave her a twisted grin and she realised he was only teasing. "I'll meet you in the library later, all right? And if you see Ron, tell him... tell him I'm out flying. I haven't got the time to have this conversation again. The sky looks to be clearing up."
Hermione looked up at the sky again, dubiously, then nodded. "I'll expect you later, then," she said, and turned and went briskly back the way she came.
Once she was out of sight, Harry lay back on the grass and closed his eyes.
Divination classes for the later part of the term were being held on the ground floor again, to accommodate Firenze, though Harry forgot again and was halfway up to Trelawney's tower before he remembered.
"Bugger," he said, and started racing back down again. Partway he ran into Susan Bones, who was looking similarly flustered.
"You too, huh?" she said, giving him a sympathetic smile as they hurried toward the classroom. "You just get used to one thing and they change it around again. We're going to be late."
"Only a little," said Harry, though he had no idea really. He'd been running a bit late to begin with. "I'm more worried about being asked what I've decided to pursue for our projects."
"Oh, you don't know yet?" she said. "Hannah and I are both working on cleromancy. Funny how working with bones is what works for me, isn't it? I have a set from my great great grandmother than I'm using. Hannah prefers seashells, from the shore near her family's summer home. They're pretty, but I can't read a thing in them."
"Is that so?" said Harry. "But I'm sure we can't be the only group who hasn't settled on something yet."
"You're the only one I know of," she said candidly. "Poor Terry and Mandy, though. They couldn't find a single thing they both worked well in, so they're having to pursue two fields. Twice the work, and Terry's doing pyromancy if you can believe it. I can't imagine how poor Mandy feels about that."
"I don't know, it sounds kind of interesting," Harry admitted. "Must get awfully hot, though."
"Oh yes, Mandy was complaining just the other day that Terry spends most of their time together with his shirt off, even when they haven't got a raging fire going!"
"Well, I can't feel too sorry for her, then," admitted Harry, shooting her a somewhat shaky grin. "It is Terry after all. It's not as though she's got to look at Goyle with his shirt off all the time."
"He doesn't, does he?" said Susan. "Oh, I can't imagine--"
"No, no, he doesn't," said Harry quickly. "And I hope he doesn't get any ideas from Terry." Though the idea of working with fire had a certain appeal. If the fire didn't force Draco from the room, it might at least force him to expose a bit of himself.
And Ron as well, for that matter.
"Well, they would prefer if we found a number of different methods to showcase at the end of the year," reasoned Susan. "So I think you're safe."
"Right," said Harry, and ignored the pang of disappointment. "There it is, just up ahead."
They both raced into the room, to a knowing look from Trelawney and a stern one from Firenze, and took their seats to begin the class.
Susan was right; Harry and Goyle were the only ones who hadn't decided on a method of divination yet. Bloody Ravenclaws. And bloody Hufflepuffs, too. And bloody Lavender and Parvati, just because. He tried to convince himself that they were just being more selective and true to the aim of the project; truth was, they'd barely tried anything yet.
"All alone again, Potter?"
Harry groaned, and didn't even try to mask it. It just figured that when he actually intended to make some progress, Malfoy would be the first to show up.
"The fewer witnesses to where I hide your body, Malfoy."
"Oooh," he said as he took a seat across the table from Harry, closer than usual. "Good one, Potter. Where are your little friends?"
"Went for a walk," admitted Harry. There was no harm in telling Malfoy that; he'd probably already guessed. "They'll be along. Where's your sidekick?"
"Don't you mean, your partner?" Malfoy corrected him. "He's talking to Flitwick. You don't miss him, do you?"
"No," muttered Harry. "I just..."
"Do you even know how far we are behind everyone else? It's ridiculous. I should never have taken Divination."
"You'll hear no argument from me on that one," said Malfoy. He was pulling his potions books out and sounded almost genuinely indifferent to what Harry was saying. "That's what you get for partnering with Goyle."
"Well it's not as though I had any choice!" said Harry. "About either."
"You had no choice about whether to take Divination?" said Malfoy dubiously. "That's the one discipline you don't need for any respectable job. Well, that and Muggle Studies, of course."
"It's a long story," said Harry curtly, and shot Draco a dark look that actually managed to prevent any further questions. He opened his own books and started reading again and when Ron and Hermione came bursting in a little bit later, laughing together, Ron holding Hermione's books, Harry realised he and Malfoy had managed to pass at least twenty minutes together without going for each other's throats.
"You should have been there, Harry, it was brilliant--" Ron started, only to be discreetly elbowed by Hermione. But not discreetly enough. It was all right; Harry had already known he would be unwelcome on this particular outing.
"I had things I needed to be doing, Ron," he reminded him, tapping his fingers on the book. Which shot up a damning burst of dust. "I think I've decided what we're going to do?"
"Oh, have you?" said Hermione eagerly. "What's it to be, then?"
"Omphalomancy," said Harry, pointing.
Malfoy let out a completely undignified bark of laughter. "Oh, that's brilliant," he said. "Not even the two of you could fuck that one up."
"Omphalomancy?" said Ron. "Trelawney never mentioned that one in class."
"She never mentioned most of these in lower years," said Harry. "That's why we've got to study them now."
"Omphalomancy!" said Hermione, hands on her hips and looking absolutely scandalised. "Harry, you wouldn't!"
"What is it?" Ron asked again.
"It means he and Goyle would spend the rest of the year staring at their navels. Or each other's." She let one hand fly up into the air. "Malfoy's right, it's perfect for you."
"Did you just say 'Malfoy's right'?"
"Oh hush, Ron."
"I was only joking anyhow," muttered Harry, taking his finger off the page. He hadn't though about the part where they would be staring at each other's. That was enough to put him off it for life.
"I've got it!" said Goyle as he finally arrived, waving his thick book in the air like it weighed nothing. It was the most enthusiastic Harry had ever seen him, outside of meals.
"What, then?" said Harry. "What is it?"
"Uromancy," said Goyle proudly, letting his book thump to the table between Harry and Draco. Draco, unsurprisingly, starting laughing again.
"That's brilliant!" said Ron. "Oh, you have to do that one! I can just imagine the look on Trelawney's face when you do a demonstration in class." Harry looked back over his shoulder and gave Ron a wide grin.
"You..." started Hermione, looking a bit flushed about the cheeks. "You... you boys. You're going to urinate into a pot and call it divination? I don't know why I waste my time with you."
"But it's in the book!" protested Goyle. "I read it last night."
"I think it's a great idea," said Harry. "I'm not sure I'd want to be doing it in class, though."
"Yeah," Ron agreed after a moment. "Harry has a hard time in the boys' loo even if there's just one other person in there."
"What?" he said. "It's true!"
Draco hadn't stopped laughing yet.
"Hadn't thought of that," said Goyle, taking his seat and opening the book. "We could do cartopedy?"
Harry nearly choked. "No offence," he got out finally, "but I'm not going to spend the rest of the year examining your feet Goyle."
"Your feet aren't exactly roses either, Potter," Goyle retorted. "Especially when we meet after Quidditch."
"I think it's a definite no on the cartopedy."
"Suppose we'll just have to keep looking, then," said Goyle, and the finally settled in to work again.
"You will work to stun only," said Professor Hebblethwaite sharply, looking each of them in the eye as she surveyed her class. "You should have a fine arsenal of stunning spells to work with by now; I would like to see what you can do with them."
With barely a flick of her wand, all the desks vanished from the room, leaving them with a wide, if uneven, space to work in. "Perfect," she said. "When I point at you, you will go where I tell you, no argument, no hesitation."
There were no arguments and there was no hesitation, not even when she -- knowingly, Harry was sure -- sent him and Malfoy to the same corner to duel.
"Potter," said Malfoy, tipping his wand at him almost mockingly. "We've been here before."
"And I'd imagine we will again," said Harry, imitating Malfoy's gesture. And one day, possibly under very different circumstances, where there would be no rules and no constraints, and only the winner would walk away.
"You wish," said Harry, dodging Malfoy's first hex almost before he'd even got the words out. It wasn't a stunner; Harry only took half a second to get his bearings, then tossed one off of his own. If those were the rules that Malfoy wanted to play by, that was fine by him.
"Pathetic," Malfoy taunted him as he easily blocked it. "Is that all you've got? Not much of a challenge, are you?"
"You want a challenge?" said Harry. "I'll show you a challenge."
From them on it was just hexes and counterhexes, jinxes and counterjinxes, and something that sounded suspiciously like a curse that Harry made it a point to get well out of the way of. Louder and louder and more and more vicious until they both heard a voice break through louder than their own.
"Stop this instant!"
They did. Or rather, Harry did, and stood there with his wand pointed down at Malfoy's prone body. He had been winning, damn it. He had been winning.
"Did you not hear me when I stated that you were to stun only?" she asked them, looking furious but sounding calm. "Did you wilfully ignore me?"
"You taught us that we should use any means available to us to win," said Malfoy a little breathlessly after a moment of uncomfortable silence.
"I also," she said cuttingly, "taught you that you were to listen to your commander. Detention. Both of you. Tomorrow."
She turned her back to them and, after another moment of silence, the rest of the class resumed their own duels. It had all come to an end so swiftly, Harry still felt a little dazed and jittery and lost.
As Malfoy lay on the floor and caught his breath, Harry stared at the sliver of skin showing where he'd sliced Malfoy's robes open, just over his hip. Then saw Malfoy watching him stare.
Harry arrived for his detention five minutes early, just in time to see Professor Hebblethwaite giving some last minute instructions to her second-year class. She spotted him in the doorway and motioned for him to come inside.
Harry cringed as just his presence caused some of the students to direct their attention his way, but the professor quickly and efficiently, with a few sharp words, took care of that. Harry took an empty seat at the side of the room to wait.
To his surprise, once they class had been dismissed, Professor Hebblethwaite quietly took the seat next to him. Any anger she'd been holding towards him seemed to be gone now; or at least well-buried.
"I never really did care for children."
"There's a lot of that going on around here," muttered Harry, scowling in the direction of Snape's dungeons. "So why teach, then?"
"Because an old friend asked me to help his children survive," she said, "and I'm not inclined to refuse a request of that sort from an old friend."
"Could've used you last year, really," said Harry. Might've changed so many things. "Or the year before that."
"Wouldn't have done it," she said shortly. "Nor would Dumbledore have asked. Before this summer, I hadn't set food in this country in over fifty years." Harry added up the numbers in his head and came to a wholly believable conclusion.
"You fought Grindelwald together," he said.
Professor Hebblethwaite nodded. "We thought that was the worst of it," she said. "At the time, we thought it was the worst war that would ever be."
"Guess you were wrong."
"Anyone would be," she said. "One never knows what the worst could be. Except for Mr. Malfoy, who will know precisely my worst if he does not arrive in the next two minutes."
"This war is the worst," said Harry after a moment. "This one."
She looked at him appraisingly for a moment, but Harry held his ground. He could not imagine anything more terrible than this. "If you are lucky," she said finally, "this war will be the worst you ever see."
"Lucky isn't what I would call it," he snorted. "I've never been lucky."
"Are you so sure of that?" said Professor Hebblethwaite. "Are you so sure that nothing in your life can be attributed to luck?"
Harry bit his lip and didn't answer, and thought about Ron and Hermione and Hagrid. But then he also thought of his parents, and the Dursleys. And Sirius. "Bad luck, maybe," he muttered. "It's all on me, you know. I've got to be ready."
"There are people doing everything they can to make it so," she said. "Remember that, Harry. But you're right -- it's on you. Nothing anyone can do for you will be any good to you if you don't work with them."
"I don't suppose this means I can get out of detention?" said Harry hopefully. "Use the time to, uh, get more ready?"
"No," she said, and got to her feet again, signalling the end of their conversation. "No, Mr. Potter, it does not."
Harry would receive a passing grade in potions, he was fairly certain, but only just barely. And only if he didn't ruin a single potion for the rest of the year. Even Hermione, who never believed that Harry spent enough time preparing for his classes, though Snape was being harsher than ever on him.
But still, Harry refused to let Snape win and refused to give up on the class. Even when Snape so blatantly favoured Draco Malfoy that all the other houses besides Slytherin were grumbling about it. He always had, really.
He was packed up and out the door in record time, and without spilling a drop of anything, but he was barely into the corridor before he heard Snape ask Draco to remain behind, and there was no way he was going to miss out on hearing this, if he could get away with it. Which he almost didn't, when Zacharias Smith stopped to talk to him -- and Harry was very, very tempted to let him -- but then he was pulled away by one of his housemates and Harry was left alone in the shadows by the door.
Snape was the suspicious sort, he would never say something very revealing when there was the possibility that someone might overhear, but maybe he would underestimate what was revealing, when he didn't know what the person listening already knew.
"You seem to be doing better," said Snape bluntly. "I trust you have not taken any matters into your own hands?"
"Not yet," he heard Draco mutter after a long pause.
"Good," said Snape. "There are many things you do not know, and I wouldn't wish to see you dead."
Harry could actually hear Draco gulp. "When will I know these things?" he asked after a moment.
"When it is necessary," said Snape. "I believe you have a role to play, Draco, but I do not yet know what that will be. Are you well, otherwise?"
"As can be expected," muttered Draco.
"What is it? Is it Potter? Has he done something?"
"What?" said Draco quickly. "No. Potter's been... tolerable. I can handle him anyhow, professor. Was there anything else?"
"Are you sure there's nothing troubling you? I shall take care of it, if there is."
"It's personal," said Draco, mumbled so indistinctly that Harry could barely make the words out.
"Oh," said Snape. "Very well then, I don't care to involve myself in your personal matters. Off with you, Mr. Malfoy. I shall see you tonight."
Harry fled before he was seen. He wasn't sure what all of that meant, but at least it was something.
The signs of the coming storm could be heard even from inside the tower, faint rumbles and whispers of cold breezes and a vague, itchy sensation on the back of Harry's neck. He picked up his pace a little; even if the storm was unavoidable, he would feel a little less trapped by it if he could at least see outside the walls of the castle.
The tension in the air was even higher in the study room, where Draco already sat with his wand out, transfiguring an inkpot into a brown rat and back again. Though even his attention was more on the dark skies that had settled around them than on his practice.
Still, when the first clap of thunder sounded, accompanied by sudden, heavy gusts of wind that blew all the shutters wide open, Harry was nearly startled enough to leap from his seat.
Within seconds the rain started, hurling buckets against the sides of the castle and wetting the sills and stones around the windows. "You get the ones on the left, I'll get the right," said Harry, and for once Draco didn't even make a token argument.
The first two he slammed and latched quickly; the third, the largest window in the centre of the room, posed a greater problem. While he could -- barely -- close the shutters against the force of the wind, the latch was placed too high for him to reach.
"Draco!" he called, seeing no other choice. "I need your help." Draco was pressed up against his back almost before he knew it.
"Just hold it shut," Draco told him. "I can almost reach." He surged up against Harry's body as high as he could, fingers stretched fully. They almost touched the latch, but Harry barely noticed thanks to the body pressed up against him, hard in all the expected places, and in one unexpected one.
"Stay put," said Draco as he lowered himself again. "I'll get it." And he surged again, and again, and his body rocked against Harry's and, after a moment, Harry pushed back against him as well. It was all he could do, he tried to convince himself, when he was putting so much forward force against the shutters to hold them closed.
Draco surged on last time, then Harry felt him shudder and heard the latch click into place almost at the same time. They were both perfectly still for a moment, panting from the effort, then Draco backed away smoothly.
"I need to wash this filth off my hands," he said, and before Harry even had a chance to turn around let alone said anything, he'd fled the room.
"What did you do?" asked Goyle, standing in the doorway and looking back over his shoulder at where they could both still hear Draco's retreating footsteps.
"Nothing!" insisted Harry, plucking his robes away from his front to conceal the evidence. "The storm... and the shutters... and we had to..." One of the windows came to his rescue, shutters flying open as he tried to explain. "You see?"
"You really were raised by Muggles, weren't you," muttered Goyle.
"What was that?" said Harry, halfway to the open window again. Goyle rolled his eyes and pulled out his wand and a moment later the window was shut up tight again. "Oh," said Harry. "Didn't think of that."
"Obviously," said Goyle.
Harry really had been raised by Muggles, he just didn't think like that. But Draco hadn't been, and he did.
"I've got to wash up as well," said Harry, pulling his robes away again for good measure, though he knew from long experience that it was as obvious as leaving it alone. He didn't let Goyle respond before fleeing the room himself.
"You're actually working?" said Hermione incredulously, books clutched tight to her chest. "I must've taken a wrong turn somewhere."
"Oh, stop," said Harry, trying to keep his tongue from sticking out in concentration, like Goyle's was. "See how Ron is being nice and quiet and fearful of what we might be able to do to him with hot wax...?"
"Impressive," said Goyle approvingly, taking his eyes off the melting candle for a moment.
"Whoa, careful!" said Harry quickly. The errant drips from the candle fell onto the table, cooling quickly into little round white droplets. Goyle turned his attention back to the hot wax as Harry hauled over the cauldron of water he'd brought up with him.
Hermione opened her mouth to say something else, but seemed to get that maybe now wasn't the best time. Whatever she had to say would keep, and Harry had no doubt he would be hearing it later.
"Have you got the book?" said Harry. "This isn't going to make any sense without the book."
"Thought you had the book," grunted Goyle, dropping a few more spots of wax on the table.
"Where's the book then?" asked Harry, sloshing water.
"We can get it after," said Goyle. "Cold wax isn't going anywhere."
He had a point. Harry perched the cauldron of water near to Goyle's growing cup of melted wax and waited for him to finish. "All right," he said. "So all we've got to do is pour the wax into the water."
"Think we can handle that," said Goyle, holding the cup up to tip it in.
"I don't think that's--"
"What?" said Goyle, looking up at Hermione's interruption, and suddenly Harry's hand was covered in hot wax.
"Ow!" he said, trying to get it off and taking a bit of skin with it. "Oh hell."
"Harry! We've got to get you to the hospital wing." Before they could do anything, though, he dunked his hand into the cauldron of water, solidifying the wax around it. It was uncomfortable, but at least it didn't burn so much anymore.
"That doesn't look good," said Goyle.
Harry didn't even want to look. Hermione took his arm -- his other arm, thank god -- and led him out of the room, with Ron right on their heels. Harry wouldn't have been surprised to see Goyle along, too, but he remained back in the room. Maybe to see if Draco might, eventually, actually show up.
"That really doesn't look good, Harry," said Ron.
"Yes, well, it doesn't feel good either, Ron," said Harry, gritting his teeth and a wave of pain rolled through his hand.
"Maybe the two of you should consider a project that doesn't involve any potential injury," suggested Hermione. "No fire, no knives, no.. pointy sticks."
"Is there a divination method that involves pointy sticks?" asked Ron.
"Probably," said Hermione. "There's one that involves navel-gazing, after all."
"Shhh," said Harry as they approached the infirmary. "There's someone already in there."
Ron and Hermione knew to hush when there might be something to be overheard. It seemed to be the only way they learned anything of importance.
"He seems to have been confiding in Severus," Poppy was saying, in a hushed voice that could barely be heard. "Though of course Severus won't admit as much to me."
"It is as I suspected," said Dumbledore. "If there is anyone who might be able to keep him from doing anything rash, it is Severus."
They had to be talking about Malfoy. Harry could think of no one else who would be in that particular situation, that they would be discussing with such concern.
"Have you told him any more about what was done to his father?"
"I fear he is not ready to hear that yet," said Dumbledore. "He is only now finally believing that it was Voldemort's followers who tried to have his father killed. Everything in its time, Poppy."
"I only worry that he will find out from someone else," said Poppy. "I am responsible for that boy's well-being, Albus."
"As are we all, Poppy," said Dumbledore. "I will be visiting the memories next week, to see if there is anything to be found there. After Christmas holidays, Mr. Malfoy and I will have a conversation about them."
"See that you do, Albus," said Madam Pomfrey. "It would be for the best."
"What do you think that's all about?" whispered Ron.
"Shhh," said Hermione.
The conversation seemed to be over, so Harry pushed through the door before they were caught outside of it.
"Oh dear!" said Madam Pomfrey. "What have you done to yourself, dear child?"
"Divination accident," said Harry, and tried not to pay much mind to how silly that sounded. "Burnt myself."
"But he'll be all right for Quidditch, tomorrow, right?" said Ron urgently.
"Oh, Ronald," said Hermione, taking his arm. "We're going to go back to get our things, Harry. Would you like us to bring yours back to Gryffindor tower?"
"If you wouldn't mind?" said Harry, as Pomfrey ushered him to a bed. Dumbledore was nowhere to be seen. "I'll see the two of you later."
The two of them disappeared quickly, presumably to discuss what they had just heard. Harry would have to catch up later, right now he just wanted the hand to stop hurting. Everything else could wait.
One of two things was bound to happen over Christmas holidays at Hogwarts. It was possible a number of families would decide that Hogwarts was the safest place for their children, and there would be a much larger crowd than other years. It was also possible that families would want nothing more than to have their children safe at home, and so there would be nearly no one about.
It turned out to be the latter, and barely a handful of other students remained at Hogwarts for those few, lonely winter weeks. Harry wasn't sure if he preferred it that way or not. Had there been a number of people remaining, he might have been able to get his mind off his troubles. The way things were, he could at least think things through without interruption.
The nightmare of working with Goyle -- which, as it turned out, wasn't quite the nightmare it might have been -- at least got him thinking about things other than Sirius. Most of the time, anyhow, which was more than anyone had really managed all summer. He supposed something good had to come of it, since he was sure it would lead to a failing grade in the class.
But Malfoy, bloody Malfoy. Harry'd been wanting to hex him into next week for ages, and more each passing year, then Malfoy had to go and pull something like... Harry wasn't even really sure what had happened. Or why. Or whether it was going to happen again. Or whether he did or didn't want it to.
He couldn't stand to look Malfoy in the face half the time, but to have him at his back was not an entirely unappealing prospect. If Harry didn't already hate himself, he would hate himself.
Of course, if Malfoy didn't ever show up to his and Goyle's divination sessions again, which he hadn't the last few days before holidays, then it wouldn't be an issue, and Harry could go back to being very confident in his loathing.
And worry about more pressing things, like what Dumbledore and the others were keeping from them this time.
They'd got so far as to figure out that whatever was hidden at Gringotts had to do with Lucius Malfoy, and that Draco didn't know. Perhaps they'd stolen some things of his from the Malfoys' manor house while Lucius was in Azkaban. But that didn't make sense. His wife still lived there; Draco had even gone home to see her over Christmas, or so Goyle had told him.
Unless she had given them something? That was certainly a possibility, and certainly something that would be kept from Draco until the appropriate time. And something that Snape would know all about, as well.
Ron was going to try to find out what he could from Bill over Christmas, which was good because Harry didn't think he was going to learn anything more until everyone returned. His movements about the castle were less restricted during holidays, sure, but they were also much, much more obvious. And with Snape remaining Harry's personal nemesis at school, skulking about wasn't a chance Harry was willing to take when he didn't even know if anything would be gained by it.
And so he passed his holidays reading as many divination books as he could get his hands on (to Madam Pince's delight, it seemed) and flying his broom out over the lake and obsessing over how things were very often not what they at first seemed.
"Aren't they brilliant?" said Ron, holding up the plain blue robes. "A gift from Fred and George, if you can believe it. Brand new, never been worn by anyone but me. And they don't change colour or explode or make strange noises come from around back or anything."
"Very nice, Ron," said Harry, trying to be duly impressed. "Was everyone home for Christmas, then?"
"Except Charlie," said Ron, putting the robes away carefully again. "Do you want me to wait for Hermione before I talk about it?"
"Is there something to tell, then?" said Harry. "Did you talk to Bill?"
"Yes... but no," said Ron. "I mean, I did talk to Bill and all. Quite a bit actually. But he seemed a lot more bent on keeping me out of trouble than telling me anything I wanted to know. Mind you, I never out and out asked, but..."
"Well, of course not," said Harry. "It was like that with everyone, seems like. Seamus said his mum didn't even want him to leave the house. Not even to go visit Rose, like he promised her. And Neville's Gran did defence drills with him, can you believe it?"
"I've heard about Neville's Gran," said Ron. "I can believe it. So what did you do over holidays?"
"Nothing much," admitted Harry. "And before you ask, nothing exciting happened here. Sometimes it seemed like there was no one here but me and the ghosts."
"At least they're good company," offered Ron. "Good conversationalists, when you find yourself up and about in the middle of the night without anyone else around."
"I didn't strike up any new friendships with the ghosts, Ron," said Harry. "I mostly finished my homework and read a lot of books."
"You're turning into Hermione!" Ron teased him. "What am I supposed to do with two of you?"
"Spend more time in your books?" said Harry, to Ron's horrified look. "Never mind. I had to try to catch up with Divination, we're loads behind the others now. We haven't even really got started yet and it's already after Christmas."
"You'll do all right," said Ron. "It's Divination. You don't have to get things right. You just have to be vague and pretend that you believe it."
"You should have stuck with it, then," said Harry. "Then I'd be partnered with you and we'd be halfway done by now, and we'd never have had to spend all this time with Goyle and Malfoy instead of out on the Quidditch pitch or by the lake."
"Sorry, Harry," said Ron. "It might be easy, but I didn't think I could stand one more year of it. It'll be all right, though. Malfoy hasn't tried anything. He's just a big coward, after all, without his father to stand behind him."
If only, thought Harry. "Haven't got any choice now anyway," he said. "We're stuck with it, we've just got to get through. Was there anything at all Bill said that might have meant something?"
"Not really," said Ron. "I got to thinking about it all, and we already know that Bill's been trying to recruit the goblins to Dumbledore's side. Maybe that's all it is."
"Maybe," said Harry dubiously. "But what about what's hidden there?"
"Did you ever think that we might be wrong about that?" suggested Ron. "I know it makes sense and all, but..."
"I don't think we're wrong," said Harry. "We might not know everything yet, but we will, and then we'll see how it all fits together. It must!"
"We should wait for Hermione to talk about the rest, then," suggested Ron. "She's good at fitting things together."
"All right," agreed Harry, and settled in to watch as Ron hauled the rest of his gifts out for Harry's inspection while they waited for their other friend to arrive.
"Did you have a good holiday?" Harry asked as Goyle shuffled into the room, looking half-asleep despite the fact that it was early evening. Hermione and Ron were a bit sluggish as well; perhaps it just had to do with being back at school after the break.
"It was all right," mumbled Goyle, not returning the nicety. Which was for the best, really, as Harry wouldn't really have wanted to answer. "Stayed with my aunt again. Mum and Dad didn't want me home."
"Oh," said Harry, shifting uncomfortably in his seat. It wasn't really the sort of thing he thought he ought to know about Goyle, despite the working arrangement they now had. "Well..."
"It was all right," said Goyle again, saving Harry from having to finish that thought. "I like my aunt. I had a thought about our project."
"Me as well," said Harry with an inward sigh of relief. "You go first."
"Anthropomancy?" repeated Harry. "Isn't that...?"
"It's the study of human entrails, Harry," said Hermione. "I can't believe you even suggested it! It's absolutely barbaric!"
"No, it's all right," said Goyle. "We would only use Muggles, you see."
Hermione gasped in horror and even Ron looked a little green. Harry studied Goyle's face for a moment and burst out laughing.
"Harry it's not funny!" fumed Hermione.
"Of course it is," said Harry, still looking at Goyle's face as he broke into a slow grin. "He's joking, Hermione."
"How do you know that?" she said shrilly. "He might really mean it, Harry, and--"
"I am joking," Goyle interrupted her. It was odd and unsettling, to see a smile on his face that did not involve some inane comment of Draco's or some imminent pain to be inflicted upon Harry or one of his friends. "Honestly. Muggles? I'm not a monster."
Ron didn't look quite convinced, but at least Hermione seemed to relax a little. "I still think it's not funny," she said.
"Not just funny," said Harry, "it was brilliant." Goyle had made a joke with him. Somehow, Harry felt like this was some sort of breakthrough in their partnership. Maybe now they might get something done. Especially if Malfoy's absence remained permanent.
"What was your idea, then?" asked Goyle. "Is it as brilliant as mine?"
"Papyromancy," admitted Harry. "Not quite as bloody, but respectable enough. I tried it out over holidays and I'm really quite good at it. Better than tea leaves, at least. Or hot wax."
"The hot wax may have been a mistake," admitted Goyle. "Papyromancy's paper, yeah?"
"Right," said Harry, pulling out a book he'd found devoted to the subject and opening it up to one of the many marker charms he'd placed as he read. "And paper's easy. We could start with this here, you see...?"
And for the first time since they'd started this whole debacle of a partnership, Harry tuned out everything else and was drawn into their work.
Harry finally ran into Draco again -- outside of classes, of course, where encounters were unavoidable -- in the corridor outside his Arithmancy class, where Harry had promised to wait for Hermione.
"Potter," said Draco, looking up and down the corridor and then back at Harry again. "Waiting for me, are you? Should I draw my wand?"
"You wish," said Harry. "I'm meeting Hermione."
"You'll be waiting an awfully long time, then," said Draco. "She's already left. With the Weasel. Are they shagging yet? Would you even know if they were?"
"I would know, and it's none of your business," hissed Harry. "Why do you care, anyway? Did you want to get into Hermione's knickers? No, wait, it would be Ron you fancy, wouldn't it..."
"The Weasel?" said Draco. "I'd sooner die. Are you going to stand here all day?"
"Are you?" Harry shot back.
Draco's cheeks looked red hot, his eyes narrow, but instead of saying anything he grabbed hold of Harry's arm and tugged him into the empty classroom. "I don't like you," he said.
"What?" said Harry. "Of course you don't like me. You hate me. And I hate you. And if you've dragged me in here to be done with me once and for all, you're in for a bit of a shock."
"Shut up," said Draco, dragging Harry closer. Close enough that they were pressed together near the door, when there was a whole classroom to spread out into. "There aren't any boys in Slytherin that fancy blokes," he added finally. Angrily. "Any other boys."
"Nor in Gryffindor," admitted Harry, narrowing his eyes. But moving his body nonetheless the moment Draco started to. "So?"
"We don't have to like each other," said Draco. "We just have to..." His voice shook ever so slightly and his eyes fluttered shut for a moment, only to snap open again and meet Harry's, blazing. "It's better than your hand, and you know it. All right?"
"All right," said Harry, because there wasn't much else he could say to that. His body would have betrayed him anyhow, rock hard and taking what was being offered. The best -- the only -- offer he'd had since school began. Since summer. Since ever.
Draco pressed his sharp chin into Harry's shoulder and clutched his arms too tightly, and friction of flesh on fabric on fabric on flesh send sparks throughout Harry's body. They barely even touched except to grasp and hold and keep the other from getting away. It was over so fast. Faster than Harry would have imagined, but satisfying nonetheless. So long as he didn't really think about it.
"I still don't like you," he said finally, when the panting quieted and the silence grew awkward.
"Oh, and I thought getting you off would make us the best of friends," snorted Draco, pulling away and straightening his robes. "Honestly, Potter, you're so thick. It really is a wonder you're still alive."
A hundred things ran though Harry's mind that he ought to say to that, but before he could utter a single one Draco was out the door, slamming it behind him.
So Harry did the only thing that was reasonable under the circumstances. He made himself look presentable again and stalked off to find Hermione and give her a piece of his mind about leaving without him.
Harry didn't think it was possible for Snape to look any greasier than he already did, but he managed on the day that they were meant to brew the Hashram Elixir, their most complex potion to date. Hermione had tried, over the school year, to remind Harry that despite what he felt personally, Snape did valuable work for the Order. So what, Harry figured. Let someone else thank him for that; Snape was responsible for the death of Harry's godfather, and the previous day had had the gall to taunt him about it.
It was utterly unforgivable. But at least he was still passing potions.
"Oi, Potter," he heard Draco call from the other side of the room. "Are you brewing, or cooking supper?" Pansy snickered; Harry looked down and realised he was, in fact, adding the shredded hensi grass as though he were whipping up a batch of biscuits. He scowled and dropped the rest in and the cauldron promptly let off a belch of smoke.
He was about to ream Malfoy out for ruining his first potion of the year, until he remembered that that belch of slightly-blue smoke was precisely the effect he was looking for.
"What was that, Potter?" said Draco. "Were you going to say something to me?"
"Only to tell you that you look as though you haven't seen a mirror in days," Harry shot back. "What's the matter? Rough nights in the boys' dormitory?"
Draco's look was pure fury. "I could roll about in dragon dung and still look twice as good as you do every day, Potter."
"So that's what that smell is," said Harry. "I'd been wondering."
"That will be ten points from Gryffindor, Potter, for your uncalled-for insults," said Snape, his voice cutting through all other noise in the room. "Would you care to try for more?"
"Yes, Potty, would you care to try for more?" echoed Draco.
"Belt it, Malfoy. Or haven't you noticed your cauldron's about to blow?"
It wasn't, as far as Harry knew, but at least it kept Draco's eyes on his own work for the rest of the class. It was worth the further ten points that Snape took for it.
Papyromancy turned out to be a good choice; other than the occasional, inevitable, paper cut there was no potential for injury. Even Goyle picked it up fairly quickly and was, to Harry's chagrin, a natural at origami despite his large and somewhat clumsy hands. Which made him quite popular around Valentine's Day and -- according to Goyle -- at the Slytherin victory party after they thoroughly trounced Ravenclaw at Quidditch and he convinced Millicent Bulstrode to kiss him under the stairs by the Potions classroom.
"I've got some things that Madam Pince loaned me," said Harry, dropping a dusty box onto the table. Goyle coughed. "Charmed so we can't do them any damage, but we wouldn't want to put any extra folds in them anyhow. Would ruin the reading. What do you want to start with, Octavia Twissell's personal journals or Osgood Dowbiggin's notes on the featherlight charm?"
"Where're your friends?"
"In the Gryffindor common room," admitted Harry as he brushed the dust off the top of the box with his sleeve. "They're..."
"Are they...? Well, not likely, not in the common room" said Harry. "How did you know?"
"Not blind," said Goyle. "Let's do the notes. They'll be shorter."
"I wouldn't count on it," Harry warned him. He had to dig to the bottom to find the notes, because of course the journals were neatly stacked on top. "He did a lot of notes. The first four hundred and fifty-seven tries didn't work, you know. And he kept a record of all of them."
"Well, we haven't got to go through all the notes," said Goyle. "We'll do what we did last time. Are you hungry?"
"Not particularly," said Harry, producing the notes.
"All right, then," said Goyle, pulling out a great sandwich from his pack and starting in on the first half. Forcing Harry to be the one to handle the ancient notes and map out the creases on them to see what corresponded to the symbols they had, by now, mostly memorised.
"He was sexually frustrated," Harry noted, pulling out the book he'd been keeping his observations in. "I'm not sure that's really helpful to know, but--"
"No, that's you," snorted Goyle. "The squiggle and swirl's going in the other direction. He was in a bad relationship is all."
"And so, sexually frustrated."
"Probably why he had so much time on his hands," Goyle finally agreed with him.
"I think Firenze is going to want more than that," said Harry, "even if Trelawney might be interested enough. So where's your friend, then?"
"Meeting with Snape," said Goyle, picking up the second half. "He's had a lot of those."
"Do you know why?" Goyle, his mouth crammed full, just shrugged. "Is it prefect stuff, you think, or something else?"
"Something else," Goyle said after a moment, "Or Pansy'd be in there, too."
"Right," said Harry. "Suppose it's none of my business really."
"Nope," agreed Goyle, without offering up anything else. He took another bite of his sandwich, and didn't stop until the last little bit of it was gone.
"Are you finished?" asked Harry. Goyle nodded, licking his fingers clean. "All right, then. Let's get back to work."
"Did you see the look on McGonagall's face when Neville botched that transfiguration? I thought she'd never get that box to stop hopping around the room."
"I'm right here, you know," said Neville, not hesitating as he once would have to elbow Seamus hard in the side.
Dean bumped into Harry from behind as he exited the classroom and hung his chin over his shoulder for a moment. "That was brilliant, Neville. Best class we've had in ages."
"If you ever remember what you did," said Seamus, "let me know. There are a hundred different uses for that, and at least half of them are legal, I swear."
"It wasn't my fault," said Neville. "If Malfoy hadn't--"
"Of course," said Dean, "it's always Malfoy."
And speak of the devil, Malfoy pushed past, unnoticed by the other boys, and headed towards the dungeons. Alone.
"I've got to go," said Harry. A little too abruptly, since he got three startled stares in return. "I left some things in the Divination classroom this morning," he added quickly, pulling a face. "I won't be long."
Neville gave him a brief wave; Dean just abandoned him to sling an arm around Seamus's neck and drag him away toward Gryffindor tower. They didn't even look back. It couldn't have been easier.
Harry cast a silencing charm on his shoes and started off in the direction Draco had gone, holding his books to his hip and looking not at all like he was practising a bit of light stalking.
Draco was moving quickly, but not particularly stealthily, heading along the shortest path to the Slytherin dungeons. Right up until he took an abrupt and unexpected right turn into a corridor that only led one place.
Goyle had mentioned Draco had been spending time with Snape, quite a bit of it, really, but Harry hadn't any idea really what that meant. What they were doing together, what they talked about. Whether Snape was picking up where Draco's father had left off when he'd been locked up in Azkaban, or whether he was pushing Dumbledore's cause.
Whether Draco now knew more than Harry did about goings-on to do with the war, because of what someone had tried to do to his father.
Draco whispered something to a grotesque urn in the corridor and the door opened in front of him. He had the bloody password. Whatever was going on, it had got him in with Snape in a lot more than a prize pupil way. Part of Harry wasn't sure he wanted to know; the other part wanted it desperately.
Once Draco slipped inside, Snape poked his head out and Harry was caught, standing there in the corridor and looking off into the distance like some dullard. Snape said nothing, just glared and slammed the door.
Harry, vaguely, remembered the days when Defence Against the Dark Arts class involved reading things in books, and talking about them, and then, maybe, being permitted to take their wands out and practice against some innocuous creature or well-defended partner. The third shocking hex to his arse in a row and he knew those days were far behind him.
"Good work, Hopkins," said Professor Hebblethwaite. "Did everyone see that? While it's best to incapacitate your opponent so that he or she will not be in any position to strike back, anything that puts your opponent off balance is a success."
Harry struggled not to rub his arse in full view of the entire class.
"It's time to pair off, everyone," she said. "I can't be everywhere at once, so do try not to do any permanent damage. Poppy Pomfrey is displeased enough with me as it is." She waved her hand and the class obediently broke off into groups and then into pairs. Harry deliberately didn't choose Ron or Hermione for these exercises, preferring to put himself up against as many different styles as possible.
This time he ended up against Jones, a friend of Hopkins', who he hoped didn't have the same obsession with shocking charms. Or with his arse. They took position close to the door, close enough that when Dumbledore suddenly appeared there Harry had a perfect view.
Between one hex and the next he cast a quick charm to allow him to hear any conversation Dumbledore might have, and hoped that he would appear to be too involved in his duel to be eavesdropping.
"How are they coming along, Hilde?" Dumbledore asked her, surveying the entire room over the top of his glasses.
"Like any class of pupils their age," she said, "with too many distractions and too much rage to vent. But they're talented, Albus. Hogwarts chooses its students well."
"But will they be ready?" Dumbledore asked her. "Will they be able to do what they may need to do?"
"If they have to," she told him. Megan caught Harry with a bloody stinging charm, which forced him to miss what she said next. He caught the thread again at, "Many of us who went up again Grindelwald weren't ready either, but we managed well enough."
"I would see my charges as ready as they can possibly be. As soon as possible."
"Have you heard anything?" she asked him, her tone changing completely.
"Yes," said Dumbledore, "but I dare not speak of it here. I will contact you when I know anything for certain. In the meantime..."
"They will be as ready as I can make them, Albus," she told him. "It's all I can promise you." He nodded and left the room at that, but not without a look in Harry's direction. Harry couldn't decide if it meant anything or not, and threw himself back into the duel with Megan so that he wouldn't have to think about it.
"Have you got to wear such coarse robes?" complained Draco as he shoved a hand inside them. "Peasant."
"I thought we agreed this was easier if neither of us talked," said Harry, following it up with a gasp as Draco's cool fingers wrapped around him.
"We agreed it was better if you didn't talk," said Draco, squeezing lightly. And a little threateningly. "Shut it, Potter."
Harry pressed his lips together tightly and didn't say another word, no matter how much he wanted to. Not at that cost. He did make the slightest whimpering sound in the back of his throat as he came, though, and smirked that it was all over Draco's hand.
"Don't look so smug, you get to do it next," said Draco, pulling his hand out and wiping it on his robes. Harry didn't miss that he didn't immediately charm it clean.
Draco's robes were softer and finer than Harry's. Of course they were. Harry actually stroked them -- and by proximity, Draco -- for a moment before realising what he was doing and quickly opening the clasp so he could reach inside. And touched skin that was hotter than he'd imagined it would be.
Draco made a noise and when Harry looked up his eyes were closed, but only for a moment before they flew open and narrowed. "You can't back out now," he said. "I did my part."
Harry was definitely not backing out. And really, was it such a terrible thing that he wanted to savour the few moments he could get of touching another boy, even if it was Malfoy?
"Come on, Potter!"
Harry wrapped a hand around him and squeezed, and moved closer, pressing Draco's back up against the wall. It was a little awkward, but so was everything, and so Harry stroked as best he could and it was enough. It was more than enough. Rather than remaining still as Harry had, Draco pushed back against him. Even if he was nearly as silent.
"Come on," he said again, grabbing himself a fistful of Harry's hair and tugging. Harry pressed his face to Draco's neck as Draco came all over his hand.
They were absolutely still for the moment following, then, "Did you hear that?"
Harry had, a definitely footstep, a whisper from the portrait outside the room. "Hell," he said, and pulled his hand out, reaching for his wand with sticky fingers. Draco was quicker, cleaning them up and holding his wand at Harry's throat before they were interrupted.
"What have you done now, Potter?"
Snape. It just figured.
"I haven't done anything," he snapped, lifting his chin as Draco tapped at it with his wand. "It's all Malfoy's fault--"
"Nonsense," said Snape. "Five points from Gryffindor. Mr. Malfoy, did you forget we were going to meet?"
"I'm sorry, Professor," said Draco contritely. "I was on my way when Potter started bothering me."
"Five more points," said Snape viciously. "And you're lucky I can't be bothered to supervise a detention. Come along, Draco."
Draco dropped his wand, and after holding Harry's gaze for a long moment, turned quickly and followed in his professor's wake.
Harry could do nothing but watch them go.
"Just us, then," said Goyle, twisting a bit of paper into what looked to be a miniature rose. He hardly even had to make an effort anymore. It wasn't fair.
"I suppose so," said Harry pulling out his parchment and his quills. And sighing loudly. "If we'd started back before Christmas, we'd be finished by now."
"No," said Goyle.
"What do you mean, 'no'? It's simple maths. Had we started a month or three earlier, we'd be finished a month or three earlier."
"No," said Goyle again. "We'd've wasted time till spring came then rushed to the end. Like now."
"We would no--" Harry scowled at his blank parchment. "Okay, perhaps. How come you're alone today, then?"
"Not supposed to tell," mumbled Goyle. "Have you got the notes from last week? I burnt mine."
"You burn-- yes, all right," said Harry. He'd learnt it was really best not to ask. He a few sheets of parchment out of his pack and handed it over. "You'll have to duplicate them yourself, though."
Goyle pulled his wand out and mere moments later there was a duplicate of Harry's notes sitting neatly on the table. "What?" said Goyle at Harry's astonished stare. "Learnt that one first year. Draco takes good notes."
"Why aren't you supposed to tell me why he's not here?" said Harry. "He hasn't gone out to Azkaban, has he?"
"Azkaban? What do you know about that?" said Goyle, snatching up the notes.
"More than you think," said Harry. "He has, hasn't he. He's gone to see his dad."
"Don't talk about Draco's father," said Goyle harshly. "You don't know anything about it. He hasn't gone anyhow. He's in the dormitory."
"What, and you couldn't just tell me that?"
"He had a bit too much Ogden's last night," confessed Goyle. He would be terrible under interrogation. "Don't know why you care. Don't know why he didn't want me to tell you." His tone, inasmuch as Goyle's voice had subtle tones, implied something else entirely.
"I don't care," said Harry quickly. "Just wanted to know how much work we were going to get done before he ponced in here and started bothering me."
"He won't," said Goyle. "You're not doing any work anyhow."
"I don't know why he was drinking," Harry muttered, opening up a book. "Firewhiskey, in the school, in the middle of the week..."
"You probably would, too, if your dad--" Goyle stopped abruptly and opened a book of his own. "It's none of your business."
"Right, of course," said Harry. "I don't care what he does, as long as he's not doing it around me."
Goyle looked up from his book. "I'm not stupid, you know."
For the first time, Harry had rather hoped he was.
Hermione and Ron seemed glad to see him when he perched himself on a chair near the sofa that they were sharing, which was a relief. It was hard to tell, sometimes, when he was or wasn't wanted.
"How is your project going?" Hermione asked him. "Have you made any more progress?"
"Loads," said Harry. "We look to be able to finish everything on time. I think it's the longest report I've written for any professor, ever. And that's including the detention scrolls I did for Snape back in March."
"I'm impressed," said Hermione. "You've really dedicated yourself to your schoolwork. It's a nice change."
"Last week we looked at some documents Madam Pince had from the fifteenth century," said Harry with growing enthusiasm. "If someone had read the folds in it, they could have successfully predicted the goblin rebellion. Isn't that fascinating?"
Hermione looked interested. Ron just looked half asleep.
"Of course," said Hermione, "it's easy to ready predictive signs any way you want to, once the outcome is already known," said Hermione. "Muggles have been doing it for ages."
"That's true," Harry admitted. "Though it's uncanny, what's revealed in the folds of a piece of paper."
It really was uncanny. Professor Trelawney had wanted them to find a method of divination that worked for them, that 'suited their aura' or whatever nonsense it was that she'd spouted, and Harry really seemed to have done so. Which meant it was a lot more comfortable to work with documents from the past, where the outcome of events was already known, than to work with documents from the present, where the outcome had yet to be.
"Have you done anything more recent?" Hermione was asking him, while Ron feigned a snore. "Anything that could pass as a true prediction?"
"We'll, we've had to," said Harry, "as part of the assignment, you see, on each other. Though Trelawney loves to see things proven right so the historical stuff is the bulk of our report. And we'll have to do a demonstration, of course, so we'll probably choose something recent for that. Maybe we'll get Trelawney to crumple something herself."
At least that, thought Harry, would likely bring predictions of only gossip and failed romance and many cups of tea. Three days ago he'd nicked a piece of paper off Dumbledore's desk so they could do a reading on it, and there were omens and signs all over it. And they read war, war, war, war and war.
Harry would just as soon not see anything else like it any time soon.
The paper he'd nicked out of Draco's bag the last time they'd seen each other -- up in the Astronomy Tower as though they were actual lovers or some such rot -- held such mixed messages that Harry didn't even show Goyle that he had it.
"She'd like that," muttered Hermione, and it took Harry a moment to remember that they were talking about Trelawney. "Self-centred old bat."
"So tell me how the two of you've been doing," said Harry, steering the conversation clumsily away from himself.
Luckily, Ron was much more interested in talking about himself and Hermione than in talking about Harry's Divination project, so Harry was once again able to avoid the subjects he preferred to pretend just didn't exist.
Harry knew that Seamus was seeing Rose again, so he knew he would be subjected to another round of "Professor Hebblethwaite is trying to kill us" after supper unless he found someplace else to hide out.
Harry liked that Professor Hebblethwaite was trying to kill them. Well, not kill them, but present them with situations where they would be in actual danger. While she was still always there to bail them out if things got too rough, it was easy to forget that in the midst of a simulated battle.
Harry was working with Zach, someone whose moves -- thanks to the DA -- he knew at least passing well. He was on the verge of winning, he thought, until he heard Professor Hebblethwaite's voice start up again on the edges of his awareness.
"Of course," she was saying, "in a true combat situation you will rarely have the luxury of being able to confront someone one-on-one. Mr. Malfoy, if you would?"
Without any more warning than that, Harry was being hit from two fronts. Malfoy's first stunner hit him dead on, but it was weak and he recovered quick enough to get two hexes in in quick succession and take Zach down for the moment. Malfoy was obviously surprised Harry didn't go for him right away, but he certainly didn't waste any time hitting him again.
Harry blocked, and blocked, and blocked, and was finally getting off a couple of hexes of his own when Zach recovered and hit him from behind, taking him down. Bloody Malfoy, demanding all of his attention.
"Good work, all of you," said Professor Hebblethwaite as Harry lay there face-down on the floor. "Of course, you're dead, Mr. Potter, but we'll work on that."
Malfoy snickered as Zach gave Harry a hand up. "You didn't have to enjoy that quite so much," Harry hissed at him.
"Of course I did, Potter," said Malfoy, and turned and swaggered back to his seat.
Harry hoped his face wasn't too flushed as he sat in their study room and stared out at the grounds and held a book open in front of him so he could pretend to be working on a moment's notice. He knew that Draco's was, though Draco's fair skin flushed so easily he could -- and often did -- blame it on the heat.
"Are you all right, Harry?" Hermione asked him. "You look... distracted."
"Sorry," he murmured. "The weather... it's got so nice outside again, it's hard to be cooped up in here all the time."
"It'll be summer soon enough," she reminded him. "And you'll be able to get outside as much as you like." Harry gave her a level look; she couldn't possibly have forgotten what a nightmare his summers could be. "None of that," she said. "Ron told me you'll be staying at the Burrow at least part of the time."
"Are you sure there'll be room?" said Malfoy lightly. "What with the dozens of other family members already living there?"
"Malfoy..." growled Ron.
"I think I'll be able to find a corner," said Harry, before things could come to blows.
"Are you sure you're all right?" Hermione pressed. "You look like you might be coming down with something."
"Don't you dare!" said Ron. "We play Slytherin in a few days. You can't be ill."
Draco and Goyle both immediately started coughing ostentatiously. "Make sure it wafts over to Potter's side of the room," Draco stage-whispered.
Harry rolled his eyes and bit his tongue before he could say anything about how if Draco was in any way ill, Harry had almost certainly already caught it.
"I'm fine," he assured his friends. "I'm just warm. I think I'd like to get some air."
"If you're sure," said Hermione, eyeing him as if she knew something, or at least suspected something. If she did, though, she made the uncharacteristic move of not mentioning it to him. "We'll be here when you get back."
"Right," said Harry, and with a quick glance at Draco he left the room and headed for the out of doors, at least for a little while.
Harry caught the snitch, but it was a close thing and mostly thanks to a last minute gust of wind and Malfoy getting an eyeful of Harry's unruly hair.
"You were lucky!" said Malfoy accusingly the moment they were on the ground. He let his prized broom fall to the ground and started stalking menacing towards him. "You could never have won on talent."
It wouldn't be a proper Gryffindor-Slytherin match if Draco and Harry didn't have words following it.
"Oh, is that why I beat you every year we play?" Harry asked him, taking more care with his own broom and handing it off to Ron. "I'm not the one who bought their way onto the team, Malfoy."
"My father--" Draco started, broke off and turned red and just lunged. Harry, caught off guard, fell to the ground beneath him, but recovered quickly enough to draw his wand before Malfoy did.
Harry would know McGonagall's angry voice anywhere, he winced inwardly and pushed a still struggling Malfoy off of himself.
"I'm astonished that the two of you would show such poor sportsmanship, when the rest of your respective teams are the model of decorum."
Harry wouldn't call the scowls of the Slytherin team or the cheers of the Gryffindors 'decorum', exactly, but he wouldn't quibble. They weren't the ones who'd just been caught in a common brawl.
"You will both report to the Headmaster's office immediately," she ordered them. "In fact, I will accompany you, since you clearly can't be trusted to make it there on your own without breaking out your wands -- or your fists -- again."
"This is all your fault," said Draco as he dusted himself off. "I should have won this time."
"My fault?!" said Harry. "I'm not the one who started pitching a fit--"
"Mr. Potter! Mr. Malfoy! March!"
Neither one of them spoke another word all the way to Dumbledore's office, though the glares they shot each other said quite enough.
"Straight inside," said McGonagall when they were up the stairs and had reached the door. "I have better things to do that wait here with you two miscreants--"
"Miscreants, Professor McGonagall?" Dumbledore interrupted her. "Harsh words, for a pair of boys who have clearly been having some good, clean fun."
"They were fist-fighting," she informed him. "Hardly good, clean fun."
Dumbledore had just opened his mouth to respond when there was a loud sound somewhere between a pop and a ring and a head appeared in Dumbledore's fireplace.
"Remus!" said Harry.
Remus looked startled at Harry's presence, but his attention immediately went back to Dumbledore without so much as a word. "We have an emergency," he said.
"What is it, Remus?"
"It's happened. There's been another breakout at Azkaban," he said quickly. "All of Voldemort's supporters have been freed." Draco winced at Voldemort's name even as he perked up at the news of his father's freedom, but Harry didn't so much as flinch.
"How long ago?"
"Not long," said Remus. "Arthur heard quickly through the Ministry grapevine and sent along word. We suspect they may be after... you-know-what."
"I believe you may be right," said Albus. "Though if we are lucky they may not know where it is. Nonetheless, it is best to be prepared. I am on my way."
Remus nodded, gave a quick "Hello, Harry", and was gone.
"That was the werewolf," was the first thing Draco said. "Did he just inform you that my father has been freed?"
"Yes," said Dumbledore. "He did." He paused and waited for further response, but Draco just nodded. "I have to go, and quickly. Minerva, go inform any staff members who might be spared. We must go to Gringotts."
"So there is something hidden at Gringotts," said Harry triumphantly. "And it has something to do with Draco's father, doesn't it."
"Something to do with my father?" said Draco, his anger clearly rising. "I demand to be told at once."
"You are not in a position to be making demands, Mr. Malfoy," said Dumbledore sternly. Nonetheless, he took his seat again, if only for a moment "I suppose, though, that you ought to know. Should anything happen, it would be... Well. We do, in fact, have a very precious item stored at Gringotts, that we believe Voldemort would do anything to get his hands on. It is a Pensieve. And in it, we have stored a great quantity of Lucius Malfoy's memories."
"You stole my father's memories?" said Draco incredulously. "You stole my father's memories and then hid them away where he could never find them?"
"Not exactly," said Dumbledore. "You father was a prisoner, Draco, you understand that--"
"I'm not an idiot!"
"--and we had every right and reason to do what we did. During the attempted prison break at the beginning of this year, the Death Eaters who tried to kill your father were heard asking whether or not Veritaserum had been administered. Whether or not we knew anything. It had not, but when the assassination attempt failed, we knew that there was something in his memories that Voldemort did not want us to have."
"And you shouldn't have!" said Draco. "You stole it!"
"As Voldemort has stolen many things from many people," said Dumbledore, "including their lives. Your father's was spared, Draco."
"Did you find it?" Harry asked urgently. "Did you find what you were looking for?"
"Not yet," admitted Dumbledore. "But I have seen all of the memories we collected, and what I saw now becomes a part of my memory. I shall sift through them until I uncover what we need. Until that time... Minerva will have completed her task by now, and I must be going. Harry--"
Harry held his breath.
"I dearly hope the time has not come for what we both know must happen. However, it is probably best that you be present, for it may have."
"I'm not--" Harry started, but never finished. He wasn't ready, and they all knew it now, even him. But maybe he would have to be.
"You are not going without me," said Draco furiously. "Those are my father's memories, and as he is still a wanted felon and it is unlikely they will be returned to him, they should belong to me."
Dumbledore looked at him sternly and shook his head, but Draco stood his ground just as hard. Harry had never seen anyone stand up to Dumbledore like that.
"I cannot stop you," he admitted finally. "You know where we are going. It might be best if I kept you close." Draco hesitated, his cheeks splotched with red and his eyes hard, then nodded in satisfaction. "I have a portkey to our destination. Come, gentlemen."
Mere moments later, they were off.
It didn't look like the scene of a battle. It didn't look like anything really, except business as usual in Diagon Alley. Dumbledore led them inside Gringotts Bank like they were merely out for a stroll, all the while acting as though he was searching for a key in his voluminous robes.
Harry spotted McGonagall and Sprout just inside the doors, and Remus and Moody... and he thought maybe Tonks though with Tonks he could never be quite sure. And Professor Hebblethwaite had joined a queue as though she were just another customer. They all looked like they'd been prepared for this eventuality for some time.
"I don't like this one bit," Draco hissed at Harry, but Harry made no response. He didn't feel like he needed to; he didn't like this one bit either. He didn't like that another battle might be imminent, and he didn't like that his own side could be as underhanded as the other.
Harry wondered if Draco wished he hadn't come. Wished he was back at Hogwarts, or at home. Maybe he wished he were with his father, celebrating his freedom with the other Death Eaters.
Everything looked normal, but there was an unsettling crackle in the air. It made the back of Harry's neck itch, made the hair on his arms stand on end.
"Perhaps they are not coming," said Dumbledore. "It would mean there are no leaks in our circle. It would mean they do not know where the Pensieve is."
It was barely moments later that they learned those hopes were in vain. The Death Eaters did not approach the bank as the Order had, with decorum and discretion. They Apparated straight to the centre of the room, wands drawn.
Harry had his own wand in his hand before he knew it, even as Dumbledore moved in front of the both of them and raised his arms. Everything was chillingly silent for a moment, then the roar began -- the sound of the patrons shrieking or joining the battle, the goblins speaking quickly to each other, the Death Eaters shouting out orders and the Order of the Phoenix preparing themselves for battle.
"Harry, you must stay safe until you are needed," insisted Dumbledore. "You must."
Harry wasn't inclined to argue. Especially not when he felt a sharp twinge in his scar, something he hadn't felt in ages. Harry couldn't see him yet, but Voldemort was near.
The Death Eaters were too clever to be all in one place. This would not be all of them. Wand clenched in his fist, Harry backed away toward one of the pack of witches and wizards who didn't want to get involved, hiding himself in the crowd. It was only then that he noticed that Draco was already gone.
"Prof--" he started, but decided it wouldn't make any difference now. The battle was joined, and if Draco had run to the other side, there was nothing he could do about it now.
Harry could hardly keep track of everything, the shouting and wandwaving and hexes and curses flying and light of all colours flashing in the air. It became harder with each moment to stay out of the way, especially when he could see figures falling in the midst of battle. Figures he might know.
When one of the Death Eaters broke apart and started approaching the group of people he was hiding amongst, the option to remain uninvolved vanished.
He shot a stunner the same time a witch on the other side of the crowd did the same, and while one was harmlessly deflected the second shot -- the unanticipated one -- met its mark. It only took him down for a moment, but Harry's practice in Defence Against the Dark Arts was finally going to serve him well. He shot hex after hex after hex after hex and didn't stop until the Death Eater was completely motionless.
Across the room from him, he saw two of the professors from Hogwarts dash through the entrance to the Gringotts vaults. Binding the Death Eater for good measure, he followed.
The doorway gave him a jolt and a queasy feeling, but that passed quickly enough. The sounds of the battle he'd just left were barely audible, as if coming at him from a great distance. But ahead of him, echoing back to him through countless tunnels, he could hear another being fought.
"Harry! Get down!" He didn't recognise the voice shouting at him but he did what it told him and ducked his head into a Gringotts cart. The moment he did, a curse shot over his head, erupting in a shower of sparks when it hit the wall past him. The cart started moving, picking up speed with each passing moment, carrying him deep into the caverns under London.
He did not direct the cart, the cart directed him. Taking him, he had to hope, to precisely where the last one had gone. He passed through a monstrous cavern, swung close over a wide and racing river, turned through countless tunnels. The sounds of battle grew louder; he knew at least he was going the right way.
It was all too sudden when he came face to face with it, a half dozen Death Eaters and fewer members of the Order, fighting it out on a ledge outside vault number four hundred and forty-six. Harry's cart ground to an abrupt halt but no one so much as acknowledged it. He recognised Nott, even through the ravages of Azkaban. And MacNair. And... and Malfoy, looking worse than Harry could have imagined. He didn't look sane.
Harry climbed out and pressed his back against the cavern wall and waited. For what, he wasn't sure -- a signal, an opening, something.
"Dolohov is heading for the vault!" someone shouted, and that was it. That was as clear as it was going to get. He took a deep breath and dashed through the midst of things, dodging and shoving and ducking and hexing and racing out the other side once he got through cleanly. He heard someone in pursuit and threw up every protective spell he knew, but they could only hold so long.
Dolohov was in sight, and as well someone ahead of him who had already breached the vault. Harry was aiming his wand when there was a huge rumble, and something large and black rose up from the distant cavern floor.
"Dragon!" someone shouted "Dragon!" Harry froze for a moment and tried to remember everything he had ever learned about surviving one, never mind fighting one; using dragons for high security was clearly more than just rumour. This dragon might not be after him, but Harry also didn't believe that it would be discriminate.
When the dragon -- a Horntail and a bloody big one -- roared and sent out a blast of flames in Dolohov's direction, Harry spurred into action, backtracking toward the battle and away from the scorched and steaming body, the scent of which was already chasing him. The person in pursuit of him had been Lestrange, Harry could see that now, but he too was heading back upwards again. Harry took his shot while Lestrange's back was turned and took him down with one well-placed and venomous hex.
If it had been Bellatrix and not her husband, he thought uncharitably, he would not have been so kind. Dragon or no dragon.
"Harry! Hurry!" he heard. That was Professor Hebblethwaite, urging him closer, to an area that would at least offer some protection. The cavern wall cracked there, split open just enough to offer some shelter. He picked up speed and raced inside just as the dragon sent another blast of flame up the wall. Smoke filled his lungs and he coughed himself breathless, but he survived.
They didn't step out until the dragon had descended into the depths again, his purpose accomplished. The stench outside was unmistakable. Harry pressed his sleeve over his nose and focused on breathing.
"Come," she said. "Whoever was left outside is no longer with us. We need to get back to the surface. There's no more than we can do here."
"What about the others?" Harry asked her as he followed her out.
"Professor McGonagall and the eldest Weasley went ahead," she told him. "Hurry. They may need us."
Harry nearly tripped over something climbing back into the cart. He didn't dare look down to see what it was.
"Did you stay behind for me?" he asked finally, when the cart began to move.
She hesitated for a moment, then said "yes" and clutched his arm as they sped upwards toward the surface.
Harry didn't know quite what to say to that. He didn't know quite what to say at all. "Did you... did you see Draco?" he asked when they were near to the top. "Was he down there with them."
"Draco? Malfoy's son?" she said, looking startled. "No, he was not. Do you mean to say that he's here?"
"He insisted on coming," said Harry. "I don't know... where he might have ended up."
"With who, you mean," said Hebblethwaite grimly. "Nor do I, I'm afraid, Harry."
Passing through the doorway and back into the main hall of Gringotts, the roar of battle erupted again in Harry's ears again. "The goblins have joined the battle!" said Remus, grabbing Harry's arm excitedly for a moment. "The Death Eaters are being routed."
He and Professor Hebblethwaite moved swiftly away again to take on the last of the combatants; Harry found himself left in a sheltered space by the wall.
He wanted to smile, to cheer, to something, but found that he could not. For very near to them he caught sight of Voldemort and Dumbledore, wand to wand, grimace to grimace. "No!" he said, but there wasn't anything he could do about it. Dumbledore had beaten Voldemort back before, Harry had to believe he could do it again.
The goblins had taken on -- and overwhelmed -- the greatest number of Voldemort's followers, at the other end of the hall; this side was left with only the stragglers, and with Dumbledore, and with a few weary members of the Order of the Phoenix.
There was a bright flash of light to Harry's side, and when he looked he saw that there was no longer a battle being waged. Dumbledore stood alone; Voldemort appeared a short distance away, a small object Harry would bet was a portkey in his hand and Lucius Malfoy by his side. Pensieve in his hands.
Harry looked up to see Draco running out from behind the counter. Where Harry realised he must have been hiding all along.
"My son," said Lucius, giving him a sickly grin. "How good of you to join us."
"I haven't--" Draco started, then thought better of it, his gaze shooting from his father to Voldemort and back again. "Father, I can get us out of here, come with me! Quickly!"
"I already have a way out," said Lucius, moving a step closer to Voldemort. "As do you."
"Father, he tried to kill you!" cried Draco. "You must believe me, I'm telling you the truth!" He, too, had his wand out, his hand shaking but holding his ground all the same.
"Of course he did," said Lucius. "And well he should have, Draco. He was protecting what needed to be protected. I have always taught about making sacrifices for what you believe in."
A look of horror crossed Draco's face. "He tried to kill you, Father. He tried to kill you! YOU!"
Everyone seemed to spring into action at once. Dumbledore approached Voldemort with his wand drawn, and Remus had his own trained on Lucius, chanting charms and hexes and trying to break through whatever protection Voldemort had erected. Professor Hebblethwaite, Harry notice with a sinking feeling, lay motionless on the floor nearby, her robes singed and bloodied.
"Come, Draco, it's time to go," said Lucius, and held out his hand.
Harry held his breath and braced himself to watch Draco walk away from them, from him. But Draco did the one thing that nobody, not even Harry in his deepest heart of hearts, expected. He hesitated.
"We have no time to waste," hissed Lucius, a twist of filthy hair falling in his face. "Draco!"
Draco flung his head around and stared Harry down fiercely. "You're strong, Harry, but are you going to win?" he asked him. "Are you going to win?!"
Harry met his gaze and said, "Yes."
With that, Draco took a couple of halting steps backward, and away from where his father beckoned. "I go with the winner," he said, barely audible in the continuing chaos. Lucius withdrew his hand. "It's not too late for you--"
"It's far, far too late for me," said Lucius. For a moment he looked almost compassionate, almost understanding, then his face hardened again and he straightened up, as much as he could. "For both of us, apparently. Don't come home, Draco."
Then the portkey activated and both Voldemort and Lucius Malfoy vanished.
Everything felt very silent for a moment, then Draco whirled on him again, if possible even more ferociously than before.
"If you're wrong," he snapped, "I'm going to kill you, Potter. Do you understand? I will kill you."
"If I'm wrong," said Harry, "then I'll already be dead." And this time, he did manage a grim but definite smile.
"Is Professor Hebblethwaite going to be all right?" Harry asked the moment he was admitted to Dumbledore's office. It had been two days, two days of waiting and wondering and worrying and explaining everything to his friends, and he wanted to know.
"She will recover," Dumbledore assured him, "though I do not believe she will be returning to us next year. And how are you, Harry?"
Harry shrugged. "I'm all right," he said finally. "We're all all right." Not like the previous year, which had been smaller in scale but heavier in injuries. "That I know of."
"I'm afraid," said Dumbledore, "that Alastor Moody is no longer with us. But the rest of the Order survived."
"Oh," said Harry quietly. Nobody had told him that. He'd been there and still nobody had told him anything.
"He will be missed," said Dumbledore, "but there is, I believe, a silver lining to such a terrible event."
"Voldemort got away again," said Harry. "And Lucius Malfoy, as well. And the memories you were trying to hard to keep, they somehow managed to get their hands on them, too, no matter what we did to stop them. I don't see how there was any good that came of this."
"Ah, but the goblins have agreed to join the war," said Dumbledore.
"They saw the devastation that the Death Eaters wish to bring upon us for themselves. Bill Weasley is concluding the negotiations with them as we speak. They fought bravely with us that day; I believe they will do the same, now, no matter where the battle occurs."
"And there will be another," said Harry dismally.
"There will be another," Dumbledore agreed with him. "Possibly many more, Harry. But we will take each as it comes, and we will succeed."
"Do you really believe that?"
"I do," said Dumbledore. "Evil such as that cannot survive in this world. Something will always rise up to defeat it. I hope it will be us, but if it is not, it will be the people who come after us. Somehow, Harry, we will win."
"Yes, I'd just as soon not die," said Harry. "I've done fairly well at avoiding it so far."
"You are better than most people I know at avoiding death," Dumbledore agreed, "for someone who so often finds himself facing it. Now... I believe you have a school term to complete. Something about a Divination project?"
"I've lost my taste for that," Harry admitted. "I cannot bear one more portent of war. I get it already."
"Perhaps," suggested Dumbledore, "if you look hard enough, you will find some predicting peace, as well. One does, generally, follow the other."
Harry wouldn't count on that, but he would try nonetheless. It was good to have something to look forward to.
The study room, which had served them so well throughout an arduous but ultimately successful Divination project, also served as an ideal location to revise for their final exams. Even when it was just Harry and Draco, and they weren't speaking to one another.
"Where are you going, then?" asked Harry when it became clear that Draco wasn't going to offer any information on his own. "After exams, I mean."
"I know what you meant," snapped Draco, flipping a book open. It was so long before he answered that Harry had become convinced he wasn't going to. "I'll stay with Professor Snape this summer."
"Oh," said Harry. "I'm sure that'll be loads of fun."
"It'll be all right," said Draco blandly. "Even if he is one of your kind."
"He's what?" Harry blurted after a moment of shocked silence. "He isn't."
Draco sighed. "Don't," he said. "I know he is, Harry, he told him himself. We've talked. A lot."
"I'm not so sure," Harry muttered, but Draco either didn't hear him or chose not to answer. Snape might have been fighting for Dumbledore, but he wasn't on Harry's side and he never would be.
"I believe him," said Draco after a moment. "Even if I don't believe that old fool Dumbledore."
"Yes, well, neither do I, most of the time," said Harry. "But I believe he will win this."
"So does Snape," admitted Draco. He fell silent for a moment, then, "You told me you would win."
"I did," said Harry. "I win, or I die. And I'd just as soon not die yet."
"Me as well," said Draco. "That's why I... you understand that, don't you?"
Harry shrugged. He imagined there were a lot of reasons Draco made the choice that he had. He didn't fool himself into thinking he was a big one, but he thought that perhaps he was at least somewhere in the mix.
"What will we be?" Harry asked him after a moment. "When we come back next year. What will we be, you and me?"
"I don't know, Harry," said Draco, sounding very tired and very uncertain. "I really don't know."
Just this once, Harry was okay with not knowing. This was all more exciting that way.
Author's notes:.......... Much thanks to Jawa and Heidi, and particulary to Pet for enduring my last-minute franticness. And to the organizers of this challenge, who put so much work into making it happen. And to the artists and the other participating authors! Whose work I have yet to see but am eagerly anticipating.
SummaryThe seeker who draws the Wheel of Fortune card is at the beginning of a cycle. He is able to change at a moment's notice, but the wheel will turn with or without him. An opportunity may present itself; the seeker must take action or the opportunity will be lost. This is a turning point in his life.
Fic Links♥ Comment
» Printable Version
+ Beyond Wild Moor and Fen
+ Hall of Mirrors
+ Queen of Hearts
+ Wheel of Fortune
¤ Art Index