Harry sat looking out of the bedroom window just letting thoughts turn over in his head. Everything should have been normal. He was free of the Dursleys, summer was almost over and school was starting again, his seventh and final year. There did not appear to be any immediate threat on the horizon, and so far everything seemed to be going along perfectly. That, however, didn't stop Harry feeling quite strange about everything.
Technically in the Wizarding world he was of age since he had already had his seventeenth birthday. He was allowed to perform magic legally anywhere he chose; no more worry about the Ministry and talk of breaking his wand. It was a relief to know that he was considered adult enough to do as he saw fit and it was liberating, but also a little unnerving.
He had been at the Burrow for a little over a week now and Ron had been encouraging him to do magic at every opportunity. If there was any distance to be covered his friend insisted that they Apparate; Harry was beginning to come to the conclusion that they were more annoying than the twins had been when they had first learned.
Dumbledore had sent Harry the form to apply for his Apparating Licence on the 31st of July already filled in; all he had had to do was sign it. Mad-eye Moody had taken him to the Ministry five days ago and Harry had passed first time, much to Ron's chagrin since his redheaded friend had had to take his test twice. Ron had failed the test at Easter retaken it and passed at the beginning of the summer.
Everyone had been very pleased, but Harry didn't know what all the fuss was about; quite frankly he didn't like Apparating. It wasn't that he wasn't good at it, he had actually picked it up strangely easily, but it felt harsh and unpleasant. This was an opinion that no one else seemed to hold. Hence, it was another strange feeling to add to all the others which appeared to be trying to make up for the fact that last year had been nothing to write home about.
Harry knew he was brooding, but he needed to straighten things out in his head. He wanted to understand the progression of events which seemed to be trying to change his life ... again. The sixth year at Hogwarts had been surprisingly uneventful. Voldemort had not shown his hand and, although there had been various Death Eater attacks, nothing major had occurred.
It had been a little difficult at school when he had first started because of the subjects he wanted to take and certain teacher's prejudices. Even though his OWL results had been significantly better than expected it had taken something else to smooth the way for his NEWT choices. For once Harry had not asked what, but he remembered the way McGonagall and Snape had spent half a term glaring at each other. He suspected his acceptance into NEWT potions had something to do with his head of house.
The most talked about event of the whole twelve months had been the escape from Azkaban of the Death Eaters imprisoned there after the debacle at the Department of Mysteries.
It was funny, over the past year Harry had found it very difficult to think of that time, and yet now he was dwelling on it. Sirius' death had changed him greatly, he knew that, and he had avoided the subject completely for a long time, even in his own thoughts. Last year he had tried to be more the Harry Potter people remembered, what Ron cheerfully referred to as 'the Gryffindor hero' rather than the angry boy he had been through most of his fifth year. He was not a prefect, but he couldn't escape the fact that other pupils seemed to look to him as if he was.
It seemed to Harry as though his restored integrity put him above the rest of the student body in his fellows' eyes. He'd never really been sure what to do with that.
He knew he had been avoiding the whole issue of Sirius' death. It had taken him all the summer after his godfather had died to realise that he preferred himself before his fifth year. He had a right to be angry, but it didn't help anything. He had taken the pain deep down inside and tried to be what everyone wanted him to be.
All year he had played a role.
On the outside he had shown people a calm, sometimes cheerful face. Harry had talked with his friends and pretended that he had moved beyond Sirius' death. He had been made Quidditch captain for Gryffindor and they had happily wiped the floor with Slytherin. It had almost been like before: Harry against Malfoy, Gryffindor against Slytherin, almost back to the simplicity of school rivalries.
It had been nice, but of course Harry knew the truth; he knew he would one day end up a killer or an obituary in the Prophet. That knowledge made him separate. There was part of him he did not let out, part of him that his friends' love had not been able to reach over the whole of the school year and, suddenly, as he considered his world, this bothered him.
Harry thought that Hermione knew there was something about him, but she had not questioned him and she had not mentioned it to Ron.
The thing was, Harry knew he was no longer the same as he had been last year either. The hollow empty place he had inside him that had opened up like a chasm when Sirius had fallen through the veil had changed. He could pinpoint the exact day it had transformed; it had been towards the middle of the Summer holidays three days before his birthday. Up until that point the summer had been what he considered normal: his relatives had been being their ordinary, nasty selves, although these days they ignored him rather than anything else, and he had been doing his homework and sending owls to Ron, Hermione, Tonks and Remus as usual.
But then he had woken up knowing that the world had just shifted. It was that simple; no doubt, no second-guessing, Harry had known.
At first he had not understood what was different; he had not been able to explain exactly what he felt. Harry had suspected Voldemort's influence. At first he had thought maybe it was some trick for Voldemort to worm his way into his mind, but his scar had not been hurting and there were no signs. His Occlumency training had sharpened his mind far beyond the tricks the Dark Lord liked to play. He had discarded that idea quickly.
It had taken him until his birthday to realise he was completely unafraid of this new knowledge. It was as if something had clicked into place in the universe and become right.
Harry had been considering it ever since. He did not know what the rightness was, but he knew he had to find its root. The empty place was no longer just a hole that could never be filled; it felt like a slot inside his soul that was looking for something. Harry did not understand the feeling and it confused him, but he knew he was not afraid. He knew he had to search out the cause.
It had occurred to him to tell Dumbledore or Hermione what had happened, but something held him back. It was something that was still preventing him talking to anyone about what was happening.
It was the strangest thing as well: since the morning when everything had changed, when he thought of Sirius, he did not want to close his mind and forget. The grief was still there, but the anger had fallen away. On the first night he had realised this he had cried, sobbing his sadness into his pillow as he never had before.
Ever since Harry had felt a little better. His godfather was gone, but his memory was kindled in Harry's mind. There was still the guilt, but it had dimmed to a manageable level and he did not have to bury it anymore.
It was all such a sudden change and sometimes Harry thought that the ideas crowding his head were bound to spill out. His mind was so full, as if everything he had been hiding from for the past year was coming out at the same time, and yet he was not overwhelmed. Even as he watched Ginny tear across the garden after George, or possibly Fred, he did not feel as if he was sinking.
"What y'doing, mate?" Ron asked, as cheerful as ever as he came wandering into the room.
"Watching Ginny terrify George," Harry replied and turned to his friend with a grin. "I think when we made her lead chaser we created a monster."
"Nah," his lanky best friend said and dropped onto the bed, "she was that all by herself before we did anything."
Ron had had yet another growth spurt at sometime over the holidays, probably something to do with his mother's cooking, and Harry was sure his friend was six foot three if he was an inch. Ginny was no more than five foot six, but Harry, in his position as almost-adoptive brother, had no doubt the girl could hold her own against all her siblings.
He and Ron lapsed into silence as Harry glanced back out the window to where the only Weasley daughter had just tackled whichever twin she had been trying to catch. Harry smiled fondly.
"You're not finally going soft on our Ginny are you?" Ron asked in a dubious tone and drew Harry's attention back from his thoughts again.
"Well what with you and Hermione making doe eyes at each other all the time," Harry replied as he schooled his features into a wistful expression, "maybe I'm considering it."
His best friend looked a little anxious at that. Ginny's crush on The Boy Who Lived had been legendary, but they both knew Ginny had moved on. Harry could see all the nasty possibilities working their way through Ron's mind.
"Um, Harry," his obviously uncomfortable best friend started rather awkwardly, "you, um, well that is..."
Ron was clearly in big brother mode, but did not appear to know what to say and Harry blinked at him innocently for a few moments. He couldn't help but grin when he saw suspicion slowly begin to dawn on his friend's face.
"Don't frighten me like that!" Ron protested loudly. "God, I thought you'd gone soft in the head or something."
With a laugh Harry climbed to his feet and stretched the kinks out of his back, enjoying the moment. It felt like it had been such a long time since he had been able to tease Ron without worrying about the rest of the world, or, for that matter, do anything without worrying about the rest of the world. He knew he had many things to think about, but it felt like he was waking back up to the universe after a long sleep. Harry decided to enjoy it.
"The sun's out, it's the last day of the holidays," he announced; "what on earth are we doing inside?"
Ron's face broke into a wide grin at that.
"Couldn't have put it better myself, mate," his friend said and stood up beside him. "Shall we?"
With a flourish Ron produced his wand and Harry followed suit.
"The apple tree?" he asked, slightly more jovially than he was actually feeling, but only slightly.
"See you there," Ron replied and, pointing his wand at himself, Disapparated with a loud pop.
Shaking his head and grinning wryly Harry gritted his teeth and then did the same.
* * *
Their last day of freedom went very quickly and before Harry knew it they were on platform 9 and 3/4 meeting up with Hermione to climb aboard the Hogwarts express. In the excitement of seeing everyone again and going through the usual greetings, Harry almost forgot that the world had transformed. Until the initial exuberance of going back to school was over he barely thought about the changes the summer had wrought. Only when Hermione and Ron settled into talking together did Harry find himself looking out another window. As the train trundled through the English countryside he was reminded of his thoughts.
Harry found himself pondering everything again, but nothing would sort itself out in his head. He was waiting for something, a clue or a sign that would show him the right way, and it was doing no good trying to rationalise it all. He had to wait he found out what the sign might be, it was that simple. When Ron stood up and excused himself to go to the loo Harry pulled his eyes away from the window and he caught Hermione looking at him. Their gazes locked, but only as Ron closed the door to the compartment did she speak.
"There's something different about you," she said only a tiny crinkle between her eyes giving away her consideration. She paused for a moment. "You look ... better."
Harry did not quite know how to reply, but after a while he smiled at her.
"I think I am," he told her, finding that the complete honesty was refreshing.
"I'm glad," Hermione said with a smile of her own.
Then she picked up the book she had had sitting on her lap since the beginning of the journey and finally began to read it. It was not the longest conversation in history, but Harry realised that they had said what they needed to say. He felt more comfortable with the whole situation and went back to looking out of the window. He hoped he would begin to understand what he was looking for soon.
It was when the train reached the platform at Hogsmeade that things took a turn for the even more strange. That was when Harry's eyes landed on Draco Malfoy for the first time that school year. As his gaze settled he felt every cell in his being sit up and take notice.
There was something very different about the Slytherin as Harry caught sight of him through the crowd of milling pupils, and it had nothing to do with the fact that he was wearing his hair slightly longer so it fell around his face, or that he had grown taller over the holidays. It was the way he didn't seem to be listening to his constant companions, Crabbe and Goyle, and that he looked as though he was deep in thought.
Even when he glanced up and caught Harry watching him the patented Malfoy sneer did not instantly appear. Only when Crabbe noticed that the two of them were looking at each other did that expression grace the arrogant Slytherin's face.
"What you looking at?" Ron asked as he bundled out of the train and onto the platform.
"Malfoy," Harry said without thinking about it.
"Maybe this year that snake will get what's coming to him," Ron said, tone positively acidic.
His best friend didn't seem to realise Harry was not in an adversarial mood.
"Maybe," Harry agreed.
The thing was, he now knew, without a doubt, that what he was looking for had something to do with the boy who had been his enemy from his first day at Hogwarts. It should have been a very unsettling feeling, but somehow Harry found it puzzling, but not uncomfortable.
"First years this way," Hagrid's familiar tones broke him out of his preoccupied thoughts and he looked up to see the half giant standing at the end of the platform.
It was a tradition that they would get off the train and greet Hagrid before making their way up to the school, and that is exactly what they did. Harry wondered briefly what Draco Malfoy could have to do with his search, but soon put him out of his mind. He set his thoughts to starting the school year; his search would come to him, he had no doubt.
Even though he was not a prefect, with one friend who was and another who was head girl, they needed to make it to the castle as fast as possible. Several people had thought he would be head boy, but Harry did not have expectations of grandeur. He was quite glad that honour had fallen to a Hufflepuff.
It was only later, after the excitement of the sorting ceremony and the introduction of the first years, when he was finally lying in bed, that he realised something: Malfoy had not been at the evening's festivities. That was odd since Malfoy was a Slytherin prefect. He'd also noticed Dumbledore had only stayed for as long as was necessary.
* * *
Over the next two days Harry watched Malfoy. On the surface he acted and sounded like the same Slytherin who went out of his way to make other people's lives difficult, but to Harry it looked as if there was no feeling behind the act.
When he spotted his quarry heading towards the library on his own, just after dinner, Harry decided he had had enough of waiting. He took the longer route to Madam Pince's domain, but at great speed, and made it to the main door before his Slytherin rival. For his part Malfoy didn't even seem to notice him until he was almost on top of Harry.
"Hello, Malfoy," he said when the other boy finally glanced up.
His school nemesis looked at him blandly.
"Potter," Malfoy responded, tone as cold as usual, but to Harry's ears his voice was missing its biting edge.
Without any others to witness what was going on it seemed that the usually epitome of Slytherin pride could not be bothered to work up the energy to pretend that he wanted revenge. After his father's escape from Azkaban the previous year Malfoy had gloated at Harry and told him how his days were numbered, but now Malfoy seemed to not care.
"Welcome to our side," the words came out of Harry's mouth before he had even realised he was going to say them.
All the things he had been seeing over the past two days all added up in his brain and that phrase popped out of his mouth. Harry was surprised himself.
For a moment Malfoy just stood there and stared and then his eyes hardened. It under a second those coldly indifferent features were creased into a snarl.
"He swore he wouldn't tell anyone," Malfoy hissed through his teeth, clearly furious. "I should have known that meddling old man couldn't be trusted."
Then, before Harry could say anything, Malfoy turned on his heel and stalked away. Frozen into inaction at Malfoy's anger Harry had to run to catch up with his quarry. He managed to come shoulder to shoulder with him before they reached any of the well-trodden routes around the school.
"Dumbledore didn't tell me," Harry said as emphatically as he could manage while still walking. He put his hand on Malfoy's shoulder to stop the other boy. "He would never betray a confidence, not even for me."
Malfoy stopped, but shrugged off Harry's hand angrily.
"Too late, Potter," Malfoy spat, "there's no other way you could know."
He turned to leave again, but Harry moved faster and put himself in the way.
"I've been watching you," he admitted.
He had no choice but tell the truth and, for a fraction of a second, Malfoy looked surprised.
Then it was gone and Malfoy's eyes narrowed again, as if he didn't believe him for a moment.
"You were different when you got off the train," Harry decided that sharing his reasoning was the only thing he could do. They had been on opposites sides for so long, be it school houses or light and dark magic, that nothing short of blatant honesty was going to work. "I've known you six years, Malfoy, and over the last couple of those I decided to try and understand my enemies. I know more about you than you'd like to think. When I saw you on the platform I knew something had changed. You weren't at the feast and Dumbledore left as soon as he could. You've been acting the same, but you're not."
He refused to let the Slytherin look away and Malfoy actually appeared startled.
"Still quite a jump you made," Malfoy said, voice now back to being low and completely cold.
"Call it wishful thinking," Harry offered with a shrug.
That drew a raised eyebrow from his companion.
"It changes nothing," Malfoy said, his expression completely closing off again in a second. "Stay away from me, Potter."
Then he pushed past Harry and went to leave.
"I know what it's like," Harry said without turning, and heard Malfoy's stride falter. "I know what it's like not to be able to tell your friends things, to know that you're totally alone in some stuff no matter what anyone else tells you. If you want to talk, I'm around."
There was silence for a couple of heartbeats, but then hurried but even footsteps started up again behind him. Harry knew Malfoy was gone.
* * *
"You're doing it again," Ron's voice cut through the repetitive thoughts that were wandering around inside Harry's head.
He turned to his friend, who was sitting across the study room table, and tried to look apologetic. Ever since his little talk with Malfoy he had been trying to analyse exactly what he had said and why he had said it. It had been as if he was almost another person when he accosted the Prince of Slytherin and it had felt strangely inevitable. The searching feeling was still there at the back of his mind, but Harry was positive he had taken one step closer to finding what he was looking for.
"Sorry," he apologised, "what did you want?"
"You to stop staring into space like a loon," Ron said with a smile before his face became more serious again. "What's up, Harry, you've been acting weird since we got back?"
For a moment Harry considered brushing off his friend with platitudes, but something stopped him. He had hidden part of himself from those around him for a long time and it felt like now was a good point to at least start to change that.
"Something's coming," he said.
The immediate reaction from Ron was a look of horror.
"You don't mean You-Know-Who?" Ron whispered with wide, uncertain eyes.
Harry shook his head with a small smile: his best friend had such an expressive face and he could read him like a book. He remembered when he had been like that; everything he thought travelling across his expression. Life had changed that aspect of his character, but Harry appreciated it in his friend.
"No," he said, making sure his tone was calm and reassuring, "not You-Know-Who."
Harry did not use Voldemort's name for Ron's sake since it still made the redhead uncomfortable.
"I don't know what it is," he admitted, "but I know I'm looking for it. It's not bad."
There was a second when he almost told his friend that it had something to do with Draco Malfoy, but good sense told him that it was not the time. That would be one step too far.
Ron was frowning at him thoughtfully now.
"You're sure it's not another of those dreams from Him?" his friend asked with concern.
This time Harry nodded, he'd never been surer of anything in his life. Dumbledore had taught him Occlumency the previous year. He could see through the things Voldemort sent at him, which happened occasionally. This had nothing to do with the Dark Lord at all.
"It's not like that," Harry told Ron with a thoughtful frown. "It's just something I know and it's like having a jigsaw puzzle without knowing what all the pieces are. The funny thing is, when I figure out a piece, it just slots into place without me having to do anything ... kind of strange."
His best friend looked at him steadily and then nodded.
"Whatever you say, Mate," Ron said. "Just remember if you need help I'm here."
A warmth filled Harry then. He had missed the undemanding loyalty of confiding in Ron. He beamed at his companion and finally opened his textbook.
"Thanks, Ron," Harry said with total sincerity, "that means a lot."
"Now about this essay," his suddenly self-conscious best friend changed the subject, looking a little embarrassed, "can you believe McGonagall gave us homework on the second day?"
Harry smiled and turned to the correct page in his book.
"No," he replied, slipping into normal pupil mode, "I think they mean to work us to death this year."
For once Harry's brain stayed on track and he was well into the essay when Hermione joined them. The young woman's head girl duties took her away from her friends quite a lot, but she always made it back to them eventually. Harry greeted her cheerfully, moved his books so she had room to put hers down, and then went back to writing.
"Harry says something's going to happen," Ron said after they had been sitting quietly for a few minutes.
Once it might have annoyed Harry that his friend seemed to need to tell Hermione what they had spoken about. Now, however, he didn't really mind; after all, Hermione was the brains of the operation.
"What kind of thing?" Hermione asked in a tone that suggested she was interested, but not quite sure if it was her place to ask.
"I don't know," Harry replied, as open with Hermione as he had been with Ron, "just something. I'll know when I find it."
"You will tell us if it's bad won't you," she said, looking him right in the eye.
Harry gave her a very firm nod. He could see the curiosity behind his friend's gaze and he appreciated her curbing it for now. He did not think he would have that grace for long.
"But it's not bad, I promise," he said, turning back to his essay.
"Just be careful, Harry," Hermione said and patted him on the shoulder, "you're important to us."
He gave his friends a smile to show that they were important to him as well before he began writing again. It wasn't until he was riffling around in his bag for a spare quill, after he snapped the end off the one he was using, that he found the note.
Meet me at the Whomping Willow, 11pm tomorrow
For a moment the initials confused Harry; he knew exactly who the note was from, he recognised the neat handwriting, but couldn't work out the references. Then he smiled, of course: 'Scar Head' and 'Ferret Face', just a couple of the insults they had traded over the years. He put the parchment back in his bag feeling that another piece had just slotted into his puzzle and then went back to work.