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The Hush of War

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Warfare (n): 1. the waging of armed conflict against an enemy, 2. an active struggle between competing entities

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Ron was not at dinner, which should have been the first sign that something was wrong, but Harry, so caught up in a discussion of the pros and cons of performing a Wronski Feint during bad weather, and Hermione, so absorbed in a bit of light reading, hardly noticed. Seamus sat next to Harry and positioned a fork to hover vertically above a bowl of mashed potatoes.

"Harry," Seamus said, accent thick in his excitement, "you gotta remember that your visibility's gonna be like…I don't know, really shoddy. You could come up on the ground and not even realise it 'til your head is buried under the dirt and your legs are twitchin'."

Harry looked at him askance as he shovelled another bite of steak and kidney pie into his mouth. He swallowed and said, "Seamus, when's the last time you performed a feint of any kind?"

Seamus looked a bit shifty, which was not altogether unusual: Seamus was usually pretty shifty, actually. He'd gotten along famously with the twins, after all. "You know I haven't," Seamus said with a scowl. "I'm not a Seeker, anyway."

Harry considered the fact that in fifth year Seamus hadn't been much of a Chaser either. Seamus seemed to pick up on Harry's line of thought because he said next, "I've been practising. You've gotta replace Katie and Alicia—I'm gonna try out."

Harry looked at him dubiously, which he was allowed to do because Seamus knew how badly he'd performed in fifth year. "Good luck," Harry said, grinning.

Seamus gave him a mocking, narrow-eyed glance. "Won't need it," he said. On the other side of him, Dean leaned forward and gave Harry a significant look.

"Everyone knows the Irish can't play Quidditch," he said good-naturedly.

Seamus looked over at him. "And I s'pose the World Cup three years ago was just a fluke then?"

Harry and Dean laughed. "You're both welcome to try out," he said. "I'm holding tryouts for Beaters too—hopefully there are better flyers to be had than Kirk and Sloper by now."

Seamus grinned and elbowed him suggestively, which Seamus was wont to do on occasion—or often, actually. "Beaters, huh? I hadn't even thought of that. Might be fun—I have a natural talent for handling thick wood and feisty balls."

Dean rolled his eyes. "That was really bad—even for you." Harry nodded sadly in agreement.

"Oh honestly, Seamus," Hermione said exasperatedly from Harry's other side. All three boys turned to look at her, eyebrows raised. Harry would have thought, by then, that Hermione had grown accustomed to crass boarding-school boy humour. Obviously, he had been wrong.

"What?" Seamus said defensively.

Hermione pursed her lips and Harry settled in for a lecture on the proper etiquette used around ladies.

"I could have come up with a better pun," she said, and then turned back to her book: it was well over a thousand pages and she was reading them so quickly that the words blurred to Harry's eyes. All three boys burst out laughing.

"Of course you could have," Dean said. "But yours probably would have included something frightful about beating balls. Everyone knows about how you like to manage Ron."

"Bet Ronnie likes it too," Seamus snickered.

Hermione scowled. "Where is Ron?" she asked, looking up and down the table. Harry followed her glances, frowning.

"I don't know," he said. "He was in the dorm when we came down. He said Neville had forgotten something for his Herbology thesis and he was going to take it to him first."

Hermione looked at him, then at her watch, then back to Harry. "Well it's a quarter 'til and he's still not here. Certainly it can't have taken him forty-five minutes to drop something off at the greenhouses…?"

Harry shrugged. "Doesn't matter," he said, standing up. Dean, Seamus and Hermione followed. He grabbed a few rolls off the table and wrapped them in a napkin. "We can just bring him something back and if he's still hungry later, I'll let him use my..you know...to go down to the kitchens." Hermione neglected to say anything about how, as Head Girl, she could not advocate such an expedition, which proved just how curious the situation was to her.

After all, Ron never missed a meal.

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Harry stumbled into the dorm room and landed on top of Dean with Seamus landing on top of him. The Irish boy had gotten it in his head that they should play levitating leap frog up the stairs and Harry had been in too good a mood to tell him it was a bad idea—which it had been, judging by the state of things.

They'd done well going up the seven main staircases, and Dean had even convinced Hermione to leap over all of them once—for self-levitation practise purposes, of course—but Harry had lost control of his Wingardium Leviosa at the top of the stairs leading to the boys' dorm and fallen on top of Dean. Seamus, thinking this was probably better than the game itself, used it as an excuse to fall on Harry.

They lay sprawled in a laughing heap inside the door until Dean started to complain about Harry's armpit being in his face.

"Seamus, stop rutting," Dean said exasperatedly. "I can feel it all the way down here, you pervy sod."

"Harry doesn't seem to mind," Seamus said. "He's writhing like he likes it."

Harry lifted his head from the floor. "You mistake my resigned squirming to get away with writhing," he said blankly. He was very glad that Hermione had gone on up to the girls' dorm instead of following them up to talk. None of them would ever live it down if she had seen any of this.

Seamus finally lifted himself up and Harry and Dean untangled themselves from each other, still giggling occasionally.

They stepped all the way in the boys' dorm, shut the door behind them, and finally saw Ron. He was sitting, white-faced on the edge of his bed, staring at nothing. Harry had a moment of embarrassed guilt at having been caught in such a position with Dean and Seamus before he realised that Ron had noticed none of it. He was not white-faced from seeing them sprawled suggestively on the floor—it was for an entirely different reason.

Harry just didn't know what that reason was.

"Ron, mate, what's wrong?" Dean asked, plopping down on his bed. Seamus crawled up the ladder to his own bed and lay down, staring down at Ron. The year before, he'd been able to talk Dean into converting their beds into bunk beds, and Professor McGonagall had not made them change it back. Seamus called it the Fort.

Ron didn't move, didn't acknowledge them at all. He hadn't seemed to have heard. Cautiously, Harry walked over, sat next to Ron, and put his hand lightly on his redheaded friend's shoulder. Ron jerked and looked at Harry. His eyes were abnormally large, almost as large as Luna Lovegood's.

"Malfoy," Ron said hoarsely.

Harry furrowed his eyebrows. "What did he do? Did he say something about your mum again?"

Ron shook his head slowly. "No."

"Erm…did he call you Weasel?"

"No," Ron said in that same hoarse voice. Harry exchanged looks with Dean and Seamus. He was running out of ideas. Altercations with Malfoy usually followed the same agenda: taunting family and then ending with a riveting bout of name-calling.

"Well did you get into a row with him at all?"

"No," Ron said.

Harry rolled his eyes. "Then what did the little ferret do?"

"He saw me," Ron said.

"Okay," Harry said slowly. "Saw you what? He sees you every day—oh, did he catch you wanking in the prefect's bathroom?" he asked with a teasing grin. Seamus and Dean sniggered.

"No," Ron said, completely ignoring the jibe. He paused and then added, very slowly, "He saw me having a bit of a drink, and he reported me to McGonagall. She wrote my mum."

Harry inhaled sharply. He'd thought that Ron had run out of firewhiskey in their first week back and so had said nothing about his friend's increasingly bad habit. He'd hoped that with enough time without alcohol, Ron would forget about it. He reckoned he had been wrong.

"You got caught?" Seamus asked, scandalised. "How'd you get caught?" He leaned further over the bed and stared down at Ron in curiosity. "You must have been doing it in plain sight for Malfoy to catch you."

"Greenhouse Four," Ron said, nodding. He'd seemed to get a bit a colour back by now, but he was still so pale that every one of his freckles stood out in stark contrast. Seamus sighed in exasperation.

"Really, mate," Seamus said, "you should have known better. Malfoy's taking Herbology too; of course he'd be there tonight." Dean craned his neck over the side of his bed to stare up at Seamus. Seamus looked down at him defensively. "What? So I like to see men getting their hands dirty."

Harry sniggered, totally forgetting the situation at hand. "You would," he said.

"Even Neville?" Dean asked, lips twitching. Seamus sneered at him playfully.

"She took my prefect's badge away," Ron continued slowly, bringing all of them back to the conversation. Harry gaped.

"Bollocks," Seamus said. "Now one of us is gonna have to do it."

"Shut up, Seamus," Dean said. Harry gave him a thankful look. Ron hadn't been paying attention, but it still wasn't the time for jokes. He seriously doubted McGonagall would pick Seamus as Ron's replacement anyway. Most likely, it would be Dean.

"It'll be okay, Ron," Harry said, patting him awkwardly on the back. Ron glanced at him.

"No it won't."

Harry bit his lip. "Ron—you really shouldn't be drinking as much as you do anyway. Especially not when we’ve got Potions essays due."

"This is a regular thing?" Dean asked. Harry looked significantly at Seamus and then back to Dean. Dean got it in one. He promptly closed his mouth.

"I'm out anyway," Ron said, flopping back on his bed. "McGonagall confiscated my last bottle." He sighed heavily and then pulled the duvet over his head. "I'm just going to go to bed. Maybe I'll wake up tomorrow and this will all have been a bad dream."

As soon as Ron's curtains were closed, Seamus scurried back down the ladder and into Dean's bed to talk about Ron, but Harry was suddenly feeling just as tired as his friend. He padded back over to his bed, pulled off his shirt, and went to sleep, still wearing his trousers.

And to think, he had thought this year would be easy.

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Harry woke up sweating and breathing heavily. He sat up in his bed in Gryffindor Tower and fumbled for his wand to cast a Tempus spell, groaning at the time. It was only eleven-thirty, but he’d been waking up like this almost every night since he’d arrived back at Hogwarts on September first, nearly two weeks ago, and knew that he wouldn’t get back to sleep. He didn’t know why the dreams unsettled him so much, but they did, and always left him feeling horrible in the morning.

Vaguely, he wondered why he hadn’t had these dreams so often while he was still staying at River House over the summer, and then remembered that many of his nights had been occupied with Voldemort. They weren't now: Voldemort was temporarily satisfied with him. He'd left him alone thus far.

But perhaps his mind was trying to tell him something. He lay back in his bed, trying to go back to sleep, but after fifteen minutes, realised it wasn’t going to happen. Of course he wouldn’t be that lucky.

He just couldn’t get them out of his head once he had them each night. If only he could make out whom the voice belonged to, or remember what they told him once he woke up—then maybe he'd be able to forget about it.

With a sigh, Harry stood up and rummaged through his trunk for his map. Perhaps some wandering would tire him out enough to sleep. He pulled the map out and activated it, scanning the castle for any late night lurkers that might impede his exploring.

A black dot moving around in the dungeons caught his eye. He hadn't thought once of Malfoy since he'd gotten back to Hogwarts, but seeing him wandering around brought back memories of the night Voldemort had come for him. He remembered Malfoy's strange, crazed eyes and cringed.

Why was he surprised? He hadn't been wrong when he'd generalised Malfoy as a future Death Eater all those years ago, he just hadn't known to what extent Malfoy would be one. Clearly, Malfoy was just as mad as Bellatrix Lestrange or Fenrir Greyback, who Harry had heard stories of from Professor Lupin.

Malfoy was so strange; it was obvious to Harry that he had no preference whatsoever what happened to the wizarding world, so long as he got to Avada Kedavra without discrimination. Malfoy, Harry thought, would kill his own mother without a second thought, and do it messily at that. Of course, Harry could be wrong. He didn't think he was though.

He was certain, now more than ever, that every time Malfoy had played a dangerous prank on him, he really had been trying to kill him. Harry snorted in bitter amusement as the little black dot paced up and down the dungeons. What was wrong with him? Why was he so amused by this?

Harry looked out through his curtains at the other boys. Neville had come in sometime after Harry had drifted off, and was now snoring almost as loudly as Ron. Ron—Harry glanced at his sleeping friend and frowned.

He should have done something sooner, but he hadn't thought it was so bad. He still didn't, really: all the muggle men his Uncle Vernon invited over for dinner during the summers drank just as much as Ron. But they were grown men, Harry thought. They didn't have studies to worry about—or dark lords either.

“Well,” he said quietly to himself, looking back down at the map. “What could it hurt?” Ron was snoring so loudly now that he figured he could slam the dormitory door and no one would notice it.

Hermione would fix it, Harry thought as he grabbed his invisibility cloak and headed out of the dorms. She would probably have Ron's guts for garters in the process, but at least she would know what to do. On his way to a little corridor in the south dungeons, Harry pulled the cloak tighter around himself and repressed a shiver as he thought of how horrible Ron's day was going to be in the morning.

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From two week’s worth of listening to Hermione revise (and revise again) the prefects' round schedules, Harry knew that Draco Malfoy patrolled the dungeons from nine p.m. to midnight every Sunday and Wednesday night—and then wandered around for an hour or so more just because he could. After seeing Malfoy at the Death Eater meeting over the summer, Harry suspected that the Slytherin probably did it for the chance to be cruel if he happened to catch someone out after hours.

Hermione, as Head Girl, patrolled as well, but he was fairly sure she did it for the love of rules.

Harry had refused to even think about this since the start of term because Malfoy was just such a pain in the arse that he couldn’t muster up the patience for it, but he wouldn’t be getting back to sleep again that night, and he might as well do something productive. Maybe Malfoy would surprise him. Maybe Malfoy wouldn’t be such a little bastard. Harry doubted it.

He was under the invisibility cloak when Malfoy sauntered by, and he stepped out behind him, pulling the cloak off and tucking it away. “Malfoy,” he said, slipping his hands in his pockets and trying to look unassuming. Malfoy whirled around and sneered at him.

“Out after hours, Potter?”

Harry smiled benignly, and said a little silent apology to James Potter. “I’m not a Potter, Malfoy,” he chided gently. “You know that. Everyone knows that.”

Malfoy narrowed his eyes, and took a step closer. “You’re not worthy of being a Black,” he sneered. “It’s quite the scandal.”

Harry shrugged again. “Maybe not,” he agreed easily, but didn’t say anything more. The fact alone that Malfoy had yet to take points or draw his wand showed that he was at least a little bit intrigued by what Harry had up his sleeve, whether he wanted to admit it or not. Harry had all night; he wasn’t going back to sleep. He could wait for Malfoy to direct the conversation.

It didn’t take Malfoy as long as he’d suspected it might. "I caught the Weasel indulging himself in the greenhouses tonight," Malfoy said, sneering. "He lost his badge."

Harry frowned. "You think he didn't tell me?"

Malfoy shrugged. "Just wanted to make sure you were aware of it."

"I am," Harry said.

"Is he heartbroken?" Malfoy asked with feigned concern.

"Worried more about what his mum's going to say, I'd think," Harry said flatly—this was turning out just as he'd expected: Malfoy was going to be a prat until one of them lost his temper and started a fight. It was not going to be Harry, he decided stubbornly.

Malfoy snorted. "Disgraceful."

There was a long silence, during which Harry only stared blandly at Malfoy before the Slytherin finally broke. "What do you want, Potter?" Harry raised his eyebrows, smiled coolly, and waited. "Black, then," Malfoy corrected with a sneer.

"What do you think of Voldemort?" Harry said, non sequitur, head cocked innocently to the side. He had no idea what he was doing really, but he knew that Malfoy would eventually become a Death Eater and be under Voldemort’s control, or he would strike out on his own—probably killing everyone in the process. Harry had a vested interest in keeping that from happening, as he assumed he would be one of the first to go.

There was no way Malfoy would ever defect to the Light side, but that didn't bother Harry as much as it might have before. Better to have Malfoy on Voldemort's side than on no one's. He would be much less dangerous under the Dark Lord’s control.

Malfoy gaped at him, but managed to collect himself quickly. Harry could see the warring emotions under Malfoy’s mask of indifference and impatience, but suspected that he would be one of the few who could. He might not be friends or even friendly acquaintances with Malfoy, but he knew him—knew his facial expressions—when he was angry or excited, plotting or bored.

Malfoy had nearly as many facial expressions as any one of Harry’s lively Gryffindor friends, and definitely more than the other Slytherins. Even Crabbe and Goyle were better—and then Harry had a thought: was the dumb shtick their way of hiding their emotions? Harry mused over that for several seconds before turning back to the blond. Right now, Malfoy was confused and angry; it showed all over his face.

“What?” Malfoy asked scathingly. “What do I think of the Dark Lord? Are you mad, Black? He’s a fair sight better than your side,” he spat.

Harry smiled. “Yes,” he agreed. “I think so, too.” He took a moment to bask in wonder at how Malfoy had finally called him by the right name, and then said, “But do you think all the muggles should be killed?”

“Of course,” Malfoy sneered, rolling his eyes at what he assumed was merely ignorance or Gryffindor righteousness. “Muggles are vile, filthy creatures. They should be wiped off the face of the planet.”

Harry nodded, having expected that. “I suppose that’s one solution,” he said with a shrug. Malfoy was spouting off excuses his father had fed to him for years. That was what Harry would need to correct, so that Voldemort would accept him, and Harry wouldn’t have to worry about a rogue elitist psychopath.

Malfoy, again, gaped at him. “The Golden Boy thinks that muggles should be eradicated?” Malfoy questioned. His face showed his doubt—no control whatsoever.

Harry shrugged. “No,” he said. “I think that muggles should be ignored so that wizards can spend their time doing more productive things—like eliminating squib births, thinking for themselves, and replenishing the bloodlines so that magic doesn’t die.”

“You want to kill off the squibs?” Malfoy asked, eyebrow raised. He looked intrigued, of course. Another set of people he would have an excuse to kill, Harry assumed.

“No,” Harry said, rolling his eyes, “I want to prevent them from being born, so that kids don’t have to grow up feeling like they don’t belong.”

“That’s impossible,” Malfoy said. “They’re just freaks of nature.” He shrugged. “Magic does what it wants, sometimes.”

“Like with muggleborns,” Harry added helpfully.

Malfoy shivered in disgust. “Exactly like mudbloods,” he corrected.

“Only that without muggleborns, all magic would eventually die out,” Harry countered. Malfoy opened his mouth to respond, but Harry cut him off. “Voldemort—"

Malfoy flinched. “Stop saying his name.”

“The Dark Lord,” Harry corrected, smirking at Malfoy’s look—he knew full well that only Death Eaters and sympathisers called Voldemort by that title—“says differently.”

Malfoy scoffed. “Even the Dark Lord can’t prevent squibs from being squibs. They’re just born that way,” he insisted. “And how would you know what the Dark Lord says?”

Harry withheld a smile. Malfoy was going to be difficult, but Harry had accepted this task, and who knew? Maybe it would add some excitement to what was starting out to be a rather boring year.

It didn’t matter that they believed in different things; he would try to get into Malfoy’s head—whether Malfoy realized it or not—and then he would see where that took him. Malfoy would probably still become a ruthless arsehole, but Harry had always expected that, and maybe, just maybe, he could make Malfoy into slightly less of a prick.

He ignored Malfoy’s question. He wasn’t stupid.

Malfoy was intelligent and could possibly become a powerful ally, but Harry would not tell him anything sensitive unless he could trust him absolutely. And that meant he was likely to never tell Malfoy even so much as his birthday. He wouldn’t trust the git if his life depended on it—especially if his life depended on it.

“You should have more faith in your master, Malfoy,” Harry said quietly. “And you should start thinking for yourself, instead of letting your father do it for you. I’ve seen you in the library—always studying. You aren’t stupid, so stop being so ignorant.”

Malfoy flinched, stunned, and opened his mouth slightly, but did not speak. It seemed, for once, that he’d been rendered speechless. Harry gave him a polite nod, turned and walked away.

“The Dark Lord’s cause is not ignorant,” Malfoy finally said, but Harry could tell that he was reluctant. He paused and turned back around to face the Slytherin.

“No,” Harry agreed. “Not anymore.” And then he spun back around and trekked back up to Gryffindor Tower. He might be able to get some sleep tonight, after all, and hopefully, he wouldn’t be too tired to hold Quidditch tryouts in the morning.

Harry didn't give a shit about what Malfoy did with his life, but he never backed down from a challenge.

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The Great Hall was nearly empty when Harry walked in. It was only seven a.m. by the time he’d gotten ready for the day, but he was not at all surprised to find his best friend, Hermione, already perched at her usual place on the Gryffindor table with a book in her hand.

Ron had been gone when he woke up, which was extremely unusual, as Ron always slept in, and it left Harry feeling wary of what the day would bring. He wondered if Hermione knew yet; how fast did Prefect news travel to the Head Girl? Would McGonagall have already spoken to her? Harry didn't know.

Hermione didn’t notice his entrance until he slipped into a seat across from her, and began filling his plate with breakfast foods.

“Morning, Harry,” she said softly. She didn't look up from her book and she didn't smile at him like she usually did. Harry winced. She knew. “You don’t look like you slept well,” Hermione continued. She flipped another page in her book. This was how she dealt.

“Death’s brother, sleep,” Harry returned with an awkward attempt at matching her casualness. He thought of his night time conversation with Malfoy, and wondered if that constituted as an arguable reason for not sleeping well.

“Virgil said that originally,” she stated. She began buttering a piece of toast with her free hand. Finally, she set the book aside and gave Harry a calculative look, no doubt wondering how much he knew and how to broach a mutually dreaded subject. Harry certainly wasn't going to be the one to bring it up, but he did wonder where Ron was.

Harry gave her a pained smile and went back to his own breakfast. They could both dance around the subject by repeating platitudes, but it wasn't going to make it any easier.

Hermione cleared her throat, and Harry tensed, waiting.

"Professor McGonagall cornered me this morning before breakfast," she said, rather heroically all things considered. Harry wondered how long she would hint and tease before she finally came out with it.

Not long, apparently, because she immediately followed with, "And how long have you known?"

Harry tensed further. "Known what?" he asked in a pathetic attempt to seem innocent. Hermione wasn't that stupid; Harry didn't know why he'd even bothered to try, but he just didn’t want to talk about this uncomfortable subject. Ron would take care of it, and then they could go on as usual. She gave him a condescending glare.

"You know what I'm talking about Harry Black," she said. It made him jump—he still found himself unprepared to be called by that name. The first two weeks of classes hadn't been bad—none of his professors seemed to have had a problem remembering to call him 'Mr. Black'—well, except for Snape—but he had been prepared for it then. He hadn't when Hermione called him by it. "I know you know."

Harry shrugged noncommittally. "Where's Ron?" he asked.

Hermione slammed her buttered toast down on the table. It landed buttered-side down with an awkward squelching noise and Harry stared at it to avoid staring at Hermione. She leaned her head very close to his in an attempt at privacy, even though the Great Hall was virtually empty.

"Do not play me for a fool, Harry James Potter Black," she hissed, as if she didn't know which name would intimidate him the most and finally decided to use every one she could think of. Harry flinched, thinking it sounded absurd, and hoping no one else ever called him that. "You knew! You knew all along. Ron was acting strange this summer—and when I thought about it, I realized you were, too. Were you doing it too?"

Harry lifted his head from where she'd jerked it level with her own. "No," he said indignantly. "I've got more important things to worry about than getting pissed."

"Then why was Ron doing it? Why did you let it go on?"

"Who says I knew anything about it?" Harry asked.

Hermione snarled. "I am not a fool, Harry. Quit playing me like one."

"Fine," Harry muttered, resigned. "Yeah, I knew."

Hermione looked as if she couldn't tell whether to be triumphant at having gotten the information out of him or horrified at what the information was. "I knew it," she said. And then, "Why was he doing it?"

Harry had a faint idea, but it seemed so stupid even to him that he was reluctant to repeat it to Hermione. He took a tentative bite of his breakfast, stalling for time, but Hermione shoved his plate away and once he had swallowed what was in his mouth, he had nothing left to occupy himself with. "I don't know," he said.

Hermione gave him another look. "Bollocks!" she hissed, still leaning very close to him. She was staring at him with narrowed eyes and Harry realised that she looked even more intimidating than ever before. "Tell me." It was not a request; it was an order.

"I think he fancies you," Harry said, scratching his neck uncomfortably.

Hermione rolled her eyes in exasperation. "That’s lovely, Harry, but why was he drinking so much alcohol? Why was he so dependant on it that he couldn't stop once he got back to school?"

"You're the smart one," Harry sneered. "You tell me."

Hermione slapped him.

Then gathered her things, and walked right out of the Great Hall. Harry stared at her retreating back, feeling like a huge prat and wondering if that was how Malfoy felt every single day of his life. He glanced across the hall to see if the Slytherin had actually made it to breakfast himself, and instead, his eyes landed on a rabbity-looking brown-haired, brown-eyed Slytherin. Theodore Nott caught his eye and stared.

Harry looked away and quickly followed Hermione out of the Hall.

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"I'm sorry," he pleaded as he finally caught up to Hermione on the third floor. They had Defence with Hufflepuff first thing on Mondays and Wednesdays, so he had known, relatively, where to find her. She ignored him, swinging her bag over to her other shoulder and staring resolutely ahead as if she hadn't heard him at all.

"I'm sorry," Harry repeated again. He was struggling to keep up with her pace, even after six plus years of Quidditch. "Look—," he said, grabbing her shoulder and forcing her to stop. She spun around with a magnificent scowl and crossed her arms over her chest, looking as if she would tap her foot if it weren't a gesture so beneath her.

"I knew," he said plaintively. "You're right, I knew, but I didn't think it was so bad. Yeah, it made me uncomfortable, but how the hell was I supposed to know it was such a bad thing? My relatives had a few glasses of wine every night with dinner and my uncle's business partners did, too."

He sighed and ran his free hand through his hair. "He did it a lot over the summer—every night, I'd reckon, but," he looked around as if to find something to help him explain, but found nothing. "But it was never really my thing. My da—Sirius has a brandy every now and then, but it wasn't nearly as much as Ron did. I just thought Ron had a taste for it. Like sweets," he finished lamely.

Hermione snorted humourlessly. "Like sweets?" she asked. Harry shrugged uncomfortably. Hermione shook her head in disbelief. "Honestly, Harry, if you didn't think it was all that bad then why didn't you tell me?"

"I didn't think it was my place to tell you."

"But it would only be 'not your place' to tell me if Ron was doing something he ought not to be and you were protecting him from me. Don't you agree?"

Harry looked at her warily, and refused to answer. He hated being backed into a corner.

"If you didn't think Ron was doing anything wrong," Hermione carried on, "then it wouldn't have mattered who knew, would it? It would have been me learning something new about my friend, wouldn't it?"

Harry shrugged. "I guess."

"So you knew it was wrong," Hermione deduced.

Harry looked at her sharply. He hadn't really meant that. He had meant—well, he really didn't know what he meant, Harry realised.

"Why didn't you tell me?" Hermione asked again.

"Wasn't my place," Harry repeated. Honestly, if they were going to go through this again—

"You knew it was wrong, and you knew—even if it was only subconsciously—that Ron needed help. Why did you hide this for him? I know you must have—Ron is about as subtle as a troll in an antique shop. He would have ousted himself already if you hadn't been guarding his back."

"I snuck him up to my room to sleep it off while Fred guarded the door," Harry admitted. It was practically impossible to keep secrets from Hermione, and with that, he suddenly got the horrifying thought that it was likely Hermione was going to find out what he had been up to as well. He struggled to keep his expression from changing. Now was not the time to think about that. "And I gave him a hang-over potion once."

"Why did you have a hang-over potion?" Hermione asked suspiciously.

Harry narrowed his eyes at her. This wasn't about him, and he was damned if he was going to let it get turned around. The consequences of Hermione on an Inquisition could be more than just a little bit damaging. "My dad gave it to me on my birthday, but I didn't drink enough to need it."

"Why was he doing it?" Hermione asked abruptly. Harry rubbed his eyes tiredly.

"I told you. I don't know, but once, when he was at it in the drawing room while I talked to my grandparents' portrait, he told me that he loved you."

Hermione snorted. "Right, Harry."

"That's what he said," Harry said defensively.

"Ron doesn't love me," Hermione said flatly. "I don't think he knows exactly what he wants, but it's certainly not me. I'm everything he doesn't like: rules, logic and not a fan of Quidditch."

Harry shrugged. Love could be funny like that, or so he had always thought. Maybe he was wrong, but he didn't think that sort of thing mattered when you were in love. But maybe Hermione was right; maybe Ron really didn't know what he wanted. The bell in the North Tower sounded the hour, and they hurried into the Defence classroom just as the professor was shutting the door.

Ron was not in class either. Dean, Seamus and Neville were saving the two of them seats near the back and from the look on Neville's face, Harry knew that he had been informed about what happened in the dormitory the night before. Harry gave them a weak smile as he led Hermione to the table across the isle from theirs. They smiled faintly back.

On the opposite side of the room, the Hufflepuffs had no idea what was going on; Justin Finch-Fletchley and Hannah Abbott even seemed to be clueless. Harry supposed that it wouldn't be too long before they found out. If McGonagall didn't announce it to them, then Malfoy surely would.

He saw Zacharias Smith leaning back in his chair next to Justin Finch-Fletchley and looking at him, eyebrow raised. The two of them had eaten dinner together with Harry's father and Zacharias' parents over the summer and then lunch at Merlin's Magic Mushroom, but Harry didn't think that made them friends.

The fact that he'd seen Zacharias' mother, Yasmin Smith, at a Death Eater meeting, however, did mean he would have to keep an eye on him. He gave Smith a similar glance and turned back to the front just as their new professor cleared her throat.

"Good morning," Professor Sinclair said, smiling. She was a woman of about thirty-five years with black hair, blue eyes, pink cheeks and a warm smile, but Harry got the feeling that she wasn’t as kind as she looked. She would have to be at least a little hardened to be a Death Eater.

He wondered, knowing that Smith's mother was a Death Eater as well, how many other students knew about her. There were certainly more students in the school with Death Eater ties than he had originally thought. Strangely enough, it didn’t bother him. He reckoned that everyone had their secrets…and how macabre a thought was that, he wondered. He also deluded himself into believing that those families had good reasons for joining Voldemort.

"Good morning, Professor Sinclair," the class echoed back. She smiled brightly at them.

"It is a good morning, isn't it?" she continued. Harry liked that about her: she was always so bloody cheerful. "My husband floo-called last night," she said.

That was another thing about her: she liked to tell her classes amusing anecdotes about her husband, Vlad, a Russian wizard who had gone to Durmstrang, but had always failed his Dark Arts classes. He just didn't have a knack for them, apparently.

The class tittered in expectant amusement. They had only known her for two weeks, but whenever she mentioned her husband, it was sure to be a laugh.

"Some colleagues invited him to go hunting in Romania this weekend," she continued, propping herself on the edge of her desk and grinning mischievously. Harry wondered who those 'colleagues' were. "He caught a rabbit, and they were going to have it for dinner, but when he tried to cast a skinning spell, it backfired and shaved his head instead. He looks ridiculous," she ended fondly.

Harry laughed along with the rest of the class. Even Hermione looked like she wanted to crack a smile, but she absolutely refused to do so, and instead stared down at her blank parchment. She didn't like Professor Sinclair as much as everyone else did. She assumed (rightly, though Harry would never tell her) that Mercy Sinclair was a Death Eater or at least a sympathiser if she could be so blasé about the Dark Arts.

"So, yes," Professor Sinclair continued jovially once the laughter had died down, "it is a very good morning for me…but maybe not for my husband, who left his wool cap on the kitchen table."

There was more scattered laughter and then the professor hopped off the desk and stood facing the class with her hands behind her back.

“Now that I've sufficiently ruined my husband's terrifying reputation for the morning, let's get down to business. I know that each of you has taken at least five years of History, and that some of you are still taking it, but today I would like to give you a bit of a history lesson anyway.” The class groaned, and she added with a smile, “Oh, hush. I think you’ll find it interesting. We’ll be covering the history of warfare.”

Hermione’s hand shot up and Professor Sinclair smiled patiently. “Yes, Ms. Granger?”

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No matter what anyone said about Hufflepuff loyalty, Zacharias despised—loathed, hated even—Justin Finch-Fletchley with so much raging enthusiasm and fervour that sometimes he found himself coming this-close to pushing him down the stairs or over one of the banisters in Hufflepuff Den.

He wished that Finch-Fletchley had not been such an out-of-shape layabout and had joined the house Quidditch team; there, Zacharias could have easily bumped into him just-so, so that Finch-Fletchley fell from his broom. There were no padding spells on Quidditch pitches. If you fell, you splattered—unless a professor managed to slow your fall in time. The likelihood of that was even less than Granger managing to free all the house-elves.

Zacharias didn't hate Finch-Fletchley because he was muggleborn; in truth, Zacharias didn't care one way or another about them. He hated Finch-Fletchley because he was an obnoxious, lazy, brown-nosing, self-righteous little git. He should have been in Gryffindor, but even Potter—Black, Zacharias corrected himself—was better than that. He hadn't thought so at first, but after being forced to dinner with him over the summer, he'd realised that he wasn't so bad. He wasn't so great either, but at least he wasn't so bad.

Finch-Fletchley on the other hand—well, Finch-Fletchley really was as bad as Zacharias thought—he'd spent over six years sharing a dorm room with the wanker; he would know. Finch-Fletchley was one of those muggleborns who absolutely refused to be quiet. He picked a different cause to advocate daily, fluctuating between the mundane and the outrageous, but always, underneath, insisting something even worse: that muggleborn wizards were just as good as pure-blooded or half-blooded wizards.

Zacharias didn't have a problem with that, per se, but he did have a problem with the way Finch-Fletchley went about it. No one, really, other than a select few, actually gave a damn about whether someone was pure-blooded or not. Most of the pure-bloods felt the same as Zacharias: they just didn't care so long as the muggleborns weren't arses about it and didn't compromise their world or family traditions. But Finch-Fletchley went out of his way to make sure he was noticed—as a muggleborn.

Zacharias had a problem with this because Finch-Fletchley, usually, was wrong. He'd entered the wizarding world after spending ten years with absolutely no idea it even existed, only to pretend he was an expert on wizarding culture and traditions.

Finch-Fletchley liked to study (bits and pieces) of wizarding folklore and then brag about how much he knew. However, like muggle folklore, wizarding folklore was just that: folklore. It had no basis in reality. There had been, despite Finch-Fletchley's avid arguments to the contrary, no wizard named Merlin. Ever. It was folklore…a bedtime story, but it was still part of their culture.

Zacharias' favourite rant was when Finch-Fletchley would start talking about what a great wizard Merlin had been—about all the noble things he had done, about how he was a half-blood. That far back, even the Malfoys couldn't trace their lineage, Finch-Fletchley had once said pompously.

And what was even better, Zacharias thought, was that even the folklore of Merlin didn't make him out to be some altruistic all-powerful bloke. Even folklore suggested he would have been a Slytherin.

Because he had nearly been late for DADA, Zacharias was forced to sit next to Finch-Fletchley in class. Finch-Fletchley smiled at him. He'd been trying to win Zacharias over since day one—because he had the convoluted idea that to bring down (hardly-existent) pure-blood superiority, he needed to befriend them. But Zacharias had grown up around dark magic, and he knew enough to suss someone out before offering any sort of alliance. Finch-Fletchley had not passed the test.

The new Defence teacher was a woman that his mother had had to dinner on many occasions as Zacharias was growing up. She gave him a quirky smile as he slid into his seat and then turned to face the rest of the class. Beside him, Finch-Fletchley scowled, dumbly assuming the professor had smiled at Zacharias because he was pure-blooded (and if rumours were correct, descended from Helga Hufflepuff—but that was really of no importance).

"Yes, Ms. Granger?" Professor Sinclair asked.

Zacharias turned his head slowly. No doubt Granger would have questions before the class had even begun. He wondered what a class would be like if Granger decided to save her questions for the end—see if they were actually covered in the course before she asked them. Zacharias suspected she might be surprised.

"How would you define the history of warfare?" Granger asked. "War has been around since before recorded history, wouldn't it be a bit risky to generalise it all into one history?"

Professor Sinclair smiled; Zacharias wondered how she put up with it. "Ah, very good question, Ms. Granger. You are absolutely right. Perhaps I should have worded that better. What we will, in fact, be discussing is the history of wizarding warfare and the common denominators in those wars."

"But how can we know that every war since the beginning of wizarding history is being covered?" Granger continued unrepentantly. Zacharias saw Black put his head in his hands next to her, and smirked.

"We can't," the professor shrugged. "But we can discuss what we are sure of."

Granger's hand fell.

"Now, who has read the chapter I assigned last Wednesday?" A scattering of hands soared back into the air and Professor Sinclair frowned. "You could at least lie to me," she said frowning. "It wasn't that boring was it?"

The class tittered; even Zacharias smiled. He liked her; he really did.

"Well it probably was," Professor Sinclair allowed. "It was chapter one, for those of you who didn't even bother to check the syllabus, and it was an overview of what would be covered in the book—probably the least intimidating chapter in the book, I would hazard. What it covered," she said, her voice rising, "was the Ten Wars. Who can tell me what the Ten Wars were?"

Zacharias raised his hand before Granger could because no matter what she believed, monopolies on answering questions in class were very gauche.

"Mr Smith?" Professor Sinclair called.

Zacharias sneered at Finch-Fletchley before he answered because he hated him, and for no other reason. Finch-Fletchley didn't notice. "The Ten Wars," Zacharias said clearly, "were the defining wars of British wizarding history. They were each wars that resulted in extreme change for the British wizarding world."

"Very good, Mr Smith—five points to Hufflepuff," the professor smiled. "Now, who knows what each of those wars was called?"

Granger's hand shot up and Professor Sinclair acknowledged her. "The Ten Wars included, in chronological order: the Roman Occupation, the War of Muggles, the Derbyshire Devastation, the Falmouth Famine, The Iceland Battle, the War of 1212, the Clover Wars, the Goblin Rebellion of 1612, Pax Britannica and World War II."

"Excellent, five points to Gryffindor, Ms Granger," Professor Sinclair nodded.

"Why isn't the first war with You-Know-Who not on that list? Or World War I?" Dean Thomas spoke up suddenly. The professor gave him a grin.

"Because then it would be the Eleven Wars and eleven is not a strong magical number," Professor Sinclair answered.