Chapter 1: The Doorbell
When Harry and Dudley got off the train at King's Cross, Uncle Vernon was waiting for them. He helped them put their trunks in the boot and pulled out of the car park in relative silence, listening to Dudley's chatter about the year. Harry was free to subside quietly into the backseat and let the sound of Dudley's voice wash over him.
By the time they reached the motorway, though, Dudley had run out of stories that had nothing to do with what had happened to Harry and trailed off, uncertain.
"I have a question," Vernon said, glancing at Harry in the rearview. "What's all this I've been reading about you in the paper?"
Harry blinked. "You read the Daily Prophet?" he asked, baffled and suddenly embarrassed.
"They send it through the post," Uncle Vernon explained. "Wrapped in parcel paper. Stop avoiding the question. What have you been up to this year, boy? The paper said-"
"Oh, that wasn't Harry's fault," Dudley interrupted. "That awful woman was making things up to make him look bad because she was mad he wouldn't talk to her."
Vernon looked at Harry in the rearview again. Harry nodded.
"The media these days," Vernon grumbled. "This country is going to the dogs. Those reporters think they can just write whatever they want about anyone! That's called libel! That woman deserves a big fat lawsuit, in my opinion..."
Harry and Dudley nodded along in all the right places as Uncle Vernon settled into a comfortable rant that lasted them the rest of the drive home. As they dragged their trunks up the stairs to their respective rooms, Harry caught Dudley's eye.
"Did you know he'd been getting the Prophet?" he asked.
Dudley shrugged. "He's been getting it delivered since summer of last year. Dad likes to keep up on the news, and it gives us stuff to talk about in our letters. He was pretty interested in the Tournament."
"Right," Harry said, shifting his owl's cage so that he could get his door open. "Right."
Uncle Vernon did indeed read both the muggle and wizarding newspapers over breakfast every morning. Harry only began to regret this a couple days into the holiday, when Uncle Vernon started choking on his bacon halfway through the meal. He had just picked up the Prophet.
Harry looked up with a sense of dread. Dudley had already leaned over to glance at the paper, and Harry's suspicions were confirmed when Dudley went pale.
"Dad," he said, and took the paper from a still coughing Vernon, and slapped his father on the back a couple times for good measure. Then Dudley peered down at the text, his eyes moving back and forth across the words, his frown deepening with every pass.
Harry shoved his seat back and stood. He wasn't hungry anymore.
"Don't tell me," he said. "I don't want to know."
"You really don't," Dudley agreed. Uncle Vernon took the paper back and began reading, his face slowly going purple. That was an even worse sign. Harry had just turned around to leave the kitchen when they heard a loud squawk and then a lot of shouting coming from upstairs.
"Who-" Vernon stood, dropping the paper onto the table and glaring up at the ceiling.
Harry swore and ran up to his bedroom, making a brief detour to the bathroom. He'd left the window open. Sure enough, there was a pile of letters forming, and two of them had burst into flames already, screaming invective at his owl who huddled in his cage and screeched back at intervals.
"-Slytherin scum! How dare you try to upset what we've worked so hard for? You have no right-"
"-attention seeking! I remember your record with the Dark Arts, too, don't think I've forgotten that-"
"-upstanding wizards and witches in our community! You disgust me-"
"-not worth the dirt in the soles of Dumbledore's boots! Disgraceful, childish-"
Harry poured a cup of water over the first Howler, which quieted the shouts to more of an angry gurgle, then ran back to the bathroom for more water.
"-parselmouths deserve to be Kissed, if you ask-"
The second Howler fell to the floor in a sopping mess as well, and Harry let the cup slip from his grasp and fall to ground, staring around his room. There were a lot of letters. He always got letters when Skeeter wrote about him, but usually Blaise and Pansy helped him sort through the worst of them, and usually there weren't so many. Usually he could just ignore them all. A bit of smoke floating up from a pile at the end of his bed sent him back to the bathroom. There would be no ignoring these.
"Well here's another one that believes you," Dudley said with optimism, several hours later. He and Harry had rooted out all the Howlers, and were now sitting on the floor in his room, trying to make some sense of the pile. He would have just chucked the entire lot in the bin, but there had been a furiously sympathetic (but mostly furious) letter from Pansy in the first pile. There might be more from people he actually wanted to communicate with. Dudley did insist on opening them all, though.
"Well," Dudley paused and continued skimming the letter. "They believe Dumbledore, anyway."
"Put it in the pile," Harry said, and rubbed his eyes. That was twenty six from people who believed Dumbledore but still thought Harry was untrustworthy Slytherin scum. There had been three that actually supported Harry so far, and one of those was from Pansy.
Dudley ripped open a new letter. "This one is... a Slytherin."
Harry groaned. Those were often the worst.
"And she says...well." Dudley dropped it in the steadily growing 'Slytherins who hate Harry' pile. It was separate from the other pile of letters from people who hated Harry, mostly because of the particular brand of invective they usually contained, and because Harry thought it might be useful to keep track of his enemies within the House. It seemed like something Pansy and Blaise would have him do.
"This one supports you! And they want you to come visit!" Dudley frowned at it. "That's kind of... oh, it's from Neville. He says I'm invited too!"
Harry reached a hand out for the letter, which Dudley handed over dutifully. Harry skimmed it and smiled a bit. It was nice seeing words directed at him that weren't hateful, after all the sorting they'd been doing that morning.
"He wants us to visit next week," Harry said, let down. "Dumbledore said we can't leave until after my birthday, because of the wards."
A few wizards had dropped by a couple nights ago, Remus and Dumbledore included, and updated the wards to work with Dudley's contribution instead of Aunt Petunia's. It had been interesting to watch them work, but the upshot of it all was that the wards wouldn't be stable enough for either of them to leave the house for anything longer than a shopping trip until at least the end of the month.
Harry reached up to set Neville's letter on the desk and picked up another. This one was thick, and written on particularly fine parchment. He flipped it over to break the seal and froze. The Malfoy crest gleamed up at him from the wax, and Harry stared at it for a long moment.
"Hey, this one says you... never mind."
Harry reached under his desk for the bin and chucked the letter in, seal unbroken. If Dudley noticed, he said nothing.
The next letter writer wanted to make sure that Harry was one hundred percent clear on exactly how supportive they were of Harry drowning himself in a vat of bobotuber pus.
From what Harry could gather from the letters he received (having not read this most recent Skeeter article), she had basically recounted the events following Harry's return on the Knight Bus, including Harry's claim that Voldemort had been resurrected. If she expressed any belief that Harry was telling the truth, her readers hadn't picked up on it. Most of them made it sound like she'd painted him as an attention craving, Dark Arts obsessed maniac.
Harry would believe it, coming from her.
So whenever Harry woke abruptly from some unpleasant memory-turned-nightmare and found himself staring around at piles of parchment inscribed with hatred, he would pull out his Map, which he had activated on the train and never turned off, and he would look for her.
She was still at Hogwarts, presumably still stuck. She spent a lot of time on the grounds and in the higher towers. Harry wondered how she was managing to stay hidden during the summer. It wasn't as though she could exactly hide in a crowd when the school wasn't even in use.
It was on one of these late nights, staring at the Map, that it hit him. Sirius had said it himself. He couldn't come or go without Dumbledore's permission because of Snuffles. And Rita couldn't come and go at all. Harry somehow doubted she was about to ask Dumbledore's permission. She had to be keeping it a secret.
Harry remembered the whole situation with Sirius and Pettigrew and his father having unregistered animagus forms, and how angry Snape had been. He was sure someone had said it was illegal, not registering.
Harry pulled his blankets off and stumbled over to his desk, switching on the small lamp. Loki was gone for the night, hunting, but he would be back soon. Harry pulled a fresh sheet of parchment out of a drawer and uncorked a bottle of ink. He spent a minute searching for a quill and eventually gave up, turning instead to his trunk.
He found the scrap of parchment in one of his old Charms textbooks, and crept downstairs to the kitchen. It was late, but this was urgent. He picked up the receiver and dialled carefully. The phone rang for a long time before a woman finally answered.
"Hello?" she asked. Half a second later, another, equally sleepy voice chimed in.
"Hermione?" Harry asked. The first voice responded.
"Hermione, dear, it's for you."
There was a click on Hermione's end.
"Harry, why are you calling me at two thirty in the morning?"
"I'm sorry," he responded in a whisper. "I have to ask you a question. It's important."
There was a pause. "Well?" she prompted.
"I wanted to know if you knew how to check the animagus registry," Harry said, glancing at the doorway to the kitchen. It didn't sound like anyone was awake upstairs, and he didn't want to change that. Uncle Vernon wouldn't take kindly to late night calls, however vital.
"I- yes. Er, Harry," Hermione began. "Don't get me wrong. If you need to talk, call me, any time. But couldn't this have waited until morning?"
"No," Harry hissed. "I was thinking. Skeeter is stuck on the grounds, right? Sirius said Dumbledore put up wards last year for Pettigrew, and now Sirius can't cross the wards without Dumbledore's permission! Because of his animagus form!"
"You think Skeeter is an animagus?" Hermione's voice was intrigued now. "Oh, that would make so much sense! I don't remember seeing her name on the list; I'll check again and get back to you! That's highly illegal!"
Harry grinned. "It's perfect, is what it is. If we're right, she won't be writing anything about me for a long time."
"Do you mean to turn her in, or blackmail her?"
"I haven't decided yet," Harry said, walking as far as the cord of the phone would let him and leaning against the table. "Probably blackmail."
"I'll get back to you as soon as I can," Hermione promised. "Harry, I hope you're right."
"Me too," Harry said. They talked a few minutes longer, but eventually Hermione claimed exhaustion and they said goodbye.
Harry went back to bed and managed to get to sleep with minimal fuss. When he woke up, the sun was shining in his window. He'd managed to sleep through the rest of the night.
There were more articles about Harry over the course of the next week, not all of them written by Skeeter. Skeeter's were the ones that really caused an influx of mail, though.
Uncle Vernon read through each article, which upset Harry terribly. For some reason, having his friends read lies about him was one thing, but having Uncle Vernon see what elaborate new story Skeeter could spin about his insanity, his sociopathic tendencies, or his insatiable desire to corrupt the innocent was mortifying. Uncle Vernon's opinion of him was a question at best, and Harry could only imagine what he must be thinking of it all.
So when Uncle Vernon called Harry into the kitchen one night after dinner and Harry saw all the newspaper spread out over the table, he felt like sinking through the floor.
"Dudley said this woman was making up lies about you," Uncle Vernon said, his moustache twitching as he sifted through the papers. "But I'll tell you what, boy. She seems to know an awful lot about you for someone who's making everything up. I want the truth."
Harry sank into a chair and put his head in his hands. "She-"
"Dark magic?" Uncle Vernon said, pushing one of the articles toward Harry. "Dudley told me what that means, and I won't tolerate that kind of freakishness in my house."
Harry looked up at him. "I don't do dark magic," he exclaimed. "She's making that up."
"This snake language," Uncle Vernon said, shoving another article at Harry. "The papers say it's dark magic. Dudley said himself that you talk to snakes."
"I, but no," Harry said, feeling cornered. "It's not dark magic, it's just a language-"
Uncle Vernon sifted through the pile and ripped another article out from under the others. His face was beginning to turn red, which was always a bad sign.
"And this one says you were covered in blood and saying someone returned from the dead," he blustered. "That sounds like necromancy if I ever heard it, boy! I won't have it!"
Harry felt his breath start coming in short. "But I didn't- That wasn't my- They tried to-"
"And the papers, not just that woman, mind you, but all the writers, have been saying your House, what's it called, Slythern? That it's the House where dark wizards are trained!" Uncle Vernon stood up and shoved another article at Harry. "Is that what my money is paying for?"
Harry shook his head as he stared down at the article, wondering frantically where Dudley had gotten off to.
"That's not true," he said, feeling tears prick at his eyes. "Slytherin is just another House. People just don't like us because the Dark Lord was in Slytherin. That's not my fault!"
Uncle Vernon stared at him with a narrow expression.
"Dudley's a good boy. And he insists you're not doing any of those things," he said. "I want to believe him." He leaned forward over the table and met Harry's eyes directly. "But if I get one whiff of trouble coming from you, or if I find out you've been teaching my boy anything... dark... you'll be out of this house so fast it'll make your head spin. Do you understand me?"
Harry swallowed hard and nodded, still gripping the article.
"Yes," he said. "But I promise I'm not, Uncle Vernon." He stared down at all the newsprint and felt his shoulders slump. The articles nearly covered the table entirely, there were so many. Seeing it all laid out like this was daunting and disheartening.
Uncle Vernon watched him stare at the newspapers for another moment, then nodded his head briskly.
"Good," he said. "As long as we understand each other."
He gathered up all the articles, including the one Harry was holding, and tossed them all in the bin. Harry watched uncertainly as Uncle Vernon took the whole bin outside to empty it, then came back, replaced the liner, and left the kitchen with no further comment.
Harry sat at the kitchen table until it was time to go to bed.
It turned out that Harry had been right. Skeeter wasn't on the list of registered animagi, and after conferring with Pansy, Blaise and Hermione through various modes of communication, they all agreed that it was the most likely explanation. The only question at this point was how to exploit their new found knowledge.
"Harry," Dudley picked up the extension one morning when Harry was on the phone with Hermione, debating the merits of sending an owl to Skeeter versus tracking her down when they returned to Hogwarts. "Hey Hermione," Dudley said.
"Hi, Dudley," Hermione responded. "How have you been?"
"Alright," Dudley said. "Harry, Dad's getting ready for work and he said to get the door."
Harry raised his eyebrow at the telephone. He had heard the doorbell, but assumed Uncle Vernon or Dudley would get it like they usually did.
"He told you to do it, didn't he?"
"Well yeah," Dudley said. "But I'm upstairs. You're in the front room. Closer to the door."
Harry rolled his eyes.
"Be right back, Hermione," he said.
"No problem," Dudley said. "I'll keep her company."
Harry heard Hermione laugh as he set the receiver down on the end table and went into the hallway.
Harry opened the door, expecting the postman or some kind of solicitor, or perhaps a neighbour. He was wrong on all counts.
Aunt Petunia stood in the doorway, holding a small suitcase and looking huddled and pinched.
"I..." Harry stared at her. "I, er...Aunt Petunia."
"Hello, Harry," she said. She sounded strained and terribly awkward. "Has Vernon left for work yet?"
Harry blinked a few times before responding. "I think... let me check." Harry closed the door and stared at it, letting his face go slack with shock now that she couldn't see him. He went into the front room first and picked up the phone, interrupting the conversation Dudley and Hermione were having about Hogsmeade.
"Hermione, we're going to have to call you back," he said. "Dudley, get Uncle Vernon."
Chapter 2: The Aunt
"Harry, what's going on?" Dudley followed Harry down the hall to the bathroom, frowning. "Who was at the door?"
Harry glanced at him, but he couldn't bring himself to answer. "Uncle Vernon!"
Uncle Vernon stepped out of the bathroom, tie still slung over his shoulder. He was holding a comb, which he stuck in his back pocket when he saw Harry and Dudley.
"You need to come downstairs. Someone's at the door for you."
Something must have shown on Harry's face, because instead of blustering, Uncle Vernon just nodded and followed them.
"It's," Harry paused, but he couldn't let Dudley and Uncle Vernon open the door blind. "Well, it's Aunt Petunia. At the door."
Uncle Vernon paused on the staircase for half a second. "Petunia?" he repeated. Dudley's eyes went wide, and he practically picked Harry up in his haste to get past him as he barrelled down the stairs.
"Dad, it's mum!" Dudley said as he reached the door. The call snapped Uncle Vernon out of his uncertainty, and he pounded down the stairs after Dudley. Harry took a moment to be glad he didn't live in the cupboard anymore. It would have taken hours for the dust to settle after all this stomping. Harry proceeded down the steps at a much more hesitant pace.
Dudley pulled the door open before Uncle Vernon could stop him, and his face lit up when he saw his mother.
"Mum, you came back!" he exclaimed, beaming. "Did you get my letters? Why didn't you ever respond? I missed you!"
Aunt Petunia, who had taken a small step back when the door opened, smiled a shaky sort of smile at Dudley and looked past him.
"Diddykins," she said, though she was looking at Uncle Vernon. "Mummy and Daddy need to talk, sweetums."
Dudley continued to stare at her with cow eyes, though he stepped aside.
"Ah," Uncle Vernon coughed. "I suppose you should come in, Petunia."
After Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia went into the kitchen and shut the door behind them, Dudley glared at Harry, who stepped back without being asked, hands raised, and let Dudley listen at the keyhole. He took the crack at the bottom of the door as usual, and they listened.
"...your son," Uncle Vernon was saying. Harry watched his feet as they paced the linoleum.
"I know," Petunia said. "But I was wrong, Vernon. I was so wrong. I want to make amends. I want my family back."
"What you wrote-" Uncle Vernon began. His voice was gruff, and he cleared his throat several times. "Petunia, what you wrote... the things you said about him!"
"I know, Vernon, and I was wrong!" Aunt Petunia's feet crossed the linoleum, her heels clicking with agitation. She came to a stop in front of Uncle Vernon's wingtips. "I don't feel that way anymore, Vernon. I've changed, I promise."
Harry glanced up at Dudley. He may not have read the letter Aunt Petunia had left, but he had to have some idea of what they were talking about. But Dudley's face was unusually impassive. Harry couldn't figure out what he might be thinking until he glanced down and caught Harry's eye. The raw hope and anxiety Harry saw made him look away, embarrassed.
"It'll be just like it was before," Petunia promised in a soft voice. "I've missed you so much, darling."
Uncle Vernon was silent for an interminable moment. Harry glanced up at Dudley again, who was burning a hole through the wood panelling with his stare.
Finally, Uncle Vernon answered. "I've missed you too, Pet."
Dudley let out a whooping shout and burst through the door, barely giving Harry time to scramble out of the way to avoid being trampled. Harry climbed to his feet and brushed himself off as he stumbled back toward the staircase, watching through the doorway as the three Dursleys had their reunion.
'Just like it was before' sounded great, for everyone but Harry.
It took Harry several days to get used to coming around a corner and seeing Aunt Petunia, dusting the mantelpiece or baking biscuits. Harry couldn't figure out how to interact with her now. It had been an unspoken assumption made by Uncle Vernon, Dudley and Harry that Harry was in charge of the brunt of the chores over the holiday. Harry didn't exactly look forward to it, but it wasn't surprising. Now, though, Harry would go into the kitchen to mop the floor and find it sparkling already. He'd finally motivate himself to get started on the laundry, only to find it folded and ironed, waiting only to be put away.
It was strange. Even when Aunt Petunia had lived with them, Harry had done the majority of the housework. This wasn't 'just like before'. This was something else entirely. Harry almost felt like she was infringing on his place in the house, which was an absurd notion that he ignored as best he could. He didn't mind at all if Aunt Petunia wanted to scrub the molding in the bathtub. More power to her. Harry had more time to do his own thing now, like write letters to his friends, talk with Hermione and Dudley, sort through the nasty letters in his room, do his summer homework, lie on his back and stare at the ceiling after a nightmare...
It was just strange, that's all.
This was strange, too.
Harry walked into the kitchen where Aunt Petunia was wiping her hands on a dishtowel.
"Harry- oh, there you are," she said, and smiled at him. "If you wouldn't mind, I'd like for you to keep an eye on the wash. It should be finished soon, and I want it hung out to dry before it wrinkles."
"Yes, Aunt Petunia," Harry said.
"I'll be upstairs doing a bit of tidying up before your uncle gets home," she said, straightening the pleats of her housedress. "Call me when the oven timer beeps, would you, dear?"
"Er, yeah, okay," Harry said, and leaned over to peek at the turkey through the oven window. "No problem." She beamed at him and bustled out of the kitchen, humming.
Harry went back into the living room and lugged his school bag into the kitchen. He and Dudley had made a habit of doing their summer homework at the kitchen table while Uncle Vernon was at work, and Aunt Petunia hadn't yet objected. She hadn't objected to anything at all, as a matter of fact.
Harry set up his quill and ink, frowning absently. He didn't like the way the house had felt since Aunt Petunia returned. He especially hated it when, like now, Uncle Vernon was at work and Dudley was off doing something with his old gang. Harry stayed inside when Dudley decided to hang out with Polkiss and that lot. Old habits die hard, and Harry didn't want to test the limits of Dudley's decency.
Point being, it was just Harry and Aunt Petunia in the house, and she was still acting sugary sweet and treating Harry like a... like a...
Harry wasn't sure what he was being treated like. He wasn't being treated like the house servant, or an unwanted guest, at least. It was positively disconcerting. Pulling out his books and parchment, he straightened them out and stared down at his own handwriting, feeling his mouth twist.
What really grated at him was the question of why. Why had she come back, out of the blue? Why was she being so kind to Harry? Why was she suddenly okay with Dudley's magic, after she'd said all those awful things in her letter and ignored every attempt at communication from him? Why could Harry practically taste the tension in the house, when he couldn't spot it in anyone else's faces? Was it just Harry? Maybe he'd gotten too used to her being gone. Maybe he was being selfish. Maybe the Dursleys were happy, and Harry just couldn't handle it because of how miserable he'd been, lately.
He straightened his parchment again and nearly tipped the ink all over the table, only saving it at the very last second. Sighing, Harry capped the bottle and rubbed his eyes. The laundry buzzer went off, and Harry got up to take care of it. Once they finished the blackmailing of Skeeter, Harry would feel better. He'd sleep better, at least, without a new pile of nasty letters to sort through every week.
Uncle Vernon called Harry downstairs one day, just as Harry was finishing a letter to Pansy about Skeeter. The group of them had put together a missive for her explaining the situation, and her response had been immediate and grudging. Now was the time to make demands.
Harry signed the note to Pansy and left it to dry while he went downstairs.
Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon were sitting in the front room, reading together. Uncle Vernon had his paper, and Aunt Petunia had one of her novels.
"Did you need something, Uncle Vernon?" Harry asked, leaning on the doorframe. Aunt Petunia beamed at him from her armchair.
"Could you check on the biscuits, Harry?" she asked. "If this batch is done, just put the next sheet in."
"Yes, Aunt Petunia," Harry said, trying to ignore how eerie he found it when she directed a smile at him.
"Lawn'll need mowing in the next few days," Uncle Vernon said, flipping to a new page of his paper. "See that it gets taken care of."
"Yes, sir," Harry agreed. Aunt Petunia stayed out of the yard work, at least.
"And remind Dudders about the dinner tonight, if you see him," Uncle Vernon added. "You should both be dressed and ready by six."
"Yes, sir," Harry repeated, and went into the kitchen to check on the biscuits. Dudley was there, peering into the oven hopefully.
"Biscuits, Harry?" he asked, bouncing up and down a little. "Are they done yet?"
Harry grinned. "Don't know. These are for dessert, anyway."
"I just had lunch," Dudley shrugged. "Lunch can have dessert."
"Hang on." Harry opened the oven and prodded at the biscuits thoughtfully. "Get me an oven glove."
"Yes!" Dudley found the glove and handed it over. "Mum won't notice if one or two are missing."
"Like you thought I wouldn't notice if you ate one of the raw ones?" One of the rows of uncooked biscuits was indeed missing a pile of batter. Dudley was unrepentant.
"I've missed mum's biscuits," he said cheerfully. "Go on, let's have one."
"Don't touch, they're hot," Harry said, tipping them one by one on to the cooling rack. "They'll fall apart, and I'm not getting blamed for the mess." He used the spatula to lever one into Dudley's waiting hands instead.
"Ah, damn," Dudley tossed the biscuit from palm to palm, blowing on it.
"Oh, Uncle Vernon said we need to be ready by six tonight for the dinner," Harry remembered, watching as Dudley stuffed half the biscuit in his mouth at once and chased it with a glass of milk.
"Sure," Dudley said, panting. "I think I just burned the roof of my mouth."
"Oh, Harry-" Aunt Petunia swept into the kitchen and stopped when she saw Dudley. "Dudley, darling, there you are. Your father wants you to be ready for dinner tonight before six, sweetums."
Dudley gave her a nod and a close-lipped smile, which didn't do much to hide the biscuit crumbs on his chin.
"Harry, how is the roast looking?"
Harry put the second sheet of biscuits in the oven and eyed the roast on the middle rack while he was there. "It's been about an hour. Do you want me to add the-"
"No, no, I'll get it." She took the oven glove from him and bent over to look inside herself. "You two run off and play."
"Okay, come on, Harry," Dudley said, heading for the front room. "We should play wizard chess. I'm getting better!"
Harry almost missed it. If he hadn't glanced up at that exact moment, he would have. But he did, and Aunt Petunia's disgust reflected garishly in the oven's stainless steel backsplash.
"Have fun, dear," she called, and her voice betrayed nothing but good cheer. Harry stared for a moment longer at her reflection, calm again as she straightened the rows of biscuits on the cooling rack.
Harry spent a lot of time in his bedroom over the next couple days, sorting through the most recent additions to his letter mountain. Things with Skeeter were going well, and he hoped to be rid of the constant influx of mail soon. In the meantime, he had stopped opening anything from anyone he didn't know. Dudley did the majority of the sorting these days, and Harry read only the ones Dudley marked as not being explicitly hateful, or from an actual friend.
Sifting through a pile of his pre-screened letters, Harry found a note from Blaise. He opened it immediately, hoping for more insight into Skeeter's last letter.
Harry, it said. Pansy and I agree that you've definitely got the advantage right now, and Skeeter knows it. You need to send this out as soon as possible. Your draft is enclosed, along with a few notes...
Blaise detailed a few more suggestions which Harry nodded over, but the next paragraph made him pause.
I don't want to get involved with the situation between you and Draco any more than I have to, so I'm only going to say this once.
Harry scowled, but read on.
Draco asked me to confirm that you've at least been receiving his letters, even if you won't respond. I assumed you were chucking them in the bin, honestly-
Harry glanced at the bin under his desk, which contained at least three letters with the Malfoy crest, unopened.
-but I'm not going to tell Draco that, even if you want me to. He's sorry. He's having screaming fights with his father over you, and he spends most of his time in the floo with Pansy and I. He's miserable. I'm not saying you should forgive him. I'm just asking you to read his bloody letters.
There wasn't much left to Blaise's note, as though he had (correctly) assumed that Harry wouldn't finish it after reading that entreaty. Harry tossed the letter on his bed, where it teetered in a gust from the window and fell on a stack of hateful Slytherin notes. Harry stared at the pile, his face set, and determinedly started rooting through the unopened letters again. He thought he might have one from Sirius. He'd written about the Aunt Petunia situation, and he hoped Sirius would have some insight.
He tossed a bulky envelope into the 'risky' pile in the far corner of the room, and picked up another one. It took him a second to realise what the expensive parchment and elaborate seal meant. Dudley knew better than to put Draco's letters in the 'to read' pile, but he always did it anyway, because he was a prat.
Harry flipped the letter across the room like a frisbee, still feeling unsettled by Blaise's words and too upset to deal with it at the moment. Blaise could make Harry feel guilty for breathing if he wanted to, and Harry didn't want to feel guilty about this. He had every right in the world to not respond to Draco's letters.
Harry rubbed his eyes as the letter sailed through the air on a breeze, straight out the open window. He ran his hand through his hair and stared at the spot where the letter had disappeared.
"Well, damn," he muttered. He couldn't leave it outside in the front garden where anyone could find it.
He stood, plucking Blaise's letter out of the wrong pile and dropping it on his desk next to Stormageddon's cage. His owl hooted at him from his perch, and Harry patted him fondly as he passed on the way to the window.
Ducking his head out, he peered around at the grass below for the square of parchment. It had landed in the neighbor's azaleas. Harry groaned. There would be no getting it later. Privet Drive was a notoriously nosy neighborhood, and next door was a prime example. They'd open it in a heartbeat if they found it.
The Dursleys were all in the front room, watching the telly, so Harry ducked out through the kitchen door and went around. The letter was resting precariously on top of the azalea bush, and the least disruptive way to reach it was through the Dursley's hydrangeas. Harry managed to get to the letter with minimal fuss as the neighbors weren't out and about. Harry was good at crawling through bushes.
He sat under the hydrangeas, flipping the letter over and over in his hands, staring absently at the veins on the underside of the leaves in front of him.
What would reading it do, really? Aside from distressing Harry more? He didn't want to think about Draco at all. It inevitably led to thinking about Draco's father, and what he'd said in the graveyard, which was awful enough, but then that led to thinking about what had happened in the graveyard, and that led to worse nightmares than usual. The articles in the Prophet and the resultant mail were bad enough. Harry didn't want to think about any of it. Avoiding Draco, who had rejected him months and months ago anyway, was the best way to do that.
On the way back inside, Harry tossed the letter in the bin.
Harry's birthday started out well. He got a letter from Skeeter, acquiescing to his demands (one year without publishing anything, in return for Harry's silence). There were also letters and presents from Neville, Hermione, Pansy, Blaise, Luna, Anthony, and even the Weasleys. The letter from the Weasleys seemed to mostly be from Fred and George, who also enclosed a small box of pranks, though Ron was noted as wishing him a happy birthday too. The closing was somewhat ominous: 'See you very very soon!'
Harry received a letter from Sirius and Remus as well, which instantly made Fred and George's letter less alarming. It was an invitation for him (and Dudley, if he was allowed) to come visit in two weeks' time. Sirius owned a house in London, and the group that supported Dumbledore and believed Harry (or believed that Dumbledore believed Harry, to Harry's reckoning) was using it as a headquarters. The Weasleys would undoubtedly be there as well, judging by the twins' letter.
Also enclosed was a package, which, according to Sirius, Remus had not allowed him to withhold in the hopes of further encouraging Harry to visit, because, "Remus has no sense of fun."
Harry penned a note back immediately, thanking Sirius and Remus for the invitation and the Kestrels poster, which was signed by Aidan Kiely, the Seeker. There was another note attached to the poster, promising that next time they went to a game, Harry could come too instead of just getting a souvenir, though he saw absolutely nothing wrong with his present. He grinned over it and decided not to hang it up just yet, as he'd hopefully be on his way to London soon anyway.
"We've been invited to visit, er, the Weasleys," Harry told Dudley over breakfast, stumbling when he remembered Uncle Vernon's feelings about convict godfathers. "In two weeks, actually. They're staying in London."
Dudley made a thoughtful face over his kippers. "Maybe," he said. Harry gaped at him. "No, I mean, you should go for sure if you want," Dudley added. "But I don't know if I will. Mum only just got back." He smiled at her, and she responded without missing a beat. The more Harry thought about it, the more he wasn't sure what he'd seen in the kitchen that day. Maybe it really was all in his head.
"I don't want to keep you from your friends, darling," Aunt Petunia said. "You should go if you want to."
"No," Dudley said decisively. "I'll stay. Have fun, Harry!"
After breakfast, Harry finished and sent off his letter to Sirius. He also penned a few letters to his friends, thanking them for his presents. In fact, the day continued on in an almost idyllic fashion, at least until he went out into the back garden after lunch.
Chapter 3: The Trainwreck
It was later on in the garden when things took a turn for the worse.
Harry was sitting on the bench, idly watching the birds as Aunt Petunia selected some flowers for the front room. It was a nice day out, and Harry was enjoying the fact that it really had been a good birthday so far. Dudley had even convinced Aunt Petunia to bake Harry a cake, which was possibly the most surreal thing that had happened since the summer began. It wasn't that Dudley wanted Harry to have cake. Cake was cake to Dudley's eye, and anyway, Dudley had instigated birthday celebrations for Harry since they started at Hogwarts together. What was weird was how easily Aunt Petunia had acquiesced.
Harry still couldn't get used to this new dynamic, but just for today, he decided not to worry about it.
As Harry chewed on these thoughts, an owl came winging over the rooftops with a letter in its beak. It alighted on the stone bench next to Harry and dropped the letter in his lap with a hoot, then shifted, staring around the garden.
Harry frowned at the letter, wondering what it could be. Usually the angry letters came in multitudes, and in response to something in the paper. There had been no particularly incendiary articles about Harry lately, especially not today, and especially not since Harry explained the situation to Skeeter.
There wasn't a sender marked on the parchment, and there was no seal. Harry flipped it over once, frowned at it, and decided to risk it.
Harry, it said. I wanted to wish you a happy birthday, even if you don't want to hear from me. I'm really sorry, I-
Harry crumpled the parchment up, good mood ruined. It was obvious from the handwriting who it was from, even if Harry hadn't read a word. He swallowed hard and tossed the parchment in the grass in front of him, slumping down in his seat and crossing his arms. He had hoped he wouldn't have to have to think about all that today. He hadn't even had a nightmare last night. He considered getting up and leaving the parchment there in the grass, but before he could make a decision, his thoughts were interrupted by a shout.
"Oh Lord!" Aunt Petunia had turned away from her gardening and spotted the owl, dropping her flowers. She stepped back into the flower bed and crushed a patch of daisies, but she hardly noticed. Her hand was pressed to her heart and just for a second, her expression was filled with distress and a small measure of the disgust Harry had seen in the kitchen a couple weeks ago. "Get it away, " she said to Harry, waving her scissors at the bird.
Harry stood up and waved the bird away with a hand, staring at Aunt Petunia with narrowed eyes. She was grimacing and picking up her flowers now, trying to arrange them to avoid further bruising.
"What was that?" Harry asked, taking a step forward. She smiled up at him, suddenly calm again.
"It caught me by surprise, dear, that's all. Don't leave that paper on the ground when you go inside."
Harry glared down at the letter from Draco, then back up at Aunt Petunia. "You still hate it all, don't you? You still can't stand Dudley because he has magic. I've seen how you look at him when you think no one's watching."
Aunt Petunia's face fell, and she stared down at her flowers silently, jaw tight. Harry felt himself getting angry.
"Why are you even here?" Harry asked, taking another step toward her. "If you can't even deal with an owl, if you think Dudley's a freak, then why would you come back to-"
"I don't think he's a freak," Aunt Petunia said, and now the distress was back, worse than before. "He's my son. I love him."
Harry scoffed. "You've been treating mebetter than him, since you got here."
"I love him," Aunt Petunia repeated, in a stronger voice. "I do. That's why I came back. I'm worried for him."
"Why?" Harry asked. "Why now? Why not when he was sending you all those letters, or in second year when he had that stupid journal, or-"
"He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named hadn't returned then!" Aunt Petunia exclaimed in a shrill voice. She clutched her flowers closer, mouth pinched. Harry stared at her.
"How would you know about that?" he asked.
"I know how to listen," she said, grimacing. "And I know the signs. Lily always used to say you had to read between the lines when it came to the wizarding world."
Harry rubbed his forehead. The casual mention of his mother was almost as baffling as the rest.
"It isn't safe anymore," she continued, wrapping her arms around herself. "That... that man wrote us a letter when he left you on our doorstep. He said that if I was here, if Lily's blood was here to protect you, then this house would be safe."
"Dudley has our blood too," Harry said, watching her. "In fact, Dumbledore updated the wards. We don't need you here anymore."
Aunt Petunia's shoulders stiffened, and her hands tightened around her upper arms. She wouldn't meet his eye.
"You came back because you were afraid for yourself," Harry accused. He felt sick, suddenly. "You weren't worried about any of us. You weren't worried about Dudley."
"I love my son," Petunia repeated, lifting her chin. "I love my family."
"Sure," Harry said. "But not enough to be anywhere near them unless you knew it was the only way out of danger."
Aunt Petunia fell silent, still shaking her head. Harry turned away in disgust and crossed the garden to the back door.
"Please don't say those things to Vernon or Dudley," she said, before he could even touch the handle. "I don't want you to hurt them with this."
"You just don't want them to boot you out," Harry said, scowling. She looked at him beseechingly, arms still wrapped around her torso, and Harry relented a bit. "Fine, I won't say anything for now. But I think you're awful."
He slammed the door as he went inside, and spent the rest of the day in his room, fuming. When Dudley managed to force him downstairs later that night for cake, he and Aunt Petunia could hardly look at each other.
Harry couldn't wait until it was time to leave for London.
The tension Harry had noticed before his birthday became positively tangible after that, especially when he and aunt Petunia were in the same room. At least Harry wasn't the only one who felt it anymore.
Dudley was spending as much time as he could with his mother now that she'd returned. They were always watching the telly or going to the shops together, where she would buy him video games and fashionable new muggle clothing. It was rare that Dudley's old gang managed to drag him away, though aunt Petunia encouraged him to go play with his friends just like she used to before she left.
She seemed genuine when it was just her and Dudley, and Harry felt himself faltering sometimes. Maybe he was wrong. Or at the very least, maybe he'd been too harsh. She might really be trying to get over her fears.
Harry broke down about a week after his birthday, and decided he needed to get away from Number Four for a couple hours. The embargo on leaving the house for extended periods would still allow him a trip to the park for a while. As he walked into the kitchen for a glass of water, he heard the sounds of Dudley and Aunt Petunia in the dining room, playing Scrabble.
"Crup," Dudley said proudly over the clacking of his tiles. Harry raised his eyebrows and slowed down as he passed the doorway. Aunt Petunia was blinking at the board, her expression conflicted and uncomfortable, as though she knew she'd regret asking. He left them to it, striding past the dining room and out the front door, determined to let aunt Petunia sink or swim on her own.
He stayed at the park, just enjoying the fresh air and the quiet until the sun touched the top of the trees and until Dudley came looking for him.
"You've been out for a while-" he began, leaning on the back of Harry's bench. Harry sighed and stood up.
"I know. I just wanted some quiet. Let's go."
They set off for Number Four together, watching the windows flash orange as the sun set behind them.
"Mum and I are going to London next week," Dudley said. "I reckon if you can go visit your godfather, I can leave too, right?"
"Makes sense," Harry agreed, rubbing his arms. It was getting chilly out rapidly, with the sun setting. "What are you going to do?"
Dudley launched into a detailed description of his plans, which mostly involved spending a lot of money, from what Harry could tell. It all sounded pretty bland, and Harry couldn't help but wish he was anywhere but Privet Drive, with anyone but aunt Petunia and uncle Vernon and Dudley. He wished his parents were still alive. He wished Draco's family wasn't ready to kill him at the slightest provocation. He wished...
They had just turned the corner at Privet Drive and Cypress Court when they realized the danger.
Harry was kicking a rock in front of him and nodding occasionally at Dudley's monologue, so Dudley spotted it first. Grabbing Harry's arm, he cut himself off mid sentence.
They sun had set behind the houses already, and the pinks and purples were already draining out of the sky. Harry had to squint through the gathering darkness to see what Dudley was pointing at. It was a hooded figure, and it had just left Magnolia Crescent a couple streets away from them and turned in their direction.
"Dudley." Harry suddenly noticed the seizing cold in his chest and grabbed Dudley's sleeve so that they were gripping each other. He pulled Dudley toward the houses. "We don't want to find out, trust me. Come on."
Dudley followed dutifully, and Harry's mind clattered through ideas as they jogged back to Number Four. The cold, the dark thoughts, the hooded figure. It couldn't be. What would a dementor be doing on Privet Drive?
"Harry!" Dudley, who had been glancing back at the hooded figure as they moved, had caught on, and his voice was hushed with terror. "Harry, it's a dementor!"
Harry pulled out his wand, watching Dudley do the same with shaking hands. "Dudley, run."
Dudley's eye caught on Harry's wand. "You have to run too!"
Rolling his eyes, Harry grabbed Dudley's wrist again and pulled him along at a much faster speed, ignoring the way his breath caught in his chest and the white cloud of exhale as he spat out, "Obviously!"
Together they fled for Number Four, sprinting flat out. As they neared the house, Harry saw aunt Petunia on the front porch, putting out the milk bottles.
She had already spotted them tearing toward her with their wands out. Her reaction wasn't encouraging. Having straightened up and put a hand to her mouth, she backed through the front door and gripped the wood tightly.
"Aunt Petunia," Harry called, and that seemed to do it for her. She slammed the door on them as they reached the garden gate. Harry yelled her name again and hit the door full on, pounding on it with his fists. Dudley arrived behind him a second later and tried the handle, to no avail.
"Mum, let us in! It's us, please!"
"Aunt Petunia, hurry!"
Harry glanced behind him and saw the dementor flying past Number Two toward them. He turned and hammered on the door again.
"Let us in! Aunt Petunia, let us IN! It's an emergency!"
The door opened to reveal Uncle Vernon, frowning down at them. "What-"
Harry and Dudley shoved past him and slammed the door shut. Dudley locked it and ran over to the window to check that the dementor really couldn'tget past the wards while Harry made a beeline for the phone.
"What's going on?" Uncle Vernon demanded. Dudley turned away from the window to explain.
"Hermione!" Harry swallowed and lowered his voice. "Hermione, we need help!"
"Harry? What's happened? Are you alright?"
"No! There's a dementor here. At Privet Drive! What do I do?"
"Dementors, dad!" Dudley cried when uncle Vernon persisted in his questioning. "They're huge, cloaked, floating monsters that make everything cold and awful and if one catches you, it takes away all your happy memories and then sucks out your soul, and there's one outside right now!"
Uncle Vernon's skeptical bluster in response died quickly when he realized even Aunt Petunia seemed scared.
The silence on the other end of the line wasn't encouraging. Harry glanced out the window and couldn't see the dementor. "Contact the Aurors," she said finally. "The spell for emergencies is adiumentum, cast it out a window if you can."
Harry ran to the back of the house and opened the window onto the back garden. "Adiumentum," he cried. Silver sparks flew from his wand and rushed into the sky, disappearing almost instantly. Uncle Vernon shouted something indistinctly from the front hall, but Harry ignored him.
Harry shut the window firmly and went back into the living room to pick up the phone.
"You're supposed to get a response soon," Hermione said. "Then you can-"
"Department of Magical Law Enforcement, what is your emergency?"
Harry dropped the phone and stared around the room for the source of the voice. "H-hello?"
"What is your emergency, sir?"
Harry rallied, still searching the room. "There's a dementor outside our house! In a muggle area!"
"A dementor?" The woman sounded highly skeptical.
"Yes," Harry said, finally spotting a hazy reflection in the mirror over the fireplace. Uncle Vernon had come into the room and was watching the process with an unreadable expression. Aunt Petunia was still in the front hall, not having moved since Harry and Dudley burst into the house.
The woman sighed. "The fine for fraudulent reports is fifty galleons, sir. What is your address?"
"I'm not lying!" Harry responded, annoyed. He gave the woman the address, and her reflection vanished from the mirror after advising him to stay inside.
"What's going on?" Uncle Vernon demanded, once he was certain Harry was finished speaking to the decor. Dudley answered for him.
"There was a dementor outside, Dad!" he repeated. "Harry called our police to send help!"
Harry peered through the netting, and though he couldn't see the dementor anymore, the chill in the air and the faint fog around the house was still alarmingly present. Having followed Harry to the window, Uncle Vernon huffed. "I don't see anything," he said.
"We're not making this up," Harry repeated, and glanced back at Dudley for confirmation just in time to see Aunt Petunia sidle past the door toward the kitchen. Anger boiled up in his chest. "And aunt Petunia slammed the door in our faces! We could have been Kissed!"
Aunt Petunia froze, and Dudley chimed in. "Mum, why'd you lock us out?"
"I, I didn't realize it was you, darling," she said, grasping the door frame. "It was dark. You were running and pointing something at me and I thought you were burglars."
"Burglars who call you 'mum' and 'aunt Petunia'?" Harry offered, glaring. She flinched.
"I saw the dementor," she explained, rubbing her arms, an anguished expression on her face. "I panicked!" She turned to Dudley. "I'm so sorry, darling."
Dudley, in an infuriating twist, seemed ready to accept his mother's story. Uncle Vernon looked moments away from sitting her down with a cup of tea. Harry piped up again.
"What did it look like?" Everyone turned to stare at him. "The dementor, I mean," he said, resisting the urge to take a step back. Even Dudley looked irritated at the question.
"It was enormous," she said after a brief pause. "It floated and it was wearing a long cloak. It was terrifying, and I'd rather not think about it any longer."
A knock on the door saved her from just that, as Harry was still skeptical.
He and Dudley pulled out their wands and peered through the glass to investigate. A tall, broad man stood waiting patiently on the step, and tipped Harry a nod and a solemn smile when he noticed him looking.
"Kingsley Shacklebolt," he said by way of introduction, once Harry opened the door. "I was sent by the Auror office to investigate a dementor sighting." He folded his hands in front of him and leaned forward slightly. "I was also sent by Dumbledore to find out what happened to your usual guard."
Harry leaned his head to the right to look past Shacklebolt at the street.
"The dementor was gone even before I arrived," Shacklebolt explained. "Although there is no doubt at least one was present here tonight. Alerting the Aurors was the right thing to do."
Harry sighed, leaning against the door frame in his relief.
"What guard?" Dudley asked, also looking better for the news that the dementor had left. "Who was supposed to be here?"
"That would be Mungdungus Fletcher," Shacklebolt said. "Not that it's especially surprising that he's wandered off. He was never our most reliable person."
"So what happens now?" Harry asked, straightening up. "Er, you can come inside if you want."
Shacklebolt stepped through the doorway with another nod, pulling out his wand. "Now I check that your wards are stable and, assuming everything is in order, we come back to bring you to London in a couple days. We'll be investigating the dementor presence in Little Whinging as well, but I should have all I need from this side of things."
Aunt Petunia had disappeared into the kitchen at the knock on the door, and returned now with the tea service. "Thank you for coming," she said, setting the service down in the front room. "If you aren't in too much of a -"
She faltered upon getting a good look at Shacklebolt in the light. "- a... a hurry..."
She had a very strange expression on her face: one part slack surprise, one part budding anger, and two parts disbelief.
Shacklebolt's smile was apologetic. "I'm afraid I am in a hurry, but thank you for the offer," he said, and looked away, raising his wand and going about his work.
Aunt Petunia rallied admirably, her face taking on a polite, almost blank expression. "Of course, how silly of me," she said. "What did you say your name was again, sir? Was it Kenneth?"
Shacklebolt actually seemed uncomfortable. He had his back to her as he moved around the room, checking the wards. "Kingsley, actually, ma'am," he said.
"Oh, of course," Aunt Petunia trilled, putting a hand to her throat and laughing. Harry, Dudley, and uncle Vernon watched the exchange in silence, and Harry, at least, was fascinated. He'd heard his aunt fake laughter before, but this almost sounded more like she had broken glass in her throat. "My mistake. I suppose I met someone else by that name recently. You must remind me of him."
Shacklebolt was definitely avoiding eye contact, Harry realized suddenly. He was moving around the house, facing the walls the whole time, only acknowledging aunt Petunia's comments through nods.
"I should check the wards outside," Shacklebolt said, having moved through the entire downstairs, followed the whole time by the Dursleys and Harry. Uncle Vernon, at least, didn't seem to trust a stranger to wave a wand around in his house without supervision, as he'd followed Shacklebolt closely and suspiciously throughout the whole process. Harry didn't know about Dudley, but personally, he just wanted to know what aunt Petunia was so worked up about. "You should probably all stay in here, just to be safe," Shacklebolt recommended, and quickly closed the back door behind him.
"Petunia," Uncle Vernon said after a moment. "Who was that?"
So it wasn't just Harry who was curious. Good.
Aunt Petunia seemed more stressed than usual, which was saying something lately. "Just the policeman, Vernon, you heard Harry call for help." She gave him a very plastic smile and opened the door. "I just have a question or two for him. You should all stay in here, like he said. I'll be but a moment!"
Harry's eyebrows shot up on his forehead. "That wasn't suspicious at all," he said, and received identical glares from Dudley and uncle Vernon for his trouble.
Uncle Vernon paced the kitchen restlessly, several times making aborted moves toward the doorway before stopping himself. Harry had never seen his uncle so uncertain. A shout from the back garden seemed to clinch it for him, and an expression of relief crossed his face before the more familiar puce of anger descended and he rushed out the door, snapping, "Stay here," over his shoulder as he went.
Harry and Dudley immediately scrambled to find a good vantage point from the windows.
"You lied to me!" Aunt Petunia was saying to Shacklebolt, who wasn't saying anything. In fact, aunt Petunia's carrying on was attracting neighbourly notice. Harry and Dudley weren't the only ones hanging out a window hoping for an earful. Shacklebolt had been forced to stop checking the wards, even, because of all the muggle attention.
"Petunia," Uncle Vernon said, staring at Shacklebolt with hard, piggy eyes. Harry and Dudley leaned further out the window to get a better view. "Who is this man?"
Shacklebolt stood in front of Harry's aunt and uncle, impatience beginning to push the embarrassment from his face.
"I am the man who is trying to ensure your family's safety," he said briskly, interrupting aunt Petunia's reply. "If I can be allowed to finish my job with no further distractions, that is. This is a discussion for later."
He managed to shoo them both back inside with an impressively small number of objections, mostly, it seemed, because his words caused aunt Petunia's ire to deflate completely.
Harry and Dudley exchanged a glance and hurried away from the window before they could be caught.
Once inside, aunt Petunia was quiet and withdrawn.
"Petunia." Uncle Vernon had not been anywhere near as cowed by the Auror as Petunia. In fact, he sounded more angry than before, since his question had now gone unanswered twice. "Who. Is. That. Man?"
"He's," she swallowed and wrapped her arms around her abdomen. "He's the man who made me realize I needed to come home," Petunia admitted, refusing to meet uncle Vernon's eyes.
Chapter 4: The Headquarters
The aunt Petunia fiasco, as Harry privately called it, did not improve in the days before Harry left for London. In fact, from Harry's perspective, things only became increasingly pear shaped.
Aunt Petunia's vague proclamation with regards to Shacklebolt only made her a more sympathetic figure to Dudley, who had gotten it into his head that Shacklebolt had somehow inadvertently saved his family by trying to seduce his mother while disguised as a muggle. His feelings about his mother were solid. His opinion on Shacklebolt, however, tended to vary.
Uncle Vernon, from what Harry could gather through his frequent and shameless eavesdropping sessions, was now far less concerned with why aunt Petunia had come home, and far more concerned with fixing both his marriage and his reputation in the neighbourhood.
Harry knew that if he said anything now, when everyone was so happy and relieved to be a family again, he'd be perceived as a vindictive liar who was trying to spoil everything. More to the point, he'd become the outsider again.
He tried hard not to bristle when he and aunt Petunia were in same room, and counted the days until he could leave. On the morning of his departure, he and Dudley said their goodbyes, and Harry spent the morning in his room, making extra sure he hadn't forgotten to pack anything.
The letters had died down to the point where Harry was able to see almost all of his bedroom floor, and even those piles were dwindling as they finished sorting. He binned most of them and stuffed the more significant letters into a shoebox, which he had packed in his trunk (which he'd packed into his expandable box, which he'd packed into a satchel) in preparation for his trip to London.
When the doorbell rang, Harry was already waiting in the hallway, ready with his bag and buckets of anticipation. He opened the door and grinned at Remus, who stood unassumingly on the doorstep holding one end of a leash. Harry's grin widened as Sirius whined low in his throat and nudged Harry's knee in greeting.
"I'm leaving, bye!" Harry called, shutting the door behind him and turning to Remus. "We're not driving again, are we?"
Remus smiled. "No, I'm afraid not. It's good to see you, Harry."
"Good to see you too," Harry said, scratching Sirius' ears and taking a deep breath of the summer air. "If we're not driving, how are we getting there?"
"We'll be using muggle transportation," Remus said as they strolled through the neighborhood. "Not exactly secure, but precautions have been taken, and it's unlikely that any of the more... unsavory characters looking for us will know how to navigate the Underground."
"Right," Harry said. "So we're taking a train to London? Because the Underground doesn't run in Surrey."
Remus blinked. "Well, obviously," he said, recovering admirably. "We'll just apparate and go from there."
They had strolled into the park near Privet Drive, and Remus let Sirius off his leash. He barked joyfully and dashed off into the foliage. Harry and Remus kept walking.
"What kind of precautions?" Harry asked as they passed a large bush, ignoring the rustling and swearing coming from its depths. Remus folded up the leash and stuck it in the pocket of his tweed coat.
"Well, if you look closely, you'll notice the many and varied disguises of your guard, for one thing," Sirius said in an undertone, having freed himself from the bush with an impressive amount of nonchalance. He straightened his waistcoat and plucked a leaf from his hair. "For example, my disguise is that of an unassuming business man, out for a walk on his lunch."
"He insisted," Remus said, smiling despite the longsuffering tone in his voice. "He even researched his role."
"It's a good disguise," Harry said, nodding with approval. "Except there's no reason for a businessman to be taking a walk in a child's park in the middle of Little Whinging. The dragonhide boots are also kind of a giveaway."
"The dog was a better disguise," Remus agreed. "At least until we get to London."
"Bugger that," Sirius said, slinging an arm around Harry's shoulder. "I'm not an animal, Remus. I have a heart, just like you and Harry. When you cut me, I bleed."
"When you cut dogs, they bleed," Harry said. "And no one notices them then, either."
"Shut up, Harry," Sirius said, grinning. "I hate leashes."
Apparating went as planned, and soon they were riding the tube all over London.
"We can't go straight to our destination," Sirius said. "It's Unplottable, among other things, but we'd rather no one even be aware of the general area."
Harry spotted a blind man at the first station. He wouldn't have looked twice, except for the obvious limp and the chunk of nose missing under his dark glasses.
"Is that Moody?" Harry whispered as they boarded. "The real one, I mean?"
"Good eye, Harry," Sirius said, clapping him on the shoulder. "Don't be too obvious about looking."
They played a subtle game of 'spot the wizard' until they had ridden almost every line, and were on their way back to the heart of London. According to Sirius, there were still a couple people Harry had yet to notice.
"The man in the trenchcoat," Harry muttered, swaying toward Sirius with the movement of the train and glancing toward the man in question. "He's wearing pink Wellingtons."
Sirius peered in the direction Harry had indicated, frowning. "Remus?"
Remus looked as well, and Harry realized suddenly that Remus and Sirius were both gripping their wands.
"Not one of ours," Remus confirmed. "Next stop."
They exited the train calmly, and boarded the next arrival. The man hadn't followed them.
"Kingsley saw him," Sirius said as Harry and Remus peered at the map, trying to figure out where their detour was taking them. "He's taking care of it."
"We're still going in the right direction," Remus announced, after Harry found their location. "We'll be there soon."
"Thank Merlin," Sirius said. "We should just duck into a loo and apparate the rest of the way."
"We have to wait for-"
"I know, I know," Sirius grumbled. The train stopped, and a woman tripped through the doors and jostled Remus.
"Wotcher," she said, grinning. Harry had spotted her three lines ago, due to her vivid pink hair and complete inability to deal with the movement of the train without falling over. The hair was dull brown now, but she was otherwise still mostly recognisable. "Kingsley says all clear. We're going direct at the next stop."
"Finally," Sirius said, grabbing the woman's arm to steady her as the train started moving again. "Give him the key, Tonks."
She passed a small roll of parchment to Harry, who opened it and read 'The Headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix is located at Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place.'
They arrived at Grimmauld Place by midafternoon. It was a dreary looking townhouse on the outside, and the postwoman walked right past without seeming to notice it, her eyes slipping easily from eleven to thirteen.
"It's an old family place," Sirius said as they approached the front door. "The Noble and Most Ancient House of Black. I lived here when I was a kid. Hated every second."
Inside, the first thing Harry noticed was the troll leg they were using as an umbrella stand. There was a portrait on the wall, currently spitting invective at nothing in particular, though when she saw Sirius, her volume and focus increased.
"Shut up, you old bat," Sirius shouted over the noise, and used his wand to pull the curtains that framed her closed. "The Order is remodeling," he told Harry as they walked down the narrow, dusty hall toward a door. "It's a work in progress."
Sirius and Remus led Harry through the house, pointing out various rooms and objects of interest.
"That was my grandmother's favourite house elf," Sirius said as they passed the stairs. There was a whole row of stuffed house elf heads lining the staircase, but Sirius was pointing only at the one closest to them, so Harry tried very hard not to look at the rest.
"The House of Black has some very archaic traditions," Remus explained apologetically when Harry turned to him for an explanation. "They're a very old pureblood family."
Harry decided to ask Pansy in his next letter if her family stuffed house elves when they died. It seemed like there was no way he wouldn't get an interesting response. Their tour soon ended in the basement kitchen, where two of the Weasleys were having tea.
"Oh, you must be Harry!" This was obviously Mrs. Weasley. She stood up and beamed at him. "It's so good to finally meet you, we hear so much about you from the boys, you know! Have a seat, I'll get you a cuppa. You boys have a seat, too, you must be tired from your trip."
Harry sat down next to the youngest Weasley, the girl. He knew her name. Ron had told him her name before. It started with a G, he was almost positive. Harry hated when this happened; it was very awkward.
"Hi," he said, smiling at her and hoping to fake his way through. She blushed and smiled back. Remus sat down across from them, looking over their shoulder to where Sirius and Mrs. Weasley had struck up an intense debate that seemed to be about the house itself.
"Hello," she said, and paused briefly. "How has your holiday been?"
"Alright, aside from the dementor attack," Harry said with a shrug. "Yours?"
Her eyes widened and Harry realized she might not have heard about that. Hastily, he added, "We were fine once we got behind the wards, really."
Mrs. Weasley bustled past, setting down a jug of milk and a mug of tea for Harry. "I understand, Sirius, but it is safer here at headquarters - why do you think we're here? Ginny, get the sugar, would you?"
Harry hid his relief and looked up as the kitchen door opened. It was the Headmaster and another man with a long beard.
"Mr. Potter!" the man exclaimed, "I see you've arrived safely. So good to meet you at last, my boy. I don't care what the Prophet says, if Dumbledore trusts you, that's good enough for me!"
"Thank you, Dedalus," Dumbledore said, smiling. "Molly, I'll have a cup if you've made a pot. How was your trip, Mr. Potter?"
"It was alright," Harry said, fiddling with his tea. "The Tube was fun."
"Albus, we have to talk," Sirius said, and all the energy he'd been focusing on his argument with Mrs. Weasley turned toward the Headmaster instead. "I see no reason why Devon-"
"Sirius, we have discussed this many times," Dumbledore said patiently, and the two of them plus Dedalus took a seat at the table, arguing. Harry and Ginny exchanged glances.
"Hey, Harry," she said suddenly. "You should see the library here. It's really great."
"Wow, yeah," Harry said, suppressing a smile. "I love libraries. Let's go see that."
They got up and left the kitchen together. Harry grinned at her as the door closed behind them. "Sirius has been trying for weeks to convince Remus and Professor Dumbledore to let me stay in Devon for part of the visit," Harry said, rolling his eyes. "Apparently the house with the detatched body parts lying around is safer."
Ginny giggled. "Imagine going downstairs for a glass of milk in the middle of the night and running into one of the heads in the dark," she said. "It's not pleasant."
Harry made a face and resolved to be extra careful.
"Who else is staying here?" Harry asked as they climbed the stairs.
"Well, all of us, of course," Ginny said. "And Hermione, and there are some Order members coming and going at random. Sometimes Snape is here, too," she offered, though she made a face when she said it.
"Snape?" Harry asked, his full attention caught. "I haven't heard anything about him since... the end of term. Do you think he'll be around soon?"
"He's not here often," she told him. "He only visits- FRED! GEORGE! I TOLD YOU TO STOP IT!"
Harry stumbled back against the wall, startled badly by her sudden outburst. She had made a fist in the air and was yelling into it. Harry looked closer and realized there was a string dangling in her grip; she proceeded to yank on it, hard.
"How are we supposed to become successful businessmen if you shatter our eardrums?"
"If you don't stop eavesdropping on my conversations, you'll be lucky to graduate from Hogwarts," Ginny said, glaring at the twins who had just materialized at the top of the steps.
"But Ginny, we never talk anymore!"
The twins assumed wounded expressions as Harry and Ginny reached the top of the steps. "We can feel the emptiness in our hearts where your presence once lingered." Fred clutched at his chest and waved his other hand through the air erratically.
"If this, this madness, is the only way to be near our dearest sister-"
George bowed his head. "Then we will do whatever it takes."
Harry glanced at Ginny. She wasn't buying it, and was, in fact, opening her mouth to say so. Fred interrupted.
"Harry! Good to see you again, old chum!"
"We simply must catch up," George informed him, grabbing one of his arms. "We hear you're an evil dark wizard these days?"
Fred grabbed the other. "Would you say that's a profitable line of work?"
Harry wrinkled his nose. "Not especially."
"Ah, but you aren't experiencing an economic downturn in the House of Potter, are you?"
"They've been trying to raise money to fund their line of pranks," Hermione explained half an hour later, having discovered Harry surrounded by Weasleys in a hallway and done the proper thing, which was to whisk him away and give him a chance to sit down. "They tried to talk my father into investing when we met them in Diagon Alley a few weeks ago. Weasley Wizarding Wheezes."
"They're doing a pretty good job, though," Harry said, sitting cross legged on his new bed. "Did you see those ears they made?"
"I see them all the time," Hermione said with a foreboding expression to match her tone. Harry was sharing a room with Ron, and she had propped herself up against the footboard. "And I feed them to Crookshanks when I do. If they didn't want their merchandise ruined, they wouldn't spend all their time spying on people who have half a brain."
"It's beta testing, Hermione!" One of the twins called this to them from outside the door. "If the people with more than half a brain can't spot them, then everyone else won't be able to either!"
Hermione stood up and stared around at the floor, finally finding and stomping on the offending ear, which had been skittering toward the door in a belated bid for escape.
"Ow," the other twin said. The ear was tugged under the crack at the bottom of the door, and Hermione huffed.
"As I was saying," she said, sitting back down on the bed and rolling her eyes. "They're a complete menace."
Harry didn't end up seeing Snape at Grimmauld Place for several days. They didn't cross paths at all until a particularly upsetting nightmare had Harry carefully navigating in the dark to the kitchen and sitting down with some tea in the middle of the night, when Snape happened to floo in. His arrival startled Harry out of helplessly morbid thoughts about the last sounds Karkaroff had made before he died, and he nearly upset his tea.
"Mr. Potter," Snape said, unsurprised.
"Professor Snape," Harry said, eyeing him carefully. He looked fine. All seemed to be in order. "How are you?"
"As well as can be expected," Snape said, moving further into the room and removing his cloak. "And you?"
Harry wrapped his hands around his mug and shrugged, turning his thoughts determinedly away from darker things. "Things have been pretty eventful. My aunt came back."
Snape didn't respond immediately, but Harry continued anyway. "Dudley's thrilled, but she's only back because she's scared. I'm almost positive."
"Have you been practicing your Occlumency?" Snape asked. Harry glanced up at him, then back down at his tea.
"Yeah," he said. "And it does help. I don't have nearly as many nightmares when I practice before bed." He paused, looking at nothing in particular. "I just don't know what to say to Dudley, or if I should say anything at all."
Snape raised an eyebrow, and Harry ducked his head and sighed.
"Yeah," he said. "I probably shouldn't do anything unless I know it won't make things worse. I don't like it, though."
"That is rarely relevant in these matters," Snape said. "I have business to attend to, but we will speak soon about your progress."
"Yes, sir," Harry said. Snape had given him a thick book on Legilimency before the end of term and his disappearance, and Harry was glad to know he'd been right to assume that he should have been reading it during break. He hated doing unnecessary schoolwork.
"See that you get some sleep, Mr. Potter."
"What do the burn marks mean?"
Harry and Sirius were in the drawing room, taking advantage of a bit of free time to hide from Molly Weasley, who had taken charge of sprucing up Grimmauld Place and didn't take no for an answer. Harry ran his fingers down the lineages of the Black family tree, pausing at familiar surnames. There were a lot of them. Even Neville was related to the Blacks.
"Family members who brought shame on the House of Black by being decent human beings," Sirius said. He pointed to one of the scorch marks in the most recent generation. "That's mine."
Harry paused, debating whether he should ask, but Sirius was already continuing.
"Being sorted into Gryffindor was bad enough," Sirius said, not without pride. "But the last straw was when I ran away and moved in with your father and his family," he said. "Dorea and Charlus would have been disowned too, if my mother had known I went to them." Harry let his hand trail over the tree to where his grandparents were indicated. The tree didn't go into detail when the family member took another name, but it wasn't hard to guess who 'one son' meant.
"Uncle Alphard went down with me," Sirius said with a grin, pointing out another scorch mark. "He gave me a bit of money. My mother didn't appreciate that at all."
"Who are the rest?" Harry asked. "What did they do?"
"Well, my cousin Andromeda married a muggleborn," Sirius said. "You've met her daughter. She doesn't even seem to be on here... Tonks, I mean. The Metamorphagus."
Harry grinned. "So that turned out alright," he said. He liked Tonks. She had helped even the playing field yesterday when Fred and George took advantage of being allowed to use magic outside Hogwarts to make Harry's bacon try to bargain for its life at breakfast. Her pig snout was sensational, as was her persistence in chasing them down and giving each of them one of their own.
"Without a doubt," Sirius agreed, looking for another burn mark. "Cedrella almost had it worse than Andromeda, from the stories. She married a Weasley." Sirius pointed out a mark a couple generations up.
"You're even related to the Weasleys?" Harry asked. A scuffling noise at the door had them both looking up.
"All the pureblood families are interrelated," Sirius said, peering with worry at the half open door and lowering his voice. "Molly's my cousin by marriage, and Arthur's a second cousin or something like it."
"We're related?" Ron asked with interest, pushing the door open further and balancing a box of dusty antique pottery against the frame. "That's fascinating. Tell me more."
"You should know this, Ron," Sirius said, relaxing now that he knew he wasn't about to be forced into some elaborate doxy extermination scheme, like yesterday. "Your family follows their own bloodline as closely as the rest of us, even if you don't mind a bit of mixing now and then."
Ron set his box down on the floor and closed the door carefully behind him. "Well, yeah." He rubbed the back of his neck. "But I'd much rather be in here learning about how the Weasleys are blood traitors than out there polishing candelabras."
"Fair enough. You're in good company." Sirius waved him over to where he and Harry were leaning against a table, examining the tapestry together. "All the blood traitors in the Black family for the last couple centuries have been muggle lovers or Gryffindor lovers."
"Or squibs," Ron said. "Right?"
Sirius peered at the family tree and stabbed his finger at another burn mark. "Or squibs, that's right. You'd think they'd disown people for things like unhealthy obsessions with death-" He pointed at three or four different names with a bitter twist to his mouth, "Or sheep-" His finger prodded at the name of one of the unmarried men of an older generation, "Or even kleptomania-" Harry was surprised to see him point at one of the Longbottoms. "But the Black family has drawn their line in the sand, and they've stuck to it. Death Eaters are fine. Gryffindors, not so much."
"The Malfoys fit right in," Ron said under his breath, then seemed to remember suddenly that Harry was in the room and went red around the ears. "Er, sorry," he said. "Didn't mean anything by it."
Harry, who had been avoiding looking at that part of the tree entirely, shrugged. "S'fine," he said. "It's true."
Sirius glanced at Harry but refrained from commenting, which Harry was grateful for. He knew how he felt about Draco's father, but he'd only just this week managed to get the kind of distance that would allow him to think about Draco at all, let alone how he felt about their ruined friendship.
"The whole Black family are a delight to be around at holidays," Sirius agreed. "Now let me tell you about Araminta Meliflua and the Muggle-hunting Bill she tried to push through at the Ministry..."
A mess of letters arrived for Harry mid week, ruining an otherwise cheerful breakfast. Hermione set her fork down with a frown as Harry divested the final owl of its burden and dropped the letter in the small pile behind his chair.
"I thought she stopped..."
Harry shrugged. "I haven't seen the paper yet, but I don't think it was her." He picked up his glass of pumpkin juice and forced down a sip. "If it had been Skeeter, I'd have triple that, at least."
"How are all these letters even getting through the wards?" Hermione asked, frowning. "I wouldn't think strangers should be able to reach you here."
"Ah, that would be Sirius's doing." Remus leaned toward them, joining the conversation with an apologetic smile. "He was adamant that you had a right to your letters, back when we were altering the wards on Privet Drive. We had planned to only allow owls from known writers as usual, but you know how upset he's been about Dumbledore's insistence that you stay here, rather than in Devon. He wanted you to be able to make your own decisions about your post, if not your location." Remus glanced behind Harry's chair at the letters on the floor. "Though perhaps he made a miscalculation..."
"No," Harry said, surprise making him smile in spite of himself and the piles of hate mail he'd received over the course of the summer. "He... It was good of him to want to let me have some independence."
The three of them looked over at Sirius, who was currently explaining something no doubt fascinating to Tonks and Mrs. Weasley at the other end of the table, his hands describing wild arcs of illustrative shapes through the air and actually swooping down to pick up the salt shaker and wave it around for emphasis occasionally.
"Do you want me to talk to Dumbledore about limiting your post?" Remus asked after a moment.
"Oh, please yes," Harry said without hesitation. "As soon as you can."
"Quite the owl magnet these days, aren't you, Harry?" Fred and George dropped down into seats on either side of his chair, beaming at him. Harry met Hermione's eyes across the table and mirrored her resigned amusement. Fred and George had been trying to charm him into investing in their joke shop since his arrival.
"What can I do for the two of you?" Harry asked, spearing a bit of egg on his fork and taking a bite.
"We wanted to make a proposal-"
"-hear us out, now!"
George put on a deep announcer's voice. "Only you, Harry Potter, can help us save wizardkind!"
Harry did his best to express his skepticism via his next bite of toast. Fred and George glanced at each other over Harry's head and nodded, causing Hermione to sit up straight and Harry to put down his toast.
"The forces of darkness are gathering, Harry," Fred said in deep, mysterious tones, waving his wand at Harry's pile of letters. The majority of them rose into the air, ripping themselves open and folding around each other to create a rudimentary troll made of paper. It wasn't quite origami and it wasn't quite papier-mâché, but it was functional enough to pick up a paper club and glare around with dull eyes.
"We as thoughtful members of the community need to unite and do what we can to bring light back into the lives of the citizenry," George continued, waving his wand as well. The last two letters formed a paper wizard who went up to the troll's knee. Harry's reaction to this wanton destruction of his property was to pick up his toast and turn around in his seat to watch along with the rest of the table, curious.
The troll and the little wizard circled each other, occasionally making or parrying attacks. Despite the small stature of the wizard, it was holding out pretty well, at least until the troll seemed to realize its advantage and roared, lumbering toward the wizard and trying to step on it.
"Sometimes that means helping out the little guy," George continued. Fred waved his wand in a complicated little motion that set the troll on fire.
"Fred and George Weasley!"
Molly, who had been watching warily prior to the addition of flames, rushed forward from her spot at the table and waved her wand at the fireball that had once been a pile of insults for Harry. Water doused the troll and it crumpled into a heap of charred, soggy paper on the stone floor. "How many times have I told you, you do not set firesindoors! Especially when we are guests in someone else's home! This is the last straw!"
She carried on shouting, but it was too late. Harry stared at the mess his letters had become, biting his lip to hide his amusement. When he glanced at the twins, George took the opportunity to lift his eyebrows and grin hopefully while Fred distracted their mother.
He would hear them out, for certain.
Harry got a letter from Dudley later that day, detailing all the fun, exciting, muggle things he and his mother had been doing since Harry left. The letter was addressed to Harry, Hermione, and Ron to save time, according to Dudley, so Harry just reclined on his bed and listened as Ron read it out loud to the room.
"What's it been like, having her back?" Hermione asked once Ron finished his monologue.
"Awkward," Harry said, wrinkling his nose. "Tense. Alarmingly cheerful."
"Sounds like fun, mate," Ron said, making a face and tossing the letter on the bed. "Let's go down to dinner."
"Yeah," Harry agreed, and stood up as well. Hermione followed reluctantly.
"Harry," she said, bumping shoulders with him as they went down the stairs. "You never hung up the phone, you know. I heard you yelling at your aunt."
Harry grimaced and fixed his eyes on one of the house elves mounted on the wall ahead. "She said she saw the dementor and was scared, so naturally she locked the door and left us to die," he said, sneering somewhat.
"Which is why I mention it." Hermione seemed distressed, and grabbed his arm, coming to a halt before they reached the door to the kitchen. "I hate to get involved, it's not my business, but... oh, Harry, muggles can't see dementors."
Harry clenched his fists and spun back to the hallway to pace. "I knew she was lying! I knew it! I - I have to tell Dudley."
Hermione swallowed and nodded, and Harry remembered suddenly the way he'd left things at Privet Drive. He came to a halt in front of her, his heart sinking. "I can't tell him."
Hermione hesitated. "Why? You have to."
"I can't." He shook his head, certain. "They won't believe me."
"But Harry, she can't even see dementors," Hermione pointed out. "It's a fact. They can't argue with facts."
Harry scoffed. "It's the Dursleys, Hermione. Of course they can." He scrubbed his hand through his hair, frowning. "They've missed her. A lot. Her word against mine; they'll side with her so they can have their normal, perfect family back, and I'll be the scapegoat."
Then things really would be 'just like they were before', and the painful feeling in Harry's chest at the thought was followed by dull surprise. He hadn't realized he liked the way things were now as much as all that.
"I can't tell them," he repeated. Hermione's brows drew together in what looked like concern, but Harry waved her off and cut the conversation short by stepping past her through the kitchen door.
He settled himself between Sirius and Ron and filled up his plate, laughing when Sirius told a joke and avoiding eye contact with Hermione, who sat down next to Remus and cast him worried glances from time to time.
"I think Kreacher's been stealing things again," Remus said to Sirius. "The spells on the rubbish bags have been tampered with, you were right."
"Bloody elf," Sirius said, sounding annoyed. His next words were interrupted by the roaring of the floo, which spit out Tonks.
"Wotcher," she said as she tumbled out of the fireplace. Without slowing down to catch her balance, she managed to grab a plate from the end of the table and fall into a chair next to Remus.
"Impressive," Remus said. She grinned at him.
"That was so clumsy it was almost graceful," Sirius agreed, tipping his cup to her.
Talk turned to Tonks and her assignment, which ended up sounding less interesting than the younger residents of the house would have hoped. Hermione and Ginny might have disapproved of being eavesdropped on themselves, but no one complained when Fred and George managed to sneak their Ears through Imperturbable doors and listen in on Order conversations.
"Kingsley claims no one will suspect an Auror hanging about, but Unspeakables are paranoid, in my experience," Tonks said, using her bread roll to point at Sirius with more emphasis before taking a bite.
"Kingsley Shacklebolt?" Harry asked. "Is he still investigating why that dementor was at Privet Drive?"
Tonks chewed on her roll, nodding. There hadn't been much news on that front from anyone, really. Harry would really have liked to ask about Shacklebolt's connection to his aunt as well, but given the choice between finding out what his aunt had been up to and finding out why he and Dudley had been attacked, he chose the latter.
"It's a tricky situation" she said, setting down her roll. "The dementors are supposed to be under Ministry control. So that means that either they aren't, in which case we have a big problem, or, well... or someone from the Ministry sent one to your place, in which case, well-"
"We have a big problem," Remus said grimly. Tonks made a face and nodded.
"It's slow going," she admitted. "But you'll hear about it if there's any kind of resolution."
"These are dark times," Sirius said, and everyone nodded. "Times like these, a person wants to spend with their family, close to home-"
Remus groaned, and Tonks let her head drop onto the table with a thunk. Harry snickered and stuffed a big bite of stew in his mouth.
"Harry, you know you'd rather be in Devon!" Sirius turned to him for backup. Harry shrugged and pointed at his mouth in apology, chewing slowly. He was somewhat conflicted over the choice. He liked Sirius's house better, certainly, but he liked the company here, and the feeling that they could really know what was going on with the resistance to Voldemort if only they could do a good enough job of eavesdropping.
"We have almost all the same wards on our place," Sirius said, undeterred. "We have an unplottable location, we have fresh air, we can go outside! No one has ever known where our house is. Contrast that with the crazy old bat who has portraits who knows where else-"
"Sirius, I'm sure you know where else," Remus said, rolling his eyes. "That crazy old bat is your mother. This house has a Fidelus Charm on it, which ours doesn't. That's why we're here and you know it."
Sirius grumbled and stabbed his fork into his bowl. This was always the argument that caught him out. "Yes well," he said ungraciously. "We could have gotten one of those, Remus. I don't see why not."
"If we were going to bother putting in the kind of effort necessary to put a Fidelus on our house, we might as well have saved the effort of warding this one, and just based headquarters there," Remus sighed. "And you didn't want that any more than I did."
Sirius set his fork down and looked to be gathering himself for a long response, so when the fireplace flared up again everyone turned to it with relief.
Professor Snape stepped out, raising an eyebrow at the attention. His eyes settled on Sirius, whose mulish expression hadn't yet dissipated, and dark amusement curled at the corners of his mouth.
"Still, Black?" he asked.
Sirius glared. "It's none of your business, Snape. Don't stick your greasy nose in where it doesn't belong."
"How does the muggle phrase go?" Snape paused, as though in thought. "Ah, yes. People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones, don't you agree?"
Sirius put his palms flat on the table as though preparing to stand, his eyebrows gathering with suspicion. "Is that a threat, Snape? I'll have you know the walls of my house are well warded."
Snape's eyes glinted with delight. "Obviously."
Hermione and Remus both looked grudgingly amused, and Harry was sure his expression was no different. It was possible that Snape had been waiting months to use that one, and Sirius played his part to a tee.
"Um, Sirius," Harry said, putting a hand on his arm. Sirius glanced over as though he'd forgotten Harry was there, and a vaguely guilty look passed over his features.
"Did you need something, Severus?" Remus asked.
"I must speak to Albus," Snape said, glancing at Harry. "Find me when you have finished your dinner, Mr. Potter."
"Yes, sir," Harry said, watching as Snape swept from the kitchen. Fortunately, the wind had been taken from Sirius's sails after Snape's arrival, and Remus managed to change the topic to Quidditch.
Setting down his fork, Harry pushed back from the table and excused himself as Sirius distracted the group with his spirited defense of the Starfish and Stick maneuver when defending against stooging.
He poked his head into the parlor as he passed, and the dusty sitting room. No Snape. He checked the drawing room as well, and finally discovered his professor's cloak resting over the back of a chair in the library. He sat down to wait.
"This was waiting for you outside the wards when I arrived." Snape had entered the room silently and now stood in front of Harry's chair. Harry put aside the book he'd been flipping through and looked up to see a letter held loosely in Snape's grasp. The fine parchment told him all he needed to know about who it was from and what he'd be doing with it after Snape left.
"No matter what you may have heard, and despite his position as a school governor," Snape continued, switching fluidly to Parseltongue and making no attempt to hand Harry his letter, "Lucius Malfoy does not know everything that happens at Hogwarts. In my experience, he knows very little."
Harry frowned and followed Snape to the heavy oak table that sat near the window. Snape set the letter down between them and caught Harry's eye when he looked up. "What are the five basic components of successful legilimency?"
Harry looked away, his eyes falling on the letter. "Er, eye contact, the tranquility of my mind, the specificity of my goal, stealth and awareness of potential defenses, and... ah... focus?"
Snape waited unblinkingly, and Harry wracked his brain, trying to remember what he'd missed. He took a moment to be grateful that he really had done some reading over the summer and that the book had been thoroughly annotated in Snape's own spiky handwriting, providing more insight into the text than Harry could ever have managed on his own. "Oh." He remembered. "Suggestion. It's easier if you get the other person to think about what you want to know before you attempt it."
Snape tilted his head in acknowledgement. "And what of legal restrictions placed upon Legilimens?"
"You have to be approved by the Ministry to study," Harry said, thinking back to what he'd skimmed through several weeks ago. "Character tests and registration, like animagi."
Neither he nor Snape brought up the very salient point that Harry had never been approved or even attempted as much. Harry had rightly assumed he was meant to be keeping his mouth shut, considering Snape's next question.
"Penalties for abuse?"
"Azkaban and fines," Harry responded promptly. Snape raised an eyebrow. Harry waited for the next question with an expression of innocent curiosity on his face.
"Very well," Snape said after the silence had stretched to his satisfaction. "Your Occlumency lessons have reached the first plateau. In order to take your skills to the next level, you must have a more intimate understanding of exactly what it is you are defending against."
"A more intimate understanding, still. I wish you to have the experience of intruding, so that you may better recognise an intruder's intentions because they will have once been your own." Snape lifted his head and fixed Harry with a cool, thoughtful expression. "As in duelling, you must be capable of understanding and employing both offensive and defensive tactics to be truly successful. Tonight we begin your foray into the offensive realm of mental conflict, Mr. Potter."
Harry sat up straighter in his chair and nodded his agreement. "Yes, sir," he hissed, thinking back to some of the more colourful descriptions of legilimency he had read about in Snape's book. Anxiety and excitement made his heart beat faster.
"Describe in detail the procedure for casting the spell..."
After a few hours, Snape gathered his cloak and swept out of the library, having arranged to meet with Harry once more before their return to Hogwarts. Harry was left sitting by himself, mind still buzzing with the concepts they had just discussed and the six feet on the ethics of mind magic he'd been assigned to finish before their next lesson.
The fine parchment of Draco's letter sat stark against the oak of the table, capturing his attention when he happened to catch sight of it in his peripheral vision. He stared at it for a long moment, until a sound from outside the library door startled him and brought him back to himself, making him suddenly aware of how he'd been leaning away from it as though it might leap up and cut him open at any moment.
He huffed at himself and stood up to rummage around in the desk on the other side of the room to find some parchment and ink, distracted completely from his thoughts on legilimency. He would write to Dudley, and he wouldn't be stupid about Draco's letter. It wasn't going to hurt him. Returning to the table to write struck him as the sort of thing someone would do if they weren't bothered, so he made himself sit down where Snape had been and set up the inkwell with determination.
Dudley, he wrote. I'm glad you're having fun. Fred and George are trying to open a joke shop, and they want me to help...
Harry told Dudley all the news of Grimmauld Place, which wasn't terribly much. He tried hard to avoid talking about Aunt Petunia, which was difficult when Dudley had written of nothing else in his initial letter. Harry dipped his quill in the ink one last time to bring the note to a close when Draco's letter caught his eye again. After another, somewhat shorter one-sided staring contest, he swallowed and pressed quill to parchment again:
Draco sent another letter. Snape says I should read them. I can't imagine what he has to say to me that would take up so much space. The one that arrived today must be at least five feet. Fred and George could probably make two trolls from all the parchment he sends.
Harry signed his name and leaned back, waiting for the ink to dry and looking out the window, at the books in their shelves; anywhere but at the letter.
One of the more positive things about staying at Grimmauld Place was that Harry could just floo with Pansy and Blaise when he wanted to talk to them, instead of having to wait days for an owl to arrive.
"Skeeter hasn't written anything since our arrangement," Harry said, leaning back on his hands. He was sitting cross-legged in front of the fire, watching Pansy's head bob in the flames when she shifted.
"Here's to hoping it stays that way," she said as the flames licked at her hair. "How are things in Gryffindoria?"
Harry had tried to give Pansy and Blaise an idea of where he was, but he found himself unable to say even the name of the place. The Fidelus Charm in action, according to Remus. He couldn't even tell them there was a Fidelus Charm, and whenever he tried to describe what Grimmauld Place was like, their eyes glossed over and his voice stuttered nonsense. They had taken to calling it Gryffindoria (and other variations on the theme), since the only thing Harry had been able to get across was that he was the only Slytherin in residence, though again, details were not forthcoming. He didn't even try to bring up Snape's visits.
"Red and gold, mostly," Harry said. He found that flippancy and outright lying worked well when trying to describe his surroundings and the people around him. He'd come up with a code of sorts and could only hope they were following along. "Merlin and Arthur got into another row over their castle at dinner last night."
Pansy's mouth and eyebrows flattened in a kind of bewildered amusement. "Right," she said. "And how are the... what did you call them yesterday?"
"Are you asking about the nargles?" Harry asked solicitously. "I think I'm going to make a deal with them after all. They made a very convincing presentation."
"I always wish Hermione was here to translate when you start talking like that."
Harry shrugged. Pansy followed most of the nonsense he said. Most of the time. There wasn't really much he could do if she didn't, because of the spell. "The centaur is being pushy. I've been trying to avoid her."
"Or Lovegood, actually, though her explanation might make less sense than you do." Pansy shifted again. "Next time, you're sticking your head in the floo. My knees hurt."
"We'll be back at school soon," Harry said, dropping back into uncoded conversation with relief. "We might not even talk again before we see each other on the train."
Pansy glared at him. "Harry Potter, you are not going to ignore me for the next week."
"I wasn't going to ignore you!" Harry rested his elbows on his knees and leaned closer to the fireplace. "I just meant we'll probably be busy with packing and last minute things."
"You just mean you don't want to risk me bringing up Draco again," Pansy countered, raising an eyebrow. "Because I plan to and you know it. Oh wait!" She looked to her left, then her right, and then assumed an expression of surprise. "Fancy that, Harry, we're talking about him now. Did you read the last letter he sent you?"
Harry groaned. "No, I did not read it. And I-"
"I don't want to, Pansy."
Pansy looked ready to leap out of the fire and shake him. As a matter of fact, the flames were starting to spit and crackle. Harry scooted back and wrapped his arms around his knees.
"Too bad," she enunciated. "It's been the entire summer. Draco is making himself sick over everything that happened. He's sorry and worried and miserable and fighting with his parents every day, and you're sitting in your borrowed Gryffindor Tower, pretending he doesn't even exist!"
Harry frowned. "I'm not-"
"You could read his letters, even if you don't respond, Harry!" Pansy raised her voice and otherwise ignored his interruption. "Give me something to tell him that doesn't make him think you hate him."
"I don't hate him!"
"Then read his letters!"
They were both shouting now. Harry's chest felt tight and his eyes were itchy. Pansy's face was red and fierce. The flames surrounding her only accentuated her glare.
Harry rubbed his face with one hand and took a deep breath, trying to calm down. That had escalated faster than he would have liked. He tried to gather his thoughts, failed dismally, and decided to start talking anyway.
"I -" He paused and let his breath out in a woosh that made the flames flicker around Pansy's ears. "His father! He laughed, Pansy! And what he said... And Draco, all year... I just - he kept saying... awful things! I don't know if I can - I mean, how am I supposed to-?"
Pansy had fallen silent and was waiting for him to continue with a tense sort of neutrality to her expression. Harry thought it looked a bit like worry, and tried to ignore it.
"I can't trust him," he said after a long pause. "He loves his father. He talks about him all the time! And I can't ask him to choose me over his family, and..." Harry scrubbed at his forehead roughly and met her eyes pleadingly. "I can't, Pansy."
Shouting through the floo at Pansy had cleared a few things up, even for Harry. He hadn't been certain himself why he was so against reading Draco's letters, but now that he'd said it out loud, it made sense, and it made it easier.
Dudley's owl returned a couple days before school started, laden with a brown wrapped parcel along with a note, which Harry opened first. The letter was the same bucket of effusions as the last one, and Harry skimmed it. He found the explanation for the parcel at the end:
I thought you might change your mind, so I held on to them for you.
Harry ripped off the wrapping and sure enough, a pile of letters marked with the Malfoy crest (and some without) spilled onto the bedspread, where they stayed for another hour while Harry stared at them and staged a fierce mental debate.
Dudley was a total git, he decided finally. But the idea of opening one of the letters didn't fill him with indefinable pain anymore, which meant that, unlike before, he had a choice of whether or not he wanted to see what Draco had written.
Another stretch of time passed while Harry went back and forth, but he was and always had been interminably curious. He finally sifted through the pile and found a shorter letter, ripping it open before he could change his mind.
Sometimes you're a complete wanker, you know that?
Harry blinked and glared at the letter.
That was all of it. It was dated toward the beginning of August, and had the proper salutation and even a rather officious signature that Draco had spent months developing back in second year, but really, it was just one line.
Harry dropped it on the floor and rifled through the pile for a thicker one. Pansy and Blaise had better not have been lying all summer.
I'm so sorry for everything, this letter began. Harry nodded to himself. That was more along the lines of what he'd been led to expect. I don't know what to do, my father says I can't even speak to you anymore. If he knew I've been writing to you he'd be furious.
It doesn't matter though, you're not reading these anyway. You're just going to toss this in your muggle bin at your muggle house because you hate me and you have every right, although that doesn't mean you're not an arsehole for ignoring me...
It carried on in a similar maudlin tone for several pages, which Harry read through curiously. Draco honestly hadn't expected Harry to read it, and it showed. There were blotches that he hadn't bothered to fix, and a lot more insults directed toward both his own father and Harry than he would ever express if he thought he had an audience.
Harry also suspected from the context that Draco had used the word 'muggle' as a profanity several times, though he wasn't entirely positive. Draco's handwriting was still perfect, despite the blotches and a few crossed out words, and Harry wrinkled his nose and tossed the letter aside.
He reached for another almost immediately. Outside, the stars came out, and when Ron came in and climbed into bed, Harry ignored him, engrossed in a letter from mid-July that described Draco's mother's reaction to the whole mess and then alternated between explaining why Harry was a bad person for not returning his letters and describing at length how sorry he was for what he'd said over the course of the last year.
Harry couldn't honestly tell whether to be angry at Draco for some of the things he said, or pity him for everything he said, but he moved on to the next letter in the pile nonetheless. It had been sent in early June and inside, Draco both apologised profusely and entreated Harry to let him know he was alright, after which he asked Harry to contact Blaise if he had a message for Draco, because his father wouldn't take well to finding out that Draco was receiving post from Harry at the Manor.
When he'd read all the letters, Harry leaned back against his headboard and surveyed the parchment spooled out across his blankets with a new slump in his shoulders. There were only three days left until everyone went back to Hogwarts.
On the one hand, that meant there was no question of Harry's having to write a reply to any of it, which was good.
On the other hand, there were only three days left until everyone went back to Hogwarts. Draco included.
Harry didn't know what that was.
Everybody, everybody! Your reviews are like diamonds, and I adore you all. But you should know: this story is about to take a turn. It's marked humor, and there still will be humor because that's how I roll, but there's going to be a lot more drama, and a lot more plot. I cannot guarantee that all the characters will emerge unscathed. I really have to emphasise that. I cannot guarantee that for anyone. Um. So. Fair warning?
Chapter 6: The Conflict
The majority of Harry's first ever ride on the Hogwarts Express back when he was eleven had been spent hiding in the loo, and it was still better than what he experienced on his way into fifth year.
"...And then mum said I could try driving the car when we come back for winter holiday, even though you aren't technically allowed until you're seventeen."
Ron unwrapped one of Dudley's pumpkin pasties and shrugged. "I've driven a car before."
Dudley was outraged. "No you haven't! Wizards don't even have cars!" He paused and glanced at Hermione. "Do they?"
"Sometimes they do," Ron said defensively. "My dad modified one. It even flies and goes invisible and things."
"I remember that car," Harry said, glad to be talking about something that wasn't Aunt Petunia. "Professor Lupin drove me to his house in it, once. It was terrifying. Brooms should be in the air, and cars should be on the ground. And if they're not, you should at least be able to see what you're doing."
"I think that's highly illegal, anyway, Ron," Hermione cut in. She was already dressed in her uniform, prefect badge pinned to her chest and sparkling proudly.
"I bet you haven't driven it at all," Dudley said, and puffed himself up. "Mum says usually teenagers aren't responsible enough to drive, but she thinks I'd be fantastic."
"I have driven it," Ron disagreed. "Fred and George and I take it out when Dad won't notice, and we even fly it sometimes!"
"Fred and George wouldn't let you fly it," Neville interjected from the other corner of the compartment, where he was fiddling with a pot of some strange looking plant. His own prefect badge shone in a more subdued manner on his lapel. "I bet they don't even let you sit in front when they're flying."
Ron's ears were getting red. Dudley took the attention off him by, unsurprisingly, turning the conversation back to his mother. "Yeah, but mum says she's going to train me up so I can pass my test on my birthday and everything."
Dudley hadn't stopped talking about his mother since they got on the train. Harry was ready to yell at Hermione to get her to stop sending him worried and sympathetic glances every time he did.
"I'm going to go find... Anthony and Luna," Harry said, having decided to avoid the inevitable conflict. The Gryffindors called their goodbyes to him as he hurried out the door, which he closed with a sigh. He didn't fancy poking his head into dozens of other compartments, but there wasn't really much of a choice if he wanted to find his Ravenclaw friends. He set off down the corridor and got to work.
Every compartment Harry looked in on met him with hostile or wide eyed expressions when they realized it was him. He'd been to ten compartments and was starting to seriously consider giving up and taking a nap in one of the loos until they arrived at Hogwarts.
Going back to Dudley and his gushing over Aunt Petunia and every single unfailingly muggle thing they'd done together that summer wasn't an option. He was almost afraid he'd find Blaise and Pansy, since they would either be alone, or they wouldn't be. Neither option sounded appealing. Anthony and Luna were a safer bet, if only he could find them without also finding out exactly how many of his fellow Hogwarts students had a subscription to the Daily Prophet.
Easier said than done.
Harry wandered up and down in the corridor, filled with indecision until he found himself at the end of the train and turned around to see Draco exiting a compartment and sliding the door shut with deliberation. Harry glanced at the compartments on either side of him and spent a second longer than he should have debating which one to duck into.
"Harry." Draco was looking right at him, now, and standing directly in front of him.
He was saying something, and he looked so worried and upset that Harry wished he had another train car to back into. The last time Harry had seen Draco looking that concerned, Harry had been broken and bleeding and had just escaped from the graveyard where Crouch Jr had cut off his own hand and forced Harry to lean over a cauldron and bleed bright red blood into the diamond coloured water...
Harry shook his head a few times, blinking against his tunnelling vision and hoping distantly that Draco wouldn't notice his state. Draco's eyebrows drew together as he spoke. He looked paler than he had been last year, which was a feat.
"I just wanted you to know," Draco said, gesturing vaguely. "Blaise said you didn't read any of my letters, so I just wanted to..."
He trailed off and looked more closely at Harry. Whatever he saw made his mouth tighten. "Right. I'll... I'll just go."
Draco hurried away, and only once Harry had the corridor to himself again did he finally take a sharp breath and lean back against the wall. The loo was looking better and better.
At the feast, Draco sat next to Theodore Nott, though they didn't seem to speak to each other. Harry decided not to notice either way. He was partially successful, considering that he was still incredibly disconcerted by the skeletal horses that had been pulling the school carriages this year. He had liked it better when he thought the carriages were charmed.
The new Defense teacher was an unpleasant looking, pink clad woman from the Ministry. Harry remembered hearing Tonks and Remus discussing her appointment a couple days ago. She had sounded awful then, and from the long, dry speech she gave as she cast her pouchy gaze over the Hall, Harry wasn't holding out much hope.
"If you're going to sit with Harry and I, you can at least be enough of an adult to pass the water jug when asked," Pansy hissed.
That was another thing.
"I'm sitting with Harry," Blaise responded, glaring at her and pouring more water into his already half full cup. "I don't see how it's anything to do with me if you decide to sit with us. And I thought we agreed not to be petty about this."
If the Defense professor hadn't still been speaking, Harry was sure Pansy would have yelled her next words. Her harsh whisper was loud enough to garner a few glares from the sixth year prefects. "I am not the one who won't pass the water jug, Blaise."
"So you two broke up, then," Harry said unnecessarily. "That's awful. When did that happen?"
"Last week," Blaise said, raising his eyebrow at Pansy and pointedly ignoring the water jug sitting in front of him. "Pansy said she couldn't stand me anymore."
"Yes, well Blaise called me an awful harridan, but no one's pointing fingers," Pansy retorted. "Harry, it's okay. Neither of us wants to put you in the middle of this."
Harry didn't even bother to point out their current seating arrangements. He picked up the water jug and set it in front of Pansy on his other side. She seemed far more pleased than the situation warranted.
At least Anthony and Luna looked fairly cheerful over at the Ravenclaw table, or at least what passed for cheerful for them. As Harry watched, Anthony slid easily into his 'I Have A Book Open Under The Table And Am Ignoring You' slump, while Luna hummed next to him and tugged at her radish earrings occasionally. She saw Harry looking and waved.
"...Every headmaster and headmistress of Hogwarts has brought something new to the weighty task of governing this historic school, and that is as it should be..."
The Weasley twins were playing a baffling game involving a ball of parchment and a fork, and Harry spent a few minutes trying to puzzle out the rules before giving up. Hermione seemed to actually be paying attention to the new professor, and her expression made Harry frown and tune in again.
"...some changes will be for the better, while others will come, in the fullness of time, to be recognised as errors of judgement..."
Harry shook his head and resolved to ask Hermione later what the new professor had said to get her looking like she'd smelled something foul and was trying not to let on.
In the meantime, he went back to pretending the rest of the hall wasn't scowling at him whenever he accidentally made eye contact. Because they definitely were. Skeeter had done a lot more damage than he'd thought.
He didn't even know most of the students he was being glared at by. Granted, it was worse at the Slytherin table, but that was no surprise after all the hate mail he'd gotten over the summer.
"I don't think Harry wants to hear you tapping your fingers on the table like a troglodyte, Blaise," Pansy muttered under her breath. "Do try to be considerate for once in your life."
"Hey, remember that time in third year when we all went to Pansy's dorm?" Harry asked abruptly.
"To look at the Map, you mean?" Pansy frowned, obviously trying to work out what Harry was getting at.
"Yeah," Harry said. "Do you remember that, Blaise?"
Blaise gave him a funny look. "I remember you and Draco got covered in boils."
"Yeah," Harry said, and took a sip of water. "Yeah, that time. That was fun."
The two of them blinked at him, waiting for more, but Harry just turned his attention back to the blathering from the head table. He was exhausted already. If only the new professor would stop talking, he could go up to his dorm and fall straight to sleep. Things would hopefully be better in the morning.
"Wands away and quills out, please."
Professor Umbridge's high-pitched, girlish voice was grating on Harry's already frayed nerves. On his way up to the classroom, people from every House had seen him and run in the opposite direction. Some of them had sneered. Some of them had pulled out their wands or walked closer to their friends. None of them had said a word to him. It was like they thought he was nutters or something.
Pansy and Blaise walked with him to classes, determinedly silent in the other's presence, but still there. It was better than being alone, anyway, which wasn't saying much.
And now they were all turning to page five of Defensive Magical Theory by Wilbert Slinkhard, and reading the most agonizingly boring first chapter Harry had ever encountered. He gave up quickly and looked around the room instead, realizing almost immediately that he wasn't the only one. Daphne Greengrass was taking the opportunity to plait her hair, though she kept her eyes on her book and made a big show of turning a page every once in a while. Umbridge was sitting at the front of the class, smiling pleasantly and pointedly at every stray eye.
Another twenty minutes passed in painful silence, until finally, Theodore Nott raised his hand.
Umbridge ignored him, and Theo propped his chin up in his other hand, letting his arm dangle aloft as he stared down the top of their professor's mousy brown head.
Finally, she gave in. Theo had clearly settled in for an entire class period of keeping his hand in the air, and everyone else had settled in to watch.
"Did you want to ask something about the chapter, dear?"
"Oh no," Theo said amiably. "I've just finished, is all. I think we all have."
The rest of the class murmured their agreement. Harry joined in and discreetly flipped to the last page of the chapter.
"Is that so?" Umbridge said. "Lovely. Then I should like you all to turn to page nineteen and begin Chapter Two, 'Common Defensive Theories and Their Derivation'."
The whole group of them exchanged incredulous glances.
"Professor..." One of the girls, Tracy, raised her hand as she spoke. "I have a question."
Umbridge raised her eyebrows. "In the future, dear, wait until you are called on to speak."
"Yes, ma'am, of course, my apologies," she said, ducking her head and continuing in an anxious tone before Umbridge could reply. "My name is Tracy Davis, ma'am. It's only, I sometimes have difficulty in keeping up with my coursework, and especially as this is our O.W.L. year, I wonder if it might be possible if you please, ma'am, for you to provide a Ministry-approved syllabus that I could follow, in order to apply myself more efficiently?"
Umbridge blinked at her for a long moment, but Tracy's face was beautifully earnest. Several other students nodded and a positive murmur floated through the room.
"I believe I provided you with the course aims at the beginning of the lesson," Umbridge said. "Do you not find that sufficient to your needs?"
"I'm terribly sorry ma'am." Tracy ducked her head again and managed a blush. "I'd like to begin my revision schedule as soon as possible, you understand. I find that the other professors don't always have the most predictable or stable lesson plans, and I thought perhaps your curriculum could provide a sort of solid base to work from."
Umbridge thought this over and pressed her hands together, letting out a girlish giggle that made Harry shudder unexpectedly. "Well I suppose a Ministry-approved syllabus would be an effective learning tool, dear."
"Thank you so much, ma'am," Tracy gushed as Umbridge moved to the front desk and waved her wand over several sheets of parchment. "I really do believe theory and tradition are the finest tools of a successful education. We really are long since due for some structure at Hogwarts."
Harry glanced at Blaise, who had a small smirk playing around his mouth. He couldn't be the only one who thought Tracy was laying it on a bit thick, but Umbridge was up at her desk now, creating a syllabus and even wearing an sickly sweet smile as she did it.
"Tracy's good friends with some of the Ravenclaws," Pansy told him after class as they watched the other Slytherins crowd around Tracy's syllabus and make disgusted faces at it. "They had Defense first thing, read through four chapters in one class, and there was never any need to talk."
"Try and get a copy of that," Harry said, hanging back as he watched the rest of the Slytherins gather around. Draco broke out of the pack just as Pansy squeezed Harry's arm and stepped away. She stopped when she saw Draco coming and waited for him.
"So thoughtful, Draco," Pansy said with a smile, plucking his copy out of his hands while he was busy looking anxiously at Harry. Harry stuck his hands in his pockets and examined his feet more thoroughly than he ever had before. He needed new trainers. "We'll see you in Herbology, darling?"
"Yeah," Draco said, looking back at her and hitching his bag up on his shoulder. Harry's shoelaces were fraying, too. "I'll see you there."
He fled in the direction of the Great Hall. Harry relaxed once he turned a corner out of sight and glanced at the syllabus.
"She really means to keep us reading that book all term," Pansy muttered, running a manicured finger down the rows of dates and assignments. "Well, I'm going to be catching up on my Witch Weekly subscription."
"This is... insane," Harry said, glaring at the paper. Pansy glanced up at him with a quirk of her mouth.
"We've had useless Defense teachers before, Harry. Somehow we'll manage."
"No," Harry shook his head, all the anger and frustration of the day boiling up and demanding to be released. "The Ministry put her here. They hand picked her, I heard about it over the summer. They've got her teaching us how to sit quietly while-"
Pansy shushed him. Harry ignored her and, indeed, raised his voice. Several of the Slytherins in the group crowded around Tracy glared at him.
"Voldemort, Pansy! I'm allowed to say it! He's back and he's killed people already, and we're reading in the one class that's supposed to show us how to protect ourselves?"
Grabbing his arm, Pansy leaned closer. "Yes, I know, Harry. But do you know what's not going to help?"
Harry glared at her and opened his mouth. She lifted her 'I-dare-you' eyebrow and continued.
"What definitely won't help is yelling about it in the corridor like a madman," she said. "Instead, we're going to do what we've always done, which is deal."
"Got dropped from the Wizengamot for publicly supporting you, didn't you hear?" Pansy led him down the corridor by his elbow to a quieter spot. "You're not popular, Harry, face it. You're more infamous than famous, and you almost always have been. We need to work on your public relations, and that starts with tactical thinking, and not shouting."
Harry slumped. "Yes, fine," he grumbled. "I'm going to the library."
"Good!" Pansy said, beaming. "You go and you practice using your indoor voice."
"O.W.L.'s, no time to talk," Anthony said when Harry arrived at the library. Harry made a face at him.
"It's the first day of school, Anthony," he said, as though Anthony might have forgotten.
"Of fifth year, Harry," Anthony said, as though Harry might have forgotten. "I should have gotten started on this weeks ago, but I got that three volume treatise on Game Theory as a back-to-school present and I couldn't put it down. I have more than sixty optional texts to get through before May, and right now I have to come up with a combinatorial proof to decide where to start."
Harry sighed and sat down next to Luna while Anthony buried his nose in his lists and books again, looking far too pleased with it all. "How was your summer, Luna?"
"Strenuous and invigorating, Harry, thank you for asking." Luna smiled up at him from her own hefty tome. "I'm afraid I may not have much time to speak with you this year, either, unfortunately."
Harry let his head thump down on the table. "Why, Luna? You don't have O.W.L.'s."
"Not technically, no," Luna said from above him. "But I've been in the habit since the end of first year of reading for all of Anthony's classes in addition to my own. It's fascinating to be able to compare two of my own essays on the same topic with a year of personal and academic development separating them."
Harry lifted his head up and looked at her. "So, wait. You're doing all your assignments twice?"
Luna nodded and tilted her head so that it was parallel to his. Harry let his head thunk back on the table.
"It was Anthony's idea initially, but I do enjoy it," she explained with an absent sort of smile in her voice. "Though I imagine I will be quite busy this year."
"I have a headache," Harry told the table.
"You have bumped your head twice since you sat down," Luna said helpfully.
Harry groaned and made a face against the wood. "Maybe I was doing one of your puzzles and the answer turned out to be Ludenwic again."
"I thought it was usually Ludenberg?" Luna tilted her head curiously. "It's good to see you anyway, Harry."
"It's good to see you too, Luna," Harry said pulling his head off the desk and sitting up straight. "You too, Anthony."
Anthony waved a quill at Harry in tacit agreement.
"Anthony." Harry waited until Anthony finally paused in his writing and glanced up. "You and I are going to go flying this year, okay? Before it gets too cold out. I don't want to go flying in the snow."
"You've made me go flying in the snow before," Anthony said. "I didn't think you minded it."
Harry leaned back in his seat, satisfied. "I don't, but it's still better when it's nice out," he explained.
He sat with Anthony and Luna for the rest of lunch, basking in the comfortable silence and the near-empty library. He really did have a headache, and not from hitting his head on the table.
Clearing his mind helped, and he focused on maintaining that level of calm in the hallways on the way to his next class, Charms, where Flitwick shattered his peaceful interior by telling them they needed to come up with career goals. Harry hadn't given much thought to the topic at all, and had no idea where to start. Most of the adult wizards he knew were either professors or aurors, and neither of those sounded particularly appealing.
"Weasley Wizarding Wheezes," Fred proclaimed, displaying the logo for Harry's perusal. "Home of the finest tricks, gags, and pranks a wizard could ever ask for."
"Nice," Harry said, frowning at the pile of sweets. "How did you pull all this off so quickly?"
George shrugged. "We've had a lot of stuff in beta testing for a while. It took your funding to purchase the ingredients to let us work with our products on a larger scale."
"More importantly, we can really get a start on the antidotes to a few of these," Fred added. "And build up some word-of-mouth advertising while banging out a bit of market research at the same time."
Harry picked up a bright purple candy and sniffed it. "So, these actually work?"
"So far," George shrugged. "Right now we haven't moved past animal testing, but once we've figured out the proper dosages, we'll be looking for volunteers to test them out."
Harry hurriedly put the candy back down. "I'm going to say no in advance." The twins shared identical expressions of disappointment. "And what kind of animal testing?"
"Oh, well, that's actually a euphemism," Fred said with a wink. "George here is what the lovely female population would call a stallion-"
"And Fred's a lion, from what I've been told."
George waggled his eyebrows at Harry for good measure. Harry snorted.
They saluted him as he left the empty classroom they'd been meeting in. Getting updates about their joke shop was one of the few things Harry had insisted on when he agreed to front some money for the venture. They seemed to know what they were about, and there were more steps to move through to get to the point where they could start selling their products than Harry had imagined. It was entertaining and a good distraction.
He did have Quidditch practice to get to, though, and when he arrived, his teammates were already pulling on their gear. Harry sat down and strapped on his kneepads with haste, ignoring his normal locker in exchange for one that wasn't situated five feet from Draco's.
"Men! Focus!" Pucey, their Keeper and Captain, stood at the entrance to the showers, holding a whistle aloft as though he might blow it. Experience told them all to shut up and pay attention, immediately. The echo and the tile in here didn't create gentle acoustics. Harry felt his headache return at just the thought of it, and straightened up.
"Gryffindor House is vulnerable this year," Pucey told them. There was a murmur from the group. "They've lost their captain, and they are out of practice due to last term's... interruption."
The Slytherin team was just as out of practice, as Pucey (the replacement for the captain they'd lost) knew, but it was hardly relevant. It didn't matter to his mind that they weren't strong. Only that the opposition was weak. His leadership style was hardly a surprise.
The piercing blast of the whistle that came next was also very Pucey-like, and Harry scrambled with the rest of the team to finish changing and get out onto the field.
"This year we take the Cup, or I will personally spike every Slytherin Quidditch player's pumpkin juice with enough Impotency Elixir that your children's children will be sterile!"
There was sense in that threat somewhere, Harry was sure. He was switching to water until he found it, though.
Chapter 7: The Quill
"Have you been clearing your mind daily?"
"And again at night before you sleep?"
"And you've been developing your thought-chains?"
Snape's gaze darted back and forth between Harry's eyes, and Harry felt himself begin Occluding automatically.
"Good," Snape said. "Where exactly do the headaches begin?"
Harry frowned and pressed his fingers against his own temples, and began pressing slowly along the width of his forehead until he reached what felt like the origin of the pain.
Harry nodded and continued rubbing at the spot. Snape stood and swept over to his desk to thumb through a book that sat open on the surface.
"This is not ideal," Snape said. "To my knowledge, the Dark Lord does not know of the connection between the two of you."
Harry's eyes widened. "Sir?"
"As far as the headmaster and I have been able to surmise, your headaches last year correlated with the Dark Lord's gradual return to power. The Dark Lord was unaware of the connection as of less than a week ago, but if your headaches have returned, we can only suspect the worst."
"What should I do?" Harry asked, watching as Snape referenced the book again.
"For now," Snape said, glancing up at Harry, "Continue to clear your mind and practice your Occlumency, especially when you feel the beginnings of a headache. There are intelligent ways of exploiting this information, and there are thoughtless ways. Allow me to determine which is which before we move forward with any plan of action."
"It's absolutely useless, that's what it is."
Hermione threw her quill down on the table and glared at it for good measure.
"I agree," Harry said, throwing his own quill after hers perhaps a bit harder than necessary in support. "Defense is a joke this year."
As it was still the first week of school, the library was fairly empty but for Harry, his Gryffindor friends, and a few other frantic fifth and seventh years. Even Ron hadn't shown up today, leaving only Harry, Hermione, Neville and Dudley to their work.
"We'll never pass the O.W.L.s with lessons like these," Hermione muttered, pouring over the syllabus Harry had lent her. "Secure, risk free way, my foot."
Harry had another class with Umbridge later on today, and he wasn't looking forward to it at all. The only silver lining was that it was Friday, and though he'd probably spend the entire weekend doing homework, it was better than having to deal with the constant stares and whispers from the students and the pressure about O.W.L.s from the professors and Hermione.
"It's about more than just O.W.L.s, Hermione," Harry said, leaning back in his chair and scrubbing his hands through his hair. "It's about being prepared if and when Voldemort stops hiding and starts killing people."
Neville twitched, and Harry frowned at him, misplaced anger boiling under his words. "It's true, Neville. I saw him."
"I know you did, Harry," Neville said with some surprise. "I didn't say you didn't. You caught me off guard with the name, that's all. I don't know anyone else who just blurts it out like that!"
Harry relaxed somewhat, and shrugged a little, still on edge but willing to be contrite. "Sorry, mate."
"I know it's about more than O.W.L.s, Harry," Hermione interrupted, still glaring at page after page of the syllabus. "Something has to be done. We can't waste a whole year we could be using to learn to defend ourselves, you're right. I'm going to find a way around this."
Hermione flipped the syllabus over and began scribbling on the back, grimacing every so often and glancing up at Harry, Neville and Dudley appraisingly once or twice. Knowing her, she'd not let them hear the end of it once she worked out a plan, so the other three left her to it and went back to their own work.
"We have more homework already in a week than we did in three last year," Neville said, flipping through his Transfiguration text woefully.
"This year is going to be awful," Harry agreed, still in a foul mood. He was working on Charms, personally. He glanced over at Dudley and realized his cousin wasn't using any books at all. Neville spotted this anomaly as well, and asked what Harry hadn't wanted to.
"What class is that for, Dudley?"
"Oh, it's a letter to my mum," Dudley explained. "Which reminds me. Hermione?"
Hermione glanced up, still mentally embroiled in whatever strategy she was concocting. "What?"
"Do you know if there's a post address muggles can use to send mail to Hogwarts, or do they have to use an owl?"
Blinking, she glanced from Dudley's inquiring expression to Harry's increasingly dark frown.
"I don't know, Dudley," she said slowly. "My parents always just use an owl. They bought one just to send me letters."
"That's odd," Neville joked, glancing uncomfortably around at the suddenly tense atmosphere. "Hermione not knowing something, I mean. Must be a first."
Harry stood up abruptly and gathered his things. "I had better get going," he explained when the three of them turned to him, startled. "I'll see you all later."
He took the time to Occlude as he left the library, though he wasn't certain if the headache he was experiencing at the moment was actually scar-based or not.
"Mr Potter, remove that unpleasant expression from your face at once."
Quite against his will, Harry's glare redoubled. He had been minding his own business, reading listlessly through the next chapter of Slinkhard's book and practicing nonverbal curses on a rolled up bit of parchment under his desk when Umbridge called him out. He might also have been glaring at her from time to time, but he hadn't disrupted the class in any way!
Umbridge frowned sternly at him. "Ten points from Slytherin, Mr. Potter. Would you like to share with the class what has you in such a foul mood?"
"Harry," Blaise said out of the corner of his mouth. "Do not do it."
Harry managed to school his expression into neutrality and met her gaze. The rest of the class was watching by now, books happily forgotten in favour of this new drama.
"Nothing, professor," he managed to bite out. Umbridge raised an eyebrow at him from beneath a frilly purple bow.
"Did you disagree with something Mr. Slinkhard has to say about defensive measures?" she asked sweetly. Harry bristled, and Blaise jabbed him with his wand under the table, hard.
It was too late, though.
"Yes," Harry snapped. "Slinkhard doesn't sound like he's had to defend himself against anything more dangerous than a Puffskein in his entire life. We aren't going to learn anything about facing danger from him!"
"Do you expect to face danger in this classroom?" Umbridge sounded politely concerned. Beside him, Harry heard Blaise groan. All the other students were wearing absolutely impassive expressions, though their eyes darted back and forth between Harry and Umbridge as though watching a tennis match. At the next desk over, Pansy closed her eyes briefly, ashamed.
Harry knew he should stop himself, but he just couldn't. It had to be said.
"No! That's the whole problem! If we're not practicing, how are we supposed to learn to defend ourselves?"
Umbridge placed her hands on her desk and leaned forward. "Defend yourselves from what, Mr. Potter?"
"Harry, no," Blaise muttered. Harry opened his mouth, and despite all the hopes his friends had for him, said it.
"Detention!" Blaise exclaimed. "I can't believe you did that!"
"Did you expect me to just deny what happened last year?" Harry inquired, still outraged. They were in Care of Magical Creatures, but there was a substitute so the three of them stood toward the edge of the group and held their conversation in furious whispers while diagramming bowtruckles.
"Of course not," Pansy said. "But choose your battles! If we had to pick one person you shouldn't get into shouting matches with about the Dark Lord, just one, Harry, it would be the new Ministry plant who is both a professor and an unknown quantity! Shout at everyone else if you must! But not her!"
"But she said- I'm not lying!"
"We know that, Harry," Blaise said in a soothing voice. It struck Harry that he and Pansy were actually getting along for the moment, standing one on each side of Harry and berating him while pretending to pay attention to the lesson. It was almost a nice change of pace. They had been nearly unbearable since classes started again. "But this is not the way to convince anyone else."
"Well, what should I be doing to convince everyone else?" Harry asked. He raised an eyebrow at the extended pause that followed. "You don't have a clue, do you? Neither of you!"
"No, Harry, it's just-" Pansy paused, pursing her lips. "You need to keep your options open."
"That means you don't know," Harry pointed out, labelling one of his bowtruckle's legs with a flourish. "Neither of you has any clue what else I'm to do."
"That doesn't mean you should do this, Harry," Blaise tried to reason. "We've barely been back a week and you've got detention. At this rate, the rest of the year isn't looking good."
Harry sat down to detention determined to keep silent, if only because he'd promised Pansy and Blaise. That morning, there had been an article in the Prophet announcing Umbridge's promotion to High Inquisitor, and his friends were more determined than ever that he not catch her attention any more than he already had.
It was only lines, after all. It couldn't be too bad, even if the walls were covered with decorative plates with disturbing little kittens prancing around on them.
"Not with your quill," Umbridge told him. "You're going to be using a rather special one of mine. Here you are."
She handed him a long, thin black quill with an unusually sharp point, and told him to write 'I must not tell lies' until it sunk in.
Harry had several rather rude responses in mind, but managed to keep himself silent and began to write instead.
A searing pain cut through his hand as he wrote the first letters. He gasped and paused, watching the lines of blood fade from his hand. The words appeared in red on the parchment, and Harry stared.
'I must' shone back at him in what was undoubtedly his own blood. Harry watched the blood dry on the parchment, and knew that if he looked up, Umbridge would have something to say. His mouth twisted, and he kept his head down. He traced the letters with care, thinking furiously as he split his own hand open.
This was not keeping his options open. If he had pushed himself into this battle of wills with Umbridge by being an idiot, then silently cutting his own hand open for lines was losing that battle.
He just couldn't think of anything he could do that would let him win.
Harry spent the night Occluding while he wrote, his resentment building with every slice of the quill into his skin. The Occlumency kept the pain manageable, and allowed Harry to focus on thinking of ways out of the situation. He couldn't come up with any, and the knowledge that he was currently helpless only stirred his ire further. Even going to Snape with this issue didn't seem wise, not now that Umbridge was High Inquisitor and had the power to sack any professor at will.
After he was finally let out of detention around midnight with an infuriatingly sweet goodbye from Umbridge, Harry stomped off in the direction of the dungeons, his temper at a boiling point. A loud meow cut off his internal rant, and Harry rounded a corner in time to see Mrs. Norris leaping down from a windowsill.
"Hey," he said ungraciously as the cat wound around his ankles, purring. He slid down into a crouching position against a nearby wall, in order to better waste time petting Mrs. Norris. He really didn't feel prepared to go back to Slytherin and face his friends with his hand still raw and smarting.
"What are you doing out of bed at this hour, Potter?"
Harry glanced up from Mrs. Norris. "Hello, Filch. I had detention with Umbridge. Just got out."
Filch nodded in comprehension. "That's right. She specifically refused to let me take it on."
"Did she?" Harry glared at the floor. "Maybe if you had told her you wanted to string me up by my ankles or something, she would have been more accommodating."
Filch perked up. "Is that so?"
Harry nodded jerkily and showed Filch his hand, explaining about the detention.
"I might go have a talk with this woman," Filch said, rubbing his chin. He looked far too excited for Harry's peace of mind. "It's about time someone brought back the old punishments, if you ask me. Put some murtlap essence on it, boy, it'll be fine."
Harry rolled his eyes. "Yes, sir."
"And I'll be wanting you to focus on the seventh floor this week," Filch said. "Peeves somehow got hold of a bucket of frog spleen."
The two of them shuddered in tandem. Harry felt a little more calm as he stood and bid Filch goodnight.
When he got back to Slytherin and Pansy asked him how detention had been, he told her he'd had to do lines, and left out any talk of cutting quills or his conversation with Filch.
"Just promise me you won't do anything to get another detention, Harry," she said, taking his hand and fixing him with a worried expression.
Harry managed to avoid calling attention to the raw skin on the back of his hand by not looking at it, and nodded. Like his friends always said, he was a Slytherin. He needed to act like one.
"Draco, could you tell Pansy that the only way her Vanishing Charm is going to work with that pronunciation is if she's trying to get rid of an etymographer?"
"Draco, could you please tell Blaise that if he has something to say about my charm work, he can come over here and I can practice it on him instead of this mouse? The mouse is unquestionably better company, at any rate."
Harry heard this exchange as he walked down the hallway from his dormitory to the Slytherin common room Sunday afternoon, and didn't so much as pause to glance at his friends as he made a beeline for the exit.
When he reached the library, a quick once over told him that Anthony and Luna were not in residence, and that Hermione had both Dudley and Neville near panic with whatever she was saying. Probably O.W.L. talk then.
Harry turned around and left the library. A quick glance out the window told him that it was unlikely that Hagrid had returned from wherever he'd gone, but then Harry hadn't really expected him back any time soon. Grubbly-Plank seemed to be settling into her position.
He Occluded automatically as a stress headache settled between his eyes. His hand still hurt, which only reminded him again how little he could do about Umbridge, and as he climbed a staircase, a solitary third year nearly toppled over the railing in his haste to get to a different staircase before Harry could come too close.
Harry reached the part of the seventh floor Filch had told him about earlier in the week. He could tell because there was frog spleen everywhere. On the floor and walls, on the portrait frames and the tapestries, and even on the high ceilings. Filch had obviously made progress at cleaning it all up, but only enough that Harry wasn't slipping in the stuff as he walked.
He cast a few perfunctory cleaning charms, cursed Peeves' name, spirit, and general appearance, and slid down a clean patch of wall to sit on the floor, which turned out to still be slick where Filch hadn't expected anyone to walk.
Having stood up and cleaned off his robes as best he could, Harry cast a wide reaching scourigify, hoping to get at least the top layer of the mess off the hallway. It looked marginally better, so Harry called it a day, pacing back and forth to be certain he hadn't missed any particularly offensive patches of spleen and thinking about how much he didn't want to be where he was. He just wanted to hide, really.
On his third turn through the hallway, a door appeared in the wall. Harry stopped in his tracks and stared at it, remembering that Filch had told him once about a rather fickle supply cupboard in this area of the castle. He had found it before, but it didn't look quite the same.
He pulled the door open and poked his head inside.
If this was a supply cupboard, it was very large and strangely stocked, Harry decided. The room was enormous, and filled to the brim with all manner of odd objects: furniture, books, boxes, statues and more were piled haphazardly as far as Harry could see.
Harry lifted the lid of a box that sat on a desk right near the entrance, and found a mystifying assortment of metal blocks. They looked like they fit together in some arrangement, but Harry didn't spend too long fiddling with them. He moved further into the room, avoiding a wobbling mountain of chairs and opening a cupboard to examine the contents.
He felt himself relaxing more and more as he investigated all the strange trinkets the room held. He relaxed even further when he found a solitary, comfortable couch sitting in the middle of an intersection in the mounds of stuff.
He would have to figure out how he'd found it, and come back some time.
Harry found himself in the library more often this year than any other, and given that he had always used it for socialising with his Gryffindor and Ravenclaw friends in addition to actual work, that was saying something. He might as well bring a pillow with him and sleep in the stacks by this point.
"I think a study group is a great idea," Neville said, scratching the back of his neck. "I need all the help I can get, myself."
Hermione beamed at him. "We'll need to meet somewhere we can practice spells," she said in an undertone. "I've been putting the word out that our first meeting will be in Hogsmeade; maybe someone will have some idea of where we can work. We'll need to be careful not to get caught. Umbridge wouldn't appreciate the implication, I don't think."
Ron grinned. "We could just owl her and explain outright that she's an awful teacher, if you think that'd go over better."
"You don't want detention with that woman, trust me," Harry said. "This is a great idea, Hermione."
"I'm glad you think so, Harry," Hermione said, leaning forward and fixing him with a hopeful smile. "Because I want you to be a big part of it."
Harry lifted an eyebrow and waited.
"I was thinking," she continued, sounding more hesitant now. "You get a lot of private tutoring from Snape, right?"
"Right," Harry said.
"And you're friendly with Professor Lupin, too," she said. "He must still have his lesson plans, don't you think?"
"It's possible," he allowed. "Just spit it out, Hermione."
"I was thinking you and I could sort of run the group together," she said in a rush. "You could write Professor Lupin and ask him for his lesson plans, and combined with the extra reading I've done and the tutoring you get from Snape, we'd be able to get a lot done. Obviously it would be a collaborative sort of group," she continued as Harry stared at her. "The sixth and seventh years especially would probably have a lot to teach. But I thought we could sort of guide it together until it gets off its feet."
Harry frowned. "I don't know, Hermione. I'm not exactly popular this year."
"Oh, but this could help change that, Harry!" Hermione pressed her hands against the table and nodded at him. "If people spent more time around you, they'd get to know the real you instead of the version they read about in the papers."
All his friends were trying to boost his PR, Harry realized. He wondered if Hermione and Pansy had sat down together over the weekend and had a conversation about his abysmal people skills.
Harry shook his head. "Fine," he said, to Hermione's obvious delight. "We can try it. I can't guarantee anything, though."
"I know, Harry," she said, scribbling something down on a sheaf of parchment in front of her. "Will you write to Professor Lupin?"
"Yes, alright," Harry sighed. Hermione beamed.
Chapter 8: The Ultimatums
Harry's owl returned from Remus and Sirius in early October with ruffled feathers and a generally disgruntled attitude.
"What happened, Loki?" Harry asked as he smoothed the feathers down and untied a thick scroll from his leg. It was unusual for his owl to deliver post after breakfast, but here he was, sitting on a windowsill and ruffling his feathers at Harry as he walked to Transfiguration.
The owl hooted and shifted irritably on his windowsill, favouring one wing. Harry cast him a concerned glance as he unrolled the parchment and skimmed through an incredibly tedious account of an argument Remus and Sirius had been having about the placement of tomatoes in their new vegetable garden.
Frowning, Harry rifled through the pages, noting that each one detailed another irrelevant story. Remus didn't mention anything Harry had written to him.
A code, then. By the amount of parchment, Remus must have sent the lesson plans. Harry rolled the parchment back up and stuck it in his pocket, turning his attention back to the bird.
"You alright?" he asked, reaching out to examine the wing. Loki hooted and flapped his wings at Harry, then shifted around to face the open window. Harry was stung until he realized that the position gave him a better view of the damage.
A few feathers were broken, but overall it seemed like the wing was alright. Loki seemed more angry than hurt, anyway.
"I'll take you to Grubbly-Plank and have her look at you," Harry decided, but Loki was too quick. With another sharp series of hoots, he took off out the open window, only compensating slightly on the one side.
Harry stared out the window after him, concern and suspicion twisting his insides. Nothing like this had ever happened to Loki before. He pulled himself away from the window and hurried to class, frowning and hoping his owl really was alright.
Later on that afternoon, Harry found Anthony and Luna at their usual spot, buried in a mountain of books and papers and looking entirely at home. He cleared off a chair and sat down, shifting a stack of books so that he wasn't sitting outside the mountain so much as in an adjacent foothill, with plenty of space of his own to expand.
"Hello, Harry. You're looking well today."
This from Luna, who Harry couldn't actually see. He finally spotted half her face through a gap in the books and grinned at her.
"You too, Luna," he said, leaning back in his seat and feeling his shoulders loosen a bit. "Have you both started the assignment for Charms?"
"I'm working on Potions right now," Anthony piped up from the other side of the table. "Charms is a lunchtime pursuit."
"I do Charms at sunset, myself," Luna acknowledged. "We can work on it together in half an hour or so if you like, Harry."
"Sounds good," Harry said, pulling his bag up from where he'd dropped it on the floor and sorting through it. He could finish his Care of Magical Creatures assignment in a half hour, easy.
The three of them fell into a companionable silence as they worked through the mountains of assigned (and optional) homework their professors had given them for the week.
Deep into an explanation of the sort of differences one could expect between a satyr and a porlock, and how to handle the latter, Harry almost didn't hear the polite cough behind him. He glanced toward the source of the sound and caught sight of blonde hair and a green and silver tie.
Harry repressed the urge to sink down in his seat and instead attempted to project an extraordinary focus on incredibly difficult homework by hunching over it and sticking his nose as far into his book as was still believable.
When the cough came again, Harry darted a glance to the left and saw that the source of the sound was still there. He looked back at his homework and gave up.
"Hi," he muttered, glancing briefly at his once-friend again. Draco looked more uncomfortable than Harry, but there was determination in the set of his shoulders that Harry's own defensive posture lacked.
"May I speak with you?" Draco asked, polite as a stranger. Harry bit his tongue and glared miserably down at his essay.
He didn't have to see the expression on Draco's face to know it was the one that meant he wasn't going to stop until he got his way. It was in his voice, and the brief snatch of body language Harry had caught when he looked over. It would be best to get this over with quickly.
That didn't mean he wanted to, though.
"I'm a bit busy," Harry said, still focusing on his work and ostensibly writing something about hooves. He'd probably have to erase it later. "O.W.L.'s, you know."
Draco hesitated. "It's been over a month since term started."
Harry tapped his quill in a staccato beat against his parchment, wondering what Anthony and Luna must think of this conversation. He could see Luna's forehead through the gap in the books, and she appeared for all intents and purposes to be ignoring them entirely. He couldn't see what Anthony was doing.
"Harry," Draco said, and Harry pushed his chair back abruptly.
"Fine," he said, striding past Draco toward the library doors, refusing to meet his eye. "Five minutes."
"I'm sorry," Draco said, once they were alone in an empty classroom. Harry paced through the empty desks and turned around in the middle of the room, crossing his arms. He hadn't panicked upon seeing Draco since that day on the train, but he was still a painful reminder of things Harry would rather not think about. As a result, he spent as little time in Draco's presence as possible.
"Okay," he said. Draco blinked.
"Sure." Harry glanced away. "Can I go now?"
Draco frowned. "Are we alright?"
Harry stared at Draco's tie for a long minute, debating with himself. The truth won out in the end, and he looked Draco in the eye to say it. "Of course we're not. You... why would you even ask that?"
"Because, Harry!" Draco paused and lowered his voice when Harry glared at him. "I spent all summer miserable! My parents don't want me to talk to you anymore, you wouldn't answer my letters, I didn't know if you were okay-"
"Well I wasn't," Harry snapped. "And maybe you should take a hint. Sounds like you're getting enough of them."
Draco clenched his fists at his sides. "What do you mean?"
"I mean you've got a choice, Draco," Harry said, glaring at him from behind four rows of desks. "You can be your father's son. You can join Voldemort, get a tattoo." His voice wavered. "Or you can be my friend. You can't do both."
"Of course I don't want to join the Dark Lord!" Draco said, raising his voice again. "I never wanted to!"
"How am I supposed to believe that?" Harry yelled back. "Your father helped kill the Headmaster of Durmstrang! He stood there and told everyone how little use you had for me once you realized I wasn't going to join up!"
"That's not true!"
"How do I know that?"
Draco snarled. "Because we've been friends for years!"
"We haven't been friends for a long time, Draco," Harry said coldly. "I have every reason to doubt anything you say to me after last year."
Draco swallowed and clutched at the strap of his bag, suddenly lost for words. Harry didn't give him a chance to find them.
"Your parents or me, Draco," he said, taking the long way around to the door. "You can't have it both ways."
Draco blinked, his eyes going wide and frantic. "I can't choose between you and my parents!"
"And I can't trust you," Harry said. He felt like his chest might explode if he didn't leave soon. "I don't see how it's a difficult choice."
Harry regretted the conversation with Draco almost as soon as he was able to think clearly again. He had said some cruel things, and the worst part was that he had no intention of taking any of it back. It was all true.
The weekend was a welcome distraction. Hermione had set up a meeting for people who might be interested in joining their study group, and Harry was hoping it would go well. He was looking forward to getting back to real Defense.
After a few ridiculous suggestions from the Gryffindors about where and when the meeting should be held, it was decided that they would meet on the grounds, on the far side of the lake.
He and Pansy were the only two Slytherins to make an appearance, which wasn't a particular surprise. They walked together, arm in arm, toward the tree under which a large group of students had gathered.
"Look at all those people," Harry muttered under his breath.
They approached the large, chattering group with mild caution. They looked a lot more natural out here on one of the last relatively warm days of the year than they would have in a seedy pub in Hogsmeade. They weren't the only students outside enjoying the weather, and the way that everyone had clumped together in smaller groups made it questionable that they were all even together. Pansy cast an approving eye over the lot of them.
"And she wanted to meet in the Hog's Head," she said scornfully. "We might as well have put up a notice in the Great Hall."
Some of the students had noticed their arrival, and a murmur travelled through the group. Harry tried not to make eye contact with anyone he didn't already know. It was difficult, because they were all looking at him. Pansy put her nose in the air and dragged Harry over to sit with his Gryffindor friends with only a faint sneer.
Dudley, Ron and Neville were all crowded around Hermione. The twins were nearby, and next to them sat a group of students in Gryffindor colours, some of whom Harry vaguely recognised from Quidditch. Johnson, at least, was the new Gryffindor captain.
A smattering of Hufflepuffs sat furthest from Harry and Pansy, none of them pleased to see him if their expressions were anything to go by. Anthony and Luna sat closest to the Gryffindors, and were joined by several other Ravenclaws that Harry didn't necessarily recognise, Quidditch or no. Few of them seemed particularly inviting, though Padma Patil, the pretty Ravenclaw in his year who was sitting with her twin from Gryffindor, gave him hope with her comparatively neutral expression.
Harry thought about smiling at her, but Hermione chose that moment to clear her throat and start the meeting.
"H-hi, everyone," she said, nervous. The chattering died down as everyone shifted around to look at her. "You all know why you're here." She glanced at Harry, whose heart sank very definitively at the look she was giving him. "We had the idea that, that it might be a good idea if people who want to study Defense Against the Dark Arts, I mean, really study it, you know, not that rubbish Umbridge is doing with us-"
Harry listened as Hermione outlined her idea, gaining confidence as her audience proved responsive. And then, she said it.
"Because Lord Voldemort's back."
The response was immediate. Shudders, yelps, even physical recoiling. Harry realized suddenly that every eye was on him, and he turned his head very slowly to find that, yes, Hermione was staring at him too, her expression pleading.
He was going to kill her.
"Well... that's the plan anyway," she continued, still staring earnestly at him despite the fierce glare he was currently subjecting her to. She hadn't mentioned that 'helping with the study group' would mean using him as bait for members. "If you want to join us, we need to decide-"
"Where's the proof You-Know-Who's back?" This from one of the Hufflepuff boys. Harry took a deep breath and raised an eyebrow at Hermione, maintaining a stubborn silence.
"Dumbledore believes it," Hermione began, only to be immediately interrupted.
"You mean Dumbledore believes that Slytherin over there," the Hufflepuff said, his voice ringing with skepticism. Harry, the Slytherin in question, stared stonily back at him. "I think we have a right to hear the story ourselves if we're being asked to believe it."
Hermione leaned forward. "Look-"
"I'm sorry," Pansy said pleasantly, leaning in front of Harry to get a better view of the Hufflepuff. "I might be mistaken, but I don't believe anyone asked your opinion, Macmillan."
The Hufflepuff, Macmillan apparently, glared at her. "I just think that we have a right-"
"No, you don't have a right," Pansy interrupted. "If Harry wants to tell you about what happened to him outside of the announcement Dumbledore made last year, then that's his privilege. And yours, if he was somehow potions-addled enough to decide to confide in a pompous, nouveau riche prick like yourself."
The expression on her face was one Harry hadn't seen in a long time. Most of his Pansy-instincts were telling him to apologise, back away, and avoid eye contact, but Macmillan wasn't quite that in tune with his self-preservation instincts.
"Dumbledore didn't tell us anything last year," Macmillan said, ignoring the insults. "Just that he got kidnapped and the Durmstrang headmaster got murdered and he fought You-Know-Who and escaped, which sounds like a load of rubbish to me."
"Right, where's the proof?" One of the Gryffindor boys Harry didn't know very well spoke up before Pansy or Harry could respond, ignoring twin glares from Dudley and Neville. "He told us what Potter told him. How do we know he didn't make it all up?"
"If he's not even willing to give us details, what else are we supposed to believe?" Macmillan's enthusiasm for the argument seemed to lift now that he had a vocal ally.
Pansy's eyes narrowed, but Harry was already too riled up to let that slide.
"He's right here, and I'm not lying," he sneered. "Excuse me for not wanting to go on and on about watching someone get murdered and someone else chop off their own hand and then nearly get killed myself! Anyone who does want to hear about things like that is a morbid git, in my opinion!"
Silence met these words, and Harry took a deep, calming breath. Everyone was staring at him with wide eyes. Macmillan opened his mouth again, but Hermione managed to beat him to it this time.
"Er... so, anyway," she said, trying to recapture the attention of the group. "like I was saying, if you want to learn some defense, then we need to work out how we're going to do it, how often we're going to meet, and where we're going to-"
"If there are going to be Slytherins in the group, then I'm not joining," the Hufflepuff announced, meeting Harry's glare with a foul one of his own. "If we're going to have to keep it a secret, we should be able to trust everyone involved."
There was a murmur of agreement from several other students, and Harry clenched his jaw.
"If you want to-"
"Of course Harry's trustworthy," Anthony said, unintentionally interrupting Pansy. It was probably for the best. She'd looked about ready to rip Macmillan's tongue right out of his mouth. "His House is irrelevant. He has never given any indication of Dark tendencies or even maladaptive social behaviours. Over the course of our friendship, his most pressing motivations have often centred around caring for his friends and family, and he is unusually academically inclined for a non-Ravenclaw." He glanced around at the group and delivered the final blow. "He visited my home over break in third year, and he didn't steal or curse a single thing."
Anthony nodded and leaned back in the grass as though the matter were settled. Harry could personally have done without that last bit, but he was appreciative of the vote of confidence all the same.
"...he's a Parselmouth, though, isn't he?"
"I don't see how that's relevant, considering-" Pansy began, but she was interrupted.
"Right, and isn't his godfather that convict, Sirius Black?" A different Gryffindor from the last time, though he at least quailed under the Weasley twins' disapproval.
"Sirius is innocent, Lee," Hermione said firmly, frowning. "The Wizengamot pardoned him."
More and more of them were muttering amongst themselves, even as those of the group that considered themselves friendly with Harry tried to defend him. Dudley looked ready to hit one of his dormmates. Pansy and Macmillan were sneering insults at each other.
Harry was starting to feel cornered.
"He's a Slytherin, that's proof enough right there-"
Finally, he gave in and stood up.
"You know what?" Harry stood up and brushed off his knees, scowling. Pansy jumped to her feet and glared daggers at the lot of them. "Fine. I won't be in your bloody group, since I'm clearly not welcome."
"Harry!" Hermione stood too. "Of course you're welcome! I have-"
Harry shook his head several times. "I'm not. And I don't want to work with people who are just going to spend all their time glaring at me and asking me questions I'm not going to answer."
He stormed away with what little dignity he had left. Pansy hurried to keep up with him, still spitting mad.
"I'm going to put something in Macmillan's drink at breakfast tomorrow," Pansy said darkly. "He'll think twice before calling me a shrew again."
Harry rubbed his face, miserable. "Just don't kill him. Or get caught, actually."
"Of course not," Pansy said, taking his arm. She glanced back at the sound of footsteps behind them.
"Thanks for the support," she said. Harry looked back as well, and tried to smile as Anthony and Luna caught up with them.
"Simply outrageous," Anthony declared. "Hermione has a lot on her plate with that group."
"We won't be involved, of course," Luna agreed. "The number of wrackspurts they would attract with their small-minded accusations is unthinkable."
"Thanks, Luna," Harry said, sinking down to sit under another tree, much closer to Hogwarts than the one where the other students still gathered. "Thanks, Anthony. I should have known, honestly. Hermione wouldn't have gotten that many people to show up without something more than extra homework to offer."
Pansy knelt down in the grass next to him and put a hand on his shoulder. "That cow will pay, Harry, don't worry."
Harry shook his head. "Leave her alone. I want to yell at her myself. It's the rest of them that were really awful, anyway."
"And they'll regret it," Pansy said with conviction. Her retributive form of comfort actually made Harry feel a bit better, against all odds.
The group of them sat together under the tree for another fifteen minutes while Harry tried to pretend he wasn't sulking. Anthony and Luna excused themselves after a little while, and Pansy and Harry stood up to go back inside, uninterested in the nice weather now that the day had been spoiled.
Harry nearly tripped over himself when they passed by the lake just in time to see Padma Patil and her twin sister leaving the meeting, engaged in what looked like intense conversation. Pansy let go of his arm with an amused smile, just in time for Padma to glance up and meet his eye. Her expression had been neutral all through the meeting, but now she gave him a very small, sympathetic smile.
Harry blinked at her and nodded, feeling like an idiot. She looked back at her sister a second later, and Pansy elbowed him gleefully.
"When did that happen, then?" she asked. Harry smiled a little bit, watching the sisters walk away.
"Just now, I guess." He felt a bit lighter, suddenly.
Snape paced back and forth behind his desk in his office after midnight later on that week. Harry perched in his usual chair and tried to keep his hands from shaking enough to swallow a calming draught.
"Describe this nightmare for me in detail," Snape demanded. Harry looked up and met Snape's eyes, and felt better for it.
"V-voldemort was furious," Harry began tentatively. Snape stopped his pacing and waited. "Quirrell was there. He was mad because Quirrell almost got caught trying to break in somewhere. He... he cursed him with something I didn't recognise."
Snape didn't pursue the foreign magic, to Harry's relief. The results had been gruesome. "Where were they?"
Harry frowned and swallowed. "They were, er, in a room with a fireplace. That huge snake of his was there too. You- why does it matter?"
"I have explained your connection to the Dark Lord in the past," Snape said, resuming his pacing. "My concern is that this is a further display of that connection."
"So... so you think my nightmare was real," Harry asked, horrified when Snape nodded.
"I do," Snape allowed. "We would like for you to avoid the experience in the future."
Harry nodded. He was on board with that plan. "What do I do?"
"We'll discuss it in more detail tomorrow, as it is quite late and you have classes tomorrow," Snape said. "We will build a space in your mind where the Dark Lord's connection can be safely contained, so that if the Dark Lord does attempt to breach your defences, he will find only what you wish to show him."
Harry took a large gulp of his water and tried not to think about Voldemort having what essentially amounted to a guest bedroom inside Harry's head. "Yes, sir."
"Get some sleep, Mr. Potter," Snape said finally, pausing to watch as Harry climbed to his feet. "We will meet tomorrow, at the usual time."
The next day proved daunting from the moment Harry rolled out of bed and saw that Draco was already headed for the showers. He ended up waiting around for a chance to use the bathroom without having to interact, and missed breakfast as a result.
Hermione was currently trying to figure out a way to work around the newest bit of news from Umbridge, the High Inquisitor. Apparently word had gotten out about the meeting over the weekend, because yesterday morning had brought with it an 'Educational Decree' disbanding all student groups pending the approval of the Inquisitor.
"I don't know who could have said anything," Hermione said for the fourth time as they walked to class together Tuesday morning. "I had everyone sign our paper, even you and Anthony and Pansy and Luna. The four of you were the only ones who got away without signing it at the actual meeting, and none of you would have said anything, of course."
"And the whole point of meeting in the open like that was to be sure you could see everyone who might be listening," Harry agreed. "It's a bit of a trick."
"We'll figure it out," Hermione said. "We just have to find a place to meet where she won't find us."
Harry personally couldn't care less about where a group of people who hated him decided to practice magic, and said so.
"Harry, they don't all hate you," Hermione insisted. "Quite a lot of the people in the group are friends of yours or ours. The rest will come around. You didn't hear what happened after you left."
They'd had this conversation already, the first time Harry yelled at her for what happened at that meeting. According to Hermione, the heated argument that had been going on while Harry sat and listened only got more heated after he left, on both sides.
"Half of them are hardly willing to be within ten feet of me without having their wands out, Hermione. It's nice that my friends haven't turned on me too, but that doesn't change the fact that I don't want any part in this group."
Hermione stopped in the middle of the hall and clutched her books to her chest. "Oh, but you promised you'd let us use those lesson plans, Harry!"
Harry thought about telling her to get her own lesson plans, but he could see how much stress the very idea of it was causing her. Hermione hadn't stopped looking harried since they stepped off the train at the beginning of term.
"Still getting in an hour here and there for those naps?" he asked instead. Hermione blinked at him and coloured.
"...not as often as I probably should," she admitted. The chain for her time turner glinted at her collar, and Harry raised his eyebrows. "I've been using them for studying instead."
They started walking again. "You know you shouldn't," Harry said, and relented. "Of course you can still use the lesson plans."
"Thank you so much, Harry!" Hermione said, giving him a quick hug. She let go and paused, looking over his shoulder. "Er, listen, I have to, ah... talk to Professor Babbling before class, okay?"
She smiled at him and dashed off, leaving him standing in the middle of the hallway staring after her.
"She looked like she was in an awful hurry." Harry glanced away from Hermione's retreating back and saw that Padma Patil was standing next to him, head tipped slightly to one side as she watched her go.
He nearly dropped his books.
"S-she, yes," he stuttered. "She was, yes."
"Ancient Runes?" she asked, giving him a small smile. Harry nodded, though he managed to make himself stop before he looked too foolish. "We'll be late if we don't get going."
"Right," Harry said, and, incredibly, they fell into step and walked together toward the staircase. Ancient Runes was on the next level, and Harry had never been more grateful for moving staircases than he was right now. The wait gave him a chance to pull himself together and find something to say.
"Do you like Ancient Runes?" he asked, glancing at her and quickly looking away when she noticed. She tucked a silky lock of hair behind her ear and answered.
"Well enough," she said. "I like Arithmancy better, though. Parvati thinks I'm insane, but there you go."
Harry nodded. "Your sister?"
"My twin sister, yes."
The staircase arrived, and they stepped onto it in tandem. Harry struggled to come up with another comment while ignoring the mental war going on in his head because he was talking to Padma Patil and he was going to screw it up and say something stupid, he needed to run away now, but she was looking at him and he had to stay for that.
"We both thought it was horrid, what Ernie said about you," Padma told him halfway up the stairs, which stopped his mental self-beration entirely.
"You did?" Harry's day was suddenly looking a lot better.
"We did," Padma confirmed. "Of course you don't want to talk about what happened. I wouldn't want to either. You looked like a wreck last term."
Harry scrubbed at the back of his neck and looked at her while she adjusted her bag busily. Her cheeks were slightly tinged with pink.
"What I meant," she said after a moment, "Is that I don't think you're a liar at all."
Harry found himself smiling more genuinely than he had in a few weeks. "Thanks," he said. "That's, that really... Thank you."
She nodded at him and gave him a small smile in return as they reached the classroom and parted ways at the door. Hermione was sitting in her usual spot, and gave him a look when he sat down next to her.
"Padma says she believes me," Harry said with a beatific smile. "She likes Arithmancy and she believes me."
"That's wonderful, Harry," Hermione said, and if she looked amused, Harry didn't care.
Chapter 9: The Lines
Despite the bright spots in his days that were Padma smiling at him from across a classroom or as they passed in the hallways, the stress of the year was still getting to Harry.
That was the explanation he gave, anyway, when Pansy and Blaise cornered him separately to express their disappointment when he received an entire week's worth of detentions from Umbridge in November. In truth, he found that he just couldn't stand the awful woman, and he couldn't always let her comments slide off his back.
By the end of the week, the back of Harry's hand had stopped healing entirely, and by Friday when Umbridge pronounced the detentions at an end with a satisfied smile, the blood dripped steadily down his fingers. He waited until he'd left her office to stem the flow with a handkerchief, choosing instead to deliberately drip blood onto her rug. It was the little things that got him by this year.
There wasn't going to be any hiding this from his friends anymore, Harry realised as he held his hand under the cold tap in the boy's bathroom and waited for the bleeding to abate. Lines, indeed.
Sure enough, Pansy was less than pleased when Harry came upon her in the Slytherin common room, where she'd been talking with one of the older Slytherin boys. She quickly dismissed him and pulled Harry down onto the couch when she spotted his bloodstained handkerchief.
"She had you carve your own hand open?" she asked, outraged. "How archaic! You have to tell Snape."
"I thought you said I should keep my head down until we know how to handle her," Harry said sullenly as she turned his hand over in hers, examining it from every angle to be certain there wasn't any other damage.
"Yes well, that plan failed." She gave his hand back and frowned at him. "So now we'll have to do damage control, and Professor Snape will know better than we would how we should go about it."
"If he tries anything, she'll just sack him," Harry argued, more out of irritation than anything else. "Head Inquisitor, remember?"
Pansy rolled her eyes. "Snape is cleverer than that, Harry. He's not going to get himself fired."
Up in the dormitory, Harry found that Blaise had the same advice. The two of them huddled behind the curtains in Harry's bed, Blaise examining him with as much concern as Pansy had not twenty minutes ago.
"We have to tell Snape," Blaise said as he let go of Harry's hand. Harry nodded, leaning back against one of the posts at the foot of his bed. "He'll fix things so that Umbridge doesn't have a leg to stand on, you'll see," he continued. "And he'll have advice for you, too. He's good with things like this, you know that."
"Yeah," Harry muttered. Snape would probably end up finding out anyway. Harry might as well tell him and save himself a lecture on coming to Snape when he had problems. "So... If you don't mind my asking..." Harry paused. Blaise and Pansy hadn't been quite so intolerant of each other recently. Now was a prime opportunity, if ever. "What happened with you and Pansy, anyway?"
Blaise lifted his eyebrows in a parody of shock. "You actually want to know?"
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means, Harry," Blaise drawled, settling back on Harry's pillows and stretching out his legs, "That you never showed an interest in our relationship at all. Even when it was a relationship. Pansy and I wondered if you were trying to pretend it wasn't happening for a while, until we remembered you really are just that oblivious."
"I knew you were dating!" Harry said, ignoring the heat in his cheeks and hoping Blaise couldn't see it. The skeptical lift of his eyebrow suggested otherwise, however, and Harry rushed to defend himself. "You'd been dating since at least the Christmas holidays."
"Late November, actually," Blaise said, though he lowered his eyebrow. "Do you know how we started dating?"
Harry faltered. He had thought they'd gotten together at the Yule Ball.
"Didn't think so." Blaise paused, and folded his hands together. "It was an epic story, Harry. It started in the middle and everything."
Harry blinked. Blaise rolled his eyes. Thus prompted, Harry asked, "How did it happen?"
"Bagman called her an ugly cow in my hearing." Blaise grinned a little. "Not in hers, though, else she'd have ripped him to pieces, naturally."
Harry grinned back. "Naturally."
"I don't know why he said it, actually," he paused. "Probably she was being Pansy, you know. It didn't matter at the time. Anyway, I went up to him and made a bet-"
"That's what that was all about?" Harry interrupted, sitting forward. "I remember you did that. Then Pansy made sure he was doomed by making her bet, and-"
"It was our first shared hobby as a couple," Blaise said with a touch of nostalgia in his voice. "We didn't ruin him, you know. He did it to himself, even without our bets. He got in too deep with the goblins."
Harry shook his head, wanting to be shocked but not quite able to muster it. "So what happened?"
Blaise sobered. "Oh, well, the stress of the summer, you know. We had a pretty big argument, and after that, we started owling each other instead of flooing or visiting. It sort of went downhill from there."
Harry nodded, watching Blaise look down at his hands with an unhappy twist to his mouth.
"You're bleeding on your sheets," Blaise said eventually. Harry glanced down and rewrapped his handkerchief more securely around his hand.
"Sorry," Harry said. Blaise shrugged and clapped him on the shoulder.
"They're your sheets," he said, and disappeared through Harry's curtains to his own bed.
It turned out that Harry got his lecture from Snape anyway.
"Skeeter has been rather restrained in the past few months." Snape noted as he and Harry circled each other in the open space at the front of the professor's desk.
Harry fixed his eyes below the level of Snape's chin, Occluding fiercely. He had to jump quickly in the next second to throw up a shield before Snape's curse hit.
"As it is unlikely she is simply on vacation, or refraining from commenting on the most recent round of speculation about yourself and the headmaster out of the goodness of her heart, I must wonder what has silenced her."
"Well..." Harry said, buying time by cursing the stone under Snape's feet to crumble and scatter in the air in front of his face while he stumbled. He followed that up with a disarming spell, which Snape deflected back at him.
Harry managed to block it in time, and continued. "Maybe she just realized it would be bad for her career."
Snape's eyes narrowed and spelled the chair behind Harry to attack him. "And who in this hypothetical situation of yours helped her to realize that?"
Harry hesitated, and found himself suddenly dangling upside down in the air as Snape advanced on him.
"Blaise and Pansy and I," he admitted, knowing that Snape wouldn't tolerate misdirection just now. Snape blinked at him slowly. "We found out she's an unregistered animagus. She's not going to publish anything for another year."
"Mr. Potter," Snape hissed, watching as Harry struggled to get himself down. It was like Snape was holding the spell in place, so that Harry's attempts at the countercurse had no effect. "When I told you to bring problems to me, what had we just finished speaking about?"
Harry looked up at his feet. It was a strange angle. "We were talking about Skeeter."
"And now you have 'dealt' with her alone once more, against my express wishes. I do not wish to take points from Slytherin, Mr. Potter, but if you continue to make foolish decisions, I will have no choice."
"I'm sorry, sir. It won't happen again." He cast around for something to lessen the heavy feeling in his chest. Snape was shockingly good at making him feel guilty about things he hadn't thought twice about doing at the time. "I do have a problem I wanted to talk to you about, actually." He held out his hand where the blood quill had left a raw tracing of his lines. "I don't know what to do about this."
As he explained, Harry felt Snape's hold on the spell ease, and he managed to right himself and sit down in the chair that had been attacking him not ten minutes ago. The duel was over now.
Snape examined Harry's hand with expressionless eyes, and once Harry finished his tale, stood and selected a small bottle from the many that sat on shelves behind his desk.
"That isn't murtlap essence, is it?" Harry asked hopefully. The student stores had been out for the past week, and Harry had really been wanting to try out Filch's suggestion.
"It is," Snape said, looking almost surprised. "Finally doing the extra readings in Potions, Mr. Potter?"
"I've just heard it helps," Harry said hastily. If he said yes, Snape would want to discuss the reading, which was not on Harry's agenda for tonight or any other night when all the professors, Snape included, were assigning so much O.W.L. work already.
Snape handed Harry the bottle and a small cloth to soak in the essence. Harry draped the cloth over his hand and felt the irritation wane immediately. He had nearly stopped noticing it until it was gone.
"Unfortunately, as High Inquisitor, Professor Umbridge has unprecedented power here at Hogwarts," Snape said, turning the conversation back to Harry's initial concern. "The wisest course of action at the moment is to avoid angering her entirely." Snape's dark eyes glittered. "Consider it good practice in self restraint and maneuvering."
"At the moment, you said," Harry pointed out hopefully. He didn't think he could handle an entire year of Umbridge calling him a liar without snapping. A single class period was difficult enough. Snape paused.
"At the moment," he agreed. "There will undoubtedly come a time when more outward action should be taken, and we'll be prepared precisely because we did not waste our efforts where they would not be of use. And Mr. Potter?"
Harry looked up at the sardonic lilt to Snape's voice.
"I can promise you that when that time comes, I will let you know. If you do not heed my advice, it will be on your own head."
Harry nodded. He'd begun to understand the difference between times when Snape reading his mind and when he was just being uncanny. This was one of the latter situations.
The Gryffindor/Slytherin match was always the most competitive of the quidditch season. Harry never quite knew how to deal with the rivalry, since he had friends not only in Gryffindor, but on the Gryffindor Quidditch team as well. Usually, when the Slytherins went down to heckle the Gryffindors at practice, he joined them but kept fairly quiet.
But when they were playing, it didn't matter who they were playing against. Harry played his best every time. In the past, that had been good enough for Flint.
Now that Pucey was captain, of course, he had something to say about it.
"Potter, we're going to win this match today," Pucey said, towering over Harry and glaring down at him.
"Of course we are," Harry said promptly. Pucey's eyes narrowed.
"I don't care if you're a traitor to the House," he said. "You won't be a traitor to this team, or you'll be off it faster than you can say 'accidental' foul."
Harry straightened up and glared right back. "I am not a traitor to the House or the team! I've been flying for Slytherin since my second year, and we haven't once lost to Gryffindor!"
Pucey sneered. "All I'm saying is, make sure that doesn't change, and you and I won't have a problem. And another thing." He leaned forward and lowered his voice. "Keep your fucking head down, Potter. We don't need our chances ruined because you're in detention with Umbridge during a match."
Pucey turned on his heel and left Harry seething at his locker where he had been strapping on his gear not two minutes prior. The other members of the team ignored Harry as he finished dressing and left the locker room.
It was a good thing being Seeker was a solitary role, Harry thought as he rose above the other players at the whistle. If he'd been a Beater, or, Merlin forbid, a Chaser, they would have lost for sure, because the only person on the team willing to look at Harry without suspicion or irritation was Draco.
At least Fred and George over on the Gryffindor team were willing to give him a grin whenever he happened to cross their paths. Ginny, their little sister, was playing Seeker for their side.
She wasn't half bad, Harry decided as he swooped down on the Snitch with her hot on his heels and snatched it up. She'd probably win against the Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw Seekers, seeing as how the old ones had been seventh years last year and needed replacing.
His victory was fairly anticlimatic, as he wasn't exactly in the mood for celebrating what with Pucey's anti-pep-talk before the game. Harry landed his broom amidst cheers from the Slytherin stands and dropped the Snitch into Hooch's hands with a brief nod as he passed, headed for the showers and a good sulk.
Hermione's study group had become a big success. She'd come up with these clever little galleons that gave both the time of the next meeting and the room number of whichever abandoned classroom they were using, which allowed the group to be fairly secretive about their movements and keep under Umbridge's radar.
Harry, of course, wasn't going. He heard about what they'd been practicing when Hermione and the others thought he might be in a good enough mood to hear it, but otherwise he stayed out of it. He was sick of hearing Hermione apologising every other sentence, frankly.
Anthony and Luna had actually refused to join the group in protest. Harry thought they might be his heroes for it, and told them so.
"As long as we have your lesson plans, Harry, we don't really need the group," Anthony explained. "It'd be nice, you understand, but not necessary. We can practice together."
"We can," Luna agreed. "Though we should be careful to meet irregularly, or Professor Umbridge might find out and set the Ministry heliopaths on us."
Harry nodded and watched absently as Anthony jotted down her words on a bit of parchment, which he stuck in his pocket.
They were actually outside. Harry had discovered a written version of Anthony's personal O.W.L. schedule in the back of one of his books, and was delighted to find that it accounted for a twenty minute study break right before dinner every Tuesday and Thursday. He took shameless advantage and suggested a walk around the lake. Once Anthony had been roped into going, it took very little to convince Luna to join them. On Thursday, he planned to take them to the Quidditch pitch.
"Oh look, the thestrals are out. Has anyone got any raw meat?"
Harry looked where Luna was pointing and saw several of the skeletal horses grazing near the edge of the forest.
It was good to know he wasn't the only one who could see them. Several of his other friends had given him funny looks for mentioning them already.
"Yes, Luna, Harry and I carry raw meat with us at all times," Anthony said with a small smile. "We are prepared for any and every eventuality."
"Speak for yourself," Harry said. "I'm not the one who has a minute to minute daily schedule. I can go to the bathroom at any time, day or night. I don't have to wait until six forty five like some people I know."
"Harry, I told you, it's a shifting schedule," Anthony said patiently. "That's why things move, you see? It just helps to ensure that I use my time efficiently."
He reached into his pocket and pulled out the heavily marked sheet of parchment that comprised his weekly schedule, and the three of them paused near a copse of trees as Anthony demonstrated the malleability of his routine.
"You see, if I find that I need more time to work on Potions on Wednesday, then I can just move some of my Potions time from Thursday, and on Thursday, I'll be sure to complete the unused Transfiguration minutes."
He used his wand to move the little blocks of minutes around on the parchment to demonstrate just that.
"Okay," Harry said, fascinated. He pulled out his wand. "I had actually wondered about that. So, if I take this free time from Monday morning and replace it with... hmm... Wednesday's dinner, and then use that time for Charms, then you and I have enough time on Thursday to have a pickup match!"
Anthony stared at his newly organised schedule. "Harry, I can't eat Wednesday's dinner at seven am on Monday morning."
Harry glanced at Luna, who was examining the schedule as well. "Of course you can't, Anthony," she said, lifting her own wand. "Instead, you move Wednesday's dinner to Tuesday night, and eat both dinners then. You can make inquiries with the house elves. From there, you can use your Monday morning for multiple bathroom breaks, and look! That's another twenty minutes for Harry's quidditch."
Harry and Luna beamed at each other, then at Anthony. He did not share in their amusement. "I deplore you both," he said, poking at his ruined schedule. "You're lucky I have another copy of this."
"About that," Harry said, and pulled from his pocket the copy he had discovered in the back of Anthony's schoolbook. Anthony's eyes went wide, and he reached for it. Harry backed away and grinned at him.
"You don't get enough exercise, Anthony!" Harry said, and began to jog backward away from him and Luna. Anthony followed unwillingly.
"If I run in a few circles, will you give it back?" he asked. Harry feigned a moment of serious thought, and while he wasn't paying attention, Anthony tackled him.
"Hey!" Harry shouted as Anthony plucked the schedule neatly from his hands and settled down comfortably on Harry's upper back to put it away. Luna appeared and sat down in front of Harry's head as he tried unsuccessfully to find the leverage needed to push Anthony off.
"Since when does Anthony tackle people?" Harry asked Luna. He still hadn't quite processed the fact that Anthony was sitting on him. She shrugged.
"We read Machiavelli a few weeks ago," she said, as though that explained everything.
"It was a preemptive strike, Harry," Anthony agreed from where he sat. "One you were woefully underprepared for."
"I'll get you next time," Harry grumbled, settling his chin on his arms and wondering if he could catch Anthony off guard right now. Probably not, since they'd just been talking about being unprepared.
"I'm sure you will, Harry," Luna said. She even patted him on the head.
Harry didn't know how Draco had been doing since they'd last spoken, aside from the little updates that Pansy insisted on dropping into conversation, like 'Draco's been writing to his parents more often than usual', and 'Draco has been looking ill recently.'
So one morning, when Harry finished knotting his tie and turned away from his wardrobe to find Draco standing awkwardly by the door, the first thought he had was that Pansy had been right. Draco wasn't looking well at all. His second thought was less a thought and more of a sinking feeling.
"Can we talk?" Draco asked, shifting to put one shoulder in front of the door. Harry crossed his arms and raised an eyebrow.
"What do we have to talk about?" he asked. Draco cleared his throat.
"I've been thinking about what you said," he began, crossing his arms as well. "And I had an idea."
Harry waited in silence.
"I want you to tell me what I can do to make you less angry with me," Draco continued, looking anywhere but at Harry, which meant that he missed the way Harry frowned at him.
"I'm not angry at you." Draco glanced up and lifted a skeptical eyebrow. Harry rolled his eyes. "Well, yeah, I am. But that's not the problem. I just don't want to be friends anymore, that's all."
Draco's arms dropped to his sides, and his mouth fell open. "Why not? I'll fix it, I promise!"
"How are you supposed to fix it? Your father-"
"Stop bringing up my bloody father!"
"He's half the problem, Draco!" Harry yelled, letting his bag fall next to his feet with a thump. "No, he's the entire problem! I understand that he's your dad, but you can't do the things he wants you to do and still expect me to want to be your friend! He would have killed me if he had the chance!"
"I don't want to join the Dark Lord," Draco said firmly, looking Harry straight in the eye. "I told my father that. I've told him a dozen times already."
"And he keeps asking, doesn't he?"
"And I keep saying no!"
"Must not be a very clear 'no'," Harry pointed out. "If he keeps asking."
Draco opened his mouth, but no sound came out. Eventually he found something to say. "I can't choose between you and my parents. My mother has nothing to do with this."
The miserable expression Draco was wearing finally made Harry relent, just a little. "Then I'm not talking about her," he said. "I'm talking about you expecting us to still be okay when you're siding with people who tried to kill me, Draco."
Draco swallowed. "But I'm not."
"I'd say 'prove it', but I don't know how I'd ask you to," Harry said. He glanced at his watch. "Breakfast is nearly over."
He waited until Draco stepped out of the way to cross to the door and leave. Pansy and Blaise were waiting down in the common room, and when they saw his face, Blaise followed him out into the hall and let him have his silence for the entire walk to Transfiguration.
Chapter 10: The Room
It was still only November, but Harry was already looking forward to the winter holidays. He had every intention of getting as far away from Hogwarts as possible, and Sirius and Remus had accommodated his plans by inviting him to spend Christmas with them in Devon.
Until then, Harry did what he could to avoid the giant ball of stress that his friends and classes had become. He spent a lot of time finishing homework on his own, cleaning for Filch, and trying to find that storage room on the seventh floor again, where he'd at least been able to sit down and relax without the glares of half the school on him.
He'd long since finished cleaning up Peeves's mess in the hall that he'd found the room in, across from a tapestry of trolls attempting ballet, but he continued to loiter there sometimes, trying to work out the trick that would let him get in. The Maurader's Map was no help; either they hadn't discovered this room, or they just hadn't felt the need to provide any hints. Harry wasn't asking. He liked the idea of figuring it out on his own.
Though he wasn't a pacer by nature, Harry decided he had to do something to express his annoyance with the process. He'd examined every square inch of the wall in that hallway, and even parts of the floor. He'd asked the trolls, who were very put out when he interrupted their practice. Some of the threatening gestures they'd made would have alarmed Harry had they been actual, full sized trolls.
So Harry paced. He grumbled, too, while he was at it, and even left the corridor entirely, peering out a nearby window. He didn't think any of it would help, honestly, especially not the window. He was just frustrated.
When he came back and the door was there, he brightened and pulled it open. It was the same storage room as before, and Harry grinned stupidly at the piles and piles of stuff until it occurred to him that he still had no idea how he'd made it appear.
"Bugger," he muttered, and went inside anyway.
He poked around for a while, amusing himself by digging through boxes, smirking at old robes and, in the case of one cabinet, shielding his face as an avalanche of old quills showered him like a particularly pointy exploded down pillow.
Harry found a mountain of desks that was nearly as tall as the stacks and stacks of chairs near the door. This was more sturdy, though, and there was an interesting purple something about halfway up the pile, so Harry climbed.
It was a stuffed dragon, old and dusty, with some of the batting poking out. It stared up at him with a woeful expression and flapped its wings pitifully. Harry tried not to appear visibly amused since that seemed rude somehow, but he did cast a charm to fix the hole in its left wing. He'd never seen a wizarding stuffed animal before.
Back down on ground level, Harry wandered through the maze of old, abandoned stuff until he found the door again. He wanted to figure out how he'd managed to find the entrance so that he could come back.
It turned out that the window had nothing to do with getting inside the room, which was a pity, as that seemed like a particularly easy way to go about things. From what Harry could tell, it was actually the pacing that had done it. That and glaring at the space where the door was supposed to be.
The glaring probably wasn't necessary, but Harry didn't know that for sure as he hadn't yet managed to get the door to appear without it. He figured there was nothing wrong with playing it safe.
Now that he knew how to get the door to appear on command, Harry wanted to show someone else. It was a fascinating discovery, after all, and he knew several of his friends would be interested.
Except, he didn't know who to invite.
Hermione was out. She talked about that study group of hers enough that Harry wasn't predisposed to show her the room. She might want the group to meet there, and then Harry would never be able to use it. He'd found it, not them, and they weren't going to oust him.
Speaking with Dudley was either infuriating or depressing, depending on the day, and Harry didn't really want to deal with it right now. The same went for Neville and his intermittent Hermione-induced panic attacks over the O.W.L.'s.
His Slytherin friends were little better. Pansy and Blaise were less likely to garotte each other in the hallway recently, but things were still stilted and awkward there, and Harry didn't want to be seen as choosing sides if he showed one of them and not the other.
Anthony and Luna were still faithfully spending most of their time on homework, but they were at least bearable to be around during their breaks.
In fact, they could probably be convinced to take one soon, if Harry made a sufficiently tempting offer.
Harry set off for the library in a better mood than he'd been in for a few days. When he got there, he deftly avoided the Gryffindor table by taking a detour through the Divination section, which Hermione never bothered to use, and which led right to Anthony and Luna's usual table.
It was shockingly empty. Harry checked his watch, and tried in vain to remember what it was Anthony usually did on Wednesdays at four thirty. He knew it wasn't a study break, but it could very well be Potions or Defense, neither of which he worked on in the library.
"If you're looking for Anthony Goldstein, he's in the common room. I saw him on my way out."
Harry looked up at the voice, which turned out to belong to Padma Patil. He blushed and mentally groped around for something to say.
"T-that's unusual," he said finally, readjusting his bag.
Padma shrugged and stepped around the table, holding a pile of Charms books against her chest.
"He needed to use one of our reference books," she explained. "They're charmed so they can't leave the Tower."
"Oh," Harry said, nodding and mentally berating himself. What kind of response was 'oh'?
Padma didn't seem bothered. "Did you need him for anything in particular?"
"Oh, I, er..." Harry pulled himself together. "I just wanted to show him something interesting I'd found, that's all. Get him out of the library."
"A noble, if foolish pursuit," she said. Harry wasn't sure what to say to that, so he nodded again. He felt like he might be acting like an idiot. "We can go get him, if you like," she offered, and it took Harry a second to realize what she was suggesting.
"Up in Ravenclaw Tower?" he asked. "Yeah, that's- if you don't mind, sure. Thanks!"
Harry waited while Padma checked out her books out and packed up her satchel, and they left the library together. He tried to surreptitiously dry his hands, which were sweaty, and check that his hair wasn't too messy in a window as they passed. It was a lost cause, as usual.
They walked in silence for nearly two floors, until Padma gave Harry a small smile and took pity on him. "Have you started that translation for Babbling, yet?"
"I haven't finished it, if that's what you're asking," Harry said, rubbing the back of his neck. "But I got the first two pages done yesterday."
She waited with raised eyebrows, and Harry shook his head. "It was kind of gruesome, wasn't it?"
Padma gave him an actual smile for that. "It was. Wait until you get to page five. They order the infidels to the breaking wheel."
Harry made a face. "I'm almost afraid to ask."
"You should be." Padma shifted her bag on her shoulder. It was stuffed full of books.
"D'you... do you want me to carry that for you?" Harry asked, gesturing at her bag. Padma looked down at it, then back up at him.
"No, I've got it," she said, and she looked amused. "You're not as evil as everyone says you are, Potter."
"Er, t-thanks," he stuttered.
She watched him for a moment longer. "You're only a little bit evil, I think."
Harry had no idea what to say to that, or the smile that came with it. Fortunately, they reached the entrance to Ravenclaw Tower soon after, and she left him in the hall to go find Anthony.
Harry let out a long breath as he waited. Had that gone well? He hoped it had. What did she mean by 'only a little bit evil'? He'd have to ask someone. Pansy? Hermione? ...Anthony? He was in over his head.
"So what did you want to show me that was important enough to move my study break up to right now, Harry?"
"Quiet, Anthony, we're nearly there."
"Well, you have twelve more minutes."
Harry grabbed Anthony's wrist and picked up the pace. "We had better hurry, then, hadn't we?"
They reached the storage room in record time, and Harry managed to make the door appear with little fuss.
"Now come in here and tell me you're not impressed," Harry said, throwing the door open and standing aside so that Anthony could see.
Anthony tipped his head on one side and stepped inside, gazing around at all the junk that filled the room to the brim.
"Huh," he said, picking up a partially melted shield that looked like it belonged to one of the suits of armour. "Look what you found."
Harry grinned and followed him, pointing out a pile of broken sneakoscopes as they passed. "Isn't this brilliant?"
"Is everything broken in here, do you think?"
"I don't think so," Harry said. "A lot of it just looks like it hasn't been used in a long time."
Anthony frowned over a pile of unidentifiable bits of wood. "Fascinating."
They spent much longer than twelve minutes exploring the storage room, which Harry counted as a victory. Anything he could do to usurp time better spent studying was a success, in his opinion.
Anthony was examining a piece of jewelry with more interest than Harry thought was entirely necessary from a bloke who didn't have a girlfriend when Harry encountered another cabinet, contents of which cascaded down on him with a soft thump.
"Anthony! Come here!"
Anthony took his time in detouring around a statue of an elephant with a tusk missing, and snickered when he finally saw exactly what had come exploding out of the cabinet.
"Do you need help extricating yourself from those socks, Harry?" he asked courteously. Harry kicked through the knee deep pile to open ground and rolled his eyes, pulling one off his shoulder and tossing it in the pile.
"I'm fine, no thanks to you," he said. "How did that many socks fit in such a small cupboard, d'you think?"
"Magic," Anthony suggested. "And anyway, I found something much more interesting: look."
He held up the bit of jewelry he'd been examining earlier. It was old and delicate looking, and Harry didn't see what was so interesting about it.
"Very nice, I guess?" he said, perplexed.
"It looks like..." he paused. "I'd have to do some research. Do you think I can take this?"
"Who would care?" Harry asked, shrugging. "I don't think Filch is actually aware this room exists."
Anthony nodded, head still bent over the jewelry, turning it over and over in his hands. "Good, good. I should get back to the Tower, Harry. It's been over an hour. I'm well behind schedule."
They walked out together. After he'd dropped Anthony off, Harry figured he might as well go down to the library and talk to the Gryffindors if they were there. He had nothing else to do, apart from homework. He needed a break from it for today, though.
Harry snuck up on the Gryffindors, just to see if he could. Dudley and Neville were hard at work, scribbling away at parchment and referencing from the same book occasionally. Hermione's stack of parchment was thicker, as were her books, but she was tapping her quill on the table and looked about ready to pass out.
"A nap sounds good right about now, doesn't it?"
Harry dropped into a seat right next to hers and gave her a quick grin. She blinked at him.
"Who has time for a nap these days?" Dudley grumbled. Harry lifted an eyebrow at Hermione.
She went slightly pink and looked away.
"I have to finish this essay," she said instead, her quill making a steady tap-tap-tap noise on the desk. "And after that, the diagram for Care of Magical Creatures, and after that-"
"A nap to keep you from going insane," Harry said, plucking the quill neatly from her hands. "Or at least a break. Come on, Hermione. Even Anthony isn't as bad as all this. He took an entire hour to relax today."
"I like Harry's idea," Neville said, tossing his quill down and leaning back in his chair. "I can't read another word about Colour Changing Charms."
Dudley glanced up from his own work when Neville threw his quill, and grinned at Harry. "Hello. When did you show up?" he asked. Harry shrugged.
"Just now. I'm instituting a mandatory break."
"What I want to know," Hermione interjected, "Is how you'll get all your homework finished today if you're going around forcing everyone else to take breaks."
"I'm not forcing anyone," Harry said, tilting back in his chair. "Anthony has a schedule. He's very devoted to it. He certainly wouldn't let the likes of me come between them. Which reminds me." He let his chair fall forward and crossed his arms on the table. "What does it mean if a girl tells you you're 'only a little bit evil'?"
Hermione smirked at him and glanced over at Neville and Dudley, who looked intrigued.
"Explain yourself, Harry," Neville demanded. He and Dudley both leaned forward and waited with expectant expressions.
"Padma and I were talking earlier," Harry said, starting to blush as the three of them made various faces. Dudley's waggling eyebrows were what really did it. "Stop that! Like I said, we were talking, and she said I'm not as evil as everyone says I am, and then she said, 'you're only a little bit evil'."
He looked at Hermione, pointedly ignoring the suggestions from the two snickering boys on the other side of the table.
"It means she likes you," Hermione told him. "Good for you, Harry."
"I hoped so." Harry scrunched up his forehead. "But... how does that translate, again?"
Hermione rolled her eyes. "It's flirting. I've seen you do it before, you must know how it works."
Harry's mouth dropped open. "I don't flirt. When do I flirt?"
"I've seen you flirt with Luna," Hermione's expression was far too smug. "And you've flirted with Pansy loads of times."
"Harry Potter, you're a slag!" Dudley exclaimed gleefully. Harry flushed crimson.
"Dudley! Don't just say things like that in the library!" he hissed, looking around to see if anyone had heard.
"Dudley's just feeling a bit punchy because he didn't sleep at all last night, did you Dudley?" Hermione frowned over the table at him, radiating disapproval. "Neither did Neville or Ron."
"Neither did you," Dudley accused. "You were up all night working on tomorrow's meeting."
"I slept," Hermione said primly. "Just not as much as usual. The three of you were up all night for no reason at all."
"We were working on a Divination project," Neville said. Hermione snorted, and he ignored her with dignity. "We were reading the cards and doing our dream diaries."
"You were playing Exploding Snap," Hermione pointed out. "And I'm pretty sure you have to sleep before you can have dreams for your diaries."
While Neville and Hermione bickered good naturedly, Dudley leaned across the table. "I meant to ask, Harry," he said with cheer. "Are you planning to come back home for the winter holiday?"
Harry felt his good mood drain out of him like a plug had been pulled. "Oh," he said. "Well, I was going to visit Sirius and Remus," Dudley waited, eyebrows lifted very slightly and a hopeful expression on his face. "...but I could probably come for the last week or so, if you want."
The words came out of his mouth without his permission, and Harry forced a smile when Dudley grinned at him. "Great! I'll write to mum and dad this week and let them know."
Harry left the library not long after, cursing himself up and down. He couldn't go. But he couldn't not go. What if Aunt Petunia couldn't keep up the act? What if she left again, or worse, what if she let on how she really felt? He couldn't leave Dudley to deal with the fallout on his own. He had to go.
"Our Skiving Snackboxes are nearly ready for mass consumption," Fred declared, whipping a small sheet off a row of neatly organized sweets. Harry peered down at them, curious.
"These are the ones that make you vomit or faint?"
"No, those are the Puking Pastilles," George said, pointing from one sweet to another. "Those are the Fainting Fancies."
"And those are Nosebleed Nougats and Fever Fudge," Fred said, poking his own finger at the two multicoloured candies Harry had been examining. "We've almost got all the kinks worked out of those."
"The Weasley's Wild-Fire Whiz-Bangs and the Portable Swamps are finally finished, though," George said, revealing another row of products on the next desk over with a flourish.
"And our Canary Cremes and Ton Tongue Toffees have been on the market for ages, as well as the fake wands and the the Extendable Ears."
"We're already doing a reasonable amount of business by owl order," George added, handing Harry a stack of parchment filled with numbers and columns. Harry blinked and flipped through it. He didn't quite follow all the columns, but the numbers were fairly large and only one or two of them were in red, so that seemed good. "The only thing holding us back right now is product testing on the Snackboxes."
Harry frowned, leaning back against a desk. "Is it just a slow process, or...?"
The twins exchanged a dark glance. "You could say that," Fred said. "Or you could say your prefect friend is giving us a bit of difficulty."
Harry bit back a smile. "Hermione? I'm surprised I haven't heard about it already, if that's the case. She wasn't pleased when I decided to help the two of you."
"Well, that's your assignment for tonight, boss," George said, waving his hands at Harry. "You've backed our venture, now go do what you need to do to get your investment off the ground."
"She's not going to give in just because I ask her to," Harry pointed out reasonably. The twins rolled their eyes in tandem.
"Go be Slytherin at her or something," Fred said, making shooing motions. "Whatever that means. We won't ask."
Harry very carefully decided not to wonder what they might think that meant. "Look, if you want to convince Hermione to leave you alone, you want to make it seem like everything is by the book."
"We pay them," George pointed out.
"Real galleons and everything," Fred agreed. "How much more 'by the book' does it get?"
"I don't know," Harry said. "Write up some kind of paperwork for them to sign, something you can show her. She'd buy that."
"Maybe a consent form?"
The twins grinned at each other. "And it can have small print-"
"- and subsections-"
"And completely absolve us of any responsibility for any injuries or painful vomiting caused by our products!"
"Brilliant idea, boss!" Fred said with a grin. "We knew there was a reason we brought you on board."
"Aside from all the galleons I gave you?" Harry reminded them. They beamed and patted him on the shoulder, unconcerned.
"That too, of course."
Chapter 11: The Awkward
With the Christmas holiday approaching, Harry's schedule only became more hectic. There was no more time for random study breaks; between Pucey's 'keeping up with the Gryffindors' winter Quidditch practices and Snape's lessons and Umbridge's detentions, Harry hardly had time to go to classes, let alone avoid his homework.
His legilimency lessons were going well, at least. He'd managed to build the mind space Snape had suggested, and spent twenty minutes every morning maintaining the thoughts and memories that wallpapered the boundaries and floated thick in apparently vulnerable invitation. He hadn't had another nightmare since the first.
Detentions with Umbridge hadn't been nearly so much a success, in that he was avoiding them by the skin of his teeth these days. Her reasons for issuing them were becoming thinner and thinner. When Hagrid finally came back, she sat in on his class and gave Harry detention for what amounted to dropping his book. It came to the point where not one of his friends had bothered to use the phrase 'keep your head down' in a few weeks.
The brightest spot in the last few weeks of classes before break was the day Blaise showed up to the Great Hall for lunch with a girl.
Harry spotted them first, and frowned. Normally he'd lean over and ask Pansy who she was, but Blaise and this girl were walking way too close and smiling at each other way too much. Harry wasn't that tactless. He glanced around. Theo was sitting closest to him, and Harry wasn't about to have a conversation about Blaise's new girlfriend with him. Theo didn't like Harry and had never made a mystery of it. They usually just avoided each other.
"You're pathetic, Harry." Pansy dropped into the empty seat next to him and reached for the juice. "You're practically radiating 'helpless socially awkward prat' over here."
Harry glared. "What are you talking about? I'm not doing anything."
"Harry Potter, I am going to read your mind." Pansy glanced at Blaise, who was standing near the Ravenclaw table saying goodbye to his girl, then put on an insultingly high pitched voice and began: "'Oh Blaise met someone. Who is she? I don't know, for I am a socially oblivious caterpillar.' Your head turns. 'Oh no, I can't ask Pansy! Conflict and tears may follow! And I have no one else in Slytherin, for I am, as I said, an oblivious caterpillar who has only two friends. Oh, there's Theo: yuck. What do I do?'"
She waved her hands like a flightless bird through most of this narrative, which had Harry covering his mouth to try to hide his embarrassed laughter.
"I've got plenty of friends!" Harry said, his voice muffled through his hands.
"How did I do? Outstanding? Exceeds Expectations?"
"You're not even taking the Divination O.W.L."
"I'm too good for Trelawney," she declared. "And anyway, your face was an open book." She sobered as she glanced at Blaise, who was heading for their table. "You should know Blaise and I are mostly done fighting. Sorry about the past few months."
"You're okay with him going out with-?"
"Her name is Lisa Turpin," Pansy said. "And yes, it's fine. Lisa's boring. I'm definitely the better catch." She flashed a grin at Harry and lowered her voice as Blaise came closer. "And anyway, I've got Miles."
Blaise sat down across from Harry and greeted the both of them cordially. Pansy responded, and if the two of them were a little too cheerful about it all, Harry certainly wasn't going to say anything. This was more than he could have dreamed of even last week. His friends were speaking to each other again. As for Miles Bletchely, Slytherin Keeper, he tended to ignore Harry rather than glare at him, and Harry wasn't stupid enough to bring him up in front of Blaise before he knew Blaise's opinion on the whole situation.
He wasn't actually a socially oblivious anything, no matter how Pansy liked to pick on him.
As though to put his confidence in his social abilities to the test, Harry ran into Padma the day before break. All any of them had left to do at the moment were the assignments they'd been given to work on over the holidays, and Harry didn't want to see the inside of the library again until at least January. He didn't even want to look at his school books until after Christmas, though he'd probably get a scolding from Hermione if she caught wind of his plans.
As such, Harry was wandering the drafty corridors and wishing there were more fireplaces in the Slytherin common room. All the warm spots had been taken up by sixth and seventh year Slytherins who didn't like him. It was chilly in the dungeons during the winter at the best of times, and Harry felt he was better served being cold somewhere where he wouldn't also feel hated.
It was a lucky thing, too. He met Padma near the Owlery, walking down a narrow flight of stairs.
"Oh, hello," she said. "I wondered if I would get a chance to wish you a good break."
Harry managed to respond without too much trouble. "I hope you have a good break, too," he said. "Are you going home?"
"We are," she said, and glanced behind her. "Are you headed anywhere in particular?"
"Oh, er, not really," Harry turned faintly red and stepped out of her way. "I was just walking."
"Good, then you can walk with me," she said, and continued down the steps toward him with a small smile. Harry tried his best not to turn bright red and nodded.
"Where are you going?" he asked as they fell into step next to each other, Harry concentrating predominantly on not tripping over his own feet and not staring at her too much.
"I'm just walking, like you," she said with a shrug. "Where will you be staying for your holiday?"
"I'm going to visit my godfather, and then I'll be staying with family," Harry said, resigned.
Padma raised her eyebrows. "You don't sound particularly excited, if you don't mind my saying."
"I'm not really looking forward to the last bit," Harry admitted. "It's not a big deal, though. What will you be doing?"
"Parvati and I are going to our parent's house," Padma said, guiding them onto a staircase as it passed. "We usually visit our aunt and uncle in Birmingham at some point, as well."
"Do you like Birmingham?" Harry asked. She looked amused.
"I do," she said. "Are you going to visit any of your friends at all?"
Harry shrugged. "I don't have any plans to. Pansy and Blaise have only just stopped fighting, and Anthony or Hermione would make me study with them."
"Blaise Zabini?" she asked, pushing her hair back. "I think he and Lisa are dating, aren't they?"
Harry nodded. "That's what he told me."
Padma nodded back, blinking at him. "Lisa says he's very charming."
"I guess, sure," Harry said, rubbing the back of his neck. "He's a good guy."
"We should all do something together in January, when we get back," she continued, still watching him. "If you want to, I mean."
Harry's mind went blank for a full second. He opened his mouth and words fell out. "I, er, I mean, yeah. We should, definitely." He cleared his throat. "In January."
"Great!" She smiled at the hallway in front of them and adjusted the bag she was carrying. "We'll do that, then."
When Harry returned to his dormitory later that afternoon, he was in such high spirits that even Draco's appearance in the doorway didn't phase him.
Neither of them said anything to the other at first. Harry was sifting through his things, deciding what to bring with him for the holiday and occasionally smiling at his socks or his robes. Draco stopped in front of Blaise's four poster and frowned at it. After a long minute, he huffed out a sigh and spoke without looking at Harry.
"Do you know which hex Blaise has on his nightstand? I can't remember if he's up to barricus or obruo."
Harry blinked and glanced up from his sorting, but Draco apparently had no intention of turning around. He chewed on his lip thoughtfully. Blaise was fairly predictable in his choice of hexes to ward his things. He liked to spell out foul words with the first letter of each new spell, and it was easy to guess which he would use next if you paid attention.
"I'm pretty sure it's lingaugeo now," Harry said. "Theo tripped it on Thursday, and got hit in the head with... everything."
Draco shook his head. "I rather thought he'd go with lapidosus."
"No, he and Pansy are talking again as of last week," Harry reported, and felt even more cheerful at the very thought. "He's in a much better mood lately, haven't you noticed?"
"Oh." Draco paused. "Thank bloody Merlin for that. Now I can start using the common room again."
The conversation ended with Draco apparently throwing caution to the wind now that he knew he wasn't likely to be stoned, and spelling open the top drawer of Blaise's nightstand. Harry turned back to his packing and listened to Draco trying to pronounce the counterspell with a tongue three times its usual size. It was the friendliest conversation they'd had in over a year, and he felt a vivid, hollow ache in his chest at the thought.
Harry was greeted at the train station by Remus and a large black dog, who leapt up and woofed in Harry's face.
Harry laughed and leaned away from the dog breath and drool. "Is there any reason you decided to come as a dog?" he asked as Sirius dropped back down to all fours and barked again.
"Not that I'm aware of," Remus interjected, a small, restrained smile playing about his mouth. He reached into the pocket of his robes and pulled out a leash. "I think he just likes wearing this."
All the fur on Sirius' back stood up when he saw the leash, and he growled at Remus before racing off into the crowd. Harry stared after him, but Remus chose instead to shrug innocently and sling Harry's bag over his shoulder. When they reached the apparition point, Sirius was holding a place in line on two human feet, though he still looked like he might want to growl.
"Where did you get that?" he demanded when Remus moved into earshot. "I thought I burned all your damn leashes."
Remus grinned and stuffed the leash back in his pocket. "I have my ways."
Sirius gave him a gimlet eye and then turned very deliberately to Harry. "Hey, kid, how have you been?"
"Alright," Harry said as Sirius wrapped an arm around his shoulders in preparation for their departure. "You?"
"I was doing great a minute ago," Sirius said, and cast another dark glare at Remus' pockets. After the three of them disapparated, Sirius turned on Remus and said, "You can't have gotten it from Diagon Alley. I bribed Gladys at the Menagerie."
"You didn't say a word to Duncan Eeylops."
Harry looked around and realised they were at Sirius and Remus's house. Or, to be more accurate, they were standing in front of the sapling that served as an entrance. It was getting taller. Harry wrapped his hand around the trunk and waited.
"He sells owls! As far as I'm aware, you don't put a leash on an owl!"
"Well, no," Remus allowed. "But he used to own a crup."
Sirius wrapped his own hand around the sapling as though he'd much rather be wrapping it around Remus's neck. "I'll get you," he promised. "Harry and I will get you back while he's here, won't we, Harry?"
Remus took hold of one of the smaller branches and spoke the password. As the house grew around them, he shook his head at Harry. "There's no need to take sides," he said. "And anyway, I sent you those lesson plans back in October, didn't I, Harry? What has Sirius done for you lately?"
"Oh right," Sirius said, and he and Remus both gave Harry their full attention. "How did your defense group turn out? You never said."
Harry frowned. "I expect they're doing well. I wouldn't know."
Sirius and Remus's house surrounded them, tall and transparent. The snow reflected sunshine off the glass, and inside it looked warm and comfortable. Thick floor to ceiling curtains had been added to several of the rooms since Harry's last visit, though they were all currently pulled back to let the light in.
They left the courtyard by way of the kitchen as Harry explained his falling out with Hermione's group. Remus put the kettle on.
"You're still letting them use the lesson plans?" Sirius said with outrage when Harry finished.
"I'm letting Hermione use them," Harry said. He was weary of this conversation already. He'd had it a thousand times with Blaise and Pansy. "She's the one who would spend all her time coming up with new ones if I hadn't. None of them would suffer for it."
Fortunately, Remus and Sirius were Gryffindors and also didn't know how Hermione had framed the first meeting to all the potential members. Otherwise, the argument really would have become the same exact one he had with Blaise and Pansy. Their next line was usually 'Let her suffer, she's a bint!' Never mind that Harry had forgiven her already.
Instead, Remus handed him a mug of hot chocolate and said, "That's very mature of you, Harry."
Harry looked down at his chocolate. "Thank you."
Sirius grimaced, but changed the subject anyway. "What else have you been up to?"
Harry wracked his brain for something pleasant to talk about. There wasn't much. He wilted somewhat as he realised what a truly awful term he'd just experienced.
"I'm pretty sure I'm not failing any classes," he said. Remus's eyebrows shot up, and Harry hurried to continue before he could ask which were uncertain. "And I met a girl."
Sirius leaned forward with interest. "A girl? Out with it, Harry! Who is she?"
Harry flushed at the scrutiny, but explained about Padma and how she had said they should do something after break.
"You've come to the right place for advice," Sirius said. Remus snorted.
"Sirius never had a single relationship last longer than three days when we were in school," Remus told Harry. "Don't trust him any further than you can throw him."
"I'll have you know I was considered quite the catch," said Sirius, ignoring Remus, who had snorted again. "Unlike Remus, who dated books in school."
"I had two relationships at Hogwarts," Remus corrected him.
"Hairy Snout, Human Heart, and Saucy Tricks for Tricky Sorts," Sirius agreed. "I know. You brought them home to meet your parents and everything."
Christmas with Sirius and Remus turned out to be an enormous event, as Sirius loved the holidays.
"He's always been like this," Remus told Harry a couple days before Christmas while they were finishing up the decorating. Sirius was storming around the house, flinging tinsel into the air and belting out Christmas songs at the top of his lungs.
"...seven snidgets soaring, six pixies pranking, five elder wands!"
"How many Christmas songs does he know?" Harry asked as he continued hanging garland and helping Remus introduce the fairies to their posts. Sirius had already been through a rendition of 'God Rest Ye Merry Hippogriffs' and 'Jingle Bells', and it was only noon.
"All of them," Remus said. "Count yourself lucky. He's been like this for three weeks already."
"If he's been looking forward to the holidays so much, why are we only decorating now?" Harry asked. Sirius heard the question and appeared at the top of the staircase, holding up a mug of eggnog like a toast.
"We were waiting for you, of course," he said. "Christmas colours are red and green. We had the red, you had the green."
Harry blinked. "That is the single sappiest thing I have ever heard you say," he said. Remus snickered.
"Both of you can bugger right off," Sirius declared cheerfully, sailing past them and tossing a handful of silvery tinsel to float in the air above their heads in a messy clump as he went. Remus sighed.
"Our next project, you realise, is finding all the places he's done things like that and fixing them," Remus told Harry, using his wand to give the tinsel some semblance of order. "It may actually take us until Christmas."
On Christmas morning, Harry was woken early by the sound of his door creaking open. Something about the noise sounded stealthy, which was what had woken him. Stealthy movement in the Slytherin dormitories never boded well for the unconscious. He'd woken up missing a foot before, and had to hop around the dorm for half an hour before he found Theo using it to practice his transfiguration.
Stealthy movement at Sirius and Remus's house could sometimes be worse than all that, even. And last night, he and Sirius might have used a time-delayed spell to transfigure Remus's bed into a cleverly disguised pool. So Remus might be a little irritated with them.
Harry gripped his wand under his pillow and waited with slitted eyes for the attack, which came in the form of a bucket of water falling on his head.
"Wake up, Harry!"
Harry sat up, spluttering and blinking water out of his eyes. He glared at Sirius and Remus, who were standing in his doorway beaming.
"Remus, you don't play pranks on Christmas!" Sirius called from halfway down the hall. It turned out he wasn't standing in Harry's doorway so much as passing by, and had paused to watch Remus's prank. "That's not in the proper spirit of the holiday!"
Remus produced a towel from behind his back and tossed it at Harry as he watched Sirius walk away. "If I recall, that swimming pool you turned my bed into happened after midnight last night," he called. "You're a hypocrite, Sirius."
"It was planned and executed yesterday," Harry disagreed, having decided to play Sirius's Advocate since Sirius had wandered off. "We didn't spend Christmas morning scheming. We spent it thinking about the True Meaning of the Season. Or at least Sirius did. Now, because of you, I'm thinking about the true meaning of revenge."
Remus rolled his eyes. "Very clever, Harry," he said, and produced a tray piled with hot tea and biscuits. "Now have some tea and get out of bed, it's time to open your gifts."
The tray was obviously a pre-planned conciliatory gesture, though with an actual Christmas morning waiting, it was entirely unnecessary. Harry took a cup and some biscuits anyway, and dried his clothing as he followed Remus downstairs.
Sirius made them all sit between the hearth fire and the Christmas tree in one of the more obnoxiously red rooms and drink eggnog while they opened presents. Harry got gifts from Anthony, Hermione, Blaise, Pansy and Neville. Fred and George sent him a box full of what Harry assumed were pranks, which he decided to open later so as to maintain the element of surprise when he used them on Sirius and Remus. Remus gave him several books and a holster for his wand, and Sirius gave him a set of mirrors.
"That one's mine, actually," Sirius said after Harry opened it. He reached forward and snatched one of them out of Harry's hands.
Harry looked down at his mirror and frowned at his own confused expression. "What do they do?"
"Harry Potter," Sirius commanded, and Harry glanced up at him, startled. Sirius was looking at the mirror in his hands, so Harry looked back down at his own and blinked at the unexpected grey eyes smiling out of it.
"Hello, Harry," Sirius said. His face in the mirror echoed the greeting half a second later, and Harry smiled back, impressed.
"This is brilliant," he said, listening to the echo of his own voice from the other side of the mountain of wrapping paper in between him and his godfather. "Cheers, Sirius."
"It would have been a lot easier to talk during last term if I had remembered to give these to you before you went back to Hogwarts," he said, making a face at Harry through the mirror. "I wanted to give them to you in person, though. Family heirloom."
"Now you don't have to send me all those coded gardening stories," Harry told Remus, who was leaning against Sirius's shoulder, the easier to peer down at Harry's face in the glass. "You can just borrow Sirius's mirror."
Remus gave the real Harry a half-smile. "You don't like my gardening stories? I'm hurt, Harry."
"Don't worry," Sirius said when Harry blinked uncertainly instead of answering. "He makes those up anyway. We've never had a gnome infestation here. They like it better at the Weasley's."
Sirius and Harry used the mirrors frequently after that.
"Sirius, have you seen my broom?"
"I think you left it in the parlor."
"Harry, Remus says to tell you dinner is ready."
"Sirius, I'm in the next room."
"Oh. Harry! Dinner is ready!"
"Then come eat!"
Harry rolled over and pulled his comforter over his head to block the light and tinny, strident Sirius-shouting.
"Harry, wake up. It's half ten! He's a lazy sod, Remus. I blame rock 'n roll."
"Well, that's what James's parents always blamed when we did something they didn't like. Those damn Weird Sisters have been corrupting our youth for generations."
Harry stuck a hand out from under his blankets and groped around for the mirror on his bedside table as Remus responded.
He brought it back under the covers with him and squinted at it. "Sirius, shut up," he muttered. "You're worse than an alarm clock."
"Harry! Glad to have you join the conversation! Remus was just telling me-"
"Yes, I heard him," Harry said, although he hadn't really. "Is there a way to turn this thing off?"
"Not to your knowledge!" Sirius chirped. "Come downstairs: we've made breakfast, I'm reading the paper, it's all very dignified. You should put on some trousers first, to be in the proper spirit of the thing."
Harry groaned and tossed the mirror face down on the rug next to his bed.
"Harry, I will send Remus up there to get you!"
"Get him yourself."
"This is easier, though. Here, look, if Harry won't come to us, I'll just read him the paper until he comes down."
"I hate you so much," Harry muttered. Sirius didn't appear to hear him at all, else he ignored Harry in favour of rustling the newspaper and clearing his throat loudly.
"The Cannons have lost to the Tornados again, three hundred and twenty points to fifty. No surprise there. Hmm. There's a new apothecary opening in Diagon Alley in a few months..."
Harry sighed and pushed his covers back. Sirius was clearly committed to waking him up, and when Sirius decided to do something, he dedicated himself to the cause one hundred percent. Harry wasn't going back to sleep.
"...the investigation into the death of Stan Shunpike has been halted..."
Harry padded around his room, donning his glasses and the recommended trousers as Sirius droned on in the background.
"...fatal accident, my foot. The bloke was clearly murdered, Remus."
"They've been investigating for months now," Remus agreed. "Strange that they'd take so long to decide on an accident."
Harry stooped and picked up the mirror. "I'm coming downstairs now," he said, and stuck it in his pocket, muffling Sirius's exclamation of triumph.
"How is Privet Drive?"
"I haven't even gone inside yet," Harry said. He was standing in the garden shed, having been apparated there by Remus, who had only just said goodbye and disapparated.
"Well, I'll leave you to it, then," Sirius said. "Tell your horrid aunt I say hello."
"I probably won't." Harry said. He stuck the mirror in his pocket and hoisted his rucksack on his back. The shed door took some shoving to get open, but Harry managed to push through all the snow up to the back door, where Dudley was waiting in the kitchen.
"Harry!" Dudley stood up from the table and gave him a hug. "Happy Christmas!"
"Happy Christmas, Dudley." Harry took off his boots and jacket and followed Dudley into the front room, where Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia were sitting, having what looked like a heated conversation.
"Dad, mum, Harry's here!" Dudley announced, waving an arm at Harry. Harry's aunt and uncle stopped mid-argument and looked up. Aunt Petunia pursed her lips when she saw them, and Uncle Vernon sat back in his chair and smoothed down his tie, still red faced.
Harry reached into his pocket and wrapped a hand around the mirror, already wishing his visit was over.
Chapter 12: The Rift
Uncle Vernon cleared his throat again and looked at Harry. "Happy Christmas, boy. Welcome back."
"Thanks, uncle Vernon," Harry replied, shifting and hitching his bag up on his shoulder. "Happy Christmas. I'll just, er, get out of your way."
Aunt Petunia didn't say anything as Harry crossed through the room and out into the hallway, but Harry hadn't really expected her to. Dudley overtook him and darted up the stairs before Harry could hang up his coat in the hallway.
"Hurry up, Harry, your present is in my room!"
"I'm coming, just give me a second," Harry said, grinning a bit. Behind the door he'd just come through, uncle Vernon's deep voice grumbled something, which incited an outpouring from aunt Petunia.
Without his ear pressed up against the door, the words were muffled and indistinct, but Harry'd spent eleven years classifying and reacting to his relatives' various negative intonations, and he could define these easily. Uncle Vernon was using his 'I'm trying terribly hard to be patient, but one wrong word out of you, boy, and it'll be the cupboard for you for a week!' voice, whereas Aunt Petunia was using her 'even though I have no proof that you broke my favourite picture frame, and in fact, it's almost certainly Dudley's fault, I still cannot believe that you thought you could get away with it, you're such a horrid child!' voice.
It was weird, listening to them use those voices on someone else. Especially each other. It didn't take a genius to figure out what they were arguing about, either. The way they'd both looked at Dudley when he dragged Harry into the room was explanation enough.
Harry hung up his coat, dropped his boots, and hurried up the stairs after Dudley. The next six days couldn't pass quickly enough.
"Is it still too soon to ask how you're enjoying Privet Drive?"
Harry set his quill down, rubbed his eyes, and picked up the mirror. It was mid-afternoon on his third day at the Dursleys, and he was working on his Charms essay in his bedroom. He'd found that the tension between aunt Petunia and uncle Vernon really only tended to saturate the downstairs. If he stayed in his room during the day, above the flood level, it was almost like any other holiday at the Dursleys. Awkward and uncomfortable, but he didn't actually want to pack his things and flee in the night.
"Enjoying isn't even in the same country as the word I'd use," Harry said, propping his chin up on his palm and staring down at Sirius's face. "My essays will be detailed, though."
Sirius laughed, which Harry thought was somewhat cruel.
"Petunia was always a delight to be around when we were younger," he said, leaning closer to the mirror. "Don't tell Remus, and James would have killed me if he'd known, but when I first met her, I smuggled a few pranks along. Replaced her hand soap with frog spawn, added a few nose biting teacups to her china set, that sort of thing."
Harry's mouth dropped open. "Sirius!"
"I'd heard stories about her," Sirius said in his own defense. "She was awful to Lily about magic. She deserved it, if you ask me."
Harry shook his head. "I can't believe you."
From downstairs, Harry heard what sounded like a cupboard banging, followed by a low shout.
"-you can't POSSIBLY think I'd-"
"-don't understand your selfishness!"
Closer to hand, Harry heard a door open and shut. He sighed.
"Sirius, I have to go."
Sirius, who couldn't have heard the background sounds Harry was attuned to, took one look at his face and nodded, his face creased with sympathy.
"You don't have to stay there for the rest of the holiday," he reminded Harry. "You can come back whenever you want, just say the word. Bring Dudley."
As if on cue, there was a knock at Harry's door. He shook his head. "You know my uncle wouldn't let him come. You're that convict on the telly. I'll talk to you later."
Dudley's voice filtered in through the door. "Harry?"
"The offer's always open, either way. Talk to you soon, Harry."
Harry propped the empty mirror up against his inkwell. "Come in, Dudley,"
Dudley came in and shut the door behind him. "I'm having trouble with my essay," he said, showing Harry the parchments he'd brought with him.
"Er," Dudley glanced down at the parchment. "Astronomy."
"Oh, you only need ten inches and a diagram of four of the constellations," Harry said, playing along. "You can copy mine if you want."
Dudley shoved Harry's blankets out of the way and sat down cross legged at the foot of Harry's bed. "Thanks."
They worked in silence for a while. Aunt Petunia and uncle Vernon fought respectably. Usually, you didn't even know they were having an argument until one of them raised their voice just a little bit too much. Harry hated it. It made it difficult to predict the beginning or end of an argument, since Harry and Dudley usually only heard snatches.
It was a gamble whenever Harry ventured downstairs for food. He might make it to the kitchen and make sandwiches, only to come back out into the hallway and find that they were arguing in the front room and had left the doors open. He hated being near them when they fought. His heart beat a little faster and his movements became clumsier; it felt as though the two of them might spot him and suddenly decide he was a better outlet for their anger.
Dudley made everything much worse. He completely refused to acknowledge his parents' fighting out loud, which made the only potential ally Harry might have in the house null. On the other hand, whenever they started up again, he found Harry and came up with some inevitably uncomfortable topic that had absolutely nothing to do with his parents or the muggle world, and pushed it.
"I found another one of those letters Draco kept sending you over the summer," Dudley said, which was just the sort of thing Harry meant.
Harry nodded and scratched another sentence into his essay.
"You should read this one, it's a good one," Dudley continued. Harry dropped his quill and turned around in his seat.
"You read one of my letters?" he asked, irritated. Dudley let a sly grin spread across his face.
"No, but it got your attention." He pulled a scroll out from under his Astronomy diagrams and showed it to Harry. Sure enough, it was written on the same rich parchment as all of Draco's other letters. Dudley leaned back against the wall and looked down at the scroll. "Although, maybe I should read it, if you won't."
Harry stood up and snatched the parchment out of Dudley's loose grip. He glared as he returned to his seat, ripping open the letter just to get Dudley to shut up.
"I've already read most of Draco's letters," he grumbled. "Why do you care so much if I read them, anyway?"
Dudley shrugged. "Because he's your best friend, and friends read each other's letters."
Harry stopped halfway through unrolling the scroll and stared at Dudley. "Have you just forgotten last year?" he asked incredulously. "How he acted? And what his father did?"
Dudley shifted on the bed and pushed his parchments into a neater pile. "Well, yeah," he said, slowly, looking down at his hands. "But, sometimes... people make big terrible awful mistakes, and they make you miserable for a long time, but... but you forgive them anyway because you want them in your life and they're sorry."
He paused and darted a quick glance up at Harry's face. "I mean, right? That's what you do."
No ready response came to mind, so Harry sat in dumb silence in the face of this outpouring. He looked back down at the scroll he'd been unrolling and willed himself to say something.
Dudley's real meaning was obvious, but aunt Petunia didn't act like she was sorry. A part of Harry thought Dudley would be better off not forgiving her at all, but he couldn't just tell Dudley to reject his mother.
Instead, he stared down at Draco's letter without reading it, until the moment was broken by another bout of raised voices from downstairs.
"Boys! Wash up, dinner in ten!"
Harry groaned into his History of Magic textbook. He'd been using it as a pillow after skimming through a particularly boring section on some great bloodletting in the fourth century and giving up. He unstuck his face from a portrait of Sidra the Severe and rubbed his eyes.
Aunt Petunia's call had sounded cheerful, which Harry found more annoying than anything else. Experience of the past week told Harry that the more cheerful she sounded, the more time he'd spend that night gritting his teeth as she tried to pretend she had a perfect family and Dudley played along.
Before Harry could pull himself out of his seat, there was a knock on his door and Dudley poked his head in.
"Hey Harry, quickly before dinner, can you help me with this?"
At Harry's nod, Dudley stepped fully into the room and pushed the door closed behind him. "It's for that colour changing spell. I can't tell if I'm doing the wand movement right."
Harry nodded and gestured to Dudley's wand. "Let's see, then."
Dudley took a deep breath and waved his wand in a half arc and a flick over his essay, which they needed to be able to change to their house colours in front of Flitwick when they turned them in after break.
"No, you've got the flick wrong," Harry said, picking up his own wand. "It's an upward flick at the end of the first syllable, and you're doing a weird kind of swooping flick. Remus showed me before I left Devon, watch."
Harry demonstrated the wand movement Remus had taught him a week ago, and Dudley watched with his eyebrows pulled together.
"Try it," Harry said, and watched as Dudley did the flick backward. "No, don't move your hand to your left, it's my left. Your right."
He stood up and turned away from Dudley, which meant that when aunt Petunia knocked on the slightly ajar door, it fell open to show Harry waving his wand while Dudley stood behind it, watching.
"Put that horrible stick away and come down to dinner," aunt Petunia said from the hallway, with a bite in her voice that Harry hadn't heard since last holiday. "Have you seen Dudley?"
Harry lowered his wand and stared at her, unable to stop himself from sneering a bit as he pulled the door all the way open to reveal Dudley on the other side.
He dropped the look the second he saw Dudley's face, which had fallen into something lower than the cheerful denial he'd been sporting all week.
"Dudley," he said, but Dudley wasn't looking at him.
"Horrible stick, mum?" he asked, pressing his mouth into a shaky line. "I thought you said it was all fine."
"Oh honey, I didn't mean it like that," she said, putting a hand to her throat and trying to laugh it off. "Of course it's fine, Diddydums. Now come downstairs, dinner is ready."
Dudley didn't move. "How did you mean it, then?"
Harry took a slow, smooth step backward, pressing himself against the wall as he watched Petunia's smile falter.
"Mum, if you think magic is horrible, why did you come back? If you think-" His voice cracked, and he swallowed hard. "If you think I'm horrible-"
"Dudley!" Petunia shook her head and looked hurt. Harry couldn't tell for sure, but he thought it was genuine. "I would never say such a thing! Don't ever say things like that about your mother. Of course I don't think you're horrible, sweetie-"
"If you think magic is horrible, then you think I'm horrible, because I'm magic," Dudley pointed out, his voice getting louder as he went. He showed her the wand in his hand as he spoke. "I have a horrible stick, too."
Shaking her head, Petunia stepped closer to Dudley and smoothed her hand across his hair. "No, that's not true, honey. I still love you."
Dudley leaned away from her hand. "Even though you hate my magic?"
Petunia shook her head and reached out again. "No, darling! I was going to say, even if I -" Her mouth twisted in the pause. "-don't exactly love what you do."
Dudley's face crumpled, and to Harry's surprise, tears started to leak out of the corners of his eyes. These weren't the alligator tears of their childhood. These were genuine distress, and as Dudley stepped back out of his mother's grasp, Harry stepped forward.
"That's not how it works," Harry said in Dudley's place. Petunia looked around, as though for the source of an irritating buzzing. She frowned when she spotted him near the wall.
"You were not invited to this conversation," she snapped, putting her hands on her hips like she was getting ready to shout at him. Harry took a deep breath and talked over her.
"Dudley is magic," he said loudly, angrily. "It's not just a hobby he has on the weekend that you can disapprove of and ignore. He's going to have girlfriends who are witches. He's going to get a job in the wizarding world when we graduate from our magic school."
"He doesn't have to if he doesn't want to," she said, her attention totally on Harry now.
"You mean he doesn't have to if you don't want him to," Harry retorted. "Dudley likes being a wizard. He's good at it. He's happy at Hogwarts."
Petunia glared. "Dudley can speak for himself." She turned to look at Dudley, who had gotten his emotions under control and shook his head at her.
"Harry's right," he said. "I'm happy being magic. It's who I am, mum."
"It's only a small part, though," Petunia said, nodding at Dudley with her eyes wide. "Right, sweetie? It's not all you are."
Dudley's forehead creased, and he looked around at Harry for help.
"It's big enough to matter!" Harry exclaimed. He wished he could grab her by the shoulders and shake some sense into her. The look on Dudley's face should have been enough to tell her that everything she was saying was as wrong as it was possible to be.
Petunia rounded on him. "This is a private conversation between me and my son," she began in a frosty tone.
"That you're having in my room!" Harry pointed out, gesturing around at his desk and wardrobe.
"The room that you live in in my house, under my family's discretion," she said in a low, dangerous voice. "You would do well to remember your placeand show some respect."
"Show respect for what?" Harry shouted, moving to stand between Petunia and Dudley. This conversation was a long time in coming, and it was almost a relief to get it all out. "You only live here because Uncle Vernon lets you! You have no right to come in here and start harassing Dudley! You should never have come back, why don't you just lea-"
Harry felt the sharp pain on his cheek before he realised she'd slapped him. He fell back a step and pressed his own palm to the spot, staring at her with incredulity.
"Dudley is my son and I will raise him as I see fit," Petunia said. "You, on the other hand, are not my son, and therefore you have no say in the choices this family makes. You-"
The rumble of a throat clearing had all three of them looking around at the doorway. All the shouting must have roused Uncle Vernon from wherever he'd been in the house, and now he stood staring at aunt Petunia, his face rapidly turning bright red with anger.
"Petunia, you promised," he said in one of his angriest voices. Harry took another unconscious step back and bumped shoulders with Dudley.
"No, you don't understand, Vernon-" Petunia began, but an angry uncle Vernon wasn't someone to be placated.
"I asked you not to talk to the boys about their magic," he said sharply. "If we agreed on nothing else, Petunia, we agreed on that!"
Petunia shook her head. "Dudley wasn't-"
"I won't have you filling Dudders's head with your nonsense, Pet!" Vernon gripped the doorknob in one of his big, purple hands, and glared at her. "He's a fine son, and he's our son. He's going to grow up and be a fine man, and you're going to let him, magic or no."
This was clearly an argument they'd had before, because Petunia threw up her hands and exclaimed, "He could just not-"
"I'm paying for him to go to the best school of magic in the country!" Vernon shouted, his face purpling. "He's not going to waste my money by growing up to become an accountant because you can't-"
"Vernon, I've told you, I don't-"
"You're not going to treat him like we trea-"
"Let me finish a sentence, Vernon Dursley!" Petunia shrieked, crimson cheeked and balling her hands up into fists.
"I won't!" Vernon bellowed right back. "Your opinions have no place in this house! In front of my son!"
Petunia breathed in deeply through her nose, and when she spoke again, her voice was thick with anger and tears. "Would you prefer that I had stayed gone, Vernon? Would you prefer it if I stayed away from your son?"
"Maybe..." It was Dudley. Harry could feel his shoulder shaking as he stood next to him. Aunt Petunia and uncle Vernon seemed surprised that he was even there, let alone interrupting. "We're glad you came back, but maybe you should go. Again."
The only sound in the room was the ever present background buzzing of muggle appliances. Petunia's face was white and fixed.
"We can... we can write. But you don't want to be here, mum." Dudley sniffed and shook his head. "You're miserable. I thought- but, well, you are. Harry's right, you should just leave."
Harry blinked. He thought he was the only one of the two of them that had noticed how aunt Petunia really felt. He shifted uncomfortably at being brought into the conversation, but Dudley's shoulder followed as he moved. Harry got the hint. He stayed where he was.
"Dudders, sweetie." Petunia swallowed. "You don't mean that. You don't really think that."
Dudley shook his head, angrily swiping tears off his cheeks. "I do, though. I'm going to get a wizard's job and marry a witch and I want you to be okay with that and if you're not, I want you to be someday, and we're going to hate each other if you stay."
Petunia shook her head. Her face had taken on a pinched quality, and she clutched at her upper arms, wrapped across her torso. "I could never hate you, Dudley, don't ever say that."
Harry could hear Dudley take a harsh breath. "I don't want to hate you, mum. And I don't want you and dad to hate each other, either."
The tears that had been pooling in aunt Petunia's eyes finally fell, and she pulled out a handkerchief and dabbed at her cheekbones carefully.
"Well." She swallowed and pressed the handkerchief to her mouth for a long, silent moment. "That seems to be all there is to say. Dinner is on the table. I'll get my things."
She left the room, and Harry and Uncle Vernon stared at each other, for a lack of anywhere else to look. Vernon cleared his throat and looked away first.
"Harry," he said, and cleared his throat again. "Could you send a.. an owl, contact that man who came last summer. He mentioned safe houses. With the war..."
Harry chewed on the inside of his lip and nodded. He knew that Sirius was in contact with Kingsley through the Order. He picked up his mirror from the desk and looked at uncle Vernon out of the corner of his eye before calling Sirius's name.
"Wotcher, Harry!" Sirius grinned up out of the mirror. "Nymphadora is visiting our humble home! She says wotcher too."
Harry could hear another person muttering faintly in the background, but it was at that moment that Sirius caught sight of Harry's face and dropped the joviality.
"What's wrong? Do you need something?"
"Yeah," he said, glancing up at uncle Vernon again. He seemed curious about the mirror and Harry's conversation. Dudley, who had already seen the mirror, was still standing next to Harry and shaking. Harry pressed their shoulders together bracingly.
"Aunt Petunia isn't going to be staying here anymore," he said. He would have softened his words for Dudley's sake if he'd known how. "Uncle Vernon wants her in a safe house. It should probably be as muggle as possible."
Sirius frowned. "Hang on." The image in the mirror blurred as it was passed, and soon Tonks's unusually serious face filled the frame.
"Did I hear you need a safe house for a muggle?"
"Yeah, as soon as possible," he said. "She's packing now."
"I'm on it," she said. "We'll have someone over there within the hour, Harry."
Harry gave her a brief, relieved smile. "Thanks, Tonks."
The mirror went blank and he set it down on the desk.
With that conversation ended, the three of them fell silent again, unsure of what to say as aunt Petunia packed in the room across the hall.
Sure enough, it was only another half an hour before the doorbell rang. Harry pulled the door open to Kingsley and Tonks, and stepped aside to allow them to enter.
"I think she's still in her room," he said, gesturing up the staircase. The two Aurors shared a glance which ended with a nod from Tonks.
"I'll go get her," she said. Her hair was a sober dirty blonde, and she gave Harry a reassuring smile as she passed on her way to the first floor.
Dudley and Uncle Vernon had relocated from Harry's tiny, crowded bedroom into the kitchen. Kingsley followed Harry through and refused a seat with a shake of his head. Uncle Vernon stood up on their entrance, and stayed standing as well. The tension thickened, and to avoid it, Harry dropped into the chair next to Dudley's and slumped in his seat.
Uncle Vernon cleared his throat. "This safe house. I assume she'll be comfortable?"
Kingsley linked his hands behind his back and nodded. "She'll be staying in a well protected home with a small group of similar individuals.
"I see," Uncle Vernon said, squinting. "Individuals who-"
"-are non-magical, but are aware of our world and require protection."
The incredibly formal tone Kingsley was using made the wait all the more awkward, so it was something of a relief when Tonks appeared in the doorway.
"There isn't another floor, is there?" she asked, looking concerned. "She's not up there."
Kingsley straightened his posture and pulled out his wand, looking concerned despite himself. Tonks joined him, and together they cast nonverbally. Shaking his head, Kingsley moved toward the door while tucking his wand away in his sleeve. "She's not in the house. Either she'll have hired a cab, or..."
"I'll alert the guard," Tonks said. She passed Harry and Dudley on her way to the back door, and paused. "Kingsley's probably right, but stay indoors until we give the all clear."
Harry nodded, and the Aurors disappeared. Dudley hovered near the kitchen window, but when uncle Vernon heaved a sigh and sat down, he pressed his mouth into a line and disappeared out into the hallway. Harry took one look at uncle Vernon and followed.
It turned out Dudley had gone back upstairs to Harry's room, which only made sense when Harry remembered that his window looked out onto the street and Dudley's didn't. Dudley sat at Harry's desk, leaving the bed for Harry, and they waited.
Sure enough, after about ten minutes, Tonks appeared near Number Seven, walking toward the Dursley residence. By the time she reached the front step, Dudley and Harry were waiting for her in the front hall.
"She's fine," Tonks reported, giving them a mildly relieved grin. "Kingsley was right, she was in a taxi."
"Are you bringing her back?" Dudley asked. It was the first thing he'd said since Harry called Sirius. "We didn't say goodbye."
Tonks blinked, and the grin slid off her face. "Oh." She looked back and forth between Harry and Dudley. "Er, I don't think we can. The, ah, magic on the, the safe house can only be disrupted for so long... It's just safer if we move quickly, yeah? Erm, I'm really, really sorry."
She looked really, really sorry. Harry glanced at Dudley, who swallowed and nodded. "Tell her I'll write to her," he instructed, and Tonks agreed.
Once the door was closed and the house was quiet again, Dudley went back up to Harry's room, apparently to check the street outside one more time.
"I'm sorry," Harry blurted. The silence had been killing him. Dudley frowned, confused.
"For- I made the whole thing worse," Harry explained, dropping into his desk chair. Dudley stood back from the window and looked at him like he was stupid. "I shouldn't have yelled so much."
"You were right, though."
Harry blinked at the carpet, which seemed to upset Dudley even more. He dropped down onto Harry's bed and continued.
"No, Harry, you were right. She was wrong." His face crumpled again, but he continued. "I agreed with everything you said."
Despite Dudley's insistence, Harry still felt guilty. As a result, when it seemed like Dudley just wanted to sit and not say anything for a while, Harry let him. And when Dudley ended up falling asleep on Harry's bed, Harry propped his feet up on the nightstand, slumped down in his chair, and shut his eyes.