Chapter 1: The Patronus
Harry spent the next week at Privet Drive waiting to leave. Dudley was great, and it was nice that Uncle Vernon didn't seem to hate him anymore, but that was nothing compared to people who actually genuinely wanted Harry. And he would get to spend the whole rest of the summer there. He'd already written to all his friends, telling them the good news. Dudley didn't object only because Harry promised he'd find a way to get Dudley to the Quidditch World Cup without provoking Uncle Vernon's concerns about Sirius.
He even wrote Luna, telling her that he was sorry but Sirius had denied any connection with Stubby Boardman. He had seemed positively delighted by the idea, though, and Harry was happy he asked. He'd only spent a day at Sirius' house, but it was obvious that Lupin was right about Sirius' 'emotional state'. For all that he was thrilled to meet Harry, he would sometimes fall into silences that were hard to snap him out of, and Lupin's methods had a questionable success rate.
It turned out Dudley was actually staying at Privet Drive for Aunt Marge's visit, and Harry wished him luck. Perhaps the sting of Aunt Petunia's leaving was more dull now, or at least Aunt Marge would have stopped talking about it, and Dudley could have an okay visit with his aunt. Harry was just glad he didn't have to be there.
The day of his return to Sirius and Lupin's house arrived, and Harry boarded the Knight Bus with Lupin, excited and grateful that Lupin had given in easily on the subject of the flying car. The Knight Bus was faster, anyway.
Living with Sirius and Professor Lupin was interesting, to say the least. Lupin told Harry at least twice a day to stop calling him Professor, but Harry couldn't help it. He'd just spent a year being taught by the man and being chastised about not calling him Professor. It was going to take time.
Unexpectedly, the fact that Harry was a Slytherin didn't come up very often. Harry rather thought that Sirius and Lupin were trying to forget about that aspect of Harry. When Sirius asked what colour carpet Harry wanted in his bedroom, he said green, just to see what Sirius would do.
Sirius had paused, glanced at Harry, and seemed to bolster himself with a brisk nod. Harry's carpet was Slytherin green.
Aside from Harry's minor carpet colour rebellion, he tried to be a very agreeable houseguest, mostly because when Harry was being cheerful, Sirius was less likely to fall into one of his silences. According to Lupin, that was the point of this summer. Enough so that Lupin discouraged Harry from asking about his parents, before they even got off the Knight Bus.
"It's not that you can't ask about them," he said, having seen Harry's disgruntlement. "I'd just prefer to be certain he can handle thinking about them first. He's been avoiding the thought of your parents so far, maybe because it's just been the two of us and the memories are more painful than anything else."
Harry didn't like the story embargo one bit. But he understood that this summer was about Sirius, so he kept his mouth shut. Fortunately it wasn't a problem for long; Sirius was already talking about Harry's parents during the in-depth tour of the house.
"And you've seen the dining room," Sirius said, stepping into a section of the house with wood flooring, covered with plush rugs and a dining table. They crossed that section and moved on to the red carpeted area where they'd spent a large amount of time on Harry's last visit. "And the sitting room." There were several comfortable red couches and small cherry tables scattered about the area, and a few of them poked their corners haphazardly onto the nearby kitchen tiles. On the other side, a Gryffindor themed tapestry hung from the back of a bookshelf in the library (more wood flooring). Harry remembered being mildly startled by all the red on his last visit.
"James would have liked this room," Sirius said. "He always did like red."
Harry glanced at Lupin, who was watching Sirius intently. Sirius looked around the room for a moment, his expression blank, and Lupin's features began to take on a hint of worry. Then Sirius looked down at Harry, smiled, and continued as though the pause had never existed. "I think that's one reason he liked your mother so much at first. Her hair. They had such a row when she wanted to cut it short, and they weren't even dating at the time. She was furious, as you might expect, that he thought he could tell her what to do, and he just hated the thought that all her hair might disappear. He went on about it. You'd think she was planning to shave her head."
Harry was almost afraid to respond, as if that might break the spell and force Sirius' face back into a blank mask. "Did she do it?" he asked after a moment. Sirius laughed, short and unfamiliar, and Lupin's face split into a surprised smile.
"Of course she did it," Sirius said. "Your mother was nothing if not stubborn. James sulked for weeks."
After that, Lupin sometimes even instigated stories for Harry.
Harry usually slept fairly well at Sirius and Lupin's house. He only became aware that he was the only one when they forgot the silencing charms one night, and Harry was jolted awake at three in the morning to the sounds of Sirius' moaning and shouting. He lay in bed, staring wide eyed at the ceiling as Sirius began chanting 'No, no no,' and the sound of glass breaking rang out.
There were walls on the second floor, though they were paper thin. Harry had discovered early on that he could make his room bigger by shoving at them and encroaching on Remus or the hallway. Tonight, he could tell exactly when Remus jumped out of bed, because he leaned against their shared wall, and Harry watched it slide toward him, bowed in the center.
Remus lived between Harry and Sirius, which, according to Sirius, had been a brilliant move on Harry's part. The two of them had conspired to shrink Remus' room to the size of a matchbox more than once. Remus had retaliated by placing heavy wardrobes along those walls, and Harry could still remember clearly the look on his face when Harry and Sirius had pushed Sirius' wall hard enough to break past it, so that the wardrobe ended up in Sirius' room with a patch of wall behind it, and repairs were needed. Harry huddled under his blankets and hoped Remus wasn't about to fall through, though fortunately the indent in the wall disappeared a moment later, and a door slammed.
Harry had originally thought that movable walls was a great idea. Now, though, he didn't like the design at all. He could hear the soothing words Lupin spoke as he woke Sirius. He could hear everything, and that was when he realised they were acting out a nightly ritual, that this sort of thing was commonplace. Harry felt like an intruder, and tried to block out the sound of their voices and go back to sleep while wishing the walls were thicker. It took a long time, and as he lay curled on his side with his back to Remus' wall, listening to their voices and trying not to, all he could do was imagine what it must be like to wake up screaming on a nightly basis.
"Sirius, I've been thinking," Lupin said one day over breakfast. Sirius continued eating with an encouraging nod. "Harry should know how to perform the Patronus Charm."
Harry looked up from his toast, curious. He vaguely remembered Draco's mentioning the Patronus as a way to repel dementors, and recalled asking Lupin about it once. But the dementors were gone. Harry kept his mouth shut and watched Lupin watch Sirius.
Sirius had looked up from his breakfast now as well, a wry sort of smile on his face. "Do you think so?"
Lupin nodded seriously. "The wards on the house should keep the Ministry from noticing, not that they'd bother you again anyway."
They had a short staring contest, which gave Harry time to wrack his brains for what he knew about the Patronus. It required a happy memory to summon and...oh.
Sirius sighed and nodded. "Fine. I suppose I'll be demonstrating?"
Lupin beamed at him. "Repeatedly."
Harry went walking that day, while Lupin and Sirius worked out the details involved in teaching Harry the charm.
The Weasleys did live nearby. Harry wandered out of the fields and discovered the sister in a tree. She nearly fell out when she saw him.
"Oh, hello," she said, blushing furiously. "I – Ron said you were staying nearby, I didn't realise you were so close."
Harry nodded. "We're over in a field somewhere that way," he said, pointing. He hadn't gone exploring before this, and was only somewhat optimistic about his ability to find the sapling again.
"Oh, right," she said, nodding back. Harry waited for her to say more. She didn't. He considered asking if she knew Luna. The awkward pause that had developed reminded him of her. Luna was very good at awkward pauses, though she never seemed to notice the awkward aspect of things. Unlike Luna, the Weasley sister did notice, and blushed further.
"Er, want to pl – do something?" she asked, watching him hopefully. Harry shrugged and looked around the copse of trees.
"Sure. How far away is your house, anyway?"
She pointed to the east. "It's not far that way. I can see it from here, even."
Harry turned to look, but his view was clearly much more obstructed than hers. He glanced around and swung himself up into a nearby tree, and looked where she had been pointing.
"That's an interesting house," he said after a moment. She stared at him, and he grinned. "I've never seen anything quite like it."
It turned out that Harry didn't need to find the sapling again. Ron eventually found them after they abandoned the trees and started walking back to the Weasley's house. Harry found the conversation incredibly scarce, and eventually just asked about Luna.
She did know Luna, it turned out, and what's more, Luna lived nearby, and they had played together when they were younger. Harry was intrigued.
Ron came barrelling toward them as they neared the house.
"Harry, what're you doing here?" he asked, eyeing his sister and Harry suspiciously. She blushed again.
"I was exploring and I found your sister," Harry said, shrugging. Harry still wasn't entirely sure of her name, though he remembered her being among the Weasleys he'd gone to Diagon Alley with before third year. He remembered knowing it then, and it was on the tip of his tongue now. It was far too late to ask, though, having missed the opportunity in the trees.
"Mum's looking for you, Ginny," Ron said, still watching Harry.
Ginny! Ginny was her name. Harry filed this information away for later use and waved goodbye as she started off down the path again. "Bye, Ginny," he called, and he could see her ears turning red as she walked away.
Ron narrowed his eyes.
"What's with you and my sister?" he asked. Harry blinked at him, surprised.
"I told you, I found her in a tree. She said you were down here so I thought I'd come say hi."
Ron's suspicious glare didn't cease, and Harry suddenly realized what was wrong. He laughed a little.
"I have no interest in your sister, Ron, Merlin," he said, raising his hands in a peacemaking gesture. "I didn't even know her name until you said it just now."
Ron's glare died a little bit. "How did you manage a whole conversation without saying her name?"
Harry shrugged. Ron grinned at him. "Well then, in that case. Mum's going to kill her for climbing trees again. Do you have your broom with you?"
It took Harry weeks and weeks to create a corporeal Patronus. He made sure of it.
Once he'd gotten the hang of the spell, which admittedly did take a few weeks, he began purposefully doing it wrong. Each time he failed, Sirius gave him a small, reassuring smile, closed his eyes for a long moment, and summoned up his own Patronus, a large black dog, similar to his animagus form.
The demonstrations were useful, though Harry didn't really need so many. But that wasn't the point. Harry was well aware that he was not being taught this for his own sake. There weren't going to be dementors at school next year. Hopefully, he'd never have to go near another dementor again.
But that wasn't the point.
Sirius mentioned using the Patronus as a method of communication one day, and Lupin jumped on it. After that, Sirius sent messages to Harry and Lupin from across the house constantly, and Lupin spent a day explaining the theory behind it to Harry, even though he hadn't yet been able to form a corporeal Patronus, which was fine. Harry was perfectly happy to serve as a flimsy cover for Sirius' unorthodox therapy, as long as he got something out of it.
And he did. Harry learned quite a lot. More than just the Patronus, once he'd figured it out. He was learning how to prevent himself from casting successfully, how to control how much magic he used. Harry was hopeful that this meant he was learning focus. Snape would be happy, come the start of term.
As the end of the summer (and the Quidditch World Cup) approached, Sirius stopped smiling reassuringly at Harry when he failed, and began to look sceptical.
"Alright, Harry, drop it," Sirius said one day, grinning at him. "Remus is in the loo. It'll be between you and me. Can you really do it? Let's see your Patronus."
Harry deliberated. It didn't really matter if Remus could see them or not, though he thought maybe the ruse would be more difficult to keep up if everyone was in on it. This way he and Sirius could have something to keep from Remus, and so a reason to continue.
He shrugged and cast, thinking about how much happier Sirius seemed now, in comparison to the first time Harry met him. A stag burst out of his wand and trotted around the room. Sirius stared at it and blinked rapidly.
"Prongs," he said, and turned a blinding grin on Harry, who was shocked when Sirius suddenly descended on him and gave him a tight hug.
Harry lay in his bed the night before they were due to leave for the World Cup, unable to sleep but for excitement. Draco was going to be at the World Cup, as was Blaise.
Anthony was decidedly not going, even when Harry invited him. Anthony didn't care one jot about Quidditch. Hermione declined as well, though she had a better reason than 'eh', which was the best Anthony could come up with. Harry'd been annoyed at how much indifference Anthony could express in one written word. Hermione had at least managed a sentence of regretful apathy. The remaining four pages of her letter were what Harry considered her excuse, though they were really more Hermione going on and on about Greece, which was where she was spending most of the summer.
Bookworms were useless when it came to brooms, Harry decided.
The Weasleys were also going. Ron's father managed to get tickets at the last minute, according to Ron. He'd invited Neville and Dudley, which fulfilled Harry's promise to Dudley, which Harry had been appreciative of as he hadn't been able to think of anything else short of lying to Uncle Vernon.
The Aunt Marge Visit went well, according to the letter Dudley sent for Harry's birthday. Aunt Marge had indeed found better things to talk about than Dudley's mother, though that didn't mean she didn't mention Petunia at all. 'She's Aunt Marge', Dudley wrote. Harry understood that sentiment more completely than Dudley could imagine.
He must have fallen asleep at some point, because Harry woke to Sirius jostling him and threatening a bath-in-bed if he didn't get up. Harry was disoriented, having had a strange dream, and his head hurt.
He waved Sirius out of the room with promises to be downstairs for breakfast in half an hour, then sat, rubbing his forehead absentmindedly and thinking about the dream. It hadn't been pleasant, and Harry was glad Sirius woke him when he did. There had been a snake, and a baby. Or something, the baby had looked odd. And there had been a dead body, an old man. Harry shuddered. The snake had been eating him.
All in all, it was disturbing. Harry got up and started his morning routine, trying to forget. It had been so vivid.
When Sirius, Remus and Harry arrived at the large camping grounds and had their tent pitched, Harry went exploring. The Weasleys were already here, had been since last night. Harry saw Neville, Dudley and Ron pass by, apparently collecting water, and they stopped for a short conversation before continuing their journey back to their tent. As far as Harry knew, none of his Slytherin friends had arrived yet, though he kept an eye out for the giant blue tent Draco had described as he wandered the area. Remus and Sirius were still at their site, setting up a fire and ignoring their neighbours, who were blatant with their stares. Harry knew some of those stares had followed him as he wandered off, and remembered Sirius' advice to keep alert. He began to notice the ridiculous attire of the few wizards that had bothered to obey the muggle dress requirements, and grinned as a man in a flowery nightgown walked past, muttering to himself and lugging a pail of water.
Eventually, he ended up finding the Weasleys again, and joined them. Arthur, who had lent Remus the flying car, was talking to another, sombre man.
"It's a great loss," he was saying. Harry sat down on a log and surveyed the campsite. They appeared to have pitched the tent by hand. He was impressed. Ron saw him looking and rolled his eyes.
"Dad made us do it the muggle way," he said. "He was really excited."
Harry grinned. "Remus set up our tent in about five seconds, but Sirius and I were playing fetch. I threw the stick too close to the tent and he landed on it."
On the other side of the fire, Arthur nodded soberly to his companion. "Barty was a good man."
Ron laughed, as did Neville and Dudley.
"How was Aunt Marge?" Harry asked Dudley. "I know you said she was fine, but..."
Dudley shrugged. "She bought me a Playstation. I don't know what I'm going to do with it. I mean, I couldn't bring it to Hogwarts with me."
"You just can't trust a house elf these days."
"What's a Playstation?" Neville asked. Dudley set about in an attempt to explain the wonders of video games to Ron and Neville, who were still having trouble with the concept of light bulbs. Harry sat back and watched, making no attempt to help. It wasn't like he'd ever played a video game.
Fred and George joined them in the middle of Dudley's explanation, and sat down on either side of Harry. He glanced between them, and they grinned in unison.
"Hey, Harry," said the twin on the left. Harry labelled him Fred, and stuck with it. George spoke next.
"How's life with two Marauders been treating you?"
Harry smiled. "It's been great, actually, I -"
"-should introduce us?" George and Fred looked at each other over Harry's head.
"Why, Harry, that's so thoughtful of you!" Fred and George linked their arms with Harry's, whose eyes widened in surprise at the motion. Before he could move, the two of them stood up, taking him with them.
"Positively delightful, what a jolly good fellow you are, Harry."
"We saw a few Slytherins on the way over, didn't we George?"
"We did, Fred, we did. They were tucked away in a corner, we were lucky to see them. Doubt we would have found them without two pairs of eyes."
"I don't know," George said. "The blonde hair was kind of a giveaway. But they were well hidden."
"I suppose we'll have to find them again," Fred grinned. "After Harry introduces us, of course."
Harry rolled his eyes. Good to know that Draco was here, then. The twins began frog-marching Harry down the path, swerving unerringly between tents and making a beeline for the area where Harry knew Remus and Sirius had set up camp.
"How do you know where our site is?" Harry asked suspiciously as the familiar red tent came into view.
"We looked, of course," Fred said, and grinned. His twin matched him tooth for tooth.
"Oh, don't look so disturbed," George said. "We just looked."
They reached their destination in record time. Sirius looked up as they approached, and smiled uncertainly at the two older boys restraining his godson. They continued to grip Harry's arms until Harry rolled his eyes and said, "Sirius, this is Fred and George Weasley. Fred and George, this is Sirius. Or Padfoot, I suppose."
Sirius raised his eyebrows at the mention of his nickname. "Weasley, eh?" he said.
Fred and George nodded enthusiastically, still gripping Harry's arms, which were starting to feel numb. Harry very carefully extricated himself and sat down by the fire. This seemed to snap Fred and George out of their stupor, and they threw themselves on the ground next to Harry, grinning.
"We've heard so much about you, sir," George said.
"The mastermind behind so many of the Marauder's misdeeds." Fred sighed. "We have so much to learn from you."
Sirius had been confused at first, then pleased, then perfectly happy to regale the Weasley twins with stories of his Hogwarts days. When Remus reappeared, having gone to get water, he found the four of them howling with laughter over Sirius' impression of a suit of armour that had been charmed to follow Flitwick around the school, mimicking his every movement and providing a running commentary, courtesy of a brief truce with Peeves. Remus listened for a moment, and grinned.
"You're talking about when Peeves turned on us and attacked you and James with that suit of armour, aren't you?"
"Remus!" Sirius gave him a dirty look. "You ruined the story."
"No, he didn't!" Fred protested.
"Go on," his twin added. "Tell us about Peeves."
As Sirius began to speak again, gesturing with his arms for emphasis, Harry spotted Draco and Blaise walking down the path between the various tents, and waved. They spotted him, then the Weasleys and Sirius. Draco stopped and stared, though Blaise continued walking and even had the presence of mind to reach back and grab Draco's arm, tugging him along.
"Hi Harry," he said, sitting down on the grass with Harry and attempting to pull Draco down next to him without looking away from Sirius' impersonation of a cowering Remus. Remus was objecting to such crass misrepresentation and demanding that Sirius tell them what he'd done.
"Well, brave Gryffindor that I am, I-"
"Ran off in the opposite direction like an eight year old girl," Remus finished smugly. Sirius gave him another dirty look as the twins chortled.
"It's called a tactical retreat, Moony," he said in a long-suffering voice.
"He seems cheerful," Draco said, having resisted Blaise's attempts to pull him to the ground. He sat down fastidiously next to Harry, his cloak underneath him. Harry looked at him askance.
"I like these robes," Draco said defensively. When Harry's expression did not change, Draco huffed and shoved him with a shoulder. "Shut up. What are Weasleys doing here?"
"They wanted to meet Sirius," Harry said, shrugging. "They just kind of invited themselves over."
They listened to a few more stories, but Draco seemed antsy, so Harry excused the three of them with a wave and pulled Draco and Blaise off away from the tent. They began walking in the direction Blaise and Draco had come from, and Draco relaxed noticeably.
"What's wrong?" Harry asked. Blaise watched Draco expectantly as they waited for an answer. Draco's movements were slightly jerky as he looked around at the people passing them by, clearly avoiding Harry's gaze.
"Nothing's wrong, why do you ask?"
Harry rolled his eyes and glanced at Blaise, whose mouth was twisted with impatience as he watched Draco. He obviously knew something. If Harry couldn't get it out of Draco, he was going to have to get Blaise alone and interrogate him instead.
"You're all..." Harry waved his hands helplessly. "Twitchy. Or something. And prissy."
Blaise grinned at Harry's words, and at Draco's offended glare.
"I am not prissy."
"'I like these robes,'" Harry mimicked, and mock-curtseyed at Draco. "That's not prissy? Really?"
Draco made a face. "Well I do like them. And they were expensive. Mother will have my head if I ruin them." He paused, apparently considering something. "And I'm not twitchy either. It's not my fault if you surround yourself with Gryffindors, though I've no idea why you'd want to."
Harry sighed. "I like some Gryffindors. Where's your tent, anyway?"
"It's over there somewhere," Draco said, gesturing vaguely. "Let's go look around."
He led them in the opposite direction, and Harry looked at Blaise, confused. Blaise had the beginnings of a glare on his face, though he softened when he looked at Harry and shrugged apologetically.
They never did visit Draco's tent.
The match was spectacular, and Harry enjoyed it thoroughly. Sirius and Remus sat next to him, cheering unabashedly for Ireland every time they scored a goal. The Bulgarian seeker caught the snitch, but Ireland still won, and their throats were hoarse by the end of the night.
"Bloody amazing," Sirius said, grinning widely as they sat around the table inside their tent, nursing cups of honeyed tea. After a few hours of rehashing the match, they all retired, and Harry fell asleep with a grin still firmly lodged on his face. It had been a great night, and an even better summer.
He woke a few hours later to Sirius jostling him again, his face white and anxious.
"Get some clothes on and get your wand," he said, his voice eerily calm. Harry could hear noises in the next room, though it was the scream that really got him out of bed.
"What's going on?" he asked as he stumbled into a pair of trousers. Harry had never seen Sirius like this, his entire being tense and alert, his wand at the ready as though they were about to be attacked. When Harry had first met him, it was sometimes difficult to get Sirius' attention at all; such focus was unthinkable.
"Some of the Death Eaters that got off decided to have a bit of fun," Sirius said darkly, and Harry nearly fell over.
"What?" he asked, shocked. Remus appeared at the door an instant later, summoned by Harry's raised voice. He was almost as tense as Sirius.
"Just some revellers, drunk, no doubt," he said in an attempt to be soothing.
"They've got that family of muggles spinning round up in the air," Sirius said, ruining any soothing effect Remus might have had. "We're going to help stop them."
"And by we, Sirius means the two of us," Remus told Harry firmly. "Go into the forest, try to find the Weasleys." He paused, staring at Harry's pale face, as though deliberating what he should say. "They're setting things on fire, you can't stay here. Find the Weasleys. We'll find you when everything calms down."
"And keep alert," Sirius said, a parody of his earlier admonition. Still groggy and bewildered, Harry did as he was told and followed them out of the tent. The forest was only a few meters from their site, and Sirius and Remus were heading toward all the destruction. Harry's path was a much calmer alternative.
Not that the forest was calm by any means, Harry realised as he stepped into the trees and discovered how many others had had the same idea as Remus. The forest was thronging with panicked, confused people. It was going to be a trick to find anyone in this, let alone the Weasleys. Harry considered looking for Draco instead, figuring that such bright hair would be hard to miss, even at night.
He began searching, very aware of how alone he was as small groups of people rushed past, shoving him out of the way when they caught him by surprise.
Harry stood flush against a tree and tried to think. He needed to find someone. Wandering around in the dark like this wasn't working. And Remus said they'd find him, which probably meant one of them would send their Patronus after him; that was the method Remus usually had Sirius use when Harry was out wandering the fields and took too long in getting home.
Harry considered the idea from several angles. He doubted he'd be in trouble for using magic in this situation, and the Patronus would be able to find whoever he sent the message to. Harry would just have to follow it. And it would be nice to have light and company.
Harry decided to look for Draco. He and Blaise might be in the same situation, and anyway, he hadn't seen them since before the match. Ron, Neville and Dudley had found Harry on the walk back to the tents, and they'd all had a good time arguing about the outcome.
Harry cast the Patronus and sent it off with the message for Draco. It cantered along, and Harry followed at a rapid pace. Another upside of wandering around with a Patronus as large as Harry's was that people saw it ahead of time and Harry wasn't getting jostled anymore.
He found Draco at the edge of the forest, and what's more, the Weasley group was with him. Harry paused at the edge of the clearing, because Ron and Draco were glaring daggers at each other and Harry was not about to get caught in the middle of whatever argument they were having. He cancelled his Patronus, even, and listened.
"I bet your daddy's out there with the rest of them, levitating muggles," Ron was saying accusingly. Harry was taken aback by the level of ferocity in his voice.
"Fuck you, Weasley," Draco snarled. He had been leaning against a tree, but now he was bristling and advancing on Ron as though he'd hit him. Blaise stepped forward, thankfully, to restrain Draco and interrupt the fight. Neville, Dudley and the other Weasleys weren't about to help, from the look of things.
"Look, this is stupid," Blaise said reasonably. "Now is not the time, both of you."
"Just because you're friends with Harry Potter doesn't give you the right to tell me what to do, Zabini," Ron sneered. "Did you even see what they were doing to those muggles, Malfoy, or did you just think it was funny? Does Harry know what your father does for fun?"
"Shut the fuck up," Draco snarled dangerously. Blaise's efforts to defuse the fight were obviously not working, despite his continued attempts to keep the two apart. Neville had finally stepped forward to put a hand on Ron's arm, at least. "He doesnot."
Ron snorted, and Harry thought this was about the time to intervene. He tried not to think about who the 'he' might be in Draco's last words, summoned his Patronus again, and sent it out to Draco, following closely. The stag caught everyone's attention, and Harry looked around at them all, schooling his face into relief.
"Great, you're all together," he said. The tension from moments ago was still there, but Harry pretended not to notice. Draco was still breathing heavily, but everything else about him spoke of calm. He listened to the message Harry's patronus gave him and smiled briefly.
"I was rooting for Bulgaria," he admitted. "And I'm fine."
Harry looked around at the rest of his friends, noting that Ron still looked furious. Neville was still at his side, though his face was pale, as was Dudley's. The twins had Ginny between them, and were watching the entire scene with intrigued expressions.
Blaise was watching Harry with a similar expression, and Harry turned away from him. One person, at least, had seen through his pretence. And he and Harry were going to talk soon. Answers would be had.
Chapter 2: The Pressure
Harry didn't get a chance to talk to Blaise until the train ride to Hogwarts a week later. A letter wouldn't solve this, after all. On the Express, it didn't take long for Harry to pull Blaise away from Pansy and Draco and into an empty compartment.
Harry gave Blaise a very determined stare, which Blaise responded to with a raised eyebrow.
"You were there the whole time," Blaise said, and Harry jerked his head in a nod.
"What was Ron going on about?" Harry asked. He didn't want to think Draco was hiding things from him, but he clearly was. Harry still had hope that Blaise would absolve Draco and his father of anything like what Ron had been suggesting.
Blaise was silent, frowning. "As much as I want to tell you, it's not my place to say," he eventually admitted.
Harry gaped at him. "Are you joking? What's Draco hiding? You know."
"I do," Blaise agreed, shrugging apologetically. "But I can't tell you. For one, Draco would kill me. And it really isn't my place. I've been trying to convince him to talk to you, though. Perhaps you should make the first move in this."
Harry grimaced. "What can you tell me?"
Blaise gave him a faint, sympathetic smile. "Draco has the best of intentions," he said. Harry stared, and Blaise shrugged. "Not good enough? Then ask Draco."
"Tell me something concrete," Harry said. "Anything."
Blaise shook his head at Harry and cuffed him on the arm. "Be a Slytherin about it, Harry. What's wrong with you?"
And with that, he turned around and walked out of the compartment. Harry watched him go, feeling the beginnings of a headache coming on.
He resolved to speak to Draco after the Welcome Feast. Answers were going to be had.
When they arrived in the Great Hall, dripping from the rain outside and Peeves' water balloons, Harry had decided to make his first Slytherin move in the attempt to discover Draco's secret. Spending the summer with Gryffindors had softened Harry, and Blaise was right. He'd been far too blunt in his questioning on the train. He was a shame to his House.
"Draco," Harry began, turning to look at him as they walked around the end of the Slytherin table to their usual seats. He faltered when he saw that Draco was walking on the other side of the table, with Blaise, and that Pansy had doubled back to sit on Harry's side, her face blank. Blaise was wearing an unreadable expression, and Draco was clearly trying to pretend everything was normal.
Harry was drawing a blank, suddenly. Draco always sat next to him at meals, since their Sorting. "Er, never mind," he said. Blaise frowned at Draco, which he either didn't notice or pretended not to see. Pansy's face was still carefully impassive as Harry sat down next to her.
It was a very eventful meal, what with the new Defence teacher showing up halfway through Dumbledore's speech, looking all gnarled and sinister, and the news that Quidditch was cancelled for the year, to be replaced by the Triwizard Tournament. Draco managed to ignore Harry for the entire meal, with such material at his fingertips.
It was the same way in classes over the next couple weeks. Draco partnered with Pansy in classes they all had together, and talked to Harry rarely outside class, though he always acted like nothing was wrong when he did. It was during their second DADA class that Harry realised just how furious he was about the way Draco was acting.
The new Defense professor, Moody, had shown them the Unforgivables in the previous class. Now, he was planning to test them all for resistance to the Imperius curse. Something about this seemed off to Harry; maybe it was just that the professor had already made it pretty clear that performing the Imperius on humans was illegal. Who knew. Either way, any protests were quickly silenced by the professor's silent, dichromatic glare, and students began to reluctantly line up. Pansy made certain she was at the end of the line, and pulled Harry with her.
"I miss Lockhart," she muttered. When Harry stared at her, incredulous, she gestured vaguely at the new professor. "Did Lockhart ever do anything like this?" she asked, as Theo Nott hopped around the room like a frog. "No. He just sat around, looking pretty and babbling nonsense at us. This one shouts and stares at you with that eye. I bet anything he's looking through Daphne's skirt right now."
Daphne was next in line, it was true, and Moody was staring at her fiercely as he cast the curse. Harry hoped Moody wasn't looking through her skirt. He'd worn that same expression while staring at Harry a little while ago. It didn't bear thinking about.
They had this class with Ravenclaws, and the entertainment value was potentially high. No group of Harry's year mates were quite as uptight as a combined class of Slytherins and Ravenclaws, and Moody was sparing no expense as he thought up more and more ridiculous things for each of them to do. Harry got the idea that there would have been laughter, had everyone not been so worried about what they might end up doing.
Anthony sidled up next to Harry in line, having neared the front and realised his folly.
"Lisa is having a panic attack," he said under his breath, as one of the other Ravenclaw boys twirled around the room and sang the Hogwarts school song in a high pitched voice. The three of them winced in unison as he passed near them. "She absolutely does not want anything to do with this lesson."
Pansy frowned sympathetically, which Harry thought was something, considering that the last time she'd spoken to Anthony last year, she called him insane. They both had apparently forgotten though; Anthony because he was Anthony, and Pansy because it would be stupid of her to remind him.
"Tell her she has cramps," Pansy responded, almost inaudibly. "Terrible cramps. The spell is Adstringo volva. You end it withFinite."
Anthony nodded and disappeared again.
"Wish I could get out of things so easily," Harry said enviously.
Pansy glanced at him, amused. "No you don't," she said. Anthony reappeared a moment later, and it only took a few more minutes after that for Lisa Turpin to start moaning and asking to be excused.
Professor Moody allowed it, though he barked at her to come back quickly. Turpin bolted, and the expression on her face as she passed spoke very clearly to her intention of hiding in the loo for the rest of the hour.
Blaise was up next, and he clucked and strutted around the room for the next little while, pecking at people with his nose. He stopped in front of Harry and crowed like a rooster, and Harry pressed his lips together to hide his amusement, because it wasn't funny.
"Potter, you're up next,' Moody said, and Harry glanced up, surprised. There was a whole class in front of him in line. He could feel Pansy distancing herself from him, but he didn't look back at her. He walked into the centre of the room, where everyone else had begun their turn, and waited.
"Imperio," Moody said, and a feeling of incredible lightness fell over Harry like an Invisibility Cloak. It didn't matter what he did now. He could do anything.
"Do a handstand," a voice in his head suggested.
He could do a handstand. He raised his arms, then paused. Why though? He couldn't even do handstands. He always fell. He started to raise his arms again, and caught himself. Draco was standing not five feet away in line, looking elsewhere. Harry would probably fall, and land on Draco, which meant he'd probably end up kicking him in the face.
Harry raised his arms again. See if Draco could ignore Harry when he was kicking him in the face.
But then, Harry really didn't want to do a handstand, or kick Draco in the face, no matter how tempting it was. He ended up trying to do a handstand and trying to stop himself, and the result was that he threw himself on the ground, nearly headfirst. The lovely floaty feeling ended abruptly, and left Harry with a throbbing headache from where he'd landed. Moody was crowing something above him, and Harry stood, trying to block out the roar of the professor's voice and reorient himself.
Moody was going on about how Harry had nearly resisted the curse, and it occurred to Harry that he might have resisted altogether if Draco hadn't been standing there, practically begging to be kicked.
And that was when he realised just how upset he really was at Draco for ignoring him, just before Moody cast Imperio again, to test Harry's limits.
Blaise was glaring at Draco by the end of classes that Friday, and tugged Draco away just before dinner. Harry didn't mind. It wasn't as though Draco was going to talk to him, anyway.
The only reason Harry could come up with for Draco's abrupt change was that he knew Harry had heard Ron's accusations at the Cup, and that they had some basis in reality. Draco was trying to avoid questioning by avoiding Harry, and Harry decided that was answer enough. When Draco and Blaise showed up in the common room after dinner that night, Harry turned to Pansy and pretended they were in the middle of an in depth discussion about Ancient Runes, which Pansy was admittedly not taking. Because she was Harry's favourite person ever, she didn't allow that to deter her and played along like a champion. It didn't matter in the end, though, because Draco made a beeline for the dorm, never even glancing in their direction.
Blaise sat down with them, and they let the flimsy conversation drop.
"He's being stubborn," Blaise said to Harry, who was biting his tongue and trying very hard to keep his expression neutral, while wishing he had taken that opportunity to kick Draco during Defense.
"Draco is an idiot." Pansy put her hand on Harry's arm in a comforting gesture. "Remember second year? He was an idiot then and he's an idiot now."
Harry gave up on keeping his expression neutral, and allowed it to twist into the scowl he'd been fighting. "So this is the same thing, then?" he demanded. "He's still not over that pureblood supremacy shit?" He sneered. "And his father probably spent the summer encouraging it, if he really was levitating those muggles at the Cup."
Blaise looked uncomfortable. "It's not that he believes in it, Harry," he said. "It's just that he's got a lot of pressure on him at home."
Harry snorted. "I don't even care. I don't. If he wants to talk to me, fine. If he'd rather been a muggle-hating bigot, fine. I don't care."
"Harry," Pansy said, looking worried for the first time. Harry stood up.
'No. I don't care." And he left the common room.
Draco continued to distance himself from Harry, though he now had Harry's help. Harry sat as far away from Draco at meals as he could while still technically sitting with his friends. Draco's eagle owl was a frequent visitor to the table, sans the usual sweets, and he never finished his breakfast after his owl arrived, instead spending the rest of the meal perusing the letter with an anxious air about him.
Harry didn't notice this, because he didn't care. Draco was ignoring Harry, so Harry could ignore Draco just as easily. Harry's resolve only firmed when he realised Draco was spending most of his time with Vince and Greg, and with the older Slytherins that tended to sneer when they saw Harry with his Gryffindor friends. It was exactly the same as second year, and Harry already knew what they probably talked about, and why Draco was associating with them. He just didn't care.
Harry spent a lot more time with his Gryffindors during the first couple months of school than he usually did. Hermione didn't question it, and she looked a lot better than she had at the end of the school year. Greece had been good to her.
"Did you get rid of the Time Turner, then?" Harry asked, as they pulled out their homework. Hermione had less books than usual, at least.
"No," Hermione said, shrugging. "I dropped Divination, and suddenly it's all so much more bearable. It was that useless class pulling me down last year. And I've decided that, in Muggle Studies, all the reading assignments are optional."
Harry stared at her, his mouth open slightly. "Hermione Granger, slacking off?"
Hermione blushed a bit, and lifted her chin. "It's not as though I don't know most of it already. And I do the readings. Just not always on time."
Harry continued to gape at her. She leaned forward conspiratorially.
"Don't tell Ron or Dudley," she whispered. "Or Neville, for that matter. I don't want them thinking they can declare homework optional just because I did."
Harry finally found his voice again. "Why don't you just drop the class?"
Hermione shook her head. "Oh, I couldn't," she said earnestly. "It's fascinating, seeing the Muggle world from the wizarding perspective. And often, really, really funny. Wizards don't have a clue, sometimes. Now that I'm not so frantic over the homework, it's turning into my favourite class."
Harry stared at her some more. "Who are you, and what have you done with Hermione Granger?" he asked, after the staring yielded no answers. Hermione smiled fondly at him.
"Last year was a good lesson in limits," she explained. "I'm glad you figured out what was going on when you did, too, else I might have had a nervous breakdown. Now I know what I can and can't handle."
Harry nodded, and asked curiously, "So how many extra hours a week do you have?"
"Two or three," Hermione said, averting her eyes. Harry waited.
"I may have scheduled naps," she admitted sheepishly, and he grinned at her.
"Potter. I may have been careless in my explanation of nonverbal casting at the end of last term, but it is rather the point that you do not say the spell out loud. I apologise if I did not mention that vital detail. Or perhaps you are not clear. A whisper is still generally considered 'out loud'."
Harry rolled his eyes, but only because he was sure Snape couldn't see. His practice with Sirius and Remus during the summer had been enormously helpful, as long as Harry wasn't attempting any spells more complicated or long lasting than Incendio.
"Again," Snape said, and cast a nonverbal spell of his own, presumably to show Harry how. Harry raised his wand to retaliate, opened his mouth automatically, and realised the spell Snape had cast was Silencio.
Snape smirked at him as he attempted to end the spell.
"Anyone who removes that spell for you will have detention for a month," Snape told him, eyes glinting. "I will know."
Harry glared fruitlessly at Snape, which only caused the smirk on his professor's face to widen.
"A new tactic," Snape said, taking advantage of the silence. "Every night, before you fall asleep, you will clear your mind of all thoughts. Every night, Potter. It should become as routine as brushing your teeth."
When Harry nodded, Snape raised his wand and threw another spell at him. Harry very nearly dodged it, before considering that Snape might Petrify him in place. Instead, he grabbed a book from the shelf behind him and held it in the path of the curse. The book burned Harry's hands with the force of it.
The glower on Snape's face was worth burnt hands.
'Finite Incantatem,' Harry thought. It didn't work. Dudley grinned at him.
"So, Harry, can I borrow your Firebolt?" he asked. Harry's eyes widened. "Just go ahead and don't say anything. I'll take the silence as a yes."
Harry opened his mouth and began spouting furiously mouthed silence. There was a reason he was with his Gryffindor friends at the moment, and that was so that his Slytherin friends couldn't take advantage of his inability to speak. Just like Dudley was doing now, the git.
Ron and Neville laughed as Dudley's eyes lit up.
"Yes? Harry, you're such a good cousin. I'll bring it back eventually, don't worry."
Harry glared. 'Finite Incantatem,' he thought again, with more ferocity than ever. And then, when that didn't work, 'Densaugeo.'
Dudley's teeth didn't change. Harry hadn't really expected it to work, though it would have been a nice way to finally figure out nonverbal spells.
Hermione tutted at him. "Harry, Snape said you need to focus. Glaring isn't focusing."
Harry turned his glare on her instead, and she hid her smile a second too late.
"Some of the gardening spells Gran taught me are nonverbal," Neville said. "You've got to think it so clearly that it sounds to you like you've said it out loud, only you haven't."
Harry blinked at him, raised his palms up in the air, and adopted a confused expression.
"I'm with Harry," Ron said, mimicking Harry's posture, though he was grinning instead of furrowing his brow. "What are you talking about?"
"He means like the other day, Ron," said Dudley. "When you said, 'Hermione is such a know-it-all', and you thought you were just thinking it, but you really said it out loud."
Harry laughed soundlessly while Hermione glared at Ron. One good thing about being Silenced in the library was that he could laugh as much as he wanted, and Madame Pince wouldn't scold him.
"I think you're close, Dudley," Hermione said, giving Ron a very pointed look. "But what Neville is talking about is when Ron said, 'I'm so sorry Hermione, you're all that's keeping me from failing out of school, and I can only hope continued grovelling will make up for my incredibly crass comment,' and he thought he was saying it out loud, but he wasn't."
Harry waved her down, still grinning, and picked up his wand to try again. Hopefully laughter wouldn't impede the process.
'Finite Incantatem,' he thought.
"..." he said, and made a face when Dudley grinned at him with his perfectly normal teeth.
Harry did end up letting Dudley borrow his Firebolt, mostly because he wanted to go flying anyway. He was becoming restless without Quidditch practice, and it wasn't like he had anyone to fly with in Slytherin.
"So how's Sirius doing?" Dudley called as he shot past Harry like a gleeful bullet. Harry rolled his eyes. It wasn't like Dudley was going to get an answer out of Harry if he didn't stay still. Sign language and miming didn't work if the person you were trying to communicate with wasn't looking.
Dudley came swooping past again, and his voice was like a train speeding by, if train whistles went through puberty and cracked occasionally.
"Whitey hasn't had time to deliver a letter for me since we got back," he said, and Harry nearly missed the end of his statement as he veered away. As Dudley flew back toward him, Harry got a head start and tried to keep pace.
"I have letters to send to Dad, you know," Dudley told him, slowing down for a moment so they could talk. "Important letters."
Harry conveyed his scepticism with a glance. It was true that he had been monopolising Dudley's owl since they returned to school, but not much had happened outside of the announcement for the Tournament.
"They are important," Dudley said, and tried a few rolls. When he finally righted himself again, he blinked dazedly and shook himself. "And Whitey misses me."
Harry snickered soundlessly and flipped over on his old Nimbus, flying upside-down because he could. Dudley imitated him, and shot off into the sky. It looked like an accident, but Harry followed him anyway, turning it into an upside-down race for the goal posts.
They soared around for a while, until it occurred to Harry that he was usually very focused at Quidditch, and maybe he could try to think about nonverbal spells in the same way he thought about flying. It was worth a shot, anyway, and Harry really didn't want to be mute for more than a day. He was dreading what would happen if he showed up to Snape's Parseltongue lesson still under the spell.
Harry paused in midair, closed his eyes, and thought of the feeling he got when he saw the Snitch. He mentally replaced the Snitch with the words 'Finite Incantatem', floating in front of him, and then he reached out and grasped them.
"..." Harry said, and huffed. He narrowed his eyes and pulled out his wand, staring at it as though it was a Snitch he needed to capture, and thinking about what his own voice sounded like (not to mention how much he wanted to yell at Dudley for the stunt he had just pulled on Harry's broom a second ago). 'Finite Incantatem.'
"Er. ...hey!" Harry said, and realised he could speak. "Dudley!" he yelled, swooping through the air to where his cousin had righted himself and was winding his way between the goalposts. "Did you hear me?" he asked urgently.
Dudley frowned at him. "I hear you now," he said, rubbing his ear. "Just because you can talk again doesn't mean you have to yell at me."
Harry grinned. "It worked," he said, awed. "I can't believe it worked. I want to see what else works. Curse me."
"Cast some curse," Harry said, diving a few feet and staring around at the grass below them. Dudley followed him, curious.
"Which curse?" he asked. Harry shrugged.
"Any curse, go on." He took a deep breath and, using the same method as before, summoned several pebbles. He grinned as they soared out of the grass and into his hand. Enlarging them was another matter altogether, and Harry spoke the words, dropping the Bludger-sized rocks as he grew them.
"Here?" Dudley asked, which was inane in Harry's opinion.
"Well, yes," he said, and waited. Dudley cast Petrifus, which was a dirty move for a first try, seeing as Harry would fall off his broom if he failed.
He didn't though, much to his own delight. He cast the counter nonverbally. It was like a barrier had broken, and where he had stared blankly at explanations before, he understood now. Dudley started to enjoy the mid-air duel after he realised Harry was going to let him attack without retaliation, and Harry was even able to use his mini-boulders. It was positively thrilling, and he began planning all the terrible, terrible pranks he would play on Blaise and blame on Draco, and vice versa.
And then he remembered that he and Draco were barely talking, and one of Dudley's spells got through. Tarantallegra was fortunately harmless in the air, though Harry's broom did swerve wildly for a moment before he was able to cast the counter.
It was just like Draco lately to put a damper on Harry's mood.
Chapter 3: The Arrival
The representatives of the other schools were due to arrive just before dinner, and the entire school was lined up on the lawns, waiting. Pansy told Harry that one of her cousins had gone to Beauxbatons, though he already graduated. Draco told several nearby Slytherins that his father wanted to send him to Durmstrang in first year, only Harry didn't hear him, because he was ignoring Draco.
"Victor Krum goes to Durmstrang," Blaise said, so that they didn't have to stand there in silence and listen to a conversation that didn't include them.
"The Seeker?" Harry asked, grateful. He knew Pansy and Blaise could be over there with Draco, chatting with the older years, and it was good of them to stay with him instead.
"Yeah, he caught the Snitch at the Quidditch World Cup, remember?" They discussed this for a few minutes while Pansy talked to Tracy Davis, until the professors hushed everyone and the Beauxbatons carriage arrived, drawn by giant flying horses. It was impressive, Harry could admit, and he listened while Pansy whispered that they were Abraxan horses.
He didn't listen when Draco told the other Slytherins that his great-grandfather used to breed that type of winged horse.
It didn't take much longer for the Durmstrang contingent to arrive, in a ship of all things, out on the lake and reminding Harry of nothing more than a toy boat bobbing on water that was swirling up a drain instead of down. It was strange to watch.
In the Great Hall, the Beauxbaton students sat with the Ravenclaws, and Harry could hear them sneering over everything from the windows to the cutlery. He was glad to be sitting far away, at the Slytherin table, and would have felt sorry for Anthony and Luna if he thought they'd actually pay a bit of attention to the new arrivals.
The Durmstrang students sat at the Slytherin table, and Harry was very happy to have them, not just because they were more awed than disdainful of the Hall. Victor Krum was among them, the Seeker Harry and Blaise had just been talking about, and he sat only a few seats down from Harry's place. Draco had somehow managed to sit next to him and was ostensibly telling him all about Hogwarts.
Harry decided he would talk to Krum later, and tucked into his food instead. One of the other Durmstrang boys found a place next to Harry, and was watching him rather blatantly.
"How are you liking Hogwarts so far?" Harry asked, setting his fork down. The boy gave him a smile and looked around the Hall. His eyes and hair were both dark, and he had a smudge of food on his chin, though they hadn't begun eating yet.
"It is very wonderful," he decided, and his voice was tinged with an accent similar to what Harry could hear of the other Durmstrang students. "My name is Desislav Poliakoff."
"Harry Potter," Harry offered. Poliakoff nodded eagerly.
"I have heard of you," he said. "Who hasn't? The Boy-Who-Lived, who defeated the Dark Lord."
Harry blinked. "Er, yes. These are my friends, Blaise Zabini and Pansy Parkinson."
Poliakoff eyed Blaise and Pansy with a thoughtful expression, and extended his hand across the table, where Pansy accepted it graciously.
"Welcome to Hogwarts," Blaise said, and shook his hand when it was offered.
"Thank you," Poliakoff said with a nervous smile. "I am hopeful that I will learn much this year, and be chosen for the title of Champion." As Poliakoff sat back, he knocked his elbow into his goblet, tipping it over and spilling pumpkin juice everywhere. The stain spread slowly across the table linens, and Harry winced as it began dripping down the side, nearly in his lap.
"Oh, forgive me!" Poliakoff cried, grabbing Harry's napkin and blotting up most of the mess. "I am sometimes clumsy, I apologise."
"It's fine, don't worry," Harry said, stealing Pansy's napkin and helping with the mess.
They had caught the attention of the surrounding students, Slytherin and Durmstrang alike. A few of the Durmstrang students rolled their eyes and went back to their food while Harry and Poliakoff attempted to clean up the mess. Pansy sighed and cast a cleaning charm, stopping them both in their tracks.
"Why didn't you think of that, Harry?" Blaise asked, sharing an amused glance with Pansy. Harry shrugged, feeling somewhat stupid.
Pansy raised her eyebrow. "My napkin?"
Harry handed it back to her, and looked around for his own. Poliakoff was tucking it into his collar. "Er," Harry said, and gave it up for lost as Poliakoff dripped some sauce onto it. "Right."
"What is Hogwarts like?" Poliakoff asked, and dropped his own unused napkin next to Harry's plate. Harry suddenly liked the boy a lot better, and was happy to ignore the sound of Draco's voice as he and the older Slytherins monopolized Victor Krum's attention.
The next morning brought a flurry of activity as the Slytherins left the dungeons. The Goblet of Fire had been placed in the Entrance Hall, and Harry, Blaise and Pansy not only had to walk around the ridiculously large Age Line surrounding the Goblet to get to breakfast, they also had to dodge the flying, bearded students who thought they could get across.
"Oblivious Hufflepuff at two o'clock," Blaise said, and Harry and Pansy instinctively ducked. The Hufflepuff went flying past their heads, and landed near the front doors sporting a white beard.
There were the students trying to sneak across the Line, and then there were the students
like that Hufflepuff, who just weren't paying attention to where they were walking. Blaise claimed that they all deserved the same punishment, as they were each guilty of stupidity in their own way. Harry was hard-pressed to disagree with him, and just wanted to get inside the Great Hall.
"I don't know why anyone would want to try it now, with everyone watching," Harry said. "I would have done it last night, or during classes today."
"Have some privacy if you lose all your dignity and grow a beard," Pansy said, and laughed. "I would have too."
The Durmstrang contingent arrived at the front doors before the three of them managed to get out of the Entrance Hall, and they stopped and watched as each of the Durmstrang students put their names into the Goblet. It swallowed each slip of paper in a gust of flame, and the Headmaster of Durmstrang congratulated them all, or, to be more specific, he congratulated Krum. It was clear who he wanted in the Tournament.
Poliakoff split off from his group and hurried over to Harry and his friends. His tie was done up wrong.
"Hello, Harry!" he said with enthusiasm. "I am so hopeful that I will become a Champion."
"Er, good luck then," Harry said. Poliakoff smiled and followed when they went into the Great Hall. He sat down right next to Harry again, where Draco used to sit, and began to fill his plate while chattering away about the Tournament.
He sat with them at lunch, too, and at dinner. He became more and more animated as the meal drew to a close and the Goblet of Fire was brought out. Everyone grew tense with anticipation, and when the first charred paper was spit out of the Goblet, Dumbledore held it in his hands and examined it in silence for a moment.
"The Champion for Durmstrang will be...Victor Krum."
Harry looked at Poliakoff, expecting disappointment, but Poliakoff was clapping right along with the rest of the Hall as Krum rose and strode through a door behind the Staff Table.
"The Champion for Beauxbatons will be...Fleur Delacour."
The Champion for Beauxbatons was very pretty, and swept up the aisle as though she had never doubted her victory, ignoring her sobbing classmates.
"And the Champion for Hogwarts will be...Cedric Diggory."
"A Hufflepuff?" Pansy said sceptically as said table exploded with riotous cheers. "He has got to be joking."
Blaise grinned. "At least it wasn't a Gryffindor, right?"
"Wouldn't a brave Gryffindor stand more of a chance of winning?" Harry asked, aware that he was violating House pride. "I mean, they're all about slaying dragons and winning the prize. Look at Sir Cadagon."
"They're also much more likely to do something stupid and get eaten by the dragon," Pansy replied, watching narrowly as Diggory worked his way toward the door behind the Staff Table, stopping every few feet to be hugged or slapped on the back by his fellow Hufflepuffs. "Though admittedly, a Hufflepuff isn't much better."
Dumbledore twinkled down at the school as Diggory disappeared through the door and began a speech about how each school should be supportive of their Champion. Harry ignored him, and turned to Poliakoff.
He'd intended to ask Poliakoff's opinion on Krum, but the boy was staring abstractedly at the table and seemed lost in thought.
"I thought you were okay with Krum becoming Champion," Harry said, and Poliakoff jumped at the sound of his voice. "You certainly took it well at first."
"I am okay," he said, though he sounded upset. "He deserves the honour. But I am disappointed in myself, because I did not deserve it more."
"Potter, have you been keeping your thoughts clean as I instructed?"
Harry stared at Snape, trying to work out what his professor meant. Harry's thoughts generally quailed from anything profane or dirty when Snape was around. The combination was not desirable.
"Keeping my thoughts clean?" Harry asked in English. Parseltongue was finicky at the best of times, never mind with a non-native speaker. Snape raised an eyebrow.
"Clearing your mind," he corrected. Harry nodded in comprehension, thought about how to best rephrase Snape's question, and hissed it slowly.
Snape repeated it and waited for an answer.
"Most nights," Harry admitted. "You never explained how it's supposed to help."
Snape narrowed his eyes. "That is no reason for you to...to neglect your duties," he finished in English. Snape was having quite a bit more trouble than Anthony with Parseltongue, though Anthony had assured Harry that this was normal, Parseltongue only being Snape's second language. Apparently Anthony was fluent in several magical languages, and had been learning new ones regularly from a young age, which meant he picked them up faster for some reason.
Harry didn't bother mentioning it to Snape. He probably wouldn't have bought it anyway.
"There is no use in trying to learn a skill without practicing," Snape hissed, and switched back to English again. "Nonverbal spells are useless if your opponent can read your intentions in your thoughts. Your mind is an open book at the moment." Harry suddenly began to worry about what Snape might have picked up from his thoughts during lessons. He became doubly glad that he didn't think about anything questionable around Snape, and watched with a mild sense of horror as Snape's mouth turned up with amusement. "Clearing your mind every night before you sleep is the first step in closing it to intruders."
Harry resolved to clear his mind twice a night from now on, and his resolve only firmed when he realised Snape's expression was nearing a smirk. The git was laughing at him!
Twice a night and every morning, then.
Poliakoff was becoming a regular tagalong. He sat next to Harry at every meal, and when they weren't in classes or the Slytherin common room, he managed to find Harry, Blaise and Pansy, and join them in whatever they were doing. He didn't seem to have discovered the library and Harry's Gryffindor friends yet, for which Harry was somewhat relieved.
Poliakoff wasn't a bad guy. He was just a very persistent sort, and somehow always there.
"Hello Harry," Poliakoff said, and proved Harry's point about his constant presence by appearing in the courtyard one morning where Harry and his friends were talking. "There is a Hogsmede weekend soon."
"This weekend, right," Harry agreed. Draco was across the courtyard with several of the older Slytherins, and Harry could tell by the twist of his mouth that he was saying something cruel. One of the older boys glanced in Harry's direction and he looked away, instead focussing on Poliakoff's ever eager gaze.
"Have you been to Hogsmede yet?" Pansy asked, always courteous. Blaise and Pansy considered Poliakoff to be something of a nuisance, and blamed Harry for his existence entirely. Whenever he appeared, they were unfailingly polite, but it was clear they wanted nothing to do with him.
"I have not," Poliakoff said eagerly, looking around at them all. "I would enjoy the sights, I think."
Blaise nodded. "Great. So I didn't understand problem four," he told Pansy, and they went back to talking about their Arithmancy homework. Harry felt this was terminally unfair, and tried to avoid Poliakoff's hopeful gaze.
"Er, I'm actually not going to Hogsmede this weekend," he said truthfully. He had moved his Filch day to Sundays this year, and Saturdays were reserved for relaxing and meetings in the library. He knew Draco was going on Saturday, which was the tipping point. Harry went last Hogsmede weekend, anyway.
Poliakoff's face fell. "Oh, okay," he said, and Harry felt an inexplicable guilt well up in him.
"Maybe next time?" he asked, and then cursed himself mentally. Poliakoff's eyes brightened, and he nodded.
"Next time," he said, and nodded again. Harry nodded back, and Poliakoff wandered off, satisfied.
"I don't like him," Pansy said once he was out of earshot. "He's seventeen years old, but he attaches himself to us. Do you know what that says to me?"
"That he can't make friends his own age?" Blaise asked. "Not surprising."
"I don't know," Harry said, and backtracked quickly at the looks the two of them were giving him. "I mean, I do agree that he's odd, and probably doesn't have many friends, but he's not half bad."
"He's attaching himself to you because you're the Boy-Who-Lived," Pansy pointed out. "He probably thinks you'll make him look cool or something. Merlin knows he needs the help."
Harry tilted his head back to stare at the sky. "You're probably right," he said. "But I don't know how to get rid of him, now."
"Harry," Blaise said, enunciating carefully. "You. Are. A. Slytherin. Act like it."
"He's not a dotty Ravenclaw who, at worst, gets picked on by other, slightly less dotty Ravenclaws," Pansy said, somewhat sharply. "He gets rejected on what appears to be a fairly regular basis by people who go to Durmstrang. He can take whatever you can throw at him."
Pansy was probably right. But Harry didn't like rejecting people, especially when they were used to it. It seemed cruel, when he could just be nice and somewhat distant instead. He had always preferred it when people were polite about not wanting to be his friend, instead of rubbing it in his face and probably making fun of him behind his back.
A burst of laughter from across the courtyard made Harry hunch his shoulders and turn his attention resolutely to the conversation Pansy and Blaise were having about Arithmancy.
"Well honestly, Harry, I hate to say this, but maybe you're better off."
Harry glared at Hermione. There were sitting in the library, and Harry had been complaining about Draco. This was not the response he had expected or desired.
"What do you mean, I'm better off?" he asked. "Draco is being an absolute prick. How does that make me better off?"
Neville added his opinion from behind his Transfiguration book. "I don't know if you noticed, Harry, but he's pretty much always like that at the start of term."
Harry sighed. "I know. Last time we fought about it he said it was his father putting pressure on him."
"I don't mean to... get in the middle of things," Hermione said, chewing her lip. "But do you know much about his father?"
"Not much," Harry admitted. "Nothing good, anyway. I know he doesn't like Muggleborns and that he might have been one of the people levitating those Muggles at the Cup."
"You heard the fight in the forest, then," Neville said. "I thought maybe. You looked way too cheerful."
Harry nodded, grimacing.
"I just wonder if you and Draco both might be happier this way, in the end." Hermione continued. "He distances himself from you when he's trying to please his father."
Harry's eyebrows drew together. "You think Draco's dad doesn't want Draco being my friend?"
"I think it's possible. Ron thinks Draco's father was a Death Eater."
Harry sat back, stunned. "What?" he said dumbly. "Do you think so?"
"He said he was a victim after You-Know-Who fell," Neville said. "I heard about it from my Gram. She said he was put on trial for helping You-Know-Who, and got off because he was under Imperius."
"Right," Harry said faintly. "Do you think he was telling the truth?"
Hermione shrugged. "I don't have a clue. I don't really know anything about him. But if he is putting pressure on Draco to avoid you, then Draco's going to have to choose between the two of you eventually."
"You think he already has," Harry said, slumping. "You think he's chosen his father."
Hermione shook her head. "I don't know," she repeated. "Just think about it."
Harry nodded, and stood up. "I will," he said. "I'm going to go say hello to Anthony and Luna, then I'm going back to Slytherin," he said. Hermione and Neville said their goodbyes and bent their heads together as Harry walked over to Anthony's table.
"Hullo," Harry said. Luna glanced up at him from the parchment she was writing on and waved her quill at him. Harry looked at the lines on the page and realised she was actually drawing. "What's that?" he asked.
"That torch bracket," she said, showing the drawing to him. It was indeed a torch bracket. She pointed at the far wall, and Harry saw one hanging there.
"It's really good," he said, wondering why she was drawing it from such a distance. It was detailed enough that Harry began to wonder exactly how bad his eyesight was. He would have had to stand right in front of it to see everything she'd drawn.
"Thank you," Luna said, and went back to drawing. Harry watched. She and Anthony made quite a pair, outwardly frozen and blank as they focused on their inner thoughts. It was almost disturbing how infrequently Anthony actually moved, as he had recently discovered a spell that would turn pages for him.
Harry had seen Anthony active before, and knew it was possible. He had forced that Ravenclaw onto a broom and had been astonished at how quick Anthony could be. It made watching him frozen in the library all the more eerie.
Harry supposed Anthony's thoughts must have been moving so quickly that his body had to slow down to balance out the velocity. Or something like that. He'd seen Hermione freeze up when she got a really brilliant idea before, so he figured the theory had merit.
His thoughts turned to his mind clearing exercises. If he was right, then large amounts of exercise should make his brain slow down. But then why would Snape want him to clear his mind right before he went to sleep, when he should be relaxed?
He caught Anthony's attention and repeated these thoughts. Anthony actually put his book down to consider it, which made Harry feel somewhat proud. He had said something that was more interesting than a book. Then he realised that he had just felt smug for being better than a book and tried to forget.
"It's an idea, Harry," Anthony said. "But I think you have it wrong. Jumping up and down and running in circles isn't really going to clear your mind. It'll just make you ignore it for a while."
"If quick thinking makes you slow down, then slow thinking should make you speed up," Luna said, still doodling.
"Which means that people should do stupid things quickly," Anthony agreed, the corners of his mouth lifting. "That sounds about right."
"It does make sense," Luna said. "Wrackspurts make the brain fuzzy, and people with Wrackspurt infestations tend to become reckless and quick to anger."
"Right," Harry said, feeling confused. Then he saw Anthony scribbling on a scrap of parchment. Anthony only wrote down what Luna said when he also had no idea what she was talking about. It was somewhat reassuring. "So if exercise isn't going to help, how am I supposed to clear my mind?" Harry asked, getting back on topic.
"You need to focus, but not think." Luna paused in her drawing and actually looked at him as she spoke.
Harry stared back. His face was apparently as blank with incomprehension as his mind was, because Anthony snickered and said, "Yes, just like that."
Harry smiled despite himself. "Honestly though, any ideas? I don't have a clue what I'm doing. Snape keeps telling me I'm doing it wrong. He's terrible at explaining things. He just keeps saying, 'Clear your mind! Then: You're doing it wrong!' over and over and over."
Luna set her quill down and unclasped one of her necklaces. It was a long, fine chain with several bottle caps strung on it. She began to twist the chain and wrap it around and through and over itself until it was hopelessly tangled. Then she handed it to Harry.
"Untangle that," she instructed. "But bring it back, eventually."
Anthony spared Luna an incomprehensible glance, and looked expectantly at Harry.
"If you keep it in your pocket, it'll get worse," he said. "You'll never get it untangled."
Harry frowned at him. "I wasn't going to put it in my pocket."
"I meant that you should," Anthony told him, and went back to his book.
Chapter 4: The Task
The First Task was on a Tuesday toward the end of November. Pansy and Harry were crowded into the stands with the rest of Hogwarts and the representatives of the other schools. There was a whole other section of stands for the general wizarding public on the opposite side of the huge arena, and large, covered cages directly adjacent. A tent stood opposite the cages, where the Champions were no doubt making last minute preparations for what lay ahead.
"Where's Blaise?" Pansy asked, again. Harry shrugged and searched the crowd, again. Hermione and the other Gryffindors had agreed to sit with them as well, and it was getting difficult for Harry and Pansy to hold seats for five other people by themselves. As the stands filled, the filthy glances only became more obvious. Pansy had resorted to ordering Harry to sit with his legs taking up several seats, and had placed her bag on the bench an indecent distance away.
"He said he'd be along in just a minute," Harry grumbled, and glanced around again, hoping that 'speak of the devil' would apply and Blaise would just appear. Instead, it was another five minutes of being slowly edged out of their extra five seats before he finally showed up.
"Where have you been?" Harry demanded, moving his feet gratefully as a sixth year Hufflepuff tried to sit on them. "Bugger off," he said, and Pansy beamed with approval.
Blaise sat where the Hufflepuff had been only moments before, and their paltry three seats rose back to five. "I was dealing with some business," he said. "Ludo Bagman offered me a deal I couldn't refuse."
"Ludo Bagman?" Harry asked. "The one who was taking bets by the lake?"
Blaise grinned. "Exactly. He's from the Ministry, you know."
"How much did you bet, then?" Pansy asked, clearly unimpressed.
"Twenty five thousand galleons, on Diggory." He looked like he'd just bribed his way onto the Wizengamot. Harry's mouth fell open.
"Why?" he asked, feeling as though he would have spluttered if he wasn't so shocked.
Blaise continued preening like a particularly smug cat. "It's a win/win situation," he said. "Bagman ran into problems with goblins after the World Cup. He looked pretty desperate when you saw him, didn't he?"
Harry nodded, though admittedly his attention had been more focused elsewhere.
"I bet him just enough to cover his losses, and I gave him odds he couldn't refuse." Blaise grinned. "He couldn't say no. And now, he can't let himself lose. He'll try to rig the Tournament for sure, any way he can."
Pansy cottoned on immediately, if her expression was anything to go by. Harry got it as well, a second later.
"You're going to blackmail him?" he asked.
"If possible," Blaise said, shrugging. "He might just get caught. Or, who knows? Diggory might actually win. Then he'll be in real trouble. Mum doesn't like it when people don't pay their debts."
Pansy snickered. "Clever, Blaise," she said. "I hope it works out."
Harry smiled reluctantly. "Why, though?" he asked. "Why get involved at all?"
Blaise shrugged. "It's an opportunity. Blackmail material is nearly always useful, and if he gets caught, that's his own problem. If he has to deal with my mother, well, she'll have a use for him."
Pansy accepted this with a nod, but Harry had been in Slytherin for too long, and spent too much time being told how terrible he was at it, to miss the glance Blaise gave her. He raised his eyebrows at Blaise, and cast a sidelong glance at Pansy.
Blaise's expression was suitably impressed. He nodded, and an expression of wrath flashed across his face. Harry tried very hard to think of what Bagman could possibly have done to Pansy that would warrant Blaise's attempt to ruin him. Pansy certainly wasn't aware of any of Bagman's sins against her, else she'd have attempted her own revenge by now.
Harry resolved to ask later, and resumed searching the crowd for the rest of their group. Ron's vivid red hair was almost immediately recognizable, and after spotting Hermione's bushy head nearby, Harry excused himself to bring them back.
Fighting his way through the crowd and out of the stands was enough of a distraction for him to lose them completely by the time he reached the grass. He made himself as tall as possible to try to see over the bustling crowd of people, and jumped when someone touched his arm.
"Harry," a voice exclaimed, and the accent told Harry exactly who it was. He sighed and turned around to greet Poliakoff with a half-hearted smile.
"Hi," Harry said. "Aren't you supposed to be sitting with everyone else from Durmstrang?"
"Oh, yes," Poliakoff said. "I just saw you and wanted to say hello. What do you think the Task is going to be? I cannot wait to see."
"Me either," Harry said. "Hey, do you see a really tall redhead anywhere nearby? You're tall enough to see over this crowd."
Poliakoff glanced around. "I don't think so," he said. "I have not talked to you in a long time, Harry." He looked hurt, and Harry felt guilty again. Poliakoff was good at making him feel like that.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I've been pretty busy lately." Poliakoff continued watching him with that hangdog expression, and Harry shifted his weight onto his other foot uncomfortably. "So, uh, what do you think the Task is going to be?" he asked lamely.
"Oh, I hope it is something exciting," Poliakoff said, suddenly eager again. "I hope the judges will allow Dark spells. We learn them at Durmstrang, you know. I do not understand why they are not allowed here at Hogwarts."
Harry blinked. "Because, well, they're illegal in England," he said. "Mostly. I think. I know the Unforgivables are, anyway."
"The Unforgivables?" Poliakoff scoffed. "Why they are even called that, I do not know. They are spells, just like any other."
Harry frowned, stepping closer as someone jostled him. "My parents were killed by an Unforgivable," he said. "If you knew who I was before you met me, I would have thought you would be aware of that. It's kind of why I'm so well known."
Poliakoff shrugged. "Yes, and that is terrible, but that is only one use of one of them. Dark magic is just a different kind of power, and more spells to use."
It might have just been the casual way Poliakoff dismissed Harry's parents, but Harry wasn't biting. "Actually," he said curtly, "I'm pretty sure they're classified as curses, not spells."
Poliakoff frowned down at him, the way Harry had seen him frown at dinner over a steak that he was having difficulty cutting into.
"I cannot hear you very well," he said finally. "It is very loud here. I think we are miscommunicating."
Harry regarded him with cool eyes. "I don't think we are," he said, and stepped back from the conversation, looking pointedly at the now thinning crowd. "The Task is going to start soon. I should go find my friends."
Poliakoff glanced around again. "You were looking for a tall red haired person?" His tone was conciliatory, and though Harry was still feeling irate, he nodded. "I saw him head in this direction." Poliakoff led an unwilling Harry away from the crowd, toward the back of the stands where the stairs to the higher levels stood.
There were less people back here. Everyone else had probably already found seats. In fact, it was just Harry, Poliakoff, and an older blonde woman who didn't look at all like she belonged in the student section. Poliakoff seemed annoyed at her presence, and moved to block Harry from view.
Despite his efforts, she had already spotted them, and sped over with a wide smile which contained several gold teeth. She swept Poliakoff aside as though he didn't exist and addressed Harry directly.
"Harry!" She smiled at him again and lifted her arms as though to hug him, though she didn't. Harry was incredibly grateful. "Harry, it's so good to finally see you in person, at last!"
"Er," Harry said. "Hello."
"Oh, but introductions must be made, of course." The woman brought her hands together in front of her chest and clutched the handles of the alligator handbag that swung from one of them, as though she had never been more pleased about anything. "I am, as I'm sure you know, Rita Skeeter! We spoke last year about the dementors and that lovely godfather of yours, the poor dear. You may call me Rita."
Harry remembered what he had been told about Rita Skeeter. She was as fake as her teeth. Between Poliakoff's surly expression and Skeeter's toothy grin, Harry decided that, right now, this was the last place he wanted to be. Hermione and the rest had probably long since found Blaise and Pansy. He should never have gotten out of his seat.
Even so, he figured he had to at least try to be polite. She 'd helped him significantly.
"Lovely to meet you, ma'am," he said, forcing himself to smile.
"Oh, the pleasure is all mine," she replied, and snapped open her handbag. "Now, I was thinking. We haven't spoken in so long. How about an interview? What do you think of all this Triwizard business? Do you know the Hogwarts Champion very well? What do you think of the other Champions? The public doesn't know very much about you, Harry, but we can change that."
Harry blinked several times. While firing question after question at him, she had managed to produce a roll of parchment and a quill, which she positioned in midair next to her. It was scribbling away madly as she continued to speak.
"How about a follow-up to last year's expose? How are you and your godfather getting along now that he's a free man? I hear you spent the summer with him."
"Erm," Harry interjected. "I'm not really interested in how much the public knows about me."
Rita raised a delicately tweezed eyebrow. "Oh, Harry, don't be so shy," she said cajolingly. "Who is this lovely young man with you? A friend of yours?" She eyed Poliakoff, who stepped backward almost convulsively. "Durmstrang, are you? And you're in Slytherin, aren't you, Harry? You two hit it off, did you?"
"I should be going," Poliakoff said, and backed away until he reached the stairs, leaving Harry alone to his fate. Harry had never liked him less, even when he'd been spouting about Dark magic.
"Look, the Task is starting soon," Harry said, backing toward the stairs himself. "I should really be getting back to my seat."
Rita pursed her heavily painted lips. "We'll get that interview in afterward, then?"
"Er, no," Harry said. "Why don't you interview the Champions? They ought to have something to say, right?"
He didn't wait for her to answer, vaulting up the stairs and leaving her alone, quill still scribbling furiously.
On his way back to his seat, he had to pass right by where Draco sat, surrounded by his new group and laughing. When the dragons were finally revealed, Harry almost wanted one of them to set the stands on fire, just so that he wouldn't be the only one in a bad mood.
Diggory came out with the best score in the end, something Blaise was intensely satisfied about.
"Bagman'll be panicking right about now," he assured them. "He can't let Diggory win the Tournament. I'll have to owl mum about keeping an eye on him."
Pansy shook her head, smiling. "Blaise, you're such a bastard," she said. Blaise preened.
"Well," he said, glancing away and lowering his eyes, which failed to hide his smirk, "Yes I am. Thank you for noticing."
"And he's so modest, too," Pansy continued. Harry sighed quietly. Pansy and Blaise did this sometimes. He knew it could go on for hours if he didn't stop them now.
"Remember when the Beauxbaton Champion's dragon snored and set her on fire?"
Pansy and Blaise looked over at Harry, and Blaise laughed. "Yeah, and then she tried to put it out with her wand and nearly woke it up. That was my favourite part."
"What about Diggory?" Pansy asked. "Delacour only had her skirt set on fire. He had half his face flaming at one point."
"That was kind of funny," Blaise agreed. "He flailed and everything. I don't know how he got the highest marks."
"He got highest marks because Krum's dragon stepped on half the eggs," Harry said. "And Delacour took longer putting out her skirt than Diggory did putting out his face."
"Well I should think he had a lot more incentive," said Pansy. "She can fix the skirt fairly easily. Diggory's face is another matter. It's too pretty to be marred with all those burns."
"Pomfrey wouldn't let the Hufflepuff's precious face go untreated for very long," Blaise said. "She's probably half done treating him already. Harry, when are you and Draco going to start talking again?"
Harry's easy reply about Diggory's 'precious' face died when he registered Blaise's question. He glanced around and, sure enough, there was Draco, walking with the older Slytherins.
"We talk sometimes," Harry said. "Just yesterday he asked me to pass him the butter at dinner."
Pansy raised her eyebrow. "He asked Poliakoff to pass him the butter, Harry. And you acted like you hadn't heard him, anyway."
"We'd like to be able to talk to both of you sometimes," Blaise said. "You know, at the same time, preferably in the same room? He was looking at you just now. You should talk to him."
Harry craned his head past a group of Ravenclaws and eyed Draco, who was decidedly not looking at him. "I'll talk to him when he talks to me," he said after a moment. "I'm not the one who cut off contact."
"It's November," Pansy said firmly. "Thats nearly three months since term started, and you haven't spoken the entire time. It's not about who started it anymore. Blaise and I want it finished, for all our sakes."
Harry glared sullenly at the back of Draco's head. "Have you talked to him about this?"
"Yes, actually," Blaise responded. "He wants to talk to you again." Blaise's earnest expression faltered under the waves of skepticism pouring off of Harry. "Well, he didn't say exactly that," Blaise backpedaled. "But I could tell."
Harry shook his head. "He doesn't want to talk to me. If he changes his mind, he can tell me himself. Until then, I'm not going to fight it."
A group of Durmstrang boys cut off their view of Draco, and Harry turned away.
Breakfast the next morning was not pleasant.
"What did you do, Harry?" Pansy whispered, dismayed. She, Blaise and Harry were all sitting on the same side of the table huddled around a newspaper, reading one of the front page articles with increasing horror.
"I just told her I wasn't interested in publicity and to interview the Champions instead," Harry replied, struck dumb. "I had no idea she'd -"
"Why on earth not?" Blaise cut him off, shaking his head at a particularly biting paragraph. "We told you about her. We told you not to piss her off. You've seen what she can do with that quill of hers."
It wasn't the top story, but that only meant that the headline was one inch tall instead of two. The headline, POTTER: DURMSTRANG/DARK ARTS ADMIRER? was blazoned across the right half of the page. Harry had spent the past ten minutes grimacing every time someone glanced at him. Poliakoff hadn't even shown up to breakfast, which was odd, considering he wasn't even mentioned by name in the article. He probably just didn't want to face Harry after getting him caught by Skeeter.
"She is good at alliteration, anyway," Harry muttered. "How bad is it?"
"It's bad," Pansy told him. "You should probably read it."
Harry put his head down on the table. "Bugger. What did I do?"
"Well," Blaise said, and cleared his throat. "Apparently you're 'very close with the Durmstrang students, as this reporter has spotted them talking together on more than one occasion.' You also have 'in-depth discussions of the Dark Arts, which, as we all know, are quite illegal in the UK'."
"That's what I said!" Harry exclaimed. "How does she even know about that? We weren't talking about it when she showed up."
"Harry, it's Rita Skeeter," Pansy reminded him. "You know, you should really sit up and read the rest of this. She pointed out that you're in Slytherin again. Third time so far in this article."
"Bint," Blaise said. "She was in Slytherin too, you know."
"Why am I not surprised?" Harry asked in a monotone. "What else is she saying?"
"She's insinuating that you're considering a transfer to Durmstrang, so you can learn more Dark Arts," Pansy said. "And..." She paused. "She's also implying that you're not as opposed to the Dark Lord as we all think."
"No wonder they're all staring at me," Harry groaned. It was true. Those who receieved the Daily Prophet had begun passing it around, and nearby Hufflepuffs were watching him fearfully.
"It's just Hufflepuffs," Blaise said comfortingly. "Don't worry about them; no one else does."
It turned out to be more than just the Hufflepuffs. By Harry's first class, it seemed that everyone had read the Prophet. The Ravenclaws' narrow eyed suspicion wasn't quite as bad as Flitwick falling off his chair when Harry passed by, but it was close enough. Only Anthony acted normally, but normal for Anthony meant ignoring Harry anyway, unless he struck up conversation. If Harry had been unaware of Anthony's plans to eventually read the entire world, he would have doubted whether Anthony even knew what the problem was.
Lunch was worse, though. His yearmates had mostly left him alone during class, but the House in its entirety was not so kind, and neither were the other Durmstrang students, who laughed uproariously at the idea of Harry learning anything Dark through contact with Poliakoff, of all people. It seemed that, rather than improving Poliakoff's reputation, his association with the Boy-Who-Lived had only brought Harry down to his level.
Harry soon gave up on lunch, and left early. His next class was DADA, and he wasn't looking forward to dealing with Moody's paranoia, on top of everything else. So when he heard his name being called, he hunched his shoulders and walked faster.
"Harry, wait," the voice said impatiently, and Harry recognised it.
He turned around and gave Draco a cool stare. "Are we talking again all of a sudden?"
Draco caught up to him and stopped, eying him thoughtfully. "Can we? Preferably not in the middle of a corridor? I want to ask you about that article."
Harry's face darkened. "Just say whatever you want to say. I don't need this from you, too."
"How true is it?" Draco asked, raising his eyebrows.
Harry frowned. "It's Rita Skeeter. That should answer your question."
"There's always some truth to what she says," Draco disagreed. "Where's the truth? How often do you talk to that Poliakoff guy?"
"As often as I want," Harry said, feeling defensive. "You'd know if you ever talked to me -"
"Are you really getting into Dark Arts?" Draco interrupted. Harry bristled.
"Of course not!"
"Look, I've heard things about that guy," Draco began. Harry cut him off.
"Yeah, I know, no one likes him," he said. "Not my problem."
"No, I mean weird things," Draco said, and glanced down the hall. "Strange things. Just stay away from him. Stay away from all the Durmstrang students, actually."
This whole conversation was frustrating Harry to no end. Draco was finally speaking to him, only to spend the entire time lecturing as if Harry was a child. "What gives you the right?" he snapped furiously. "You don't even talk to me anymore -"
"No." He glared at Draco, who just looked exasperated. It was infuriating. "You ignore me for three months, and only talk to me again when Rita Skeeter starts telling everyone I like Voldemort." Draco flinched, and Harry sneered. "I heard about your father, you know," he said. "That he was a Death Eater. Maybe that's why you're talking to me again."
Draco's mouth dropped open, and Harry glared at him. "I'll talk to whoever I want." He turned to leave, then paused. "And if you want to apologise, you should do it quickly, before I transfer to Durmstrang like Skeeter said."
Chapter 5: The Race
" Constant vigilance !"
Harry knew he should be prepared to hear Moody's catchphrase whenever he came within a hundred feet of the Defense classroom, but he was still angry about the conversation he'd just had with Draco, and he was distracted.
He managed to keep himself from actually startling, though Pansy and Blaise, who had caught up to him about five minutes before class, glanced at him. Maybe he hadn't been as subtle as he'd hoped.
"Today," Moody said as everyone took their seats and pulled out their books, "You're going to learn how to keep yourselves concealed when you're on enemy territory."
"And how often, exactly, does he think I intend to wander onto enemy territory?" Pansy murmured under cover of the rest of Moody's lecture.
"And do you think the practical is going to involve portkeying us into Snape's office unawares?" Blaise whispered back. Harry remained silent.
"Not hardly. We Slytherins are more likely to be sent to his private quarters. I don't think it'd matter what House we're in if we caught him in the bath."
Harry paused in his brooding to join Blaise in grimacing at Pansy, and the three of them took a moment to shudder in unison.
"I'm sorry," she whispered after a moment. "I didn't...I'm sorry."
"The Disillusionment Charm is one of the more commonly used methods of concealment in a wizard's arsenal," Moody told them. "So we'll practice that first. Everyone partner up. You'll be casting this on yourselves, and your partner is going to try to hit you with the stinging hex. Your job is to keep out of their sights."
One of the Ravenclaw girls raised their hands. "What if someone who isn't our partner hits us?"
Moody raised his eyebrows. "Then you're hit, aren't you? You'd do best to keep an eye out from all angles. Wizards won't avoid attacking you in battle because you aren't who they were aiming for initially." He glared around at them all. "And the rest of you should be keeping your eye out for friendly fire as well. If anyone's hit, they're out, Disillusioned or no."
"Right," Pansy said, turning to Harry. "Do you want to attack first or shall I?"
"Both sound like so much fun," he said, "I don't know how I'll choose."
"Well, I guess I'll attack first then," she decided, smirking at him. "Off you go. I do hope you were listening when he told us the incantation."
Harry hadn't been listening. It was only his good fortune that he had bothered to open the book up to the right page, and was able to glance down at it before they got up.
"Of course I was listening." He walked over to the side of the room where the rest of the soon-to-be-disillusioned students were going, and listened to the Ravenclaw next to him as he said the spell. Just in case.
Somehow, Harry was the only one of his friends to have ended up on this side of the room, he noted as the spells began to fly. He wasn't sure how Moody expected them to avoid being hit, with that many spells being thrown at them at a time. Harry saw Blaise cackle as his spell hit the Ravenclaw boy. Harry decided to get low and keep moving.
It wasn't difficult to see his fellow attackees. Apparently, this was a spell that only worked if you moved cautiously. Whenever someone panicked and started running, most of the class would focus on the blurred shadow of their form, and take them out. It was just a mild stinging hex (or at least Harry hoped everyone had been sticking to the stinging hex), but still.
He did the only thing he could think to do, and started moving toward his attackers. Inching along the wall was impossible; too many spells were bouncing off them randomly. He'd be hit for sure. Harry saw Draco taking aim about ten feet to his left, and considered what Moody had said about friendly fire. Did it count as friendly if they hadn't been friends for months? Probably not, but Harry thought he could get away with it anyway. He checked to make sure Moody wasn't watching before sending a stinging hex Draco's way and grinning when Draco jumped and glared at the students around him.
Feeling inordinately better, Harry started moving toward the Ravenclaw side of the line, and saw Anthony standing on the end, near the wall. Perfect. As he inched toward him, moving in a half crouch on his toes and fingertips, he saw Anthony glance away, toward the other end of the room.
It was now or never. He managed to slip past Anthony and move safely among the desks, watching the backs of the attacking students. He was safe. Harry sighed in relief and leaned against a desk, only to jump back up as he felt a sharp sting on his shoulder. He took the spell off and looked around to see who had gotten him.
"Sorry, Harry," Anthony said, shrugging and turning back to the rest of the class. "Constant vigilance."
"Potter," Moody said at the end of class, "Stay in your seat."
Harry stopped packing his things up and frowned. Pansy gave him a curious look as she and Blaise put their things away and left with the rest of the class.
Moody limped over to where Harry sat at his desk, feeling nervous. "Do you know the definition of 'friendly fire', Potter?" Moody asked gruffly.
Harry felt his stomach drop slightly. Moody had a magical eye. Of course he would have seen. Harry looked down at his desk and nodded. "Yes sir."
Moody stared at him for a few inscrutable moments, and Harry waited for his punishment.
"You've got a good head on your shoulders, boy," he said finally. Harry looked up at Moody, who was staring at him with both eyes now. "Your first instinct is to attack and to get out of the line of fire, to where your opponent didn't expect you. If this had been a real battle, you would have taken it with those tactics. Do you know what you did wrong?"
Harry began to hope that he was going to get out of this without punishment. "I didn't practice constant vigilance, sir?" he tried.
"That's right," Moody said, then barked, "CONSTANT vigilance." He seemed to take enjoyment from Harry's flinch. "You have a good idea of who you shouldn't trust, but that needs to be taken a step further," Moody said, leaning back against the desk behind him.
Harry wasn't quite sure he knew what Moody meant, but he had an inkling. "Sir?"
"The Malfoy boy's history speaks for itself." Moody's blue eye disappeared for a few seconds, then fixed itself back on Harry. He tried hard not to think about how eerie that was. "Durmstrang would have welcomed him with open arms. Constant vigilance, Potter."
He dismissed Harry, who went out into the hallway still wondering how to respond to that. Having the door closed in his face solved that problem, so Harry went on to his next class, still pensive.
Harry sought out the Quidditch pitch after his classes were over for the day. It was cold and windy, but they sky was clear and he wanted to fly off the stress of the morning.
As he passed the lake, he saw that he wasn't the only one out on a broom. Several Durmstrang students were flying above the water, doing dangerous stunts and laughing raucously.
As Harry watched, one of them leapt to his feet - on the broom - and did a swan dive into the deepest part of the lake. Another flyer dove and scooped his broom out of the air before it hit the water, and they all cheered.
Harry watched until the diver resurfaced and somehow managed to remount his broom, dripping wet, in the cold November wind. The boy was only wearing swim trunks. Harry hadn't realised before, because it hadn't occurred to him that someone would do something like that in late November.
They were all insane. That was all there was to it. Harry shook his head and continued on to the empty Quidditch pitch. He was able to spend about ten minutes flying before he realised he wasn't alone at all.
There was a figure holding a broom and waving at him from the sidelines, and Harry couldn't quite make out who it was. As he dipped nearer, he realised the person's height cancelled out any of his friends, and their robes weren't Hogwarts attire.
"Hello Poliakoff," Harry said grudgingly as he reached the ground.
"Hello Harry." Poliakoff stared at the ground for a moment, then met Harry's eyes squarely. "I apologise for my words yesterday. I was..how do you say…out of line."
Poliakoff seemed genuinely apologetic, which was more than Harry could say of some people he'd had arguments with recently.
"I don't like Dark Magic," Harry said. Poliakoff nodded. "I don't like being abandoned to obnoxious reporters either." Poliakoff nodded again, contrite.
"I apologise," he repeated. Harry sighed. Pansy was going to kill him.
Poliakoff brightened immediately. "Do you want to fly?"
Harry hesitated. "Are you planning to drag me out over the lake and push me off my broom?"
Poliakoff grinned. "If you do not want to go swimming, we can surf instead."
"Listen," Harry told him. "This weather is cold. You Durmstrang types might be used to worse, but at Hogwarts we don't exactly consider negative two balmy. I don't even want to look at the lake right now."
"I didn't mean to surf on the lake," Poliakoff explained, lifting his broom. "I meant in the skies. Come, watch."
Poliakoff mounted his broom and, staying near to the ground, went out into the middle of the pitch. Harry watched him curiously. With extreme care, Poliakoff lifted himself into a crouching position on the broom, and finally stood triumphantly. Harry looked on with interest as Poliakoff used his feet to steer the broom into a patch of wind, at which point he crouched slightly and allowed the wind to carry him halfway across the pitch.
As he passed Harry, he called out to him. "Harry, try it, it is fun!"
Harry couldn't help himself. He mounted his broom and imitated Poliakoff's slightly hunched posture, standing upright. After a few false starts, he figured out how to keep himself balanced and steer with his feet without tipping over and crashing. He was glad none of the Durmstrang boys had realised they were over here, or he would probably have drawn a lot of mocking laughter for some of his more spectacular faceplants.
But soon he was up next to Poliakoff, soaring on the wind.
"This is great!" Harry yelled as he caught a current and sailed past Poliakoff. "I didn't know people did stuff like this!"
They surfed on the lower currents in the Quidditch field, and Poliakoff showed Harry how to turn left and right and even widdershins without falling off. Harry's Firebolt dutifully followed his every movement, even through his boots.
Harry got used to having even less than he was used to between him and the ground, far below. This was the euphoria of flying coupled with a healthy dose of the fear he'd never really developed of heights. The adrenaline rush alone was worth it, in Harry's opinion.
"We have races at Durmstrang," Poliakoff yelled to him. They had long since left the Quidditch pitch, soaring higher and higher to catch better wind currents. "Do you want to try?"
"Sure," Harry called back, and they agreed to race to the edge of the forest. Harry bent his knees slightly as Poliakoff counted down from what Harry assumed was three in what he also assumed was Bulgarian. When he reached one (Harry could tell because Poliakoff yelled it and then took off), Harry jumped into the wind current directly above their heads and lifted his arms to keep himself balanced.
They raced furiously, each leaping and ducking from one current to the next when they veered too far off course. Harry ended up winning by a mile, and tilted the front of his broom up to balance on the tail while he waited for Poliakoff to catch up.
"It is because you are so tiny," Poliakoff told him when he finally made it to their designated end point. "The wind does not catch you like it catches me."
Harry chose to ignore this slight and grinned instead. "Tell yourself whatever you need to," he said. "Want to try again?"
Poliakoff agreed, and they raced again. Harry won again. When Poliakoff reached the end point, he dove down a few metres above the treetops and waited for Harry to join him. "One more try," he said, panting slightly. "We can race to that tree out there." He pointed.
Harry shifted his weight and looked out at the tree Poliakoff was indicating. It was one of the taller evergreens in the forest, and quite a distance away. As Harry watched, a gust of wind buffeted the tree. A fleck of snow landed on Harry's glasses, and he frowned, suddenly uneasy.
"How far are we, anyway?"
"Not very far," Poliakoff said dismissively. "We go further all the time. Do you want to race?"
Another, larger snowflake landed on his other eyeglass, obscuring his vision. He balanced himself carefully as he reached up and cleaned it off. He didn't want to race if the weather was going to betray them. "It's starting to snow. We've got to be nearly as far as Hogsmeade."
"We are still on the grounds," Poliakoff said, and pointed. "Hogwarts is right there, see?"
Harry looked at the castle in the distance, then back at Poliakoff. He raised a sceptical eyebrow. "It's much further away than that tree. Let's race back instead. Then we can go inside and warm up."
Poliakoff followed as Harry started flying toward the castle, though he looked annoyed. "We will do this, then." He sighed. "Englishmen."
Harry laughed at him incredulously. "It's snowing! I can't feel my face. You have to admit it's cold now."
"I admit you think it is cold," Poliakoff corrected, slowing down and lowering himself carefully back into a sitting position. Harry imitated him.
"Let's race to Hogwarts," Harry suggested, and when Poliakoff nodded, Harry sped off on his Firebolt. He really wanted to get out of this weather.
As Harry neared the castle, a snowy owl detached itself from the owlrey and flew toward him. He landed near the front steps and held out his arm for her, taking the letter. Poliakoff landed nearby and waited as Harry thanked Whitey and watched her fly away again.
Harry smiled when he recognised Sirius' handwriting on the scroll. "I'll see you around, Poliakoff," Harry said. "I've got to read this."
Harry tore open the scroll as Poliakoff said his goodbyes and started walking back toward the Durmstrang ship.
It was good to hear from you again, as usual. Remus says hello, as usual…
Harry grinned. Most letters from Sirius started off along these lines. He stepped inside as he read, because it really was cold outside. He leaned against the wall in the Entrance Hall, reading through Sirius' responses to what Harry had said in his last letter, and made a note of some of the hints about the Maurader's Map. His smile started to fade, however, when he realised he'd mentioned Draco, and that Sirius responded.
…I obviously don't have all the information, but I think your friend Hermione may have a point…
Harry frowned outright as he continued reading. Sirius confirmed that Lucius Malfoy had been tried, but got off by pleading Imperius. He sounded somewhat sceptical of the truth value in that, though it was the next few lines that really caught Harry's attention.
…I don't know very much about Lucius, we only ever met in passing. But I remember when we were younger, Narcissa was very talented at convincing my aunt (her mother) that she'd done nothing wrong, even with the evidence right in front of Aunt Druella's eyes. She usually got me in trouble, in fact. It doesn't surprise me that she'd marry someone with the same talent. She could convince Uncle Cygnus that me or Andromeda or Bellatrix had been at fault, even if we weren't in the house at the time. Of course, Bellatrix made it easy for her. She always had a quick temper, even before Azkaban…
Sirius continued in his reminiscing for a few more paragraphs, which wasn't unusual, then asked about school and the Tournament and how Harry was faring without Quidditch. Harry continued reading to the end, then went back to those paragraphs that talked about Draco's family. He hadn't know Sirius was related to the Malfoys.
It seemed like everyone had something to say about Draco's father, though, and none of it was good. No one thought Harry's ex-friendship with Draco was advisable. Harry folded up the letter, stuck it in his pocket, and left the Entrance Hall. All things considered, it didn't matter anyway. Draco had already made the decision for them both.
Harry soon found himself at the doors of the library without having meant to end up there. He went inside, and immediately spotted Anthony at his usual seat.
"Thanks for attacking me earlier in class," Anthony said when Harry sat down. "You know, we weren't actually partners. You were supposed to be aiming for Pansy."
Harry grinned, inexplicably cheered by Anthony's sour expression. "You got me."
Anthony shook his head. "I didn't know it was you. And it was supposed to be a mild stinging hex, Harry."
"I'm sorry," Harry said unrepentantly. Anthony never struck up conversation first. Harry considered it a huge step for him, even if he was just annoyed. "I was in a bad mood."
"You seem fine now." Anthony picked up his book again, which he had set down when he saw Harry coming. "What did you do to her, anyway?"
Harry sighed. "I refused an interview."
Anthony nodded. "You probably shouldn't do that in the future," he suggested. "Though if you'd like to discuss the Dark Arts, you know, just to actually have done it, I found this book."
Harry stared flatly at him.
"It's not actually about how to do any Dark Arts," Anthony continued, unperturbed. "It's about the ethical quandaries and justifications for using various Dark spells and curses. It's really fascinating. I should have looked into this before. Did you know the ancient Greecian wizards used to use Petrification to create statues? They would tell a Muggle they were just going to use them as a model, set them up perfectly, and then petrify them with a basilisk or a lock of gorgon's hair."
Anthony continued telling Harry about the book, and the various case studies and example scenarios it contained and so on. Harry sighed and listened dutifully. It was interesting, at least the parts when Anthony remembered his audience and deigned to tell Harry something he'd actually understand.
Harry glanced around during a lecture on the blood-boiling curse and it's controversial role in the wizarding culinary world, and realised the library was empty.
"It's dinner time," Harry interrupted. "Now let's go before you put me off my shepherd's pie any more than you already have."
"Fair enough," Anthony said, and Harry waited while he gathered his books. "But did you know Healers sometimes use pain curses locally to stimulate dead nerve endings? Licensed Healers are just about the only wizards not totally banned from using Dark Arts, and…"
Chapter 6: The Announcement
"Hermione," Harry said, gazing earnestly at her. "Will you go to the Yule Ball with me?"
The Yule Ball was announced a week ago, and the entire school had been buzzing about it ever since. It put Harry in a very good mood, because when everyone was thinking about who they were going to ask, they weren't gossiping about him.
There was a pause during which Harry would have sworn he could hear insects chirping. Then Hermione smirked and threw her quill at him. "Shut up, Harry. And I'm not going to tell you who I'm going with either."
Neville, Dudley and Ron spent the last few days arguing over who got to ask her, much to Harry's amusement. Each of them had told Harry privately that they were going to ask her in secret, and Harry knew each of them had been rebuffed.
Harry grinned. "No need. I already know." He had a theory, at least. Hermione raised an eyebrow at him and he just looked at her knowingly. "It's simple. Who could possibly top Neville, Dudley and Ron?"
"Oh, and Ron, hmm?" Hermione picked up her quill and unconsciously put her nose in the air. "Well I'll admit, at least, he's simple."
Harry ignored her sarcasm. She was plainly still annoyed by Ron's initial outright refusal to believe she was telling the truth about being unavailable. Gryffindors were never known for their tact, after all, and Ron was the quintessential Gryffindor.
"The only reason you could possibly have for crushing their poor, naïve spirits," Harry explained, ignoring her scoff, "Is that you've got an older man. He's been coming to the library just to stare at you for weeks and weeks now, d'you honestly think I didn't notice?"
Hermione blushed. Harry grinned. Right in one. Being friends with observant people who spent a lot of time in the library like Anthony did paid off. He leaned back and let her change the subject.
"So who're you going with, Harry?"
Harry shrugged. "Apparently not you, Miss Heartbreaker." He was enjoying the whole situation thoroughly and Hermione knew it. She glared at him. "Honestly, though, I haven't got a clue. Pansy and Blaise are going together; so are Theo and Daphne. Tracy's got a date too, some Ravenclaw."
"What about Millicent Bulstrode?" Hermione teased. Harry grinned.
"We convinced Greg to ask her, so unfortunately, she's already taken."
Hermione laughed. "Pity. Why don't you ask Luna Lovegood? I'm sure she'd go with you."
Harry blinked. He hadn't even considered Luna. There were possibilities in Luna. He knew Draco always felt mildly uncomfortable around her, which could only be a plus. He'd tracked Harry down twice in the past couple weeks and tried to lecture him about his choice in friends, though Harry rebuffed him each time. Having Luna around might keep him at bay. Additionally, Luna was fun in her bizarre way, and probably wouldn't make him dance, which was infinite points in her favour, because Harry hated dancing.
"I'll do it," Harry declared, standing up and looking around at Anthony's table. It was unfortunately empty. "Later." He sat back down. "Hey, where is everyone anyway?"
Hermione shrugged. "Neville, Ron and Dudley are all angry with each other today," she said. "I'm not really sure what's going on; they're being shockingly close-mouthed about it. None of them has ever been able to keep secrets like this." She frowned. "Maybe you could find out."
"We figured she had to be going with one of us, because she said she had a date, but she wouldn't say who," Ron said, his ears red. "But Neville and Dudley both claim she turned them down, and I know she turned me down." Both Neville and Dudley voiced their agreement.
Harry nodded thoughtfully as they walked toward the library. "That is compelling," he said, rubbing his chin. "And you three are the only boys she knows, do I have that right?"
Dudley glared at him. "Are you going with her?"
Harry laughed. "No. I'm going with Luna, assuming she says yes."
"So-" Ron did a double take. "Wait. Luna Lovegood? Really?"
Harry grinned. "Yeah, she's great."
"Uh huh," Ron said, shaking his head. "But that's it then. If she's not going with any of us, and not you, who could she be going with?"
"Do you think she's going with Blaise or Draco?" Neville asked, leaning past Dudley and fixing Harry with a curious look. Harry shook his head. "Blaise and Pansy are going together," Harry said. "And I don't know who Draco is going with, but it's certainly not Hermione. I think you lot are worrying about this way too much."
"But what if she's going with some git?" Ron asked. Dudley nodded furiously along with him. Neville seemed less willing to assume Hermione's attraction to gits, generally speaking, but he looked worried as well.
"Look, do any of you have dates, or are you going to spend all your free time until the Yule Ball trying to solve this mystery?" Harry very kindly did not inform them that he knew exactly who Hermione was going with, and that Krum wasn't a bad guy, really, as far as Harry knew from eating meals near him every day. He knew they wouldn't be pleased at all.
Dudley and Ron stared at Harry, embarrassed. Neville raised his hand. "I have a date."
"Good for you, Neville!" Harry said, holding the door to the library open for him and grinning. "Who is she?"
Neville glanced sideways at Ron. "Can I keep mine a secret too?" he asked hopefully. All three of them stared at him, and Ron's ears slowly began to turn red. Harry backed away from Ron, displaying a caution that had apparently not occurred to Dudley, who was standing obliviously between Ron's increasing anger and Neville's increasing guilt.
"Dudley," Harry said out of the corner of his mouth. "Get out of the crossfire."
Dudley's forehead furrowed as he considered Harry's words.
"Are you going with my sister?" Ron hissed. Dudley's eyes bulged and he stumbled backward out of the way and through the doors, leaving Neville and Ron in the hall. Harry backed up as well, and made a beeline for Anthony's table, Dudley in his wake.
"Bye, sorry Neville!" he called over his shoulder, and caught one last glimpse of the bravest Gryffindor he knew as Neville turned tail and ran.
"Anthony, Luna, hello," Harry said, sitting down. Madame Pince glared from behind her desk, and Dudley quickly followed suit.
"Hello," Anthony said. "I see the Yule Ball has claimed another batch of victims."
Harry grinned. Dudley glared at the table.
"Hermione has a mysterious date," Harry explained. "What are you two doing for the Yule Ball?"
"I'll be taking advantage of the empty common room," Anthony said. "The seventh years always take all the best seats by the Arithmancy shelves, and I've been wanting to read up on dimensional transmutation."
Harry nodded. No surprise there. "How about you, Luna?" he asked, suddenly nervous despite his best intentions. If she said no, he had no idea what he'd do for a date, and there was no way Blaise and Pansy would let him skip it. Blaise had already told him point blank that Harry was not to abandon him. And any girls he might be interested in going with were long since paired up.
Luna blinked at him. "I'm only in third year, Harry. I can't go unless I'm invited by someone older."
"Oh." Harry paused. "Well then, in that case, d'you…do you want to go with me?"
She tilted her head and observed Harry silently for long enough that he started to fidget. Then, finally: "I suppose so."
Harry grinned at her, relieved. "Great!" Dudley rolled his eyes. Harry glanced at him from the corner of his eye. "Now we just have to find Dudley a date. Any suggestions, Luna?"
It took far less of Luna's concentrated attention to make Dudley start to shift uncomfortably.
"I-I can find myself a girl, thanks," Dudley said, leaning back in his seat and away from her unblinking gaze.
"If you're sure," Harry said. "I'm sure Luna and I could-"
"No," Dudley said decisively. "No, I've got this one, Harry. Thanks."
Witch Weekly had a featured article about Harry the day before the end of term, which Harry discovered while minding his own business in the corridor. A group of giggling Ravenclaw girls passed by, and one of them waved the cover at another. Harry did a double take when he saw his own face staring out of it, looking resigned.
He was not surprised to discover that the article was written by Rita Skeeter. He managed to obtain a copy of it through somewhat illicit means (he stole it from one of the second year Slytherin girls), and tossed it down on the table in front of Blaise and Pansy at lunch.
"I can't look," he announced. "Is it awful? Please tell me it isn't awful."
"Witch Weekly, Harry," Pansy commented, picking up the magazine and riffling through to the right page. "I do believe you're moving up in the world."
"Pansy, being in Witch Weekly is not an accomplishment," Blaise disagreed. "I've been in Witch Weekly."
"You were only in because they did a profile on your mum," Pansy muttered, scanning the article. "Oh. Oh dear."
Harry watched her, worry creasing his brow. She lifted the magazine closer to her face and began a more thorough reading. The expression on her face became strained.
"What is it?" Blaise asked, and leaned over her shoulder to read along. Harry stared at his own picture on the front cover and felt like he was looking in a mirror; he and the picture both had the same despondent expression.
"What does it say?" he asked finally. Blaise's face was now impassive, and it was alarming.
Pansy took a breath and began to read aloud. "Harry Potter breaks hearts where ever he goes. No doubt as a result of his Byronic -"
Here, Pansy broke down and began snickering helplessly. "His…his Byronic good looks and ch-charming personality!" she shrieked, putting her face down on her arms and giggling madly.
Blaise was only better off in that he had managed to keep most of his composure. With an ear splitting grin, he plucked the magazine neatly out of Pansy's outstretched hands and straightened it. Clearing his throat, he said, "Here's my favourite part:Mothers, hang on to your daughters, because Harry Potter is…"
Blaise paused and covered his mouth with his hand, taking a deep breath and staring down at the page, hanging onto his poise with all he had. "Harry Potter is on the prowl."
He closed the magazine and set it next to his plate. The he made he mistake of looking up at Harry's face and lost it. Blaise sagged against Pansy and the two of them cackled without restraint. Harry glared at them both, though they were far too busy to notice.
"Mothers, hang on to your daughters!" Pansy cried, and they both fell back into near hysterics. Various Slytherin and Durmstrang students near them glanced over at the noise, and each of them grinned at the sight of the magazine. Harry felt himself turning red. How was it that he was always the last one to find out about this kind of thing?
"It's good to know that in my time of need, I have the support of my friends," Harry sulked. Pansy reached a hand out to him, nearly dipping her sleeve in the gravy.
"Oh, darling, of course you have our support," she snickered. "It's just…it's just too…'Byronic good looks'? Really?"
"I'm really getting sick of this," Harry muttered. Pansy nodded vigorously.
"Oh, definitely," she said, still grinning. "It's dreadful."
"She's a monster," Blaise agreed, straight faced. "She must be stopped."
"I'm going to pretend you both mean that," Harry told them, determinedly grumpy. "Instead of acknowledging your awful, awful sarcasm."
Pansy patted him on the hand. "There you go, Harry! Optimism will see you through."
Harry scowled at her, optimistically.
The article put Harry in a foul mood for the rest of the day. He spent the time after dinner that night hiding in behind the closed curtains of his four poster, watching the Marauder's Map and grimacing at anyone whose movements caught his eye.
He was waiting for the coast to be clear before he left for his final Occlumency and Parseltongue lesson of the term. (They were focussing on the subtler aspects of Occlumency, and so Snape had decreed they would not be duelling for the next few lessons.) He and Snape had agreed to take a short break during the holidays so that Snape could devote his time to his potions and next term's lesson plans, neither of which he was willing to discuss with Harry.
Harry watched the Map as the halls cleared until only one or two students were left wandering the path between his room and Snape's office. He didn't recognise their names, so he assumed they were younger years. He decided to bring his Cloak, just in case. He really didn't want to talk to anyone right now.
Rita's article had been more obnoxious than Pansy and Blaise had been able to reveal with a straight face. Not only was Harry made out to be some kind of fourteen year old Cassanova, but he was apparently stealing the innocence of every female he'd had a conversation with since the First Task. The list was shamefully short, according to Blaise. It basically amounted to Hermione, Luna, Pansy, and Tracy Davis, whom Harry had spoken to on the way to Herbology two weeks ago. He still had to track her down later on to apologise for some of the allusions Skeeter had made. It was embarrassing.
He folded up the Map and, throwing the Cloak over his shoulders, set out for the Slytherin common room, and the dungeon corridor beyond it.
He hadn't made it more than halfway to Snape's office when he was blindsided by an unexpected voice.
"What kind of mischief are you up to, hiding under that Cloak, Potter?"
Harry's heart nearly leapt out of his chest. He spun around to see Professor Moody coming out of an adjacent corridor, eying him beadily.
"Professor!" He gasped. "I didn't see you…"
He pulled his Cloak off, as it was obviously not hindering Moody's piercing gaze in the slightest.
"Constant vigilance, Potter," Moody remarked in a gruff voice. "Always remember."
"Yes, sir," Harry said, still kicking himself for being caught off guard by Moody of all people. "I was just headed to Professor Snape's office. I'm supposed to be meeting with him in a few minutes."
"Must be an important meeting," Moody said. "If you've got to hide that you're going."
Harry glanced away as he stuffed the Cloak in his pocket. "I just didn't want to have talk to students I might pass on the way," he said. "The newspaper articles recently…"
"Ah, Skeeter's work," Moody agreed, the faintest trace of a smile on his scarred mouth. "Just remember you're a Slytherin, Potter. Slytherins manipulate. They are not manipulated."
Harry nodded slowly. "Thank you, Professor," he said. "I'll remember that."
"See that you do," Moody growled. "Now put that Cloak back on and get to your meeting."
"Yes, sir," Harry said, hurrying to obey. He'd be late soon. He swirled the Cloak around his shoulders and started off toward Snape's office again.
"Just a second, Potter, you dropped your parchment," Moody said, stooping to pick it up. Harry turned around and watched, his mind racing. Had he wiped the Map clean before putting it away?
"Thank you, Professor," he said, reaching his hand out from under the Cloak to take it back. Moody, true to his character, looked at the parchment suspiciously. Harry hated himself for looking nervous, and tried to clear his mind, tried to act naturally. He thought of the absent feeling he'd been able to summon while detangling Luna's necklace; he tried to place it behind his eyes. Inside his head, he thought about how normal and boring the parchment was. Everyone always told Harry that his every thought showed up on his face.
"Awfully old bit of parchment, Potter," Moody said, and looked as though he was about to hand it back. Harry fought back the hope that rushed through him and thought instead about how he was going to be late for his meeting with Snape.
"It's been in my pocket for a while, I think," he explained. "The house elves might have washed it since I last looked at it. I think it was a trick parchment. Insults whoever tries to write on it, or something."
That was the safeguard on the Map. Sirius had explained how it had a built in defence mechanism. Whoever tried to make it reveal its secrets without the proper password would find themselves insulted with faux-politeness and at length, in writing, by the makers of the Map themselves.
Call it a trick parchment, and anyone looking would find what he'd told them to expect.
Moody's darker eye glanced up at him, and Harry thought again about how late he was going to be. He thought he'd been getting better at lying lately.
Moody shook his head and, to Harry's immense relief (because he really had to be meeting with Snape, of course), handed back the parchment. "On your way, now," he said, and Harry stuffed the Map back in his pocket and took off at a speedy pace. He heard Moody's wooden leg clunking rhythmically in the other direction. Relief spilled through him like cool pumpkin juice.
"I think I'm doing better, sir."
Snape raised an eyebrow and glanced into Harry's eyes. Harry put the absent feeling behind them and thought about Bertie Botts instead of all the things he'd done to deserve a detention in the past few weeks, like Snape wanted him to. Snape grimaced as Harry imagined the taste of the grass bean.
"Better, yes," Snape said, tenting his fingers and regarding Harry over them. "Though you have not quite mastered it. Why do you wander around under your Cloak before curfew?"
Harry grimaced and shifted in his chair. "I thought I'd stopped you!"
"You stopped me from learning about whatever it is you did to cause all of Professor Sprout's Tentacula seedlings to lose their teeth."
"I didn't do that, that was-" Harry cut himself off abruptly. Snape nodded once, amused at his last minute save. "That wasn't me," he finished.
"You must be able to clear your mind all of the memories you wish to hide, not just most of them," Snape lectured. "Otherwise, while you are looking in one direction, I can spend time out of your view, finding a trail of information that will lead me to what I want to know. All of your thoughts are connected. If I can pick up on even one vulnerable idea, I can follow that train of thought to the rest of your memories. How do you think you are to stop me from doing that?"
Harry considered this. "Could I give you a thought without any connections?"
"Every thought is connected to another." Snape shook his head. "There is no escaping the interconnectedness of the mind, and you would waste your time trying."
Harry frowned, stumped. Then he thought about the way he'd thought of the Map as just a parchment when he was trying to lie to Moody. "Maybe I could build a chain of thought that looked normal, but was actually fabricated?"
Snape nodded slowly. Encouraged, Harry continued. "If I came up with a fake idea, and built a chain of fake thoughts from that idea, you'd follow the fake chain for as long as I made it before you'd find a real one that would lead you back into my actual memories."
"An interesting theory," Snape said, leaning back in his chair. "We will test it."
Harry braced himself.
He could feel Snape trying to sift through his mind, looking for his current opinion of Draco. Though nearly undone by Snape's underhanded use of an obviously touchy subject to throw Harry's focus, he managed to build a fiction in his head. He and Draco were having a fight right now (and he had all kinds of ill will toward Draco to prove it) because they both had certain ideas about the kind of people Harry should associate with. Draco wanted him to stop talking to Gryffindors and muggleborns, and in fact, Harry remembered the expression on Draco's face when he first discovered Harry was friends with Hermione Granger. As far as Harry was concerned, Draco could shove his bigotry up his-
"Very good, Mr. Potter," Snape told him, setting his wand down on the desk between them. "A believable story, proper memories to back it up, and a long enough chain of thoughts, each of them peppered with genuine emotion, that no one who didn't already know the truth would question it. And a certain amount of conviction behind it all as well."
Harry nodded. "It all felt more authentic to think of it all as true in the front of my mind, rather than as a lie I'm trying to convince you of." He paused. "And anyway, we really did have that argument. Just not this year."
"Indeed. Take caution when lying to yourself, Mr. Potter," Snape said. "This kind of misdirection will only benefit you if, in the deepest parts of your mind, you are not truly fooled."
The winter holidays usually meant a nice break from the hectic bustle of Hogwarts, but with the Yule Ball coming up, barely any of the students fourth year and above were going home. It was strange to see the halls so full when no one really had anywhere in particular to be.
On the other hand, the library was completely empty, but for Madam Pince and Harry.
He was waiting for his Gryffindor friends to show up, or barring that, his Ravenclaw friends. He didn't have plans to meet here with either of them, not really, but then again, the groups he was waiting for were led by Hermione Granger and Anthony Goldstein respectively. The two of them were like homing pigeons; no matter where they went, no matter what they did, after a while they were inexplicably drawn back to the library. He'd kind of expected them to be here already when he arrived. He leaned back in his chair and flipped through Quidditch Through the Ages, pausing to examine a diagram of a Chaser doing the Starfish and Stick maneuver.
"Harry Potter. I vould like to talk with you."
Harry glanced up in time to see Victor Krum of all people dropping into the seat across from him at his table and eyeing him suspiciously.
"Er," Harry said. "Um, sure, okay. How can I help you?"
"Vot is your…relationship with Herm-own-ninny?"
Harry stared at him. "With-"
"…we're friends," Harry said, starting to smile in spite of himself. Nevermind that Krum was obviously here because of Skeeter's articles. He was asking after Hermione and calling her Herm-own-ninny and Harry was never going to stop teasing her about this. "Just friends, honestly."
Krum regarded him narrowly. "The newspaper said-"
"You mean 'Rita Skeeter said'," Harry reminded him. "I know you've met her, I saw the interview she did with you."
Krum winced. "I haff a publicist for Quidditch," he said. "I do not usually talk to the press."
"Hermione," Harry enunciated clearly, "and I are just good friends. Skeeter likes to make things up. I'm going to the Yule Ball with Luna Lovegood, anyway."
Krum leaned back, satisfied. "Good," he said, glancing down at Harry's book. "Do you play Quidditch?"
Harry grinned. "I play for Slytherin, yeah," he said. "Or at least, I would if we were playing this year. The last time I was on a broom, it was with that guy, Poliakoff."
The expression that crossed Krum's face when Harry mentioned Poliakoff was an awkward one. "He is a strange boy," Krum said, in response to Harry's enquiring glance.
Harry remembered, grudgingly, the last conversation he'd had with Draco. He had said something similar. "Do you know him well?"
"Not really," Krum said. "Before we came to Hogwarts, we did not have same interests. We did not speak. But he is… odd." Harry nodded. He couldn't argue with that. Krum changed the subject back to something more important. "What position do you play?"
Chapter 7: The Ball
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
"You look lovely, Luna." Harry stood next to the steps that led up to Ravenclaw Tower and watched as Luna descended. She was wearing a strange dress, to be certain, but aside from the chaotic frills and mirrors sewn in, she had put her hair up and replaced her radish earrings with what looked like beets.
Luna gave him a small smile. "Thank you, Harry. You look lovely as well."
Harry grinned and held out his arm. "Shall we?"
She took it, and they walked down to the Entrance Hall, where everyone was still milling about, waiting for the doors to open. Harry searched the crowd, looking for a familiar face. They had managed to get caught up in the Beauxbaton group, and Harry didn't know any of their Hogwarts dates.
"Do you see Blaise and Pansy anywhere?" Harry asked as Luna's eyes took in the crowd. There was no argument about who had better vision between Harry and Luna. "Or Hermione or Dudley?"
"I see Hermione," Luna said. She pointed vaguely in the direction of the Champions that were lining up just in front of the door. Harry caught a glimpse of brown hair and a blue robe behind Krum, but soon the crowd closed the gap between them and he lost her again.
"She seems busy," Luna added. Harry shrugged and began leading them slowly through the crowd.
Harry had found a clique of Hufflepuffs and was trying to politely make his and Luna's way out to the other side of the yellow press when the crowd suddenly surged forward. It seemed that the doors had opened and they were being let inside. Harry and Luna held their positions and managed to enter the Hall behind theHufflepuffs instead of with them.
They filtered in with the rest of the crowd and ended up ringing a dance floor. Harry glanced at Luna, nervous, but she didn't seem to be eyeing it unduly. She was looking up at the decorations on the walls and ceilings.
"They've forgotten the oak branches," she told Harry. "They're important for keeping the holly's influence under control."
Harry nodded, though without Anthony around, he wasn't sure if this was common wizarding knowledge or Luna knowledge.
"I think the tables are made of oak, actually," Ron said. Harry startled, but Luna must have been aware of his presence, because she only nodded and peered over at one of the groupings of tiny tables beyond the dance floor. "That would work better than just having branches lying about, since there's holly everywhere."
Common wizarding knowledge then. Harry took note.
"Hi, Ron," Harry said, and glanced around at the nearby people. "Where's your date?"
Ron's ears turned red. "I decided to come alone," he said stiffly. Harry kept his mouth shut and turned back to the dance floor. The three of them watched from the crowd as the Champions swept in and began to dance.
If Harry hadn't known that Hermione was the one with Krum, he would never have recognised her. Her hair was… shiny, and her face looked painted. Her robes were very nice and blue, and generally speaking, she seemed happy dancing with Krum and the other Champions.
"Hermione looks very pretty tonight," Luna said, mirroring Harry's thoughts. Ron frowned at them and glanced around.
"Where is she? I haven't seen her yet." Ron grimaced. "I bet her mystery date is some loser from Hufflepuff."
Harry winced. Apparently, not only had Ron not noticed Hermione on the dance floor, he had also failed to realize that they were currently standing on the fringe of a crowd of upper year Hufflepuffs.
"She's dancing," Harry said. "The one in the blue."
Ron's jaw dropped. Harry took this moment of distraction to pull Luna away. The Hufflepuffs had overheard, and were rustling with quiet indignation. They found a table near a few other people in Harry's year and sat down.
"I think," Luna said after a long moment, her large eyes watching the dance floor where couples were beginning to join the Champions, "That when you want to do something you're afraid of, it's best to do it in a large crowd."
Harry sagged. "You want to dance, don't you? I don't know how to dance. I'm sorry, Luna."
"It's okay, Harry," Luna said. "I only learned the tango and swing from Daddy. All the other dances I know, I learned on my own. I can teach you."
"Maybe later, Luna," Harry said, listening to the end notes of the song that had been playing with relief. "They're done dancing now. I think we're going to eat."
Sure enough, couples began making their way from the dance floor out among the tables. Hermione was sitting with the Champions, but Harry's other friends managed to find them. Neville and Ginny Weasley sat at the next table over, waving a greeting, and Blaise and Pansy sat down with Harry and Luna, looking like they'd just been dancing. Pansy was fanning herself, and her cheeks were the same colour as her dress: bright pink.
"Having fun yet?" she asked, grinning. "Blaise spent the entire first number trying really hard to step on each of my toes individually."
Harry felt marginally better. "So, you don't know how to dance either?" he asked Blaise.
Blaise scowled. "I can dance perfectly well, thank you. I've been ballroom dancing since I was four. Pansy spent the entire first number trying to trip me up. I was taking deliberate aim."
"This dress is the height of fashion right now," Pansy said. "I'll have you know, if any of the Hogwarts girls had any sense at all, they would have been vivid green with envy. I'll thank you not to insult my dress again, Zabini."
"Green might have been a better colour for it," Blaise muttered under his breath. He smiled charmingly at Pansy's narrow-eyed expression. "Oh look, menus! Let's order!"
Dudley sat down at Neville and Ginny's table so that his and Harry's chairs were back to back. He had a curly haired girl with him that Harry didn't recognise.
"Hi, Dudley," Harry said, turning around with Luna to talk. "I see you managed to find a date without our help."
"Yeah," Dudley said, gesturing at the girl next to him. "This is Delilah Diggle. She's in Hufflepuff."
Harry nodded at Delilah and thought that she had to be a third year. She seemed excited to be here, anyway, and smiled enough at Dudley.
Ron showed up then, and pulled a chair up next to Neville. "Hey guys," he said, sounding grumpy. "Do you have any idea how many times my feet got stepped on on the way over here?"
Delilah cast him a scornful glance and turned back to Dudley, engaging him in animated conversation about gobstones.
After dinner, Luna did indeed try to teach Harry to dance. She led him over to the side of the dance floor, deaf to his mumbled objections, and proceeded to walk him through a simple swing dance. Pansy and Blaise sailed past every so often and snickered at Harry's pitiful attempts. Luna assured him that once he got the hang of it, even a blibbering humdinger wouldn't dance as well. There was no one around at the time to explain what a blibbering humdinger was, but Harry decided to take it as encouragement nonetheless.
After a while, Luna let Harry take a break, and they found the punch bowl. Just past the refreshments was a set of doors that led outside to what looked like a path lined with rose bushes, and Harry wandered over to investigate. When Luna followed, Harry led them out on to the path, thinking that the further away from the music they were, the less likely it would be that he'd have to dance to it.
They walked amiably along, and Luna hummed and picked flowers. As they neared a small clearing, Harry heard a deep feminine voice raised in what sounded like anger. He slowed down and peered through a bush to find Hagrid sitting on a bench with the headmaster of Beauxbatons standing over him, looking upset. Hagrid didn't look any happier. Harry remembered them dancing an hour ago and surmised that the date hadn't gone well. Glancing around for another path to take, Harry found that Luna had gone on without him.
Harry kept going, but he couldn't find Luna. She had disappeared. The rose bushes were arranged like a maze, and he had a feeling he'd taken a wrong turn several forks back, and now he'd never find her. He kept running into snogging couples though, which was awkward. He decided to aim for the Great Hall again.
He had found the right path and had nearly reached the doors to the Hall when a portion of a conversation caught his ear.
"…Lovegood, of all people…"
Luna must have passed by here, then, if someone was talking about her. Harry slowed down to listen to the conversation going on just beyond the doorway, inside the Hall.
"…not even a proper Slytherin, always hanging around with those mudbloods and blood traitors in Gryffindor."
"I can't believe you were friends with him, Draco. He's a dangerous sort to associate with, if you catch my meaning."
Harry felt a cold weight settle in his stomach. He narrowed his eyes and listened for a response.
"Well I had to, you know," Draco said, sounding annoyed. "My father said he could be useful. The Boy-Who-Lived in Slytherin and all. No one had any idea what that meant. It's not like we were actually friends or anything. And now we know better."
Harry stumbled back, blinking. He felt like he'd been punched in the stomach. Draco had sounded insulted at the very notion that he and Harry might have been friends. And even this year, when Harry had been so mad at Draco for ignoring him, he had never had any idea that Draco thought…
Harry didn't want to think too deeply about what he was feeling just then, else he might go inside and hit Draco right in the middle of the Yule Ball. He stormed off, as far away from the Great Hall as he could get, and when he hit a dead end, he didn't even pause.
"Reducto!" A small hole opened up in the bushes. Harry made it larger and forced his way through, still furious.
He stomped away across the grounds, headed away from the castle. Otherwise, he didn't really have a goal in mind. There was a ringing in his ears that drowned out most other noise, which was probably why he didn't hear anyone calling him.
"Harry! Are you okay?" Poliakoff pulled up beside him, having apparently run after him. He was panting.
Harry's jaw tightened. "I'm fine. What do you want?"
"You are… upset," Poliakoff said, holding his hands up in a conciliatory fashion and tripping over his feet when Harry glanced at him. "I thought I could help?"
Harry was in a bad enough mood that Poliakoff's bumbling annoyed him instead of pacifying him. "How exactly to you plan to do that?"
"Vell." Poliakoff rubbed his eyebrow with the heel of his palm. "We could go to Hogsmeade and you can talk, if you want. It is about Draco Malfoy, yes?"
Harry's bad mood, barely constrained for Poliakoff, exploded again. "That bastard has a lot of explaining to do," he raged. Poliakoff nodded and turned him away from the Forest, where his path had been taking them, and toward Hogsmeade. It was dark already, and Harry was walking very quickly. Even with his longer legs, Poliakoff stumbled to keep up.
"He just said…! Back there, he just told them that- that he was only pretending to be friends with me to see if I could beuseful! That stupid git stopped talking to me, fine, but then he turns around and starts telling people that? As if he never liked me, as if we really weren't ever friends?"
Poliakoff nodded sympathetically, though Harry ignored him.
"I know we were friends before this year," he said furiously. "I don't know what his problem is now, but I know we were friends. I have way too much blackmail material on him for him to have been faking it all this time."
Poliakoff nodded again, steering him along the path so that he didn't end up in the snow again. They were coming up on the gates out of Hogwarts quickly.
"Who does he think he is?" Harry fumed. "He is such an arse! I hate him sometimes, you know?"
Poliakoff did know, if his continual nodding was any indication. The wind blew, rustling nearby trees.
"Actually," Harry stopped in his tracks. "You know what? I'm going back there. I'm going to find him. Then I'm going to hit him. Then I'm going to tell him what I think of him! I am so sick of him this year!"
"Harry," Poliakoff sounded alarmed. "Ve were going to Hogsmeade, remember? You should calm down. Do not hit anyone."
"No, that's a good idea, actually," Harry said, and started back on his way to the castle. Poliakoff hovered around him, concerned. "If I hit him, he'll have to sit there for long enough to listen to me tell him what a git he is."
With this new plan in mind, Harry felt calmer. By the time he reached the castle again (through the front doors, rather than the impromptu window he'd made in the rose bushes) he was even able to school his expression into neutrality. All the better to catch Draco by surprise when he hit him right on the nose.
By now, it was getting late. When Harry walked into the Great Hall, Poliakoff at his heels, the crowd had halved at least. It took Harry all of three minutes to realize that Draco and his friends had left already. The snow had been at least ankle deep outside; both Harry and Poliakoff's robes and shoes were damp. Harry realized he was cold.
"I do not see him," Poliakoff said. Having realized upon reaching the castle that Hogsmeade was no longer an option, Poliakoff seemed to have come to terms with helping Harry find and hit Draco. He was gamely searching the crowd, using his height to his advantage.
"That's because he's gone," Harry said. His shoulders slumped, and he dropped down at a nearby empty table. Poliakoff sat with him. "This is stupid. I'm not going to hit him. He's never going to talk to me again anyway." Harry scrubbed at his forehead, where a headache was forming. He felt very tired, all of a sudden. "Even if he does, I don't think I'd want to answer." He stood up abruptly and glanced around one last time. Pansy and Blaise were still in the Hall, tucked away in a quiet corner and sitting awfully close. Neville and Ginny were dancing. Otherwise, all his friends were gone. "I'm going to bed. Thanks, Poliakoff. Goodnight."
Christmas morning dawned quietly. Harry didn't even bother to draw back the hangings on the side of his bed that was next to Draco's, and instead opened his presents alone. Blaise wandered over to exchange and discuss presents, and Harry teased him lightly about the Yule Ball and Pansy.
Harry received presents from Dudley (and Uncle Vernon), Hermione, Blaise, Pansy, Anthony, Luna, and Sirius and Remus. Most of it was standard fare, but the presents from his godfather and former professor were the best by far.
A tawny owl had been sitting quietly at the foot of Harry's bed when he woke, and it hooted at him whenever he shifted. It had a bundle of square parchment bound to its leg. It didn't leave when Harry untied it.
Scribbled on the front of the parchment was a note:
Happy Christmas, Harry!
To our understanding, you already have a lot of pictures of Lily and her side of the family. We thought some pictures of James (and his friends and family) would complement your collection. Enclosed are the combined efforts of Moony and myself to acquire as many photos as possible for you.
In a different handwriting:
Sirius has charmed a few of the photos, against my better judgement.
Harry grinned and opened the parchment. He let the stack of photos spill out onto his bed, feeling a bit nostalgic for his first Christmas at Hogwarts as he sorted through them.
Some of the pictures were of James when he was younger than Harry, even. Many of them were of him and Sirius and Remus while at school. Pettigrew was in a couple, but Sirius seemed to spend a lot of time in those pictures shoving him out of view. That was probably what Remus meant when he said Sirius had charmed them. Harry shook his head and sifted through the rest.
There were a few of James and Lily together, smiling and waving at the camera. Some pictures even included Lily and James holding a baby, Harry.
The lack of scar was strange; Harry had never seen himself without it. The three of them looked happier than anything he could have expected.
He spent a bit longer staring at each picture, and spared a thought that he'd have to get another photo album. There were at least thirty photos in all. Sirius and Remus had really gone out of their way. He picked up the parchment eventually, to finish reading the note.
The owl that delivered this package is a male tawny, about two years old. We bought him for you, and haven't named him. Now you don't have to borrow Dudley's owl whenever you want to send us a letter.
Harry blinked at the owl. The owl resolutely did not blink back. Harry's snake took this moment to crawl out of the empty wrappings he had been investigating, apparently having sensed a change in Harry's mood.
"Why is that bird in your bed?" she asked. She had been spending a lot of time roaming Hogwarts on her own this year, and had been quite taken with the Owlery, at least until she discovered that the owls there disapproved of her deeply, and with claws. As such, she was wary of most large birds and full of adoration for Hagrid, who usually patched her up.
"He's my new owl," Harry explained. "He'll deliver letters and packages for me."
"It won't live here with us, will it?" The snake seemed discomfited by this idea. "It doesn't like me."
Harry smiled. "You can't know he doesn't like you. He hasn't done anything."
"It doesn't like me," the snake insisted. She slithered up Harry's arm to his shoulder, and hissed at the bird. "I can tell. It wants to eat me. I don't like it either."
"He'll probably stay in the Owlery," Harry said, running a soothing finger down his snake's scales.
"Good," she said. "They can all claw each other, the barbarians."
Anthony had been teaching the snakes new words again, Harry noted with amusement.
"He needs a name," Harry said, just to see what the snake would say. "What do you think?"
"A name?" Harry remembered the conversation they'd had back when he offered a name to his snake. "A word used to describe and label someone so that they can be differentiated from others…" Clearly his snake remembered as well. "You should call it-"
What followed was a long string of meanings that Harry didn't think would actually translate into English. He caught most of it, though, and it was all very crude.
"I'm not calling him that!" Harry snickered. "I don't think I could even repeat all that properly."
The snake reared back, tilted her head toward Harry's ear, and said it all again, slowly. This time, Harry caught several key phrases, including 'scaleless egg thief' and 'two-legged pile of shed skin".
"Right," Harry said. He gave the bird a reassuring smile as he shifted. He was probably uncomfortable with all the hissing. "Definitely not calling him that. Be nice."
"I will not," the snake said, stubbornly. "It wants to eat me. Tell it I'm watching it."
"I can't talk to him like I can talk to you," Harry told her. "I don't speak bird language."
Harry's snake made a satisfied sound and coiled around his neck, preening. "Good."
"So what are you going to call him, then?"
Harry shrugged. "I'm not sure. I just got him this morning."
He and Dudley were sitting on the windowsill in the Owlery, admiring Harry's new bird.
"It's good that you got your own owl, finally," Dudley said. "Now Whitey can rest more between flights." Whitey flew over and landed between them, allowing Dudley to smooth the feathers on her head.
Harry nodded and hummed his agreement as his own bird hopped up onto his knee, investigating the new arrival.
"Actually," Dudley continued, hopefully. "I was going to send a letter out with Whitey today, but she's looking kind of tired. Would you mind if I borrow your owl?"
Harry shrugged. "I've borrowed yours often enough over the years. I don't see why not. Are you writing to Uncle Vernon? Tell him I said thanks for the gloves. They're really nice."
"I'll tell him, but I'm not writing to him." Dudley looked away, out toward the lake. His voice was quiet. "I've got to send a letter to my mum for Christmas."
Harry blinked a couple times. He pulled a knee up to his chest, feeling a bit uncomfortable. "You're still writing to her?" He paused. "She writes back, then? That's g-"
"She-she hasn't… written back. Yet." Dudley spoke slowly, as though he was reaching through a thorny bush to pull each word out. "The letters come back, usually. But… they're opened, sometimes. So…"
"Yeah," Harry said, and cleared his throat. He stared down at his new owl, not really sure what to say. "I… I guess if it was my mum, I'd keep writing too."
Dudley swallowed and nodded.
They sat in silence for a minute, just watching their owls as they shifted and hooted periodically at each other.
"So, the girl you took to the Yule Ball," Harry said eventually. "How did you meet her?"
"Delilah?" Dudley laughed and scratched his head. "I was leaving breakfast a couple days before the Ball, thinking about how I couldn't let you and Loon-Luna change your minds and decide I needed help finding a date. She and her friends were passing by, so I asked her."
Harry grinned. "You just walked up, picked her out of a small crowd, and asked? And she said yes?"
"Well…while they were walking by, she mentioned that she really wanted to go and couldn't because she didn't have a date." Dudley shrugged and grinned back. "And then she did."
"Clever," Harry laughed. "She seemed nice."
Dudley nodded and waggled his eyebrows. "She was really nice."
Harry's mouth dropped open. "Dudley!"
Dudley grinned and held up his hands defensively. "What? We had a great time. We're going to Hogsmeade together next weekend."
"Wow, that's great," he said, shaking his head. "Congratulations then."
"What about you and Luna? Is she-"
"'Really nice'? Going to Hogsmeade with me next week?" Harry grinned. "No. We went as friends, mostly. She spent part of the Ball teaching me how to dance, and then I lost her."
"You…lost her?" Dudley frowned. "How do you lose a girl?"
"Well," Harry said, "She was walking through the rosebushes with me one minute, and then I looked away, and she was gone. So I lost her. We had fun though."
Dudley smirked. "Until you lost her."
Harry rolled his eyes. "Yes, until I lost her."
"Good job, Harry. Very smooth."
"Shut up, Dudley. Go back to your Tower."
"How about we name him Paracelsus?" Harry consulted the list he and Hermione had complied. "It's the name of a famous alchemist."
"What do you think of Shiva? It's a Hindu god, also known as the destroyer."
"Fitting." His snake coiled more comfortably around his wrist as she considered the name. "I don't like it."
"Loki? The trickster god. He turned evil and the other gods had to chain him to a rock."
"Could we chain the bird to a rock?"
Harry snorted. "No."
"How about something simple, then. Gall, the patron saint of birds."
"That bird is not a saint. Don't be deceptive, Harry."
Harry laughed out loud, startling a passing second year. "Alright, we'll forget the saints and gods then. How about Abaddon? It means chaos and destruction."
The snake turned this over thoughtfully. "I like it. But it still sounds too dignified."
Harry shook his head. "Well of course he's going to have a dignified name. I'm not going to name him Stormageddon or something ridiculous like that."
The snake reared up with interest. "What does that mean?"
Harry ran an exasperated hand through his hair. "I don't know. It's a storm crossed with an Armageddon, which is the end of the world. But it's not a real name."
"I like it," she said adamantly. "We will call your bird Stormageddon."
Harry laughed. "No we won't. I think I'm going to go with Loki, actually."
"No, Stormageddon is perfect," the snake said firmly, and wouldn't hear another word on it. Harry made the mistake of telling Blaise and Dudley about the conversation, and from then on, everyone but Harry called his bird Stormageddon. It got to the point that Loki started answering to that instead, to Harry's immense frustration.
When Diimortal suggested Stormageddon, I HAD to do it. I didn't know how I would do it, but I HAD to. It was very important. I know I said the name had to make sense and be something he'd come up with, but I think it works this way! Frig, man. Stormageddon. You guys have got to hate how undignified the owl names are in this story.
Also, credit to bungler and goku for coming up with 'Loki', among others, and to Nahmen, who came up with Paracelsus, which I probably would have used had I not found Stormageddon.
Chapter 8: The Lake
The Second Task was held by the lake on a bright, cold morning in February. Harry sat with Pansy and Blaise toward the top of the stands, trying to figure out which of them could perform the best warming charm.
"Harry's was strong," Blaise was explaining. "But mine lasted longer."
"But Pansy's actually covered all of me," Harry disagreed. "Yours left my toes freezing and my ankles hot. Not the best of options."
"Harry," Blaise said, "Yours made me feel like I was having a hot flash."
"There is no reason for us to still be arguing this," Pansy interrupted. "Mine was clearly the best."
The two boys grumbled but eventually agreed and let her cast her warming charm on both of them.
"So, what do they have to do, anyway?" Blaise peered out toward the lake, where the Champions' tent stood, leaning slightly in the wind.
"Not sure," Pansy answered. "I heard from Lisa that Susan in Hufflepuff said that Diggory had a puzzle to solve. It was in the egg they had to get from the dragons. She said the screeching was awful."
"Hermione said that Krum was researching ways to survive underwater for long periods of time," Harry said. "I think they have to go into the lake. Maybe they have to fight some kind of underwater creature?"
"Maybe they have to fight the giant squid," Blaise suggested. "Though I don't know how that'd work. They'd have to get it mad first."
"That's boring," Pansy said, wrinkling her nose. "If the only skills involved in this tournament are battling giant monsters, this is going to get old, fast. We might as well have had a Gryffindor as our champion; they go in for that kind of thing."
The three of them settled down, Pansy leaning against Blaise's side, and watched as Dumbledore and the other four judges took their places near the edge of the water. Bagman tapped his throat with his wand and began to shout:
"Welcome, welcome," His voice bounced off the stands and rippled on the water. The three Champions stood at the bank, wands at the ready. "To the second task of the Triwizard Tournament!"
The crowd clapped and cheered. "Our champions are ready for the second task, which will start on my whistle!" Bagman turned in a wide circle for the crowd and ostentatiously held up something that flashed in the morning light; presumably it was the whistle. "They have precisely an hour to recover what has been taken from them. On the count of three then!"
Harry and his friends leaned forward expectantly with the rest of the crowd as Bagman counted down, paused for just the barest of seconds, and blew the whistle. Each of the three champions sprang to action in an instant, brandishing their wands at themselves and wading into the water in the same movement.
"So they've got to go down in the lake and find something that got stolen from them," Pansy said, cocking her head to the side. "How likely is it that they would actually take a person?"
"A person?" Harry asked. "You mean, steal their best friend or something and drop them in the lake? Would they do that?"
"Yeah." Blaise shrugged. "Why not?"
Harry peered down at Krum, the last champion still above the water. He was currently half a shark and waist deep. He hurled himself beneath the surface and soon even his fin had disappeared.
"And Krum, the last of the champions to finish his preparations, is on his way!" Bagman boomed. "You don't see transfigurations like that everyday, do you folks?"
"Hey, Harry, budge up." It was Dudley, holding a Hogwarts flag and a bag of Ice Mice. Harry moved over to make room for him, consequently shoving Pansy and Blaise closer together. They didn't seem to mind.
"Have you seen Hermione?" Dudley asked, settling down in his seat. "We can't find her anywhere."
Harry glanced at Blaise and Pansy, who shrugged as one. Suddenly he felt like rooting for Durmstrang.
Barely fifteen minutes into Bagman's monologue on the weaknesses and strengths of each Champion, the water began to ripple.
"Could it be, folks?" Bagman roared, leaning forward as eagerly as anyone. "Has one of our Champions returned with their prize already?"
Three heads broke the surface. One of them was struggling fiercely.
"Who is it?" Harry asked, squinting.
"The hair is too long to be anyone but Delacour," Pansy said, peering down at the lake as the two figures dragged the third toward the dock. "Are those merpeople?"
"What are they doing to her?" Dudley asked. The rest of the crowd chattered around them, clearly of the same mind.
"Never fear, folks!" Bagman boomed jovially. "As a precaution to safeguard against accidents and temptation, the merpeople of the Great Lake were enlisted to keep an eye on our Champions!"
Delacour was shouting and struggling to escape even as the merpeople hefted her onto the dock. She wasn't getting very far; it seemed like she was injured.
"Gabrielle! Non, ma soeur! Gabrielle! Je ne peux pas l'abandonner!"
Two witches took her from the merpeople and carried her off to a medical tent, still screaming for Gabrielle. Professor Dumbledore stepped forward and began screeching at the merpeople. It was an awful sound.
"I guess you were right about them taking people," Harry muttered, glancing over at the tent, which clearly had silencing charms on it, as Delacour's shouts had vanished the moment they stepped through the flap.
Blaise shrugged. "Yeah. Also, the screeching in the egg you mentioned makes sense now, Pansy. It was Mermish."
The merpeople screeched back, and Dumbledore straightened up to speak with Bagman and the other judges.
"It's supposed to sound quite beautiful underwater," Pansy said doubtfully. Harry made a face, and turned to note that Dudley's expression was similar. They grinned at each other.
"It sounded like Mum's singing," Dudley confirmed, and the grin dropped off his face a moment later. "Or how she used to sound, anyway."
Harry's response died on his lips. He followed Dudley's lead and turned back to the lake to listen to Bagman's relay of Delacour's failure quietly.
"Grindylow." Pansy shook her head. "How embarrassing."
"Do you think Hermione's alright down there?" Harry asked. "Krum was kind of toothy last time we saw him. Knowing her, she'd take one look at him and send him back."
Pansy and Blaise laughed, but Dudley looked alarmed. "Hermione's in the lake?"
"I think so," Harry explained. "It makes sense, doesn't it? Have you seen her lately?"
Dudley's eyes widened. "Not since last night! McGonagall called her to her office and I went to bed before she got back! She's really in the lake, isn't she? Bloody hell! Do you think Ron knows?"
"Weasley and his brood are all over there," Pansy said as Harry shrugged. She pointed to the middle of the crowd, about four stands away. "I'm not sure how they managed, as there were quite enough of them already, but I think they've multiplied."
Harry peered over and saw the mass of flaming red hair where Pansy had indicated. It did look like more than Ron, Ginny and the twins. There had to be at least three or four more of them than usual. Harry shook his head and turned back around in his seat. He'd asked Dudley once, how many siblings Ron had. Dudley had paused, furrowed his brow, and eventually shrugged and declared, "A lot."
Now that the brief bit of entertainment that had come of Delacour's dramatic exit from the lake was over, Dumbledore went about extracting information about Krum and Diggory's progress from the merpeople. Bagman relayed the information to the crowd, peppered with commentary on which of them was more likely to find and rescue their prize first.
"He hopes it's Diggory," Blaise said as Bagman made a particularly biased remark that provoked a spate of boos and hisses from the Durmstrang supporters in the crowd.
Harry frowned. "Wait, I thought you bet on Diggory?" he asked. "Wouldn't he want Krum to win instead?"
"You think I'm the only one who placed bets with him?" Blaise asked, grinning like a satisfied cat. "He's been offering insane odds on Krum ever since the First Task, trying to get people to bet on him to win. That way, if Diggory wins, he'll be able to pay me."
Dudley screwed up his face. "What if Krum wins?"
"Then he only has to deal with paying back a lot of smaller debts, instead of one huge one involving Blaise's mother," Pansy cut in, and leaned on Blaise's arm sporting her own cheshire grin. "But what he doesn't realize is that I bought out about half the bets from Hogwarts, and placed my own. If he doesn't owe the Zabinis, he'll owe the Parkinsons."
Blaise and Pansy cackled together, clearly thrilled with themselves.
Dudley stared at them, open mouthed. Harry grinned in spite of himself. "That's evil and brilliant," he said. "And your parents just give you money for this sort of thing?"
Pansy shrugged. "Daddy likes it when I take an interest in his hobbies. Buying up the bets was his idea."
"Mum likes to see me putting my mind to use," Blaise agreed. "She always says never to regret the revenge you could have taken."
Harry looked at Dudley, who just shook his head. "You Slytherins," he said. Harry shrugged and nodded. Who was he to deny it?
Snape's Parseltongue lessons were still moving slowly. It was like he needed to take time to process new concepts. It would take several weeks after Harry had introduced him to something for Snape to begin using it regularly. Admittedly, when he started working the concept in he was flawless, but it did take him a while to process initially.
In the meantime, though, Harry had managed to develop acceptable skill in those subjects Snape was tutoring him in, so he wasn't about to complain. Or mention how suspicious it was that Snape was bad at languages, except for when he wasn't.
Harry was on the way to a Parseltongue lesson right now, and essentially late. He'd been caught up in the hallway by Moody, wanting to clarify something in the essay Harry had turned in that morning, but he would have still been on time if he hadn't forgotten his Map and been unable to avoid Peeves on the way down to the dungeons.
It wouldn't make a difference to Snape, though. More often than not, Parseltongue lessons these days were coupled with Harry's own lessons, and when Harry was late, Snape tended to start the duel (mental or magical) as he walked in the door instead of letting Harry gather himself and set his things down first. There was no time for excuses that way, either.
Harry therefore approached Snape's office door cautiously, bracing himself for attack from any direction as he pushed open the door and tossed his bag on the nearest table.
None came, and Harry narrowed his eyes. This was unusual. He gripped his wand and ventured further into the office, closing the door behind him, vigilant for attack from any direction and noting that Moody would be proud of his caution.
Snape did not appear to be in his office. Harry knew Snape's style, and this length of time before an attack was not part of it. Snape wouldn't wait for an enemy to get his bearings in an unusual situation, and he would chastise Harry for doing so, too.
Harry considered calling out for all of half a second, but calling attention to his apparent advantage would be the height of stupidity. Snape would have his head for even considering it.
He circled the room twice, confirmed as best he could that Snape was actually absent, and turned his attention to the door to Snape's private potions lab. The office door wouldn't have been unlocked for Harry if Snape wasn't actually present, so it stood to reason that he was waiting in there.
Harry cast a nonverbal silencing spell on the lock, then an Alohomora. The door clicked open noiselessly, and opened about half an inch. Harry crept toward it, wand at the ready, still braced for a duel.
What he heard instead was voices. In the plural. Harry paused, rethinking his evaluation of the situation. It was entirely possible that Snape had just had an unexpected visitor and went into the back room to deal with them, and had expected Harry to wait in the office. It was entirely possible that he was not a devious mastermind whose every move was part of a wider, tangled plot at all times.
Harry scoffed silently to himself at that last thought.
He listened at the door, trying to get an idea of what was going on inside and how many people were there. All he could see currently was a shelf of ingredients and an stack of empty cauldrons on the floor in the corner.
"But you must listen; it's getting darker, Severus." This from an urgent, unfamiliar voice, standing in the centre of the room, from the sound of it. "It hasn't been this clear since before he fell. What-"
"I have noticed, Karkaroff." Snape now, sounding impatient. "What do you want me to tell you? You have seen the signs as clearly as I have."
Harry wasn't following this conversation at all.
"Severus, I don't know-"
"Igor, bite your tongue."
"But Severus, I-"
There was a flurry of movement out of Harry's view, and Harry leapt away and positioned himself in front of the exit. Snape flung the door open and gestured for Karkaroff to leave first.
Karkaroff looked ready to have a stroke when he set eyes on Harry. Snape was not surprised to see him in the slightest, and ushered the headmaster of Durmstrang past Harry, who had stepped away from the door.
"Can I help you, Mr. Potter?" Snape asked blandly as he opened the door to allow a still white Karkaroff exit.
Harry looked between the two and nodded. "I had a question about our Potions assignment, sir. I don't quite understand what you want us to write in the section about boomslang venom."
Snape nodded dismissively at a chair in front of his desk, and Harry sat down to wait as Karkaroff made a hasty exit.
Snape closed the door firmly behind him, and set up the usual privacy wards before turning around and sending a blasting charm at Harry, who barely deflected it in time.
"Today you will learn to creatively counter elemental curses," Snape hissed. Harry summoned a cauldron to block the next couple spells and sent back a few curses of his own for good measure.
"Yes, sir," Harry said, and tensed as he felt Snape break through the first layer of his Occlumency defences. He decided to keep the Mark he'd seen on Karkaroff's arm as he left the potion's lab to himself, and began constructing a layer of decoy shields to protect it. He knew what it meant. Karkaroff had been a Death Eater, and he was worried about something to do with his Mark. Snape only seemed annoyed by his concern, though. Harry blocked a curse and responded, still building his shields. It was as good a bit of information to protect as any other.
"Are you sick of it yet, Hermione?" Harry asked behind his book. He was sitting next to her at the usual table in the library, mostly for the view. Krum was sitting at a nearby table, and would sometimes glance up from his books and check that Hermione was still there. Hermione always smiled, and sometimes gave him a small wave.
Two tables down, Ron would glare darkly and usually rip the parchment he was writing on, a mistake which would require at least another full minute of muttered curses and wand waving to fix.
Whenever Ron was distracted by his ripped parchment, Finnegan and Thomas, who were sitting with him, would look up and catch the eye of someone at Hermione's table, usually Dudley or Neville, and they would all spend a moment in shared (but silent) snickers.
Hermione would usually roll her eyes at this point, and Krum would study on obliviously until he next felt the need to look up at Hermione.
And this, Harry reflected, did not even include the group of girls lurking in the Invisibility Section behind Krum, staring at him and glaring daggers at Hermione on a schedule all their own. He only knew they were there because of a chance encounter half an hour ago, when he'd been looking for a reference text for his History of Magic essay and came upon them unwittingly.
"Am I sick of Ron being a child, do you mean?" she asked, flipping cursorily through a book and setting it aside. "Yes. He knows that when he apologises, I'll forgive him for what he said. He doesn't need to sulk over there and glare at Viktor. He's not the one at fault here."
Harry made a sceptical face. Neville caught it and apparently understood, shaking his head and shrugging. It seemed that neither of them was exactly sure if Hermione knew what had Ron sitting at a different table, glaring at Krum.
Either way, Harry wasn't about to tell her. Krum looked up again, and Harry waited for Hermione to play her part in the pantomime before speaking again.
"I don't live in Gryffindor with the rest of you, so you'll have to fill me in here," he began. "But… what did Ron say to you?"
Hermione pressed her lips together, and her jaw tightened. "He was upset that I went to the Yule Ball with Viktor," she said.
"Yes, but that was in December," Harry interrupted. Hermione gave him a quelling look.
"I know, but when I was the person Viktor had to pull out of the lake, Ron decided it was time to… state his grievances."
"He mostly just sulked about it in the dorm room before," Dudley added helpfully. "He never actually mentioned anything to Hermione until Friday."
"He claimed I was 'fraternizing with the enemy'," Hermione said, sounding faintly scandalized. "Though whose enemy Viktor is meant to be, I don't know. Ron spent most of the First Task rooting for Fleur Delacour. He doesn't even particularly like Cedric."
Harry rested his chin on his fist and grinned at Neville and Dudley. "The enemy, eh?"
Hermione rolled her eyes. She was getting a lot of practice at that today. "Yes. He also called me a traitor to Hogwarts and Great Britain in general, and…" She paused. Harry swivelled his head to look at her. Her face was a strange mix of emotion. "…and he also called me a harlot."
Harry sat up in his chair and felt his mouth fall open. "That prick!" He glared over at Ron, who was currently still in the cursing at his parchment phase of the cycle and didn't notice.
Hermione's face darkened for a moment. "He did. And the thing is, I mean, I know he was upset, and I know what he meant was awful, but…"
The strange expression was back, and Harry realized she was restraining incredulity. "Who calls someone a harlot?"
Neville leaned in confidingly. "She laughed in his face," he shared. "Ron got really embarrassed and stomped back up to our dorm."
Harry shook his head slowly and looked back over at Ron, who was staring fiercely at his parchment. Hermione shrugged, embarrassed, and bent over her books.
Moments later, Krum glanced up again.
Chapter 9: The Girl
March was bitterly cold, and Harry's snake spent most of her time curled around his neck. Harry didn't mind the company; often she would keep a running dialogue going in his ear about the various scents in the air, and Harry was kept continually apprised of what was for meals and where Anthony and Snape were in proximity to him, as well as how close the nearest prey happened to be, and would Harry kindly nip over to that mouse hole and fetch it for her?
Harry was cleaning for Filch one Saturday morning with a similar conversation being carried on in the background of his attention. From time to time he would hiss the Parseltongue equivalent of 'hmm, yes, that's fascinating,' to the tower windows as he scrubbed them. He had been going about this peacefully for the better part of the morning, having had an early breakfast, when he was interrupted suddenly by a passing group of Ravenclaws. Harry would usually ignore them, but when they saw him, their conversation dropped off and they stared.
Never a good sign, generally speaking. Harry didn't know any of these Ravenclaws particularly well, so he didn't bother saying anything. They walked past at a rapid clip, still gawking, and he looked back, quietly nonplussed.
After those Ravenclaws rounded the corner, Harry stashed his supplies in a cupboard and made a beeline for the nearest staircase, nearly knocking someone over in his rush as she reached the landing.
He grabbed her arm to steady her and started to apologise, until he got a good look at her. She was one of his year mates in Ravenclaw, though he didn't know her name. Her dark eyes were currently wide and fixed on him with some alarm.
"Erm," he said, unable to break the eye contact. "I- I'm sorry. I didn't mean to- I mean… Pardon me."
When she broke their stare, it was only to look down at her forearm, which he was still holding. Harry let go as though he'd been burned and flushed.
"Sorry, I- er... Sorry." He had never been more embarrassed in his life, and she had yet to even say a word.
He never did get to hear her speak; when he let go of her arm, she looked him up and down, then glanced past him. He realized quickly that he was standing directly in her path and stumbled back out of the way. She gave him one more glance, still looking somewhat alarmed, and flicked her long dark hair over her shoulder as she hurried away.
Harry stood quietly for a moment and stared after her, having forgotten completely about the strange looks the other Ravenclaws had been giving him.
She was quite pretty.
It took another passing group of alarmed Ravenclaws to remind Harry of what he'd been doing. His snake hissed with amusement in his ear the whole time, turning Harry's ears red and causing him to ignore her adamantly.
He hurried down to the library, hoping Hermione or Anthony would have kept their copies of the Daily Prophet. He had a pretty good idea of where the stares were coming from. Now he just needed to know why.
"Is she stalking me?" he asked several minutes later, slapping the Daily Prophet down on the table and turning beseeching eyes on Anthony.
The second page was taken over by Rita Skeeter's trademark inch high scandal font. Parseltongue Potter Exposed!
The entire article was about Harry's ability to speak with snakes, and how he had even taken to 'corrupting young, promising minds with his insidious talents'. Harry let his head drop onto the paper with a thunk.
"Do you speak to Douglas in public?" he asked. Anthony shrugged.
"Not really. Parseltongue is frowned upon in most wizarding circles."
Harry canted his head to one side and looked sideways at him. "Thanks, Anthony. I would never have guessed from this article."
"Well, do you speak to your snake in public?" Anthony asked.
"Not especially," he said, staring down at the grain of the table again, shrugging as he felt her shift against his collar. "I mean, people definitely know I'm a Parseltongue. There was that whole thing in second year. But I don't really advertise it. And I don't know how she'd know I was tutoring you."
Anthony shook his head. "I have no idea. She's got to have some method for listening in on private conversations. But that's hardly surprising."
"You're quite infamous, Harry," Luna said, making Harry startle and lift his head. He hadn't noticed her arrival.
"Hey, Luna," he said. "Thanks, I guess."
She looked at him with her wide, perpetually fascinated eyes, and he remembered the Ravenclaw girl in the stairwell.
"Wh- I mean, er…" Harry stopped, realizing he had no clue how to ask who she was without embarrassing himself in front of Anthony and Luna. "That is, erm..."
Luna was still staring at him, though the quality of the expression had changed. More alarming still was that Anthony's gaze had joined hers.
Harry's snake took this moment to hiss in his ear. "They know," she said gleefully. "I can tell by their scent."
"You're blushing, Harry," Anthony said, furrowing his forehead. "What do we know?" Harry fought the urge to drop his head back to the table and tried instead to master his expression. Luna's expression had gone thoughtful, and broke eye contact to look around the library.
Harry fought with himself internally, but the desire to know who the girl was overrode any embarrassment he might currently be feeling. Besides, this was Anthony and Luna. It was possible that neither of them had ever been embarrassed about anything in their lives. These two of all people wouldn't tease him.
"I saw a girl on my way down from Ravenclaw Tower," he began, ignoring the snickers emanating from his collar. "I think she was in fourth year, and she was really pretty."
Luna beamed at him. So much for not being embarrassed. "Oh, do you fancy her?" she asked. "What did she look like?"
Anthony sized Harry up for a minute. "Did she look like one of the Gryffindor girls?" he asked. Harry thought about it for a second, then his eyes widened and he nodded. He had seen Hermione talking to a girl who looked a lot like his, but with a lot more pink.
"They're twins," Anthony explained. "Her name is Padma Patil. Her sister in Gryffindor is Parvati. Do you fancy her?"
"I... no," Harry muttered. His snake hissed in amusement.
"He does, he does," she exclaimed. Anthony cocked an ear toward her, and a slow smile began to form on his mouth. "When he saw her, he nearly fell down a flight of sta-"
"Yes, that's lovely," Harry said, standing abruptly. Luna glanced between him and the expression on Anthony's face, putting two and two together easily. "Well, thanks for the information," he said, "But I have to be going."
Harry waved over his shoulder as he walked quickly out of the library, face flaming.
"That was not funny," he muttered, scowling. The snake snickered as Harry descended a flight of stairs two at a time.
"I was just trying to help," the snake said. "Don't you think Anthony should have all the information?"
"No!" Harry rubbed his forehead. "Just. No. And stop talking. We're in a public area. We can't do that anymore."
"Because I don't want people staring at me when I talk to you," Harry explained. "I don't like the attention."
There was a brief silence. "All that means is you can't respond to me," she pointed out. Then another pause. "Harry, the female who made your blood smell like the sun is nearby."
Harry tripped over a flagstone. "Wh-"
"Hush, someone will hear," she admonished gleefully. "You don't want that, do you? She is very near. Possibly on this floor or the next."
After a split second of thought, Harry turned away from the next staircase he'd been about to walk down and took an alternate route to the Entrance Hall, ignoring his snake's amused hissing entirely and stopping by the Slytherin dormitory to pick up his cloak and scarf. It was getting warmer outside by slow degrees, but it was still chilly enough that he buttoned his collar up tightly and cast a warming charm before he went out.
He trudged through the snow with no clear goal in mind. Now that they were outside the castle, his snake quieted considerably and burrowed down against his collarbone. It was an effective tactic.
Harry looked up and saw Hagrid and a smaller figure waving at him from near the Quidditch stands. He quickened his pace and squinted. Looked like Neville.
"Hi Hagrid," he said as he arrived next to them. "Hey, Neville. What are you doing?"
Neville nodded at the pitch, cheeks red with excitement. "They're building the Third Task here. It's a hedge maze like mine, only much bigger. Hagrid said I could help him plot out the paths and some of the built in plant traps. Those are the most dangerous part."
"It'll be twenty five feet high when it's done," Hagrid boomed cheerfully. "Yer welcome to help as well, Harry. Just don' tell anyone, alrigh'?"
"Sure thing, Hagrid," Harry said, and he and Neville grinned at each other.
Hagrid had a pink umbrella and a small wheeled device with him, which was filled with green powder.
"We won' be putting down roots till May," Hagrid explained as they stood and looked at the pitch. "They'll be wantin' ter plan it all out now though. Where it all goes and what kinda creatures and the sort. We'll on'y be suggestin' things tonight."
"The entrance could go there," Neville suggested, and the three of them walked over to where he'd pointed, about halfway down the pitch. "That way almost everyone can see, and they'll have a few directions to choose from almost immediately."
Harry tried to picture the smooth grass of the Quidditch pitch replaced by hedges and felt a twinge of distaste. He resolved to take frequent advantage of the pitch before it was ruined in May.
Hagrid nodded, surveying the spot had Neville suggested and wheeling the device over. He flipped a switch on the handle and powder began pouring out of the bottom as he walked it along the perimeter of where the maze would be. Harry and Neville followed, watching the powder flow up from where it touched the patches of grass and snow and form thin green walls two feet high.
They walked around the pitch as Hagrid muttered to himself about lengths and feet and occasionally twitched his umbrella.
"Saw you in the paper this morning, Harry," Neville said as they walked.
"Yeah." Harry scowled. "I don't know how she found out I was teaching Anthony Parseltongue."
"Hermione and Dudley and I were talking about it, actually," Neville said, and stuffed his hands in his pockets. "Dudley said Skeeter's like a super spy and has us all 'bugged'." He paused. "He and Hermione seemed to know what that meant. Of course, Hermione shot that down immediately, because-"
"Hogwarts, a History says electronics can't work around a lot of magic, I'll bet," Harry finished, nodding. "I wondered the same thing, actually, but then I remembered that Dudley tried to bring his Gameboy to school last year and it nearly set his bag on fire when he got on the Platform. Uncle Vernon had to buy him a new one."
They took the last turn in the large rectangle Hagrid was making and started walking back toward the beginning of the wall. "Either way, she's got some way of watching me without me knowing it, and I don't like it," Harry continued. "Who holds a grudge this long, anyway? Why hasn't she found someone else to harass by now?"
Neville shrugged. "She's been reporting on the Champions a lot too. Mostly you get coverage when there's nothing going on with the Tournament, haven't you noticed?"
Harry raised his eyebrows.
"I have," he said. "And I'm guessing Hermione has too."
Grinning, Neville kicked at the powder wall experimentally. The toe of his boot passed right through and came out covered in a fine layer of green. The wall wobbled a bit.
"Careful there," Hagrid called back over his shoulder.
"Sorry, Hagrid," Neville responded, and shook the dust off his foot. Hagrid closed the rectangle with his powder and pressed the switch on the device. The three of them stood inside, looking around.
"Three different paths from here, each three feet across," Hagrid said, and started demarcating them with his umbrella. As he waved, powder flew from the outer walls and formed new walls in the interior. Neville pulled out his wand and tilted his head.
"Are they all going in at once?" Harry asked. Hagrid shook his head.
"Most points goes first," he explained.
"So Diggory starts," Neville added.
"They won't see which way the others went," Harry said, drawing his own wand. "Which means they're not just going to each take a separate path. They might follow each other without realizing it."
"There should be a trap that triggers for the second person to trip it," Neville agreed. "An Assassin's Vine would work well. On the middle one, probably."
They each took a path and built walls for it. Hagrid finished first, right in the center of the maze, and waved to both of them.
"They'll be endin' here," he explained as Harry brought his path around to meet the middle. "This is where the Cup'll sit."
"Now we need to build the branching paths," Neville said with a grin. His cheeks were red with cold, but he looked like he was having the time of his life. "This is the part where we get to be clever."
They got to work, and within a couple hours, Hagrid called a halt.
"Looks like we're nearly done," he said. "We'll trace it out and work it out a bit more, but this looks fine."
"I want to see the full effect," Neville said. "I'm gonna go up in the stands for a minute, Hagrid."
Hagrid nodded and waved him away, scribbling on a piece of parchment.
"Come on, Harry," Neville said, and opened up a hole in the green mist so that they could walk through without covering themselves in the stuff.
"Bet the Champions are going to wish they could do that," Harry said, and Neville laughed.
"They will if we did it right."
They climbed to the top of the Ravenclaw stands in amicable silence, and Neville whooped when they reached the top and were able to look at the maze from above.
"Look at that, Harry," he said proudly. "That is twisty."
Harry peered at it. "That is twisty," he said, and pointed out an especially nasty section. "Who did that part?"
"I think that was Hagrid," Neville said, leaning over the side of the stands to get a better look. "But I added the Venemous Tentacula at the end of it."
They spent a few minutes longer at the top of the stands. Neville was examining the maze in more detail, but Harry grew bored of that quickly, and started looking around. He could see the gates that led to Hogsmeade from here, distantly.
There was a figure standing at the gates, holding a wand. It looked like they were trying to break through. Harry frowned, and walked to the other side of the stands to get a better view. They really were trying to break the gates down by force.
It was strange, because they were inside the gates. They were trying to break out.
"Hey, Neville," Harry called, still staring at the figure. "Come look at this."
Neville abandoned his examination of the maze and tripped over a few seats on the way to Harry's side of the stands.
"Look at the gates, by Hogsmeade."
Neville leaned past Harry and peered in the direction he was pointing. "What are they doing?"
"I don't know." They watched together in silence as the figure threw another spell at the gates. They seemed frustrated.
"It can't be a student," Neville said after a minute. "They're too tall, and the robes are all wrong."
"That's no professor I know," Harry said. "Maybe it's one of the Beauxbaton students?"
"Or someone from Durmstrang," Neville agreed. "But why are they attacking the gates?"
"Seems a bit rude." They stared for a minute longer. Harry debated with his inner Slytherin for a minute or two, but Neville made the suggestion first.
"Want to go get a closer look?"
"Neville, that is a terrible idea," Harry said, deadpan. "What if they're crazy or they attack us or something?"
Neville looked at him from the corner of his eye, eyebrows raised.
"Yeah, alright," Harry said. "Let's go."
They waved at Hagrid as they left the pitch, walking along the sloping path to Hogsmeade.
"Look," Harry said as they approached the gates. "Pansy will kill me if we do this like Gryffindors. Let's at least sneak up on them."
"Right," Neville said, and they ducked off the trail, instead creeping along at an angle that kept a small copse of trees between them and the figure. When they reached the trees, they got as close as they could without leaving their cover, and peeked out at the gates again. Neville elbowed Harry and pointed, his expression confused. Harry nodded. He'd noticed too. The gates were open, but the person was still casting at them.
"Who is that?" Neville asked. Harry squinted at the figure as they tugged their slipping cloak back over their head. It was a woman with surprisingly blonde hair.
"Speak of the devil," Harry muttered, narrowing his eyes. "That's Rita Skeeter."
"What was she doing?" Harry asked, after Skeeter had finally stormed off in the direction of the lake. They were standing where she had been, examining the gates. Neville prodded at the metal with his wand.
"They're open," he shrugged. "I mean..." He stepped through the gates, turned around in a circle, and stepped back inside. "See?"
"D'you think she's stuck on the grounds?" Harry suggested, rubbing at the top of his head thoughtfully. "Why, though? Who would do that to us?"
Neville snickered. "No idea," he shrugged. "We should keep an eye on her or something, don't you think?"
"Maybe I can keep her from publishing things about me if I tell her I know," Harry said thoughtfully. "She clearly doesn't want to be discovered."
"Seems like the kind of idea a Slytherin would have," Neville said, smiling to soften the pseudo-insult. "Anyway, I'm going in for lunch. You?"
Harry nodded, and they set off toward the castle together. They had nearly reached the doors when a thought occured to Harry. "I'm going to run back to my dorm and grab something," he said, and they parted ways in the Entrance Hall.
He hadn't used his Map in a while. It had been sitting at the bottom of his trunk for at least a few weeks now, which was a shame. Harry resolved to change that.
Right after he found it. A quick dig through his trunk revealed no battered parchment, aside from an old essay. Harry frowned and checked his bedside table. Nothing.
The Map wasn't in his school bag either.
Or under the bed. Or under the mattress. Or in any of his pockets. Or caught in his hangings. Or anywhere.
Harry stopped searching and stared around his part of the dorm, feeling a bit panicked. He loved that Map. Not to mention, it was incredibly valuable to anyone on Hogwarts grounds. Maybe Blaise or Pansy had borrowed it?
He found them on a couch together in the common room, and had his hopes dashed.
"Sorry, Harry," Blaise said, sitting with an arm draped around Pansy's shoulders. "I haven't seen it."
Pansy shook her head as well. "Did you let someone borrow it?"
Harry shook his head, resolving at the back of his mind to interrogate all his Gryffindor and Ravenclaw friends, just in case he had inexplicably forgotten about handing over one of his prized (underused, said a guilty part of his mind) possessions.
He went back to his dormitory to search more thoroughly, and found Draco there. It was always awkward when the two of them found themselves alone in the dorm room with no Blaise to play buffer, but today Harry had other things on his mind. He dropped to the floor in front of his bed and crawled underneath, ignoring Draco entirely.
They passed about a minute in silence, but Harry had known that would never last.
"What are you doing?" Draco asked in a pseudo-casual tone.
"None of your business," Harry said, coming out from underneath the bed and stripping the sheets off his mattress. He paused, holding the pile of bedding in his hands, and looked at Draco. He might have taken it, however much Harry didn't like to think it of him.
"My Map is missing," he said, watching for Draco's reaction. There wasn't much of one, just a bit of a frown, and Harry continued in a pointed tone. "It's rather important that I find it."
"Right," Draco said, shoulders suddenly slumping. "I'll keep an eye out for it."
"Right." Harry tossed his bedding back on the mattress. It wasn't in his room. He was just wasting his time here. He'd go ask his friends in the other Houses instead.
Draco didn't say anything as Harry left.
Chapter 10: The Headaches
The Map continued to be missing, no matter where Harry searched over the course of the next couple weeks. He had asked everyone who knew of its existence, but to no avail. The dreaded thought of letting Sirius and Remus know that he had lost it made his stomach clench, but it kept reoccurring to him. Maybe there was some kind of recovery charm on it? It wasn't unlikely. The Marauders had put all manner of safeguards on the Map, after all.
He hadn't forgotten why he was looking for the Map in the first place, either. He and Neville brought it up at the library one day, and Dudley and Hermione were intrigued.
"She was trying to break out?" Hermione asked. "You're sure?"
"Pretty positive," Neville said. "That was what was so odd about it."
"And the gate was open?" Dudley grinned. "She could have just walked out."
"She couldn't, though," Hermione said. "I mean, unless she's gone insane, there would be no other reason to attack the gates like that."
Harry and Dudley shared a significant glance.
"No, I don't think she's gone insane," Hermione said wryly. "Her articles are as lucid as ever."
"Define 'lucid'," Harry muttered, rubbing his temples.
"How would she have gotten stuck on campus, though?" Neville asked. "It makes no sense."
"And how can I use this to keep her from writing more articles about me?" Harry added. "That's the important question."
"She's not supposed to be on campus without permission," Hermione said. "I would suggest that we go to a teacher-" She cast Harry a quelling glance when he opened his mouth. "Except that Harry here obviously wants to resort to blackmail." She only looked mildly disapproving, so Harry subsided into his seat, satisfied.
"I can't blackmail her without knowing what's happened to trap her here," Harry pointed out.
"We'll look into it, then," Hermione said primly. "Keep your eyes and ears open in the meantime."
Harry smiled. He had a feeling he was a bad influence on these Gryffindors.
The loss of the Map and the Rita Skeeter situation had Harry feeling stressed, and the intermittent headaches that started getting worse in April weren't helping. Harry was sitting in a chair in front of the fire in the Slytherin common room, rubbing his head and trying to read his Transfiguration text when Blaise dropped into the chair across from him.
"Hey, Harry," he said. Harry gratefully gave up on the book, setting it on the end table next to him.
"Hi Blaise," he replied. "Where's Pansy?"
Blaise waved a careless hand. "Oh, you know how Pansy is," he said. "Probably off sacrificing a kitten or something."
Harry bit down on a bemused smile. Pansy and Blaise had the weirdest relationship.
"Anyway, that's not what I wanted to talk to you about," Blaise continued. "I talked to Draco the other day."
Harry felt the smile drop off his face. "What did he say?"
"He said you said he stole your Map."
"I did not!" Harry sat straight up in his chair, slack jawed. "I just asked him if he'd seen it!"
Blaise raised a very sceptical eyebrow at Harry. "And you didn't sound accusatory in the slightest, I'm sure."
"I didn't," he insisted. "I just asked him a simple question, Blaise. If he's going to go around lying-"
"Harry!" Blaise leaned forward and put his head in his hands. "Just shut up a second!"
Blaise's reaction startled Harry. He sat back in his seat and went silent, though he was still fuming internally.
"You're both idiots," Blaise said, lifting his head and glaring.
"But you have to admit that-" Blaise interrupted Harry with another glare.
"No. You're wrong." Blaise ignored Harry's appalled expression and continued. "Draco is wrong too. You're both wrong and you're both right, and you're both so fucking emotional about it that I can't push either of you into being sensible enough to apologise!"
Harry was floored. Blaise had seemed so understanding before now. Harry knew on some level that he was frustrated by Harry and Draco falling out, but he hadn't realized Blaise was this upset.
"Usually I can just push the two of you into being decent human beings when you're having an argument. I'm very good at manipulating people, Harry!" Blaise stood up and paced in front of the chairs, frustrated. "But it's been months and months and you won't stop fighting! But of course, neither of you are willing to just ignore the other, and you're both so volatile when it comes to the other that I don't want to talk to either of you anymore! I hate you both right now."
"Wait, are you-"
"No, Harry, I'm not telling you I don't want to be friends with you," Blaise said, rolling his eyes. "Because I can act like a rational fucking human being when I'm mad at someone, and separate the argument from the person."
Harry blinked up at Blaise, not sure whether to be extremely insulted or... extremely insulted in a more quiet way.
"I had this same exact conversation with Draco," Blaise told him. "And he reacted the same way. You two are too much alike for your own good."
And with that, he stormed out of the common room, leaving Harry gaping after him.
Harry spent the next few weeks trying hard not to talk about Draco with Blaise. He hadn't actually realized how often he did it until he tried to stop. It was eye-opening. He had thought he was ready to never speak to or about Draco again, but apparently that was just patently untrue.
It turned out that Pansy and Blaise had had their own things to tell Harry that had not managed to make it through the conversational jam. Harry was appalled to discover that they had been an item for only the past four months out of six.
He had assumed they were dating the entire time, but according to Pansy, Blaise was a bit of an obnoxious arguer (something Harry privately agreed with), and according to Blaise, Pansy was irrationally sensitive about the strangest subjects. As a result, they had broken up and reunited a total of four times already.
When Harry mentioned that he felt awful for not knowing this, Pansy raised an eyebrow and said archly, "Well, you should. We eat meals together every day, Harry. Blaise sleeps in the same room as you. Do try to keep up in the future."
He ended up telling Pansy and Blaise about Padma, in the hope that Pansy might know more about her. Harry had not managed to actually speak to Padma again, in part because he had no idea what he would say, and in part because when his snake mentioned she was nearby, he tended to lose all courage and take an alternative route to his destination.
They were in a lot of classes together, which Harry felt he should have known before Pansy pointed it out.
"You're absolutely oblivious, Harry," Pansy told him fondly. "I'll bet you don't know a single Hufflepuff's name, do you?"
Harry did not deign to answer this question, and started sitting with Anthony in some of the classes they had together, since Anthony always sat on the Ravenclaw side near Padma. Harry's snake kept up a distinctly un-funny commentary during these classes that usually had Anthony stifling amusement until dismissal.
The headaches had not gone away by the middle of May, and when Hermione found out, she forced Harry up to the Hospital Wing. Pomfrey tutted over him and pushed potions on him which only reduced the pain for a few days.
Studying for exams in this state was awful, and interruptions were welcome. Harry didn't even mind Poliakoff anymore, though he always seemed to find Harry during his free period these days, usually just to talk about some nonsensical thing or invite Harry to go for a walk. Harry usually refused the walks, since he really didn't want to encourage Poliakoff too much. He was a persistent sort.
The headaches got so bad that even Snape took notice during an Occlumency lesson one day.
"Where does it hurt?" Snape hissed, lowering his wand and approaching Harry's chair with a strange expression. Harry frowned at him and touched his scar.
"My forehead," he said. "I thought it might have been my scar at first, but it's just that whole side of my head, really. It just happens sometimes, it's not a big deal."
"How often?" Snape asked, peering into Harry's eyes and tapping his wand thoughtfully against his palm.
"In the morning, usually," Harry said. "And sometimes after classes are over, like right now. I've taken potions for them, but they don't really help much."
"Have you had any strange dreams lately?" Snape tilted Harry's chin and examined his scar. Harry let him, nonplussed and slightly uncomfortable.
"Nothing notable," Harry said.
"No nightmares?" Snape inquired, letting Harry go and stepping back to observe him more fully.
"No." Harry shrugged. "Except one where I was being chased by a manitcore last week."
Snape frowned and fell silent. Harry shifted under his stare.
"You clear your mind every night before you sleep, I assume," Snape said eventually. Harry nodded. It had become a habit by now. "You practice your Occlumency even when we are not actively working on it here."Harry nodded again. Snape examined him again, then nodded himself.
"Congratulations, Mr. Potter," he said. "I believe you have actually managed to successfully occlude your mind."
"You can tell because I have headaches?" Harry asked, bewildered. "Is that normal?"
"If someone is continuously trying to intrude and you are successfully repelling them, as I believe you are, then headaches are not uncommon."
"Who's trying to intrude in my mind?" Harry exclaimed, switching back to English in his alarm. The headaches were frequent! Whoever it was must have been dedicated.
Snape stared at him for another long moment, his face impassive. "I have only suspicions," he admitted eventually, in pointed Parseltongue. "I will speak with the Headmaster about your situation, if you will allow it, and keep you informed."
Harry nodded with haste. He didn't like the idea of someone else trying to break into his mind. His mind was his, and no one else had a right to be in there unless he let them.
Harry had a History of Magic exam on the day of the third Task, which was a strange contrast.
"This was the most exhausting morning I've had in weeks," Blaise summarized. "But tonight is hopefully going to be exciting. It doesn't seem right to put the two together like that."
Dusk found everyone gathering at the Quidditch pitch, which had been destroyed back in May just as Hagrid promised. Harry still grimaced at the sight of it, and he could see his fellow Quidditch players in the stands making the same face. The hedge maze was twenty feet high, and covered almost the entire length of the pitch. From the stands, one couldn't see down into the maze itself. All that was visible was the centre, where a tiny glint of gold hinted at the position of the Cup. Hagrid, McGonagall, Sprout and Flitwick were all crowded around the entrance, pinning red stars to their hats (or in Hagrid's case, his vest).
"Ladies and gentleman, the third and final task of the Triwizard Tournament is about to begin! Let me remind you how the points currently stand! In first place, with eighty-five points, Mr. Cedric Diggory of Hogwarts School!"
The cheers and applause were deafening. Harry and his friends joined in, whistling loudly for their school. He was sitting with Pansy and Blaise again, and Anthony and Luna had joined them. Harry could see his Gryffindor friends in a set of stands across the field, beaming and cheering with the rest of the Hogwarts students.
"In second place, with eighty points - Mr. Viktor Krum, of Durmstrang Institute! And in third place - Miss Fleur Delacour, of Beauxbaton Academy!"
As the applause died down, Bagman spoke again. "So... on my whistle, Cedric! Three - two - one -"
Diggory hurried forward into the maze at the sound of the whistle, and soon disappeared within. A ghostly arrow appeared above the hedges, marking Cedric's current position.
"Mr. Viktor Krum is next, again, with eighty points. Viktor, on my whistle!"
Krum wasted no time when the short blast sounded, hurrying in after Diggory, his own ghostly arrow moving at a rapid clip.
"Miss Fleur Delacour, in third place, on my whistle!"
With that, all three Champions were inside the maze.
"Now, if those of you in the stands look closely, you will notice designators for each Champion," Bagman explained. "And if you look more closely still, you will see that there are more than just Champions in that maze!"
True to Bagman's word, other arrows were popping up, each with a picture hovering over it.
"That's one of those awful Blast-ended Skrewts of Hagrid's!" Harry said, catching sight of one of the pictures.
"It's headed right for Diggory," Pansy said, grabbing Blaise's arm. "Oh Merlin, it's got him, hasn't it?"
All they could see was that the two arrows had collided. The rest was left up to the imagination. Harry thought that was incredibly cruel.
"Oh, look," Luna said. "Viktor Krum has found the boggart."
"That's a nundu," Blaise said, peering at the picture. "No wonder the death rate in this Tournament is so high."
"It wasn't a nundu minute ago," Anthony said. Indeed, moments later, the arrow coalesced back into an indistinct shape, and Krum's arrow sped away.
Bagman's commentary helped to shed some light on what might potentially be happening inside the maze, but the crowd was almost too loud to hear him. It seemed like everyone was having conversations like theirs. In fact, Harry's head started hurting, the crowd was so loud.
He hoped this wasn't the beginning of another one of his Occlumency headaches. He didn't like the idea that right at that moment, someone might be trying to get into his head. Snape had come back to him with only vague possibilities: someone connected to Voldemort might be trying to attack Harry, and all he could do was to continue to resist, to practice as often as possible, and to be careful when he wasn't on school grounds.
The longer he sat in the stands, the more he realized that this headache wasn't going away. The noise was only making it worse. Harry squinted down at the maze, but he couldn't get into the conversation his friends were having. The excitement was ebbing in favour of pain.
"You alright, Harry?" Harry wasn't sure who asked this, but he responded in the negative anyway. "Another headache? Oh, that's awful."
This headache was worse than most, actually. Harry realized this when he stood up to get away from the noise and found his head spinning.
"I've got him," someone said, and a hand gripped his arm. Harry descended the steps from the stands with the person at his side, and as the noise became more distant, he found the headache abating enough to look up and thank Anthony, who seemed somewhat concerned.
"I'm fine," Harry said, grimacing. "It'll go away in a few minutes and I'll come back up."
"You sure?" Anthony asked, peering at Harry's face. He didn't imagine that he looked good.
"Yeah, go ahead, really," Harry said, waving him off and walking a few feet to demonstrate how fine he was.
Anthony gave him one last searching look, but eventually disappeared back up the stairs.
Once Anthony was gone, Harry sagged and closed his eyes again. It really was an awful headache.
"Are you okay, Harry?" It was a new voice this time, and Harry blinked his eyes open to look at Poliakoff. He sighed.
"Yeah, I'm fine," he said. "Just another headache."
"I know a spell to fix headaches," Poliakoff offered, and reached into his pocket.
"I don't know," Harry said, uncertain. "It's not that big of a deal."
"You are in pain, Harry," Poliakoff said, wand now in hand. "It is a good spell. Just relax."
Harry felt a serene calm settling over him. It was blissful and strangely familiar, though he couldn't quite place it. It didn't bother Harry. At the moment, all he cared about was that his headache had disappeared.
"Come with me, Harry." Poliakoff's voice floated toward him, and Harry obeyed without thinking. They started walking together across the grounds.
It was strange, how familiar the feeling was. He felt happy and clam and worry free, but there was some part of him that didn't like it, that wanted to break out of the bliss and reject it. Harry blinked, his thoughts coming slowly.
"Keep walking, Harry."
And wasn't it weird how he was almost hearing Poliakoff's voice inside his head, instead out from his mouth? And why was he doing what Poliakoff said, anyway? He never wanted to do things with Poliakoff. Poliakoff was kind of weird. Harry avoided him at all costs, usually.
Wait a minute.
The world returned to clarity with a jolt like a bucket of cold water, and Harry realized he was standing in front of the gates to Hogsmeade, next to Poliakoff.
"Wait a min-" Harry began, stumbling backward. Poliakoff had already grabbed him and gotten a good grip around Harry's waist, suddenly looking nothing like his usual bumbling self. Harry struggled, alarmed. "Hey! Let me go!"
Harry fought back and reached for his wand, but apparently Poliakoff had already taken it off him during their walk. He covered Harry's mouth with one palm, picked him up bodily, and ignored his struggles as he dragged him through the gates and off Hogwarts grounds.
Off Hogwarts grounds.
Harry screamed as loudly as he could though Poliakoff's hand, trying to summon some kind of help, but the roar of the crowd was loud enough that no one at the pitch would hear him. And everyone was at the pitch but them.
When they were standing a good twenty feet from the gates, Poliakoff spun them in a circle, Harry still caught in a firm grasp under his arm, impotent though he continued to struggle. Harry felt an awful sensation, like he was being squeezed through a tiny tube. It was worse than a portkey.
When they slammed into existence again, Poliakoff let go. Harry fell to his knees, gagging and retching. When he finally regained control of his stomach, he looked up, trembling, to see a gravestone.
Chapter 11: The Graveyard
Uh. WARNINGS for torture and character death. And... language? So. Yeah. This shit is M rated right here.
Harry was in a graveyard. With Poliakoff. Who had suddenly morphed from bumbling Durmstrang student to hostile attacker.
Stumbling away from the gravestone on his hands and knees, Harry panicked as he felt hands grab his arms and tug him to his feet again. Before he could react, he was being dragged bodily across a graveyard toward a bubbling cauldron.
There was a small creature standing next to the cauldron, and as Poliakoff slammed him against another headstone, Harry realized it was a house elf, holding what looked like a baby.
The whole situation was surreal, and Harry forgot to struggle as Poliakoff bound him to the headstone. He was too busy staring at the elf and the baby and the cauldron, wondering what the combination could possibly mean for him.
"I see you finally managed to get away." The voice was high and cold, and Harry felt his headache redouble with the words. He nearly didn't notice the enormous snake slither past, hissing. Nearly. It reminded him of his own snake, and he only then realized she was gone. He hoped she was okay.
"My lord, I apologise," Poliakoff said, but his voice was different. Harry twisted his head and caught sight of Poliakoff's features melting into someone he hadn't seen in years.
"Professor Quirrell?" Harry nearly choked on the name. The last thing Harry remembered hearing of him was that he had duelled with Dumbledore over the Stone. Harry had assumed he'd died or something. Apparently not.
"Crouch should be along in a minute," Quirrell said, ignoring Harry except to shoot a spell at him. Harry opened his mouth to protest, but no sound came out. His alarm redoubled. "I gave him the signal before I left."
"Good," the voice said. Harry realized with horror that it was coming from the baby-shaped bundle in the house elf's arms. There weren't many people that voice could belong to, considering the way Quirrell had addressed it. Quirrell left Harry's side and lit a fire under the cauldron. Harry's headache redoubled as the house elf stepped out of Quirrell's way and ended up nearer to Harry. He gritted his teeth against the pain and tried to breathe normally. He wasn't panicking. He wasn't.
A sharp crack sounded, and Harry nearly leapt out of his skin.
"Karkaroff is unfaithful." The gruff voice belonged to Professor Moody, and Harry was officially panicking. Moody was in on this too? Did that mean that Crouch, whoever he was, was still coming?
But no. The man who appeared in Harry's vision a few moments later was not Professor Moody, though he was holding an eye and hopping along as he walked. His actual leg was in process of growing back, and the wooden leg had popped off. Behind him, another man floated through the air, unconscious.
"Brought him along for you," Not-Moody said. Behind him, the cauldron spat what looked like diamonds as Quirrell continued tending to it.
"It's ready, Master," Quirrell said, stepping back from the flames. The house elf handed the bundle off to Quirrell, who removed the cloth swaddling it. Harry received a nasty shock when he saw the scaly, reddish black parody of the body of a human child inside. The face was less a parody and more a disgusting non sequitur.
His head was hurting so badly now that it felt like his skull was burning, but he squeezed his eyes shut. Getting out of here as soon as possible was his highest priority. Nothing good could come of what was about to happen. Ignoring the pain in his head, he focused on breaking the silencing spell.
He had just managed it when he heard a splash, and in the silence afterward, the soft thud of the awful creature's body hitting the bottom of the cauldron.
Not-Moody (Crouch, Harry thought through the pain and fear. Who else could he be?) intoned solemnly, "Bone of the father, unknowingly given, you will renew your son."
A noise at Harry's feet made his eyes snap open. Dust rose from the grave he was standing on, causing him to turn his face away and scrabble to move his feet from the cracks in the ground. It floated over and settled in the cauldron with a hiss. The diamond colour was replaced with an awful blue. Harry really needed to get out of here right now. He strained against his bonds, looking for a weak point, but Quirrell had tied him tight. Without any slack to struggle against, there really wasn't much he could do to free himself.
Quirrell pulled out a dagger next, and there was a brief moment when Crouch and Quirrell stared each other down fiercely before Quirrell finally bowed his head and handed the dagger over. Harry held his breath at the sight of it, but he needn't have worried so soon.
"Flesh of the servant, willingly given," Crouch said, stretching out his right hand over the cauldron. His voice was far too triumphant for what he did next. "You will revive your master."
He swung the dagger in a graceful arc, and Harry barely clenched his eyes shut in time. The splash was bad enough.
"Blood... of the enemy," Crouch continued, panting, and Harry's eyes snapped open. "Forcibly taken. You will resurrect your foe."
Sure enough, Quirrell was walking toward him, holding the bloody dagger and a vial. Harry had thought he was panicking before, but now his entire mind was given over to blank terror. He did not want that dagger coming near him.
Quirrell reached down and grabbed Harry's arm roughly, and Harry's terror lashed out. The bonds he'd been restrained by only seconds prior were snapping at Quirrell's head and chest. He dropped to his knees on the ground as Quirrell shielded his face with one arm and shouted something.
Harry scrambled to his feet, already darting through the gravestones, but he had forgotten that Quirrell wasn't the only other person present. A spell caught his feet, sending him crashing over a headstone as Crouch approached.
"Blood of the enemy," he snarled, grabbing Harry and hauling him off the headstone with the one hand he had left. Harry clutched at his ribs with one arm and wheezed as he was dragged across the grass to the cauldron by his wrist.
"Forcibly taken," he continued, and Quirrell was there, helping Crouch to lift Harry's arm to hover over the liquid in the cauldron. Harry struggled, scrabbling to find his feet on the damp grass, but Quirrell kicked him in the back of the knee and Harry went limp for long enough for his former professor to cut a long gash along his inner elbow. His blood splashed into the cauldron.
"You will resurrect your foe," Crouch spat, tossing Harry on the ground next to the cauldron and stepping back to wait.
Harry lay in the grass, gasping for breath as tears pooled on the bridge of his nose. Quirrell stood over him with a wand, but Harry didn't move. His ribs were on fire and his arm was bleeding profusely, and this was aside from the splitting pain in his head that had only been getting progressively worse. He spared a thought for the creature in the cauldron, and hoped that it had drowned. He also wanted Quirrell and Crouch to fall dead where they stood, but he wasn't picky.
The light from the cauldron suddenly vanished and Harry stiffened, knowing he had to roll over and look, knowing that whatever was behind him now wouldn't disappear because he couldn't see it, but still not managing to compel his frozen muscles into action.
Quirrell rushed past Harry to the cauldron, holding a set of robes. Harry blinked the blurriness out of his eyes and finally forced himself to sit up and look. His eyes locked immediately with those of the man who had just stepped out of the cauldron.
Harry didn't have to be told who this was, and suddenly the name wasn't very funny anymore.
"My Lord," Crouch said, and when Voldemort looked up, Crouch bowed and held out his undamaged wrist. He examined Crouch's arm with satisfaction and pressed a long finger to the vivid mark that decorated it.
Harry felt his headache surge. He closed his eyes and checked on his Occlumency walls. They were still strong and shifting, and chains of useless thought still filled the forefront of his mind. Harry retreated behind them, feeling a little bit less hysterical.
"How many will be brave enough to return when they feel it? And how many will be foolish enough to stay away?" Voldemort looked up at the stars, apparently in contemplation. Harry had barely enough time to be relieved that Voldemort wasn't looking at him anymore before he suddenly was. An alarming smile settled on his snakelike features.
"I have heard so many things about you, Harry Potter," he said, pacing closer to where Harry sat huddled in front of the cauldron. "I don't believe we have been formally introduced. I am Lord Voldemort."
The snake slithered past again. Harry struggled to his feet, though he remained silent. He tried not to let his eyes dart around too obviously in his search for an exit strategy.
"The circumstances of our introduction are quite fortuitous, Harry," Voldemort said in a soft voice. "This is the night of my resurrection, and my faithful followers will be here soon!"
He continued pacing as though Harry was as harmless as the house elf that had now subsided behind the cauldron, awaiting instructions. "I'm glad you could finally make it. We've been postponing the party for you, you know."
Voldemort stopped pacing suddenly. "Ah, and here come the guests."
As they gathered around Voldemort, one of the cloaked wizards dropped to his knees and crawled forward instead, kissing the hem of Voldemort's robes and murmuring. Harry backed away from the crowd slowly, hoping that the distraction might be enough to give him time to run.
He held his breath as he moved, but the sound of something heavy slithering nearby made him pause and turn. The snake was right behind him, rearing up and showing a full set of fangs as it hissed at him. It was more of an order than actual words, but Harry got the gist anyway. He wasn't leaving in that direction.
The Death Eaters formed a circle around Harry and Voldemort when they had finished their demonstrations. Crouch and Quirrell made their own demonstrations last as the only unmasked figures, Crouch still clutching the stump of his arm and crawling awkwardly on his elbow. Soon it was just Harry and Voldemort in the centre of a crowd.
"Welcome, Death Eaters," Voldemort said.
Harry swallowed and stared around the circle of Death Eaters. They were all intent on watching Voldemort as he spoke to them about loyalty. There were gaps in the circle. He could make a break for it if he got close enough to one of them. He held his bleeding arm to his side and inched toward the nearest, largest gap as Voldemort spoke.
Harry froze and watched in horror as Voldemort cast the Cruciatus curse on one of the wizards and laughed as he screamed. After he let go of the spell, he chastised the circle gently.
"I want thirteen years of repayment before I forgive you," Voldemort said. "Crouch and Quirrell here are the only servants who can be said to be truly loyal. Quirrell, when torn from my side, immediately began searching for a way to return to me. Crouch has spent our years apart imprisoned to prevent him from seeking my presence, and has given his own right hand in pursuit of my return. These are true friends. What so great has kept the rest of you from my side?"
As Voldemort created a silver hand for Crouch and began interrogating his followers, one by one, Harry inched toward the gap in the circle again. If he could get close enough, he thought he might be able to ignore the pain in his head and chest long enough to make a break for it.
Harry was nearly there when he heard Lucius Malfoy's voice respond to a question directed at him from Voldemort. He was cool and swift, and Harry tried not to choke on the fact that this was Draco's father. He and Draco had been best friends, but now, Lucius Malfoy's attention never wavered from Voldemort.
Voldemort moved swiftly along the circle, and cut off Harry's hope of escaping when he stopped in front of the large gap he'd been inching toward. "And here we have five missing Death Eaters," he said. "Three dead in my service. One who I believe has left me forever. He will be killed of course. And one, too cowardly to return. But do not worry. We have found him."
The Death Eaters stirred, and the unconscious man that Crouch had brought with him floated into the centre of the circle, fully conscious now. Harry recognised him from Snape's rooms. It was the headmaster of Durmstrang.
"And of course, I would be remiss if I did not introduce my new friend, who has kindly joined us for my rebirthing party." Voldemort turned and looked directly at Harry who was rooted in place, bare feet from his escape. Voldemort held out a hand as though to present him to the group. "Harry Potter, everyone."
The Death Eaters stood in silence as Voldemort grinned at Harry and Karkaroff.
Lucius Malfoy stepped forward and spoke to Voldemort. "Master," he began. Harry glared at his cloaked form and swayed on his feet as Lucius spoke, casting around for another means of escape. If only he could get his wand back.
Voldemort responded to Lucius' question at length. Harry listened with one ear, eyeing all the Death Eaters in the hope that one of them might give him an idea or make some kind of mistake that would allow Harry to get away.
"...I was forced to flee after Quirrell's failure, and had thought him dead for many years. I returned to my hiding place far away, and I will not pretend to you then that I didn't fear that I might not regain my powers.
"Despite these worries, Quirrell was stronger than he had first appeared, and returned to me again after a long period of searching. He followed my instructions to return me to a rudimentary, weak body of my own..."
The snake wound its way past Harry's feet, corralling him back toward the centre of the circle and hissing wordlessly as Voldemort spoke.
"...I used the information recovered from Quirrell's research to position my two loyal Death Eaters at Hogwarts. Harry Potter was my downfall, but, as I am certain you all know, he is also a Slytherin..."
Voldemort glanced at Harry, his cruel red eyes filled with amusement.
"In fact, Quirrell has uncovered a plethora of information about young Harry's loyalties from his time spent at Hogwarts, posing as a Durmstrang student with an interest in the Boy-Who-Lived."
Harry's mind rebelled against this. He had assumed Quirrell had attacked Poliakoff and stolen his hair for the night. Some of the things Voldemort had already said were bad enough, but the idea that Poliakoff had been a Death Eater spying on him and the school for the entire year was almost too much to bear. He had felt bad, wanting to avoid Poliakoff. They had gone flying together!
Quirrell stepped forward from the circle and bowed his head. "My Lord," he said, and proceeded to give a distressingly detailed account of Harry's life over the course of the past year, including (but not limited to) information on all his friends, his opinions on the Dark Arts, and his fight with Draco.
Harry huddled in on himself, clutching his arm to his chest as Quirrell's monologue continued into far greater detail than Harry would have been comfortable with Blaise or Hermione knowing, let alone a circle of people who seemed happy aligning themselves with a man who wanted Harry dead. Even so, it was the conversation about his friendship and fight with Draco that was especially painful to listen to. Draco came off as a bit too sympathetic to Voldemort for Harry's comfort, and Lucius words did not bolster his faith in his once best friend.
"My son is loyal to your cause, my Lord," Lucius said in a confident, obsequious tone. "His friendship with Potter is shallow at best, and as Quirrell has already said, virtually nonexistent this year."
"Be sure that your certitude is valid, Lucius," Voldemort said, tilting his head back and watching Draco's father narrowly.
"It is, my Lord. His original purpose in striking up a friendship was to see how sympathetic Potter would be to your cause, and that question has been answered. Potter is no longer useful to him."
Harry realized distantly that he was shaking. It was hard not to believe the detailed, clinical account of Draco's actions presented by Quirrell, and the confident assurance in his father's voice. And no matter how much evidence of their friendship Harry could point to normally, it was becoming difficult under the circumstances to think of a single thing that proved that Draco had ever liked him at all.
"Very good, Lucius, Quirrell. Now let us continue the accolades. Crouch has earned quite the distinction," Voldemort said, and Crouch stepped forward, his new hand glinting in the flickering wandlight.
"Crouch has done more than offer me his right hand," Voldemort told the group. "He has also found a traitor, and brought him back to us."
The attention of the group was drawn back to the Durmstrang headmaster.
"Karkaroff," Voldemort said in his high, cold voice. "You have been found guilty of treason against your fellow Death Eaters and your Lord. You wear your Dark Mark with regret, do you not?"
Karkaroff whimpered and struggled against his invisible bonds. His face was white and his eyes rolled.
"Master," he gasped. "Master, I beg you..."
"There are no second chances for traitors," Voldemort said. "And no mercy. Crucio."
Karkaroff writhed, shrieking madly. Harry stumbled away from him, staring as his face twisted in agony. A movement caught Harry's eye, and he tripped and fell hard on his ribs in his haste to get out of the way as, one by one, the other Death Eaters lifted their wands. A chorus of crucios rang through the clearing, and Karkaroff was soon reduced to agonized gargling, his throat too raw to scream. After what must have been the longest twenty seconds in recorded history, Voldemort held up a hand and stopped the Death Eaters. Harry lay on his side, breathing harshly and staring in horrified silence as Karkaroff went limp.
"Ennervate," Voldemort said. And then, "Crucio."
The Death Eaters joined him again. To Harry's distress, Karkaroff caught and held his eye as his body contorted with silent pain. Even when his vision went blurry with tears, Harry couldn't look away, and even when Karkaroff passed out, his eyes never closed.
Harry's chest was constricting; the air wasn't getting to his lungs. His bones felt like they were jittering under his skin, he shook so badly. He gasped in painful breaths and tried not to listen as Voldemort repeated the process again and again and again, until the ennervate spell finally stopped working and Karkaroff's pain-maddened eyes were emptied. Harry lay motionless in the grass, still unable to break eye contact with the dead man until Voldemort spoke.
"Let none forget the consequences of treason," he said softly. Voldemort let the silence spiral horribly for a long minute, then turned back to Harry with a smile.
"And now for the real festivities." He lifted his wand, and Harry stared at it with frantic anxiety. "Crucio!
Harry had never experienced pain like this. His bones were on fire, and it felt like every inch of his body was being stabbed by thousands of red hot knives. His head was splitting open along his scar. Worse still was the dread, waiting for the Death Eaters to chime in with their own spells, knowing that this unbearable pain was only a fraction of what he might soon be feeling.
But no. Voldemort dropped the spell and smiled again as the laughter of the Death Eaters rang in Harry's ears. Harry sagged, partly from pain, and partly from bone deep relief. He realized distantly that he must have screamed. His throat felt raw.
"I want there to be no mistake in anybody's mind," Voldemort announced to the crowd of Death Eaters. "This boy escaped me by a lucky chance."
Harry's brain was feeling dull and he processed the words slowly. Voldemort was saying something important, he knew. The snake slid past Harry's head, hissing impatiently.
"Now help him up, Quirrell, and give him his wand."
Harry's brain jolted, suddenly alert. He scrambled to sit up as the Death Eaters closed ranks around him and Voldemort, leaving no gaps for Harry to escape through. Quirrell grabbed Harry's uninjured arm and yanked him upward, causing Harry to gasp as a searing pain shot through his chest. Quirrell held onto Harry's arm until Harry was standing on his own, and thrust his wand into his hand. When he had finished, he stepped back to his position in the circle.
"You have been taught how to duel, Harry Potter?" Voldemort's eyes glinted. "We bow to each other, Harry." Voldemort bowed, and Harry knew that he should cooperate. He should avoid angering the powerful Dark wizard with the wand. Pansy would kill him for what he was doing. But he just couldn't bring himself to cooperate.
He had his wand back. If he died now, it wouldn't be because he had walked meekly at Voldemort's heels to the slaughter. He kept his back straight, though he was still shaking badly.
The Death Eaters laughed as Voldemort goaded Harry, but Harry stayed resolutely upright, too stubborn to change his mind now that he had made it up.
"I said bow," Voldemort said, and Harry felt his back curving. It jostled his ribs again, but the indignity of it all, the Death Eaters laughing again, riled Harry more than anything else.
"Very good," Voldemort said, and let Harry stand again. "And now you face me, like a man. Straight-backed and proud, the way your father died."
Harry stared at Voldemort's lipless smile, and realized that he was slowly moving away from panicked hysteria and into angry panicked hysteria.
"And now - we duel."
Voldemort raised his wand, and out of utter reflex, Harry summoned the broken chunk of headstone at his feet into the path of the spell. The Death Eaters hushed, and even Harry was slightly shocked at his reaction. Snape's brutal lessons had really paid off.
Voldemort narrowed his eyes and spit out another spell. Harry wasn't so lucky this time, and before he could move, he was hit with the Cruciatus curse again.
"Not so quick that time," Voldemort hissed, watching Harry stagger to his feet, shaking badly. "That hurt, didn't it, Harry? You don't want me to do that again, do you?"
Harry didn't respond, except to cast Defodio at him. Voldemort deflected it easily, but it gave Harry time to throw himself behind a gravestone just in time to avoid the answering curse. He sucked in a pained breath and blinked spots out of his eyes. Fuck Snape's rule about flinging himself around. He was already exhausted and weak from horror and probably blood loss, considering that there was still blood dripping from his fingertips. He needed to take cover.
"We are not playing hide-and-seek, Harry," Voldemort said, sweeping nearer. Harry turned so that he was facing the headstone and Voldemort behind it. As Voldemort continued taunting him, Harry poked his wand over the top of the headstone and silently cast a finger-removing jinx in the direction of his voice. There was no light involved in that spell, and Harry could almost hope for the split second after he cast it that it might have hit.
It certainly seemed to have gotten a reaction, judging by Voldemort's next words.
"This is not a game," he snapped. "Your childish spells are ineffective here, Harry. Does this mean you wish to end our duel? Come out and play then. It will be quick. It might even be painless." He paused. "I would not know... I have never died."
The tone Voldemort was using now was colder than it had been when he had been accusing Karkaroff of treason, and it curdled the contents of Harry's stomach. He decided then that engaging Voldemort like this was stupid. The smart thing was what he had been aiming for before Voldemort started taunting him. He should be trying to figure out how to get the hell out of this grave yard while he still could.
He took a careful breath. Then he cast a disillusionment spell over himself and crept as slowly and smoothly as possible to the next headstone. With the spell on, he was able to poke his head out from behind the stone enough to see Voldemort reach the one he had been hiding behind. Voldemort narrowed his eyes.
He stalked toward the next headstone. "You cannot hide from me," he said. Harry held his breath and crept further away, toward the edge of the circle. None of the Death Eaters could have spotted him, else they would have raised the alarm by now. They were all shifting, though none dared to raise a wand and interfere with the 'duel'.
Voldemort snarled when he reached the next headstone and found it lacking. He blasted the top half of it into dust and chunks of rock, startling Harry badly. His heartbeat thumped a staccato beat in his head, in his chest, even in his shaky fingertips, and he was certain that the snake would take notice at any moment and come over from the other side of the circle to trap him.
Harry darted to another headstone and realized suddenly that he needn't worry about the snake; it was currently in process of swallowing Karkaroff's body whole. Sobbing wouldn't be enough at this point, Harry realized, suppressing the urge to gag. He needed to scream and shriek and wail. He felt it bubbling up in his throat, but knew that he had to be utterly silent so that Voldemort wouldn't find him. He wished he hadn't removed the silencing charm.
If he could just get through the Death Eaters and out of the graveyard, Harry was certain he could figure out a way to escape. He forced his attention away from the snake and started searching the ranks of Death Eaters, looking for a weak point, some indication that the person in question would be easier to get by than the others.
Too late, he realized that Voldemort had found his headstone. He ducked barely in time to avoid being hit with a huge chunk of stone. Dust settled over him, giving away his position.
"Ah, there you are," Voldemort said, satisfied. He raised his wand, and Harry stumbled to his feet, casting a Confundus Charm at the same time.
The twin jets of green light met in midair, and rather than deflecting, as was Harry's usual experience with these circumstances, the lights turned gold instead. Harry's wand began vibrating rather suddenly.
The even bigger surprise came when Harry felt his feet lift off the ground. Voldemort looked no less shocked, which Harry found strangely comforting.
As they resettled on a patch of grass and a dome of light formed around them, Harry thought quickly. He had no idea what was going on. Voldemort shrieked at his followers to do nothing, and it occurred to Harry that the advantage was his, especially when the haunting music started and Voldemort's expression only grew more astonished.
Voldemort had said to do nothing. To Harry's view, the only possibility for survival was in active defiance. When Voldemort's wand started spitting out spells and Voldemort was still busy staring at the ghostly remnants of a silver hand, Harry took his chance.
He jerked his wand up, and before the dome of light had vanished, he was gone, knocking over Death Eaters and dodging spells as he fled the graveyard, wand in the air. His ribs felt like a thousand knives were stabbing him at once while he ran, but he could worry about the pain later when he wasn't dead.
The road was a bit of a distance, but Harry had sheer, adrenaline fuelled terror on his side. He also had a head start, which was fortunate for the conductor of the Knight Bus.
"Welcome to the Kni-"
"Just go!" Harry yelled, shoving him back through the doors and forcing them shut behind him. "Go now!"
Thankfully, the driver didn't ask questions, choosing instead to slam his foot down on the accelerator. Harry fell into the aisle between the beds and slid several feet, caught by the unexpected momentum. He lay there, trying not to jostle his ribs and nursing his shoulder where the edge of a blasting hex had caught him as he ran.
The conductor stared at him, then at the door. Harry saw dimly that a hole had been melted in the metal frame. He was glad he hadn't caught the edge of that spell instead.
"Hogwarts," Harry panted. "I need to get to Hogwarts, and I'll give you twenty galleons if you don't stop anywhere else on the way."
The conductor nodded slowly and stepped forward with tentative movements to help Harry onto one of the beds. Harry whimpered and stiffened with basically any movement, but soon he was settled on a mattress. "Will you be wantin' a hot chocolate?"
Harry muttered something in the negative and curled into a small ball at the head of the bed, staring through his reflection in the opposite window and trying not to breathe.
"Are you sure?" The voice was strangely distant. "You're shaking."
Harry curled further into himself, ignoring the conductor entirely.
Chapter 12: The Aftermath
When the Knight Bus finally stopped at Hogsmeade, Harry bolstered himself and shook his head. "Hogwarts," he insisted.
"We can't go on the grounds, mate," the conductor explained.
"Get as close as possible," he said. The driver shrugged and maneuvered until the Bus was about two feet away from the front gates.
"That's as good as it gets," the conductor said. Harry reached into his pocket with the bleeding arm and fumbled for his money bag. He gave the whole thing to the conductor, then stumbled off the bus and through the gates as though the grass outside Hogwarts was on fire.
It struck him as extraordinary that everyone was still at the Quidditch pitch, watching the final Task. Harry had no idea how long he'd been gone, but it had to have been a few hours at least.
While he was on the bus everything had been dim, but now that he was back at Hogwarts, his senses were almost painfully alert. He needed to find someone that would be able to help him. Someone who would make everything that had just happened go away. He neared the stands and swayed, trying to remember where his friends had been sitting, where Snape or Dumbledore might be, if his snake had found anyone or managed to raise the alarm. He felt something wet running down his cheek and touched it. His fingers came back red, and he stared at them. He had honestly thought that would be salt water.
"Harry? Oh fuck- Harry!"
Harry recognised the voice and looked up as the person grabbed his arm to steady him. It was Draco, eyes wide with alarm and concern.
Harry staggered back, wrenching his arm away in his haste to escape. He landed in the grass, jostling his various wounds, his heart pounding almost as hard as it had in the graveyard. Draco reached for him, but something about the expression on Harry's face must have made him think better of it. He backed off a few feet and hovered, looking between Harry and the stands and practically wringing his hands.
Fortunately, Draco hadn't been the only person to spot Harry's arrival.
"Draco, what - Oh fuck." Blaise dropped to his knees in front of Harry, eyes darting over his bleeding arm and shoulder and back up to his face. "Pansy, go get Snape."
"Blaise," Harry said in a small voice. "He's back, Blaise."
Blaise reached out and touched Harry's undamaged shoulder carefully. "Who's back, Harry?"
Blaise snatched his hand back and stared at Harry, horrified. Behind him, Draco made a wordless sound and sat abruptly in the grass.
"He's back," Harry repeated. Blaise needed to understand. "Voldemort's back, he's back, he's alive, I saw him, he killed Karkaroff-"
Someone made an inarticulate sound of horror. Pansy had returned with Snape and Dumbledore. Snape knelt next to Harry and peered into his eyes.
"Harry," he said calmly. "Where are you hurt?"
"My head hurts... it hurts a lot," Harry explained in a tiny voice. "It was Voldemort, he did it."
"Yes, Harry," Snape said. "But where else are you hurt?"
Harry blinked at him. "I hurt everywhere," he said, slipping unconsciously into Parseltongue. "And my shoulder and my arm and my chest and my... my head. It hurts everywhere."
Snape nodded and stood, lifting Harry carefully and setting him on his feet. A small crowd of curious onlookers had formed by now, and news was starting to spread about what Harry was saying. People were muttering to each other, staring at him.
"Severus, take him to the Hospital Wing," Dumbledore ordered. "I will be there shortly. Do not let Pomfrey feed him any sleeping potions."
Dumbledore arrived in Harry's private room about an hour later with Sirius and Remus at his heels, their faces pale and strained.
Snape sneered at them from the corner he was leaning in, but stayed silent as they swooped down on Harry.
Harry had been cleaned up and healed as best as Pomfrey could manage. His shoulder and chest were still in bandages and there would be a deep scar on his arm, but all of his other physical wounds had been easily fixed.
Sirius took one look at Harry and pulled him into a tight hug, though mindful of his injuries. Harry pressed against Sirius' shoulder and let his face collapse into the misery he'd been suppressing. Just for a moment, but Sirius held onto him long enough for Harry to regain his composure before pulling away.
"What happened?" he asked, subsiding into one of the chairs by Harry's bedside. Remus took the other, looking equally concerned.
"Voldemort's back," Harry said, feeling almost blank. Dumbledore stepped forward.
"I am sorry, Harry," he said. "But I need to know everything, from the beginning."
Harry looked down at his lap, then back up at Sirius who was watching him with sympathy.
"Maybe we should wait until morning, Dumbledore," he said uncertainly. He reached out and gripped Harry's hand, and Harry gripped back, grateful.
"We must act quickly," Dumbledore disagreed. "We need to know the details of what we are facing." He turned to Harry and spoke gently. "Numbing the pain will only make it worse when you have to feel it, Harry. Tonight, you have managed to survive a situation that has defeated fully trained wizards. I must ask that you struggle through one more time. I ask you to tell us what happened."
Harry took a deep breath, shaking a bit. Even the calming potions Pomfrey had already forced on him weren't helping right now. Snape took a step forward and spoke.
"Your Occlumency walls are still intact, Mr. Potter," he said. "You have done admirably under the greatest duress imaginable."
Harry smiled a bit at that. With Sirius' hand still in his grip, he took a deep breath and began to explain. "Poliakoff was polyjuiced," he began. "All year, he's been Professor Quirrell in disguise."
Snape made an aborted motion with one hand. Dumbledore leaned forward. "You are positive?" he asked, his blue eyes intense.
Harry nodded. "And Professor Moody isn't himself, either. He's been someone named 'Crouch', polyjuiced as Moody all year. They've been gathering information." Sirius' grip on his hand tightened. "I had a headache so I left the stands, and Quirrell Imperiused me and dragged me off campus and apparated us to this graveyard..."
He told the story through, though he faltered several times, in particular at the conversation about Draco and when describing the way Karkaroff had been murdered. His voice shook as he described his 'duel' with Voldemort and the strange way their wands had connected, which caused Dumbledore to explain the Reverse Spell effect.
After that, it was a matter of Harry explaining briefly about the Knight Bus and his walk up to the pitch, and then Dumbledore spoke some warm words about Harry's resilience and abilities, and recommended a Sleeping Draught. Snape swept out during Dumbledore's reassurances without a word to anyone.
Pomfrey bustled in and fed him a few more potions, and Sirius and Remus stepped out into the main hospital wing to have a word with Dumbledore. A crowd of Harry's friends replaced Pomfrey when she left.
"Madam Pomfrey said only a few of us could come in right now," Hermione explained as she and Dudley and Blaise and Pansy crowded around his bed. "Or else everyone else would be here too."
"You were right about Poliakoff, Pansy," Harry said. "He was a Death Eater."
Pansy put a hand to her mouth, alarmed. "What?"
"Yeah," Harry said. One of the potions Pomfrey had fed him was making him feel spacey and sleepy. "He was Professor Quirrell. And Professor Moody was Crouch. And there was a house elf and a baby but the baby was Voldemort. And then they put him in a potion and all the Death Eaters came and one of them was Draco's dad and he laughed at me when Voldemort crucioed me and he helped kill the Headmaster of Durmstrang and then our wands reversed and I got away on the Knight Bus."
His friends fell silent, all of them staring at Harry with varying levels of horror and confusion.
"I didn't follow any of that," Dudley said eventually. "But it sounded awful."
"Draco's father was there?" Blaise looked faintly sick.
"He and Quirrell said Draco only wanted to be friends with me so I would join the Dark Lord," Harry said dreamily. The idea didn't hurt right now; it was too distant.
"Oh, Harry, that's not true," Pansy said, taking his hand, but Harry barely heard her. He was floating away into sleep.
Harry left the hospital wing the evening after next, slowing down as he walked through the main wing to examine the sleeping figures of the real Poliakoff and Mad-Eye Moody. They both looked weak and exhausted, their hair cut in strange patches.
Sirius was waiting for him just outside the doors, and slung an arm around his shoulder as they walked together.
"Remus had to go already; job for Dumbledore," Sirius said. "We're getting the old crowd back together. I wanted to say goodbye before I left though."
Harry nodded and leaned into Sirius' side as they walked.
"Dumbledore left those wards up," he continued as they descended a set of stairs toward Slytherin. "Otherwise Snuffles'd come visit you at Hogwarts all the time next term."
Sirius grinned. "My animagus form. Can't pass through the gates without Dumbledore's permission because of it."
They had reached the Entrance Hall, and Sirius stopped, turning to face Harry.
"I also wanted to get this back to you," he said, producing a well-battered piece of parchment. Harry, who had been walking on autopilot until Sirius stopped, blinked at it for a second before recognition dawned.
"The Map!" he said. "Where did you find it?"
"It was in the fake-Moody's things," Sirius said. "I recognised it and thought you might want it back sooner rather than later."
Harry smiled at Sirius gratefully and tucked the Map into one of his inner pockets. He'd have to be much more careful with it from now on.
Apparently Draco had tried to visit Harry while he was still in the hospital wing. According to Pomfrey, Harry had refused. Harry honestly didn't remember, but then most of his stay was a blur.
Draco was not to be deterred, it seemed. He caught Harry alone in their dormitory the next morning and hovered as Harry got dressed for breakfast.
"Harry, I'm sorry," Draco said, standing next to his own bed and staring at him. "For everything. Are you okay?"
Harry pulled his shoes on and tied them.
"Your father was there, Draco," Harry said as he straightened up. "He laughed at me when Voldemort cast the Cruciatius curse on me. He helped kill the headmaster of Durmstrang for being a traitor."
Draco's face went ashen. "I'm not my father," he started, but Harry interrupted him.
"Yes, but you forget that I'vebeen at Hogwarts all year, too." He picked up his bag. "At this point, you're close enough. Too close."
Dumbledore had made an announcement at breakfast the morning after the Task, and the looks Harry was getting were conflicted. It seemed like no one really wanted to believe him. A meeting with Dumbledore the next day confirmed it.
"Minster Fudge is refusing to cooperate," Dumbledore said. "He doesn't think that the disappearance of the Headmaster of Durmstrang and your word are enough."
Harry opened his mouth, but Dumbledore raised a hand. "I do," he said. "And I already have plans in motion. Which is what this meeting is about, Harry. It is vital that you go back to Privet Drive this summer."
"No, but..." Harry said, feeling something heavy settle in the pit of his stomach. "Sirius and Remus said I could stay at their house."
"I have had to call on them along with many others," Dumbledore said. "Neither of them will spend much time in Devon this summer. More to the point, you will be better protected at your uncle's house, especially after we update the wards. We will be doing so within the next week."
Dumbledore explained in detail about the blood protection from his mother, and how Dudley was a conduit for that.
"The wards were originally set to your aunt," Dumbledore explained. "But we will transfer them to Dudley instead. Your uncle and cousin have already agreed. You will need to spend at least a few weeks there every summer to keep the wards strong."
Harry nodded in resignation. If he definitely wasn't able to spend the summer with Sirius and Remus, it wouldn't be too awful being back at Privet Drive, especially if he was still free to visit his friends for most of the summer.
Harry and Blaise were leaving lunch later that day when Anthony found them. His face was solemn, and Harry frowned at him. Anthony had already come to visit Harry in the hospital wing to make sure he was okay. He wasn't sure what that dismal expression meant.
"Harry," he began tentatively, "Douglas and I have been searching for the past couple days, since you mentioned she went missing..." Harry's eyes darted down to the box Anthony was holding, and he paled.
"We found her near the stands," Anthony explained, holding the box out. "She was... I'm sorry."
When Harry just stared, Blaise reached out and took the box, sliding the lid open a fraction to look inside.
"Oh shit," he muttered, closing it again. "Harry-"
"I'm going back to the dorm," Harry said in a choked voice. "Thanks for... for finding her, Anthony. I'll see you tomorrow."
The blankness of the last couple days cracked, but Harry kept himself in check until he was able to close the hangings around his bed and huddle under his blankets in quiet misery.
Harry blinked through tired eyes at the familiar female voice, trying to place it. Pansy had already tried to get Harry to respond several times over the past couple days, but Harry's spells were strong enough that he wouldn't be moved without his consent. It wasn't her. It wasn't Hermione, either. They wouldn't let a Gryffindor in, anyway.
"Hi, Luna," he said eventually.
"Are you hungry, Harry?"
"Not really." He poked his head out from his blanket cucoon and stared at the bedcurtains, wondering what her strategy was. If he had his way, he wouldn't leave until it was time to get on the train. She was silent for a bit, then:
"After my mum died, I wasn't hungry either," she said. "We were working on a potions experiment and it exploded. She saved my life."
"It - exploded?" Harry asked, startled. Luna made a small noise of agreement.
"Yes. I was nine."
"Luna," Harry said, pulling his blankets more firmly around himself. "That's awful."
"It was," she said. They fell into silence for several minutes.
"Can I come in?" she asked after a while.
"I was going to give you a hug," she explained. "I thought it would make me feel better about what happened to you."
Harry swallowed and stared at the bedcurtains. Luna waited.
"Yeah, okay," he said, and rubbed halfheartedly at the tearstains on his cheeks. He pulled his wand out from under the pillow and lifted the spells for long enough for her to climb inside.
Luna sat on her knees next to him and pulled him into a long hug, blankets and all. After she pulled away, Harry realized he actually felt somewhat better. She smiled a little bit and settled down next to him, leaning against his headboard.
"I brought you something to read," she said, pulling a copy of the Quibbler out of her bag. "And some food, if you do feel hungry later."
It turned out that she had brought nearly an entire year's worth of Quibbler back issues and a stack of sandwiches. Harry took a magazine and they read quietly together. Eventually, he even took a sandwich.
After a few hours, Blaise came into the room.
"Harry? Did Luna come talk to you?"
"I promised I would," Luna said absently, turning a page.
There was silence from the other side of the bed curtain.
"Luna." Blaise's voice was absolutely exasperated. "You were supposed to get him to come out."
"He didn't want to," she said. Harry grinned a little bit and flipped to the rebuses at the back of his most recent Quibbler. He was getting better at them.
Harry ended up leaving his dormitory late the next day, though he kept to himself and his friends as strictly as he could manage. Everyone else was happy to avoid him, anyway.
Dumbledore made a speech at the end of year feast, about how dark times were ahead and how they all had to stand together. Most of the students and even some of the staff stared at Harry for nearly the entire thing. He didn't feel like any of them particularly wanted to stand with him. Harry didn't even want to stand with himself.
He let his eyes fall on the empty seat at the head table where Snape usually sat. He hadn't seen the professor since the night of the third Task.
Dumbledore caught Harry's eye as he finished his speech. His expression was grave, but calculating. Ever since the night of the third Task, Harry's chest and shoulder had felt constricted and heavy, though they were healing nicely and his ribs were essentially good as new. Now with Dumbledore's gaze boring into him, Harry felt almost like he couldn't breathe, the pressure was so great. His Slytherin tie felt like a noose.
He had never thought of Privet Drive as a reprieve before, but he almost couldn't wait to get back.