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Harry Potter and the Phoenix's Flight

by The Velvet Ghost (velvet9409 @yahoo.co.uk)

Rating: PG-13

Fandom: Harry Potter

Category: Action/Adventure, Humor

Spoilers: Though OotP, Set 6th Year.

Disclaimer: As always, I don't claim to own Harry Potter or any of the characters by JK Rowling, although some of the characters are my ideas (Jinx, the Galvez sisters) so ask my permission if you wanna use any of them.

Summary: There are surprises in store for the sixteen-year-old Harry Potter, even before he even starts school. His year ahead is full of mystery, action, adventure, laughs and tears, more than he could ever imagine.


 

Chapter One: You Know What Day

When the sun rose on the morning of July 31st, Harry Potter found himself excited because of two things: firstly, that it was his sixteenth birthday at last, and secondly, that it was finally saturday. He didn't know which wait seemed longest between the year and the week. It could well be the week. Saturday was a big event for Harry, and he always anticipated them eagerly, because saturday was the day he could escape from the horrible Dursleys. Once a week, he was allowed to spend the day with a member of the order of the phoenix. These visits were a beacon of hope in the comparative gloom that was his school holiday, and July 31st was the outing he was looking forward to. Today he was going to be spending the day with Lupin. In his last letter, he had hinted that they might do something special for Harry's birthday, and when Harry hadn't done anything special for his birthdays ever, this was certainly something to excited about.

He woke up at about half past seven, which was quite a lot earlier than normal. Most other days he preferred to languish in bed, after all, there was nothing else to do, but today, there was a reason for him to wake up. Lupin was going to pick him up at about nine o' clock, so according to the clock on his bedside table, he had an hour and a half to get dressed, pack his bags and sit hopefully by the back door in the kitchen. Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon had strictly banned Order members from using the front door.

"We don't want the neighbours to see your... your friends calling at our house," his aunt had sniffed, trying to sound casual, though her nostrils had practically stuck together.

Mad-Eye Moody, to Harry's delight, had disobeyed this rule and swaggered up to the front door in all his grizzled glory to hammer on the wood with his gnarled fist and growl, "Open up, muggles, I don't have all day," and when Harry had been unable to fix a knot Dudley had tied in his shoe laces, Moody undid it with magic. Uncle Vernon nearly died with rage, though didn't say anything, probably too scared of Moody. He had that effect on people, with the magical eye, half a nose and so forth.

Chuckling at this memory, Harry rolled over in bed and pulled off the covers, rubbing his eyes. Lupin would stick to the Back Door Only rule, he was sure, though Harry almost hoped he wouldn't. Antagonising the Dursleys was now one of his favourite hobbies. It was even better when adult wizards did it though, especially watching Dudley's reaction. Hagrid had picked Harry up the week before for a day at London Zoo, and Dudley's last encounter with Hagrid had been for the wizard to give him a curly pig's tail. Harry's cousin had stayed upstairs all that day with his back to the wall.

Downstairs, Harry could hear the Dursleys talking in the kitchen over breakfast, and after a moment, he managed to pick out Uncle Vernon's gruff voice.

"... better be better than the last two... totally unacceptable... neighbours could have seen... cloak and everything..."

"... can't even complain," said Aunt Petunia's nipped voice, and Harry distinctly heard her sipping tea through pursed lips. He'd heard it enough times over the last sixteen years to recognise that sound.

"... have to say something if any more such behaviour... personal rights... our nephew, we'll do what we like with him... don't see what they have to complain about... fussy... always knew that their kind... petty problems with the boy... wild accusations of favouring Dudley..."

Harry knew what that last bit meant, and he grinned quite wickedly at the thought. Uncle Vernon was talking about Hagrid's reaction when he'd seen Dudley with a gigantic plate of bacon and eggs, and Harry with a slice of bread and a sliver of jam. He kept listening as he pulled on his only good pair of jeans, looking for a belt to keep them up. Dudley's trousers were, after all, four sizes too big for him, and he didn't want to have his jeans start to fall in public again as they had done when boarding a train with Moody two weeks ago.

"Don't know WHAT the neighbours would say..." said Aunt Petunia's voice, followed by some rough mumbling from Uncle Vernon about going to buy a paper.

"Want to come, Dudders?" he then said, cheerily.

"Mno," was the only reply Harry heard from his massive cousin, and he was clearly eating something as fast as he could. Obviously, Dudley would be having his real breakfast now, and when Lupin arrived, Harry would be treated to a huge plate of the best food, while Dudley would be pretending to eat a rice cake.

His uncle laughed heartily, probably ruffling Dudley's hair, and the door shut as he left to go buy the latest tabloid and a gossip magazine for Aunt Petunia. Harry pulled one of his Gryffindor jumpers from Mrs Weasley over his head and checked his appearance in the mirror. His hair, as always, refused to lie flat, no matter how much he brushed it, so he left it to its own devices. Once his glasses were on, he set about packing a day bag to take to Lupin's house. In his letter, Lupin had told him to pack some homework, so that he could do it in wizard company for once. Harry packed his potions essay, a few text books and lots of spare parchment. After a few minutes of cramming it all in to fit, he got all his necessities together, and in they went. His wand, some money, and a small bag of owl treats for Hedwig. She always got grouchy when she was hungry and he had nothing to give her, so to avoid the possibility she wouldn't deliver his letters, he always kept something at hand.

It was half past eight by the time he got downstairs, just in time to slide into a seat at the table and have a slice of rye bread thrust into his face by Aunt Petunia. "Eat quickly," he snapped. "There's only half an hour until your... friend arrives."

Aunt Petunia insisted on calling the Order, "his friends", though you could see in her eyes she despised the fact he had friends at all. There were several words that seemed to be completely censored from the Dursley's house: wizards, magic, Harry, the Order of the Phoenix, Hogwarts, Saturday and Mad-Eye Moody seemed to be along the list. To the Dursleys, they were: that kind, you-know-what, the boy, those people, that place, you-know-what-day and "that horrible man". It got quite confusing sometimes to hear Aunt Petunia having a conversion with Uncle Vernon about the boy and that kind, performing you-know-what at that place, with all those people and "that horrible man" invading their house on every you-know-what-day.

Harry took the rye bread uninterestedly, picking it apart bit-by-bit and flicking most of it into the potplant in the corner when Aunt Petunia wasn't looking. Dudley glared at him beadily from the other side of the table, and after the sixth or seventh flick, he mouthed, "I'll tell Mum..."

Harry grinned. "Be my guest," he whispered, flicking some rye bread at Dudley, trying hard not to laugh as it landed in his ear.

Dudley shook his head angrily. "Mum! He's flicking rye bread at me!"

When Aunt Petunia turned around, the whole slice of rye bread was gone and Harry was at the sink washing up. He looked innocently over his shoulder. "When I'm all the way over here?" he said.

"Hmm," his aunt said, frowning, biting her lip. He could see that she knew he had been doing something to Dudley, but she couldn't accuse him properly, so she turned around again and started buttering more bread.

"MUM!" Dudley howled.

"Oh, Dinkydiddidums, Mummy's sorry," said Aunt Petunia motherly. "But if all that horrid boy can do is throw crumbs at you then he's very silly, isn't he? Here, have a sandwich..."

And not another word was said on the subject as Dudley ravished the sandwich his mother handed him. Harry beamed into the washing up.

"What are you smiling at?" his aunt snapped at him across the kitchen.

"I just can't wait until Lupin arrives," said Harry. "So we can go do something fun for once. The Order are great."

Aunt Petunia made a noise like a boiling kettle, about to shout at him for saying one of the filtered words, but there were three knocks on the front door that distracted her. "That'll be... your friend," she said, remembering in time, drying her hands on a tea towel and heading for the door.

Harry grabbed his bag off the floor and clattered eagerly into the hall just as she pulled open the front door.

"Professor - " he started, beaming, but when he saw who it was, his face fell. "Snape?"

"Potter," said Snape, silkily, casting him a mere glance. He was about to say something to Aunt Petunia when Uncle Vernon came up the path behind him, his merry whistling ceasing as he saw Snape.

"It's not one of those Denture Menders, is it?" he said, suspiciously.

Snape turned around with a raised eyebrow and a dry remark of, "No, it isn't."

"Why are you here?" said Harry, pulling the attention back, realising he'd put a little too much emphasis on 'you'.

Snape stepped back to allow Uncle Vernon into his own house, and the two swapped disapproving glares for a moment before the professor decided to answer Harry's question. "Lupin regrets to say he's away doing something important this morning, and so unfortunately, I have to have you until his return. Though rest assured Potter, I'm no happier about this than you."

Uncle Vernon looked up from his paper in the kitchen, a great deal more interested in Snape than he had been before.

"But - " began Harry. He fell short when he realised he didn't really have a good excuse for not going with Snape, apart from that he loathed the man. He glanced from Snape to Aunt Petunia, wondering which was worse. After a moment or so's thought, he decided that a day out was a day out. He sighed. "Okay, okay, I'm coming."

"What a shame," said Snape, coldly. He gave a curt nod to Aunt Petunia. "Lupin is supposed to have him back for seven PM, but knowing Lupin's pathetic concern for punctuality, expect eight o' clock or later."

She smiled politely, opening the door for Harry to step out, and as he followed Snape dejectedly up the path, he heard Uncle Vernon say to Aunt Petunia through the open door, "What a nice fellow."

"Mmm, much better than that horrible man," was her reply, before the door shut.

Harry kicked a stone as he followed Snape up the gravel path. This was just great. He had to spend the whole morning with Snape, and there were no promises that Lupin would be free at all. On his birthday as well. This was one of his worse presents ever, second only to the visit from Aunt Marge, though the way things were going, he half-expected her to come marching down the street with all her dogs in tow.

"Stop daydreaming Potter and hurry up," said Snape icily, glancing over one bony shoulder at Harry. "I have things to do today, if you hadn't realised."

Harry took his time to amble angrily up the path, kicking out at a pot gnome and smashing it accidentally on the rockery. He stopped, leaning over to pick it up, intending to hide it or fix it, but Snape snapped,

"Potter! What on earth are you doing?"

"Give me a second," Harry mused, slotting the head back in place.

Snape tutted, folding his arms and drumming his fingers impatiently on his biceps. "Potter! If you continue to waste any more of my time - "

"You'll take points off Gryffindor?" said Harry, bitterly, perfectly aware that Snape could hear him, not really bothered, taking his time to make sure none of the gnome had broken off. His hatred of Snape had definitely increased because of... the events of last year. He instantly blocked the idea from his head, resorting to his usual strategy of not thinking about it at all. If he didn't dwell on it, it didn't hurt.

Snape's fists curled, and he hissed, "You want to keep a civil tongue in your head when you're talking to me, Potter. We might not be in school but you'll be spending a good deal of your day with me, and unless you want me to turn it into living hell, I suggest you pick up the pace!"

Harry opened his mouth to reply with something scathing, but heard from the front window, "He's broken one of the gnomes!" He glanced up, and saw all the Dursleys peering at him from under the net curtains. They gasped, dropped the drapes and huddled out of sight again.

Harry made sure the gnome was as fixed as he could make it, placed it on the ground and then reluctantly followed off after Snape.

"Where are we going?" he said, jogging every few moments to keep up with the professor's swift pace.

Snape didn't bother to reply, so Harry supposed he'd just have to wait and see. Maybe, he thought, this was all a trick and Snape would lead him into a large, abandoned building where all his friends and the Order would jump out for a surprise party. However, the professor turned a sharp left down between two hedges, beckoning him to follow.

Harry saw a complete dead-end ahead. "Um, Professor?"

"I know it's a dead-end, Potter, I don't have the brain of a Hufflepuff that you seem to possess," said Snape silkily. "Don't step in that," he added, glancing at a half-eaten dead bird on the floor.

Harry glared at the professor's back, taking a very melodramatically wide step over the bird, followed by a sarcastic, "Thankyou for pointing that out, I never normally look where I'm going or what my feet are sinking into."

"I know," said Snape in a deceptively pleasant voice, leaving Harry feeling rather stupid after all.

They walked in silence to the end of the path between the hedges, where Snape looked around carefully, making sure no muggles were around to see. Harry yawned obviously and widely, and earned himself a glare from Snape as the professor slipped an empty crisp packet and a watch from his pocket. Checking the time, he offered the packet to Harry, who stared at him.

"Professor, it's empty."

"I know it is, Potter, take a hold of it, you stupid boy," Snape snapped. "Couldn't you have guessed it was a portkey?"

Harry rolled his eyes and reluctantly nipped the corner of the packet. "Am I allowed to ask where it's going to take me to?"

"No," came the short reply. "You can wait seven seconds."

Snape slipped the watch back into his pocket as Harry counted. Seven, six, five... he yawned again, this was so boring... three, two... one...

There was that familiar lurch behind his stomach, and the dark hedgeway before him vanished, the rubbish-sodden ground beneath his feet disappeared, and he felt himself flying straight forwards in a whirl of colour and noise...


Harry felt ground suddenly thump the bottom of his feet, and his knees buckled dangerously. Another shape materialised behind him, giving him the last push it took for him to fall forward with a shout of pain. Everything stopped spinning suddenly, the dizziness melted away, and after a moment, Harry recovered enough to ask, immediately, "Where are we?"

Snape sighed exasperatedly, grasped him by the scruff of the neck and pulled him upright. "Are you pathetic enough to need somebody to see for you? Open your eyes, boy, do it yourself for once. Weasley might be happy to bounce along after you like a puppy, but I am not."

The snipe against Ron made Harry scowl, wrenching his eyes open and pulling away from Snape. "Don't talk about my friends like that," he snapped, but any thoughts of further arguing left him quite suddenly as he looked around. He couldn't be in Snape's house, surely? It certainly looked like the sort of lounge Snape would own, but... Snape trusted him in his home? "Is this your house?" he said, amazed.

"Surprise," came the dry reply.

It was quite a spacious room, and dimly lit, the windows shadowed by thick drapes of a wine colour. The floor was wooden, the walls were cream and covered in paintings and photographs, and all the furniture was the same crimson colour as the curtains. Harry glanced at the photos above the sofa, and perhaps to draw his attention away, Snape said, "I suppose I'm obliged to offer you something to eat. Or will you be happy with the squashed rye bread in your back pocket?"

Harry frowned, scooping the mush out of the pocket of his jeans. He'd forgotten he'd stuffed it there after breakfast. He felt an inward sparkle of delight as Snape winced, the crumbs from the bread pattering down onto his spotless floor.

"Something to eat would be - " Harry began. He was about to say nice, but then remembered the end of the year with a pang, and said, " - nice but no, I'll be... fine with my..." He held up the handful of mush. "...squashed rye bread, thankyou."

Snape's right eyebrow arched a fraction, but he said nothing. Both of them were remembering times they would rather not, and so to avoid any more awkward silence, Harry asked,

"What time is Professor Lupin expected to be back? Well... just Lupin now, I suppose."

Snape shook his head slightly. "No, it is indeed Professor Lupin, and how am I supposed to know, Potter?"

Harry glared at him from under his unruly fringe. "Seeing as though he gave you the message he'd be away..." he said, vaguely. "And why Professor again?" His eyes widened behind his glasses. "He's got his job back!"

"Hurray," Snape muttered wryly.

"Is he the dark arts teacher?" said Harry, and it couldn't disguise the eagerness in his voice. The despicable, twisted look on Snape's face was all the answer Harry needed, and he gave a whoop of happiness, barely resisting the urge to dance. It was even better knowing that Snape was fuming because of this. He'd been trying to get the dark arts job for sixteen years now, and Lupin had beaten him for the second time.

"Potter, stop jigging around like a lunatic, you're getting bread all over the floor," Snape snapped. "Professor Lupin will hopefully be back as soon as possible, so he can take you as far away from me as possible."

"Just because you're jealous," said Harry, grinning.

Harry expected a sharp comment or one of Snape's usual insults, but the man's face fell from spite into hollow recollection. Harry frowned slightly, his bouncing ceasing, and they he realised what must have hurt Snape like that. Everybody always said Snape had been jealous of Harry's father, and last year, Harry had found out a good reason to suggest Snape hated James for a far different reason.

They looked at each other for a moment, Snape without his usual glare, and Harry without his usual irritating-Snape expression.

"I wouldn't mind a drink though," said Harry after a moment.

"What?"

"A drink." Harry mimed it with his handful of hot, sticky bread, and another lump fell onto the floor. "Ooops. Sorry."

Snape scowled, drawing his wand and giving it a few precise flicks. A mop appeared next to the sofa. "I think you know what to do, Potter. Water?"

Harry couldn't believe this guy. He was making him clean his house! The cold-hearted -

After a moment, Harry realised Snape had offered him water, and he nodded. "Yes please."

Snape smirked, a horrible, cold twisted kind of smirk that Harry knew very well. Another flick, and a bucket of water appeared next to the mop. "Enjoy."

The potions master then left the room, his long black coat billowing in the breeze, and Harry gaped. "It's only a few crumbs!" he shouted vaguely, but there was no reply. Grumbling, he grabbed the mop and twirled it around the bread on the floor. Stupid Snape, he thought. Cleaning? On his birthday, and a saturday as well. Not only had Snape ruined the day he'd expected to spend with Professor Lupin, but it was also one of his escape days, and his birthday. Furiously, he mashed the bread up on the end of the mop, not caring what a mess he made. Sirius wouldn't have done something to him like -

What he'd just thought hit him quite suddenly, and he fell silent and still, as a wave of realisation washed over him. Sirius wouldn't even know it was his birthday... he wouldn't know anything... if Sirius was here, he would strangle Snape for making Harry clean, especially on his birthday. It was all Snape's fault...

Harry wiped his face with the back of his hand, determined not to have an emotional breakdown in Snape's lounge, stuffing the mop back in the bucket with a clang and a slosh.

"Finished so soon?" said a silky voice behind him, and Harry turned to glare up at Snape. To his surprise, the professor handed him a large glass of water though. With ice. A lump very nearly came to Harry's throat.

"Thanks," he muttered.

"My pleasure," Snape said, wryly, eyeing him with quite a suspicious frown.

Harry glanced up, and then down quickly, as he realised there were a few rebellious tears in his eyes. "I did the floor."

"Speak up boy, or I'll have to enhance you with a few sonorus charms."

"I said I did the floor!" Harry half-shouted. He fell silent again, surprised at the volume and anger of his own voice. He took a sip of the water, wiping his face with his sleeve again.

"That will do," Snape said, smoothly. "Walls do not have ears, but the neighbours do."

"Not my fault you have nosy neighbours," Harry muttered, loud enough for Snape to hear him, his head still bowed, taking another sip of the water.

"I do apologise," said Snape coldly. "Next time I buy a house, I'll have to visit all the surrounding houses to check whether they listen with paper cups at the walls, just in case an over-emotional teenage boy is in my house."

"I am NOT over-emotional," snapped Harry.

"As you wish, Potter," said Snape, in a vague voice that Harry didn't like at all.

He glared up at the repulsive potions master through his moppy black hair. Now he could identify with his father. Snape was so despicably vile sometimes that it was impossible to not hate the greasy, sallow-skinned vampire-look-alike. He wanted something spiteful to say, anything, anything that would stab Snape to the heart.

His eyes fell upon the photographs above the sofa again, on one in particular, black and white, of a black-haired boy in Hogwarts graduations robes, holding a scroll, smirking into the camera. It could only be Snape. "Who's the ugly guy in the hat?" said Harry, scathingly.

"My father," said Snape, with a grimace. "I don't know how on earth he acquired that degree, he was even more stupid than you. I hated him."

Harry's insult fell flat on his face, and he glared hatefully at the rest of the photographs, sitting in an armchair without asking for permission, drinking his water in silence. "And I'm not over-emotional," he said, suddenly, as though remembering they hadn't finished that debate properly yet.

Snape was now sitting behind a desk in the corner, writing with a black quill, and didn't seem to hear Harry.

"Whatever you think," he added, loudly.

"Dear me," said Snape, lazily. "You are having some trouble with maintaining a regular volume today, aren't you? From squeaking and whispering to bellowing at me across the room... I can't wait to see what gems you have for me next..."

Harry just glared at him, hating him so much it wasn't possible. He wanted to just pull his wand out of his bag and jinx his ugly, hooked-nose right off his greasy face. He checked his watch, hoping past hope that Lupin hurried up with whatever he was doing, because if he didn't, Harry had the sneaking suspicion that he and Snape would just hex each other to tiny pieces by dinnertime.

He put his head in his hands, trying to drown out the irritating scratch of Snape's quill. "I hate Saturdays," he murmured to himself.

 

Chapter Two: The Chance For Farewell

Harry had only mentioned his moments of weakness concerning Sirius to one person he'd spent a day with from the Order, and that had been Mrs Weasley. Molly was like the mother he'd never had, and she was one of the only people he knew would never discuss his problems with anybody. Her advice had been to try and not think about it, to concentrate on other things, calm his breathing, and remember that Sirius wouldn't have wanted him to get upset because of anything anybody else did to him.

It took Harry half an hour to achieve the frame of mind that said he did not care about Snape, or anything he might have to say. When he was calm again, he sat back in his chair, taking the last sip from his water and taking a deep breath that suggested he was approachable again.

"Calmed down, have we?" said Snape, without looking up from whatever he was doing.

"Yes, thankyou," said Harry pleasantly.

"If you're under the impression I was expressing concern, you're wildly mistaken, Potter." Snape slid a piece of paper from the top of his pile, jotting on the one underneath absent-mindedly.

"Nice to know you care," said Harry. He put down his empty glass with a soft clunk. Maybe one more stinging remark at Snape, then he promised himself to stop provoking fights. "So, how's Voldemort?"

Snape looked up at him swiftly, with a hiss of, "Shut up, Potter. If you want to be alive for your meeting with your precious Lupin, don't talk about things you don't understand." He slid off another paper, looknig back down. "I would have thought some sense would have been knocked into you by now. What more do you need to realise what a pathetic, arrogant little idiot you are? And to think, people have died to save you..." He scoffed. "Meaningless."

Harry went a little paler, and he whispered, "Don't talk about that. You know nothing."

Snape raised an eyebrow, looking perfectly cool and scournful. "Oh, I see. Nobody can mention Perfect Potter's hurtful experiences at all, God Forbid anybody should upset poor, traumatised little Potter, but it's perfectly alright for him to attack others in an attempt to get some attention. Well, that seems perfectly reasonable."

Harry shook slightly. "I'm not my dad, okay? Don't blame me for what happened, because it's - not - my - fault."

"What are you talking about, Potter?" Snape sneered into his work, jotting distractedly still.

"You know," said Harry. "I saw."

Snape actually shrugged, and said, "If you're not going to elaborate Potter, you should know that mind games on me rarely succeed and you're not proving anything. Of course, you wouldn't know, as your brain isn't even fit to be pickled in a jar in my office. Easier read than a muggle child's book."

"Maybe it's your washing powder, you know, it makes things go greyer," said Harry, pointedly, staring right at his greasy face. "Or you could try some fake tan, it would make your legs less pale - "

"Shut up, Potter," Snape growled, in a tone of voice that firmly suggested the conversation was over. "You have one... less than pleasant memory of mine. I have hundreds of yours."

"Oh yeah?" Harry sneered.

"Miss Chang," said Snape, smirking suddenly.

Harry fell silent instantly. Damn Snape, he thought. Trust him to go straight for the heart.

"What was it she said?" Snape continued, looking up idly and stroking his chin with the tip of his quill. "Oh, yes... "I really like you, Harry..." How simply sweet..."

"You're lucky Evans was there, Snivellus..." Harry hissed.

"Go on, Ripper, you bark at him boy!" Snape snapped back, in perfect imitation of Aunt Marge's voice.

"Who wants to see me take off Snivelly's pants?" said Harry, and he didn't need to imitate anything, his voice was enough like his father's anyway.

Snape raised his wand absent-mindedly, still marking as though Harry wasn't there. A thrill of horror shot down Harry's spine, and he didn't even have time to move before Snape spoke. "Legilimens," he said, silkily.

Harry's mind was washed into submission as memories began to replay around his head. His eyes widened automatically, and he knew Snape was watching him intently, though he didn't know how he knew. He was too absorbed in memories... the day he had the big fall-out with Cho, about Hermione... the day he turned down Draco Malfoy on the Hogwarts express... the Death Eaters at the World Cup... the day he found himself failing at Occlumency... and then seeing Sirius disappearing back into the veil. That one played again and again and again, over and over until finally -

Harry found himself on all fours on the floor, panting, tears streaming down his face, shaking so much he could hardly see properly. "No," he whispered, sobbing.

Snape's feet were in front of him, his cloak swaying gently. "I have something important to say to you, and show you. But before that, this is a direly serious warning Potter. Never, ever provoke me again." Snape grabbed his arm, pulling him roughly to his feet. "Lupin!" he shouted.

Harry was shaking too hard to even realise that next second, Professor Lupin had hurried into the room, with a disapproving, "That was far too harsh, Severus, Dumbledore told you - "

"Do not call me Severus," Snape hissed at Lupin. He was trying to push Harry in the direction of the door, but Harry was having none of it.

"Leave me alone!" he shouted, lashing out at Snape.

The potions master grasped his hand before it hit and snapped, "Help me!" at Lupin. "Don't just stand there on the sidelines for once!"

"Stop shouting," said Lupin, calmly, putting an arm around Harry's shoulders in a very fatherly way. "This isn't an attack on Harry. I don't know why you had to suddenly order me to jump out of nowhere and grab him."

Harry saw Snape shoot a withering, loathing look at Lupin, though thankfully, the potions master said nothing. Harry tried desperately to wipe away the tears on his face. "What's going on?" he said in a choked voice to Lupin.

"Dumbledore wants us to talk to you about what happened," he said kindly.

"I don't want to," Harry mumbled, rubbing his eyes frantically. The fact that Snape was seeing him cry was worst of all. He hated Snape, and the last thing he ever wanted was to show weakness in front of the slimy, cold potions master. Especially about Sirius...

"You do," said Lupin. "We promise it will help you to talk to us... we've also got something to show you. Don't worry Harry, nothing that happens today will go further than you, me and Professor Snape."

"I don't want it to go further than me," said Harry, shaking still. "You don't understand... you never will..." He wasn't speaking to Professor Lupin - he was staring at Snape, loathing him so much it physically hurt. "Especially YOU," he hissed at the potions master, surprised by the venom in his own voice, though he knew Snape definitely deserved it. "I HATE YOU."

"Harry," said Lupin, warningly, though still kind and quiet. "Come with me, and try not to get upset... Professor Snape is here to help you, no matter what you or he might think." Lupin shot Snape a quick look, as though telling him to stay back and keep his mouth closed, as he lead Harry out of the lounge and through into the corridor.

Harry had no idea where they were going, too busy trying to dry his tears on his sleeve and get a grip on himself. It was his birthday too, and Snape's idea of a present was to torture him with memories of... of...

Lupin opened the door of another room off the hall, leading him through and to Harry's gratitude, holding out an arm to stop Snape getting too close. It was dark and warm, the same sort of humidity as in a greenhouse, and in the middle of the room was a large black cauldron, bubbling with boiling water, pleasant plumes of steam occasionally curling off the rippling surface. For one wild moment, Harry had visions of Hansel and Grettle, thinking that perhaps Snape was going to boil him alive and eat him.

"What temperature have you got this set at?" Snape said impatiently to Lupin, bending down to cool the fire with a swish of his wand that he pulled from his sleeve. "I distinctly told you to let it simmer rather than boil."

"My apologies," said Lupin, with a slight incline of his head. "I can argue about potions with you later, Severus. Harry deserves to know what's going on."

"Well, tell him then," Snape snapped, distractedly, starting to sort through bottles on the shelf-top behind him. "But make it quick, Lupin, the potion will not keep forever."

Lupin nodded, turning to Harry, and handing him a tissue with a kind sort of smile. "Professor Dumbledore wanted us to talk to you about... about what happened, Harry. And you might not want to," he added, seeing Harry start to argue, "but he knows you've been keeping things bottled up, and it's not good. You've had nobody to talk to all holiday and Sirius's death was important to all of us... yes, even Professor Snape."

"Sirius would still be here," said Harry, sadly, wiping his face all the more frantically, "if HE hadn't been mocking him constantly about having to stay in the headquarters whilst everybody else was out doing something. He made Sirius feel useless. That's why he came to... to save me..."

Snape frowned. "Potter, your godfather - "

Harry opened his mouth to shout something at Snape, anything, something that would make him pay for even daring to mention Sirius, but Lupin said, quietly, "Harry... if you don't want to talk, there's something we have to show you instead. Professor Snape has spent a long time on this, so - "

"Get rid of it," Harry snarled.

"No," Lupin said, firmly. He sat Harry down in a chair, hands gripping his shoulders. "Just watch. You have two minutes only... please use them wisely. You can argue with anybody you like once the two minutes are over, but this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and every second you waste is a second you'll regret."

Snape pressed a small, crystal-topped vial in Lupin's hand and left the room, frowning still, shutting the door with a snap and leaving the professor and Harry in complete darkness.

"What is it? What's going to happen?" said Harry, worriedly. "Why - "

"Shhh," said Lupin, uncorking the phial. "You have two minutes..." Through the darkness, Harry just managed to pick out the form of Lupin pouring the bottle's contents into the simmering heat of the water.

Harry gasped, and at first, he thought that a huge sparkling pastel-coloured firework had gone off in the cauldron, lighting the room in soft green, pink and orange sparks. He held up his hands to shield his eyes at the brightness of the reaction - but a voice from the cauldron made him look. A voice he'd wanted to hear for so long now. The voice of somebody he thought he'd never hear ever again.

"Harry...?"

Was it a ghost? A shadow? Perhaps like Cedric, and his parents, and Bertha Jorkins, and Frank Brice... Harry didn't care what it was... all he knew was that it was real...

"Sirius," he choked. There were tears in his eyes. His godfather's ghostly silhouette smiled down at him from the cauldron he stood in, hidden from the waist down. He was just the way Harry remembered. So alive, so happy, so energetic... so real...

"I thought Snape would try something like this," he said, laughing slightly. "Thank him for me..."

"Why - how can - are you - ?" Harry couldn't choose a question to ask first, and so he chose a statement, dropping to his knees before the cauldron, his hands pressing flat on the metal belly, as though he wanted to slip through it and be with Sirius. "You're alive..."

"No," said Sirius, shaking his head. "I'm not. All you need to know is that I'm here... Harry... did you get out of the Department of Mysteries okay?"

Harry nodded, still pushing at the metal of the cauldron. Maybe if he pressed hard enough, it would vanish. He could join Sirius. They could talk as much as they liked, play chess, complain about Snape... forever. "Yeah... we all did..." he choked. "Sirius, I... you died to... to come and help me..."

Sirius smiled paternally, gazing down at his godson, with just the same longing look in his eyes as Harry thought would be in his own. "You would have done the same for me, right?"

Harry nodded frantically. "Of course I would... Sirius, when will I see you again? When will you come back?"

Sirius's smile was now sad, distant, full of hollow realisation. "Never... I'm gone, Harry, you have to accept that..."

"No," said Harry, shaking his head, tears now rolling down his face. "You're alive, you're right here... you'll always be here... you'll always live..."

"One minute," said Lupin, quietly, putting a hand on Harry's shoulder soothingly.

"Listen to me, Harry," said Sirius. There was such a serious tone in his voice that Harry looked up, pierced by his dead godfather's gaze, longing for things to be different. "There are a few things you need to know... so many things... things I've found out, being here, but there are too many to tell you. And most of it makes no sense to me, but they might help you understand the Order better..." He thought, quickly, ticking things off on his fingers. "There are a couple of other Order members here, they say that Dumbledore has more spies in Voldemort's ranks than just Snape. Specific people that nobody would ever suspect. I don't know any names, but nobody but Dumbledore knows that they're spies." Another thought came to his head, and he rushed, "Something about somebody's wife... one of the Death Eater's... she might be a spy, I don't know. I can hardly remember..."

"Thirty seconds, Sirius," Lupin warned.

Sirius gave up with the information, and looked so desperate to have just a few moments more, staring down at Harry with the look of a man heading to the gallows. "Harry... look after yourself. I'll always be there for you. And so will Ron... you'll understand later. And... you'll be getting a letter soon... look after the place for me, will you?"

"I will," Harry choked, even though he didn't understand. "Sirius, I... I don't want you to go..."

"I have to," said Sirius, sadly. "Take care, Harry... I'll see you again someday... I promise."

"Ten seconds," said Lupin. He turned to his lost friend, trying to stay calm and collected. "Goodbye, Sirius. Until next time."

"Bye, Remus... keep up the good work..." Sirius looked down at Harry, reaching out to him. "Goodbye Harry... never forget me..."

Harry reached out too, his fingers slipping straight through Sirius's smokey hand. "I won't," he said, shaking. "Goodbye... you... you mean a lot to me..."

"Remember me," said Sirius, one last time, his voice echoing out slowly, as though getting lost in time. "Never forget..."

And then he was gone, the pastel sparks sizzling out into the darkness, silence conquering the frantic goodbyes of the second's before. Harry felt nothing around his fingers, and saw nothing before him, heard no sounds at all. As though he no longer existed for a moment...

Lupin looked down at Harry, his hand still gripping his shoulder gently. For a moment, he wondered whether he should say something or not. Harry had just said goodbye to somebody, goodbye until the end of life itself, and even then, there was no definite promise that they would meet again then. Lupin knew how much Sirius had cared for Harry, and how much Harry idolised his godfather... goodbye would be the hardest thing...

But to his great surprise, when Harry looked up, past the tears in his eyes - there was a smile. Of joy, of relief, of happiness? Lupin understood almost immediately as he looked into the joyful, brimming tears in Harry's eyes. The boy had never had a chance to say goodbye and put things to rest, but now... now, he'd had that chance and he wouldn't regret not giving that final farewell.

"Thankyou," Harry said. The look on his face said he'd never meant anything so much in his life.

"My pleasure." Snape's voice spoke from behind Lupin, quietly, and it was only then that Harry noticed he was there at all. He'd managed to slip in without a sound. "Though, in truth, Dumbledore had the idea, and I despise taking credit for somebody else's mess."

"Not a mess," said Harry, wiping away his tears, still grinning in a lopsided kind of way. "Tidiest mess I've ever seen." He took a deep breath, managing to console himself enough to get a grip, adopting a slightly more serious expression. "Thankyou, I appreciated that."

"As I believe I said, it was my pleasure," Snape mused.

Harry wiped away the last of his tears, his heart feeling lighter than it had in months and months, getting to his feet, gazing longingly but joyfully at the spot where his godfather had been moments before. He grinned. Maybe this wasn't such a bad birthday after all.


"Something wrong, Harry?"

Harry and Lupin had left Snape's house shortly after the farewell from Sirius, strolled through the town for a while sharing memories of Harry's godfather, and now had found a rather nice little bridge overlooking the river. Lupin had bought Harry an ice cream, chocolate and mint, which he was slurping thoughtfully as they gazed out over the river.

"Sort of," Harry admitted. "I was thinking, Professor, and - "

"Remus," said Lupin. "There's no reason to stick to formalities out of school, Harry."

"Well, I was thinking." Harry took a lick of his ice-cream, thinking, trying to sum up what the problem was. "About that day... with my dad, and hanging Snape upside down by his ankles... you remember..."

"Yes, I do. Is it still bothering you?"

Harry swallowed his mouthful of ice cream, nodded and continued. "I guess I just don't like admitting that Snape was right about my dad... he was arrogant, wasn't he?"

"James?" Lupin pulled the chocolate flake from his cone, munching it for a second. "I suppose he was, in a way. Though really, his arrogance made him who he was. He was still a good person, Harry."

Harry nodded. He was still thinking. Today had been the first time that the subject of that day had been breached with Snape, and the potions master hadn't reacted too kindly at all. It must have affected him more than Harry thought. "But why though?" he wondered aloud.

"What?"

"Why? Why did that one day affect Snape so much? Why's he so touchy about it?"

Lupin smiled slightly. "Several things, I suppose. That day was most likely the final straw for Severus. Years and years of being ridiculed by James, and it caught up on him. There was another thing though... only something we had a vague idea about... or at least I did."

Harry gave him an imploring look, prompting him to go on. Lupin smiled again, and after a further lick from his ice cream, he said,

"I think that perhaps Severus was jealous of your father for a different reason. Not just Quidditch or popularity... your mother, Harry. Lily was incredibly beautiful, and everybody saw her as James's property, even though, admittedly, she despised him for quite sometime. Lily was indeed in Gryffindor, but she had several of the qualities favoured by Slytherin house. She was vivacious, ambitious, quite cunning at times. I think Severus probably liked her."

"My mum?" said Harry, horror-struck. "He can't like my mum! That's horrible! How dare he?"

"Don't worry," said Lupin, with a smile at the expression on Harry's face. "Severus started to despise her after that day by the lake. You've probably guessed that he wasn't exactly the most popular student in the school. He was occasionally in the company of Lucius Malfoy, but apart from that, he was a rather lonesome character."

"I'm never going to feel sorry for him, no matter what you say," said Harry, grinning slightly.

"Never say never," Lupin concurred, wisely. "However, it if makes you feel any happier, Severus no longer cared in the slightest about your mother. The rumour was that he'd found a girl out of school he was happy with, but nobody was quite sure how true that was."

"Bet it wasn't," said Harry. At the raised eyebrow from Lupin, he added, "It's not like Snape though, is it? He just... doesn't socialise. That's the thing."

"He might," said Lupin.

Harry shrugged, munching the last part of his cone and sprinkling the crumbs between his fingers. They fluttered to the dark waters of the river below and vanished out of sight, washed away in the flow. A metaphor for life, perhaps? Such petty little problems, washed away in the tide of luck and fortune bestowed upon him. Glancing further up the river, he was the flow held back by a large log, lodged in one of the sewage pipes filling the beautiful river with poison. Maybe that was Snape. Held back by one thing.

"Harry?" said Lupin.

Harry glanced up. "Sorry. Got lost for a moment."

Lupin smiled. "I noticed. It's five o' clock, Harry, you must be hungry... let's find somewhere to eat before I have to start thinking about getting you home to your aunt and uncle."

Despite the happiness inside him, Harry felt a momentary flush of realisation and disappointment as he remembered that at seven o' clock, he'd be back home with Dudley treating him like dirt. Lupin saw the expression on his face.

"Harry?"

"Don't want to go... back," he said. He had nearly said 'home', then realised that the Dursley's house was no more home than this bridge was.

"Only a month to go," said Lupin, kindly.

"A month too long." Harry sighed, leant out and snapped a twig away from a branch overlooking the river. He gazed at it morosely for a moment, then dropped it gently. It spiralled through the air, blown back into the tree by the wind - but to Harry's complete amazement, the movement of that one little twig was so great that the tree branches slipped loose from under the blocked log, and with a great crash, it sloshed down into the waters below. The river started to flow properly again with a relieved splash, the sewage was washing away...

"Impressive," said Lupin, smiling. "Even though I doubt you did that on purpose."

Harry smiled slightly, not really paying attention, too amazed at why nature was pelting him with so many metaphors. One little thing to solve all the problems at once. A coincidence with a log and a stick had him thinking the most deep things he'd thought in a good long time.

"Prof- Remus?" he said, wanting to ask something he never thought he'd ask.

"Yes, Harry?"

"Professor Snape isn't happy at all, is he?" Harry looked up at Lupin, wondering how much he knew, how much he would tell, and how much he would hide.

Lupin looked back at him, considering his expression, then saying, "I don't think he is, Harry. Not at all. Severus has been alone most of his life, because of one thing or another. Mostly, it was your father who caused him to be alone." Lupin sighed. "James got the girl, the friends, the money, the looks, the talent... though don't think your father was nothing but arrogance." He pulled his jacket closer around his shoulders, and then said, "It's getting cold, Harry... I have a story to tell you, about the day your father knew he'd gone too far, but only if we can go somewhere warm. I have a big meeting tomorrow and it won't do me any good to have a frostbitten nose."

Harry nodded, glancing out over the town. "There's a McDonalds over there, by the cathedral."

"There's a what?"

"A McDonalds, it sells food. Trust me on this one, Pr- Remus."

"Very well. Anything that isn't as bad as the motorway cafe I stopped at one the way here... you don't even want to know." Lupin smiled slightly. "Lead the way then, Harry. Oh, one thing." Harry jumped as Lupin scooped into his back pocket, pulling out a now mouldy handful of the bread that just refused to die. "What on earth is this?" said Lupin, slightly worried.

"Rye bread," said Harry. Seeing the look on Lupin's face, he smiled and added, "Long story."

 

Chapter Three: Birthday Boy

"Harry, I'm completely full, I'm afraid. Do you want to finish the McNuggets?"

"You don't have to call them McNuggets, you know," said Harry, smiling, taking the box gratefully. "Just nuggets. It might say McNuggets on the boards, but it's McEverything in here, McBin, McChair, McTable, McWaitress, McRevolvingDoor..."

Lupin gave him a slightly confused expression, opening his mouth, but Harry managed to predict his question straightaway and grinned.

"Yes, I am joking." He slurped the last remains of strawberry milkshake from the bottom of the container, then said, "So what was the thing about my dad you promised you'd tell me?"

"Ah, yes... I thought you'd bring that up," said Lupin. "Well... you know that James was a Seeker. Quite a good one at that. You must have seen the trophies in the trophy room?" At Harry's nod, he thought for a moment, then continued. "Professor Snape was quite a good player as well - a Seeker, like your father. I always spent my evenings in the library, and the Slytherins normally practiced Quidditch then, in view of the library windows. I used to watch them. Snape could have been of great use to the Slytherin team... but he was never a member. Due to a prank your father played on him."

Harry's eyes widened. "Why? What did he do? What happened?"

"Severus joined the team in third year, I think," Lupin explained. "Of course, your father was already on the team, and he heard about the new Slytherin Seeker. He hated the thought of Severus being a rival to him, as naturally, he thought himself better than Snape. I suppose I should have noticed he was planning something when he spent so long in the library all of a sudden, looking up charms and unbreakable jinxes and so forth."

"Did he attack - "

"Oh no," said Lupin, shaking his head. "It wasn't violent at all. We were lined up outside potions one day, when James just drew his wand and performed a charm, very calmly. Snape didn't even notice he'd done it until the last moment."

"What did it do to him?" Harry whispered.

"Something called an Anti-Catching charm," said Lupin. "It doesn't affect grip or reflexes in anyway, it just makes the victim unable to catch at all. James told Severus this little fact by throwing a tennis ball at him and telling him to catch it. Snape's fingers were as though they had been buttered - and the charm was unbreakable. He lost his place on the team."

Harry felt so incredibly guilty now it was almost painful. He could feel his meal squirming remorsefully in his stomach. "So why did that make my dad realise he'd gone too far? Didn't he find it funny?"

"I suppose it would have been," Lupin mused thoughtfully, "If the Slytherin Captain hadn't announced his removal from the team in front of all the crowds at the next Quidditch match. Severus stood there in all his robes, ready to play - and to just be told that he could go get changed... that affected both Snape and your father, Harry. James saw Snape's last hope slip away before his eyes that day, and to know that he'd caused it..."

Harry wasn't sure whether he felt better or worse now. Snape could have been a famous Quidditch player, if it weren't for the butter-fingers that Harry's father cursed him with. "My dad was pretty nasty," he said, mournfully.

"Not so. Your father actually apologised to Snape after that day - it was a mark of how truly sorry he was. James never held grudges. I'm sure he died with no malice in his heart at all... except towards He Who Must Not Be Named, of course, though I don't think any wizard could ever count that vile creature as a friend." Lupin put a hand across the table over Harry's, paternally. "Sirius died fighting the Dark Lord's ranks, Harry. The best thing you can ever do to get revenge on your godfather and honour his memory is to make sure those who killed him are given justice."

Harry nodded. He already fully intended to do just that. "What were all those pieces of information that Sirius gave me about? Stuff about spies and Ron and a Death Eater's wife? And a letter?"

Lupin smiled. "That was a very typically Sirius thing of him to do. He's left you clues, Harry, that will only make sense to you when you've most likely unravelled the mystery completely and you're looking back. That, or they were meant to lead you on a wild goose chase." He gave Harry another fatherly smile. "I didn't suspect for one minute that dying for adventure would quench Sirius's love of it."

Harry grinned, took one of the paper napkins, found a biro in his bag and wrote down -

MORE SPIES THAT PEOPLE WOULDN'T EXPECT

SOMETHING SPECIAL ABOUT RON

SOMETHING ABOUT A DEATH EATER'S WIFE

A LETTER

"I wouldn't spend too long pondering those, if I were you," Lupin mused, smiling still. "It was rather disobedient of Sirius to reveal hints of Dumbledore's secrets to you... I suppose I couldn't have expected anything less."

"Dumbledore's secrets? How do you know that - " said Harry, and he beamed, "You know what they mean! Oh, tell me Professor, tell me!"

Lupin chuckled. "Absolutely not. I know a few sketchy facts about one of the things on that list, and I won't tell you which one it is or what I know. The last one I can guess... the first one is Dumbledore's business, and the third thing is more than likely meaningless gossip that we won't hear another word of for years. The second thing could be anything really. Perhaps Sirius was just highlighting the value of friendship to you."

"No, I think it's something properly special," said Harry. "Sirius wasn't mushy like that. Maybe... maybe Ron's going to become Minister For Magic!"

Lupin laughed again. "Ghosts can't see into the future, Harry."

"Maybe there's a dead fortune teller in there with Sirius," said Harry, grinning.

"Or maybe not," said Lupin pleasantly. "Come now, it's almost six o' clock and I don't want to have you late home."

They stood up, gathered their bags, put their rubbish in the McBin that Harry mentioned earlier and left the restaurant, strolling slowly in the direction of the train station.

"Who's looking after me next week?" Harry asked, eagerly. "Do you know?"

"Yes, I do," Lupin replied. He smiled. "I think you'll be pleased. The Weasley family have offered to take you on a day out somewhere on the Saturday, you'll stay the night, and I believe they're planning to let you do your homework on the Sunday, seeing as though I wasn't of any help today."

"Great!" Harry beamed. He could see Ron and Ginny again, and maybe Bill and Charlie would be there, and the twins, and maybe -

He fell silent, remembering something.

"Professor?" he said.

"Remus," he was corrected.

"Remus?" he said.

"Yes, Harry?"

"What happened to Percy Weasley?"

Lupin shook his head sadly. "I'm not very sure. Molly desperately wants to forgive him, whilst Arthur never wants to see the boy again. I don't know about Percy's attitude, but the Ministry and Dumbledore have now bonded together, so I can't see why he would still hate the rest of his family."

"It's funny... Ron always joked that Percy would stab the family in the back," said Harry. "And he did last year..."

Lupin gave him a weak smile. "I'm sure this will all be sorted out in time, Harry. Blood is thicker than water, after all. Percy will come to his senses eventually, I'm sure."

"I hope so."

"We all do."

They continued in near silence, across the pleasant river bridge from before, back down the street that Professor Snape lived on, through a back alley, and then out into the country lanes leading to the train station and the steam engine that would take Harry back for another week of hell with the Dursleys. But really, he didn't feel so bad. He'd had a brilliant day with Professor Lupin, he'd had the chance to say goodbye to Sirius, he'd agreed to a cease-fire with Professor Snape, and he would be spending all of next weekend with Ron and his family. He was so lost in his eager anticipation that they arrived at the train station all too soon, and Lupin was standing on the platform while he hung out of the window to say goodbye.

"Thanks for everything, Remus," said Harry. "This has been the best birthday I've had in ages."

Lupin smiled. "It was my pleasure. Oh, before you go, I bought you something." He took a package wrapped in brown paper and string out of his bag and handed it carefully to Harry. "I heard about your dark arts club, and I thought you'd enjoy a few ideas to teach them."

Harry grinned, taking the package. "Thanks."

There was a loud toot from the whistle and a jet of steam blew up in a great cloud into the air.

"Remember to send me a message if you ever need anything," said Lupin. "And get straight off the train in your town, don't hang around! Professor Snape should be there to escort you home, you don't want to keep him waiting!"

The train pulled away out of the station, and Harry just had time to turn around and shout, "I wouldn't dream of it, Remus!" before he was whisked out of sight with the train, heading away into the evening sunset.

Lupin chuckled, suddenly struck by just how like James Harry was, putting his hands in his pockets and strolling away out of the station, whistling a jaunty tune that carried him out into the country lanes and back into town. He found a quiet spot, out of the way of muggles, and after checking for anybody around, he smiled, closed his eyes and vanished into thin air with nothing but a faint pop as evidence of his very existance. And several miles away by now, on the train back home, Harry Potter was asleep after a long, blissfully happy day.


"Potter."

"Wha'?"

"Potter, wake - up - now."

"Nffrf, gerroff my arm!"

Harry swatted out vaguely at whoever it was gripping his arm, his fingers scuffing velvety material and sallow, cold skin that he remembered from somewhere, but couldn't quite pinpoint it.

Then he realised he'd just slapped Professor Snape around the face.

He jolted straight awake and yelped as Snape's hands went for his neck, but the professor narrowly managed to get a grip and avoid strangling the living daylights out of Harry in a public place.

"Which part of wake up was it causing you the most trouble, Potter?" he hissed.

"Well if you say something then - "

"I DID say something, you stupid boy!" Snape snapped. Several muggles turned around to stare, and Snape glared at them coldly, grasping Harry by the arm and pulling him out of the carriage. "Are you TRYING to get me arrested for child abuse?" Snape snarled when they were out of ear-shot of the general public.

"Sorry," said Harry, straightening out his sweater huffily. "I didn't know it was you."

"Oh, well, that's perfectly alright! An innocent civilian tries to wake you up on a train, with all good intentions in their heart, and your response is to slap them around the face?" Snape laughed coldly. "I'm not surprised your aunt and uncle despise you."

Harry frowned, and was about to speak his mind, but decided against it at the last moment and just muttered, "Fine, I'm sorry. I won't slap you again."

"I hope so," said Snape. "For your sake at least. Come on, it's already quarter to eight... damn Lupin, couldn't meet a deadline if it came towards him tied to a broomstick... hurry up, Potter, I'm damned if I'm going to take the blame for your precious Lupin's mess!"

Harry tried vaguely to keep up with Snape's ridiculously swift stride, having to actually jog to keep up. He clasped the package tight in his arms, desperate not to drop whatever it was. Snape spotted it and frowned.

"What's that?"

"A birthday present from Remus," said Harry, stoutly.

It was hard to tell whether Snape was more surprised by the fact that it was Harry's birthday, that he'd got a present, or that he was on first name terms with Lupin. It only showed on his face for a second though, and in true Snape form, he acted as though he couldn't care less.

"Your birthday?" he said, coolly.

"Yes, I'm 16," said Harry. "The Dursleys might forget it, but not everybody does."

"I thought it was the fifth of November," said Snape, frowning slightly.

"No," Harry said in a very cold voice. "That's Malfoy." Everybody knew when Draco Malfoy's birthday was, It was generally the day that the Slytherin table collapsed under so many owls carrying presents and cards and cakes from his parents.

"Hmm," Snape droned, not really bothered at all.

The rest of their journey was in silence, which Harry wasn't sure whether he felt glad or awkward about. He had no real reason to despise Snape now. After all, not many people in the world would have conjured his godfather from the dead so that Harry could say goodbye. As they turned up Harry's street, the boy realised that maybe he hadn't apologised for his own actions clearly enough.

"Professor?" he said, jogging for a moment to keep up.

"No, Potter, I won't slow down. We're late as it is, and - "

"No, it's not that," said Harry, and the fact that he had interrupted so confidently seemed to make Snape take notice more than anything. "I... I want to say sorry... for going into your pensieve and finding about all that. And then mocking you about it."

Snape raised an eyebrow, looking down at him, and to Harry's relief his place slowed slightly. "An apology from Harry Potter? Lupin must have hexed you."

"No," said Harry, trying a weak smile, "I just wanted to sort of... call a cease-fire..."

"Potter, we were never at war." Snape picked up the pace again, and Harry hurried after him, sure he was going to fall over and break his nose if they kept this up much longer.

"Fine, a peace offering. I just wanted to say sorry, because what my dad did wasn't exactly fair. None of what he did was." He paused for a moment, and then said, "I found out about the thing..."

Snape gave him a very scournful look. "The thing, you say? Woe is me, Potter knows about the thing. How can I live, with the knowledge that Potter knows about the thing?"

Harry fished around in his pocket for something, found one of Dudley's old marbles and said, "Catch...", as he tossed it gently to Snape. Anybody could have caught it; it was such a gentle shot, it was impossible to miss. The professor instinctively shot out a hand to catch it, there was a loud noise like somebody sliding across a slippery floor and the marble shot straight out of his grasp to the floor.

Snape watched it roll away under a nearby car, tumble past the grate and fall with a graceful plop into the sewers below. Harry was too busy trying to sum up Snape's expression.

"Who told you?" the professor said, quietly, after a moment.

"I'm not going to say... but I want to apologise for the butter fingers thing, as well."

"There's no need to," Snape sighed. "Your father spent all of his sixth and seventh years kissing up to me, trying to make me forgive him so he could make my life hell once more. I don't need his hormonal son doing the same." He started to walk again. "Potter, pick up the pace, for the love of Merlin."

Harry hurried after him, and as they turned into the drive of number four, Harry noticed Snape was rubbing his hands on the pockets of his trousers agitatedly, as though trying to remove a stain. The professor knocked loudly, three times, with his bony, long-fingered hand. There was some movement from inside, which to Harry's total horror included barking, the door opened, and Harry got a split-second's view of Uncle Vernon's angry purple face before he was knocked backwards by something flying from the house.

"Aaargh!"

Ripper wrestled him to the ground, barking and snarling, shaking his great head around, spit flying all over Harry's face and clothes. Aunt Marge's voice was laughing from the hall, and so was Dudley's, the Dursley's were all laughing. Harry could well imagine Snape smirking too, but to his surprise, Snape said calmly, "Potter, how old are you now?"

"Sixteen," he choked, trying to pull back from those fangs.

"Read the papers, Potter?"

"No, you're not helping!" Harry choked, leaning back to get away from Ripper's jaws snapping at his face.

Snape sighed, as one would with an awkward child. "Due to some events, and don't think I wouldn't love to see you torn to pieces by a bulldog, but the ministry has decided to lower the age required to do magic by one year... now, even you can't fail to work out that - "

Harry realised then, with a flush of relief and excitement. "I'm of age!" He drew his wand from his sleeve, pointed it right at Ripper's slobbering jaw and announced, "Expello!"

Ripper was lifted up into the air, sailed through the air and knocked Harry's make-shift mended gnome to pieces. Harry looked up at everybody else in the garden. Aunt Marge stood in the hallway, gaping at him in horror, a new red leather hangbag swinging from her podgy arm. The Dursleys were all clustered on the front door step, looking as though all their worst dreams had come true. Snape, however, was smirking.

"A expelling charm? Couldn't you have thought of something a little more inventive, Potter?"

Ripper whimpered, getting to his feet and running over to hide behind Aunt Marge, tail between his legs, the gnome's head stuck over one of his ears.


Harry was on top of the world from that moment on. He could do magic. The Dursleys were like toys to him now. He had to admit, he showed off rather a bit after that by modifying Aunt Marge's memory, fixing the gnome, repainting his bedroom and turning Dudley into a red head, at which his uncle demanded he put it back. Uncle Vernon spent two hours with a pair of rabbit ears until Harry had enjoyed himself enough, and restored Dudley's hair colour and Uncle Vernon's proper ears. Over all, Aunt Marge's memory was modified so many times that by nine o' clock, she had no idea where she was or where she lived. They had to look it up in the phone book to make sure.

Snape had left rather quickly after the incident with Ripper, possibly because he didn't want to spend anymore time with an excited Harry, or because there was a very angry bulldog in the area, or because of Aunt Marge, or because he was sure the commotion in the house would bring muggles running like moths to a flame. Whatever his reasons, he excused himself, and the last thing the professor saw before he apparated away was Harry running into the house and chasing Dudley, who was screaming and falling over furniture to escape. It's not a surprise that Snape wasn't eager to hang around for coffee.

Having magic, to Harry, was like having a life again. The Dursleys certainly wouldn't be treating him like a slave or a ghost anymore. With all the excitement of demonstrating various hexes right under Dudley's nose, it wasn't until very late at night that Harry retreated back to his room and collapsed onto his bed, grinning. He could imagine the Dursleys all sneaking out of their various hiding places to check the coast was clear. Harry was so lost in his imaginings that it was a few moments before he realised he was lying on something hard and rectangular.

He reached behind his back and pulled out Professor Lupin's package. How could he forget? Any other day, he'd have ripped it open the moment he got home, desperate to find out what was inside. For a moment, he felt a prickle of guilt at casting aside Professor Lupin's kindness so quickly once he had something new to focus on. He'd have to write him a thankyou letter, for whatever it was.

Carefully, he untied the strings and pulled apart the paper. It was a book. A large, very heavy, glossy-covered book with the title SPECIALIST CURSES, HEXES AND JINXES emblazoned across the front in silver lettering. Intrigued, Harry opened it at the first page, and found a hand-written note inside.

"Harry," the note read, "I thought you'd find this interesting. Dumbledore told me all about the DA, and it sounds as though you did a good job. He's asked me whether you would be interested in making it into a proper club, with some help from me, though of course, I think you're becoming the expert here. Send me a letter with your owl if you think it's good idea. Happy birthday - Remus."

Harry smiled eagerly, turning the note over and taking out his trusty biro. He scribbled, "Thanks for the present, I'd love to!", and was about to call Hedwig to take a letter -

When something large, white and feathery suddenly seemed to completely cover his window. Harry leapt away, terrified that some sort of fluffy dragon was attacking the house, but he realised that it was just a cluster of owls, all carrying letters and packages. Suspiciously, he opened the window. They all rushed in, hooting loudly and dropping parcels and parchments on his head in what seemed to be a hailstorm of communication.

"OW! Stop that, come on, let's get some order! Get off my head!"

The owls settled in various places around the room, leaving Harry to rub his head and crouch down to the floor, sorting through the mountain of letters and boxes he suddenly had.

There was an important, official looking one in a clean white envelope that caught his eye. For a moment, he worried that he'd mistaken his birthday, that he was actually fifteen and was expelled from Hogwarts for all the magic he'd done, but when he opened it, he grinned even more.

Dear Mr Potter,

We are writing to notify you that the recently deceased Mr Claus I. Brisk has left you several items of property in his will. Please reply to this letter with acknowledge you have read the following and accept the property.

PROPERTY -

12 GRIMMAULD PLACE, LONDON AND ALL CONTENTS

Thankyou,
Andralyn Galvez (Ministry Of Magic)

Harry then noticed a hand-scribbled note on the end of the letter, in spiky, elegant black letters he remembered from somewhere, though couldn't quite picture exactly where.

PS - The department of magical law enforcement are watching you, they've noticed all the magic going on and they're just waiting for something to book you for, so tone it down, okay? Just between you and me.

He took his biro again and added, "Confirmed, I accept the property, signed Harry Potter", to the bottom, then put it on the Outgoing pile.

Next letter, he thought. He recognised one of the owls smiling up at him from the cluster around his feet. It was Errol, the Weasley owl. Old, and slightly battered, Errol's feathers were mostly sticking the wrong way but he looked rather proud at having survived another delivery. He had carried quite a large box as well. A present? Harry tore the spellotape off the top of the box excitedly, opened it up, and came across a large chocolate cake wrapped in cling film, a bundle of letters, and a bright yellow bag that caught Harry's eye instantly. He lifted it out carefully, and inspected it.

WEASLEY'S WIZARD WHEEZES proclaimed the bag, in lurid green and orange flashing letters. Harry grinned. Fred and George Weasley now owned their own joke shop business at 93 Diagon Alley. No doubt they'd sent him something dangerous. Brilliant.

It took an hour to get through all the presents, send off replies and thankyou letters. There were presents from Ron, Ginny, the twins and the rest of the Weasley family, Hermione, Hagrid and Luna Lovegood, along with the book Professor Lupin had given him earlier. By the time all the owls had left with their replies, Harry fell into bed and was straight asleep without even getting changed. His dreams were full of confusing thoughts of the day, from Professor Snape and his butter fingers, to Professor Lupin, Sirius's shade in the cauldron, all the presents, Ripper, the storm of owls... it was a good job that Harry hadn't noticed the last, unopened letter under all the paper littering his bedroom floor.

His name was inked in delicate, curly handwriting on the envelope, and the letter itself was from Cho Chang. She and Harry had been through a relationship of some sort during their last year, though they had parted on bad terms, and as far as Harry knew, neither of them were keen to pick the whole thing back up. If only he'd read the letter. Unfortunately, it was scooped away along with the rest of the paper the next morning, crumpled up, and stuffed into a bin, though really, Harry had quite enough on his mind without the troublesome Cho to confuse things even more.

His sixth year at Hogwarts would prove to be the most eye-opening of his life so far. Danger, romance, mystery, action and new discoveries were ahead of him, though as he slept on the night of his birthday with a headful of sleeping chaos, Harry Potter had no idea of the events in store for him that year.

It all began properly the next weekend, as a fluorescent yellow car pulled up outside number four, Privet Drive, and its drivers jumped out from the front seat, wearing identical grins and leather jackets to match the car. If the Dursleys thought Mad Eye Moody was a problem, they would have no idea what hit them when Fred and George Weasley arrived.

 

Chapter Four: The House of Fun

"This the place?" said Fred, glancing up at the house, still grinning from ear to ear.

"Looks like it. Different in the daylight isn't it?" George looked up and down the street at the identical gardens and houses, chuckling. "Which door is it we're supposed to use?"

"Front, I think," his twin replied. "Yeah, something about not using the back door. I can't remember. We'll use the front anyway."

They grinned. Both of them knew very well they weren't supposed to use the front door, but still, they raised their hands and knocked three times on the door each, ending with a pleasant little tune.

The door swung wildly open, and Uncle Vernon's purple face stuck out.

"Back door only!" he hissed.

"Oh, sorry, forgot," said Fred, grinning.

"Likewise," said George. "Is Harry ready?" Catching Uncle Vernon staring in horror at the matching yellow leather suits and car, he winked. "It'll be the next fashion craze, matching your car with your suit. You saw it here first."

"Fred! George!" Harry bounded down the stairs, beaming, throwing a bag over his shoulder.

"Hey Harry! How are things?"

Harry pushed past Uncle Vernon to get out onto the step, "Great, really great! Thanks for the presents, by the way!"

"No problem," Fred grinned. "I hope they were put to good use, Harry."

"Oh, they were," said Harry. "Dudley's still got the marks."

Uncle Vernon cleared his throat loudly. Fred, George and Harry all gave him identically contemptuous looks. "Yes?" said Fred.

"I would appreciate you collecting the boy and then leaving," Harry's uncle said, stiffly, from under his quivering moustache. "The neighbourhood - "

"Fine then, time to take you somewhere you're welcome, Harry," said Fred, loudly, and both the twins put their arms around his shoulders, steering him down the path to the car. Something in George's hand caught Harry's eye, but by the time he'd glanced round at it, George had dropped it to the floor and Fred yelled,

"RUN!"

Harry had no idea why, but they all tore down the garden path and leapt into the car as Uncle Vernon started bellowing at Petunia to shut the windows. George hammered a button on the dashboard and a roof and windows zoomed into place over the car; Harry had a split second's view of what looked like a firework on the front door step and then -

BANG!

The windows were showered in bright pink and green swirling paint. Harry jumped away, almost landing in Fred's knee. The twins were both choking with laughter.

"What did you do?" said Harry, starting to laugh as well.

"See for yourself," said George, and he pressed another button on the dashboard.

Windscreen wipers clicked out from the side of the car and scraped the paint away from the windows, gave them a shine and after Fred handed each one a knut, they zoomed away again. Harry stared out at the Dursley's house, torn between total amazement and the desire to die laughing on the spot.

The garden and the front of the house was splattered with the same green and pink swirling paint. It was all over the windows, all on the car, all on the plants, the gnomes were now wearing rather funky little disco outfits and Ripper, who had been emptying his bladder on the side of Uncle Vernon's car, was frozen to the spot, leg still in the air, little more than a bright pink and green heap of paint.

The funniest of the lot was Uncle Vernon in the hallway, still holding the front door. He looked like a very lurid snowman, and his face was set in the most horrified expression Harry had ever seen in his life. As they watched, a large drip of paint fell from his moustache onto the toe of his new work shoes.

Fred started the car and it sped away down the street, Harry and the Weasleys laughing fit to burst at the sight of the fluorescent house on Private Drive. After a tap on the wheel from George, the car faded into invisibility and they took off into the sky. In minutes, the Dursley's house was nothing but a glowing spot far below them as they coasted through the clouds.

"That was brilliant!" said Harry, grinning, as George removed the invisibility, "What was it?"

"SuperSplatterDecorator 2003," said Fred, turning around in his seat to look at Harry. "One galleon each, just new. They come in blue and orange, yellow and purple, the green and pink as you saw back there, or a new one. Rainbow. That's getting pretty popular now."

"I might have to buy one of those to do the back garden," said Harry. "They want to match, don't they?"

Fred and George both laughed.

"They wear off in an hour or so without a sealing charm," said George, driving the car up to emerge from the sea of clouds, into very top of the sky. "So we can't get done for breaking the secrecy code of conduct. That only applies for actual magic, or something that lasts for an hour or more."

"What happens to the paint? Does it just disappear?"

"Turns invisible," said George. "We spent about a year developing that. You should see our bedroom back at home. Total mess."

"So," said Fred. "Happy birthday for last week, by the way. Of age now, are you?"

"Yep," Harry grinned. "I gave Uncle Vernon rabbit ears, and I hexed my Aunt Marge's dog, and gave her a wart right on the end of her nose and everything."

"That's the boy," Fred chortled. "Ron and Ginny have been dying to see you all summer. And Hermione too, she's at The Burrow now. Oh, and Mum says she got your letter, and yes, we can go and sort out your new bachelor pad tomorrow."

Harry laughed. "It's not my bachelor pad, don't be stupid. How am I ever going to bring girls home to that when there's Sirius's mother in the hallway screaming if anybody rings the doorbell?"

"Dunno, it'd be a talking point."

They all laughed, and George took a bag of toffees from the glove compartment, which he offered round. Harry had experience of Fred and George's sweets and so had to decline with a polite, "but thankyou anyway." They spent the rest of the journey talking happily about the weekend ahead, the summer behind them and the next year at Hogwarts. Fred and George had left during their sixth year in strike against Professor Umbridge, and, they assured Harry, would not be coming back.

"But she's left," said Harry, as the cruised over the village near The Burrow. "Peeves chased her away at the end of the year."

Fred grinned. "Oh, did he? You know, that poltergeist's not so bad really."

"Have you heard the current news from Hogwarts?" George asked over his shoulder. "Apparently Peeves is being a complete pain. Even more than normal. Of course, it's just a rumour, but loads of people have said that he's almost torn the school apart."

"He does that anyway," said Harry. "He threw a bundle of walking sticks at me on my first day. Percy had to threaten him with the bloody baron."

"Shame Peeves didn't kill Percy," Fred muttered.

Harry decided it was best not to press the subject, but luckily, the awkward silence didn't last very long, as The Burrow appeared below them a few moments later.

"Hold onto your glasses!" said Fred, putting his foot down on the accelerator. The bright yellow car descended from the clouds like a fluorescent meteor and screeched to a halt in the yard a few seconds later. Harry felt as though his insides had been turned upside-down from the sudden drop.

"Harry!"

He looked up at the shout from above, and saw Ron, Hermione and Ginny hanging out of an upstairs window, waving frantically at him. He grinned and waved back.

"How you doing, mate?" Ron shouted.

"Fine!" Harry yelled back. "Better now I'm here!"

"Come on, people, we haven't got all day now!" Fred interrupted. "You three get down here, we're supposed to be there by now!"

"Where are we going?" said Harry eagerly.

Fred and George grinned in the exact same way. "Just you wait," they both said at once.

Harry was instantly intrigued. "Oh, tell me, please!"

"Latest project we've finished," said George.

"And you four are the beta-testers," said Fred.

"What? What is it?" said Harry, gripping the back of the seat. From the looks on Fred and George's faces, wherever they were going, it was going to be marvellous.

"You'll see," said Fred, his eyes sparkling with excitement. "Put it this way... it's untested, unentered before now, full of magic and if you don't come out covered in paint or feathers or gunge, we'll be severely disappointed." He papped the horn loudly several times and turned back to the house. "Come on, time costs money, people!"

Ron, Hermione and Ginny came out of the front door and scrambled across the yard, laughing and racing each other. The second Ron pulled open the car door and hopped in beside him, Harry blurted, "Where are we going?"

"Weasley's Wizard Wheezes House of Fun," Ron said, grinning from ear to ear, strapping up his seat belt.

"Where?" said Harry.

Ginny buckled herself in, slammed the car door and Fred started up the engine again. In a few seconds, they had climbed up into the sky and were sailing over the clouds, the breeze blowing in their hair.

"Weasley's Wizard Wheezes House of Fun," said Ron, again, still grinning. "Fred and George's new place. They won't tell us much about it but it sounds amazing."

Fred chuckled, handing around the toffees. "George and I were considering buying an old muggle warehouse to base the House of Fun, but we decided we'd need much more space..."

"So, we had a look at the building laws of Diagon Alley..."

"And we found a rather interesting loophole. Building underground costs quite a lot of money and can be complicated, but..."

"There's nothing about building into the sky," both twins grinned.

Harry's eyes widened. "You've built a flying House of Fun?"

"Precisely," said George. "The most exciting wizarding place on Earth."

"Absolutely huge. It's taken us ages, and cost all the profit we've made so far. But once we're open to the public..."

"What sort of stuff is there?" asked Ron through a jawful of toffee.

"Oh, everything beyond your wildest dreams, dear youngest brother," George chortled. "Magic, slides, hidden areas to discover, pools full of all sorts of horrible sticky stuff, paint bombs consealed behind every unimaginable place possible and more gunge than you can shake a wand at."

"Cool!" Harry, Ginny and Ron breathed.

Hermione looked a little worried. "How safe is it?"

"It's perfectly fine," said George, smiling. "Trust us, Hermione. Any hexes or jinxes in there are first-year stuff. If you don't know the counter-charm, we highly overestimated you."

"But... gunge," she said with a painful look on her face.

"Cleaning charms on the way out," said Fred. He turned to peer at her between the gap in his chair. "Couldn't you have guessed?"

"Well, of course, but... I'm not so sure..." she said. "Has it been tested for safety and so forth?"

"Ah... it will have been, by the end of the day," said Fred.

"You're the testers," said George.

"Sounds good to me," said Ron, taking another toffee. "Come on, Mione, it'll be fine. This is Harry's day off, right? It's gonna be great!" He popped the toffee into his mouth, and leant forward. "Hey George, what about trick staircases?"

"Way ahead of you, bro," said George. "Half the place is pressure pads to change something. The whole thing is a flying, magical headquarters for chaos."

Harry, Ginny and Ron all grinned with excitement. Hermione bit her lip, but said nothing, reaching into a denim satchel she had on her lap and taking out a muggle book. Harry was surprised when everybody in the car groaned with exasperation.

"What's that?" he asked, tilting his head to look at the cover - INCREDIBLE FACTS YOU NEVER KNEW.

"Oh, it's brilliant!" Hermione gushed, sitting up eagerly, suddenly very bright. "I found it in one of the muggle London shops, it's the most - "

"Boring pile of junk ever written," George finished.

"What's it about?" asked Harry.

"Four-hundred pages of useless facts about stuff that won't ever help you in anyway," Fred groaned.

"It is not!" Hermione bristled. "It's really interesting, honestly! There's some really, really fascinating facts in here... for example - " She flicked through the book, and then announced, " - In Texas, it's illegal to graffiti on somebody else's cow."

"So if you ever go to Texas, make sure you graffiti your own cows and not some other poor person's," said Ron, rolling his eyes. "Hermione, that book's completely useless, I wish you'd just stop badgering us with annoying little facts so much."

"The world record for most children to one woman is 69," Hermione said, promptly, "and - "

"Zip it," said Ron, snatching the book off her. "Or the book goes out the window."

Hermione spluttered, and open her mouth to argue, but Ron waved the book threateningly over the car door and she shut up.

They flew for about an hour or two solid, over forests and hills and fields, cities and towns, roads and motorways, even over the top of the small mountain somewhere, until London was just visible on the horizon. Fred pressed the descend pedal slowly and the car swooped downwards, making all the passengers groan as one, and then with a slight bump, they touched down on an empty road off the main streets.

"Now, don't do anything that might make the muggles notice us," said Fred.

Harry stared at him. They were riding in a fluorescent yellow car, both the drivers were barely legally allowed to drive it, and both of them were wearing matching leather yellow suits, not mentioning there were four people squashed in the back of the car, and Ron was wearing a jumper emblazoned with "CHUDLEY CANNONS". Fred didn't seem to notice, and pulled out into the main traffic smoothly.

The ordinary shoppers turned to stare at the car, following it down the street with their wide-eyed gazes. Fred chuckled.

"Oh, I love attention," he commented, glancing out of the window. "Nine o' clock, George, give her a wolf-whistle for me!"

Ron and Harry grinned at each other as George leant out of the window and whistled at a blonde in a skirt going past. Hermione tutted.

"You wouldn't know what to do with her," she muttered.

George grinned. "You're going to be really popular when you grow up, Hermione... at the local book club."

Fred chuckled and steered the car into a backstreet, heading for one of the underground parking lots. Hermione frowned, buried her nose back in her book of useless facts, and didn't look up until a few minutes later when they all got out of the car. Fred went to pay for a ticket as George fussed with his hair in the wing mirror.

"So can you tell us what it's like now?" said Ron. "Properly? Not just vague hints about slime?"

George tweaked his quiff back into place. "You'll see when you get there, we've told you, Ron. Well... there is one thing you have to choose... there are different rooms, see. Playhouse, jungle, labyrinth or magical catastrophe... or... the Ultimate Room."

Everybody shivered when he said it, as though the words themselves were an incantation to a spell.

"What's in there?" said Ginny.

George smiled, glancing over his shoulder at her. "Something for everyone. Imagine this... take your normal, muggle play centre. Like for kids. Then make it about a thousand times bigger, with nets and ropes and slides and ball pools and ladders and tunnels and hidden rooms and everything... then add gunge, slime, paint, feathers, confetti, glitter... a few magical creatures... puzzles to solve... codes to crack... and a whole lot of magic."

Everybody watched the sparks flare in his eyes, and a universal flush of excitement went through every heart.

"I want that one," said Ron.

Ginny and Harry nodded frantically.

Hermione mumbled something about whether they had a library or non-gunge room.

"I don't know, you're all going to have to decide," said George. "Unanimous vote... if Hermione doesn't want the Ultimate Room..."

Harry, Ron and Ginny all leapt on Hermione, pleading with her and talking so fast and so loud that she couldn't hear them, eventually shouting, "Alright, alright, I'll go in the Ultimate Room if you're that bothered!"

They all cheered, George chuckled, as Fred came back with the ticket and stuck it to the windscreen of the car. "Well, the sooner we get there, the more time you'll have. Let's go."

Whistling, the twins led their four beta-testers out of the underground car park and up into the hustle, bustle and bright dry sunshine of London. Cars of every colour and make (save, perhaps, bright yellow that matched the drivers' suits) zoomed past on the street below like a great rainbow snake, and buildings rose to the sky in the distance. A sort of timeline was visible over the skyline of the city, with the modern, brand new silver skyscrapers with gleaming windows and working lifts, to the carved stone from the Victorian ages, a few Tudor-style decorations on the outside of houses to the west, and red-brick chic of the 1950s to the east.

"Which way to The Leaky Cauldron?" asked Fred.

"It's just down this street, then through an alley over there, past the chocolate shop and the library, then there it is. You can sort of see the roof," said George, "if you lean over like this."

Hermione grabbed the back of his jacket to stop him plummeting fifty feet over the side of the building they were on, but George just laughed, swatting her off. "I'm joking. Come on you lot, hold onto the railing, down fall and kill yourselves, Mum'll never forgive us." He set off down the steep track, descending right into muggle London. They all followed, Fred first, followed by George, Ginny, Ron, Harry and then Hermione at the back, muttering to herself.

"What's wrong?" asked Harry, holding back to talk to her.

"I'm not sure I approve of all this," she said. "It all sounds very risky to me."

"It'll be fine," said Harry. "Don't worry. Fred and George wouldn't do anything that dangerous... I mean, I know they're a little wild sometimes, but they wouldn't hurt us."

"Hmm," she said, unconvinced.

Harry's feet met the stone slabs of the path, and he turned to offer Hermione a hand down, but she was already down beside him and tying her hair back into a neat half ponytail on the top of her head.

"Have we got everyone?" said Fred, doing a quick check. "Right, let's go! Stay close together, we don't want you wandering off into muggle London. And watch the cars, muggles are terrible drivers!"

Harry thought this was a little rich coming from somebody who had parked his car lengthways across three spaces, but said nothing, following after Fred and George as they made their way over the zebra crossing. Ginny and Hermione started to talk about OWLs, and Harry wasn't surprised to hear Hermione had got all the top marks she had expected.

"What did you get, Harry?"

"Pretty good," he said. "Can't remember exactly. I got enough to be an auror though."

"You mean you passed potions?" said Ron. Harry nodded. "Whoa, that's great! You see? It was all Snape's fault that you got bottom marks in class."

"I suppose," said Harry. "What did you get?"

"I did alright, I guess," said Ron. "Not as good as Bill or Percy, but not bad really."

"Yeah, and we're glad you didn't get as much as Percy," said Fred, butting into the conversation with a reprimanding tone that Harry had rarely heard from him before. "He isn't a part of this family anymore, remember?"

"So... the fight's still going on...?" asked Harry, tentatively.

Ron nodded, and when Fred was caught up checking a map again, he said in an undertone to Harry, "Even though the ministry have... well, accepted the whole Voldemort thing, Percy still thinks Dad should have been with the ministry all along. They had an argument through the floo network a few days ago, and they've only been talking through howlers ever since. We get woken up every moment by Percy bellowing at Dad about loyalty to the authorities. As if he's got any right to talk about loyalty."

"I just wish they'd stop fighting," said Ginny, with a slight sigh. "As Dumbledore said, we should stick together as families at a time like this. I've heard that he's planning to call off the House Cup this year, to stop rivalry between houses, and there'll be more lessons together."

"I hope we're with Ravenclaw or Hufflepuff," said Hermione, brightly. "It's really nice getting to know some of them."

"As long as we're not with Slytherin," Ron muttered. "I'm so sick of all of them now. Especially Malfoy. You know, some people are a bit evil sometimes, but nice the rest of the time, and you forgive them, but he's just... evil. There's no other word for him. You know what, Harry? He's been on the side of everybody against you. You Know Who, Umbridge... if they don't like you, he's their best friend."

"He's just jealous, Ron," said Hermione. "Harry's popular, famous, a hero... he's the opposite of all of that."

"Malfoy just wishes he was half of what you are," said Ron spitefully.

"Have you heard about all of that Malfoy stuff?" asked Hermione, but before Harry had an opportunity to find out about "the Malfoy stuff", Fred and George led them inside the Leaky Cauldron pub.

"Anybody want drinks before we get to the House of Fun?" said George. "No food or drink allowed in there except what you find, remember."

"No, come on, we want to see what it's like!" said Ron. "We'll get something to eat later, come on!"

"Alright, alright, keep your hair on," said Fred. "Follow us then, and stay close together, Diagon Alley's always packed on a Saturday." He drew his wand, conjured identical yellow leather fedoras, handed one to George and jammed the other on his head where it clashed horribly with his hair. "Just passing through, Tom," he added to the innkeeper.

Tom smiled toothily at them, beckoning them outside to the yard. Fred opened up the gateway to Diagon Alley, lead them through and Harry instantly had a rush of being home at last. The winding cobbled street was full of the sound of people talking, gold clanking, somewhere there was a pipe playing a gentle tune to the morning sun and the smell of cooking and magical smoke filled the air. Every shop sold ancient magical objects, or potions ingredients, spell books, cauldrons, wands, robes, magical creatures, all sorts of fascinating things that sent shivers of excitement up any wizard's spine.

"Which way is your shop?" asked Harry, looking expectantly up the air for a floating building.

Fred chuckled. "It's made invisible, Harry. Muggle-repelling charms too. We forgot those at first, then a muggle helicopter sort of... found the House. What a mess that was."

"Took us months to repair the damage," George nodded.

They strolled down the packed wizard street, passed the shops and the shoppers and shopkeepers, under archways and down steps and down alleyways and up steps, until finally, the brightest building in the entire street caught Harry's eye around the corner. It was painted fluorescent orange, with bright pink and green spots, with the familiar logo WEASLEY'S WIZARD WHEEZES emblazoned above the main window.

"Nice colour scheme," said Harry, grinning, as Fred took a large iron key from his pocket and fitted it in the lock.

"Nice sarcasm," Fred replied with an equally wicked grin. He opened the door, and the most curious smell came floating out like water from an open container. It was like smoke and fruit and sugar and sunshine, all at once. It was the scent of pure mischief.

"Mind that," said George, absent-mindedly, gesturing to a machine lying under a nearby shelf that was belching great green bubbles into the air. Hermione stepped to the side to avoid a particularly large and sticky-looking bubble, but to her surprise, it floated after her.

"Welcome to Weasley's Wizard Wheezes," said Fred, holding out his arms, grinning at them all. "The modern headquarters of magical mischief."

"Where's the funhouse?" said Ron, eagerly.

Fred and George swapped grins, then ducked down behind the counter, unfolding several panels. Everybody crowded around to watch, except Hermione, who was still being pursued by the obsessed green bubble.

Harry watched over the twins' shoulders as they opened up the last panel, and a large, red button was revealed.

"Hold onto your hats," said Fred, winking at him, slapping the button.

Harry's only possible likening of that experience was of to being inside a blender with no blades, but full of paint that didn't stain and water that could be breathed. He felt himself being tossed around and whisked back and forth, shooting up and up into the air, flapping frantically to keep himself afloat, and then quite suddenly, he hit something hard above him and fell with a thud to the floor. He was entangled with Ron in a crumpled heap, in a room that had no walls or ceiling or floor, just bright blue everywhere, stretching away for miles on end.

"Where are we?" said Ron, groaning, sitting up and rubbing his head.

"The House of Fun?" suggested Harry. "Where are Hermione and Ginny? And Fred and George?"

"You don't think something's gone wrong, do you?" said Ron in a worried voice.

"SELECT WORLD," said a loud voice from nowhere.

Ron and Harry jumped, looking around wildly for the source of the voice.

"Hello?" said Harry, nervously.

"JELLO," said the voice. "LOADING JELLO."

"Uh-oh," said Ron.

There was a loud splat suddenly on their heads, and Harry yelled with surprise as he was hit full on in the face by a bowl of cold, slimy, strawberry jelly.

"Eurgh!" said Ron, wiping the green variety from his eyes. "Get off us!"

"TOFFEES," said the voice. "LOADING TOFFEES."

"Duck!" yelled Harry, as he saw several brightly coloured papers zooming from far away. The two boys hit the floor as Ton Tongue Toffees rained down on their heads, getting stuck in the cold jelly, pattering a tattoo on the back of Harry's head.

"It's not funny!" Ron shouted.

"MONEY," said the voice. "LOADING MONEY."

"Wahey!" said Ron. "Money, money, money!"

"TOUGH LUCK," said the voice. "NO MONEY FOR PESKY LITTLE PREFECT BROTHERS."

"Huh?" said Ron. "Wait - Fred? George?"

There was wild laughing and cackling from nowhere, the sound of somebody thumping a desk from merth. Ron sighed exasperatedly. "That wasn't funny," he said, sounding remarkably like Hermione. "Come on, why are we here?"

"We've put you in the Ultimate Room," said one of the twins. "Basically, boys versus girls. Somewhere in the area is the esteemed Weasley's Wizard Wheezes Whistle. You find that, and blow it, and you win. The winning team get prizes. The losing team get SURprizes."

"Nice surprises?" asked Ron, hopefully.

"I don't know, it depends what you think is nice. Anyway, stop interrupting me." Fred, or it might have been George, cleared his throat. "Now, the doorway will open in about thirty seconds. After that you're free to do what you like. Your wands have been confiscated though, so you're running on raw magic."

"Oh no, Fred, I'm rubbish at raw magic!" Ron complained loudly.

"Then do it the muggle way," said Fred. He chuckled. "You've got two hours to find the whistle. After that, you're coming out, and if neither team has found the whistle you're in for the gunging of a lifetime. Are we clear?"

"What sort of things are in there?" asked Harry.

"Well, your usual funhouse stuff, gunge, slides, bla bla bla. BUT! The Ultimate Room plays on your own memories. Don't worry, only nice ones. So, it's basically places you've been, avec un twist," Fred chirped, with a very bad French accent, "and some people from your memories will pop up as well. Only nice people or people that we can make fun of. And you can do what you like with that, they'll only fight back if you want them to."

"You've not got Voldemort in there, have you?" said Harry.

"Harry, nobody else knows what he looks like apart from you, how are we supposed to know which of your memories is Voldemort? But don't worry, any nasty memories are cut out, so there's no Death Eaters or Voldemort or whatever. This is your enjoy time. Have as much fun as you can while you're safe, okay?"

"Okay!" said Harry and Ron, beaming.

A square of light a few metres away shone into view, starting to expand into a magical doorway.

"Go get 'em, tigers," Fred chuckled, and with grins to each other, Harry and Ron sprinting for the door, leaping straight through, sucked into the Ultimate Room and towards the call of adventure.

 

Chapter Five: The Members of Magic (Part One)

An hour and a half later, Fred and George were in the laboratory of the WWW shop, testing a new range of fake, inflatable mice that could expand and fly away on command - the perfect distraction to any gruelling lesson.

"Pass us some more of that dye," said Fred, nodding at a large bubbling purple pot on the top shelf.

George had just reached out to grab it when there was four loud thumps and splats from the main room. Leaving Fred to carry on with the fake mice, George dusted off his hands and went into the next room. He was greeted, to his great surprise, by the sight of Harry, Ron, Hermione and Ginny all lying in a heap on the floor covered in bright blue gunge.

"What on earth happened to you lot?" he said.

"There was a statue that exploded," said Ron, panting, wiping slime off his face. "There was the whistle in his hand so I leant out to grab it and it sort of... exploded."

George wrinkled his freckled nose. "Oooh, tough call. The exploding statue is an automatic game over. We'll have to do a little charmwork to stop the whistle being placed there again. Any other problems apart from that?"

"We ended up in Hogwarts and Hermione wouldn't come out of the library," said Harry.

Hermione had received the least of the slime, but was checking her precious book of stupid facts frantically. "Oh no, all the back's gone blue!"

"Scourgify," said George, with a raised eyebrow, pointing his wand at Hermione's book. The slime shivered, and with a hiss, it dissolved into plumes of blue smoke that spelt out YOU'VE BEEN GUNGED for a moment then vanished. George smiled to Hermione. "Easy, wasn't it?"

To Harry's surprise, she smiled back. "I suppose so."

"So apart from the exploding statue and the library, that got the thumbs up, huh?" said George, grinning.

"Yeah!" they all chorused.

George chuckled. "Brilliant. We'll open to the public on Monday then. Hey, Fred!"

"What?" his twin called from the other room.

"Get the car keys, we've got to drive this sticky lot home!" George eyed them for a moment, and then added, "Maybe a good cleaning charm would be in order first though. Close your eyes, you lot!"

Harry shut his eyes tight, and held out his arms as Fred instructed him to. A moment later, Fred's cleaning charm shot up his legs like a shiver and all the gunge was hissing and evaporation away, filling the room with the smell of blueberries.

"Alright, open your eyes," said Fred.

Harry opened his eyes, thankful he felt clean and gungefree once more. He took off his glasses to polish them on his sleeve, but everybody else started to laugh.

"What?" he said, looking around at them all.

Hermione took a mirror from her back and handed it with a sheepish grin. He snapped it open, and started to laugh as well at his reflection. There were two perfect circles of blue gunge around his eyes where his glasses had been.

"Nice look, Harry," Fred grinned. "Suits your eyes."

"Shut up," Harry chuckled, looking up at Fred like a really mad blue panda.


"Oh, Fred! George! Where have you been? Suppertime was hours ago and - oh, hello Harry dear, how are you?"

Mrs Weasley came over from the sink as they stepped into the kitchen, giving him a tight, affectionate hug as he smiled and said, "Fine, thanks, Mrs Weasley."

"Good," she said, fondly, and then her expression turned serious again, "Now, where on earth have you all been?"

"The House of Fun," they all chimed at once.

She groaned. "Oh Fred, George, I told you not to - "

Everybody listen half-heartedly, sinking into chairs around the kitchen table as she lightly admonished the twins, busy taking plates of food from the side and sliding them onto the stove. They'd arrived a few minutes ago at The Burrow by Fred and George's magical car, and Fred had fussed for a while about a greenfly splattered across the wing mirror before they stepped into the warmth of the kitchen.

"Really," she said, lighting the stove with a flick of her wand. "You shouldn't test things like that on children."

"Mum, they're hardly ickly dinkies any more," said Fred, grinning at them all. "Of age and everything! Let's see some magic, Harry!"

"No, let's not," said Mrs Weasley, promptly. She started to look through cupboards for pumpkin juice and a jug, as another person strolled into the kitchen, her bright pink hair gleaming in the sunlight.

"Tonks!" said Harry, grinning, getting up.

She winked. "Wotcher, Harry. Nice to see you, mate."

"What are you doing here?" he asked.

Tonks sat down in the empty chair at the table, ruffling her spiky pink hair with one hand. "Doing my Service Degree for Auror Training. Should get me promoted."

"A Service Degree?"

Ron chuckled. "She's basically our slave but she doesn't like doing slavery, so she calls it service." At the reprimanding smirk from Tonks, he said, "I call it slavery, but there you go."

"Yeah, it's like having a bright pink, really tall house-elf," George sniggered.

Tonks grinned again. "Yeah, well, you'd better all give me a good recommendation for the 'slavery' I've been doing for you."

Mrs Weasley bustled over, setting down plates of chicken and chips in front of everybody and placing a large pitcher of pumpkin juice in the middle of the table. "I think you're doing a marvellous job dear," she said, smiling to Tonks, "Just ignore the boys. They don't appreciate a woman's work."

Fred and George snorted at exactly the same moment.

"So you're staying the night, Harry?" said Tonks, helping herself to juice.

"Yep," said Harry happily. He went to pick up his knife and fork, but at a horrified look from Ron, he grinned sheepishly and used his fingers instead.

"We're sorting out his pad tomorrow," said Fred, smirking. "So it's okay for Cho Darling to come around on weekends."

Harry's face muscles seemingly vanished in an instant. He stared up at Fred's grinning face in horror. "How do you - I mean - that's - "

Fred nipped Ron's nose with a chuckle. "You might wanna get Ronny boy to sellotape his mouth together when he sleeps."

"You sleep talk?" said Harry, looking outraged.

Ron blushed darkly. "I didn't know," he mumbled.

Tonks grinned and cuffed Harry on the arm. "You old dog, Harry."

"Have you heard anything else from her?" Fred asked, casually, swiping the pumpkin juice and draining the last remains.

Harry made a choking noise that his love life was being discussed so freely over dinner. "I - this isn't exactly - "

"Leave him alone, boys," said Mrs Weasley, frowning at her sons. "He doesn't want to talk about that horrid girl, and if he does, some of us don't want to hear it. Fred! Don't drink straight from that jug! You can wash that now, you know where the glasses are, they're just behind you."

"I'll do it!" said Tonks, brightly, jumping up and snatching the jug off Fred. Next second, there was an ear-splitting crash that made everybody jump. Tonks cringed at the broken glass around her feet. "Sorry," she said, sheepishly.

"That's quite alright dear," Mrs Weasley sighed. "Here, take the dustpan and clear it up, and we won't mention it on your report."

"Thanks Mrs Weasley." She bent down, cleaning the shards up very carefully, and then glancing up at the teenagers with a grin. "By the way, I met your new teacher yesterday. Phwew, wait until you see him."

"Professor Lupin?" Harry smiled. Lupin wasn't exactly the world's best looking man. His robes were generally in varying states of shabbiness, and his brown hair was turning grey, despite being fairly young.

"Nah, the other one," she said. She carried the mess carefully to the bin and tipped it in, making sure none fell out onto the floor. "The new guy."

"Why? Has somebody quit?" said Ginny, curiously.

Ron clasped in hands together in prayer. "Please let it be Snape... oh, I'll give anything..."

Harry remembered what he had learnt from Professor Lupin last week, about the slippery fingers hex, and for a moment, he considered telling the others - but then he realised he definitely didn't want to. The knowledge that his father had done that to Snape still made him feel rather guilty.

"Professor Snape does a lot of work for the Order, Ron," said Hermione, frowning. "You should appreciate that."

"Should," he said. "But I don't. And I probably never will. Pass us some more juice, Mum."

"You've had quite enough, Ron, and I think it's about time for bed now. We're up early tomorrow and we want a good start at cleaning. Merlin knows how dirty it's got since last summer." Mrs Weasley took their plates from the table, sliding them into the sink and shooing them all towards the stairs and bed. "Chop chop!"

They all hurried up the stairs, and Fred, George and Tonks bounded after them like a little troop of excitable puppies around lots of kids. Ginny and Hermione disappeared into Ginny's room with smiles of, "Night!", and Ron lead Harry up one last flight of stairs to the landing his bedroom was one. The plaque that was usually rather plain and old was now a bright shade of orange, and his door seemed to be covered in splatters of the paint from one of the decorating fireworks.

Ron noticed Harry looking at the splodges, and said, "People who agreed were let off with less splattering. You should see what they did to the shed."

Harry smiled. "I don't think I do."

Laughing, Ron opened the door and lead Harry in. There was a sleeping bag already laid out for him ready, a pillow lovingly tucked inside, and Ron grinned, "Excellent!", as he spotted the two large bags of Bertie Botts his mother had left them. He jumped onto his bed, grabbed one of the bags and tore it open. "Bean, Harry?"

Harry took one carefully. It was orange, which was generally a safe colour, and so he popped it into his mouth. Ron picked up a brown one and smirked.

"Do you dare me?" he said.

Harry grinned. "Yeah. Eurgh, carrot!"

Ron laughed at his screwed up face, then slipped the bean in his mouth and chewed carefully. Harry could see a lot of hope in his face that the bean wasn't something... unsanitary.

"Wahey, chocolate!" he said after a minute.

Harry grinned and sat on the bed with him, taking a few beans and sorting through them. "I've got an idea for a game. We pick a bean - "

The door opened and Tonks shot in, laughing, flushed in the face. "You've gotta hide me!" she said, wiping her forehead and still grinning wickedly.

"Why? What have you done?" said Ron. "You haven't knocked one of the walls over or something, have you?"

"No, I put an ever-lasting whoopy cushion in Fred's bed," she laughed, shaking her bright pink hair. "The noises are going to keep going until they can find a way to destroy it. They're trying to flush it down the toilet."

Evidently, they had succeeded, as next second a prolonged, high note of flatulence zoomed down the pipes from ceiling to floor, leaving a ringing echo. The pipe had quite good acoustics really.

Ron, Harry and Tonks all laughed as there was strangled cheering from Fred and George on the floor above.

"Do you want a Bertie Botts, Tonks?" said Harry, offering her the packet.

She sat cross-legged on the floor on Harry's sleeping bag, taking a yellow one and throwing it into the air, catching it with her mouth. She looked thoughtful for a minute, then said, "Weird. Dunno what flavour that was. Maybe pineapple-flavoured something."

"Ginny got a strawberry-flavoured-ice cream flavoured one once," said Ron, digging his hand into the bag. "What were you saying about a game, Harry?"

"We each have to choose a bean for each other, then guess if it's going to be nice or nasty," Harry explained. "And I'll start." He handed Tonks a bright blue bean. "Nasty."

"Oooh, unfair Harry," said Tonks, grinning, taking the bean. "No food's a true blue colour, you know. Blueberries are actually purple. So if it's blue, it's normally a cleansing product or some nasty plant that grows in a jungle somewhere. Oh well." She flicked it into her mouth, and chewed. After a moment a smile curled her face. "Toothpaste. Very strong toothpaste I might add. Eurgh, nasty." She took a red bean from the bag and gave it to Ron. "Nice, I bet."

This continued for about an hour, with everybody getting different degrees of nasty or nice taste, until Tonks said she'd better go and unblock the whoopy cushion from the toilet. Harry and Ron took turns outside whilst the other got changed, then Harry wriggled into his sleeping bag, Ron got in bed, and they both listened to Fred and George tattling to Mrs Weasley about Tonks putting ever-lasting whoopy cushions in their beds for a while before Ron spoke.

"Hey, Harry?"

Harry sat up to peer at Ron over the edge of the tangerine-coloured bed spread. "What?"

"Have you heard from Cho yet?" Ron asked, curiously.

Harry frowned. "No, I haven't. And I'm glad."

Ron smiled slightly, crawling to the end of his bed to get a better look at Harry on the floor. "So you're saying that's all definitely over with you and her?"

"Definitely," Harry said stoutly. "Anyway, she was going out with Ginny's ex-boyfriend, wasn't she?"

It was Ron's turn to frown. "Hey, hey, we don't mention that boy under this roof. There's a list of unmentionable people spellotaped to the kitchen door now. You-Know-Who, Cornelius Fudge, Percy - " he spat, as though swearing " - and that boy. Whatever his name was. And Dean Thomas! Traitor, going after MY little sister."

Harry chuckled. "So possessive, Ron."

"Well, you get all offensive when I say the name... Cho!" Ron grinned at Harry's reprimanding scowl. "Chochochochochocho!"

Harry beat him over the head with a pillow until he stopped, and after a good bout of laughing, they both squirmed back under the blankets in their beds. All was quiet, and Harry thought Ron was asleep until -

"Hey, Harry?"

"Yes, Ron?"

"Listen... how are you feeling about... you know...?"

Harry shrugged. "Not bad... I supppose. Professor Lupin and Professor Snape talked to me about it."

"Snape?" said Ron, wrinkling his nose. "What would you want to talk to Snape for?"

"I didn't really want to," said Harry. He told Ron all about the meeting with Snape, Lupin coming in after the legilimens attack, then Sirius's ghost rising from the cauldron to say goodbye. Still, he didn't tell Ron about the butter fingers hex. Even though he hated Snape, he felt that the man deserved just a little dignity.

Ron listened to all this quietly, and then nodded with a half-smile at the end. "Nice of Lupin, really."

"And Snape," said Harry, raising an eyebrow.

"Yeah, well, I bet it was all Lupin's idea." Ron closed his eyes, rolling himself back up in the blankets and tucking his face deep into the pillow, so all Harry could see of him was a tuft of bright red hair. "Night, Harry."

"Night Ron."


As the door swung open, revealing the dusty, darkened hallway, Harry caught the the stench of decay and time gone stale. Grimmauld Place was just as old and messy as he remembered. Except now, it was home to an extinct family line. The noble and ancient house of Black was gone, and Harry couldn't help but remember this as he followed the Weasleys through into the dust-infested hallway. Everything was quiet, and with good reason, because even though her son was gone, Mrs Black slept behind the thick drapes and waking her wouldn't be the smartest move in the world.

"Shhh..." Mr Weasley said, quickly, as there was a dangerously loud creak from the back of the group. Ron and Harry exchanged glances, then grabbed Tonks by the arms, just in case.

"Okay... we'll get up to the second floor, then we'll sort out who's cleaning what," said Mrs Weasley in a whisper. "Be very, very careful... Tonks, watch that umbrella stand...!"

Harry ducked and caught it just in time to stop it crashing down. Everybody let out a soft sigh of relief.

They made their way carefully up the creaky staircase, wincing on every single step, sure that the whines of the ancient boards were going to have Mrs Black awake and kicking at any second. Though thankfully, they managed to get onto the second floor without any majorly worrying moments, Mrs Weasley shooed them all into an old, dusty room with some large, moth-eaten chairs and sighed thankfully as the door shut.

"Well, that went well," she said.

"Yeah, no thanks to Tonks," said Ron, glancing sideways at her. She grabbed him and scrubbed the top of his head with her knuckles until he wriggled free, red in the face. "Don't do that."

"Both of you stop fighting," said Mrs Weasley, firmly. "Arthur, have you still got the box?"

Mr Weasley nodded. "It's all here Molly."

"Good. Now, we need to split up." She took out mops, brooms, several tins of Mrs Skower's All-Purpose Magical Mess Remover, dusters and polish and to Harry's surprise, a large net. "Ron and I will do the ground floor and try to... ah... rehome Mrs Black. Tonks and Ginny, you can do the second floor. Arthur, you take Hermione and Harry up into the attic to try and clear some of the old furniture out, we didn't manage it at all last summer. Now, where did I put those fireworks..."

"Fireworks?" said Harry.

"Fred and George kindly made a cream-coloured firework for us, so we can easily paint the hall when we've gotten rid of Sirius's mother," said Mrs Weasley, promptly, taking out one of the SuperSplatterDecorater2003 rockets, labelled with a big red stamp of 'BORING VERSION 1.0, ALSO AVAILABLE IN OLD-PANTS-WHITE'.

Mr Weasley took some cleaning products out of the box, handed Harry the net and then the three of them headed out into the landing, up several flights of stairs and then up a ladder into the attic.

It was very dark, far colder than the rest of the house, and the scent of old parchment and grime lingered in the air. It smelt suspiciously like Professor Binn's classroom, full of documents and manuscripts lying about in old dirty cupboards, not opened for years.

"Dear me, we'll need some light in here... have you both got your wands?" said Mr Weasley's voice from behind Harry, just climbing up after Harry and Hermione.

Harry took his wand from up his sleeve, and murmured, "Lumos." The tip came alight, creating a puddle of light about half a metre around his wand. Mr Weasley did the same, and Hermione, being her usual too-smart-for-her-own-good-self, drew her want out and murmured something, conjuring a ball of what looked like molten gold, shining an eery amber two metres in either direction.

"Now..." said Mr Weasley, rolling up his sleeves. "Molly wants us to just clear out some of this old furniture and find the window... we can see that there definitely is one, but where, we're not sure." He glanced around at the spread of junk cluttering the place up to the gills. "There's rather a lot, so we could be here for some time... well, there's no time to start like the present. Harry, you're the lightest, you can probably climb over all this to look for the window. Hermione, could you start making a path through all this? Don't move anything to heavy, we don't want you injured, do we?"

She smiled. "Okay, Mr Weasley. Do you need any help with levitating anything down the ladder?"

"Perhaps a little in a while," he said, returning the smile, taking off his glasses to polish them on the sleeve and get rid of the dust. "Now, Harry, watch where you go... I don't want to have to carry you down to Molly with a broken leg."

Harry grinned and clambered up onto an old table, testing the weight before carrying on. "I'll be okay, Mr Weasley. I'm not Tonks."

Mr Weasley chuckled.

They all got to work, Harry climbing over boxes and crates, running his hand over walls looking for curtains concealing a window, Hermione sorting through everything, Mr Weasley lifted things gradually down the ladder. After an hour or so, they weren't even nearly half done, and so they had a break. Mr Weasley conjured sandwiches and crisps, and they all sat down on an old sofa to eat.

"Any luck yet, Harry?" Mr Weasley asked, through a mouthful of tuna sandwich.

"Not yet," Harry replied, "but there's only two more walls to cover so I'll get it soon."

"Good boy." Mr Weasley swallowed, took another bite and glanced down through the trap door hole. "I've shifted quite a lot of the lighter stuff... now we've got this sofa, some cupboards... a few trunks over there. Could you two go and clean them out whilst I just finish my lunch?"

"Sure," said Harry, and he and Hermione scrambled over some boxes to a great pile of trunks in the corner. She sat down, curling her legs delicately underneath her and grasping one end of a smaller one. Harry took the other, and together, they heaved it out.

"Wonder what's in this one?" she said, curiously, slipping her fingers under the lid.

"I don't know, but shield your eyes in case it bites." They both leaned back, and she prized it open. A great cloud of dust bloomed up into the air, but apart from that, the trunk was already empty. Harry pushed it aside carefully. "Alright, next one."

They crawled forward to the next one. It was large, about two metres by three-quarters, expertly carved out of oak. It looked suspiciously like a coffin.

"I don't think we should look in this one..." Hermione said, nervously. "Just in case..."

Harry just had to check. He gently eased up the lid, peeped underneath, and caught sight of something greying and grizzled, with arms and legs. He shut the lid. "Yeah, might be a bad idea." They pushed that one conveniently to the back, with a vague, "Maybe that one can stay up here," from Harry, and then the next one. It was quite heavy, and carved across the top were a few words. Hermione manouevred her sphere of light over them, and the shadows of 'THE MEMBERS OF MAGIC' washed over the top.

"Oooh," said Hermione, intrigued. "I wonder what's in here."

"Wait, it might be another dead something disguised as something interesting. Stay back." They both backed off a little, and Harry raised his wand. He gave it a flick, and the lid swung back with a groan and a clatter.

Hermione glanced over the rim. "It's just paper."

Harry crawled over. It was full to the brim with scrolls of parchment, all tied with different colours and lengths of ribbon. He took one out, carefully undid the ribbon and unrolled it. Hermione glanced over his shoulder.

At first glance, it appeared to just be a lot of straight lines and tiny inked letters, but when Harry squinted, he realised it was a family tree. Curled handwriting at the top read, "The Blood Of Dodderidge", and the page was almost filled with writing and lines. As Harry watched, an invisible hand added another line down from a couple at the foot of the page, and jotted in a name, then today's date.

"Somebody was born," said Hermione, with raised eyebrows. She reached into the trunk, and took out a second scroll, unrolling it. "The Duke Family," she read. "Harry, I think... I think this box has every single wizarding family tree... this could be worth a fortune."

Harry wasn't listening. He had just taken another scroll from the box and was reading it with a frown.

"Harry?" she said, turning round to look at him.

Harry's expression was slightly confused as he read. "I think I've found something..."

"Why? What is it?" She crawled over and glanced over his shoulder. "It's just another tree, Harry. What's so - " Then she saw what he had seen, and she gasped.

There at the bottom of the tree was a face they recognised very well, grinning from the parchment. Though it wasn't somebody whose family they had ever considered. In truth, they'd never even considered his life - just his death.

It was Peeves.

At the very bottom of the tree were a row of children, born to Emily and Kevin Peelish. From youngest to oldest, six in all, starting with a tiny baby girl called Lucy, a boy of perhaps five called Robert, twin girls named Amy and Jessica, a teenage-girl with jet black hair called Jilly, and then a boy. Twenty years old maybe, maybe less, maybe more. He was grinning from the parchment, his black hair smoothed down over a wide, beaming face with dark eyes. There was a dicky-bow tie tucked around his neck, and the name inscribed underneath read - PETER PEELISH.

Harry and Hermione sat in silence, gazing into the face of the poltergeist who now haunted Hogwarts. He was so young. He still had that wicked sneering smirk, and his eyes still glittered with malice, but... he was so real...

"There's a note on the back," said Hermione, noticing something pinned to the back of the parchment.

Harry pulled it off gently, careful not to damage the tree, and found it was a newspaper cutting from almost half a century before, entitled, TRAGEDY AT VILLAGE CARNIVAL. Harry and Hermione began to read with bated breath.

TRAGEDY AT VILLAGE CARNIVAL

Disaster yesterday struck the annual village carnival in a small town to the North of England when the big top accidentally caught light during the show and fell, killing twenty people, sixteen of them children. The popular circus act comes to the village once a year for an annual festival and has always attracted great crowds of eager townsfolk, who come to watch the carnival's famous clown acts. The cause of the tragedy is currently uncertain, but ministry wizards believe that there was a problem with the magic holding the tent up and something in the material caught fire.

Among the dead is a whole family from the village, the Peelish family. Emily, Kevin and their six children were all found dead in their front row seats, and from what the ministry can tell, the eldest boy Peter, 18, had tried to shield his younger brothers and sisters from the descending fireball. Unfortunately for this brave young man, his efforts were in vain. A special ceremony will be held today to remember the twenty people killed in this awful catastrophe.

Harry finished reading, and felt a horribly hollow sensation deep down in his stomach somewhere. Peter Peelish. An eighteen year old boy whose last living act was to try and save his little brothers and sisters. A fun night out at the carnival... and then Peter was destined to spend the rest of his life alone, haunting a school somewhere... Harry suddenly forgave Peeves for everything he'd ever done, no matter how bad.

"He died to save them," said Harry, quietly. "I never thought he'd have a family... I mean... it's Peeves... he hates kids..."

Hermione wiped her eyes with a tissue. "Poor Peeves..."

"His sister was the same age as us," said Harry. "Look... Jilly Peelish, 16, in the list of deaths..."

"Makes Peeves seem an awful lot more human, doesn't it?" said Hermione, quietly.

Harry nodded. "Maybe that's why he hates students... bitter."

"Maybe," said Hermione.

Harry rolled the scroll back up, tucking the parchment safely inside and slipping it into his back-pack. "Keep that for later... just in case. Come on, let's keep looking. We might be able to find something that proves Malfoy is related to trolls."

 

Chapter Six: The Members of Magic (Part Two)

They both dipped back into the trunk, sorting through the scrolls carefully. Hermione started to arrange them in delicate piles of different nationalities or descent, but Harry just opened each one eagerly. The revelations about Peeves had given him quite a thirst for the family trees. To his delight, he found one that proved the arrogant Hufflepuff boy Zacharias Smith was descended from squibs and petty criminals, though Hermione didn't share his happiness, too absorbed in her sorting. Once or twice, she gave a gasp of awe at finding the tree of some ancient warlock that nobody in the world had heard of apart from her, and Harry tried his best to sound interested when she gave him a lecture on the famous wizards of fifth century Russia, though it was rather boring to say the least.

She was just taking him through the finer points of wizard descent when Mr Weasley came clambering over the crates nearby, wiping a hankerchief over his shiny head. "Now then," he said. "How are things going over here?"

"We found a dead something over there," said Harry, gesturing vaguely to the coffin, "but we also found this."

"It's all the wizarding family trees," Hermione explained promptly. "Some of this is fascinating stuff, really interesting. Here, this is the bloodline of the Russian Minister for Magic... and overthere is the tree of Ablaris Kex, he was one of the human traitors during the goblin riots... oooh, and look! This is a really special one, you see there? That was the cousin of Balrat Molrin, you know who he is, right?"

Mr Weasley stared at her for a moment, and then said, "I can't say I do, Hermione."

"Oooh, he was fascinating! He started up the society for werewolf protection after his brother became one," she gushed, the words bubbling from her mouth as though fighting to get out as fast as possible. "Something like fifty years before he died in a werewolf attack himself, it's in all the major history books, the meaning of irony I think. But he was a marvellous man, he did so much for werewolf rights, he wrote a book you know. I can't remember the exact title but it really pioneered - "

"Hermione," Harry groaned. "You're giving me a headache."

Mr Weasley smiled and reached down into the trunk, taking out a few scrolls and unrolling them on his lap as he sat down on a crate. "Ah, Julius Jones, he works in the Experimental Charms department... my my, I never knew he was half-blood." He opened the next one, and glanced down. His eyes widened behind his spectacles. "Good lord..."

"What? Who is it?" said Harry, eagerly. "Is it Malfoy? Is he a troll?"

"No, no," said Mr Weasley. "It's one of the Death Eaters... Augustus Rookwood, he worked in the ministry sometime ago." Harry and Hermione both glanced up and down the parchment open on Mr Weasley's knee.

Hermione raised her eyebrows. "All his family are pureblood... slightly odd names though. Beagle? Who calls their firstborn son Beagle? I bet that poor boy got teased... and look, Rookwood's cousin was called Romeo. That's rather a cliche, don't you think? If I have children I'm going to find some original names for them. Something like Tiger-Lily. I've always liked Tiger-Lily."

"Molly and I decided that if we had another girl we'd used Jessie," said Mr Weasley, polishing his glasses on his sleeve. "Though with seven children already, I think we've got quite enough to deal with." He chuckled, put the scrolls back in the box and took a few more out to read through. "Ah, Hermione, I think you'll be interested in this one..."

"Who is it?" she asked, leaning around to look. She gasped with delight. "Merlin! You found Merlin!" He offered her it, and she practically ravaged it, carrying her prize off to her piles to read with wide eyes.

Harry chuckled and sat back, scanning the scroll he'd just taken out. His eyes were drawn to a name at the bottom of the page, in black curled ink - Minerva McGonagall. Intrigued, he followed her family back through the ages, finding countless Scottish wizards and witches and warlocks, finding to his surprise that it branched off into the Pomfrey family, and the two women were very distantly related through an old grandfather several centuries ago.

"Hermione, look at this."

She reluctantly tore her eyes away from Merlin's descendants, to peer over his shoulder at the tree. Her face brightened instantly. "Oh, wow! Professor McGonagall! I always wondered who she was descended from... a lot of Scottish, but I knew that... oh look, Madam Pomfrey. Wow, this is really interesting, Harry. I'll swap you a - "

"Harry."

Both of them stopped talking and looked up at Mr Weasley. He was on his feet, a little way out of the circle of amber light, holding a family tree in his hand.

"What's wrong?" Harry asked, worriedly.

Mr Weasley looked rather pale. There was a confused expression on his face that Harry had never seen before. For a moment, he didn't answer.

"What is it?" Harry said. He stood up.

Mr Weasley bit his lip, still looking at the parchment. "I think we need to get Molly... and Ron... rather quickly..."

Harry stepped forward, his eyes wide, wondering what on earth it could be to get Mr Weasley in such a confused state. "Why? What have you found?"

Mr Weasley held out the tree he held. "Something rather important," he said quietly.

Harry took it. He found his fingers were shaking as he scanned the page up and down, looking for something relevant. It was the Weasley family tree. All red-haired, all freckled, all with large numbers of children on each stem. He couldn't see anything odd at all.

And then he noticed a corner of the parchment was different to the rest. A dark-haired line had crept in from the side. And there was something else that made his jaw drop.

Right there, in the bottom corner, was a face he knew very well. He'd seen it everyday of his life. Everyday. When he woke up, and got out of his cupboard, went down the hall... and looked in the mirror over the telephone...

HARRY POTTER.

His eyes flicked upwards. LILY POTTER nee EVANS. And then up again, to a grandfather he'd never known, JOSEPH EVANS, and then... he looked across, down a line to a second cousin - MOLLY WEASLEY.

Something flashed suddenly deep within his memories. His first day, on the Hogwarts Express, sitting on the train with Ron. Swapping sweets like brothers. "Are all your family wizards?" He remembered Ron's reply so well. "Mum's got a second cousin who's an accountant, but we don't talk about him."

He then glanced at his mother's picture. Dark red hair. A mix of her father's scarlet, and her mother's dark brown. Lily Evans's hair was a deep, blood-red... while her sister looked far more like their mother. Petunia Dursley, nee Evans, was dark-haired and horse-faced.

His shocked eyes then travelled to the face underneath Lily's. His own. Smiling pleasantly, as though welcoming him to the rest of his life.

Mr Weasley's hand pulled the parchment down slowly, and the two of them locked eyes, both of them equally as hollow and shocked as the other. Harry then realised that Mr Weasley was related to him. Family. Uncle Arthur. Was it uncle? Did it matter?

"Why didn't you tell me?" he said, in a choked voice he didn't recognise.

"I had no idea," Mr Weasley whispered. "None at all... Molly never said... well, I know about her second cousin, but... I didn't know that you... and... Merlin, what are we standing around here for? Come on, we have to tell them... Hermione, put down that family tree, we can study Paracelsus's dynasty later, this is important." He grabbed Harry by the arm, though he hardly had to drag him to the ladder at all. Harry was quivering with shock by this point. What would Ron say?

He barely even registered the fact that Hermione was running after them, asking, "What? What? What could be more interesting than Paracelsus?" and Mr Weasley was saying something about getting it checked out at the ministry, something about muggle DNA tests. Harry was just numb. He had family... he didn't know whether he dared to believe it... He had cousins now. Mrs Weasley was, what, second cousin? Twice removed? And Ron... third cousin once removed. Ron and Ginny. And Fred and George. Third cousins once removed.

"I've got family," he said, numbly, not sure who he was saying it to at all.


The floo powder network that day was rather busy, all thanks to somebody on the records as "Mrs M. Weasley", who made numerous visits and calls. She talked to Dumbledore, and then Lupin. She visited Fred and George, she used the muggle phone in the kitchen and spent quite a lot of money ringing Charlie in Romania and Bill in Egypt. She then visited her mother, she called on Dumbledore again, she sent an owl to Hagrid, she tried to ring the Dursleys who wouldn't answer the phone, for some reason she then called Snape who didn't sound very interested at all. She spent a few minutes convincing Moody to let her contact him, and then he suggested she get the family tree verified before getting excited and telling anybody. But it was rather late then, so she rung several thousand more people, and only then did she leave the old muggle phone in the dining room and go through to the kitchen.

Ron had flatly refused to believe it at first, until the owl came from the Ministry of Magic to confirm that the tree was authentic. Harry was related to the Weasleys.

"Yes... yes, it just came, just now, I'm holding it right now. Oh, Dumbledore, it's great news... really great... oh, of course... as soon as things are ready, just go ahead... yes... I will, I will."

Harry listened idly to Mrs Weasley's third conversation with Dumbledore, absent-mindedly eating a jam sandwich he'd made himself. It wasn't very good, and the jam was running down onto his fingers. Mrs Weasley spotted this and wiped it off absent-mindedly, then knelt back down by the fireplace to talk to Dumbledore.

"Of course. So he's expected to arrive soon?"

Ron had been staring at Harry for about half an hour now, absent-mindedly eating grapes from the bowl in the middle of the old table. The news didn't seem to have sunk in yet. As Harry glanced at him, Ron looked up again and handed him a grape. "You're my cousin."

"Third cousin once removed," said Hermione's voice from down the table.

Harry took the grape blankly, put it in his mouth and chewed vaguely. "I didn't know we were related."

"Me neither," said Ron. He blinked into the fruit basket. "I can't believe Mum didn't tell us."

"Oh, one moment, Albus," Mrs Weasley said, turning away from the fireplace. "I had no idea either. I didn't think Joe started a family or everything, but - " She turned back to the fire, and continued her conversation with Dumbledore.

Ron took another grape. "I still don't believe it. I think it's a wind-up."

"Ron," said Hermione, putting down her book of useless facts and watching him with a raised eyebrow. "That trunk is enchanted. It can't be cheated or lied to."

"But... we don't look anything like each other," said Ron, vaguely, as though he didn't really believe his own excuse.

"Harry looks like his father," said Mr Weasley, coming into the paper with a newspaper and a cup of tea in an old chipped saucer. "Though there are some vague similarities. If you look at the back of Harry's neck, there's a mole just there. If you find a mirror, you'll see you've got one in just the same place, Ron. Bill's got one, I think, the twins don't, Ginny has, and so has..."

He fell silent, and with a short, rather disdainful sniff, he sat down in a chair and started to read his paper as though the discussion had never happened at all. Harry toyed with a grape. He wanted to ask an awful lot of questions he knew he really shouldn't. He glanced up at Mr and Mrs Weasley, and Ron, and tried to imagine them as family. It was so easy. Easy enough to give him the courage to talk, and the words came out of his mouth before he'd thought too much into it.

"What's happening with Percy at the moment?"

Mr Weasley glanced at him over the top of his paper, surprised by the sudden question. He looked as though nobody had dared mention that name to him in a long time. "I... don't know."

"Have you spoken to him?" Harry asked.

"I - Well... not in... friendly tones..." said Mr Weasley, who still looked as though he'd been dunked repeatedly in a bucket of water.

"Does he want to make up?" Harry took another grape, trying to keep his tone casual. He had the feeling that if he could get this to sound like the innocent questions of a frightened child, he might be able to help things. Just a little.

"No," said Mr Weasley, with a flicker of sadness in his eyes. "And I have the feeling he never will."

"Why? Does he still think you were a traitor to Fudge?"

Mr Weasley nodded. Everybody else was watching them talk as though they were fighting to the death, except Hermione, who was eating a biscuit and reading her useless facts book with an expression that suggested she'd uncovered the meaning of life.

"Percy values his career more than his family," Mr Weasley continued with a sigh. "He also forgets that had he not been headboy, he most likely wouldn't be where he is now. His family was his first loyalty. Then Dumbledore. And now Fudge..." He rubbed his balding head wearily. "I hate to think where he's going to end up next."

"When did you last speak to him?"

"About a week," Mr Weasley replied. He took the tea his wife gave him gratefully. "I have a good mind not to try and contact him again. There's no point, Harry..."

"Could I talk to him?" asked Harry.

Mr Weasley looked up from his paper, surprised. "I don't think you really should, Harry... I'm sure he'd be far less than delighted to know the boy he blames for 'causing uproar in the modern magical world' is his third cousin."

"Once removed," Hermione said from behind her book.

Harry nodded. He decided not to push the subject - but maybe some other time he'd try again. He didn't want to have a divided family, even if he was rather new to it.

Mrs Weasley stood up from the fireplace, brushing ash from her knees. "That was Dumbledore. He says that the Order can use the house for a headquarters again, and so a few members will be here fairly soon. They're flying. And Harry can also spend the rest of the summer here, with us, if his aunt and uncle allow it."

"Oh, can I?" said Harry, eagerly, his enthusiasm returned in an instant. "Please, Mrs Weasley, I'll do anything!"

She smiled. "I thought you'd say that. I've already told Dumbledore. He's checking with your aunt and uncle now, though I have a feeling they'll say yes."

Harry beamed. He turned to Ron, about to say something, but Ron was getting to his feet. He circled the table slowly to Harry's side, and paused, looking very strained.

"Can I have a hug?" he said, after a moment, as though pained by the request.

Harry grinned, stood up, and the two of them embraced like brothers. Ron was beaming into Harry's shoulder, and then Hermione, Ginny, Mr and Mrs Weasley joined in too. Harry could feel himself squashed in between everybody, somebody was patting his back, his glasses were slipping down and then somebody pushed them up. His face widened in the biggest smile to cross his face in an awful long time.

"I hate to break the moment," said Hermione's voice, sounding muffled, "but we've left Tonks upstairs and there was just a loud bang, I think she's broken something."

Sure enough, a few seconds later there was a sheepish call of, "Um... Mrs Weasley? Was this vase expensive?"

"One moment," Mrs Weasley shouted back, in an exasperated tone. "You'll all have to make your own tea while I sort this out... Arthur, there's food in most of the cupboards and you can conjure - yes, just a minute Tonks! - anything you want. Don't make a mess."

She hurried out of the kitchen as Tonks started to moan about broken ceramics all over the floor. Mr Weasley smiled at them all.

"Well, what shall we have?"

"Chips," said Ron, quick as lightning.

"I'd prefer something healthier..." said Hermione.

"Have we got any pizza?" asked Harry.

"Chicken nuggets," said Ginny.

"We can't have all that on the same plate," said Mr Weasley, smiling. "Your mother would tell you all of."

"No she wouldn't," said Ginny, "she'd just tell you off."

Mr Weasley chuckled. "I'll do pizza and chips. Yes, and some nuggets, Ginny, and pasta for Hermione, but you'll all have to help. I'm not a very good cook."

They all looked rather excited at cooking their own food, especially Ron who asked if they could maybe have burgers as well, but Mr Weasley drew the line. Hermione was put in charge of salads, and was the only one who went about the muggle way of doing things apart from a little conjuring work. Everybody else chose magic. And it went terribly.

Harry's pizza somehow managed to spread itself up the walls, and ended up with more cheese on the floor than on the dough. Ginny's transfiguration charm went terribly wrong, trying to turn apples into chicken. In all fairness, she did conjure chicken. Unfortunately, it was a live one. Everybody ran around the kitchen for five minutes trying to capture the escaped, plucked and roasted chicken, eventually managed to corner it. Ron beat it with a frying pan as Harry tried to transfigure it back into an apple. For some reason, it exploded.

So with the kitchen covered in cheese, tomato, bits of apple, cuttings from Ron's chips, ketchup and the spaghetti hoops that Ginny had attempted, they all sat down to eat. Only Hermione was clean. Everybody else was wearing most of their dinner.

"That went well," Ron concurred, taking one of his burnt chips from the plate and eating it.

Hermione raised an eyebrow at the ketchup splodges all over his forehead, absent-mindedly toying with a piece of pasta on her fork. "I don't know what you count as 'went well', but I've seen monkeys do a better job of feeding themselves."

"Rubbish," said Ron. "I think we did fine. For a first attempt."

Harry picked up a slice of pizza to eat, but the toppings just slid off onto the plate with a loud slop, some of it splattering up onto his already mucky jumper. "Ooops," he said.

"Oh, it's no harm done," Mr Weasley said cheerily. He'd made a sandwich, but he'd tried to do it the muggle way like Hermione, "just for the fun", and his fingers were now covered in plasters and marmite. "A few good strong cleaning charms and we'll be right as rain."

There was a series of very quiet knocks on the door. "I'll get it," said Harry, standing up and leaving his pile of pizza ingredients. Carefully, he left the kitchen and crept down the hall, desperately trying not to wake Mrs Black. Cringing at the loud creak the door made as he twisted the handle, he eased it open.

Professor Dumbledore stood on the front step, his long white beard shimmering in the evening glow, a pleasant smile on his face. "Good evening, Harry," he said, quietly.

Harry smiled, trying not to remember the time when he had smashed up Dumbledore's office in his rage about Sirius. "Evening, professor." He stepped back, opening the door carefully for Dumbledore to come in.

"I must apologise, Harry," said Dumbledore, as Harry closed the door behind him. "For my poor research sixteen years ago. I, like the rest of us it seems, had no idea that - why is there melted cheese in your eyebrows?"

Harry smiled. "We were making pizza."

"Ah, I understand completely," Dumbledore murmured, returning the pleasant smile, his eyes twinkling.

Harry lead him through to the kitchen, where everybody else greeted Dumbledore happily. Mr Weasley jumped up, wiped some of the marmite off his fingers onto a teatowel and then shook hands with a sheepish, "I must apologise for the mess. We were making dinner and Molly normally does the cooking..."

Dumbledore chuckled. "That's quite alright, Arthur, a little mess never did me any harm." He sat down on the only clean chair next to Hermione, stole a chip from Ron with a smile and then said, "Well. A new, and I'm sure well-welcomed member to the Weasley family."

Harry grinned. "Didn't you know, Professor?"

"I had no idea," Dumbledore admitted, his blue eyes sparkling even if the mild darkness of the kitchen. "It did come as a shock when Molly Weasley's head appeared in my fireplace. I was folding my socks at the time and lost my place, though for such good news, I'm sure we can overlook that little problem."

Harry then realised that Dumbledore was wearing one stripey red and yellow sock, and a spotty green sock on the other foot.

Arthur smiled, handing Dumbledore a plate of burnt chips. "I found the parchment, and it was quite a shock. I don't think any of us believed it at first, until we had it verified. But good news now, very good."

"Has the rest of the family been told?" asked Dumbledore as he took a chip, nipped off the burnt bit and popped it into his mouth.

"Yes, those who would want to know," said Arthur, smiling, though when he turned his back to get a glass of orange juice from the cupboard, Harry saw that he looked rather sad behind his glasses.

There was a further knock at the door which distracted them all. Harry jumped up again and crept to open it, and when he did, he found Professor Lupin and -

"Oh. You're here," said Harry.

Snape rolled his eyes, then turned his exasperated glare on Harry again. "The headmaster wishes to see me Potter, however, you can rest assured I'm going to leave as fast as I possibly can."

"Shhh, keep your voice down," said Harry, frowning. "You'll wake Sirius's mum. Come in."

The two wizards stepped in, and Harry shut the door, leading them through to the kitchen. Snape sneered as he saw the spaghetti hoops splattered all up the walls, but Lupin didn't seem to mind, sinking into a chair. He had to perch right on the edge of his to avoid sitting in a small heap of beans.

"Do sit down, Severus," said Dumbledore, pleasantly, gesturing to the empty chair.

Snape cast a contemptuous eye over the ketchup-covered chair, sighed, and then drew his wand from his sleeve. "Scourgify," he drawled.

Nothing happened.

It was the first time Harry had ever seen Snape worried. The expression on his face was un-nerving. There was the look of cold realisation in his eyes, as though he'd been waiting for this to happen for a long time and dreading it all the same, but next second, he had forced his face into a grimace and pushed the wand back up his sleeve.

"This house is disgustingly repressive on dragonheart string wands," he sneered. "Somebody else do it."

Hermione took out her wand, and was about to do the charm, but Lupin beat her to it, the charm cleaning the chair completely in a few seconds. As Snape sat down on it, Lupin shrugged mildly. "Odd. Mine's dragonheart string, and it seems to work fine."

Snape glared at him across the table, a look of deepest loathing on his face. "Don't look too pleased, Werewolf," he hissed.

"Severus," said Dumbledore warningly.

Snape fell quiet, and still glaring at Lupin, he sat back in his chair. Harry and Ron swapped meaningful looks. As Dumbledore leant forward to inquire how everybody's holidays were going, Ron muttered sideways to Harry, "Did you see...?"

"Yeah," Harry said quietly. "What do you think happened?"

"I dunno," said Ron, talking under the pretext of a long drink of orange juice. "Lupin's worked..."

"I know." Harry took one of Ron's chips. "What can stop a wand working?"

Ron was about to reply, but Dumbledore was talking to all of them, and so they both turned to listen. "Thankyou," said Dumbledore. "Now, you are all aware of today's marvellous discovery. Because of this, some new opportunities are open to us. Mostly concerning Harry's - "

But once again, he was broken off as there was a series of knocks at the door. Harry got up and headed wearily for the door, considering just leaving it open so that anybody could come and go as they pleased. He grasped the handle, pulled it open and said, "Just come in, don't bother wiping your f- " And then he stopped abruptly, his face dropping in shock.

"I got 'em," said Mundungus Fletcher, grinning up at him from the front step. "I 'ad to use a bit a force with these two though, but I reckons they'll be fine."

Harry's shocked eyes travelled to the two people tied up, gagged and levitating on Mundungus's left. Percy Weasley and Uncle Vernon both glared at him furiously, and it was hard to say who looked angriest. Fred, George, Charlie and Bill Weasley all stood behind Percy, grinning from ear to ear.

"Why - why have you tied up my uncle?" Harry said, still in shock.

"Dumbledore's orders," Mundungus beamed. "I - "

"Mundungus, I mentioned nothing about tying them up," said Dumbledore's voice from behind Harry. "I told you to request they come here, on their own free will."

"Well, yeah, but... I gots 'em, didn' I?"

Dumbledore rubbed his forehead wearily. "If the ministry hears of this, Mundungus, they are not going to be happy."

Mundungus chuckled. "Yeah, but I'm guessin' that these two aren't that 'appy either. Get 'em inside, lads, and watch you don't 'urt 'em."

Fred and George stepped forward, each taking the rigid Percy by an arm. "Oh, we will," they said together, grinning.

 

Chapter Seven: Snape's Secrets

The drawing room was the cleanest and least dangerous place in the house, and so when the initial greetings were over, everybody proceeded to there. Percy was released from his binds under the agreement that he wouldn't try to run or be unco-operative, and he had stalked ahead of them all up the stairs, his nose in the air, barging roughly past his father. Uncle Vernon on the other hand had been deemed dangerous, and they all agreed that it wasn't safe to let him out of the binds, so he was practically dragged up the stairs by Fred and George, who delighted in complaining loudly about having to 'haul the fat muggle'.

Harry now sat in the middle of the room on a chair, with everybody arranged rather neatly around him. The Weasleys minus Percy were to his right; Uncle Vernon was tied to a chair by the window, where he could do no harm; Professors Lupin, Dumbledore and Snape were standing in various places around the room; Mundungus Fletcher was sitting by the fireplace pretending not to admire the silver; Tonks stood with Lupin, and Percy was as far away from his father, arms folded, hunched by the door.

"Now then," said Professor Dumbledore, pleasantly. "You are all here to help determine Harry's future residence."

"Ahem," said Percy, contemptuously. "I do not need to be here."

"You are a member of the Weasley family," said Dumbledore. "And therefore, you do need to be here, as much as you may not like it."

"And my presence is required because...?" Snape said, silkily.

"That's coming in a moment," said Dumbledore. "Now, as we know, for sixteen years Harry has lived with you, my good Sir." He smiled to Uncle Vernon.

Uncle Vernon glared back at him spitefully. "Unfortunately," he said in a gruff voice after a moment.

Dumbledore pretend not to have heard him. "Of course, at first I thought that you and your family were his only living relatives. That is why I sent him to live with you, for the blood protection of your wife, and so that he wasn't in the constant glare of spotlights from the wizarding world. However, because of recent developments, we have found that Harry does indeed have living relatives - the Weasley family."

Harry had the feeling he was the guest on a talk show, Dumbledore was the host, introducing all the different characters in a tale of confusion, relevations and a young boy with a family he never knew he had.

"So what needs to be decided," said Dumbledore, "is where Harry is to spend the rest of his childhood. Of course, we can't expect him to live with his family all his life - but for as long as possible I think."

"They can have him," Uncle Vernon said quickly, though in a clear tone, as though Dumbledore didn't speak much English.

"Agreed," said Fred. "Well, that's all sorted, now who's for cocoa?"

Dumbledore chuckled. "I'm afraid it's not quite that simple, Mr Dursley, Mr Weasley... we have several things to consider. Firstly, the relationship between Harry and the Weasley children is third cousins, once removed. My worst fear would be for this particular blood protection to not be strong enough."

There was an ominous pause, where Mrs Weasley and Hermione looked worry, Mundungus didn't seem to understand and Snape shrugged slightly. Then George said, loudly, "Well, this will have to be tested. Does anybody have anything sharp and fatally pointy?"

"I can get you - " began Mundungus, but Bill cut across him.

"How can we tell if it's strong enough, Dumbledore?"

"Of course, the only way we can know for sure is to have a Death Eater or Voldemort - " There was a general flinch throughout the room " - attack Harry."

"Before anybody suggests," said Snape, darkly, "no."

"You, Severus, are loyal to our side," said Dumbledore. "Therefore, if you should attack Harry which I must insist you do not, it would not constitute as a Voldemort attack." He sat down in one of the old armchairs, resting his elbows on the arms and watching Harry closely over steepled fingers. "Harry, we have two choices. I could give the relationship between you and the Weasleys the benefit of the doubt, and leave you here to stay at Grimmauld Place for the rest of the summer. Of course, if we are wrong, and the protection is not strong enough, Lord Voldemort may strike." Dumbledore peered at Harry over the top of his half-moon spectacles. "Or you can remain in the certified protection of your aunt and uncle."

Harry looked down at his hands. He knew what he really wanted. He'd give anything to stay with Ron and his family, though if the protection wasn't strong enough... and that prophecy. The world wasn't big enough for both him and Voldemort. The best time to attack him would be when that blood protection wasn't around.

He looked up and saw all the Weasleys watching him with a hopeful, comforting expression. Ron's eyes seemed to be burning desperately into him. Harry then glanced at Dumbledore, into that piercing blue stare, and he smiled slightly. "I want to go with the Weasleys."

The headmaster's face split into a smile too. "In that case, Remus, Severus, come here please."

They both approached Dumbledore, Remus standing behind Harry with one hand on his right shoulder. Snape languished vaguely between Harry and the headmaster, arms crossed, not looking impressed at being here.

"I'm putting all the Weasley children on Harry Potter Protection Duty," he said. "And I want you both to just keep an eye over things... I daresay Alrister can help when he arrives too, and the other professors. However, I'm putting you both in charge. Will this be okay?"

"Perfectly," said Lupin. He smiled, gripping Harry's shoulder.

"Severus?" asked Dumbledore.

Snape fought to keep his face straight, staring at a place on the mantelpiece as though it was taking every ounce of his restraint to not kill something. "That sounds fine," he said after a minute, exasperatedly.

Dumbledore smiled pleasantly. "Excellent. Now, I believe somebody mentioned cocoa?"

"I'll make it!" said Tonks, brightly, shooting out of the room. Mrs Weasley looked worried for a minute then rushed after her, but Dumbledore said,

"Ah, Molly? I'd like you to stay please. Remus, could you possibly supervise Miss Tonks with the cocoa?"

"Can I please leave?" Snape said, frowning.

"And make sure you put extra sugar in Severus's," Dumbledore added as Lupin left. Snape groaned and rubbed his eyes. The headmaster turned to Mundungus, "Mr Fletcher, could you possibly escort Mr Dursley back home? Severus, I want you to take Hermione and Harry somewhere else. I wish to talk to the Weasley family. All of them," he added, pointedly, as Percy moved to go.

"I - "

"You're staying where you are, Percy, sit down," said Dumbledore, so firmly that Percy didn't question the order and sat down promptly.

Snape beckoned vaguely to Harry and Hermione, then swept from the room in a flurry of black robes and swift footsteps. Harry patted Ron on the shoulder as he left. All the Weasleys looked rather worried.

Snape lead them across the landing, down the creaky old staircase and then silently through the hall, down another staircase and into the kitchen. He cast a glare around at the messy walls, and reached for his wand to clean it. Mid-movement, he stopped, and acted as though he hadn't noticed any of the muck.

Harry glanced at Hermione, though she hadn't noticed, sitting down on a chair and getting out her annoying book. He tried to catch her eye, but Snape was looking at him suspiciously so he gave up and slumped forward on his elbows instead, bored. His mind drifted to Ron, stuck up there with an irritated Percy, the rest of his family and Dumbledore. The rest of my family, Harry reminded himself.

"Why do I have to stay here?" he thought aloud. "I'm part of that family too."

"They know Percy better than you," said Hermione gently. "Let them talk, and you can see them again. Don't worry."

Harry sighed, bored, starting to drum his fingertips on the table before him, tapping out a rhythm to think to. Snape watched him closely. Harry looked up. "What?"

"Desist."

"What?"

"I said desist, Potter, it means stop. That pathetic tapping noise. Stop it."

Harry rolled his eyes and looked away, though stopped with the drumming.

Snape's face darkened in a frown. "Do not give me that sulky expression, Potter."

Harry started to draw an idle pattern in the spaghetti stain on the table top with his fingertip. "Sorry," he muttered vaguely.

There was a few minutes of more silence, where Harry watched Hermione read and Snape just sat with his arms folded, glaring at a jar of some black leaves on the cupboard top. Every tick of the clock seemed to come hours apart. Harry laid his head on his arms. Why was Snape so incredibly strict and boring, even out of school? Something seriously bad must have happened to him to make him so uptight and bitter.

"Potter, are there any glasses in here?" Snape drawled.

Harry glanced over his shoulder, and gestured vaguely to one of the high cupboards above the sink. "Yeah, there I think. Watch the spilled tomato puree," he added, as Snape nearly went skidding.

"Thankyou, Potter, I have my own eyes," the professor murmured, stiffly, crossing over to the cabinet and curling his fingers around the handle. "I know that it takes some reminding you, but - "

There was an almighty crash, louder than anything Harry had ever heard in his life as every single glass in the cupboard came raining down on Snape's head. Hermione screamed at the noise and Harry jumped a foot in the air, and as the last glass fell, Snape was on the floor, swearing under his breath and clutching his right wrist. It was bleeding badly, slashed by a flying shard.

Hermione hurried over, drawing her wand, but before she could reach him to heal it, Mrs Black started shrieking in the hall. Harry clamped his hands over his ears and bellowed, "I'll sort her out, you stay here with him!" and ran out from the kitchen.

She was screaming and screaming at him, her eyes rolling, shaking with the force of her fury. Professor Lupin came tearing down the stairs at the same time, followed by Tonks who was clutching a broken-off handle of a mug. The three of them struggled to cover up the portrait, and as they shut it, her screams fell quiet with a ringing silence.

"What was the crash, Harry?" Lupin panted.

"The glasses in one of the cupboards must have been stacked wrongly, they fell on Snape," said Harry. "He's cut his wrist."

Lupin and Tonks hurried into the kitchen, followed by Harry. Snape was still crouched on the floor, doing his best to stay away from Hermione, and as he flicked his head with a snarl of, "Get off me, Miss Granger!", they saw that there was a nasty cut on his head too. The sleeve of his robes was now soaking with blood.

Lupin knelt down by him, grabbing his wrist quite forcefully and holding it out with a calm expression. "There's still some glass embedded in it... honestly, Severus, we can't leave you alone for one minute..."

"Shut up Lupin," Snape muttered under his breath, though Harry caught it.

Lupin drew out his wand, swept it over Snape's wound and murmured a healing charm. The blood dried over instantly, the slash seemed to seal up like a zipper and all that was left in a few moments was a scar. Snape stood up to go, but Lupin pushed him back down. "Head wound. Sit still, this might feel a little strange."

Snape rolled his eyes as Lupin performed another healing charm, being slower with this one, tongue between his teeth. "Hurry up Lupin," Snape snarled.

"Do you want a great scar across your forehead, Severus? Because if you do, just keep wriggling around and telling me to hurry up."

Snape sighed impatiently, and the moment Lupin sealed the charm with a flick of his wand he got up off the floor, crossed to the sink and filled his hands with a small pool of water. They all watched in surprise as he buried his face in it, splashing it all over his skin. Harry handed him a teatowel with a blank, rather worried expression. Snape snatched it off him and dried his face.

Possibly to disguise the awkward silence, Lupin said, "The cocoa's ready. I daresay you could all need a drink after today." Harry nodded, and as they all left the room, he hung to the back of the group, watching Snape from behind with a frown. Something strange was going on with him. The glasses in the cupboard couldn't have all fallen directly on top of him, even if they had been stacked in a strange way, and from what Harry had seen before they toppled, they were done fine, in neat rows.

He hardly heard a word of Hermione and Lupin's conversation about mackled malaclaws, and he wasn't even watching when Tonks lengthened her face and made her eyes shrink to vaguely resemble one. All the time, he was listening, hoping that Ron and his family would be done arguing soon. Snape wasn't very talkative either. He sat apart from the group by the window, looking out over the grubby suburbs with a frown on his face, sipping his cocoa through pursed lips. He hadn't been this clumsy the week before at his house. Well, clumsy wasn't the word. Tonks was clumsy, cheery and friendly but a little too eager and so she knocked things over. Snape hadn't done anything to make those glasses fall. As disturbing as it sounded, when Harry had seen them start to fall, he was sure they had all surged forward as one to attack him. Was it something to do with being in the Black house? Was Sirius, perhaps, making his presence felt and suggesting Snape should leave?

No... there was something in his face when his magic had broken that told Harry all too plainly Snape had been dreading that happening for some time.

It was very dark outside by the time the Weasleys came downstairs into the lounge. Mr Weasley looked stressed, and collapsed instantly into a chair, grasping a mug of cocoa and draining it without saying anything - though he was the only one who didn't look happy. Bill and Charlie sat with Tonks and Lupin, talking casually to them about the Order. Ginny and Mrs Weasley were both smiling in a relieved way. Percy was listening to Fred and George talk about all their business plans, occasionally butting in with an anecdote about the ministry, and Ron came right over to Harry, grinning.

"Dumbledore sorted it all out," he said. "We're a family again."

"Great," said Harry, vaguely, "Look, I've got something to tell you."

"What is it?" Ron asked, sitting in an armchair and reaching for cocoa.

Harry didn't answer. Dumbledore had just walked in, and Lupin had excused himself from the group, going over to murmur something in his ear. Both of them looked at Snape, who stared back defiantly. After a moment, Dumbledore nodded, beckoned to Snape and the two of them swept from the room.

"Harry?" said Ron, curiously.

"We've got to follow them," said Harry. "I want to know what's going on with Snape. We were in the kitchen, and he just opened one of the cupboards, and all the glasses just rained down on his head... but... it didn't look like an accident... I think something's going on."

"Maybe he's had a bad luck hex put on him," Ron suggested, shrugging. "Does it really matter?"

"Yes," said Harry, stoutly. "Come on, it might be something important." He put down his cocoa, told everyone that he and Ron were going to get more sugar, and they both hurried from the room quickly, just in time to hear a door shut a few floors below.

Quietly as they could, they crept down the stairs, sticking close to the walls so the creaks were as quiet as possible. Harry saw the door that the two professors must be in, and he pointed, signalling Ron over. They both sneaked down the stairs, across the hall and in front of the door. Ron grabbed Harry's arm, and Harry saw he was gesturing to the next room, where they could hide properly. Harry nodded, and without a sound, they both hurried in.

They sat on the floor next to the wall, pressing their ears right up to it to listen.

Harry could hear the creak of a chair as somebody sat in it, and Snape sighed. "Well. Lupin told you what happened, I suppose."

"He did, Severus," said Dumbledore's voice calmly. "Though he didn't say exactly how it happened. All he knew was what Harry told him - that the glasses fell on you." The headmaster paused for a moment and then said, seriously, "Did they actually fall, Severus, or were they pushed?"

Harry and Ron glanced at each other worriedly.

Snape was heard to sigh quietly, and then say, "They were... pushed, to use your terms, Albus."

"Severus..."

"I know," said Snape wearily. "And you of course saw the... failure of my wand, earlier."

"That I did. Tell me Severus, and I do not require details, just an honest answer." Dumbledore sounded very serious. "Has something happened?"

There was a long, rather grim pause. "Yes," came Snape's reply after a moment.

Dumbledore sighed softly, like a parent disappointed with a child. "I warned you about the dangers of intruding in - "

"Shhh," said Snape, carefully. "I know you did, you don't have to tell me again. The whole world around me is reminding me of that little fact more and more every day that goes by."

"What things are happening?" asked Dumbledore, calmly, and there was another creak as he sat down in a chair. Harry could almost see him peering at Snape in that way he was so good at, the way that made you feel as though if you lied, you had failed yourself.

"Things going missing," came the vague reply. "Bad luck. You know me rather well, Albus, I've known you for twenty-five years now and would you say I'm the sort of person to have frequent accidents?"

"Not at all," said Dumbledore's voice.

"Well I am. At least I am now." Snape sighed exasperatedly. "I've obviously been trying to ignore the signs up until now... tell myself that they're coincidences... I've been trying to fool myself. And I can't any longer. My magic broke for the first time today, and it still isn't back. How long will it take?"

"A day or two," Dumbledore mused quietly. "Depending on the severity of the cause. Was it...?"

"No," said Snape quickly, and then calmer, "No, Albus, no. I have my limits. It was just... confessing."

Ron frowned, totally confused by what was going on, and Harry had to admit he didn't have any ideas either. It sounded like Snape had done something that was causing him to have a lot of unexplainable accidents and bad luck. Harry wondered whether it was something to do with Voldemort. A Death Eater ritual? It didn't make sense.

"I know this is probably the advice you least want to hear," said Dumbledore, calmly. "But it's the advice which is best for you."

"I know what you're going to say," said Snape. "And you're completely correct, Albus, I do not want to hear it."

"I shall tell you anyway." Dumbledore's serious tones were back. "Do not let yourself wallow any deeper in this business, Severus. Ancient magic is the most powerful and vengeful kind there is, and at the moment, you may as well travel down to Wales and jab a sleeping dragon in the eye with a sharp stick. It would do you just as much good as if you continued with - "

"Shhh," said Snape again.

Dumbledore lowered his voice a notch, and Harry struggled to hear what he said, barely managing to pick up the sounds. "Severus, I say this as a very important warning. You may think you have all the right in the world, but if you do not realise that you're dabbling with danger, you will, and that is will, not might, lose more than just your foolish pride."

Snape was quiet for a moment, then said, "To give up now would be to admit my weakness and inability to fight for the things I want. And that I will not do."

"Sometimes we have to forget the things we want for the things we need," said Dumbledore seriously. "At the moment, you need your life and your magic. I implore you now to back out while there is still time to do so, or the next thing that comes raining from a cupboard on your head may well be a great deal more dangerous than glasses."

Harry caught Ron's eye. They stared at each other as Snape paused again, thinking of what to say.

"I'll try, Headmaster."

"Good." There was a squeak from chairs as they both stood up. There were footsteps towards the door, which opened with a quiet creak, and then Dumbledore's voice added, "And one more thing."

"Yes, Headmaster?"

"Stay away from the cutlery drawers in the kitchen. It may be for your own good."

"What am I to do, eat with my fingers?"

Dumbledore said, slowly, "That or die, Severus."

The dramatic effect of this statement was incredible. Both Harry and Ron's eyes widened in shock.

"Die?" whispered Ron. "What's - "

Harry pushed him to be quiet as Snape and Dumbledore's footsteps swept away up the stairs, neither of them saying another word. When they heard the door above shut, Ron sat back, looking still very shocked.

"What do you think he's been doing? Something with You-Know-Who?"

"That's what I thought," said Harry. He bit his lip. "I don't like the sound of this. It's scary."

"Yeah. Maybe Snape's blown it big time. What if he's accidentally given You-Know-Who some important information?"

"No, I don't think so." Harry thought for a moment. "It sounds like he's getting into something bad... maybe it's got dangerous with the Death Eaters and Dumbledore wants him to back out?"

"No, it can't be. Why's his magic failed? And what's with all the accidents? You don't get stuff like that just for being a Death Eater, do you?"

Harry shook his head. "I don't get it."

"I reckon he's up to something," said Ron, suspiciously. "Something really bad. Maybe You-Know-Who wants him to swear allegiance? And he's testing his loyalty by giving him all this bad luck? Hey, here's an idea! Maybe You-Know-Who is tempting him to use black magic by taking away his own!"

"Maybe," said Harry. "Come on, we'd better get that sugar and go back upstairs before Snape gets suspicious."

They retrieved the sugar, and hurried back upstairs in time to see Percy hugging his teary-eyed mother. In all the happiness and reunion, nobody noticed them slide casually back into the room as though they'd ever left, though as Percy and Mrs Weasley broke apart, Harry saw Snape's eyes trained on him through the crowd. He looked away before Snape could get into his thoughts. Even if he didn't know much, he had the feeling that Snape still wouldn't want him to know even that. Snape was up to something, and Harry for once intended to find out what it was.

 

Chapter Eight: The Dark Lord's Army

The remaining few weeks passed very quickly to Harry. He spent his days with Ron and Ginny, just hanging around the house and trying to eavesdrop in on Order meetings, or Mr Weasley would take them for a walk down Diagon Alley. Harry noticed that Mr Weasley and Ron stayed close on either side of him during these walks, so he was fully covered by Weasley protection.

But having people always around him was marvellous to Harry. Normally, his summer holidays were the meaning of loneliness. He used to sit at the Dursleys in the garden or in his room, and just dream of Hogwarts and his friends for hours on end until they were almost real - but then he'd be ordered out to cook or clean, and the dream would be gone and he'd be completely alone again. At the time, the Dursleys were the only family he'd had, and they hardly cared about his existance at all.

The Weasleys were everything Harry had ever dreamed of. Mr and Mrs Weasley fussed over him and spoilt him somewhat, making sure he always had enough to eat, making sure he never got bored. They even asked him to call them Uncle and Auntie. "Auntie Molly has such a nice ring to it," Mrs Weasley said, beaming, her eyes very glossy before she planted a huge kiss on his cheek, gave him a plate of pizza and told him to come straight back for more when he was done.

He and Ron still weren't allowed into meetings about the Order, and probably with good reason, as nearly every member turned up once every two days for some huge conference. Mundungus generally brought some news from the criminal underworld that he was all too happy to share with Ron and Harry, but most other people wouldn't talk. Tonks and Lupin were staying at Grimmauld Place with the Weasleys, and Tonks was put in charge of keeping Ron and Harry out of the meetings - though more often than not, she was at the door with them listening.

Snape attended the meetings too, and Ron and Harry were always hanging over the staircase banister when he arrived, though he had no major accidents, which made Harry think that perhaps Dumbledore had got through to Snape somehow. He stumbled on the doorstep a few times, and once a bird had flown down and attacked him as he stepped through the front door, which both Ron and Harry had found extremely funny until Snape threatened to gouge their eyes out with a spoon.

Once or twice, Harry, Ginny and Ron were allowed to have friends over. Neville Longbottom found Grimmauld Place a bit un-nerving at first, though Hermione soon calmed his nerves, and Luna Lovegood said the place smelt of nye dung, though what exactly a nye was, nobody really knew.

With all the fun he was having, time seemed to pass speedily by, and in what seemed like the blink of an eye, it was growing dark on the night before their journey back to Hogwarts. For the first time, Harry knew he would miss the summer holidays and quite wanted them to go on longer, but then he thought of Hogwarts and all the things he loved about the castle, and he was soon as eager to get back.

He, Ron, Ginny and Luna, who had come for the day, were sitting at the top of the stairs overlooking the entrance hall, all trying to make a model of Hogwarts castle out of the mashed potato and chicken they were supposed to be eating for tea. It was around seven o' clock, and the Order would soon be here for the customary meeting.

"Luna, what's that?" asked Ron, squinting at an odd lump Luna had stuck on the end of the Defence Against The Dark Arts corridor.

"No, I didn't think you'd know what that was," she said, softly, shaping it carefully with her spoon.

Ron clearly decided he'd rather not know, and carried on with Hagrid's cabin. "Can I have that carrot for a chimney Harry?"

"Sure, here you go," Harry said, handing Ron the carrot.

He stuck it neatly in the middle of the mound of mush that was Hagrid's hut and smiled, pleased with himself. "I think it looks pretty lifelike, actually."

"Except being made out of potato," said Ginny.

"Yeah, well, the potato speaks for itself," said Ron. "Obviously, I mean - ooops!!"

His elbow had knocked the plate as he turned to speak to Ginny, and the whole plate had gone through the broken railings, sailing gracefully through the air. Even worse, somebody gave a startled cry and there was a squishing noise as the potato Hogwarts ambushed from above.

"Oh no, who did we hit?" said Ginny, peering down.

Mr Weasley lay sprawled on the floor, the plate of potato squashed over his head so his face was hidden by a fluffy white mass, a little like a snowman hit by a steam roller.

"Dad!" said Ron. "We're sorry, we didn't know you were down there!"

Mr Weasley heaved himself off the floor, blinking potato out of his eyes. "What on earth are you all doing up there?" He pulled the carrot from out of his nose with a loud sneeze. "And why are you throwing it at me?"

"We were making models out of potato," said Ginny. "We're really sorry Dad."

"That's quite all right," said Mr Weasley vaguely, wiping potato off his face. "You'll all have to go to the bedrooms I'm afraid, we've got an important meeting tonight that you're not allowed to hear." He blinked and wiped more mush off his face, extracting a large piece of chicken from his top pocket. "And no more eating on the stairs."

"Sorry Uncle Arthur," said Harry. "We'll be more careful."

Mr Weasley smiled at being called Uncle. "That's alright. Now go on, off with you, and no trying to listen!"

They all scrambled away up the rest of the stairs into the bedroom. Ron voiced all their feelings quite well with a relieved, "Well, it could have been worse. It could have been Snape or McGonagall."

"Or Dumbledore," said Harry. "Actually, Dumbledore would probably have laughed and thrown it back at us."

"I think Snape would have been the worst," said Ginny, opening the door and leading them all in. Luna nodded in agreement, though Harry and Ron said nothing, glancing at each other. They hadn't told anybody what they had heard between Snape and Dumbledore, except Hermione, and she couldn't make any sense of it either.

"Professor Snape is rather harsh, isn't it?" said Luna, dreamily, as though she quite liked the fact that he was harsh.

"Yeah," said Ginny. "He hated Fred and George most of all our family. Well, he doesn't like you Harry, does he? So I guess you're probably his least favourite."

"The only person he does like is Malfoy," said Ron, bitterly. "Stupid arrogant prat. He's not even that good at Potions, it's just because he's a Slytherin."

"Hey, listen, I can hear people arriving," said Ginny. They all fell quiet and heard people coming into the hall, greeting each other in murmurs so as not to wake Mrs Black. Ron and Mrs Weasley had done a good job with silencing charms, so it would take much more noise than before to wake her, but there was always the chance.

"I want to know what's happening," said Ron. He got up off his bed. "Quiet, come on and we'll go to the Hearing Hole."

The Hearing Hole wasn't really a hole, more of a pipe that lead from the boiler room into the meeting room. The Order hadn't realised it was there at all, and so all of them could crowd around it to listen in. It was hard to hear anything properly with three other people squashed around a pipe with the diameter of an orange, but it was better than nothing.

"What if your father catches us?" said Luna, in her dreamy tone, with wide eyes.

"We'll throw more food at him," said Ron, opening the door and padding out. "Come on, hurry up and be quiet!"

He crept out of the door and gave a loud shout of surprise as he came face to face with a purple-haired Tonks, standing block their way with hands on her hips. "And where are you all going?"

"Uh... nowhere," said Ron.

"A likely story," said Tonks. "You're all sneaking off to listen in on the secret meetings aren't you?"

"Um... no," Harry tried, weakly.

She sighed, taking a bowl of popcorn from behind her back. "Then gee, who am I going to share this with while I'm listening in? Oh well, more for me."

"No, wait!" said Ron. "We like popcorn! And listening in!"

She grinned. "Come on then, and watch the creaky steps."

They all hurried down stairs into the boiler room, slipping inside. Tonks shut the door carefully and they all crowded around the pipe with the popcorn in the middle. Ron took out a massive handful, Tonks frowned and took half off him, eating it herself with a grin.

"Who's nearest the pipe?" Harry whispered.

Tonks peered down it carefully. "I dunno... I see a lot of black hair..."

"Snape," Ron groaned.

"Shh," she said. "He'll hear us. You don't want us discovered, do you? And stop eating all the popcorn, this has gotta last us hours."

"Hours?" said Ginny. "How long is this meeting going on for?"

"Put it this way," said Tonks, "your Mum's set out about twenty jugs of pumpkin juice and snacks. Pillows everywhere for people to sit on. I think it's something big. I saw Dumbledore earlier and he looks kinda worried."

"Probably heard what we did to Dad," said Ron, with raised eyebrows.

"I don't think so," said Tonks, smiling. "By the way, you're helping me fix that plate later, it's broken in two."

"But it didn't break when it fell," said Ron.

"Yeah, but on the way to the kitchen I slipped in the potato and broke it." Tonks took a handful of popcorn and grinned at the look on Ron's face. "What?"

"Shhh, they're starting!" said Ginny, leaning closer to the pipe.

Harry leant in too and all five of them listened hard as Dumbledore's voice came out of the pipe, ringing slightly because of the echoes.

"I have called you all here for a reason tonight," he said, solemnly. "And the nature of the reason is not a cause for celebration, I am afraid. This meeting could take some time, so if anybody wants to contact their families to tell them they may be here all night if they have to, Molly has a sack of floo powder ready for you. Nobody? Then there's no time like the present...

"We have reason to believe that Voldemort is beginning his rise back to power. Up until now, the casualties have been terrible but mercifully few. Thanks to our spies, we have learnt of his collection of more Death Eaters and steadily recruiting more and more dark creatures to his services... the dementors are now fully in his power, and we are of course already working on means of reflecting them.

"However... it seems that Voldemort has managed to contact a group of creatures we never thought would become an issue in this fight." Dumbledore sounded very worried indeed, and just the tones in his voice made Harry's spine prickle with fear. "I am referring to the Heliopaths. I know that a lot of you - " But his words were drowned out by the mumbling of many people in the room, all of them expression fear and worry, some of them calling out questions.

Harry took the opportunity to look around at the other people in the boiler room. "What's a Heliopath?"

"Fire spirits," muttered Ron. He was very pale. "Nobody knows where they live or how you can get there, but they're supposed to be really dangerous... they have a brand of magic that no human can conjure up..."

"If You-Know-Who's got the Heliopaths," said Tonks, nervously, but Dumbledore was talking again.

"Please, please," he said, loudly. "There is no need for alarm. We need to think logically and calmly to come up with possible defences and solutions to this problem. Severus, could you tell us what exactly you have found out?"

The shadow at the end of the pipe moved as Snape stood up, his voice ringing down the pipe as though into a microphone. "The Dark Lord, by means I am not yet sure of, has managed to contact the Heliopaths. He is confident of their loyalty, very confident, and he plans to showcase their power to the wizarding world before the year is out. At the moment, it seems likely that he will attack one of the major magical locations in the world. All wizarding schools are on the target list, St Mungo's Hospital, Diagon Alley, all Ministry of Magic buildings, Hogsmeade, any Quidditch locations and of course any settlements with a high population of wizards."

"Dumbledore, has the ministry been told?" asked a woman's voice that Harry didn't recognise.

"No, not yet," said Dumbledore. "That is in fact one of the issues I wish to discuss. Cornelius Fudge and the rest of the Ministry, no matter how accepting they are of Voldemort's return, are not taking the stance we need to wipe out the dark forces once and for all. Everytime I send him a report on Voldemort's activities, he warns me not to send a copy to the Prophet. His priority is the heaven he has created, and not the hell he could well cause if he doesn't not listen to us."

There was more mumbling throughout the crowd, most of it agreeing with Dumbledore's words. He waited for silence to fall again, and then continued seriously.

"I believe that we can act as a far more effective force if we talk to the wizarding world without Cornelius's interference and filtering. We need people in higher places, most of all, a source where we can contact everybody in this world at once. The Daily Prophet is too controlled by the Ministry and ultimately, the minister."

"How about we start our own?" somebody suggested.

"Precisely my thoughts. We need writers, photographers... could I have some nominations for an editor?"

Back in the boiler room, Tonks raised a hand and whispered, "Me..."

There were a few mutters from the meeting room, and it seemed like people were being picked out. Dumbledore said, "Thankyou all... if you could work something out between you that would be much appreciated. Second item on the list is defence. Protection for the places most under threat. Obviously, in foreign countries, all we can do is warn them and let them suffer the consequences if they do not heed that caution. Here in Britain, we can do something. The places most at risk... Hogsmeade, Diagon Alley, St Mungo's and Hogwarts. We need people stationed in or around each place at all times to protect them, and to be able to alert the rest of the Order should need for concern arise.

"Firstly... Hogsmeade. Mundungus, I believe you spend a lot of time around the village...?"

There was a grunting noise as Mundungus woke up with a start. "Yeah, I 'gree with... 'ooever spoke last."

Dumbledore chuckled. "Hogsmeade, Mundungus. You spend a lot of time there, yes?"

"Yeah," said Mundungus, who sounded as though he was worried it was a trick question.

"I want you to... oh, never mind. Does anybody else spend a lot of time around Hogsmeade?"

Tonks turned away from the pipe, taking a handful of popcorn and munching it in a rather thoughtful way. "So Voldemort's got the Heliopaths. We've got a problem on our hands now."

"Father's been alerting the wizarding world of their presence for years," said Luna. "Such a shame that nobody took notice until now."

Ron took some popcorn from the bowl. "I reckon he'll attack St Mungo's. The mediwizards are famed for being great at healing but no good at duelling. It'll fall like... like a mash potato Hogwarts on Dad's head."

"I don't know, Hogsmeade isn't exactly full of powerful wizards, is it?" said Ginny.

"Shhh!" Harry hissed. They all fell quiet and listened.

"Now that we've sorted out that, could somebody please go to the boiler room and bring Nymphadora Tonks and the four children, who are listening to every word and might as well join in the discussions?"

"Ooops," said Tonks.

Dumbledore chuckled. "Thankyou, Arthur."

A few seconds later, the door opened and Mr Weasley smiled down at them all. "Tonks," he said, pretending to tut. "You're no better than a child yourself."

She smiled, her mouth full of popcorn. "They made me."

"We did not!" Ron said, outraged.

Mr Weasley chuckled. "Come along. Dumbledore wants you in the meeting. Though stay quiet and don't interrupt anybody."

They followed him out of the boiler room, down the hall and into the meeting hall. They were a lot more people than there usually were, most of them Harry didn't recognise, a few he did. He didn't stop to look over every face packed into the hall, and instead followed Ron over to the Weasleys and Professor Lupin, sitting cross-legged on one of the pillows and looking up at Dumbledore.

He smiled down at them all, the way he did at the Hogwarts welcoming feast. "I trust you all know that any information you hear tonight is a complete secret?"

They all nodded silently, and Dumbledore turned back to his audience in general, looking a little more relieved than at the start of the meeting. "The last place we need to discuss which is in danger is Hogwarts. The castle is, of course, heavily protected already, though against Heliopaths, those defences can and will fall. This year, I intend to take extra precautions.

"Firstly, as some of you may know, Harry here - " Dumbledore smiled to Harry before continuing " - set up and successfully ran a Defence Against The Dark Arts club, all after school and all in secret, and he remains the only sixteen-year-old wizard I am aware of who can produce a corporeal patronus. It is my intention for him to continue his good work, and with the help of our Defence Against The Dark Arts master Professor Lupin, the students will be given extra defence lessons this year. Harry, do you think you can do this for me?"

Harry nodded numbly, aware that every eye in the room was fixed on him. "I'll try," he said.

Dumbledore's eyes sparkled behind his glasses. "Thankyou, Harry. Secondly, throughout the summer holidays I have had a... ah... highly able person try his best to find the problems with my castle defences, and he has certainly found quite a few."

Ron leant across to Harry and murmured, "Peeves... Fred and George said he'd been wrecking the castle..."

Harry nodded, then glanced back to Dumbledore.

"These have been patched up and tested vigorously. I am confident that no spirit, beast or being can get into my castle if they are not wanted." The headmaster smiled, took a sip of water from the glass on the table before him, and then continued. "Also, I have introduced a new subject this year which will be taken by all students. I hope that this new knowledge will teach them to defend themselves better when the time of war comes."

Harry wasn't exactly comforted by Dumbledore's use of the word 'when'.

"And finally," said Dumbledore, "something not quite related just to Hogwarts but to young wizards in general throughout this country. The age required to do magic has been lowered by a year, so that the younger members in our fight against Voldemort can learn to defend themselves far earlier and have sufficient practice. The ministry has also been very hard on children performing underage magic, and my deepest regret would be for a child in danger to not dare defend themselves, in fear of the consequences." He looked around at them all seriously. "We are no longer safe. For the past sixteen years, we have been able to walk the streets freely and be confident in our laws. We have let our children out to play with no doubt that they will come back safe and sound. We have gone about our normal business with no worries in our head. But the time has come for action to be taken. Lord Voldemort is very much alive, greater and more powerful than he was before. There is no need to be afraid of staying safe. It is my belief that every child in this world should be just as useful as their parents and the adults around them." He looked down to the four children sitting on the floor in front of the Weasleys, all looking up at him with hope in their eyes. "I have been headmaster of Hogwarts for quite some time now, and my students still amaze and surprise me every single day. There are many problems in this world at the moment, and even if the wizards of my generation are more than likely going to end their lives surrounded by death and darkness. But if there's one thing I want to be sure of when I can fight no longer, it's that our grandchildren will grow up in a world free of hatred and violence. Muggle children, wizard children, children whose parents died before Lord Voldemort, children whose parents died for Lord Voldemort, they should all be able to join hands and stand tall, and be able to look out at the world and know that they are safe. If we can accomplish this, then there will be no such thing as the forces of darkness any longer."

Everybody cheered and clapped wildly, shouting and whistling as Dumbledore smiled gratefully, picked up his water glass and drank deeply. Harry found himself clapping so hard his hands hurt. When the applause finally died down, and it was at least a minute, Dumbledore put down his glass and turned to them all.

"Are there any questions?"

Harry put his hand up after a moment, glancing around nervously.

"Yes, Harry?"

"I was wondering," he said. "Why are the Heliopaths so dangerous?"

Dumbledore smiled weakly. "The Heliopaths are spirits of fire, Harry. They have no true bodies and so physically attacking them is likely to damage you far more than it will them. Nobody is quite sure how they can exist... with no body, there is surely no heart or brain, are therefore life itself seems impossible, though they do. The thing which conjures the greatest fear of Heliopaths is most probably how little we know about them. Where they live, how they live, speech capabilities, anything. What we do know is that they are immensely powerful. Being fire spirits, they of course control fire, conjure it, live in it and can exist only inside it. For this reason they are tremendously difficult to subdue or kill, and the fire must be quenched before the spirit can be tackled."

"Well.. wouldn't a hosepipe...?" Harry began, and the crowd chuckled.

"Yes, hosepipes have been found effective," said Dumbledore, thoughtfully. "Of course, it takes a lot of water to quench a fire so large, and the oxygen in the air around us feeds them to become more powerful. The Heliopaths are dangerous creatures, Harry, probably more deadly than any of us can imagine."

Harry nodded, sitting back, and Mrs Weasley spoke up. "Albus? The children are due to be at school tomorrow, they really need to go to bed..."

Dumbledore nodded. "Of course, Molly. I usually find that warm milk and chocolate biscuits speeds me into the Land of Nod, so they have my hearty recommendation. Goodnight, Harry, Ron, Ginny, Luna."

"Night," said Harry, smiling, as Mrs Weasley lead them all out into the corridor. Mr Weasley followed them out, pulling on his jacket.

"I'll take Luna home, shall I?"

"Yes, I think you should. Into bed, you three, and I don't want to hear a peep out of you until tomorrow morning. Are you all packed?"

Harry and Ron nodded. She kissed them all goodnight and shooed them into their rooms, Ron protesting, "Professor Dumbledore said we could have biscuits!"

"You can have biscuits tomorrow," she said. "Goodnight, dears. Sleep well."

Harry and Ron changed, then got into their beds and settled down under the covers. Ron yawned widely, and then said, "Harry?"

"Yeah?"

"Let's not tell Hermione about that new subject," he said, sleepily. "So she won't bore us both to death with wondering aloud about it all the way to Hogwarts tomorrow."

Harry smiled into his pillow. "Good idea. Night, Ron."

"Night, Harry." Ron reached out, gave a tug on the chain and the light went out with a chink. Harry was fast asleep within minutes, his dreams lingering on great balls of fire flying across Scotland to a mash potato Hogwarts, crashing plates, popcorn and Snape falling from the astronomy tower, Dumbledore standing above him and shaking his head with a murmured, "I warned you, Severus...", but when he woke up in the morning, he didn't remember a thing.

 

Chapter Nine: Malfoy

"Ron? Have you seen my socks?"

"No, have you seen my cloak?"

"I think I saw it last night near the door. Yeah, here it is. Now we've got to find my socks, I can't go to Hogwarts without my socks!"

"You've got loads of socks!"

"Yeah, but they're my favourites... oh, stop laughing!"

Harry grinned and beat Ron over the head with his pillow. Ron grabbed his own and ran after Harry, both of them were laughing and clouting each other with the pillows, until Mrs Weasley opened the door and stood frowning. "What on earth are you both doing? Come on, you've still got to have breakfast and get your trunks ready, and you're here fighting!"

"He won't give me my socks!" said Harry, laughing and beating Ron around the head while his back was turned.

Ron hit him back, "I don't have your socks!"

"Come on, stop fighting," Mrs Weasley chided gently, confiscating the pillows. "Harry, get some socks out of your trunk. Ron, you take your things down to the hall and don't wake Mrs Black."

Harry sat down on the end of his bed, opened his trunk and rooted around for some more socks as Ron started hauling trunks downstairs, banging around and muttering about unfair treatment. He only went quiet when he entered the Mrs Black Danger Zone. Mrs Weasley had managed to do something to the painting, some sort of complex muffling charm, which meant Mrs Black couldn't hear much outside a large chalked circle on the floor. Somebody had written, "MRS B ZONE, SHUT UP" in the middle, to remind Tonks, who kept forgetting and strolling through it singing loudly to the latest Weird Sisters hit.

"Harry!" Ron yelled, and he was quickly attacked by several loud hisses of, "SHHHH!". "Sorry, sorry... harry!" he called in a strangled whisper. "Harry! Harry, don't make me stand here all bloody day and croak up the stairs at you!"

Harry smiled, got off his bed and pattered out onto the landing, hopping as he tried to get another sock on. "What?"

"Where's Hedwig?"

"I don't know, she went out hunting last night," said Harry. "She knows we're going to Hogwarts though, we won't need to find her."

"Alright, throw the cage down as quietly as you can," said Ron. Harry retrieved it, made sure there were no owl droppings left at the bottom, and then held the cage over the banister. Ron stood underneath, stretched up, swatting at it vaguely.

"No, I can't reach it," he said. "Drop it, and gently, don't chuck it at me!"

"Alright, on three," said Harry. "One, two - "

"Ron! Come and get your toast!"

"What?"

There was a crash at the bird cage hit Ron on the top of the head and he swore as quietly as he possibly could, doubled over, rubbing his scalp vigorously and checking Mrs Black's portrait worriedly.

"Ron! Watch your language!" said Mrs Weasley in a loud whisper, coming up the stairs from the kitchen and picking up the cage. "And will you both stop throwing things up and down stairs? You're worse than Fred and George."

"I warned him," Harry said, grinning.

"You are in for such a beating the moment I find a decent-sized pillow, Harry Po-"

"Stop fighting, and get out of the Mrs Black zone, she'll wake up," said Mrs Weasley, frowning. "And Ginny's been ready for an hour at least."

"Ginny didn't have Harry moaning at her about his favourite socks," Ron grinned.

"I'm not going to Hogwarts without my best socks!" said Harry, pretending to be offended. "Those socks are very special to me, they're old and don't quite match properly, they're like my children!"

Ron and Harry both doubled up laughing. Mrs Weasley scowled. "Well, if you'd rather stand here and laugh at each other, fine with me, I don't think you really need breakfast."

"Alright, alright, we're coming," said Ron. "What is it? Toast?"

"Anything you want," his mother said, as the two boys followed her down to the kitchen and sat at the creaky table. Since the disastrous episode of making their own lunch, Mrs Weasley had chosen to just cook whatever they asked for, as though terrified that if she didn't they would take matters into their own hands again.

After breakfast of bacon and eggs, Harry and Ron both helped haul the rest of their trunks downstairs and sat on them by the front door, waiting with bored looks on their faces. Both of them were itching to get back to Hogwarts, and both were so lost in thought that it was a couple of minutes before either spoke.

"Harry," said Ron.

"Yes?"

"I wonder," Ron replied.

Harry glanced at him. "Wonder what?"

"About Hogwarts," said Ron. "It sounds like loads of stuff has changed. All those new defences. And Peeves had been trying to wreck the place all summer, I bet Gryffindor Tower's fallen down or something. Then there's that new subject we're doing. Wonder if we're going to have to take it at NEWT?"

When their OWL results came during the holidays, it had also included a form to fill in, and a short letter from Professor McGonagall about what they would need for their chosen career. Harry had filled his in straight away and sent it off, so he didn't lose it in all the mess of his room.

"Probably. What did you choose?" Harry asked, sitting back on his trunk, getting out a brightly coloured packet and offering Ron one.

Ron looked reproachful. "What are they?"

"Jelly beans," said Harry.

"Oh, Bertie Botts? What's with the new packet?"

"No, they're just ordinary," said Harry, as Ron took an orange one and looked at it closely.

"So there's no weird flavours?" Ron snorted, chewing the bean. "Where's the fun in that? Anyway. I've taken... ah... Defence Against The Dark Arts, Charms, History Of Magic, Transfiguration and Care Of Magical Creatures. What about you?"

"Defence Against The Dark Arts, Charms, Transfiguration, Care Of Magical Creatures, History Of Magic and Potions," said Harry.

Ron took on a revolted expression. "Potions? You're willingly carrying on with Potions?"

"I need it to become an auror," said Harry, shrugging. "What do you think this new subject's going to be?"

"It's probably going to be Curses or something," said Ron. He took another jelly bean and chewed it thoughtfully. "It must be important, something that'll help us against Voldemort. Maybe they're going to teach us to fight like muggles with those guns and stuff."

"No, I somehow don't think we'll be having Firearms lessons," Harry said, smiling. "Maybe it's like... stealth lessons. Teaching us how to sneak around undetected."

"That sounds alright," said Ron. He took another jelly bean. "Wonder what Hermione's taking."

Harry laughed. "I don't know, how many subjects are there?"

"I don't know," said Ron. "We'll just ask how many she's taking, and seeing as though she'll be doing all of them, I guess that'll be how many subjects there are."

"There's something else I've been wondering," said Harry.

"What's that?"

"How are we going to get to Kings Cross? Your dad hasn't got a car, has he? Are we walking?"

Ron snorted. "Carrying all of this? No, course we're not walking. Fred and George are going to drive us there." He checked the battered old watch on his wrist. "They should be here by now though. Maybe there's been another traffic jam. Muggle traffic is so slow, you wouldn't believe. They took me to Diagon Alley to get my new school things a few weeks ago, we were stuck behind a tractor for an hour. Fred had a nap. And he was driving."

Harry was about to do a Hermione and express how dangerous he thought this was, when there was a screech of brakes on the gravel path outside and a great yellow mass blossomed in the yard, shimmering in the frosted glass panes around the door. Harry opened the door. Fred and George sat in their luminous yellow car, wearing lurid green velvet suits today and matching black sunglasses that were more like visors.

"Morning, Harry," Fred grinned from the driver's seat. "Like the new suits?"

"Yeah, really... unique," said Harry, trying not to laugh.

Ron didn't mince his words quite as much. With a disgusted look, he said, "What ARE you wearing?"

The twins swept coolly out of the car, snapping off their sunglasses and tucking them into their top pockets. Their suits were now revealed to have rather large, floppy legs that looked like the trousers of people at circuses who walked on stilts.

"Watch this!" said George, grinning, and both of them tugged on two pieces of string hanging from the bottom of their jackets. The suits faded to a luminous pink, through to orange, and then back to lime green.

"Cool," said Harry, grinning. "How did you make it?"

"Charmswork," Fred replied. "That and some dye that cost quite a packet, let me tell you. Well, get your luggage in the back, and watch the leather, just had it cleaned."

Ron, Harry, Fred and George all heaved the heavy trunks into the boot of the car, magically expanded like a great cavern. Even then, Fred had to jump up and down on the boot to get it to close, leaving foot prints all over it. By the time they were all packed up, Mr and Mrs Weasley were standing hesitantly on the step. Mrs Weasley was dabbing her eyes with a tissue.

"And do drive carefully, boys," said Mr Weasley, putting an arm around his wife.

"We will," said Fred, swinging his legs into the car, and turning to Harry, Ron and Ginny. "Well? Say goodbye, it's going to be a year before you see them."

Mrs Weasley grabbed the three of them in a tight hug, smiling even though Harry could tell she hated to see them go. "Have a good year, all of you. And work hard." Mr Weasley crouched down to join in the hug, patted Harry on the back and said,

"And try to stay out of trouble."

Harry smiled. "I can't promise anything."

Mr Weasley looked worried, but seeing the playful expression on Harry's face, he chuckled. "Good boy. Go on, you don't want to be late."

Harry opened the bright yellow door of the car, slipped in alongside Ron and did up his seat belt. With a last call of goodbye, Fred started the car and pulled away through the scruffy estate, out into the roads beyond. Harry turned around to wave, but Mr and Mrs Weasley were already inside. He felt sad to see the house go, and he knew he'd miss listening in on the Order meetings, playing hide-and-seek in the many rooms of the old house, sitting up for hours and eating sweets with Ron. He sighed softly.

"Harry? You okay?" said George, turning round to look concerned at the solemn look on Harry's face.

"Yeah, I'm just going to miss it," said Harry sadly. "This has been the best holiday I've had in ages..."

"Hey, hey, no sulky faces in the car," said George. He smiled and cuffed Harry jovially on the shoulder. "Come on, don't be sad. You've got a lot to look forward to, huh? New subjects, more work, NEWTs coursework... you lucky thing." He grinned. "Fred and me missed ours. But hey, who needs NEWTs when we've got flashy suits and a car that scares small children?"

Harry, Ginny and Ron all laughed, and Harry, feeling a bit better, happily turned in his seat to watch London flashing past around them. People were already out and doing some early morning shopping, or strolling briskly down the road, briefcases swinging back and forth and smart hats pulled over their heads. A lot of muggles turned to stare as the lurid car zipped past, like a great meteor flying through the centre of London, and when they stopped for George to climb out of the car and go to buy some chewing gum from the muggle newspaper kiosk, a crowd of curious Londoners formed across the street, all whispering and giving the car disapproving looks. Harry quite liked all the attention, and so did Fred and George, who took every opportunity to cruise past any good looking girls, smirking.

They arrived at Kings Cross station with plenty of time to go, and after finding trolleys for all their luggage, Fred and George took Harry, Ginny and Ron to a cafe for something to eat. There were quite a few Hogwarts students already in there, and when Fred and George strolled in, quite a few people waved and called to them. A table of Gryffindor fifth year girls near the counter cheered. Fred winked at them cheekily, found a table and went to order. George sat back in the seat, took off his glasses and lapped up the attention. Ginny grinned.

"You're famous, you know," she said, proudly.

"Yeah, I know," said George, smirking, shrugging off his jacket to reveal a white t-shirt emblazoned with huge yellow letters reading 'Gorge George'.

"Nice t-shirt," Harry chuckled.

George grinned. "It's funny because it's true, right?"

"Oh, I don't know, you're not my type," Harry said, and Ron laughed loudly. Fred arrived with drinks and handed them out, sliding into the seat with George, removing his own jacket - 'Fab Fred'.

They sipped their drinks leisurely, whiling away the half an hour until the train was expected to arrive. Fred and George said they wished they could rejoin the school again, and Ginny said they'd be welcome, but George said with a sigh, "The wizarding world of pranksters needs us, Ginny, dearest." Finally, it was ten minutes to eleven, and Fred announced that the train would have pulled into Platform 9 3/4 by now, so with cheery goodbyes, Harry, Ginny and Ron wheeled their trolleys out into the station, through the magical barrier, and sure enough, the Hogwarts Express stood by the platform, its doors open for students to embark.

They found an empty compartment easily, and after getting their luggage into the overhead racks, they all sat back to await the rest of their friends. Luna was first, breezing in like an overgrown fairy, perching on the edge of her seat and getting out a copy of The Quibbler, starting to read and not speaking much. Next was Neville, with his pet cactus and his toad Trevor, and finally Hermione found her way into their carriage.

Ron's eyes widened at the sight of the four trolleys full of bags straining with books that she was dragging. "Hermione, how have you managed to get all that here?"

She smiled brightly. "Dad's new company car's got a lot of room in the boot, so it wasn't that hard really. Hiya Luna, how are you?"

Luna didn't look up from her upside-down copy of The Quibbler, emersed deeply in some new article. "I am well," she said, softly. "And how are you?"

"I'm fine. Oh, thanks Harry," she said, as Harry helped her carry the first trolley carefully into the compartment. "I hope that it's not going to be too hot today... all the muggle railways were going through turmoil over the summer, the tracks kept buckling in the heat and all the trains were delayed."

"That's muggle traffic for you," Ron grunted, struggling with a particularly heavy wickerwork basket, trying to heave whatever was in side up the steps. "Hermione, what on earth have you got in here that weighs so much?"

"Crookshanks," said Hermione, promptly.

"Oh, well, that explains it," Ron muttered darkly, dumping the basket in the corner of the compartment. "You didn't tell me you'd transfigured him into an elephant over the summer."

Hermione frowned. "Don't be so silly, Ron.

Just then, a magical voice resounded out down the train. "May I have your attention please, may I have your attention please. Passengers are requested to not leave their luggage on the train but take it with them to the castle. Any items left on the train will not be back for another year, so make sure you get everything. Also, luggage must not be levitated from the train to the school, as if anybody has an accident there are no professors to help along the way. Thankyou." The voice cut off.

Ron groaned. "I don't believe we have to haul all this lot up to the castle... it was bad enough getting it on the train in the first place."

Harry looked around at the bulging bags of books now crowding the compartment, and it had to admit, Ron had a point.


The train pulled into Hogsmeade station with a long note from the whistle and a screech of brakes, one long journey later, as late evening was descending on the little village. Steam bloomed up from the wheels as they ground to a halt and the doors along the train slid magically open. The students poured from the carriages, all chattering eagerly. Luggage and boxes and trunks and cages were unloaded gradually and the darkened platform was filled with the sound of many owls hotting and the constant babble of the people.

Harry hopped out of the compartment, looking up at the sky. Dark storm clouds were swirling in across the horizon.

"Come on," he said, as Ron jumped down and handed him Hedwig's cage. "Looks like it's going to rain."

They took their luggage carefully from the overhead storage racks, carried it out onto the platform and loaded it carefully into one of the thestral drawn carriages waiting just outside the station. Ron jumped in without a second thought, and Hermione made to follow him, but Harry had seen something odd further back along the line of awaiting carriages.

Draco Malfoy stood next to one of the thestrals, and he was stroknig its neck gently, watching its magnificent face... but it certainly wasn't the Draco Malfoy that Harry remembered from last year.

He appeared to have diminished greatly over the summer. He was usually slim, elegant and tall, but now he was dangerously thin and a great deal shorter than when Harry last saw him. Perhaps it was due to the lack of his designer black and silver clothes. Gone were the tailored trousers and satin shirts, replaced by a rather old grey jumper and scruffy jeans under school robes several inches too short. His hair, once so sleek, was greasy and splayed vaguely around his sagging shoulders. Even though he had been pale before, he now just looked weak, severly underfed and ill. Harry found himself alarmed by the forlorn expression in his weary grey eyes.

"Harry?" said Ron, curiously. "Come on, get in. What are you looking at?"

"Malfoy," said Harry, quietly. "Look at him..."

Ron leant out of the carraige window and cast a contemptuous eye over Malfoy's startling new appearance. "Oh, poor thing," he said, unconvincingly, and then raising his voice, he yelled down the line. "Oi! Malfoy!"

Malfoy looked up, his hand falling still on the thestral's neck. He stayed silent, as though he was too tired to even speak any more.

"Which muggle did you torture to death to be able to see that horse, eh?" Ron yelled, and a knot of Gryffindors nearby laughed loudly.

Hermione, however, was not impressed at all. "Ron!" she said. "Don't!"

"Why shouldn't I?" Ron said, turning on her. "The great bullying git deserves it!"

"Didn't you hear what happened to Malfoy over the summer?" she said, raising an eyebrow.

"No," Ron snapped.

Harry climbed into the carriage, slammed the door and it began to move away up the long path through Hogsmeade. "Why? What happened?" he asked, sitting opposite Ron and Hermione.

"It was all over the Daily Prophet," said Hermione, in hushed tones. "I can't believe you haven't heard about it..."

"Are you actually going to tell us, or just build up the excitement for a few more hours?" Ron asked, frowning.

"I'm getting there," Hermione snapped. "Well... you know that Lucius Malfoy went to Azkaban. Everybody expected him to get out pretty soon though. There wasn't enough evidence, and Fudge was quoted in the Prophet as saying that Lucius was only in there as a precaution. But then they found evidence against him, and he was tried before the Wizengamot. He got sentenced to life for consorting with the Dark Lord."

"So?" said Ron. "Deserved it, didn't he?"

"I'm not finished, Ron, let me talk," she said. "Fudge tried to get him a lighter sentence. He wouldn't believe the charges, and he said that Lucius was a good man with a family. So Dumbledore agreed Malfoy could have on day out a month to see Draco and Narcissa, as long as he co-operated. Lucius had given the ministry some useful information about Voldemort while he was being tried, and he was behaving so well they planned to move him to a lower security prison. Then he got his first day-out... and he never went back to Azkaban."

"He escaped?" said Harry, with wide eyes.

Hermione shook her head. "No. He was just at Malfoy Manor with Draco... they only managed to get the true story of what happened when Draco was given a massive dose of veritaserum... one of the Death Eaters that Malfoy gave information about managed to get into the house. Rookwood." She looked up at Harry. "Lucius was murdered right before Draco's eyes."

Harry's jaw fell. Hermione nodded, her eyebrows raised.

"That's not the worst yet," she said grimly. "After he was announced dead, Malfoy Manor was seized by the ministry. I know that in usual cases, it would have gone to Narcissa and Draco, but Lucius was a Death Eater and none of the ministry had any sympathy for his family, except Fudge, but the rest of the ministry over-ruled him. They dug up some old law that said they could choose to seize his property rather than pass it onto next of kin. All the manor and lands were taken, with all the contents too. Narcissa and Draco were turned out of their home and didn't get a penny. They spent the summer in a hidden location somewhere out of the country, and there's a rumour that Crabbe and Goyle have been moved to Durmstrang too... so Draco's not had much of a holiday..."

There was silence for a few moments after she finished, finally broken by Ron's snort.

"So Malfoy gets a taste of what his dad's been inflicting on the rest of the world for years. Big deal."

"Of course it's a big deal," said Hermione, frowning. "Draco's lost everything, Ron... his father, his house, his things, his friends..."

"Malfoy's not the only person to lose somebody," said Ron. "Look at Harry! He's lost his parents and his godfather, and they were good people. Lucius Malfoy was just a scumbag."

"Does that mean that it's right that Draco had his life ruined?" Hermione snapped. "Draco might not have been in with Voldemort at all, Ron, just because his father was."

"Oh right," Ron sneered.

"And what is that supposed to mean?" Hermione asked, coldly.

"Stop arguing," said Harry, frowning. "Why do you both always have to fight about everything?"

They fell silent, though Hermione was still scowling into her lap and Ron looked as though he wanted to keep arguing, playing with his fingers, a dark look on his face.

Harry folded his arms, sat back and said in a casual tone that suggested any more quarreling would not be tolerated. "It's sad that Malfoy's now poor and doesn't have a dad, but Lucius Malfoy got what he deserved. Nobody could feel sorry for him. Ron's right, Hermione, there have been loads of casualties so far, and Lucius Malfoy... well... he got what was coming to him. Even though it's sad about Draco," he added, seeing her angry expression. "And I'll probably never say this again but I feel sorry for him. There. Now just stopping fighting all the time."

Ron and Hermione nodded silently, and nobody spoke much at all for the remainder of the journey. As Harry clambered out of the carriage on the edge of the grounds, he couldn't help but notice that Malfoy had just a battered old suitcase for his belongings, and nobody was helping him get it down from the carriage's luggage rack.


"I don't believe how much books can weigh," Ron groaned five minutes later, as he and Harry helped haul the six carrier bags full of Hermione's books across the grounds to the castle.

"Me neither," Harry panted. His arms seemed to have stretched at least four inches in the last thirty seconds, straining under the weight of all the books. Suddenly, offering to help her carry some of them up to the castle hadn't seemed like such a good idea after all. "How many books do you need, Hermione? Mine all fit in a single bag."

"I'm taking more NEWT classes than you though, aren't ?" she said, promptly, strolling behind them with her suitcase, two more carrier bags and Crookshank's basket balanced on top of the suitcase. The ginger cat scampered after her, his bottlebrush tail in the air as he pranced quite smugly, pleased at not having to carry anything.

"Why?" Ron groaned, stumbling as one of the bag straps gave way. "You don't even know what you're going to do as a career yet!"

"Yes I do," she snapped.

"What then?"

"I'm going to be a professor."

"What of? Everything?"

"Don't be silly."

"Well, what?"

"I haven't decided."

"So you're just going to learn everything there is to learn?" Ron said, incredulously.

"Pretty much," she replied.

Ron goggled at her as she clipped smartly ahead of them, her hair swaying gently in the wind. "I don't know how she does it," he said more to himself than Harry, as they started to drag their luggage up the steps, grumbling every step of the way. Harry's arms were stretching almost down to the ground, aching with protest against the weight dragging them down. The thought that they'd now have to drag them up the marble staircase, all the way through the school, down six more staircases, along about twenty corridors and then all the way up Gryffindor Tower, was not comforting really.

Hermione heaved the doors apart and held them open for Harry and Ron to stagger in, gasping, and drop the bags to the floor with loud groans from both of them.

She giggled. "Honestly. Boys."

Ron glared at her from under the red hair sticking to his sweating brow, though said nothing, not trusting himself to speak.

"You can just leave the bags over there on that pile," she said, gesturing to a small mountain of luggage that had grown from nowhere in the middle of the hall. "Careful with them though, they're important."

Ron groaned, dragging the bags roughly across the floor and leaving them at the edge of the pile. "I've got a humped back now, Hermione," he groaned, massaging his arms.

Harry carefully positioned the bags at the foot of the mountain so that they wouldn't fall over, then straightened up and rubbed his lower back. He was about to head over to the Great Hall and find somewhere to sit down, when somebody emerged from behind the pile and nearly knocked him over as they ran. He jumped out of the way and caught a split second's view of a woman with long, feathery black hair and pale skin, dressed from head to foot in the darkest blue, before she rushed past him, her cloak sweeping along the floor. She looked to be in a great hurry, and Harry had the strangest feeling he'd seen her somewhere before, though he couldn't think where at all.

Next second, he realised why she'd been in a hurry as a face popped suddenly from around the edge of the pile with a loud shout of, "BOO!!!"

He jumped a foot in the air, stumbling backwards away from the luggage. Peeves the poltergeist grinned leeringly at him between two suitcases, squeezing out and laughing.

"Scared you, Potty?" he cackled, wickedly, floating up into the air and turning slowly upside down.

"No," Harry said, irritably, pulling his robes back in place.

Peeves chuckled. "Oooh, lies lies, Potty. You're getting as bad as Sneaky Snape, you are!" He laughed wickedly, and started to spin round and round in a circle as he sung in a childish voice, "Sneaky Snape, the first years he scares, clogs up the showers with his greasy black hairs! Ahahahaha!"

"Go away, Peeves," Harry said, trying to move past him into the hall. "Go bother somebody else."

"Ooooh, tough talk, Potty," Peeves cackled. "Should teach you a lesson, I should. Let's make it fun, shall we? If the Great Hall you wish to see, answer me these questions three!"

"No," Harry snapped. "Get out of my way."

Peeves bobbed up and down, laughing, his dark eyes full of wicked amusement, still refusing to move.

"I'll get the Baron," Harry warned, angrily. "I'm serious Peeves, let me past!"

Peeves shot forward, grabbed his head and ruffled his hair vigorously for a few seconds before he disappeared with a loud pop, his laughter still ringing the entrance hall. Harry stalked through the door, annoyed, sinking into a seat at the Gryffindor table with Ron, Hermione, Neville and Ginny.

"Where've you been?" said Ron, curiously.

"Peeves got me," said Harry, trying to sort out his hair. "You know, I don't think I'll feel sorry for him anymore. He's just an annoying - "

But at the staff table, Dumbledore was standing up and waving for quiet. Harry looked up at him, falling quiet, wanting to know what he was going to say for once. There was quite a lot to find out. The new subject, for one. Harry then noticed that there were two spare chairs at the staff table, one next to Snape, and one on Dumbledore's right hand side.

"Where's Professor Lupin?" said Ron, frowning, scanning the table.

Harry shrugged, "Don't know," as Dumbledore opened his mouth to start.

 

Chapter Ten: A Warm Welcome

"Welcome to Hogwarts," he said, smiling graciously, his arms held out as though blessing them all. "And may I add how nice it is to see you all happy and healthy, though a trifle windswept, perhaps. I hope you have all had a good summer, and have returned ready to learn.

"The first year students who are to be sorted shall be through in a few moments after Professor McGonagall has welcomed them properly to the school, but until then, I'm afraid I shall have to bore you all silly with a few start of term notices. Some I am no doubt you will be delighted by, and some that I know a lot of you would rather I not tell you about. One such thing is the most important, and I wish to be completely serious when I tell you this, so I implore you all to listen well.

"Lord Voldemort." A shiver spread through the school at this, and Dumbledore paused to let people settle once more, then continued. "You are all now fully aware of his return. To my knowledge, there have been five deaths in wizard kind - the latest only this summer."

Harry glanced across the hall at the Slytherin table. Malfoy sat apart from everyone else, huddled over the table with his shoulders up, as though terribly cold. Harry felt a shiver as he realised he could see every button on the other boy's spine through his cloak, such was the extent of his weight loss. A lot more people were turning to look at Malfoy too, but he made no sign to acknowledge he was aware of them watching him, and continued to trace a finger around the rim of his goblet, a weary, hollow look in his eyes.

Dumbledore coughed once to draw their attention away, and began to speak once more. "It would be foolish of me to tell you there shall be no more lives lost, for there will, and as much as some of you will not want to hear this, it could be any one of us sitting right now in this hall. Voldemort is very much alive, and as dangerous as he ever was.

"For this reason, new defences are being brought into Hogwarts. They have been rigorously tested, several times, and I think that now would be a good time to go through the safety drills with you all." He smiled, clapped his hands twice, stretched out his fingers, flicked his hands and then -

Everybody yelped and clapped their hands over their ears as the most horrible, high-pitched wailing noise filled the hall. Harry cringed as it continued, whining right inside his head, wavering up and down like the air-raid sirens of World War Two.

"THIS," Dumbledore bellowed over the noise, "IS THE SIREN WHICH WILL SOUND THE MOMENT ANY POSSIBLE DANGER BECOMES APPARENT. ALL TEACHERS AND PREFECTS CAN CONJURE THIS SOUND IN THE WAY I JUST DEMONSTRATED, BUT I MUST STRESS THAT IF ANYBODY ABUSES THIS POWER I WILL BE EXTREMELY ANGRY!"

The noise died, and everybody sighed with relief, rubbing their foreheads painfully.

"If you hear this noise, then try your best to get to your house common room," said Dumbledore. "If not, any professor's office or this hall will do - except if danger is in any of these places. Do not run into trouble if you can avoid it. Precisely thirty seconds after this noise has been initiated - "

BANG!

Everybody jumped and a few people screamed as massive iron gates slid down covering every single possible entrance to the hall. The doors, the windows, the stormy ceiling being pattered with rain overhead, holes in the walls, portraits, everything was barred with the heavy black iron poles. Dumbledore smiled. "That happens. Please, please do not linger in doorways after you hear the siren. I do not need to explain what will happen if you do." He clicked his fingers, and the metal gates slid back into whatever places they were hiding. Everybody was very on edge now, clearly wondering what dangerous "defences" Dumbledore would conjure next.

"Also," he said. "Panic buttons have been placed in every classroom, common room, office, dormitory, and at regular intervals down corridors. To activate one properly, it must be pressed three times. This, I hope, will stop any accidental setting-offs of the panic button. Pressing one of the buttons will initiate the siren and also alert every teacher to where you are and that you are in severe trouble. These buttons are to be used only in the most dire situations, where the castle is under attack and you need help very quickly."

Above them, a flash of lightning struck across the sky and filled the hall with a white flood for a moment. Everybody nodded silently, all wide-eyed and still worried about anything else he might spring on them.

"There are some other defences in place," he admitted. "Though I do not wish to reveal every single one of my secrets to you just yet. If the time arises when they must be used, you shall find out everything, though hopefully that day will never come.

"Moving onto slightly lighter notes, I am pleased to inform you that due to the removal of Dolores Umbridge from my school, all rules she made have been destroyed completely. I want to see as many people as possible reading The Quibbler, starting up clubs and enjoying yourselves. Speaking of afterschool activities, it has come to my attention that during last year, Mr Harry Potter took matters of Defence Against The Dark Arts into his own hands and started a secret organisation which quite some number of you were involved in." He smiled pleasantly at Harry over the top of his half-moon spectacles. "Harry has kindly agreed, with the help of various staff members, to carry on his good work. Dumbledore's Army is now every Friday after school and I hope to see as many of you there as possible."

Harry smiled back at Professor Dumbledore, even grinning around at a few people in the crowd watching him, before the headmaster started to talk again, drawing their attention.

"Also, I am sorry to tell you that our caretaker of several decades, Argus Filch, has left the school due to... ah... personal reasons."

Everybody burst into applause, and Dumbledore chuckled merrily.

"Now now, I'm sure the loss of Mr Filch isn't quite as much a call for celebration as that," he said, though he was smiling as much as everybody else. All the teachers were. Harry could swear there was even the slightest, tiniest upturn of the corners of Snape's lips. Dumbledore's eyes twinkled as the last few claps died out. "Thankyou. However, this does not mean that you are allowed to bring any banned objects into school. I do not wish to see any maces, or battle axes or longswords, thankyou very much.

"Onto the next notice... and I know that my waffling has gone out a bit today, I must apologise, but these things are important. As you all know, the age required to do magic has been lowered by a year. This means that students in the sixth and seventh year are allowed to perform sorcery out of school, though I must remind you not to overdo it and alert muggle attention other than your family, for those of you who are muggleborn. This has been done to give you all sufficient practice at magic in the real world, for practicing sorcery inside school is one thing, and performing out there for real is quite another." He smiled around at all of them, then said, "Next item I wish to draw to your attention... the Quidditch Cup this year has been cancelled."

Harry's face fell. Again? He had been looking forward to playing Quidditch all summer. He wasn't the only student who chorused, "Why?", up at Dumbledore.

"But," he said. "And there is a but. The cup has been cancelled BUT Quidditch will continue. A new system for Hogwarts Quidditch matches has been introduced, so please, do not throw any cutlery at me until I am completely finished.

"To strengthen alliance between the houses, I've decided that a Quidditch League will be in place. Teams are of the usual seven members, and matches are as normal, except that a team can consist of players from any house, mixed together, and there are an unlimited number of teams. The more teams we have, the more games, and I'm sure that everyone will want to join in the fun with their friends. If we get more than twenty teams, I will be delighted to organise a staff vs students game."

Ron's eyes lit up. "We have to get a team!" he said to Harry. "Absolutely have to! Imagine it, we could both play Beaters for once and chase Snape around the pitch!"

Harry smiled weakly, the butter fingers hex creeping into his head again. Snape seemed to have been reminded of this as well. He had looked away from Dumbledore and was pretending to study his goblet, though Harry could see the bitterness in his face.

Dumbledore called for quiet, and when everybody had settled down, he said, "Thankyou all for your enthusiasm and your attention throughout this old man's blathering, and I promise I shall never bore you like this again. In a few moments - "

The doors of the Great Hall opened at that moment, cutting him off in mid-sentence. The wind and rain roared outside, and another flash of lightning tore through the hall, illumitating two figures in the door way, before the doors slammed shut again, taking the howling wind with it. Two men stood before them in the torchlight.

One was Professor Lupin, looking rather bedraggled and dishevelled in a tattered grey cloak. He held his briefcase with the familiar peeling gold letters, and over all, he looked quite a state with his greying hair all over his face, windswept and ruffled.

But the man behind him...

"Who's that?" Parvati Patil whispered down the Gryffindor table, her eyes wide, seemingly transfixed.

A lot of people in the hall were whispering the same question, watching this new visitor with wonder in their faces.

At first he glance, he looked to have fallen right out of a story about the smooth, slick smugglers of olden times, sailing the high seas and burying treasure on desert islands somewhere on the horizon. He was young, less than thirty, and tall, strikingly so, well built, clothed in black riding trousers, a red wine coloured tunic and the black boots normally associated with pirates. Compared to Professor Lupin, he looked like the definition of attractive and sophisticated. Several of the girls were craning their necks to get a better look.

"Ah, gentlemen," Dumbledore said, with a gracious smile. "So glad you could join us."

Lupin brushed his hair out of his eyes. "Apologies, Headmaster... there was a problem with our carriage."

"That's quite alright, Remus. Please sit down, make yourself comfortable." Dumbledore smiled pleasantly as Lupin and this mystery man made their way up to the high table. Everybody was interested now. When he turned his back, his dark brown hair was revealed to be swept gently into a sleek ponytail, tied with a black ribbon. He looked completely untouched despite the raging storms that had turned Lupin pale and scruffy.

Lupin took the seat on Dumbledore's right, sinking into it as though he was about to faint. The other man sat graciously next to Professor Snape, who shot him a rather contemptuous sideways sneer.

"May I introduce our Defence Against The Dark Arts teacher, Professor Lupin," Dumbledore addressed the students, pulling their attention away from the other man. "Some of our older students will remember that he taught the subject here a few years ago, and it is my great pleasure to welcome him back with open arms."

Lupin gave a weak smile and murmur of thanks, and then Dumbledore leant forward to smile down the table at the new man.

"And some of you may be curious as to who our new guest is," he said to the school, who were watching attentively. He smiled. "This year at Hogwarts, a new subject shall be taught within these walls, one which I have no doubt will be of great use to you in further years. It is my pleasure to introduce our new Pure Arts teacher, Professor Alrister."

Professor Alrister smiled with the corner of his mouth, a very roguish, slick sort of smile. A lot of the girls sighed softly.

"You may well be wondering exactly what the Pure Arts are," said Dumbledore. "Indeed, I spent most of my life practising the subject without even knowing what it was called. Ah, Professor Alrister, would you care to explain to the students just what wonderful work you do?"

Alrister smiled again, and stood up gracefully, his palms resting flat on the table as he looked around at them all. Harry had the strangest feeling that Alrister was looking directly at him, then again, the rest of the hall seemed to think so too. The Gryffindor sixth year girls were all gazing at him as though they'd never seen a man before.

"Thankyou, Headmaster," he said, in a deep sort of voice, then addressing the hall, he smiled slightly again. "My subject is the Pure Arts, sometimes commonly known as raw magic - sorcery without a wand. Of course, a lot of you may presume that Pure Arts is merely charms but minus the wand, but my subject is far, far more complex than that. I presume you all had to test several wands before you found the right one?"

Everybody nodded, as though they were having a conversation one-on-one with the new professor. He smiled, and continued.

"That is because, as you know, the right person has to match the right wand. A falty wand, or one that does not like you, will not perform as well as your one, true match. Without the correct wand, the magical power inside you is not focused well enough to produce controlled magic. Often, an angry or upset wizard will perform violent, tempered bursts of magic even without a wand, because it is uncontrolled."

Harry knew exactly what the professor was talking about. Up until the age of eleven, when he'd started his education at Hogwarts, whenever he was distressed, he'd become a magnet for accidents. Indeed, just before his third year, he'd inflated his aunt marge after she drove him insane with her complaints about his parents.

"My job is to teach you how to control that unfocused magic," Professor Alrister continued, in his calm, level voice. "I have no doubt that with practice most of you here will be able to perform vital magic without your wands - of course, only when necessary. It takes many years of work to achieve the level where you can discard your wand. It will be a pleasure to teach you all, and if you're willing to try, we'll get on marvellously, I think."

Dumbledore smiled, and started to clap politely. The school burst into applause. Several of the seventh year Hufflepuff girls whistled. Professor Alrister smiled graciously and sat back in his chair. Through clapping mildly, Harry glanced at the other professors' reactions to this speech. Professor Snape was not amused, tracing a pale finger idly around the rim of his goblet as though in a particularly boring lesson. Professor Sprout, Madam Pomfrey and Madam Hooch were all clapping particularly hard and grinning at each other.

"Thankyou, Professor Alrister," said Dumbledore, nodding graciously. "Now, I believe - "

The siren suddenly went off and everybody screamed, ducking and grabbing their ears.

Dumbledore filled his lungs and bellowed, "AH, THAT MUST BE PROFESSOR MCGONAGALL SHOWING THE FIRST YEARS THE NEW SAFETY PRECAUTIONS!!!"

"TURN IT OFF, JUST LET THEM GET ABDUCTED BY DARK WIZARDS!" Ron yelled, though his voice was lost completely in the siren's wailing. "MY EARS ARE GOING TO EXPLODE!!!"

The horrible whining stopped, and everybody sighed, rubbing their heads again.

"Why does it have to hurt so much?" Ron groaned from next to Harry.

Harry was blinking, trying to get his vision to focus again, though across the table Hermione was still very blurry. She stared at him. "What?"

"The siren's just turned everything fuzzy, give it a minute," he said, going cross-eyed.

BANG!

The gates came down with a loud crash, and everybody screamed again. Snape jumped so much his goblet clattered to the floor, and he scooped it up, looking angry. Harry noticed that Lupin's face was turned towards Snape, and Snape shot him an absolutely vile look as he slammed the goblet back on the table.

Dumbledore snapped his fingers, grinding the gates back into place, smiling. "I believe that's quite enough of that, now, we have some new students who need to be Sorted and join our school." The door opened, and the first years all filed in, looking around nervously. Clearly, having iron gates zooming from the walls wasn't a good first impression of the school for them.

Professor McGonagall shook out her long roll of parchment, and read, "Astor, Kimberly!"

All the way through the Sorting, Ron sat next to Harry muttering darkly. Every now and then, Harry caught a phrase like, "I am so hungry..." or "oh, come on, just put them all in Hufflepuff!" or "now that's a Slytherin, just look at that ratty face". However, it seemed that Ron was the only one watching the Sorting at all apart from the professors. All the older students were grumbling to their neighbours about how hungry they were, and all the girls were watching Professor Alrister fixedly, even though he was just observing the Sorting. Harry couldn't help but catch the scathing looks Snape kept throwing at Alrister, the way he sat leaning as far away from the new teacher as possible, as though worried of developing some terrifying disease.

"Oh come on," Ron groaned, as the last student came forward and plonked the hat pleasantly on her head. "Hurry up." He put a hand over his mouth and muttered, in a low voice that fooled nobody, "Hufflepuff. Now let's eat."

Hermione gave him a reproving look as the hat announced, "Ravenclaw!", and the girl skipped off, the Ravenclaw table applauding her and welcoming her. Ron was cheering too.

"Yeah, great, she's a Ravenclaw, feed us!" he called.

Dumbledore heard him and chuckled. "Yes, as Mr Weasley says, I think it's about time to eat." He looked around at all of them with his twinkling eyes, lifted his hands and clapped twice. The dishes and plates and bowls up and down the long house tables all filled instantly with food, succulent meat, crisp vegetables and salads arranged in delicate patterns, great boats of rich gravy, trays of chips and chicken nuggets, hamburgers, buttered potatoes. It all looked marvellous.

Harry loaded up his plate hungrily, his stomach growling. Ron wasn't bothering with cutlery and was tucking into a large slice of gooey cheese pizza, his eyes closed, as though all his dreams had come true. "I needed that," he sighed.

Hermione delicately started to cut into her chicken, frowning as Ron wiped his fingers on the tablecloth. "Not one for manners today, are we?"

"I'm hungry, it's not my fault! Pass us one of those hamburgers, Harry."

Harry handed it over, absent-mindedly glancing up the table to where Professor Alrister sat. He was talking to Madam Pince, toying with a piece of pasta on the end of his fork, more interested in what she was saying. Madam Pince looked rather pink in the face and kept missing her soup with the spoon.

"What do you think of that new professor?" Harry asked, as he poured himself a goblet of pumpkin juice.

"He certainly looks good," said Hermione. She stammered, and said, "I mean, looks to be a good professor. Oh Ron, don't look at me like that, you know what I meant."

"What do you think, Harry?" said Ron through a mouthful of hamburger, grinning. "Lockhart two? Return of the good-looking prat?"

"I don't know," said Harry. "He seems to know his stuff."

"Oh, don't tell me you fancy him as well!" said Ron.

Hermione snapped, "I do NOT fancy him, Ron!"

Ron smirked. "I never said you did, Mione."

Hermione blushed and looked down into her chicken, though as she ate, Harry caught her sneaking glances at the dashing Professor Alrister every few moments. In a way, the professor's good looks and obvious charm did remind Harry of Professor Lockhart, though there was something else there. Something a little darker, wiser, humbler. Plus, the way he was talking to Madam Pince. All the female professors had hated Lockhart's guts. He was arrogant, cocky and big-headed, convinced he was God's gift to women, but Madam Pince was now blushing to the tips of her fingers and he was talking to her politely, letting her reply. And he looked interested in what she was stammering from behind her hands, oblivious to the fact she was ladling soup onto her plate for no reason.

Harry then spotted Snape, and never had he seen Snape looking so utterly bored. He had one hand supporting his head, gazing out into space with a hollow-cheeked expression as he picked vaguely at a bread roll. Harry noticed that there was no cutlery anywhere near Snape, and all the hot dishes were conveniently at the other end of the table. As much as he loathed Snape, he couldn't help but feel slightly sorry for him. After all, the rest of the teachers had steak, chips, fresh meat, noodles, pretty much everything the students had - and Snape had a bread roll. And even then, there was no butter on it because he didn't have a knife.

"Harry, will you stop staring at that new guy?" said Ron. "You're like Hermione, honestly."

Hermione choked on a piece of chicken. "Ron, will you stop being so childish?"

Harry chuckled into his food, quickly covering it by putting a chip in his mouth, so Hermione couldn't accuse him of laughing.

When their plates were all cleared, the platters and bowls up and down the tables refilled with dessert. Ice creams, trifles, eclairs, rice pudding, chocolates, sticky toffee pudding, pavalova, shortcake, spongecake, fruitcake, chocolate cake, fondant fancies, fairy cakes, sundaes, brandy snap... the list went on and on. The house elves had really outdone themselves this year. Harry eagerly helped himself to hot chocolate cake and ice cream, while Ron tucked in to pretty much everything. Hermione took a slice of apple tart and lathered it in whipped cream. She didn't even tell Ron off for slopping ice cream all down his front, and she joined in happily with the discussions about Pure Arts flitting up and down the table.

"I've heard that it can be quite dangerous stuff," said Lavender Brown, taking another spoonful of her cherry sundae. "I hope he knows what he's doing."

"I think he will," said Seamus. "What's the worst that could happen?"

Ron savaged a bite from his donut, licking all around his mouth to remove the sugar. "Somebody might blow something up or something. They'll probably have some sort of precaution though, I mean, he won't just let us loose and tell us to do magic, will he?"

"I hope not," said Hermione. "That would be very irrensponsible of him."

"Yeah, and also pointless," said Harry. "He's going to teach us how to control it, like he said."

"I dunno how you're supposed to control stuff like that," said Ron, shrugging vaguely. "It just comes naturally, doesn't it? And only when we're scared or angry or something... is he going to annoy us just so we can participate in class?"

"It's not necessarily bad emotions," said Hermione, promptly, spooning some tart into her mouth and then continuing. "It can be good memories. That's what makes the patronus work - it's raw magic, channeled into the wand and released."

"Who cares?" said Ron. "It's Learning How To Blow Stuff Up lessons, I bet you."

Harry smiled and helped himself to another curl of brandy snap, breaking it into bits and crunching a piece absent-mindedly. "As long as he doesn't give us too much homework."

"Yeah," said Ron, nodding vigorously, nearly splattering custard all over the tabletop. "I mean, especially for you, you're running the DA after school too. Hey, I've got my prefect duties. I can't be doing homework when there are first years to be helped, can I?"

"Every other prefect manages, Ron," said Hermione, frowning.

"I was joking," said Ron, a smile crossing his face. "Honestly, Hermione, couldn't you tell?"

"Excuse me?"

They all looked up. Professor Alrister stood nearby, smiling down at them all, his height even more impressive from this angle.

"Are you done with the cream? We've run out at the staff table," he said, in that deep voice.

Hermione went scarlet, and after a moment, she gabbled, "Yes, thankyou. I mean... yes... yes, we have... you can have it."

He smiled gratefully. "Thanks." Leaning forward, he picked the jug up by the handle. Ron raised his eyebrows at the black velvet hawking gloves that the new professor wore, emblazoned with a gold family crest on the back of the palm, but before any of them could register the crest properly, Alrister had taken the jug away to the staff table, his boots clinking on every step.

Hermione was still crimson in the face, apparently struck dumb. Lavender Brown was goggling at her as though she'd just been given the treat of a lifetime. "He talked to you," she whispered.

Ron snorted. "Big deal."

"How cool is he?" Lavender gushed, pretending not have heard Ron. "He's not like a teacher... did you hear the way he said 'thanks'? He sounds more like one of my big brother's friends... he is so cool..."

"He's just some good looking prat," said Ron, scowling. "A good looking prat who has now stolen our cream, I might add. Thanks so much Hermione."

"Haven't you had enough?" she said, raising an eyebrow. "You've had about half a plate of everything now. You'll be sick."

"No I won't," Ron said, doggedly, taking another shovel of plum pudding and turning round to steal the Hufflepuffs' cream.

"I warned him," she said, coolly, cutting out another slice of her apple tart. "And he can't say I didn't."

The plates were slowly cleaned, and by the time every last morsel was gone, it was very dark outside. Everyone was sleepy and full of food, and when Dumbledore announced that it was time for bed, the benches all creaked as the students stood up. Hermione shot up and said, "First years! First years over here!" Ron sighed and followed her dejectedly, dragging his feet, leaving Harry to make his way up to Gryffindor Tower alone.

Really, he was glad of the peace for a while, as he strolled leisurely across the entrance hall and up the great marble staircase. The various witches and wizards in the portraits waved merrily at the students they recognised, and greeted the first years, wishing them welcome to Hogwarts. Harry found himself walking behind a group of new Hufflepuffs, who were chattering happily about the day they expected tomorrow. Their prefect called at them to hurry up, and they rushed off, disappearing down a side passage, leaving Harry on his own. He wondered about the day tomorrow. NEWT classes were starting, and he knew they were different to his lessons of the past five years. Apparently, there were no set classes of Gryffindors, or just Hufflepuffs, but a mixture of all four houses. He hoped he wouldn't end up with a pack of Slytherins doing Potions, and he had the feeling that if he did, he'd forget being an auror and just join the ministry or something equally pointless.

When he got into Gryffindor Tower, Ron, Hermione and the other Gryffindor prefects were giving the welcoming talk to a knot of curious first years huddled by the fire. Harry smiled, leaning against one of the arm chairs to watch as Ron hiccuped his way through what to do if there was a fire. His various puddings were taking toll on him, and Harry couldn't help but laugh inwardly as he realised the first years didn't understand a word he was saying as he slurred vaguely about windows and water charms.

"Um... how do we do water charms?" one of the first years asked, tentatively.

Ron put a hand to his head and thought for a minute, clearly getting nowhere, then saying, "Look, just fetch an older student and tell them to do it for you."

Hermione frowned disapprovingly, and took out her wand. The first years all watched, spellbound, as she demonstrated how to do a water charm properly, and then set about teaching them. She would make a good professor, Harry thought, as she managed to show the first years their very first bits of magic. They all smiled gratefully, looking at her as though she was a grand sorceress, as she praised them all, pointed out the dormitories and sent them to bed.

Harry clapped from the back of the room. Hermione grinned. "Was that okay?"

"Great," he said, smiling. "Ron, you sound a bit drunk."

"Shurrup," said Ron, grinning bemusedly. "I'm full of sugar, I'm allowed to sound a bit drunk. Where've you been anyway? You missed the bit where I belched in the middle of the welcome speech."

"Hilarious," said Harry. He yawned widely, stretching. "I'm tired, and we've got lessons first thing tomorrow..."

"Hit the hay I think," said Ron. "Night, Hermione."

"Night," she said, disappearing up the girl's staircase.

Harry and Ron went up to their own dormitory. Neville, Seamus and Dean were already in there, sitting up in bed and debating the new defences. Harry smiled as he saw Ron shoot a nasty look at Dean, pulling the curtains around his bed to get changed.

"Hey, Harry?" Seamus called.

"What?" Harry called from inside the hangings of his four-poster.

"You're still running the DA, right?"

"Yeah," said Harry. "Why?"

"Just checking... and... is Professor Lupin helping?"

Harry pulled the hangings apart, just doing up the last button of his pajama jacket. "Of course."

"Great," said Seamus, smiling. "At least we're going to have proper Defence Against The Dark Arts this year. What do you think of that Alrister guy?"

"I don't know," Harry shrugged. "He's alright I suppose."

"No he's not," said Ron. "He's a prat. You just have to look at him. What's with all the pirate-style stuff?"

"I think he looks really cool," said Neville, enthusiastically. His face then fell as he continued, "I'm just not very good at producing any raw magic, except when I'm in real danger..."

"Hey, don't worry," said Dean. "Nobody can just do it straight off."

"But I'm really really rubbish at it," said Neville sadly. "I only managed to conjure any when my great uncle dropped me out of an upstairs window and I nearly died."

Harry got under the covers and laid down in bed, listening to them talk idly, closing his eyes. There was just something about the whole room that made him feel safe and sleepy. The last thing he thought before he drifted off to sleep was how glad he was to be back, then sleep settled over him like a blanket.

 

Chapter Eleven: A Warm Welcome

Dean's alarm clock went off the next morning at 8 AM sharp, jolting Harry harshly from his peaceful slumber. He groaned and pulled the covers tighter over his head, not wanting to get up just yet, but Ron and Neville (who were already up and dressed) threw socks at him until he got out of bed. He dressed vaguely, pulled on his robes and slumped down to breakfast with Ron, bleary-eyed and tired from the previous late night.

Hermione was already at the Gryffindor table, eating a slice of toast and jam, reading her new timetable. They sat down on either side of her, and Harry pulled a bowl of porridge wearily towards him as she handed them their own timetables with a pleasant, "Morning."

"Morning," said Harry. He glanced up and down the column for the day while adding sugar to his porridge. First thing was Defence Against The Dark Arts, followed by Charms, first break, Transfiguration, lunch, and then two hours of Pure Arts in the afternoon. It could be worse, he thought. It could be Potions.

"Hey," said Ron, frowning at his timetable. "How come you're doing two hours of Pure Arts and I've got an hour of Magical Creatures instead?"

Harry shrugged. "You took five hours of Magical Creatures a week, I only took three."

"Oh no," Hermione said, sadly, checking all three of their timetables. "I'm doing Runes instead of Pure Arts today... my first Pure Art lessons is on Wednesday."

Ron grinned. "Don't cry."

"I'm not crying," she snapped. "I'm just disappointed. Harry's the lucky one, he gets to do Pure Arts first before any of us."

"Yeah," said Ron. "Lucky you, I'm going to be chasing animals around the grounds while you're blowing stuff up and Hermione's staring at weird scribbles."

"Look at tomorrow morning though," said Harry, showing Ron his schedule. "You get to chase animals while I'm stuck in a dungeon with Snape for two hours."

Ron tried hard not to grin too much. "Hey, look! We've got three hours of Dark Arts on Friday, all of us!"

"No," said Hermione, smiling shyly. "One of mine is Pure Arts."

"Oooh, well, good for you," Ron said, sarcastically.

"On Wednesday all three of us are doing Pure Arts all afternoon," Harry said. "And Transfiguration between breaks. Hang on... oh no!"

"What is it?" said Ron.

"On Thursday I'm on my own in Potions," Harry groaned. "What am I going to do? Snape's going to make my life hell."

Ron shrugged. "Should have dropped it like me, shouldn't you? Still, me and Hermione are doing double History Of Magic then, so at least you're not going to die of boredom."

There was an increased in noise from the Hufflepuff girls as the doors behind the staff table opened, and Professor Alrister came in, looking resplendent in a copper-coloured tunic and dark brown trousers. His hands were missing their black velvet gloves of yesterday, replaced by scarlet fingerless ones with gold trim around the knuckles.

Ron snorted. "What does he think he looks like with those gloves on? Captain Hut?"

"That's Captain Hook," said Harry.

"Whatever," said Ron, vaguely, turning away and stabbing a sausage with his fork so viciously that it gave a soft bang as air was expelled from it. He didn't seem to be in a good mood anymore.

"Come on, cheer up," said Harry. "Dark Arts next, and Charms."

Ron huffed, jabbing at the sausage some more until it was little more than a mangled pile of meat strands on his plate. "I hate Mondays."

"Look on the bright side," said Harry. "No more Potions for you ever again. And we get to see what a prat Alrister is this afternoon." Really, Harry didn't think Alrister was as bad as Ron though, and thought he looked like quite a good teacher, but he didn't like seeing Ron so annoyed.

Ron smiled slightly. "I'm glad we're third cousins, you know."

"Once removed," Hermione's voice said from behind the massive volume on Runes that she was reading.

"We know," Harry and Ron both said at once, and they then grinned.

"Come on, let's go get our books," said Harry. "I'm not hungry anymore."

"Me neither," said Ron. "See you in Dark Arts, Mione. Don't drool all over you book if Alrister comes over to borrow the milk."

Hermione frowned but said nothing, turning her page with a contemptuous look on her face as Harry and Ron hurried back up to Gryffindor Tower, fetched their books and got down to the Defence Against The Dark Arts classroom with good time until the bell. They were the only ones in the corridor at all for a few minutes, and they stood chatting about nothing in particular, until another figure appeared in the corridor. Malfoy looked just as diminished as yesterday as he walked slowly down the corridor, looking at the floor, hands in his pockets, not even noticing Harry and Ron. He passed them and languished quite far from them, head still down, as though he didn't deserve to look at them.

Ron rolled his eyes to Harry. Harry smiled weakly as Ron muttered under his breath, "It's a good job Hermione isn't here or she'd be boring us both to death with her Malfoy The Trapped Soul speech again."

Harry nodded, though really, he thought Hermione did have a point. He wasn't going to say this in front of Ron though. Luckily, Professor Lupin came out of the classroom at that moment, spotted them and smiled, coming over. "Hello Harry, Ron. You're not busy, are you?"

"No, not at all," said Harry. "What are we doing today, Professor?"

"I could use some help setting it all up, actually," said Lupin. "Care to help?"

"Sure," said Harry, and Ron nodded. Lupin smiled and held the door open for them as they stepped into the classroom, but before he shut it, he spotted Malfoy and said, "Ah, Draco, you can help as well. Come on in." Malfoy didn't argue. Harry doubted whether he had the strength to do so. When the Slytherin stepped into the light of the Dark Arts classroom, Harry noticed that he did have something of value. There was a silver chain hanging loosely around his neck, with a pendant shaped like the club from a pack of cards, but before Harry could take a closer look, Malfoy saw him looking and clasped his fist around the locket, tucking it inside his robes, meeting Harry's stare with as much hatred as he could muster.

"Now then," said Professor Lupin, drawing Harry's attention away. "We're doing some work on curses today, so everybody will need -" He dragged a huge box out from under his desk "- one of these books -" He handed them a stack each to give out "- perhaps some parchment -" He placed a few rolls of parchment on top of each stack of books "- and chocolate, but I'll give that out at the end if anybody needs it. Thankyou, boys, just put a book and a roll of parchment in each place."

They got to work, handing the equipment out as instructed, while Professor Lupin copied some things from a book onto the board. When his chalk broke for the third time, he sighed, "It's times like this I wish I had Alrister's skills."

"Why?" Harry asked, curiously, unrolling a scroll of parchment and setting it down on a nearby desk.

Lupin smiled. "He can just snap his fingers and the chalk sets to work itself. Of course, there are charms that do that but I don't trust them anymore. The chalk writes what you're thinking at that precise moment, and unless you keep your thoughts clear then it can all go horribly wrong."

"So... Pure Arts is basically magic without a wand?" said Ron.

"No, no, it's much more complicated," said Lupin. "Actual spells aren't used, so he can't snap his fingers and perform a hex or a jinx, but wizards skilled in raw magic can do some wonderous things. Just using raw magical energy, I've seen a few things they can do... but it takes a lot of mental and emotional strength to be able to perform the Pure Arts well."

"My mum can cook using raw magic," said Ron, remembering something.

"Ah, yes, now that's now technically the Pure Arts," said Lupin, smiling. "Even though Molly's cooking is marvellous, I admit. That's something a little different. I'm sure that Alrister will explain it all to you later."

The class was now all lined up outside, peering through the glass interestedly to see what was going on. Lupin opened the door to let them in and they filed in quietly, taking desks and looking curiously at the books before them. Harry sat at the front of the class with Ron and Hermione, and when everybody was sitting down, Professor Lupin smiled around at them all. "Two years since I last saw you all," he said, pensively. "How has your Defence Against The Dark Arts been since then?"

"Terrible," said Ron, without a second thought.

Lupin chuckled. "Now, I'm sure it wasn't quite that bad."

"It was," said Harry.

Lavender Brown nodded vigorously. "Professor Moody - well, he wasn't actually Professor Moody, was he? But he terrified us, and Umbridge... well..."

"Yes, I heard about her," said Lupin, smiling, and there was a cruel look in his eyes that Harry hadn't seen there before. "I was also at school with her and she truly was hopeless at Defence Against The Dark Arts... I'm sorry you all had to endure her for a year."

Everybody was delighted at this, and they all sat up in their seats, watching Professor Lupin closely. Even some of the Slytherins were smiling. Pansy Parkinson was languished at the back of the room with her gang, not taking any notice of what Lupin said, and Malfoy was in a corner on his own. Harry was surprised he wasn't with Pansy.

"We're doing curse deflection today," said Lupin, picking up his register, "but first, the register. Lavender Brown?"

After the register, Lupin instructed them to scan through the first chapter and make notes on anything that looked important, and that this was going to be an overall test of their abilities, so to take this seriously. Hermione nearly filled her parchment with her neat, tiny handwriting, copying sentences straight from the book. Harry noted down a few common curses, wrote out some instructions on how to avoid them, and then sat back. Ron stole notes from both of them vaguely, taking anything that caught his eye. Fifteen minutes later, Lupin called for them to stop, collected in the books and moved all the desks to the walls, clearing a space in the middle of the classroom.

"Now, I hope you've done your notes well," he said. "I'm going to test how well by calling you each forward and attempting to curse you. If I can do it, you'll have homework, if not, five points to your house and no homework. Fair?"

They all nodded. Hermione looked quite disappointed at the prospect of no homework if she did well, and was clearly torn between wanting homework and wanting to pass. Ron and Harry grinned at each other as she murmured, "But... oh..." in a worried sort of way.

"Don't worry," Lupin continued. "These are all reversible curses that won't do anything particularly nasty to you, and all the counter-curses are right here in the book." He patted the textbook stack. "So, who wants to go first?"

Nobody volunteered, all a little worried about how well they'd prepared themselves, until a Slytherin boy stepped forward from the crowd. Harry knew him by sight, though had never spoken to him properly. Blaise Zabini had dark brown hair, clever hazel-coloured eyes, and he was rather short, but known for his lethally sharp tongue.

"I'll do it," he said.

Lupin nodded. "Very well, Blaise, stand over there by that desk please, and get ready... you have to avoid the curse in anyway you can. The only thing you cannot do is curse me back, as I would hit you with my own spell anyway. Just as a matter of curiosity, can anybody tell me the difference between a hex, a curse and a jinx?"

Hermione's hand shot into the air, and nobody was overly surprised by this.

"Hermione?"

"A hex changes something about the victim," she said, "in a bad way. A jinx gives them a handicap. Curses are the name given to any malicious spell which cannot be placed definitely in the hex or jinx category, or causes damage, like the unforgivable curses."

"Excellent, as always," said Lupin. "Five points to Gryffindor. Okay, Blaise, this is a curse coming at you, remember. Ready? On three. One, two, three!" He raised his wand, and cried, "Rictusempra!"

The bullet of light shot at Blaise, who swished his own wand upwards so that it ricochetted off at an angle and blew a hole in the ceiling. Everybody clapped, and Blaise acknowledged it with a vague nod of his head.

"Well done, Blaise, very good. That was a perfectly demonstrated block of a curse using the tip of the wand. Of course, some wizards find this method unreliable, as if the curse hits any part of the wand other than the tip, it will not be stopped." Lupin smiled around at them all. "Next?"


"Well, that was fun," said Hermione, as they left the room at the end of class.

Ron snorted, as he crammed his homework into his back. "Yeah, for you, Miss Fancy Deflecting Charm."

"You should have done better notes, shouldn't you?" said Hermione. She had, of course, got no homework at all and seemed rather pleased with herself. "And besides, it's only a short homework."

Ron nodded. "Yeah, I suppose so." He slid his timetable out of his bag, checking up and down the column. "Charms for me next. Same with you both?"

"Yeah," said Harry. "Wonder what we'll be doing."

"I hope we're starting some NEWT coursework," Hermione said, as though just the thought sent a shiver of excitement down her spine.

They all headed off towards Charms. A few people branched off, going the other way for other lessons, including Malfoy, who walked with his shoulders hunched at the back. Blaise Zabini called after him as he started to ascend the steps to the Astronomy Tower. "And make sure you're there at break, Malfoy, or we're not going to be happy!"

Pansy Parkinson grinned and stepped closer to Blaise, taking his arm and snuggling into his side. Hermione screwed her nose up and looked away as they swept passed.

"Honestly," she muttered.

"I thought Pansy was with Malfoy," said Harry, confused.

"Yeah, he wishes," said Pansy, loftily, as she and Blaise headed off towards Transfiguration, followed by all their Slytherin cronies.

Ron shrugged. "Then both Blaise and Malfoy haven't got any taste. Come on, or we'll be late for first classes."

"You sound like Hermione," Harry laughed.

"He does not," said Hermione, huffily.

"I do not," said Ron, in the same tone.

Harry laughed again, and the three of them hurried the rest of the way to Charms, just getting there in time.

Tiny old Professor Flitwick was sitting on his usual stack of cushions, smiling around at them all as Harry, Ron and Hermione found seats at a table with Neville. "Hi," he whispered, as they sat down.

"Hey," said Ron. "Has he said what we're doing today?"

"Something important," said Neville. "It sounds dangerous."

"Good enough for me," said Ron, taking out his wand and kicking his bag under the table.

Professor Flitwick took the register as Lupin had done, and when he was finished, he sat up on his pillows and smiled around happily. "It's nice to see you all again after the holidays, very nice... I hope you all had a nice break and are all ready to study hard this year!"

There was a generally unenthusiastic murmur throughout the class, and Flitwick chuckled.

"Good good. Now, for everybody who's just arrived, we're doing some conjuring today, so everybody get out your wands and loosen up your wrists. I want to see some hard work today for your first lesson." He smiled and took out his own wand, watching them all rolling their wrists out. "Good, that's it. Make sure you give them a proper stretch there, Weasley, not just flopping them around... yes, that's better, good good. Now, has anybody done any conjuring before?"

Hermione's hand rocketed into the air, though hers was the only one.

"Never mind," said Flitwick. "There's a first time for everything, so they say." He chuckled. "I'm going to see if anybody else can do conjuring without being given a lot of practice, just to have a look see... the thing with conjuring is to keep your thoughts clear and clean, that's the key thing. Clear and clean. You have to concentrate completely on what you want to conjure, then swish your wand like so -" He demonstrated a little swirling motion and a flick "- and imagine that object appearing before you. Are we ready? I want you to try and conjure me... hmm... apples. Everybody ready? Off we go then, at your own pace."

Harry practised the wand motion one last time, making sure he had it right, then close his eyes and thought. Clear and clean. Apples, apples, I want apples. Conjure apples. He opened his eyes, and still thinking as hard about apples as he could, he swirled his wand, flicked and -

There was a very painful sensation as something hard hit him on the head. "Ouch!"

"Oh, look everyone, Potter's done it! Oh, marvellous, marvellous," Flitwick squeaked eagerly. "It's a little big, mind you Potter, but for a first attempt that was good, very good."

Harry opened his eyes, still rubbing the back of his head. The largest apple he had ever seen was lying on the floor behind him. It was the size of a Quaffle, and could easily feed about fifty people, but it was an apple all the same. He smiled, picking it up and placing it carefully on the table, glad he'd found something magical he could do without trying.

"Everybody keep going, and shout if anything happens," Flitwick called, as he clambered down off his stack of cushions and hurried over to Harry. He could hardly see past the apple, it was so big. "Very good, Potter, very good indeed. Let's try that again, and try to concentrate now... ready? Go on."

Harry closed his eyes. Small apple. Small apple. I want a small apple. He went to move his wand, but Professor Flitwick said quickly,

"Open your eyes, Potter, never ever try to conjure something with your eyes shut! That's very important. You wouldn't believe some of the damage wizards have done to themselves by conjuring something which has nowhere to go. An apple in the brain is probably not a pleasant sensation."

Harry opened his eyes very quickly. "Yeah, you're probably right, Professor... shall I try again?"

"Yes please."

Apples. Apples. I want apples. Small apples. Not in my brain. He swirled his wand twice in the air, and gave a flick. There was a bang as an apple appeared from nowhere and bounced loudly off the table. Professor Flitwick applauded, beaming proudly at Harry.

"Good, good! I think you've got it, my boy, and only five minutes! Marvellous, this is marvellous... yes, I think we'll have ten points to Gryffindor for such good work. And how is everybody else doing?"

Hermione already had a fruitbasket worth of apples laid out in front of her, all delicately arranged in a neat pattern of red and green. Neville wasn't doing so well. Everytime he swirled and flicked his wand, something completely random appeared, and so the desk was scattered with fir cones and batteries and rocks and something that looked like one of the plastic moustache combs out of Christmas crackers. Ron wasn't having much luck either, and was simply conjuring slips of paper that read "apple" on them.

"Try to focus your minds more, boys," said Flitwick. "And keep your eyes open. I'm guessing that a moustache comb in the brain would possibly be nearly as bad as an apple, Mr Longbottom. In your own time then..."

Ron stared at a patch on the table, swished his wand and at a flick, there was a puff of smoke and another slip of paper fluttered down. He sighed.

"We'll try and sort that out in the minute, Mr Weasley. Alright, Longbottom, your turn. Think clearly now. Visualise an apple, and hang onto that image, don't let anything else enter your mind... ready? Go on then."

Neville closed his eyes for a moment, visualising an apple, and when he opened them, he looked determined to do it this time. He gave his wand a swish, a flick, and -

The table collapsed with a heart-stoppingly loud BANG as an apple the size of an armchair swelled from thin air and crashed down. They all scrambled out of the way, and the apple rolled over onto its side, snapping one of the chairs like it was made of matchsticks. Professor Flitwick blinked. "A little too big, I think, Mr Longbottom."

Neville blushed. "Sorry."

"Not to worry," said Flitwick. "A minor mishap... and I'm sure the house elves will enjoy restocking the fruit supplies after yesterday's feast. Potter, Weasley, could you help Longbottom levitate this to the kitchens please?"

Harry and Ron nodded, and all three of them pointed their wands at the massive apple. "Mobiliarbus," they all said, and it rose gracefully into the air.

"Alright, straight down the corridor and turn right," said Professor Flitwick. "Down the staircase, through the portrait, and... well, you know where to go from there. Off you go, and mind your don't knock anybody over on the way there."

"Alright, but we can't promise anything," said Ron. "Not with both Neville and an apple three times the size of Neville."

They squeezed it out through the door, having to hammer on it a few times to whack it through that last inch or so, and then trained it all the way down the corridor without any major problems, until suddenly, it wouldn't move anymore.

"What's wrong with it?" said Ron, frowning, flicking his wand at it vaguely.

"I think it's stuck on something," said Harry. "I can't see past it."

"We're going to have to hit it and hope whatever's in our way gives way," said Ron, stuffing his wand in his top pocket. "Ready?"

"Yep," said Neville.

The three of them raised their fists and started to beat as hard as they could on the massive apple. Every few moments, it slipped a few centimetres forward with a creaking noise. "Come on," Harry panted. "Harder." They all threw themselves at it, hammering as hard as they could, and with a noise like metal being twisted, the apple popped free and started to roll.

"Oh no!" Harry gasped. "Stairs! We've got to catch it!"

They sprinted after the apple rolling its way down the marble staircase at a surprisingly fast speed for something so big. "Hurry!" Neville panted, running two steps at a time, though it was no use. The apple bounced about ten stairs at a time until it launched into the entrance hall and crashed straight through the doors of the castle, rolling away across the grounds like a huge Quaffle.

Ron sat down on the bottom step to wipe his forehead, panting. "Well, this is great. It's our first day and we've already unleashed some mad giant apple into the grounds."

Harry sighed. "Yeah. I'll go and get it back to the school, you two go and tell Professor Flitwick, I'll be alright on my own."

"Are you sure, Harry?" said Neville.

"Yeah, I'm sure. Go on."

Neville and Ron hurried away up the staircase as Harry made his way across the entrance hall and out into the grounds. It was cold morning, and Harry found himself wishing he had his cloak to keep him warm. Still, levitating the apple should warm me up, he thought exhaustedly, jogging over to it and putting it quickly under another charm.

It took about twenty minutes to push the apple all the way back up to school, and he had just squashed it in through the doors as a voice came floating down from the dungeon corridors.

"Potter!"

Harry looked up to see Snape coming towards him, glaring suspiciously at the apple.

"What is that?"

"It's an apple, Professor."

"I can see it's an apple, Potter, what is it doing in the entrance hall? And why aren't you in class?" Snape snapped.

"Professor Flitwick told me to levitate it down to the kitchens," Harry panted, wiping the sweat off his forehead.

"So what was it doing outside?" said Snape, eyes narrowed.

"It got away," said Harry. "And rolled down the stairs."

Snape snorted. "A likely story. Five points from Gryffindor." He pointed his wand at the apple and muttered, "Reductio," shrinking it down to a normal size. "Now tell me what you were really doing."

"I already have!" said Harry, angrily. "It rolled down the stairs and outside, so I levitated it back up here."

"Wouldn't shrinking it have helped, perhaps, Potter?" Snape drawled, raising an eyebrow.

"Professor Flitwick told me to just take it down there like this," said Harry. He frowned. "You can go and ask him if you don't believe me."

Snape's eyes flared darkly. "Detention," he said. "And do not try to patronise me Potter. Get back to class and don't ever talk back to me again. I expect you in my office at end bell to arrange your detention." He handed the apple vaguely back to Harry. "Let it be a lesson to you."

And before Harry could argue anymore, Snape swept back down the dungeon corridor, his black robes billowing behind him as he walked. Harry felt his blood boiling. A detention? For talking back? He hadn't even done anything. Professor Flitwick had told him to take the apple to the kitchens, and still Snape unfairly punished him? Angrily, he threw the apple into a nearby bin and hurried back to Charms, in a very bad mood now.

As he sat back in his chair, Ron noticed the scowl on his face. "What's up with you?"

"Snape gave him detention," Harry spat. "For nothing. He didn't believe that I was moving the apple for Flitwick and so I told him to go ask him, and he just gave me detention 'and do not try to patronise me Potter'. I don't believe that guy."

"Go to McGonagall," Ron suggested, shrugging, absent-mindedly conjuring another bit of paper.

Harry sighed. "No, it won't do any good..." He scowled into the table and crumpled up a handful of Ron's paper, pretending it was Snape's vile face. "You're right. I hate Mondays too."

 

Chapter Twelve: Alrister's Magic

At eleven o' clock, the bell went for first break. Everybody filed out of the classroom, discussing the lesson and their day ahead.

"That wasn't so bad," said Ron. "Didn't get any more homework, at least. Still, it would have been nice if he'd told us to conjure sweets or something."

"They can't be," said Hermione. "Only food that's necessary for life can be conjured. Luxuries like sweets have to be bought. That's why there aren't any wizard supermarkets."

"Still, it'd be nice," said Ron. "Talking of sweets, I hope the next Hogsmeade weekend comes soon. Apparently Zonkos have started selling Weasley's Wizard Wheezes stuff, so we could buy some Skiving Snackboxes for Harry."

Harry smiled weakly. The detention was still on his mind.

"Hey, come on," said Ron. "Cheer up. It's just a detention, right? And it's not like detention with Umbridge. Yeah, Snape's a bit evil, but at least he's not going to cut stuff into your skin."

Harry wasn't overly comforted by this. As Ron and Hermione headed for Gryffindor Common Room, he turned in the opposite direction and went down another corridor.

"Harry? Where are you going?" Hermione called.

"Owlery," he shouted back. "I'm going to see Hedwig. I won't be long."

The corridors to the owlery were full of students walking along happily and chatting. A group of girls Harry passed had just had their first Pure Arts lesson, and they all looked very pink in the face and giggly.

"He's just so dreamy," one of them gushed. "And he's so good at what he teaches. You should see all the stuff he can do."

"I've only got him on Thursday," said another, sadly. "Apparently there's one class that have him for three hours solid."

They all sighed dreamily, and then giggled. Harry didn't stick around to hear any more of their girly chatting. Ever since Cho, he'd not had much patience with girls, especially the way they hung around in gangs and would never admit that their friends were wrong. Or how jealous they got. Hermione was the only girl he was friends with, because she was so matter-of-fact, and she was never really interested in boys. The only time he'd ever seen her being even remotely girly was one day last year when she was telling Ginny about her letters from Viktor Krum, and even then, she wasn't giggling at all.

As he started to ascend the cold spiral stone steps to the owlery, Harry was aware of how much he valued Hermione's sensibility as a friend. Ron was fun to hang around with, and he was great when there was something you wanted to be distracted from, but there was something about Hermione's no-nonsense attitude that had probably kept him sane for the last six years.

He was about to open the door to the main room, reaching into his bag to find owl treats, when he heard voices inside that made him stop.

"So," Blaise Zabini's voice drawled. "What is it you wanted to tell us?"

The voice that replied was Malfoy's. He sounded as though he was trying to be confident, but deep down, he was terrified. Harry could hear a note of panic in his voice that he'd only heard there once before, when they were going into the Forbidden Forest in their first year.

"You... you all heard what happened over the summer."

"Yeah, yeah," said Blaise, impatiently. "Hurry up with it."

"And the manor was..." Malfoy audibly swallowed. "Seized."

"Is there a point to this?" Blaise said, exasperatedly, and Harry heard laughing from inside. He picked out a few of the voices, and then realised that the whole Slytherin Quidditch team, or what was left of it, was in there.

"Yeah," Malfoy said, quietly. "Look... everything was taken. Everything."

"If you're fishing for sympathy, Malfoy - "

"No, I'm not," said Malfoy. "It's... the brooms... they were included in 'everything'. They've been taken."

There was silence for a few grim moments. Harry could well imagine the Slytherin's faces. Their broomsticks were all paid for by Malfoy's father, and in the opinion of most of the school, the only reason that Slytherin had been doing so well at Quidditch for four years. Without them, the team was nothing.

"You serious?" said Blaise, and he sounded very, very dangerous.

"I couldn't do anything about it," said Malfoy, nervously. "I tried, honestly, but I couldn't. Just try to understand that to my mother and I, the brooms weren't exactly highest priority. And we're still a good team, no matter what brooms we've got... right?"

Harry heard footsteps as Blaise advanced slowly on Malfoy. "No, Malfoy. What I don't understand is why the hell you just used the word 'we'. There is no 'we', when you're concerned with us."

"What are you saying?" said Malfoy, and he sounded frightened now, so much that Harry felt scared himself. "I'm... I'm - "

"Off the team," said Blaise, and he laughed, loud and cold. There was a swish and a crack, a cry from Malfoy and next second, the door of the owlery burst open. Malfoy flew into the air from the force of Blaise's spell, the door slammed and the Slytherin collided with Harry, knocking him backwards. Harry yelled with surprise, clawing wildly at the air, desperate not to fall. The steps were stone and it was a long way to the bottom. He felt his fingers connect with something and he grabbed it, hard, narrowly avoiding tumbling to his probable death. Malfoy stumbled against him and then seized the rail Harry was holding, shaking.

For one moment, Harry stared directly into Draco's face. The other boy stared back, and Harry could almost have sworn he saw a flicker of gratitude in those solemn grey eyes.

But next second, it was gone. Malfoy's face contorted in a snarl and he pushed roughly past Harry, hurrying down the steps out of sight, his second-hand cloak blowing behind him like bat wings. Harry noticed him grab the locket around his neck, as though it was a comfort toy, and then he was gone.

Harry tried to calm his heartbeat, which was still racing from the adrenaline of nearly falling. After a few moments, he carried on up the owlery steps and went into the main room, keeping his head down. The Slytherins all glared at him, though said nothing. Blaise beckoned to them, with a vague, "Come on. Let's go see if Malfoy cracked his head open at the bottom." They all laughed and followed him out, leaving Harry alone in the owlery, thinking about what he just heard. It sounded as though Malfoy was now out of favour.

He could see why, in a way. Malfoy's major claim to fame was that he had a rich father, and now that his father was gone, as well as Crabbe and Goyle, his cronies had deserted him for Blaise. Even Pansy, who had clung to him like a leech last year. It was amazing how shallow Slytherins were.

And Malfoy hadn't seemed grateful at all, when Harry had just practically saved his life. On second thoughts, Harry could see why Malfoy wouldn't want to suck up to him. He'd lost a lot of dignity, and apparently, Malfoy's hatred and superiority over him, Harry, was the only thing he had anymore - even though it looked as though he was losing that. Malfoy hadn't said a word to him at all this year, and there had been plenty of opportunities for the Slytherin to sneer something scathing.

Maybe he doesn't have the strength anymore, Harry thought to himself, as he looked around the owlery for Hedwig.

He found her eventually, nestled between an eagle owl he knew belonged to one of the Ravenclaws, and a hawk that Harry had never seen before. It was a rather magnificent little bird, quite young, with silky copper feathers and proud, haughty eyes that surveyed him with a great deal of disdain. However, it let him stroke it while absent-mindedly feeding Hedwig her owl treats. As he ran his fingers over its sleek neck and onto its wings, he came across a tiny tag, worn on a little ring through the tip of its wing.

He studied the tag, which was gold, in the shape of a heart, and found a name. "Cupid?" The hawk ruffled its feathers and gave a short trill from its beak. He smiled. "I wonder who your owner is... you're a nice hawk..."

Hedwig gave a disgruntled snort. "And you're a lovely owl as well," he said, smiling, holding out his arm for her to hop on. She rested herself proudly on his shoulder and nipped his ear fondly, as he gave her another owl treat. Cupid the hawk trilled at him again, and so when Hedwig was distracted with something outside, he slipped the little bird a treat as well.

Footsteps were heard coming up the owlery, and then the door opened. Ron came in, looking out of breath. "What happened?"

Harry looked around at him, surprised. "When?"

"With Malfoy," he said.

Harry frowned. "Nothing. Why?"

"He's just staggered across the entrance hall, limping as though he's had his leg hacked off with a rusty carving knife," said Ron. "Snape found him and asked why he was limping, and he said something about the owlery and Harry Potter before Snape dragged him off."

Harry's eyes widened. "I didn't do anything to him," he said. "Honestly."

"I know you didn't, you prat, what happened?" said Ron, stepping in. "And what's with the hawk?"

Harry realised that Cupid was now sitting on his forearm happily, nibbling at the button on his shirt cuff. "I dunno, it just likes me. But I was just up here, when I heard Malfoy talking to the Quidditch team, and he said that the brooms had been taken. And Blaise Zabini got a bit annoyed and knocked Malfoy out through the door. I caught him before he fell... I guess he must have twisted his ankle or something."

"Yeah, maybe," said Ron, vaguely. "Come on, we've got to get to Transfiguration. Don't want Hermione and McGonagall to both give us an earful about the important of first lesson."

Harry nodded, and headed towards the door. Ron raised an eyebrow. "Oh, yeah," said Harry, grinning, remembering the birds. He placed them gently back on their perches, and said, "I'll come back and say hi at lunch", then left the owlery with Ron, hurrying to Transfiguration.


Transfiguration snailed by. In fact, there was indeed a snail on the window that Harry sat by, and he was astonished at the speed it was going compared to the lesson. Professor McGonagall talked, and talked and talked and talked until Harry thought she could talk no more, but she did. She discussed their OWL results, the NEWT tests, careers, the year of Transfiguration they just did and the one they were starting, the importance of Transfiguration in the real world... twice, Harry nearly fell asleep and Ron elbowed him just before his head hit the desk. Over all, when the bell went at the end of McGonagall's speeches, they were all very pleased and rushed out before she could give them homework.

Lunch wasn't overly exciting either. According to Hermione, "it's seafood risotta. And it's very nice, Ron, stop pulling that face." It was a sort of seafood stew with rice, and a nasty, chalky sort of sauce that Harry didn't like at all. Ron turned his nose up at it at first, but he still ate a whole plateful, and then polished off a good few scoops of Harry's. "Hungry, are you?" Hermione asked, with a raised eyebrow. Ron nodded vaguely, with a mouthful of prawns.

After lunch, Hermione went off to her Runes class and Ron headed across the grounds to Magical Creatures, leaving Harry to make his way up the stairs to the Pure Arts classroom.

Lavender Brown and Seamus Finningan were already there. Lavender was checking her nails delicately, occasionally sending nasty looks across the corridor at Pansy Parkinson, who stood with Blaise Zabini, wrapped simperingly around his arm. Blaise seemed quite unperturbed about this, too busy talking to the knot of Slytherins around him. Even though he couldn't explain why, Harry felt a sudden stab of dislike, something he hadn't felt since Malfoy had last spoken to him.

"Hey, Harry!"

He looked up as somebody called his name from down the corridor. Ernie Macmillan, the Hufflepuff prefect, waved to him as he and a large group of other Hufflepuffs came up the far stairs.

"Hi," said Harry.

Ernie smiled to him. "Hey, I heard about you and Ron. Congratulations. What's the actual link? Cousins?"

"Third cousins," said Harry. He suddenly had a vision of Hermione standing outside Runes and getting an inexplicable urge to yell, "Once removed!"

"Cool," said Ernie. "Oh, by the way, what's happening with the DA this Friday?"

Harry shrugged. "Haven't really thought abut it much. I'm planning to go to the library and find some books to get ideas from, but I still haven't talked to Lupin about it yet."

"He's helping you with it, right?"

Harry nodded, and opened his mouth to say something else, but Blaise's voice interrupted them from across the corridor. "What a shame we have to endure these lessons with the Hufflepuffs. I was quite looking forward to it."

"You're not Malfoy, you know," Hannah Abbot sneered at him.

"You're right, I'm not," said Blaise, in a mockingly pleasant voice. "I've still got a father, and I'm not wearing jumpers that smell like somebody died in them." His murky brown eyes flashed. "Knowing Malfoy, somebody probably did."

"That's not fair," said Hannah, disgusted. "That's not even funny."

Blaise smiled lazily. "I think it's hilarious."

"You're the only one who does then, aren't you?" said Ernie, glaring at him.

"I thought it was funny," Pansy said, cuddling closer to Blaise's arm and batting her eyes at him. "It's not our fault Hufflepuffs don't have a sense of humour."

Blaise snickered, and then he glanced at the Slytherins surrounding him. "Have you all seen what he's wearing around his neck? It's a locket with a strand of his dear dad's hair in it. How much sadder can you get?"

"I dunno, but you managed it," said Ernie, scathingly.

Blaise raised an eyebrow. He brushed Pansy aside, and then took a step towards Ernie, but perhaps luckily, Professor Alrister appeared at the end of the corridor, strolling briskly towards them. He was holding a huge cardboard box in his arms, full of what Harry first thought were large black spiders, until he took a closer look and realised they were fingerless gloves, much like the ones worn by Alrister himself.

"Go on in," he said, holding the door open with his spare hand. "Eight to a table, and you won't need to get anything out. I'm starting you straight out with a practical."

Intrigued, the class all filed quietly into the room. Harry joined Lavender and Seamus at a table with Ernie, Hannah and Justin Finch-Fletchley, who greeted him with a friendly smile. The class looked rather sparse, spread out all around the room, but as Harry reminded himself, more would be joining them after an hour.

Alrister dropped the box of gloves on the front desk. "Right then..." he said, turning around and addressing them all. "Welcome to your first ever Pure Arts lesson. You should know me by now, if any of you have forgotten, I'm Professor Alrister and I'll be teaching you. First things first, how are you all?"

There was a general murmur of 'fine' as Alrister pulled the box over, sorting through the handfuls of gloves.

"Good... now, can you all catch?" he asked, looking up.

Everybody glanced at each other rather worriedly, as though it was some kind of trick question. He smiled at their nervous expressions.

"I suppose I'll just have to find out then, won't I?" he said, amused, snapping his fingers.

They all gasped as the gloves flew upwards and outwards from the box in a great black cloud, as though they were bats. They fluttered across the class, handing themselves out to each student and falling neatly in the spare seats. Everybody looked very impressed, and Alrister smiled again.

"That wasn't so hard now, was it?"

Harry found himself smiling, even though he couldn't remember switching his expression. Alrister tugged his own gloves down, and moved to the middle of the room to look around at them all, his dark brown hair gleaming in the candlelight. At this angle, the amber glow washed smoothly over his tanned, youthful face, highlighting his prominent cheekbones marvellously.

"In this class, you will find that I teach in a rather different way to your other professors," he said, curtly, looking around in turn at every face. "I do not believe in copying notes, or textbooks without lots of pictures, or homework at all. If I wanted you to do these things, my subject would be Pure Arts Theory, and believe me, there isn't much theory to it. What happens is, raw magic is released at times of great emotion and it makes things happen. Wands can channel this magic into spells, though the human body can master the skill of channeling it. Which reminds me. I do not believe in wands either. In a duel, if your wand is broken or lost and you have no other methods of defence, you are screwed, to be blunt."

Harry grinned. It was hard to imagine Professor McGonagall or Snape being casual enough to use the term 'screwed' and not sound deeply sarcastic.

"But if you concentrate," Alrister continued, "and practice the Pure Arts with my teaching and assistance, you could stay alive when you would have previously died. The Pure Arts is not an easy thing to grasp straightaway, and many peple never learn to control raw magic completely - you either have great skill in this subject, or you do not. But I don't reward natural skill and the ability to do things straight off. In my classroom, all I could ever ask is that you try your best and never let your frustration get the better of you. At times, it might be tempting to stamp your feet and scream and cry, but it won't do you any good. In many times in our life, violence is far from the best weapon. For example, just to prove a point, somebody curse me."

They all stared at him, wondering whether he just said what they thought he said. He smiled, chuckling.

"Well?"

"We... we couldn't curse a professor," said Justin Finch-Fletchley, sounding aghast at the very thought.

Alrister smiled sideways, his roguish smirk, the one that brought a glimmer to his soft chestnut-coloured eyes. "My Ravenclaw fourth years this morning couldn't wait to set their wands on the new guy. Come now. I'll have to pick somebody if I have no volunteers, and I'll pick the person who looks most like they don't want to do it."

Harry glanced around, and seeing nobody come forward, he raised his hand tentatively. "I'll do it."

Alrister's face curled in a gratious smile. "Thankyou. Your name, please?"

"Harry... Harry Potter."

"Ah, of course," said Alrister. His eyes raked Harry's hairline for a moment. "I did wonder. Anyway. Go ahead, Mr Potter, I'll stand right here for you. Curse me. Anything you like, though preferably a curse and not a hex or a jinx. As for charms, I think I've already got far too many for my own bloody good, so we'll avoid those, please."

Lavender giggled, and Seamus smirked next to her.

"Um... okay," said Harry. He took his wand from his bag, and toyed with it for a moment, wondering what to use. He knew he'd never ever forgive himself if he killed Alrister in his first lesson, and neither would 95% of the school's girls either. He decided, raised his wand and cried, "Tarantallegra!" A bullet of yellow light bloomed from the end of his wand, and rushed towards Alrister, heading straight for his chest -

But when it got about half a metre from him, there was a metallic chink and the air around Alrister shivered, a hazy shield flickering into place and absorbing the spell completely. The professor chuckled as everybody burst into applause.

"You see?" he said. "If you can do that, you have a better chance for survival. Interestingly, if you left you wand at home and somehow ended up trapped somewhere with no food, unsure how many days it would take to be found, what would you do? Most of you would starve." He smirked, snapped his fingers and a sandwich blossomed from nowhere, falling neatly into his outstretched hand. He took a bite, licked his lips and looked thoughtful for a moment. "Too much mayonnaise. But that's not the point - what matters is that the Pure Arts, along with your charmswork and so forth, can be a great help to you. And we're going to start straight off. Everybody put your gloves on, and make sure they're on properly." He took another bite from his sandwich and then placed it on his desk for later, sitting down and surveying them all with a smile.

Justin Finch-Fletchley looked quite excited. "I think I like this subject."

"Me too," said Ernie. "I wouldn't mind being able to just snap my fingers and make a sandwich. Could do with one now actually."

"You should have eaten your seafood stuff," said Justin. "It was delicious."

"Oh no, it was awful," said Seamus, wrinkling his nose. "All powdery and weird. Never tasted anything so weird in my life."

Justin shrugged. "I thought it was rather tasty."

"Are you all ready?" said Alrister, halting the conversation. "Yes? Good. Now, you may well be wondering just why I have you wearing these rather odd gloves. The answer is that as horrible as they may be, they help control magic just a little more, and they also prevent any nasty accidents for first time learners. With any luck, we could have some of you moving things a little or maybe getting some morphing by the end of the lesson, but of course, my expectations aren't high. This is a difficult subject."

He cleared his throat, leaning against the desk behind him and crossing his ankles, his thick boots thunking off the floor.

"First things first. Who can tell me the most obvious cause of raw magic being summoned?"

A few hands went up. Alrister glanced around, and then pointed to Hannah with a smile. "I'm sorry, but I don't know any names, so you'll have to tell me. Yes?"

"H-Hannah, Professor," she said, smiling shyly. "And raw magic is made from strong emotions."

"Thankyou, Hannah. That is indeed correct, raw magic is created from strong emotions and when enough is created it has to go somewhere. Normally in the form of magic. Of course, some wizards prefer swearing or hitting something, but really, that's no way to resolve things now, is it?"

Hannah giggled and blushed. He smiled corteously to her, then turned back to the class, snapping his fingers. With a faint pop, a balloon appeared, floating mid-air in the middle of the room.

"Now... for an advanced wizard such as I, popping this balloon is easy." He waved his hand loosely at it, and it burst with a loud bang that made them all jump. "See? And by the end of the year I know you'll all be able to do that, one way or another, whether to set it on fire or make it vanish. Whatever." He snapped his fingers and a new one appeared with another quiet pop. "We'll be doing a lot of work on balloons, because it's easy to see any effects on them. I also happen to like balloons." His eyes sparkled in a smile. "In your table groups, you'll all be given a balloon and set to practice. Watch for any effects while your table mates are trying their best to cause some kind of harm to it, but first. You need to know how to do it. This isn't psychokinesis, and you can't do anything to it just by screwing up your eyes and giving yourself a headache. What will cause an effect is raw magic. Have you all got good memories?"

They all nodded vaguely.

"Good, because you'll need them," he said. "What you need to do is remember a time of your life when you felt a strong emotion. It might be happiness, excitement, fear, sadness. Perhaps even at your young ages love." He smiled. "Though let's not have anybody getting carried away. Relying on love as an emotion is a tricky business. Believe me."

The girls all giggled and blushed.

"Whilst you're all practicing, I'll call you up one at a time to try and do something to this one here," he said, and with a few snaps of his fingers, balloons appearing in each of the groups. "And I don't want to see any cheaters getting out pins, because I'll know. And keep your gloves on - they'll help you summons more magic and control it better. Let's try not to have any fires, please."

They all huddled around in their groups, and Alrister started to call up a few of the Ravenclaws on the other side of the room to teach them properly. Justin Finch-Fletchley looked to be brimming over with excitement. "Gosh, this sounds fun. Who wants to go first?"

"You can, if you want," said Harry, grinning. "Have you ever done any raw magic before?"

Justin chuckled. "Not yet, but I'll have a shot." He put the balloon in the middle of the table, and everybody sat back to watch as he thought of something, dwelling on the thought and holding his hand out. He was still for a moment, and then a single yellow spark hopped from his index finger to his thumb with a slight zipping noise. He smiled. "Here goes nothing." He sat forward on his elbows, watching the balloon closely, holding his fingers towards it. He looked deep in thought, entranced in whatever his memory was, and as hard as he was concentrating, nothing much was happened. The balloon moved a little, as though being breathed on. He sighed. "Oh well. How frustrating."

"Yeah," said Ernie. "Here, I'll have a go, but nobody laugh if I get it wrong. I've got a habit of blowing things up when I'm annoyed."

Harry sat back to watch, but before Ernie could do anything, Professor Alrister's voice called from across the classroom. "Mr Potter? Could I have you next please?"

He nodded, stood up and crossed over to Alrister at the front of the room. The professor smiled. "No pressure now Harry. Just find your memory, concentrate on it for a while and then think hard about the balloon. Just imagine batting it or blowing on it to move it, and stay calm. Okay?"

"Okay," said Harry. He glanced up at the hovering green balloon in front of him, keeping his breathing slow, flexing his fingers and then holding them out. He fished around for a memory in his head, something that conjured strong emotions... the scene of Uncle Vernon standing on his front door step, dripping in paint, looking horrified came to mind and he couldn't help but let out a quiet laugh.

Alrister smiled. "Good boy. Go on then."

Harry faced the balloon again. It was almost the same shade as the SuperSplatterDecorator 2003 paint. He swallowed, stretched out his fingers and thought hard, about the look on Uncle Vernon's face and just reaching out, batting the balloon gently. He felt his eyes glazing over as he thought, harder and harder, but nothing would happen. He frowned, his fingers shaking, willing something to happen, anything. Uncle Vernon, the paint snowman, staring from the step, frozen with shock... bat the balloon... nothing.

"Have you ever done raw magic before?" asked Alrister, standing up, crossing over to him and turning his hand over to study his wrist for some reason.

Harry nodded. "Quite a few times... I turned my teacher's wig blue, and I flew once, and I set a boa constrictor on my cousin... and I inflated my aunt... and lots more stuff."

Alrister frowned. "Odd. Something's repressing it. I think you've got a block... has anything stressing happened to you today?"

"Yeah... quite a few things," said Harry. "But it's just regular stuff."

"Anything in particular?" asked Alrister, glancing up at him.

"I... I got a detention off Snape," said Harry, vaguely. "And I had to catch Draco Malfoy when he fell down the owlery steps."

Alrister frowned again. "Malfoy... now where have I heard that name before... well. It sounds as though you're too tense, Harry. You need to relax and clear out your system. Normally, emotions like anger, sadness, et cetera, are marvellous raw magic sources, but frustration can produce a blockage. Try to clear your head. It's just a detention, and there's no need to think about Draco Malfoy. He's fine."

Harry closed his eyes, the better to relax. He concentrated on his breathing, imagining all his frustration floating gently away, and Alrister nodded.

"That's it... now think of something relaxing. Something interested you've seen in the last few days, a fresh memory. Tell me about it. So don't make it too personal. I might be all for friendliness between students and teachers, but I don't want to delve too deep into your private life."

Harry thought, idly, his mind landing on the little hawk in the owlery with the glossy copper feathers. "At break... there was a hawk in the owlery. Sitting with my owl, she's called Hedwig... and it had a little tag through it's wing, it said - "

"Cupid?" said Alrister.

Harry opened his eyes, nodding. "Yeah... how did you - "

Alrister smiled. "That's my hawk, Harry. Marvellous, isn't he?"

"Yeah," said Harry, returning the smile.

"Oh, he's a wonder to fly," said Alrister. "I go hunting with him occasionally. Just watching him soar across the sky... it's nearly as good as being on a broom. Very nearly. Do you ever fly?"

Harry nodded, thinking of Quidditch, a smile crossing his face. "Yeah, I'm a Seeker. It's one of the things I'm good at, it's - " But he cut off, jumping suddenly as his fingers sparked and gave him a quick zap.

Alrister chuckled. "Marvellous. That's got your block cleared nicely I think. Ready for another try?"

Harry grinned. "Yeah, okay."

"Good boy," said Alrister. "Now, concentrate as much as you can on flying, and moving the balloon. I think we've got some potential with you here, Harry, real potential. Ready?"

As Harry nodded, raised his hand and let his eyes focus back on the balloon swaying gently in front of him, he couldn't help but smile, realising he'd changed his mind. Mondays weren't bad really.

 

Chapter Thirteen: Gryffindor Risotta and Cho's Reminder

By the time Ron and Neville arrived from Care Of Magical Creatures, Harry was able to have the balloon clearly swaying back and forth, and by the end of the lesson, Harry had managed to make the balloon spin very slowly and gently round in a circle. Ron wasn't overly impressed by the lesson, until Alrister called him up to practice, and when he came back, he was brimming with self-pride and looked a great deal happier. Apparently, he'd made the balloon blush, first time. When end bell went, everybody was sad to leave the classroom, quite wanting to stay, and the moment they left the room, Ron pulled out his now-battered timetable and scanned it eagerly.

"Wednesday next lesson. Wahey, it's a double! And you've got it too! That Alrister guy's alright, really, isn't he? Maybe he's not such a prat. You know, just... slightly pratty."

Harry nodded, grinning. He felt strangely energetic, as though he wanted to run outside and try to blow things up with his fingers. "I can't believe you thought he'd be like Lockhart."

Ron laughed. "Yeah, well. Everybody makes mistakes."

"Harry! Ron!"

Hermione was hurrying towards them from the Runes corridor, and when she reached them, she gabbled, "What was it like, what was it like?"

"Pretty cool," said Harry, grinning.

"We were trying to move these balloons, and I made it go red! First attempt!" Ron smiled, tilting his head back proudly, as though he'd single-handedly saved the world. "He says I'm obviously a hard-working student."

"Oh wow," she breathed, enviously, though she clearly didn't give two hoots about whatever Ron had managed to do to his balloon. "He sounds like such a good professor... I was talking to Padma Patil and she had him after first break... Come on, I'm starving, you can tell me all about it!"

"Oh, wait..." said Harry, realising with a disappointed flicker in his stomach. "I've got to go and arrange my detention with Snape... straight after end bell, he said."

Ron smiled weakly. "Oh well. Just make it quick and do what he says, then we'll see you in the Great Hall, okay?"

"Okay," said Harry.

Ron and Hermione headed off towards the hall, Ron talking animatedly about Pure Arts and Hermione asking awed questions every now and then. Harry went the other way, down the cold stone corridor to the dungeons, feeling his high spirits ebbing away. Snape would probably have him doing something horrible. He always did. Dejected, he paused in front of Snape's office and knocked three times on the heavy oak door.

"Enter," drawled Snape's voice lazily from inside.

Harry twisted the handle and stepped in, not looking up, "I'm here to arrange my dete-"

There was a flurry of movement, and Harry caught a flicker of silvery-blonde hair and green robes as a figure streaked out of the room and knocking the door with a clatter. He raised an eyebrow.

"Who was - "

"None of your business, Potter," Snape growled, though Harry spotted what was unmistakably Draco Malfoy's scruffy old bag on a chair in front of the desk. "Now, your detention," said Snape, wrenching Harry's attention back. "For talking back to a professor and spending un-necessary time out of lessons."

"It was necessary," Harry said, without thinking.

Snape looked up at him, his eyes narrowed. "I'm sorry, Potter, I almost thought you spoke back to me again there. I must have been mistaken. Even you wouldn't be that foolish now, would you?"

Harry didn't say anything.

"Good." Snape slid a diary from across his desk, with a black velvet cover and the Slytherin snake emblazoned across it. He flicked idly through the pages, the tip of his quill tracing over the various entries. "My week is already fully book with detentions to stupid pupils like you, causing trouble on their first day... ah, yes, Friday. That should do nicely." He let go of his quill, and it remained standing, ready to write. "Harry Potter, detention, Friday."

The book gave a loud noise like somebody passing gas. Harry stared. So did Snape.

"I said Harry Potter, detention, Friday!" he commanded again.

Another rude noise came from the pages. Harry wondered whether Snape's luck was now so bad that even his quill was disobeying him, but next second, the book started to speak, in what was unmistakably Albus Dumbledore's voice.

"I'm sorry, but under the order of the headmaster, Harry Potter is not to have any detentions set on Friday. This is because he needs to run the DA, which has higher priority than punishment in my opinion. Please choose another day."

Snape sneered as the voice faded away, grabbed the quill and flicked the page over, jabbing it in the Saturday box. "Harry Potter, detention, Saturday, nine PM!" It scribbled it in obediently and then fell still. Snape snatched it up, shut the book and glared up at Harry. "Well? What are you still here for?"

Harry nodded and turned to go, but as he did, Snape remembered something.

"Oh, one moment Potter... Draco, get back in here."

Harry stopped and glancd over his shoulder, watching as the door creaked open. A very worried looking Malfoy slid into the room, hovering nervously behind his professor, hand curled around his pendant. Harry wondered whether Blaise had been telling the truth, and if it did contain one of Lucius Malfoy's hairs.

Snape sat back in his chair, lazily, glancing from one to the other. "Sit."

Harry sat reluctantly next to Malfoy in the chairs in front of Snape's desk, acting as though he didn't know the Slytherin was there at all.

"Blaise Zabini, Potter." Snape studied him closely, looking for any reaction. "Tell me."

Harry looked back into those cold black eyes, suddenly wishing he could do an Alrister and make Snape explode, then run. "You mean... what happened in the owlery..."

Snape frowned. "No, Potter, I mean a completely different event which has nothing to do with Malfoy, or you, and happened several years ago." The sarcasm in his voice was nearly painful. "Use your brain. Of course I mean what happened in the owlery." He sat forward, placing his hands together, glancing between them over steepled fingers. "Malfoy says you were a possible witness."

"Possible," Malfoy mumbled.

Harry nodded, numbly. "I heard what happened. But I only heard, I didn't actually see - "

"What did you hear?" Snape said, lazily.

"I... I was going up to the owlery, and I heard Blaise Zabini and some other Slytherins up there. Malfoy - I mean, Draco - was telling them that... that the brooms had been seized. And so they had nothing to fly on. Blaise said that Draco was off the team, then there was a crack and M- and Draco fell out of the door, he nearly went down the stairs but I caught him."

"And then...?"

"Then he went off down the stairs," said Harry. "And I went to the owlery. Oh, Blaise and the old Slytherin Quidditch team was there. Blaise laughed and said they should go and check whether Malfoy had cracked his head open at the bottom."

Snape nodded, apparently satisfied with this version of events, drawing out a piece of paper from a drawer. "Then I shall speak to Zabini. Potter, you can go. Malfoy, you're staying here," he added, as Malfoy stood up to leave as well.

"Can't I...?"

"No. Sit down."

Malfoy sat reluctantly down before his Head of House, looking at his hands, as Harry slipped out of the room, feeling rather numb. That wasn't the Draco Malfoy he remembered at all. Then again, Harry reminded himself, seeing your father murdered and then being force-fed veritaserum and made to live it all again... that probably changed a person. The thought of Neville then came to Harry's head. Had he been a happy, energetic, high-spirited child before his parents were tortured to insanity?

As Harry walked silently towards the Great Hall, he was suddenly struck by just how many lives Voldemort had ruined. He wasn't the only lone suffering-hero. Malfoy, Neville... there were probably hundreds of children out there without fathers or mothers because of the Death Eaters. So many once-happy families, now empty, with only shadows left. He could imagine Malfoy sitting in some dark, hidden place with his mother, nothing left at all but the pendant around his neck and the memories of his father. Yes, Lucius Malfoy had been evil. Any supporter of the Dark Lord was. But it was Draco who was paying the ultimate price for his father's actions.

Dinner was chicken and chips, one of Harry's favourite meals. He sunk down between Ron and Hermione, loading up his plate, turning to Ron to tell him what had just happened, though to his surprise, he saw Ron frowning at his plate, toying idly with a single chip.

"What's up?" Harry asked.

"Dunno," said Ron. "I just feel weird. Don't want to eat."

"You shouldn't have had all those puddings yesterday then, should you?" said Hermione. "I told you so. You've only got yourself to blame."

"No, it's weird..." said Ron. "My stomach hurts and I feel really... really weird. I don't think I can eat this." He pushed his plate away, looking rather green and sickly.

"Maybe you should go and lie down," said Harry, worriedly.

"Yeah," said Ron. "Yeah, I will... see you later."

He left the hall, swaying slightly as he walked.

Hermione sighed, shaking her head. "I warned him. I really did."

But it didn't look as though Ron's love of sugar was to blame. Up and down the Gryffindor table, more people were looking a bit peaky. Seamus Finnigan was very green indeed, and Lavender was rubbing his arm nervously.

"Hey, Seamus, are you okay?" said Harry.

Seamus shook his head vaguely, his eyes unfocused on a point before him. "I don't feel so good..."

Hermione got up out of her seat as Seamus wretched, closing his eyes, and she hurried back a few moments later with Professor McGonagall in tow.

"What is it, Finnigan?" she said.

Seamus swayed dangerously. "I feel sick..."

"Mmm, you look it. Miss Brown, Mr Thomas, get him to the hospital wing, and be careful," said McGonagall. "Does anybody else feel ill?"

"Ron went up to Gryffindor Tower a few minutes ago," said Harry. "Shall I go and look for him?"

"Yes, I think you should, Potter." Professor McGonagall looked over her shoulder. "Odd. None of the other houses look ill."

"Maybe it's our food," said Hermione at her elbow.

McGonagall picked up one of the chips from the plate in the middle, studying. "No, I don't think there's anything wrong with it. What did you all have for lunch?"

"Seafood risotta," said Hermione. "Do you think it could be that, Professor?"

"More than likely... seafood is notoriously bad for causing food poisoning in muggles. I think it's just a bug." She raised her voice and called down the table. "Anybody who feels ill, please follow Miss Granger to the hospital wing. I'm sure Madam Pomfrey can sort this out."


Madam Pomfrey, it turned out, couldn't sort it out. She handed out food poisoning medicine, but the Gryffindors were still ill. Ron and Seamus were the worst. By the time the next morning came, Ron was weak and shaking, pale in the face and clammy to the touch. He couldn't even get out of bed, and so Harry and Neville both ran down the corridor to the nearest professor's office in their pajamas. Flitwick called Madam Pomfrey, and Ron was levitated to the hospital wing, watched by a worried crowd of Gryffindors. None of the other houses seemed to be affected at all, though the state of Gryffindor's health slowly got worse and worse. Over the week, more and more people were admitted to the hospital wing.

By the time Friday came, the Gryffindor Common Room was looking very thin indeed. Harry was quite disappointed, as a lot of the house had said they were coming to DA that night, but it looked as though he would be one of a small number. The last lesson of the day for him was History Of Magic, which ended at three o' clock. DA started at six o' clock, after dinner, and so Harry decided to go and visit Lupin and finalise what they were planning to teach tonight.

The Dark Arts professor was huddled over a huge glass tank when Harry slipped into the office, and he appeared to be dangling tiny pieces of meat into the cage.

"You got it!" said Harry, hurrying over.

Lupin smiled up at him. "I did. The ministry wasn't happy about bending the import laws, I'll admit, but Dumbledore beat them down. He said that the students needed to learn."

"What breed is it?" Harry asked, awestruck, gazing down into the tank.

Lupin chuckled at the eagerness in his voice. "A Common Welsh Green." The little baby dragon in the tank gave a hiccup and a small jet of flame shot out of its nose, scorching one of the nearby shrubs Lupin had planted in its habitat. "Just young at the moment. Dangerous enough to amuse the boys, cute enough to enthrall the girls. The perfect subject."

Harry grinned. "Can I feed it?"

"Of course you can. You're going to be feeding it tonight, you might as well get some practice now." Lupin handed him the box of meat scraps. "Just one at a time, dangle it over the cage and he'll jump for them."

"Is it a he?" asked Harry, absent-mindedly taking a chunk of meat and hanging it into the tank.

"I didn't think it wise to check," Lupin mused.

The door suddenly opened behind them, and Hagrid's huge hairy form hurried into the room. "I've got yeh s'more chickens, Professor Lupin. How is he?"

"He's fine, Hagrid," said Lupin, smiling, taking the sack from Hagrid. "Come and have a look."

"Well... shouldn't really... got lots ter do, gotta clean m'hut and everythin'... but if yeh insist."

Harry grinned and shifted up for Hagrid to shuffle forward and peer into the tank. A smile creased his face underneath his beard.

"Byootiful," he said, with glossy eyes. "Reminds me o' Norbert... bless 'im... have yeh got a name for 'im yet, Harry?"

"A name?" said Harry, blinking. "Why? Are we keeping him?"

Lupin smiled. "Professor Dumbledore thinks that a dragon would be a good addition to the school defences," he said, pleasantly. "So this is our new guard dragon, and yes, he needs a name. We can't just call him Dragon, now, can we?"

Harry shook his head, grinning. "So what are we going to call him?"

"Well, you and the rest of the DA will be looking after him, with Hagrid and I's supervision." Lupin fed the little green dragon another chunk of chicken, watching it snap at the soft meat hungrily. "Hungry little fellow, isn't he?"

"How abou' Munchy?" Hagrid suggested.

Harry looked at the baby dragon, savaging the next piece of meat and growling softly, making a noise a little like a kitten on a ball of string. "No, he doesn't look like a Munchy. He's a bit like a cat, really... Mrs Figg has loads of cats. He's like some of them... well, the ones who aren't mad..."

"Yes, Arabella is fond of her felines," said Lupin, nodded knowledgably. He tossed the dragon another strip of meat. "Of course, he's not going to be cute for much longer. Common Welsh Greens can grow to huge sizes. I daresay he'll outgrow even the dungeons in a year or so."

"Kibbles," said Hagrid.

Harry looked down at the dragon. It had a piece of meat in its mouth, and was flinging its head from side to side, mewling and snarling. He smiled. "I like Kibbles. Kibbles the Common Welsh Green."

"Then Kibbles it is," said Lupin. "I must admit, something a little more fierce would strike fear more effectively into the hearts of the Dark Lord's minions, but Kibbles will do."

Harry grinned and tossed Kibbles a few more pieces of meat, watching him spin around happily, snapping at them all and mewing pleasantly. "Should be fun to look after you... so long as you don't eat me," he added, smiling.


"How many people have come?" Hermione said in an awed voice, gazing out through a gap in the door. She, Harry and Lupin were just putting the last finishing touches to tonight's meeting, though really, Harry was starting to think it was more like a show. The Great Hall was absolutely packed with people, all talking excitedly, waiting for the evening to start.

"I'd just leave it at a lot, if I were you," said Lupin, wisely. "There's no need to get nervous."

Harry glanced through the door, thinking that having half the school staring at you and expecting to learn was defiinitely a reason to get nervous. "Hermione, how can you want to be a professor? You'd have to do this everyday of your life."

Hermione tidied her hair neatly as she spoke. "Classes are a lot smaller than this, and students aren't in class by their own accord. They have to learn. But people here can leave if they want, so there's more pressure here."

Lupin chuckled. "You've never had to teach last thing on a Friday. Then you'll understand the meaning of pressure, Hermione." He glanced out through the door, checked everything was in order and then stepped back. "Well, Harry. Off you go. I'll just stay in the background and assist if you need it."

For a moment, Harry was tempted to fake stomach pains and fall over with the mysterious Gryffindor Risotta bug, but he didn't think Professor Lupin would believe that for one minute. Pulling the door open, he wheeled out the trolley with Kibbles balanced on top in his tank. Hermione walked at his shoulder, looking rather nervous, though once Harry had cut a path through the people to the single house table left out as a stage, it wasn't so bad. He took a quick glance at the crowd, checking for people who didn't like him, but he couldn't see anybody. He smiled, encouraged, and he and Hermione levitated Kibbles's tanks onto the stage carefully. The little dragon was asleep in the burrow he'd dug himself at one end of his cage, and so there was a great murmur of interest as to what was in there.

Harry stood up on the table, looking out nervously across all the faces turned towards him. "Uh... hi," he said. "Well... thanks for coming. It's a shame we're kinda missing some people because of Gryffindor Risotta, but anyway... I thought that with doing curses and so forth in Defence Against The Dark Arts, I'd do some dark creatures, so... here goes..."

He took a handful of meat from the pouch tied to his waist, and scattered it loosely about the cage. Everybody gasped and with an eager squeak, Kibbles came pattering out from his burrow and lolloped across the tank, snapping at the meat Harry dropped. The crowd all surged forward for a better look, and Harry found himself smiling and remembering why he'd started to teach DA in the first place.

"What sort is it?" asked a second-year behind Harry.

"It's a Common Welsh Green," he replied, crouching down so people could get a better look. He had a sudden urge to put his arm around the second year and point out all the fascinating features of the dragon and their uses.

Hermione hadn't been able to fight that urge, and was surrounded by a knot of first years who were absolutely ecstatic with excitement at the baby dragon. She was going through what makes a dragon most dangerous, and her little fan club was almost trembling with each word she said. Harry grinned. She caught him watching and grinned back. For a moment, Harry had a fleeting glimpse of the future, seeing Hermione as a professor, teaching whatever she wanted, and he had to admit, the thought suited her quite well.

"What do they eat?" asked a voice behind Harry.

He scooped out a handful of meat and held it out, showing the people nearby. "It's mostly chicken, but they like ham and other meat too." He tossed the scraps into the cage, and Kibbles set about them, snarling and rolling over and over, as though hunting them.

The voice behind Harry chuckled. "It's really cute... nearly as cute as you."

Harry looked around, shocked, and very nearly fell backwards into the tank with Kibbles. Cho stood behind him, smiling, her hair tied back into a blue bow.

"Why didn't you answer my letter?" she asked, casually, still smiling.

Harry tried to wipe the horrified expression of his face. "I... I didn't get a letter from you."

"Oh... my owl might have lost it," she said, idly, leaning on the table and gazing up at him. "I really hoped you'd read it. I wanted to say sorry for last year... how jealous I was all the time..."

"It's okay," he muttered, embarassed, turning away and wishing he wouldn't blush like this. In his mind, he'd played this conversation a million times, how he'd turn away from her and then walk off and leave her to it. He always promised himself he wouldn't go red or forgive her, and he'd just done both those things.

"Could I talk to you for a minute, Harry?" she asked, softly.

He glanced down at her over his shoulder, trying to be cool, but his hand was shaking so much that he ended up throwing a lump of chicken at some Ravenclaws on the other side of the tank. "Not now," he said.

"After the meeting?" she said. She blinked hopefully at him, her pretty eyes round and sweet.

"Yeah, maybe," he said vaguely, turning back to Kibbles and filling his water bowl with a jug from the trolley. Part of him wished she'd just burst into tears again and run away, so he wouldn't have to talk to her. He suddenly wished that Ron was here to give him support.

Taking the next best option, he drifted vaguely around to stand near Hermione and her first year club, handing her some scraps of meat to feed the dragon with. "Cho's here," he muttered, under his breath.

Hermione looked up, scanning the crowd and then spotting Cho, who was talking to Ernie Macmillan and gazing at the dragon in awe. "Oh," she said, stiffly.

"She wants to talk to me after the meeting," he said, keeping his head down, flicking more pieces of meat vaguely at Kibbles. "What do I do?"

"Just talk to her," Hermione suggested coolly, handing out some meat for the first years to give to the dragon. "Tell her what you think. It's not a big deal, Harry, remember you've got some control over the situation."

Harry nodded numbly, watching the first years throwing meat into the tank and gasping with excitement as Kibbles set about their offerings. Hermione was now talking to Luna Lovegood, who'd seemingly appeared out of nowhere with a dreamy smile on her face, and Harry didn't want to press the subject of Cho much. Reminding himself it was just talking and he had control, he tried to calm himself as he answered some more questions about dragons asked by a fourth year near his ankles.

It's just talking. No big deal. I am completely calm.


Help me, he thought, an hour and a half later, as he hid in the backroom connected to the Great Hall. Professor Lupin had wheeled Kibbles back to his office, the students had all left to their common rooms and Hermione had gone to visit Ron. He was completely alone. Was Cho still out there? He found himself thinking very conflicting thoughts, both hoping she was, and at the same time, praying she wasn't.

He crept to the door, glancing out. The hall was pretty much empty. She must have gotten bored waiting for him. Sighing with relief, he opened the door and strode out.

"Harry?"

He yelped with surprise as Cho spoke from behind him, where she'd been hiding out of sight. "Yahh! I mean... hiYahh, Cho, sorry about the wait..."

She smiled shyly. "That's okay."

There was a pause where Harry felt his rebellious cheeks reddening under her cool, pretty gaze. "So... so what did you want to talk about?" he said, nervously, though he knew well what she wanted to talk about.

She giggled. "You're so oblivious, Harry... I sometimes wonder whether you do it on purpose to make me laugh, or you're really that sweet." Harry felt his limbs all freeze up as she leant out and rested a hand on the side of his neck, just lingering. "You know what I want to talk about..."

"I - I - " he stammered. "I... um... well..."

"I made a lot of mistakes last year," she continued, calmly, as though she hadn't even noticed that he was shaking enough to register on the Richter scale. "And... I wanted to say sorry, Harry, because it wasn't fair on you. Cedric just meant a lot to me and it was hard when he died, and I took that out on you... though I shouldn't have... you deserve better than that."

Harry's legs felt as though they'd been turned to jelly. "Uh..."

"And I know that you and Hermione are just friends," she said, softly, and Harry suddenly realised she was mysteriously close to him, even though she hadn't moved. "I shouldn't have been so jealous... I just needed comfort then... but I'm better now. I thought about us, and... I wondered whether you wanted to give it another try..."

Say no! Say no! thought Harry. Say no! Push her away, stand up for yourself! Think of what Ron would say!


"She kissed you again, didn't she?" Ron said, as Harry sat dejectedly by his bed fifteen minutes later.

Harry didn't beat about the bush. He nodded in a numb, too-shocked-to-be-properly-shocked way.

"Hermione came in worrying about you," Ron continued. "She said you looked really nervous for all the meeting because Cho was staring at you."

Harry nodded again. He raised a hand to his cheek to wipe away a little more of the dampness left there.

"So," said Ron. "What was it like? Better?"

Harry shrugged. "I dunno. Wet again." He glanced at his hand and found traces of Cho's shimmery pink lipstick there, but for some reason, he didn't want to wipe it off. "And slippery."

"It's called lipgloss," said Ron. "And yeah, it probably would make it slippery. Get a tissue, it's all over your face."

"Thanks," said Harry. He took one of the tissues from Ron's bedside cabinet and dabbed it wearily across his face. "She said she wanted to give it another go."

Ron shrugged this time. He had been in the hospital wing for quite a few days now, and still looked a little peaky and slightly green, but he was a lot better than earlier on in the week. He could now sit up and have visitors, though Seamus couldn't. He was at the far end of the ward, protected by a curtain dragged around him, and only Lavender had been in once. She came out looking rather ill herself.

"I dunno, Harry... she messed you about last year, big time. And what about that other guy she's supposed to be dating?"

Harry realised he hadn't asked about that. "They probably split up." He wondered for a moment why he felt so pleased about this fact. "It's getting late Ron and I've got Potions homework to finish for tomorrow... got my detention with Snape."

Ron nodded. "Come and visit when you're done, alright?"

"Alright," said Harry. He stood up, put the tissue into the bin and with a last 'bye' to Ron, he left the hospital wing, heading up for Gryffindor Tower, feeling confused.

He didn't really know what he wanted with Cho. She was pretty, she was popular, she was kind... she was fun to talk to, even though they hadn't talked in a while. But she was also jealous and possessive. He knew about that from last year. He also felt a sense of guilt by thinking about her. Cedric Diggory had loved Cho, and now he was dead, Harry just didn't like the fact that he was dating Cho. It was like betraying Cedric's memory. He also knew that Cho still felt a great deal for Cedric. He remembered vaguely the time that there were in a small tea shop in Hogsmeade, and she's reminisced about how Cedric always brought her here. Cedric had been strong, hard-working, loyal, handsome. Why would Cho be interested in Harry instead?

He was so lost in his troubles that he didn't even realise he was in the Gryffindor Common Room until Hermione's voice spoke from near the fire. "Harry? What happened?"

"She kissed me," he said, hollowly.

"I can see that," she said, jumping up and hurrying over, taking a hankerchief from her pocket and rubbing at the lipgloss that Harry missed. "She's got it all over you Harry, you haven't been walking around like this, have you?"

He nodded, vaguely, and then said, "It was weird."

"Tell me about what happened," she said, taking his arm and leading him over to an armchair, sitting him down and studying him closely.

"She... she said she was sorry about being jealous... and that she wanted us to try again." He brushed a tuft of hair out of his eyes. "Then she kissed me."

She sighed, though it was a gentle, concerned sort of sigh. "You don't have much luck with her, do you?"

He shook his head. "No. I... I wish she'd leave me alone."

Hermione studied him closely for a moment, concern in his eyes, and then she moved forward, giving him a gentle hug. Harry closed his eyes and embraced back. Only Hermione could be so matter-of-fact and so sensible, but so sympathetic at the same time. After a moment, she drew back and smiled like the big sister he'd never had. "Want to copy my Potions homework?"

He smiled too. "Yeah, okay."

"Good boy," she said, pretending to pat him, then pattering away up the stairs to the girl's dormitory to fetch her homework. Girls were an odd species, he thought, sitting back in his chair, suddenly glad he had Hermione as a translator.

 

Chapter Fourteen: The Woman in the Photo Frame

"Four."

"Five."

"Six."

"Snap!"

"Cheater!" Harry glared over the top of his cards. "You didn't even let me see that card before you put it down!"

Ron grinned. "Losers weepers. Take the cards."

Harry reluctantly picked up the pile of cards on Ron's bed, sorting through them. Ron was a great friend but he was a terrible cheater at snap.

"You start," he said.

Ron snorted. "You've got the most cards, you start."

"Only because you cheated."

Harry sighed and put down a card. Ron added another, and the game of snap continued for quite some time before Ron cheated again, and Harry threw a grape at him. The cousins both laughed and play-fought for a while before Madam Pomfrey came over to admonish them, and tell Harry he had to leave, as it was nearly nine o' clock and Ron needed rest.

"See you tomorrow then," said Ron.

"Yeah, see you," said Harry, waving as he left. It was Saturday, and Harry had spent most of the day with Ron and Hermione. She'd left at eight o' clock to do her prefect rounds, which seemed such a short time ago. Of course, Harry had been clinging to the minutes zipping past though. He now had his first detention of sixth year, with none other than Snape. Detention was never fun, and it was even worse with Snape in the colder months. September at Hogwarts wasn't as cold as December or January, but a few hours down in the dungeons was enough to have anybody shivering.

He crossed the entrance hall, feeling glum, and he just turned down the passage that lead to the dungeons when he spotted somebody coming towards him. At first, he thought that it was Snape, perhaps coming to see where he was. But it wasn't.

It was the woman he'd seen just after arriving at Hogwarts. She was someway up the corridor, so he had a good chance to look at her properly, and yet again, he felt as though he'd seen her somewhere outside of Hogwarts. She was quite tall, which was only emphasized by her head-to-toe black clothing, and the long velvet cloak dragging along the corridor behind her. Harry had a brief idea of a dark angel. Indeed, she was pretty, but in an unconventional way. Gothic beautiful. Her hair was raven black, and lightly feathered and tousled around her pale face, and she walked in a way that made it sway gently as she moved. Harry realised he was staring and looked away quickly, as she passed him and continued into the entrance hall. He glanced over his shoulder, studying her. Where had he seen her before? She certainly didn't have the sort of face you could mistake for another person. So who was she?

He was still thinking as he knocked on the door of the Potions classroom. Snape's voice drawled, "Enter", from inside, and he stepped in.

To his great surprise, Snape was at the front of the room, and he looked... well. Happy. Happier than normal anyway. There was a smug sort of smirk on his face as he tidied a half-empty red wine bottle and two glasses into an old cupboard.

"Don't stand dawdling in the door all day, Potter, come in." Snape shut the cupboard, dragged an old chair back against the wall and took his cloak from a hook, pulling it back on.

Harry crept forward. He'd never seen Snape not angry or irate or looking as though he was going to kill something, but now he almost seemed civil.

The Potions master took a large stack of papers from the side and dumped them down on his desk. "Exams, Potter. Hufflepuff exams. I have little patience with them any day, and after adding up all the marks, you're going to see why. Sit down and start. You aren't leaving until you're finished, so you'd better get a move on."

Harry sat down behind Snape's desk, taking the pen that the professor handed him, gazing worriedly at the huge stack of papers.

"I have to sort out some things in my office and so I won't be around to supervise you. Then again, this task isn't overly complex. Even you can't screw it up." He turned and stalked away into his office, but he was still smirking in that smug way. Harry almost expected him to start humming.

He took the top paper from the pile, and was about to start adding up the green numbers dotted around the page when something caught his eye on Snape's desk and he paused.

It was a photo frame, silver and encrusted with the odd shower of tiny emeralds, and even though the frame itself was maginificently crafted, Harry was more interested in the photo. A pair of soft, smoky silver eyes gazed out at him, as though directly at him and nobody else, set into a pale face with tousled black hair. It that the woman, and all of a sudden, Harry remembered where he last saw her - Snape's house, as a photograph on the wall, directly underneath the one of the professor's father. Though this photo wasn't moving, taken with an ordinary black-and-white muggle camera, though the stillness seemed to enhance the effect even more. She was... well, beautiful. Harry could well imagine a teenage Snape going weak at the knees at the sight of her.

He then noticed that there was something written across the bottom, in black ink that glimmered with sparkles of silver. He leant closer to read it - Dear Severus, xxx.

Snape had a girlfriend?

"Still working, Potter?"

Harry jumped as Snape suddenly blew into the room again. "Yeah, fine," he said, turning quickly back to the paper. "Five, eight, nine, thirteen..."

"Never learnt to count in your head?" Snape drawled, smirking.

Harry frowned. "I don't want to lose count."

"Then concentrate," said Snape. He strolled over before Harry to glance down, tutting at the fact he was only on the second side of the first paper. "Lost your sense of discipline over the summer? Ah, but you didn't have one before. How careless of me."

Harry didn't say anything, not willing to rise to Snape's bait. He put the total of the paper in a large circle at the bottom and started on the next without a word.

Snape turned to go, but paused, reaching out and taking the photo frame with him as an afterthought. Harry acted as though he'd never seen it, but inwardly, he couldn't help but laugh. Snape had a girlfriend. How positively cute. Serious, cold, uptight Snape had a girlfriend he kept sneaking into the castle. The Potions master suddenly didn't seem quite so scary after all, especially when Harry thought of Cho, and imagined Snape going all wobbly when faced with -

CRASH!

Harry jumped so much a large blot of green ink appeared on the page before him. One of the huge glass jars used for storing potions in had practically thrown itself at Snape as he passed into the office, shattering barely inches behind him on the floor. Harry put a hand to his chest, trying to calm his racing pulse. Snape didn't look too surprised. He just bent down, scooped up the remains and dropped them into a bin, calm as anything.

He glanced up and saw Harry clutching his heart, and Snape's eyes narrowed. "Don't look so surprised, Potter. You're only fooling yourself."

"What?" said Harry, confused.

Snape shook his head. "My experience with you is that you neither understand or know anything that you need to, and yet have a head full of the most inconvenient facts. I'm fully aware you know about my... condition at the moment. There's no need to convince yourself that you don't."

"Why?" said Harry. "What is your condition?"

Snape snorted and stood up, stalking through to the office, muttering about terrible actors and stupidity of sixteen-year-old boys. Harry raised his eyebrows and turned back to his papers, wondering again. Ever since being back at school, Snape hadn't seemed to attract that many accidents. He even demonstrated a heating charm during Wednesday's lesson with no problems at all, but seeing the jar leap at the professor had brought Harry's suspicions back in full throttle.

When Snape came back into the room, Harry noticed him shoot a quick glance at the overhead shelves, and the relieved look on his face when nothing flew at him.

Harry kept his head down for the rest of the detention, marking as silently as he could, and by the time he finished, he knew it must be passed midnight. Snape dismissed him, saying something about learning the lesson of respect, though Harry hardly heard him, he was so tired. His hand was aching from writing for so long and he could hardly see as he staggered up the corridor. His hearing was perfectly fine though, and as he started the long drag up to Gryffindor Tower, he distinctly heard Snape shut the door on his fingers and the accompanying curses he spat.


"Harry... Harry..."

"What?"

"Where are you? What's that noise?"

"I'm here and I was tying my shoelace."

Hermione, as a prefect, was allowed out at night, and the only reason she had to give was that she was a prefect and on her rounds to make sure everything was in order. Harry, however, was not, and so he was hiding under his father's old invisibility cloak nearby.

After his detention with Snape and finding out about Snape's girlfriend, he'd of course told Ron and Hermione. Ron thought it was hilarious and begged Harry to steal the photo so he could have a look, but Hermione wasn't so sure. She found the idea of Snape having a girlfriend rather out of character for him, rather understandably, and so Harry had convinced her to come and have a look for herself on the next Saturday.

"She might not even come you know, Harry," Hermione muttered out of the corner of her mouth.

"She will," Harry said. "I bet you. What time is it?"

"It's nearly nine o' clock," said Hermione. She sighed, leaning against one of the pillars and brushing her hair out of her eyes. "It's getting really dark, Harry."

"I know," he said. "Just get comfy and she'll come, I promise you. And if she doesn't, I'll never ask to copy your Transfiguration notes again."

"Shhh!" she said, suddenly, glancing up towards the main doors as they opened, but it wasn't the woman in the photo frame. Professor Alrister came in, looking immaculately rugged as always, in a black velvet tunic and thick red hawking gloves. Cupid was settled on his wrist, eating what looked like a mouse, with a bell tied gently around his neck that jingled with every tug of his neat little beak.

"Good evening Miss Granger," he said, smiling as he spotted her.

"G-good evening, Professor Alrister," she stammered back. Harry grinned and nudged her in the arm. She swatted at him as though there was a fly there.

"Now, what would you be doing out this late?" he asked. Cupid made a soft 'fwee' to accompany his master.

"Just d-doing my prefect rounds," she said. "You know... t-to check if anybody is out of bed when they shouldn't be."

He smiled again. It was becoming a very rare occurance to see Professor Alrister not smiling, actually. Harry and Ron had considered jabbing him hard with something sharp, just to see if he smiled, told them to keep up the good work and recommended they give him a good poke in the eye for extra credit.

"Good girl," he said. "By the way, I'm pleased with your progress so far this year, very pleased. You're turning out to be a very good student."

Hermione blushed right to her fingertips, and Harry hardly understood a word of what she gabbled. "Oh! Th-thankyou, I just... t-try really hard, I guess..."

"Yes, effort's what I reward most in my classes," he said. "And you certainly give a lot of it. From what I've heard, you're a highly capable student in all your work. After all, taking nine NEWT classes is no small feat."

She grinned, still red in the face. "My parents say I try too much..."

He chuckled. "If trying too much has got you where it has, you're doing just fine to me." Cupid let out another soft 'fwee', shifting around on Alrister's arm so the bell around his neck jingled merrily. Harry had to admit, the professor and his hawk suited each other very well. He was starting to quite like Cupid, and he visited him most days, slipping him owl treats when Hedwig wasn't looking.

The hawk was now looking directly at Harry, trilling its beak expectantly. Harry severely hoped the little bird wouldn't perch on his arm and baffle Alrister at to why his hawk was sitting on thin air, but thankfully, there was a distraction at that very moment as the doors opened again.

It was her this time. Harry nudged Hermione, and she looked up, midway between another garbled stream of thanks to the professor. Alrister looked around too to see what she was looking at, and to Harry's great surprise, he rolled his eyes at the sight of the woman in the doorway.

"One moment," he said to Hermione, apologetically, as he turned and strolled towards the woman. Harry hurried after him, hoping to hear anything said. The look on Alrister's face suggested he knew her, and their relationship wasn't good. "I wondered when I'd be seeing you here."

"Leave me alone," she hissed. She had a deep, husky sort of voice, like the French actresses in old muggle movies. "This has nothing to do with you."

"I think it does," said Alrister. "You shouldn't be here."

She glared up at him with her spiteful silver eyes. "I'll be wherever I want. My business is my business, and don't you dare try to change my mind Alrister."

He scoffed, in quite a haughty way. "I don't think anybody can do that. You should just know a few things. By coming here, you're just making things worse for Severus. And it is getting worse. More and more everyday. Secondly, it's only so long before you're found out, and Merlin help you then."

"What do you suggest I do? Go home like a good little girl and run around after your cousin as though I'm a bloody terrier?"

"I said nothing of the sort," said Alrister, coolly. "I'm suggesting that you don't come here, if you know what's good for you, and for Severus. The aurors are working on hunting down 'Gustus, and it won't be many months now before your little predicament is sorted out anyway, and you can wait that long."

"No, I can't," she said coldly. "You haven't got a chance of understanding. You just go blow things up and cry, and leave me to my own business." She pushed roughly past him and hurried in the direction of the dungeon corridor, her cloak blowing behind her in the breeze created.

Alrister glared after her for a moment, total and utter dislike over his handsome face, before he sighed, shook his head and wiped the expression of loathing away. He turned back to Hermione. "I must apologise for that, Miss Granger..."

"It's okay, Professor," she said. "I didn't hear anything anyway."

He smiled again, but it was a hollow, rather weak smile. "Well, I should be getting back to the owlery now. Cupid has to have his rest, after all... goodnight."

"Night, Professor," she said, as he walked away up the marble staircase, the silver buckles on his boots clinking gently with every step. When the sound of his footfalls was gone, Harry pulled the cloak just off his face to give her a worried look.

"Did you hear?"

"Yeah," she said, quietly. "I did. What do you think - "

But a door then burst open at the end of the corridor, and angry voices were heard, coming this way. Harry pulled the cloak on properly again, just in time to catch a little of what was being said.

"Severus, don't! It doesn't matter!"

"It does," Snape's voice snarled. "Alrister has no right to - "

"Please, don't, please just don't!"

Snape blew into the entrance hall, looking absolutely livid, and his visitor was hurrying after him, pleading with him to calm down.

"There's no point, Severus, just leave him to it!" she said, desperately. "It doesn't matter...!"

Harry shrunk quickly out of the way as Snape stormed past, though Hermione was completely visible. Snape rounded on her. "Which way did Alrister go?"

Hermione pointed out towards the grounds. "That way," she squeaked.

"Severus, don't!!"

"What on earth is going out here?" came an angry hiss from the doors of the hospital wing. Madam Pomfrey glared out at them all. "Will you please be quiet? There are ill people in here!"

"I'm afraid I'll have to agree with Poppy," came a voice from the top of the stairs. Albus Dumbledore stood before them all in a purple nightcap, a mug of cocoa in his hand. Alrister stood behind him, arms crossed, looking like a bodyguard.

Snape's eyes narrowed as he glared up at Alrister. "I didn't realise you were so young at heart, Alrister. Shouldn't you have grown out of running squealing to the headmaster when you were even more childish than you are now?"

"He did not run squealing to me, Severus," said Dumbledore, calmly. "I was already awake and out of my office when he passed. He merely expressed his concerns."

"Funny," said Snape, in an icy voice Harry had never heard him use with the headmaster before. "I call it squealing."

"Now now, Severus. There is no need for unfriendliness. I'd like to see you in my office, if I may... Poppy, I do hope we haven't awoken any of the ill students. Miss Galvez, I would like you to leave, please, though I shall contact you tomorrow. Alrister, please escort the students back to their common room."

"What do you mean, students?" said Snape, sharply.

"Did I say students? I do apologise. Student. Miss Granger, back to Gryffindor Tower please. Come along, Severus."

Snape hesitated for a moment, almost like a naughty child wanting to be disobedient, but he then nodded and followed Dumbledore. His visitor swept one last look around at them all and then left, sweeping away down the steps like a ghost, into the night. Professor Alrister waited at the top of the marble staircase for Hermione, and then the two of them went away down the corridor. Harry followed them, being careful to stay quiet.

"Professor Alrister?" said Hermione, nervously.

"Yes, Miss Granger?"

"Would it... would it be terribly impolite of me to ask what just happened?"

Alrister sighed slightly. "I'm afraid I don't think I'm allowed to tell you, Miss Granger. That's between the headmaster, Professor Snape and the most dangerous woman I know."

"W-why is she dangerous?" Hermione asked.

Alrister looked very serious for once, the most serious Harry had ever seen him. "She's married, Miss Granger. Come along now, we need to get you to bed. You need your rest." He smiled slightly. "Now, don't tell anybody else, but I'm doing tests in Pure Arts next week. Though I daresay they won't be a problem to you."

She smiled shyly. "Thankyou, Professor."

They continued the rest of the way in silence, and when they reached the portrait hole, Alrister gave a corteous bow to Hermione and then made his way back down the corridor, heading for his office. The moment he was out of hearing distance, Hermione said, "Harry?"

"Yeah, I'm here... open the portrait hole so we can talk."

The Fat Lady smiled pleasantly down at Hermione. "Password?"

"Candlelight," she said. The Fat Lady smiled gratiously and swung forward to admit them into the common room.

It was deserted, pretty much as normal. Most of the house was in the Hospital Wing with Gryffindor Risotta, and the ones that were left were all probably in bed. Harry found himself glad of the silence for once, as it gave him and Hermione chance to talk.

"I'm even more confused now," she said, turning and falling into an armchair by the fire.

"Me too," Harry admitted. "How does Alrister know that woman?"

"I don't know," she said, biting her lip. "But she's married... that's not right of Snape at all... it sounds as though Alrister knows her husband. The aurors are hunting somebody down... and Alrister knows about Snape's bad luck thing. Maybe it's connected?"

"I think it is," said Harry. "Though I wish it wasn't. It just makes things even more confusing." He sat in an armchair, thinking hard. "Maybe... maybe Snape's getting into some dark magic that's connected with Voldemort and the Death Eaters. Something to help him. And so Dumbledore obviously wants him to stop, because the dark magic is giving Snape bad luck. Maybe that woman isn't his girlfriend, maybe she's a Death Eater that's helping Snape do whatever black magic it is he's doing. Alrister knows because... um... he knows her husband. And maybe that other person they mentioned... maybe he's another Death Eater that's helping Snape, but the aurors are tracking him down. Dumbledore doesn't approve of what Severus is doing, and he's warning him against it..."

"It's certainly possible," said Hermione, raising her eyebrows. "Though anything could be going on, Harry, anything at all." She rubbed her brow, frustratedly. "I don't know Harry... this is confusing even me. If only we could see what Snape's thinking, then maybe we'd have some answers." She glanced up at him, seeing the dawning expression on his face and frowning. "What?"

"Nothing," he said. He yawned. "Gee, it's late. I'm going to get to bed. We'll talk more in the morning and go and tell Ron what we've found out. Night." He hurried away up the stairs, quick as he could, before she could pierce him any more with her suspicious glare.

As he shut the door, he couldn't help but grin. It was so obvious. He COULD see what Snape was thinking. Occlumency. Snape had been too busy to start any proper lessons with him yet, and they had scheduled for Monday, after school. Harry had never really bothered with Occlumency before, but now he had a lure. If he could master it, he could get into Snape's thoughts and find out what was going on.

Marvelling at the fact that he suddenly wanted to spend time being taught by Snape, he got changed, got into bed and was asleep in hardly any time, his dreams involving unscrewing the top of the Potions master's head like a bottle and poking around inside, but by the time he woke up, he couldn't remember just what he found in there.


Surprisingly, when Harry stepped into the gloom of the Potions master's office the next Monday, Snape wasn't in the sort of mood Harry had expected him to be in. The events of the Saturday night were apparently out of his mind - that, or he was keeping his thoughts about it all private. Harry had to admit, he was very good at it. He'd even been civil to Alrister at the breakfast table, asking him to pass the milk with only the merest trace of sarcasm as he added, 'please'. Though the fact that Snape wasn't going to show anybody what he was thinking made it even more of a challenge to Harry to find out.

Snape sat behind his desk, swirling the tip of his wand lazily around the pensieve, occasionally adding a thought or two. "Sit down, Potter, get your wand out."

Harry sunk into the chair opposite Snape's desk, drawing his wand from up his sleeve, glancing nervously around the room. The dead things hanging in their pickled slime all around the walls were all rather un-nerving. An upside-down toad appeared to be staring right at him. He looked away, glancing at the pensieve instead and catching a momentary vision of Snape, looking himself up and down in a mirror, dressed in the long black robes of a Death Eater before it faded away.

Snape spoke, and when he did, it was in a very reluctant and weary tone. "The headmaster wants a slight change in your teaching, Potter."

Harry glanced at him, prompting him for a little more information. Snape surveyed him over the pensieve for a moment, his dark eyes looking into him rather than at him.

"He wants you taught both occlumency and legilimency," Snape sighed, absent-mindedly removing another thought into the bowl. "Of course, I'd much rather teach you nothing, but the headmaster has spoken. His reasons are that several other professors, who in my opinion should be hammered into a barrel and rolled into the lake, have mentioned you have a strong mind and that legilimency will better your skills at occlumency."

"But... so I'll have to... to read your mind...?" said Harry, trying not to sound too hopeful.

"Yes," Snape sighed. "Hence why I've been trying my best to extract every single detail of anything that happened to me below the age of twenty, or anything even mildly interesting after that."

"Why?" said Harry.

Snape's eyes flashed as they looked up at him. "You presumed I'd let you swan pleasantly around in my thoughts and spread them around your nasty little ring of friends?" he scoffed.

Harry frowned. "I'm not like that."

"I certainly hope so," Snape sneered. "For your sake. There are... possibly some memories in my head you will not want to see, and nor will I want you to, for that matter. I should tell you now that I have no obligation to explain anything or give more detail."

Harry nodded, deciding he'd just have to really poke and prod to get Snape's mind to explain itself.

"There are two ways to perform legilimency..." Snape said, wearily, as though he was being controlled by a particularly bad puppeteer who should have given up the career years ago. "Obviously, the spell 'legilimens', as I have used on you for the past year or so. It's the most effective method, and if your victim has no knowledge of occlumency, countless memories can be extracted at your leisure. The longest time for having somebody under a legilimens spell is three days, if my memory is correct... then again, considering that most of it is swilling around this bowl, I'll have to check on that later."

"What's the other way to do it?"

"Performing a shield charm against legilimency coming in reflects it back onto the attacker." Snape suddenly thought of something, and removed it quickly to the pensieve. "As you found out last year."

Harry's curiosity was getting the better of him, watching Snape unload his mind into the pensieve, and so he said, "Can I ask a question?"

"Depending on the question, you may be able to."

"You know the pensieve..."

"That was a statement, Potter."

"No, no, I'm getting there. You know the pensieve. Well, what if you accidentally put the knowledge of how to get stuff back out in there? You'd never get your thoughts back, would you?"

"Don't sound so hopeful, Potter, and obviously, you have no regard for how the pensieve works. It holds memories, not knowledge."

"Can't they be the same?" asked Harry. "I mean... you have memories of what your name is, but technically, it's knowledge, isn't it?"

"Potter, do you remember somebody sitting you down as a child and telling you what your name is?"

"Uh... no."

"No what?"

"No Sir."

"And if, for instance, I took the memory of your last birthday out of your head, you would still know you are sixteen with the mental age of six, would you not?"

Harry frowned and Snape smirked at the annoyed expression on his face.

"You're so easy to irritate Potter... even more so than Alrister..."

"Alrister manages to annoy you though," said Harry, quietly.

Snape's smirk faded. "What?"

"I said," Harry said, clearly, "Alrister manages to annoy you though."

Snape scoffed. "Alrister's brain is ludicrously vacant, he couldn't string an insult together if it killed him."

Harry desperately, desperately wanted to announce he had been there and he'd seen Snape get so angry just because of what Alrister said to his girlfriend. He wanted to jump onto the desk and triumphantly use legilimens on Snape, read his mind and then run from the room and bellow everything about his mind to the entire school. Snape saw the urge to curse flickering in Harry's eyes, and his smirk curled back onto his face.

"If you're planning to attack somebody, Potter, never do it with a skilled legilimens in front of you." He stood up. "I'm going to test your occlumency first of all, and if you have practised enough, you should be able to perform a shield charm and reflect it back. Understand?"

Harry nodded, getting up and hurrying over to the middle of the room, trying to wash as much emotion from himself as possible. Though it was incredibly hard to quell the excitement rising inside him. If he managed to flick it back onto Snape, he could find out everything.

"Prepare yourself now," said Snape. "Don't let me in. Ready? Legilimens!"

He was six, sitting in his cupboard and crying because of a scratch down his arm nobody cared about... then he was eleven, looking up at the gigantic form of Hagrid in the hut on the rocks... then he was thirteen, watching Lupin transform from man into beast... and then it was just a few weeks ago, he was looking down the line of thestral-drawn carriages, watching Malfoy stroke the horse's neck with that haunted look in his eyes... but he could see Snape standing before him in the office, just a hazy outline through the memories flashing before his eyes, and he could hear himself shouting... grasping his wand...

"Protego!"

There was rush, and he felt his mind being submerged in something else as memories that weren't his own flashed past... Lucius Malfoy, throwing things in the air for Snape to catch... then walking down Diagon Alley, and turning a corner, and seeing a girl sitting at a cafe with long, beautiful black hair and soft silver eyes... show me that one, show me that one, Harry thought, but he felt something push him hard in the chest and he fell backwards against the floor with a thud.

Snape was panting, grasping the edge of his desk. He looked even paler than normal. "Damn it, Potter," he snarled.

"Yeah, it's not fun having somebody rooting around in your head, is it?"

"I didn't mean just that," Snape snapped. "Don't be so completely oblivious, Potter. How do you know her?"

"Know who?" said Harry.

"The girl at the cafe," said Snape, impatiently, looking up from under his curtains of greasy black hair.

"She was in a photo on your wall," Harry replied, coolly. He wasn't lying, and Snape knew it, even though Harry could tell the Potions master was suspicious. "And one on your desk," he elaborated.

Snape sneered, reached out and snapped something down onto the wood. Harry glanced at it, realising it was the photo frame, but before he could move, Snape swept forward, his hands on the arms of Harry's chair. Harry froze, unable to look away from that furious dark gaze, realising far too late about the eye-contact legilimency. He shrunk back into the chair as Snape's face contorted into a snarl.

"You - "

"Don't kill me!" Harry squeaked.

Snape seemed absolutely past words to describe his fury. Harry could tell that the Potions master was just dying to grasp him with both hands and throttle the living daylights from him until he was cold and limp in the chair and could hound his life no more. Harry wilted away, trying to melt through the back of the chair.

The professor closed his eyes, taking a few very angry breaths to steady himself, then his black eyes opened again and he said, "Now listen to me, Potter." His voice was so dangerous and serious that Harry found himself scared. "Every single year I have had to endure you in my life has been a living hell. You pry, and sneak, and poke around in business that has nothing to do with you to the point where not only are you annoying, but you are endangering your own life, the lives of others and the state of safety on this entire planet. In your first year, your meddling nearly bought Lord Voldemort immortality and unlimited gold for the rest of eternity. In your second year, you managed to nearly kill yourself, two of the Weasleys, Lockhart, and countless others. In your third year, you endangered my life, you endangered your life, Granger's life, Weasley's life, Black's life, Lupin's life, Pettigrew's life. And then in fourth year, you just had to poke and pry about to find out that I am a Death Eater, therefore nearly having me slaughtered by Voldemort and therefore cutting off our only reliable source of information.

"In your fifth year - on second thoughts, do not even get me STARTED on your fifth year. You wasted so much time having me teach you occlumency, only to not practice and pay the price. Your meddling alerted Umbridge, and by giving her fake veritaserum, I came this close Potter, THIS close - " He squeezed his fingers together, holding them barely an inch from Harry's nose " - to losing my job and my entire career, not even to mention putting me under review from the ministry. I could have gone to Azkaban, Potter. But Dumbledore still made me check on you, made me keep teaching you, and I'm not going to hold back my words. I loathe you Potter. The very mention of your name makes my skin crawl. If it was up to me, I would pack up my bags right at this very moment and leave this castle forever, and just let you wallow in your own little problems. You have no idea how much I long to do that."

"Then do it," said Harry, feeling anger rise. "What's making you stay? Professor Lupin's happy to watch out for me, Professor Alrister, McGonagall, Flitwick. And, if I hadn't meddled as you put it, then we'd all be dead by now! Especially you!"

Snape's eyes were so full of hatred it was untrue. "I don't see why I should even bother explaining to you. There is no reason for me to do so. You don't listen, you don't understand, you don't even try to let anybody change your stubborn little mind."

"Why don't you just try me?" Harry sneered. "Just give me the benefit of the doubt."

Snape opened his mouth to snarl something, but there was a noise from the fireplace behind them. Dumbledore stepped out, dusting off his robes, chuckling. "Dear me, your fireplace could do with a good cleaning, Severus... good evening, Harry."

"Evening," said Harry, uncomfortably aware that Snape still had a fistful of his robes gathered under his chin. Snape didn't seem to care.

"Severus, I believe there's something we need to explain to Harry, don't you?" said Dumbledore, pleasantly.

"What?" said Harry, his eyes widening. "What is it?"

Snape let him go roughly, ignoring him. "I don't think - "

"Oh, I think," said Dumbledore, smiling. "Sit down, Severus... cocoa and biscuits, I think." He waved his hands, and a silver tray loaded with cups and a steaming jug of cocoa appeared. "It could be a late night, and we all want to stay awake."

"I don't."

"Yes, you do, Severus. There's no need to be unpleasant. Have some cocoa." Dumbledore turned his twinkling gaze onto Harry. "There's something we need to tell you, Harry... something fairly important. Get comfortable. This could take some time."

 

Chapter Fifteen: Guardian Angels

Dumbledore conjured a chair with a few flicks of his wands and a pleasant smile. He sat down on it, pouring the cocoa into three mugs, calmly, with a smile on his face. "There, that's better."

He was the only one who looked even remotely happy. Snape still stood up, his arms crossed, glaring at a point in the distance as though he no longer wanted to be in the room. Harry felt the same. He was looking hurriedly from Snape to Dumbledore, pleading with somebody to elaborate.

The headmaster passed him a cup of hot chocolate with a custard cream and a smile. "I was just observing your occlumency lesson in my office, and my, things do get a little tense between the two of you at times, don't they?" He chuckled pleasantly.

Harry's wide-eyed, please-tell-me-what's-going-on-stare was almost the complete opposite to Snape's dark glare at a mysterious spot on the horizon. After a moment of silence, Harry said, "What did you mean, explain something to me?"

Dumbledore handed Snape cocoa and a biscuit, which the Potions master held as though they'd both explode if he looked grateful. "I'm afraid I've been keeping yet another secret from you, Harry... yet this one I thought I would never need to reveal to you. Hopefully, knowing will make no change to your life, and after all, it is hardly a bad thing."

Snape snorted softly. "That's a matter of opinion."

Dumbledore chuckled. "Now, now, Severus. Do sit down, I hate being so much smaller than everybody."

Snape sunk wearily into the chair behind his desk. "You did this on purpose, didn't you? Requesting that I teach the little brat legilimency. You knew he'd provoke me."

"What's going on?" said Harry, his eyes as wide as they would possibly go. "Tell me, please!"

"Well, Severus," said Dumbledore, smiling merrily. "Tell him."

Snape scoffed quietly. "Why should I have to tell the insufferable little - "

"SOMEBODY tell me!" Harry half-shouted, grasping the arms of the chair. "What is it? Is it about me?"

"Yes, Harry, it is," said Dumbledore. He nibbled delicately along the edge of his custard cream, thought for a moment and then said, "Well. I shall tell you the bulk of it, though I'm sure Professor Snape will be delighted to chip in with some more information where needed."

Harry heard Snape mutter something under his breath, but Dumbledore spoke a little louder, perhaps to cover Snape's words.

"You know that after the fall of Lord Voldemort sixteen years ago, I set about organising things that would protect you, because of the prophecy. Eventually, either you or Lord Voldemort will be killed by the other, and of course, I knew that if he returned, I would need you well protected. Unaware of the Weasley family tie, I sent you to your mother's sister, Petunia Dursley, for the blood protection. Whenever they were away, you were left with Arabella Figg, who was unknown to you at the time as a witch - a squib, but a witch all the same. If concern arose when you were in her care, she would be able to contact me quickly."

He took a sip from his cocoa, thought for a moment and then continued.

"And of course, there was Mundungus Fletcher and his fellows watching out for you. This protection worked very well for eleven years, even if your cousin was rather cruel to you at times. And then you came to Hogwarts... did you not wonder what protection I had for you here?"

"I... I thought it was just too magical here for Voldemort to get at me," said Harry.

Dumbledore chuckled. "Admittedly, the castle does have its own methods for keeping you safe, which as you know, have been stepped up this year because of the intense threat from Lord Voldemort. However, I digress... when you came to Hogwarts, I knew that you would need other methods of protection, not just the naturally safety of the castle walls. At first, I considered just having members of staff to look out for you, but having known your father, I had the feeling I would need a more reliable form of protection than just that."

Harry watched him, spellbound, not even noticing the exasperated look on Snape's face.

"I thought long and hard," said Dumbledore. "And at first, Harry, I did think I would have to resort to having somebody chase you around twenty-four hours a day. I even pondered having an animagus wizard, in an animal form, follow you about the castle as your pet. Though that wouldn't be enough. And so I came up with a much better form of protection for you."

"What?" Harry asked in a whisper.

"At the time, our Potions mistress had just left the school to search a more rewarding career," said Dumbledore.

Snape cut in with a cold, "I know how she felt."

Dumbledore continued as though he hadn't heard Snape. "And who should turn up at my door but one of my past students, Severus Snape. Fresh from ministry training to be a professor, with a lot of energy and enthusiasm, a lot of power as a wizard."

"You do know I'm sitting right here, Albus?" Snape drawled.

"I do, Severus," said Dumbledore. He handed Snape another biscuit and went on. "And an idea came to me, of how I could certify your protection and make Professor Snape feel that little bit more special. Of course, having the poor man chase you constantly around school making sure you were okay was a foolish, impractical plan. Professor Snape would not want to follow you around, and I have the feeling you would not want to be followed, so instead, I used a piece of very old and ancient magic to ensure your safety."

"What did you do?" said Harry, with wide eyes, feeling his fingers seize up around the chair arm.

"I made Professor Snape your magical guardian," said Dumbledore, pleasantly.

Harry stared at him. "My what?"

"I believe you are aware of the muggle concept of guardian angels?" said Dumbledore, surveying Harry over the rim of his cup.

Harry nodded numbly.

Dumbledore took a sip of his hot chocolate and then said, "The idea comes from the ancient wizarding practice of making magical guardians." He dunked a custard cream in his mug, licked the melting cream off and continued. "When a child is under two years old, the guardian bond can be made with up to four other people. For your particular bond, I chose two people who I trust greatly - one of them is Professor Snape. And the other I am afraid I cannot tell you. Someday, the time may come for their identity to be revealed, but until then, you do not need to give too much thought to the issue."

"So... what does the guardian bond do?" said Harry, now staring at Snape, who was looking back at him with those tired black eyes.

"Various things," the Potions master said, tracing his fingers idly around a patch of dust on his desk. "The most obvious is that I cannot physically harm you, no matter how hard I try. Secondly... well... haven't you ever wondered why I always know when you're up to something suspicious or in trouble, Potter?"

Harry nodded slowly. Now he thought about it, Snape always did know when he was up to something. He appeared as if by magic at the most inconvenient times. He remembered a night in his fourth year, when he was sneaking back from the prefect's bathroom, and Snape had just appeared for no reason. And...

"You can see through my invisibility cloak," said Harry, looking up with wide eyes. "Can't you?"

"No," Snape admitted. "I can do a lot of things, but not see through that cloak. It belonged to your father, and since I fortunately had no bond with him, it keeps itself invisible to me. But don't start planning any more little night-time outings, Potter, I know when you're there. I might not be able to see you but I know."

Harry just couldn't believe this. No way was he guarded by Snape.

"But... you hate me."

"True," said Snape.

"Being a guardian to you doesn't mean that Professor Snape has to like you, or even tolerate you," Dumbledore explained. "However, he cannot attack you or hurt you, and nor can he ever go against his guardian bond, for example, turning you over to Lord Voldemort or leaving the school."

"Why? What would happen?"

"No guardian who has abandoned or neglected their charge has ever lived to tell the tale," said Dumbledore.

Harry's eyes widened and he looked at Snape. "So that's why you can't leave your job. And that's why you had to save me at that Quidditch match in my first year when Quirrel was trying to kill me."

Snape nodded silently. Dumbledore smiled. "There are a few other things that the guardian bond has created, of course," he said, pleasantly, as though discussing the weather. "Legilimency and occlumency are slightly different. You have a bond with Lord Voldemort, Harry, which allows him to perform legilimency on your mind without having eye contact or even uttering the enchantment. Professor Snape has a similiar power, except that he only needs to see your eyes to be able to enter your mind. This is one of the reasons I selected him to teach you occlumency, despite him also being skilled in the subject."

Harry looked down at his hands. However good Dumbledore seemed to think this news was, Harry didn't think he liked being bonded with Snape. "But... I know now, and I know to be careful, so... we can turn it off, right?"

Dumbledore smiled. "Ancient magic cannot just be turned on and off like a light, Harry. That bond is here to stay."

Harry looked up at Snape. Snape looked back at him. Harry wondered what he was thinking, and as though to prove the whole thing wasn't a fake, Snape said, "Whether you've figured out the rest of the evidence for all this."

Harry shook his head. "I don't believe you."

Dumbledore smiled. "This isn't something to feel sad about, Harry, surely you don't hate Professor Snape that much."

"But - " Harry was dying to say yes. He didn't want to be bonded with Snape. He didn't want Snape to be chasing him around constantly - but had he been? For six years, Snape had been cropping up at the most inopportune moments to stop him doing anything dangerous. And all along, Harry had just thought he was a spoilsport and strict. But it was for his, Harry's, own good. He suddenly felt rather guilty.

Dumbledore smiled as he poured out three new cups of hot chocolate carefully. "Harry... you told me once that the sorting hat considered you as a suitable candidate for Slytherin house?"

Harry's eyes widened and he gave Dumbledore a horrified look, with a significant glance at Snape, though the Potions master just smirked. "I've known for six years, Potter, I assure you the humour has worn off by now." He took the cup that Dumbledore handed him. "The sorting hat could sense my presence as a guardian, and obviously, the closer the guarded is to their protector, the better, so it naturally wanted to select you for my own house."

Harry wasn't sure whether this comforted him or not. "So... so what now?"

"Nothing," said Dumbledore, pleasantly. "Things carry on as normal. There's no reason for you to act differently towards Professor Snape at all."

Harry couldn't help but think that he now had a million reasons to act differently towards Snape. He suddenly felt as though he didn't have any privacy at all. He couldn't do anything dangerous now, because he knew that Snape would come running. What would be fun anymore? It was like having a really boring and strict older sibling following you around everywhere you went.

"Could I perhaps talk to Potter alone, Headmaster?" Snape said, silkily.

Harry looked up at Dumbledore, wanting him to stay, though Dumbledore nodded. "Of course, Severus. I shall leave you to continue your occlumency class in peace. Goodnight."

Snape nodded curtly. Harry half-squeaked, "Night, Professor", as Dumbledore left and the door shut. For a moment, Harry could hear nothing but the gentle tick of the clock on the wall and the crackle of flames in the grate. Snape was standing by the desk, doing something with the tea tray, and then to Harry's great surprise, the Potions master knelt down before him and pressed a cup into his hands.

It wasn't warm anymore, but slightly chilled, and swirling around in the mug was a gentle, milky pink liquid. He looked up at Snape, surprised.

Snape smiled. Actually smiled. It wasn't quite a proper smile just yet, but Harry was sure that behind those dark eyes, Snape was actually trying to be nice. Harry scanned his face, worriedly, as though looking for any hint of a trick. Snape's smile widened. "Is it so hard to trust, Potter?"

"With you, it is," Harry said, though it was in a calm, honest voice. "It's... well..."

Snape nodded. "You're concerned that I'm going to stop you having fun and risking your neck in more of your outlandish schemes with Weasley and Granger."

Harry blinked. "Not my words, but yeah."

Snape smirked. "Potter, I've put up with it for six years. I'm rather used to getting a sick feeling of fright at completely random times, as you're sneaking into the Forbidden Forest after dark or waking up from various nightmares. And yes, I do know about them," he said, interpreting the shocked look on Harry's face perfectly. "Not only is your mind as easily read as the average beetle's, but you're an atrocious liar."

Harry smiled lopsidedly, glancing down into his cup of whatever, slightly embarrassed at how dangerously civil this conversation was becoming.

"In your first year, I'll admit it. I was bothered, and I did get up out of my office everytime I had the feeling you were up to something. But then I just stop caring Potter." Snape shrugged in quite an unbothered way. "90% of the time you're doing something dangerous. And if you think I'm concerned enough to jump up and run screaming to Gryffindor Tower to find you everytime you do something dangerous, you are wildly mistaken."

"I still think it's weird," said Harry.

Snape considered him for a moment. "Imagine that in four years, you go for a job that, if truth be told, you'd rather not have. But you need it for the gold. And then imagine that your new employer, who happens to be somebody who knows you very well, up and announces that for the rest of your life you're going to be getting cold flushes everytime Draco Malfoy's son does something worrying." He nodded at the horrified look on Harry's face. "Mmm, precisely how I feel." He pushed the mug in Harry's hands. "Drink it."

"What is it?" Harry asked, suspiciously.

Snape smiled slightly. "Strawberry milkshake."

Harry stared. "How did you know I like - "

Snape smirked. "Honestly, Potter. We've just sat here and been through how I can read your thoughts, and you then ask how I know you like strawberry milkshake."

Harry took it, feeling rather stupid, lifting it to his lips and taking a tentative sip. Snape watched him with that lazy smirk still in place.

"It's not poisoned."

Harry grinned into the cup, drinking it gratefully. It tasted slightly more sweet than the usual type. When he was done, he licked the last few drops off his lips. "Sugary."

"No," said Snape, mildly. "It had an extra something in it."

Harry's eyes widened. "You poisoned me!"

"Potter, don't be so stupid. If I'd poisoned you I'd be lying on my back twitching right now as the bond tried to kill me. I added a draft against food poisoning."

Harry stared at him, his hands still clasped around the cup. "Why?"

"Gryffindor Risotta," said Snape, frowning slightly.

"What about it?" asked Harry. "It's not contagious. Madam Pomfrey says - "

"I know," said Snape, still frowning in that worried way. "But not once in sixteen years have I ever seen the house elves make a mistake in their cooking or hygiene. House elves are ridiculously loyal and hard-working - Hufflepuffs with pointy ears. They aren't sloppy cooks."

"So... maybe it was just some bad food," said Harry.

Snape shook his head. "All food brought into Hogwarts is fresh, not conjured - it ruins the flavours, and also can be dangerous if it's not done properly. I have a suspicious feeling that Gryffindor Risotta is not going to be a one-type epidemic."

Harry's eyes widened, opening his mouth to ask another question, but Snape just shook his head.

"A suspicious feeling is all it is, Potter," he said, simply. "There's no need to spread around the school that Professor Snape thinks you're all going to be poisoned by house elves. It's just a... personal precaution to give you that. Which reminds me... tell nobody about the guardian bond. I don't want there to be cause for alarm - and Weasley probably wouldn't look at you the same ever again either."

Harry couldn't help but feel odd at this. He'd always thought that if something dangerous was going on in the school, and Snape only gave antidote to one student, it would be Malfoy. Or he'd just let them all die. And yet Snape was going out of his way to keep Harry safe.

"Thanks," he said, lost in thought.

Snape stood up, taking the cup from him and replacing it on the tea tray. "Legilimency. Up, Potter, we'll see if we can get some progress out of you tonight."

And without another word on the subject, they started to practice once more. Harry didn't even remember about poking into Snape's mind and finding more out about the mysterious woman in black until it was approaching midnight, and Snape said the lesson was over. Harry picked up his bag, heading for the door, then pausing for one moment and asking, "Professor?"

"Yes, Potter?"

"All those... accidents you've been having."

Snape's face darkened, and he opened his mouth, but Harry cut across him.

"I'm not going to meddle," he said. "Just... is it something to do with the guardian bond?"

Snape just looked back at Harry, considering him, and then after a moment, he said, "It isn't anything to do with you, Potter," in a calm tone.

Harry nodded, and then backed out of the room carefully, shutting the door behind him. For some reason, he no longer wanted to poke about in that business. It wasn't anything to do with him, as Snape had said, and it sounded as though the Potions master could sort it out by himself. When Hermione asked him what he had found out, he said nothing, and made no plans to try again at the next legilimency class. Hermione, to his relief, didn't pester him either.


The next two weeks passed remarkably fast to Harry, without giving him much to worry about at all. Lessons and homework continued as normal, and once Harry had settled back into his routine, his marks started to pick up nicely again. He found himself doing particularly well in Pure Arts and Defence Against The Dark Arts, probably because of how much he started to enjoy the lessons. Alrister always had some surprise in storm for them every lesson, whether it was the work they were doing or showing them some highly impressive bit of raw magic. He amazed them all on the Monday afternoon by freezing a large moth, then dethawing it, changing it green and making it glow-in-the-dark. Professor Lupin's classes were always fascinating. After deflecting curses, they did counter-curses and how to reverse hexes, and in DA club, Kibbles the dragon continued to fascinate everybody. The little dragon seemed to have built up a fascination in Hagrid, and when they let him out of his tank on a dog lead to go for a walk, he would only ever let Hagrid fix the leash on. It wasn't unusual to now see Hagrid on a Friday afternoon strolling across the grounds with Fang trotting at one heel, and Kibbles at the other.

Even better, after two weeks, Ron and the rest of the Gryffindors were proclaimed cured, and allowed back to class. Ron was delighted when he heard that he'd missed the Pure Arts exam and two pieces of Transfiguration homework, though not so pleased when Professor McGonagall gave him extra work to catch up during their next lesson. He even seemed to get his appetite back, though smelt everything carefully before eating it - with good reason.

There was no more cause for alarm about the dreaded Gryffindor Risotta, and it seemed that Snape was wrong about the house elves after all. Dumbledore even read out a heartfelt letter of apologise from the little elven cooks one dinner time, which was written in a handwriting that suggested a four-year-old with no hand-eye co-ordination at all, but it was the thought that counted really. The food was of an even better standard than usual, and nobody ever went hungry, as though the house elves were trying to make up for the food poisoning bug.

Occlumency lessons continued, and to his great surprise, he found that his results were picking up. When he had nothing to do, he just sat and practiced emptying his head of emotion, and for the hour or so leading up to his class, he always did his best not to get emotional at anything. Ron thought that Harry was just annoyed about his remedial Potions, so nobody asked any weird questions at Harry sitting cross-legged in an armchair with a very blank look on his face. He was putting quite some effort, and it wasn't long before he could get a well-aimed curse at Snape and stop him getting into his mind too far. Harry spent half of his lesson on the Thursday night apologising over and over for the freezing charm that managed to turn Snape's hair into huge black icicles. Apart from that, his occlumency was going well, and reluctantly, Snape let him use the legilimens spell on him directly after several days of progress. Harry saw a black-haired teenager, throwing things in the air on his bed in the Slytherin dormitories, trying to catch them and failing no matter how hard he tried, a young boy, not even ten yet, crying into somebody's shoulder as people were shouting around him, and then another scene filled his head, of a teenager sitting at a cafe with a young girl with feathery black hair, spilling a cup of coffee on his lap from his nerves. Though Harry didn't pry into that one. He seemed to have gained a little respect for Snape since the revelations about his magical guardian. It seemed to Harry that Snape had sacrificed a lot of opportunites for his sake, and the least he could do was be polite to the Potions master.

Strangely, his Potions marks began to pick up as well. He no longer missed steps in recipes, or forgot ingredients, and he couldn't help but feel proud of his pickling solution when he put it in a jar on Snape's desk at the end of class. Snape glanced up, shifted the jar to one side and said, "A little too watery, Potter, but a decent effort aside from that." To somebody like Hermione, this would have been a grave criticism, but it was the most impressed thing Snape had ever said to Harry, and he couldn't help but feel even more proud after that.

His Pure Arts marks were getting good as well. Professor Alrister was particularly pleased with the Gryffindors work, remarking that, "Ah, the bravery could bring some strong memories... and Gryffindor was a powerful wizard himself, very powerful." Surprisingly, even Neville was getting some of the best marks he'd ever had apart from in herbology. Alrister spent a lot of time around their table, to Hermione's joy, checking their work and offering advice, encouraging them to "push just that little bit more, Mr Longbottom."

Meanwhile, Blaise Zabini had become the new spearhead of Slytherin bullying. If anybody had thought that without Malfoy and his two cronies things would calm down, they were wildly mistaken. The thing with Blaise was that he was actually worse. He didn't just hate muggleborns and Gryffindors as Malfoy had done, but he hated absolutely everybody, even some other members of Slytherin that were seemingly outcast along with Malfoy. The house was practically split into pieces, like tribal warfare in the same country. The largest, and most powerful group was Blaise Zabini, his friends and admirers, which included the main Slytherin Quidditch team, with Zabini as captain. The first years all stuck together, and Zabini had his fun picking on them, but his favourite target was Malfoy. Draco had no friends whatsoever. The Slytherins were hit hard by the loss of their brooms and Zabini's reign, so nobody wanted to or dared talk to him. He spent most of his time out by the lake despite the freezing temperatures and he hardly ever went to the Slytherin common room at all. He was withdrawn in class, except one day when he'd been late, and Lupin had sat him next to Harry in the only available space. Malfoy worked through their given task for the day quite comfortably, and when Harry had made a mistake on one of the questions, Malfoy didn't slur at it, just pointed Harry in the right direction. He was almost civil.

War and its consequences seemed to have brought out people's true characters, Harry found himself thinking one day. The loss of Malfoy's father had hit him hard, stripped him bare and shown everybody the true extent of his vindictiveness. Without his friends and his family legacy, Malfoy was just another person. He had no power, no right to be malicious, there was no more arrogance to the way he walked or spoke. Then there was Blaise Zabini. Always the quiet Slytherin, the one in the background, the chaser that everybody forgot. The short, dark-haired one that nobody remember being sorted. Suddenly, with Malfoy out of the way, he'd surged ahead and started taking control of Slytherin house all by himself. There was something about him that was just wrong. Everybody else preferred to not talk about Malfoy or anything to do with Malfoy, some forgave him, some still hated him but didn't dare be horrible. But Blaise was perfectly happy to talk in a loud voice about it all, even asking Malfoy straight-out in Pure Arts one day what it was like to be given veritaserum. And then, there was the other once-evil in his life, Professor Snape. The professor still greatly disliked Harry, there was no doubt about that, but the Potions master was making an effort not to show just how much. They managed an occlumency lesson one night with hardly any harsh tones at all. And deep down, even though Harry wouldn't admit it, he was starting to almost tolerate Snape, and he had the feeling that his magical guardian was secretly thinking the same things...

All until one day by the lake, a Thursday evening, when Harry nearly blew the lot.

 

Chapter Sixteen: Pushing Your Luck (Déjà Vu)

Thursdays, generally, were not the best days on Harry's timetable. In the morning, he had two hours of Magical Creatures in the cold grounds with Hagrid and all sorts of weird creatures they had to care for, whether the creatures liked it or not. Then there was Transfiguration between the two breaks, and NEWT-standard Transfiguration was the hardest thing Harry had ever done. McGonagall had high standards that Harry found himself straining to meet, and he'd only just completed their first project to a satisfactory state. Then after lunch was Potions. Even though the lesson was a lot more bearable than it had ever been, it was still difficult and he had to put in a lot of effort for two whole hours in a freezing cold dungeon.

So Thursdays, generally, were not the best days on Harry's timetable. Every Thursday, after the last lesson of the day, he, Ron and Hermione went out to the lake to sit and do their homework in peace, relax and let off some steam about their exhausting day. A lot of other students did this as well, and it was quite common practice to have fifty or so people gathered around the lake while it was still light, talking and doing schoolwork, enjoying themselves.

Just one such Thursday afternoon, they were all sitting on a blanket they'd brought to protect their uniforms against the cold ground, surrounded by paper and books, stacks of parchment and various bottles of different coloured inks. There wasn't a breath of wind to speak of, and it wasn't as cold as it usually was, so all of them were getting as much homework done as possible.

"What's a common domestic use for a heating charm?" Ron asked, rubbing his temple with the tip of his quill.

"Cooking?" Harry suggested.

"Oh yeah." Ron scribbled it down, as the doors of the castle came open, and a blonde-haired figure came out into the grounds. Ron rolled his eyes. "Oh look, it's the wandering poet."

Hermione frowned. "Don't, Ron, leave him alone."

Ron had started referring to Malfoy as 'the wandering poet', because most evenings, he could be seen sitting in one of the trees in the grounds, completely alone and far from the others gathered around the lake, drawing in a sketchpad that seemed to be the only half-decent thing he had. It seemed that Ron wasn't ready to feel sorry for Malfoy just yet. Unlike Hermione, Ron couldn't forgive all the jibes about his family and how poor they were quite so easily.

Harry watched absent-mindedly as Malfoy walked silently to one of the nearby trees, clambering up into the branches with little difficulty. Since being back at school, his health had picked up and even though he wasn't quite as agile as he had ever been, he didn't struggle anymore. Sure enough, he seated himself on one of the branches, stretching out, one of his feet hanging underneath as he opened up his sketchbook and started to draw.

Ron tutted and looked away. Hermione scowled. "Hasn't he been punished enough yet?" she muttered.

"No," said Ron, stubbornly. "Remember the time he gave you beaver teeth? Or calling you mudblood all the time? What about when he blacked both my eyes and gave me a nosebleed? Or the millions of times he had a go at Harry? All the dementor stuff? What about that?"

"Keep your voice down," said Hermione, quietly. Harry glanced over his shoulder and so Malfoy watching them over the top of his sketchpad.

Ron snorted. "Why should I? He should know what everybody think of him by now."

"I do," said Malfoy, glaring at Ron, his tone calm and yet angry at the same time. "Though you could do with learning some tact."

Ron turned around to glare right back at Malfoy. "Oh yeah? You're lacking that a bit yourself, aren't you?"

Malfoy just looked away back to his drawing, apparently not bothered enough to fight with Ron. Ron, however, wasn't going to let it drop so easily.

"What's wrong, Malfoy? Can't fight without Crabbe and Goyle standing behind you for back up, huh?" he sneered. People were turning around to stare now, and Hermione kept hissing at Ron to leave him alone, but he was taking no notice.

Malfoy didn't look up, just drawing silently, as though he no longer existed.

"Don't ignore me!" Ron yelled, angrily, getting to his feet.

The Slytherin in the tree looked up coolly, pausing in his drawing. "Can you give me a good reason why I shouldn't?"

"Because all those times, for six years, if you started on us and we ignored you, then you'd just go on and on," Ron snarled. "You just never let anything drop. It's not much fun on the receiving end, is it?" He walked forward to glare up at Malfoy in his tree. "I don't care what happened to you, because a lot worse has happened to other people. Look at Harry! All the times you went on about his family and how he wasn't wanted, and now it's you, and you just expect people to leave you alone?"

"Potter was a year old," said Malfoy, quietly. "He won't remember looking his father in the eye and seeing the fear of death there staring back at him before he crumpled and fell."

"What difference does it make?" Ron snapped. Absolutely everybody was watching now, a lot of them were giving support for Ron, some of them cheering. A few of Blaise Zabini's admirers were whistling and applauding. "Harry saw his godfather die! He saw Cedric die! He saw them all die! And look at you, you haven't changed at all, I don't care what anybody says. You still think you're better than us, but you're not! You're just like us!"

Malfoy looked away again. "If you're looking for a fight, you're not going to get it here. Go throw stones at Zabini, fit a leash on Lupin, lock Flitwick in a cupboard, just leave me alone."

Harry found himself on his feet, moving forwards to stand next to Ron, feeling his anger rising at the slur about Lupin. "You do think you're better than us, don't you? Just because Professor Lupin's a werewolf doesn't make you half the person he is."

"Which part of leave me alone is it causing you the most trouble?" Malfoy snarled from the tree. "I'm not even bothered to fight with you. Go away."

"Why's that? Because you're a Malfoy?" said Harry, angrily. "Because Malfoy's shouldn't have to fight? They get people to do it for them?"

"No," said Malfoy, and he sounded nearly as angry as Harry now, his eyes narrow, his fingers shaking from supressed anger. "It's because you're an arrogant, heroic little mudblood lover, that's why! Leave me alone!"

Ron pulled out his wand, pointed it up at the branch Malfoy was sitting on and cried, "Diffindo!"

There was a loud creak, and the branch snapped dangerously, jolting Malfoy down. His eyes widened in fear, scrabbling for the trunk, but Harry drew his wand as well. "Diffindo!"

The branch gave way with a loud crack, and Malfoy fell hard from the tree, hitting the ground with a cry of pain. Everybody cheered except Hermione who said, "No, Harry, Ron, don't!", but they weren't listening. Ron strode forward and turned Malfoy over, wand pointing right at his face.

"Take back what you said about Harry."

"No," Malfoy snarled, fighting to get Ron off.

"Take it back," Harry said, angrily. He stood next to Ron, cousins standing together, both their wands pointing at Malfoy on the ground. "Take back everything you ever said. Everything about me, about Ron, about Hermione, about Lupin, about everybody."

"Make me," Malfoy snapped. He lashed out, trying to knock their wands out of the way. Everybody had jumped up from their groups of friends and was hurrying over to watch. A crowd was forming around Malfoy, Ron and Harry, all cheering, all yelling for Harry and Ron to jinx him. Hermione was at Harry's elbow, pleading with him, but he ignored her. Years and years of being taunted by Malfoy had peaked inside him.

"Take it back or I'll curse you so badly you'll wish you'd never come back to Hogwarts," said Ron.

Malfoy lashed at them again, trying to crawl away from them, the sketchbook still clamped tight in his arms.

Ron raised his wand, "Accio sketchbook!"

Malfoy gave a grab for it as the book was yanked out of his arms and soared into Ron's hand. Hermione snatched at it, with a shrill, "Ron, no!" Ron pulled it away from her, and starting to flick through it, sneering.

"How sentimental," he said, passing picture after picture of Malfoy Manor and Lucius. "Didn't know you were so wet, Malfoy."

"Give me it back!" said Malfoy, and Harry could hear a note of panic in his voice that somehow just made him want to hex Malfoy even more.

Hermione pleaded, "Ron, please, just give him it! Don't be so mean!"

"I don't need you to fight for me, mudblood!" Malfoy snarled viciously at her, making another grab for his sketchbook.

Harry felt his blood boil with fury. He did think he was better. He was still arrogant, he still thought that being pureblood gave him the right to insult everyone lower than him. He raised his wand, furiously, and cried, "Scoritis!" A jet of light burst from his wand, struck Malfoy around the face and he cried out as a burn started to spread over his flawless pale skin.

Hermione said, "No! Harry, don't, you'll get in trouble!", pulling at his arm, trying to make him stop. "Please Harry, look at him, what's he ever done to you?"

And at that, Harry suddenly felt a cold flush spread from his stomach right up to his chest. He'd seen this before. Snape's pensieve... Snape, in the middle of a crowd of people, all of them calling for James Potter to jinx him, with Sirius behind his best friend, laughing, taunting Snape, and Lily pleading with the two boys to let him go. He felt his hand shaking as he realised with a rush of cold, horrible realisation that he was turning into everything his father was.

"Ignore her Harry," Ron said, angrily. "Remember the time he fouled you at Quidditch? All those times? Come on, Harry, make him pay!"

Harry was just staring at Malfoy, his hand shaking. "What am I doing?" he said, his eyes wide, and then he started to back away, just wanting to run, wanting to shake off the stains his father had left, but he didn't get far when the voice he least wanted to hear in the whole world shouted over the crowd.

"What's going on here? Let me through, out of my way!"

It was Snape. Harry turned, starting to run, but Snape came through a gap in the crowd, pushed into the circle with Harry, Ron, Malfoy on the floor, cradling the burn on his face, and Hermione pulling at Harry's arm to make him stop.

It took perhaps two seconds for the Potions master to realise just what was going on. And when he did, Harry just wished he could die on the spot, just kill himself and not have to see the expression on Snape's face anymore. It was unbearable to see. So much fear, so much fury, so much complete and utter disbelief at what he was seeing, and for a moment, Snape just froze, as the crowd hushed instantly. Harry saw the professor's hands shaking as he looked from Malfoy to Harry.

Harry stared back into those black eyes, and he could see not a Potions master, but a teenage boy who had spent so many years reliving a scene just like this in his nightmares. "I - " What could he say? What was there to say? "I didn't realise - "

It was as though anger itself had failed Snape - or that his anger was so great it was inexpressible. Harry knew that it was probably the latter. The professor just stepped forward, pulled Malfoy to his feet, supporting him, and then grabbed Harry hard around the back of the neck. Harry cried out with pain, and Snape's face seethed, as though he was feeling it himself, his grip relaxing slightly even though it still hurt so much Harry found himself twisting to get out. But Snape wasn't going to let go. Harry could see red marks blooming on the back of the professor's neck, as the guardian bond inflicted the same pain back on him, but Snape didn't care. He started to stalk up the grounds towards the castle, too fast for Harry to walk, so he kept stumbling and tripping, unable to keep up. Everytime he fell, Snape just grabbed him again and pushed him even harder. Though Harry hardly felt the pain. He hardly knew he was walking, he hardly even registered that Malfoy was fighting to keep up as well and there were tears staining his face, dripping into the burn with hissing sounds.

Because his guilt was drowning him. He'd done just what his father had. Snape was right. He was no better than his father. He was a bully.

Snape half-dragged him up the steps to the castle, down the corridors to the dungeons, in complete silence apart from their frantic footsteps and Malfoy's shaky breaths as he tried to calm himself. Finally, they reached the door of Snape's office, Snape hauled it open, flung them both in and then Snape had Harry by the front of his robes and was suddenly yelling so loud it hurt.

"YOU SORRY LITTLE INVERTEBRATE, POTTER!!"

"I'm sorry!" Harry cried, fighting to get away, shaking with fear. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I didn't - "

"WHAT!? IT WAS AN ACCIDENT, WAS IT!? YOU DIDN'T MEAN TO DO IT!?!" Snape's eyes were practically alight with fury, almost bulging from the force of his rage.

Harry choked, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, it got out of hand!"

Snape's fury hit boiling point, and Harry could see the explosion deep inside him as decades of bottled up anger and anguish burst through a damn in his chest and just drowned Harry in anger. Snape was shouting so loud Harry couldn't even hear what he was saying, he was just so angry it went past anything and everything Harry had ever, ever experienced. He shouted about James Potter, Sirius Black, Pettigrew and Lupin, turning his life into a living hell from the moment he ever stepped into the castle on the first day, the years of anger and injustice he went through, how much of his life he had given up to keep Harry safe and this was how he was repaid, by just proving once and for all that James Potter hadn't died sixteen years ago but was continuing to rip his life apart through his son. Harry just kept yelling back that he was sorry, I'm not my father, I'm sorry, please, I didn't mean to let it all happen, I'm sorry. Malfoy was shouting something too though nobody heard him at all over the noise of Harry and Snape's yells, until -

"STOP IT!!!!!" Malfoy practically screamed, as he seized a glass jar from the side and flung it down on the floor, shattering it to pieces.

The silence that fell was nearly as painful as the screaming. Harry could hear ringing his ears, his heart pummeling the inside of his chest, he was so scared. There were tears pouring down Malfoy's face and the burn had spread down his neck. He was shaking harder than either of them as he pointed at his wound and screamed, "OW!!!! OW, FOR THE SAKE OF MERLIN, STOP YELLING!!!"

Shaking furiously, Snape left Harry and turned to Malfoy, taking out his wand and stretching the Slytherin's neck back. "Stay still," he said, and his voice was hoarse, shuddering nearly as much as his hand. He muttered something, and the burn faded slowly away as a soft blue light sprinkled from his wand, healing it. Malfoy just closed his eyes, as though it was all becoming too much. "There." Snape drew his wand away, tucking it back up his sleeve.

Malfoy opened his eyes, "Good, now YOU sit down there, and POTTER is going to sit down there, and nobody is going to do anymore yelling but me! Are we clear?" He spoke so angrily and so stubbornly that Snape didn't argue back. He looked as though he was all screamed out. He fell into a chair behind his desk, sitting forward, scraping his fingers through his hair.

Malfoy turned to Harry, and it was the Slytherin's turn to berate him. "You are arrogant, you are vile, you are a hypocrite, and you are just blind to what you are! And don't you dare talk back to me Potter, because this is NOT fair! You're going to sit there, and I don't care what you think, you are going to LISTEN to me and you will listen WELL." He then turned to Snape and said with a much calmer, more respectful tone that was still angry, "I'm not going to yell too loudly at you because I'll get expelled, but not only do you walk too fast, you're blind too! There, I said it! Now BOTH of you just be quiet!"

Snape and Harry both obeyed, too stunned by Malfoy's cheek to really do anything. Snape looked as though he'd never been told to be quiet by a student in his life, and Harry just didn't want the Potions master to start shouting again.

Malfoy addressed Snape first, with a level, shaky voice. "Potter is not his father. He might be arrogant, he might be stubborn, he might cross the line sometimes, and I am not standing up for Potter, but he is not his father. He's not your stress relief outlet. I don't care what Potter's father did to you, but taking it out on him is not going to help anything. No matter how loud you scream, Potter's father will not hear you."

He then turned to Harry, brushed his hair out of his eyes before saying, "Professor Snape and I are not half as arrogant as you. You're a total and utter hypocrite. You say I think I'm better than you, when you then think you have the given right to humiliate me publicly, burn my face, and then shout at Professor Snape. You don't understand what respect is, you don't understand that you're not the centre of the universe, you don't understand that people out there suffer just as much as, if not more, than you."

He then faced between both of them, staring straight ahead. "I am arrogant. I used to think I was God's gift to bloody everything. I used to consider myself better than everybody else, I used to think I owned this school, I used to think I was superior to you, Potter. I used to suck up to you, Professor. But I am not what I used to be! I am not Malfoy, I'm not a piece of skin full of noble blood, I'm a person who saw their father killed, I am DRACO."

He took a deep breath, and then said, "There. I have been wanting to say that for YEARS." He looked at Snape, and then at Harry. "Now do either of you have any more problems you wish to get out in the open?"

Harry shook his head numbly. Snape did too.

"If that's so, both of you should have no trouble with apologising to each other, and looking each other in the eye while you do it, and just letting all this stupid fighting drop. Professor Snape is a good teacher, and Potter with admittedly a little practice is a good student. There is no reason to fight." He glared at them both. "Apologise."

"Sorry," Harry mumbled.

"Sorry," came the muttered reply.

"I'm not convinced!" Draco said, angrily, his eyes flaring again.

Snape was silent for a moment, then got up, walked over to Harry's chair and sat back down. He looked Harry directly in the eye, and even though Harry could see it was costing him a lot of pride to do so, the Potions master he never thought would even tolerate him said, slowly and clearly, "I'm sorry."

Harry looked back, and he was completely sincere and honest when he said, "I'm sorry too."

Draco sighed. "Thankyou for that." He sat down on a chair, looking exhausted. "And don't thank me too much."

Snape glanced over his sholder at the weary Slytherin. "By the way, Malfoy, five points from Slytherin for talking back to a professor. And Potter, twenty points from Gryffindor for cursing Malfoy." The very corners of his lips twitched ever so slightly. "And ten points each for being the first students to ever dare shout at me in my entire career. Now out. And I don't want to see any rivalry between either of you again."

Draco and Harry both left the room silently, and when the door shut, they started to walk towards the entrance hall together. After a moment, Draco said, "I didn't know you could shout that loud."

"Likewise," said Harry.

Draco stopped then, and Harry did too as the Slytherin turned to him, looking at his feet, fighting with himself to get the words out. "Look, Potter... maybe I got a faulty first impression of you. And maybe I've been a bit... prejudiced."

Harry raised his eyebrows. "Don't choke on that apology, Draco." Draco looked up, and Harry smiled. "I got a faulty first impression of you too. Even though you were a total stuck-up jerk at times."

Draco smirked. "I could say the same about you." He paused, considering, and then extended his hand. "What do you say, Potter? Peace?"

Harry took Draco's hand. "Peace." They shook hands, and Harry realised it was now six years since Malfoy had first offered his hand to Harry on the Hogwarts Express. "It took us long enough."

"True," said Draco. "I think this is the first time I've actually... well, spoken to you."

Harry thought about that, and after a moment, he nodded. "It is, isn't it?" He paused, and then said, "I'm... sorry about your sketchbook. Hermione probably got it, she'll have it somewhere for you. And... sorry about... your dad."

Draco turned his eyes to the floor, shrugging slightly, though Harry could see he didn't feel quite so casual about it really. "Things happen. As Weasley said... I'm not the only casualty..."

"That was unfair of Ron though," said Harry, as they started to walk up the corridor to the hall again. "Maybe we're all a little arrogant deep down."

They left the cold dungeon corridor, up into the evening sunlight streaming into the entrance hall. Harry glanced across at Draco, and realised suddenly just how little he knew about the Slytherin. They had hated each other for six years for no reason apart from jealousy and arrogance. Pointless, really, Harry thought.

"Aren't you going to your common room?" Harry asked.

Draco scoffed. "Zabini already does enough damage to me without presenting myself as an easy target." His fingers instinctively curled around the locket dangling around his neck. "Every single thing I do, he picks up on. You have no idea, Potter."

"So where do you spend all your time?" Harry asked, as they headed across the hall for the grounds.

"The Great Hall, mostly, or the library. The astronomy tower is always empty. I did think I was safe sitting in a tree in the grounds until somebody cursed me down. Oh yes, it was you and Weasley. How forgetful of me."

Harry looked across, and saw that Malfoy was smirking. Deep down, he could see a little of the old Malfoy hidden underneath, a little of the Malfoy who enjoyed taunting people. Harry grinned. "You're a real prat."

"As are you. We make quite the pair, wouldn't you agree?"

They stepped out through the main doors of the castle, to immediately be greeted by a swarm of attention. Ron was fighting through the crowd. "Harry, Harry! What happened?"

"Where's Draco's sketchbook?" said Harry.

Hermione appeared at his elbow, and handed him the book, looking absolutely passed herself. "You haven't been expelled, have you, Harry?"

"No, I got ten points for Gryffindor for yelling at Snape," said Harry, bemusedly. He handed Malfoy the sketchbook, and as simple as the gesture was, Ron's eyes widened at it.

"What - "

"Thankyou." Malfoy tucked the sketchbook under his arm, then looked up at the horrified expression on Ron's face. "Oh, by the way, Weasley, Professor Snape wants to see you. He says to pack before you go though, he has some bad news for you."

Ron's face fell in horror. Harry stared at Malfoy. "Snape didn't say that, did he?"

And then he saw that sly smirk again, and he laughed. Ron didn't find it funny. "Oh right! You're just stupid, Malfoy. Come on Harry, leave him to it."

"Draco and I have agreed to stopped fighting," said Harry.

"Oh, that's wonderful!" said Hermione, shrilly, beaming at the pair of them. "So no more fighting? Seriously? This is all so great, I'm really, really proud of you both! So what happened in Snape's office?"

"He made you make up, right?" said Ron.

"No," said Harry. "We both yelled at Snape, Draco smashed one of his jars and he gave us ten points each."

"No, really, tell us."

Harry couldn't help but smile.


Once again, the weeks started to roll by. Draco started to spend more and more time with Harry, Ron and Hermione, following them around to Ron's annoyance. Ron, it seemed, still hated Draco and wouldn't let Harry out of his sight, making sure that Draco knew who was Harry's best friend. Harry didn't mind really, and neither did Draco. He did his best not to provoke Ron, and even let Ron copy his Transfiguration homework one day as a gesture of good will. Hermione was delighted to have Draco around, because they both did Runes, and neither Harry nor Ron wanted to listen to a word of what she said about the subject, though Draco did. Harry found that the Slytherin was quite clever, especially with Runes and Astronomy. He was also becoming highly successful in the Pure Arts, delighting Alrister when Draco managed to turn one of their balloons a completely different colour one lesson.

Neville was still terrified of Draco and generally stuck close to Hermione's side if he was around. Ginny didn't really seem to mind much, and Luna didn't seem to have even noticed that Draco was there until one lunch time when she suddenly looked over the top of her Quibbler and said, "Draco Malfoy," in her dreamy sort of way. Draco was rather wary of Luna from that moment on and wouldn't let her sit too close to him, telling Harry he had allergies to weirdoes.

And so the weeks rolled passed, until all of a sudden it was November and the bitterly cold weather came, along with six-inch deep snow all over Hogwarts. The fires in classrooms were lit to try and drive back the cold, but the students' breath still rose in mists in front of them. Thankfully, the house elves kept them all warm with a series of piping hot stew and puddings everyday, and Flitwick showed them a neat little charm to insulate their cloaks against the cold, so all in all, life becamse very bearable again after the drama of the Thursday by the lake. Things were just getting relaxing for Harry, until towards the end of November when they became so much more exciting once more.

 

Chapter Seventeen: Slytherin Risotta and Voldemort's Reminder

As usual on a Wednesday lunchtime, Hermione was getting excitable, kept tidying her hair and hardly ate anything, saying she wasn't hungry, though really, she was too busy reading yet another book on Pure Arts theory she'd got from the library. Of course, she wasn't the only one looking forward to the afternoon. Harry, Ron, Hermione, Draco and Neville all had Pure Arts with Professor Alrister, a subject which had fast become the favourite of many people in the school, boys and girls alike.

They were all sitting outside in the courtyard, while Neville and Ginny made a snowman nearby, Hermione sat huddled over her precious Pure Arts book, with Luna reading over her shoulder. Harry sat near Hermione, as as usual, he had Ron clamped to his side, glaring at Draco on Harry's other side, who was doing some Astronomy homework.

"I wonder what we're doing in Pure Arts today," Hermione said, brightly.

"Hermione, you've said that about four times this break," said Ginny, looking up from the snowman. "Stop rubbing it in."

"I do though," said Hermione. "I'm just making conversation."

"Then talk about something else," said Ginny. "I've only got Pure Arts on Friday next, you're making me jealous."

Hermione shut her book, tucking it away into her bag, and Ron said, "How long have we got left for break?"

Harry checked his watch. "Quite a while... maybe we should have stayed in the Great Hall for a bit longer. I'm still kinda hungry."

"Me too," Neville agreed.

Draco shook his head. "I couldn't eat that Shepherd's Pie. I only had a few mouthfuls and it was just... disgusting." Ron muttered something under his breath, turning away from the conversation with a frown. Draco raised an eyebrow. "Sorry, Weasley, didn't catch that. Care to repeat?"

"I said," Ron said, coldly, "you're probably used to Shepherd's Pie doused in white wine with a sprig of mint on top though, aren't you?"

Draco looked away, ignoring Ron. They were all quite used to this by now. Draco said something he thought was perfectly innocent, Ron took offense and snapped at Draco, Draco looked away, that was about it. Today was no different. Harry quite wished they'd stop annoying each other so much - it did get boring after the same routine, day in day out, though he didn't want to make Ron jealous or alienate Draco, so he just let them get on with it.

But then, something happened that had never happened before. Draco spoke back to Ron.

"And actually, Weasley, I'm used to it being six months old and tasting as though it's been made inside a rat," he said, coldly, turning his pale eyes on Ron.

Ron blinked for a moment, clearly thrown that Draco had risen to his bait. "I - well... good."

"I'm glad you think so," said Draco, coolly.

"Fine." Ron turned away this time. Draco averted his eyes to the snowman, as though he didn't even want to look at Ron properly, but before any of them could say another word, a large gang of people stepped out into the courtyard. Blaise Zabini, with Pansy Parkinson cuddled on his arm wearing a large fur coat that made her look even more like a pug, followed by their entourage of five Slytherin boys. Harry noticed that Blaise was trying to prove that he was more impressive than Draco had ever been by making sure he didn't have just two people to do his dirty work, but a minimum of four.

Draco's eyes flashed at the sight of Blaise, particularly with Pansy clinging to him like that, turning his eyes away. Harry was about to ask if they should maybe go inside or go and see Hagrid, but Blaise had spotted them, and was coming over.

"Well, well, well," he said, softly. "If it's not my favourite little fatherless outcasts." Harry and Draco both glared at Blaise, but said nothing. He strolled in front of them. "Gone deaf, have we?" The knot of Slytherins around him all laughed sluggishly, egging him on.

"We're not deaf," Hermione said, coolly. "We're ignoring you."

"Shhh, sweetie, I didn't ask you to talk," Blaise said, smirking horribly at Hermione. Ron got up and sat between her and Harry defiantly.

"Leave us alone, Zabini, nobody's intimidated," Ron said, glaring at the Slytherin.

"Protective of her, huh?" said Blaise, his eyes sparking as they locked on Ron and Hermione.

"What are you talking about?" Ron snapped.

"Come off it... we've all seen the way you look at her..." said Blaise, softly. "How you're just dying for the know-it-all to drag you off to the library for a little study time..."

Ron looked outraged, and he jumped to his feet, turning scarlet, his fists clenching. "Say that again," Ron snarled.

Blaise raised an eyebrow, opening his mouth, but a mild voice said from the courtyard. "Is there a problem here?" Lupin smiled down at the spread of students.

Blaise cast one last look at Ron, then left the courtyard without another word, not even answering Lupin's question. His gang followed after him silently, and Lupin came across the courtyard to Harry and his friends, stepping carefully in the footsteps to avoid the snow.

"Not bothering you all, were they?" he said.

Ron started to nod, but Draco cut across him with a swift, "No, professor."

"Good," said Lupin. "You all want to get to class now, it's getting near to the bell."

"Thanks Sir," said Harry.

With one last smile, Lupin left the courtyard back into the school. The moment he was gone, Ron rounded on Malfoy. "What did you say no for? We could have got him to sort Zabini out!"

Draco shook his head, frowning, suddenly looking pained. "Wouldn't do any good."

"What's wrong?" said Hermione, leaning forward to watch him as he curled a hand around his stomach.

"Stomach pains... it's normal now though," he said, vaguely.

"What do you mean, normal now?" she said, frowning.

"Nothing. Come on, class." He stood up, picking his bag up off the floor and heading vaguely towards the door into the class, one hand still held against his side. Harry, Ron and Hermione all looked suspiciously at each other, then followed him. Neville cried, "Wait for me!" and followed them after a hurried goodbye to Luna and Ginny.

Even when the five sixth years sat down around one of the large tables in Alrister's class, Draco still had a pained look on his face, though there wasn't much time to think about this as Alrister came into the room, looking merry as always. Noticably, he didn't have any of the special gloves with him for once.

"Good afternoon everybody!" Alrister called, jovially.

The reply from the class was rather weak, not quite as eager as usual. He smiled, taking off his jacket to reveal a wine-coloured satin shirt and a neat little velvet waistcoast, black to match his trousers. It didn't matter what occasion it was, Alrister always seemed to have a whole new outfit to match it perfectly.

"Come now, surely I deserve a little more of a warm welcome than that," he said, smiling sideways out of the corner of his mouth. "Are we not feeling so good today?"

Harry glanced around at the class. They were quite a few pale faces, quite a few expressions like Draco's. His face darkened in a slight frown, wondering whether... no... it was just a cold day. They had flu or something.

"I'll have to perk you all up then, won't I?" Alrister said. "Is anybody absent?" At the general murmur of no, he clapped his hands together. "Marvellous, I don't have to take the register. Right then. You'll notice I have not brought the magic gloves today, shock horror. Because today, you're going to take the plunge and be brave. No gloves, and no pretty balloons to spin round on the spot." He smiled, looking around at them all. "We're going to learn how to blow things up today."

Quite a few people cheered, especially Ron, who had been wildly anticipating this lesson ever since the start of the year. Draco gave a very vague, unconvincing, "Hurrah".

"Powerful raw magic is, of course, a very difficult thing to create. It takes one hell of a good memory and a lot of imagination to summons to emotions needed to conjure true power... which is why I'm going to annoy the hell out of all of you by dragging you out into the cold and the snow. Now, now, no more groaning and grumbling. You'll have to do well in this lesson to stay warm, you see? My brilliant teaching methods yet again, right then - Mr Malfoy, are you alright?"

Draco shook his head, wretching again. He was very, very green in the face and looked as though he was about to vomit.

"Oh dear," said Alrister, coming over, snapping his fingers and conjuring a bucket he put down in front of Draco. "I think somebody needs to go and get Madam Pomfrey... rather quickly," he added, as Draco groaned and his lunch made its grand re-entrance to the world, pouring into the bucket. Hermione jumped up, hurrying from the room as Alrister took the chair by Draco and rubbed his back. "Get it up, Malfoy... better out than in..."

"Uh... Professor Alrister?"

They all looked around. Pansy Parkinson had just fainted onto the floor, looking very green. Blaise was shaking worryingly, and across the room, two other Slytherin girls didn't look so good.

"Oh no... right, somebody wait with Miss Parkinson." He snapped his fingers, and a large bucket appeared. "Everybody else who feels ill get around that... well, this is going fabulously..."

A minute later, Hermione arrived with Madam Pomfrey, who took one look at the class and said, "Oh my... all Slytherins... I don't believe this... I'm afraid that everybody who isn't in Slytherin house will have to go and wait outside."

"What about me?" said Alrister.

"Are you, or were you in Slytherin?"

"Well... no, but - "

"Out," she said, crisply, ferrying them all out of the room and then shutting the door. Alrister looked shocked at being ordered out of own classroom, and took a moment to regain speech then said,

"Well then. I think we'll have to save the explosions lesson for another day... don't look so disappointed, Mr Weasley, we can do something just as fun. Let's see... I'll teach you some more sparks stuff. Mr Potter, just run down to my office and get the gloves, will you? We'll be in one of the spare classrooms in the Defence Against The Dark Arts corridor."

Harry nodded, and as Alrister lead the rest of the class away to the spare classrooms in Defence Against The Dark Arts, he made his way the opposite way down the corridor towards Alrister's office. He knew where it was, but had never been inside before, and so when he pushed open the finely polished oak door with a plaque on saying "Professor R Alrister", he looked around expectantly.

Like everything else to do with Alrister, it was very grandly decorated, with ruby and cream coloured walls, a smart wooden floor and furniture to match perfectly. Alrister's desk was positioned in pride of place, with a plate of mints on one edge, and the Pure Arts master's familiar hawking gloves left in the middle of the desk. On a neat gold perch in the corner sat Cupid, who started warbling merrily the moment Harry walked in. He smiled, petting the little hawk under the chin, looking around for the box of gloves. He spotted them under Alrister's desk, hauled them out, and was just about to leave when he spotted something by the door that made him stop.

There a painting of a woman hanging above a cupboard, in a very well-crafted and expensive looking frame. Unlike the photo Snape had, this was moving, painted in wizard's ink, so that the woman inside flicked her hair gently and smiled at him, waving. He waved back, grinning, moving closer to read what was inked on in the bottom left corner.

To My Romeo, all my love forever... until we meet again. Forever yours, Sarah.

Why do all the professors suddenly have gorgeous girlfriends in paintings on their walls? thought Harry. Sarah giggled softly, tilting her head so that her waterfall of beautiful golden hair fell over her soft green eyes. Unlike Snape's photo, Sarah was the traditional view of beautiful. Slightly tanned skin, long blonde hair, pretty eyes. She looked quite like a veela.

Realising he was poking and prodding terribly, Harry took one last glance at Sarah and Cupid, then left the room quickly, making sure to shut the door behind him. As he hurried towards the Defence Against The Dark Arts corridor, he decided he'd better not tell Hermione there was a painting on Alrister's wall calling her favourite teacher, 'my romeo'. She'd probably put memory charms on both of them and never let him copy her homework again.


Hardly surprisingly, nobody wanted to eat a thing at dinner that night. The food looked delicious, a mouth-watering steak with chips or boiled potatoes, and normally, Harry would have tucked in with no second thoughts, but he, like everybody else, couldn't help but wonder whether it would stay in his stomach once he'd eaten it and not eject itself back out in half-digested form. A few people had a couple of tentative nibbles, but suspicion obviously got the better of them, and in the hour set out for dinner, hardly anybody ate anything. Even the staff looked dubious. Snape, of course, looked very smug with his customary bread roll and was the one of the only people who ate his fill for once. Dumbledore, as though trying to prove there was nothing wrong with the food, ate his calmly, though nobody else was convinced.

Ron picked a bit of one of the bread rolls, sniffed it and then ate it carefully. "Not poisoned." He took some more, ate that, and after a moment... "Not poisoned." He had been doing this pretty much all dinner, and as much as Harry liked Ron, he was pretty sure Ron was going to get punched in a minute if he didn't stop it.

Hermione was thinking the same thing. She snatched the whole damn roll off Ron and tore it into little bits, sprinkling them all over his steak, then sat back, looking rather annoyed. Ron didn't really seem bothered by this at all, and slumped forward on his elbows, sighing. "I am so hungry."

"Me too," Harry admitted. His stomach was growling and snarling, demanding to be given the steak which was wafting its mouth-watering aroma all over Harry's nose. "I've got some sweets left upstairs and we could maybe conjure some food to eat..."

"No," said Hermione. "Conjuring food can be dangerous, all sorts of things can go wrong. A wizard in America tried to conjure pineapples, and when people bit into them, they were rotting fish inside."

"Gee, thanks Hermione," said Ron, pushing his plate away. "Now I'm even more put off this. Thanks so much for that."

"You wouldn't have eaten it anyway," she said, coolly.

Dumbledore had finished his meal, and stood up. "You may all now go back to your house common rooms," he said. "And may I remind you that tomorrow evening is of course DA club, and Professor Lupin and Mr Potter would like you all to bring your dragon-hide gloves, please. Thankyou - sleep well."

Harry, Ron, Hermione, Neville and Ginny all walked up to Gryffindor Tower as a group, and nobody was talking much. They spent the evening doing homework, trying to ignore the constant growls of stomachs, and they even dug into Ron and Ginny's secret supply of sweets Fred and George sent from Diagon Alley, but it wasn't enough to fill the hole in Harry's stomach. By the time it was nine o' clock, he couldn't put up with sitting and being hungry anymore. Even though he wasn't tired, he made his way wearily up to bed, got changed, and laid in his four-poster for a while, staring at the ceiling.

His thoughts wandered around vaguely. So Snape had been right about Gryffindor Risotta. It had now attacked the Slytherins, and suddenly, it didn't look like just bad food anymore. How could the house elves be so foolish twice? It was starting to look more like whatever was happening was being done on purpose. But who would want to poison the school? His first thought was Zabini, but it couldn't be him. He was now down in the hospital wing, probably in just as bad a state as Draco. So what was going on?

Suddenly glad that Snape had given him that antidote after all, he rolled over to face the wall, closed his eyes, and within a few minutes, he had fallen into a deep sleep...

But there wasn't a potion in the world that could protect him from his nightmares.


He didn't know where he was, how he'd got there, or how he was going to get back. He had the feeling of floating, just hanging gently in the air, looking down upon a scene. Everything was black... just black, for miles and miles. There was no floor, no ceiling, no walls, no beginning, and no end. Just black.

He could see three people below him, and then he was floating down to see them better. There was a man... a man who had haunted Harry's nightmares for sixteen years. Lord Voldemort. His livid red eyes were full of anger, cold malicious humour, as he looked down upon the two women tied up before him, on the floor, gagged.

Harry looked in closer... he had never met either of them, but he knew them. One was the pale, dark-haired dark angel that came to see Snape, and the other had only ever waved at him from a painting. Sarah, the beautiful woman of the painting in Alrister's office. Both of them were frightened, huddled together at Voldemort's feet.

"So..." said the high, cold, cruel voice of the dark lord above Harry. "You vile creatures... an adultress. A breaker of the bond of marriage. And you... a foul creature, who dares to soil the blood of one of my most loyal men. You both tried to destroy the moral of my forces... and you will both pay for these actions... most grieviously..."

He drew his wand slowly from the inside folds of his cloak, lazily, bringing it up into the air and then murmuring, "Sarah... avada kedavra..."

There was a blinding flash of green light, and the woman with the blonde hair crumpled onto her side. Harry knew she was dead. He looked to the other woman, in time to hear Voldemort say, "Avada kedavra..." He saw her eyes fill with fear, before there was a second flash, and she fell limp, slumped forward, dead.

Voldemort started to laugh, quietly at first, as though mildly amused, but then he got a little louder, a little happier, and soon he was laughing, louder and louder, cackling, his cruel enjoyment ringing in Harry's ears. He felt himself being pulled backwards, lifted higher into the air, and the scene below got smaller and smaller until...


Harry woke with a start, jolting up in bed. There was cold sweat on his face. Neville, Ron, Dean and Seamus were all still asleep, untroubled, calm with no dreams to worry their thoughts. Harry could feel his heart pounding in his chest. He had to tell somebody. They might be dead... Sarah, and the other woman. They might need help.

He sat, frozen with his panic, thinking what to do. Who would he tell? Who would believe him?

He got out of bed, pulling his trunk out from underneath and wrenching it open. His father's old invisibility cloak gleamed inside, silvery and fluid, like water spun into material. He picked it up and pulled it on over his shoulders. His heart was still pounding. He could still see the look on terror in the woman's smoky silver eyes, hear Sarah's frightened gasp as life was torn from her body. He shivered.

Only Seamus made a soft noise as Harry slipped out of the dormitory, closed the door and padded carefully down the stairs. The candles in the Gryffindor common room had all been put out long ago. The darkness seemed to watch him as he hurried across the room, eased the portrait open and pattered out into the cold corridor. He gave a soft hiss as his toes touched the icy cold stone, wishing he'd brought his slippers, but there was no time to go back.

He looked around at the blackness surrounding him on all sides, trying to rid the extreme feelings of paranoia drowning him, starting to creep as quietly as he could towards the dungeons. He had to tell Snape. Every step was torture to his bare feet, as the cold stone almost burnt the pads of his toes, but he had to keep going. Maybe there was time. Maybe the two women could be saved.

Or maybe it's too late, he thought.

He eventually found his way down to the entrance hall. As he stepped into the dungeon corridor, he was shocked by how cold it was, as though a wall of ice had just blasted him full on in the face. He shuddered, feeling the blood inside his toes starting to freeze as he carried on, determined not to give up. He couldn't let them die.

He was so cold that it hurt his knuckles to knock on the door of Snape's office. His teeth were chattering violently.

"Oh come on, please... open the door..."

He knocked again, harder this time, cursing as the hard wood battered his frozen knuckles.

"Get out of bed," he pleaded with the door. "Please, please... come on... please be here..."

What if Snape was out patrolling the corridors? What if he was out on a Death Eater mission? There was nobody he could tell, nobody at all. The walk to Alrister's office was about twenty minutes, and in subzero temperatures... he'd never make it, he'd get frostbite on his toes. Professor Dumbledore's office had a password to it.

He knocked again, as hard as he could, and there was some flurried movement from inside. The door opened, and Snape stood there, swathed in a black dressing gown, not looking pleased at all.

"What is it?" he hissed, viciously. "I - " He looked around at the empty corridor, and cursed, about to slam the door.

Harry hissed hurriedly, "It's me Don't shut the door!"

Snape paused, his eyes wandering vaguely around the darkness. "Potter?"

"I need help," said Harry, pulling the cloak off over his hair, staring up at Snape with a pleading, desperate expression that caught the professor's attention instantly. "Well.. they need help. I fell asleep, and... I saw Voldemort, and he had that woman, the woman you know. The one with black hair. And there was another, she's in a painting on Alrister's wall. He killed them, Voldemort killed them."

Snape's face slackened instantly, all the creases ironing out instantly. "You're sure, Potter?"

"Sure," said Harry.

Snape grasped him by the arm, hauled him inside and shut the door. "Damn it all... damn it..." He hurried to his desk, rattling through the drawers, searching for something. Eventually, he pulled out the photo frame and muttered something. Harry watched, amazed, as the black and white muggle photograph disappeared, revealing a moving scene where it had been, like a television screen. The woman Harry had seen was curled up in bed, her hair gently tousled all over her face, the sheets pulled over her arms to guard against the cold.

Snape let out a sigh of relief and put the frame back into the drawer, rubbing his temple wearily. "It was just a nightmare, Potter..." He stood up, heading for the door that lead to his chambers. "Go back to bed, Potter, it's probably just from lack of food."

"What about the other woman? Sarah? Is she okay?" said Harry, hurrying after him.

"No, she's not, Potter," said Snape, and there was a hollow note in his voice that Harry had never really heard much before.

His eyes widened. "Why? How do you know? We've got to go to Professor Dumbledore, she might - "

"It's too late for her, Potter," said Snape. He turned to look at Harry, solemn and quiet. "She died nearly a decade ago."


After the end bell of the next day, Ron, Hermione and Neville all headed off towards the entrance hall and the lake to get some homework done while it was still light. Harry told them he'd meet them soon, just when he'd done one thing, and so he made his way alone up to the owlery.

Hedwig was settled on her perch as always, asleep, with her head tucked under her wing. Cupid was snuggled next to her, his head under her wing as well, snoring quietly through his slightly open beak. Harry smiled, taking the back of owl treats out of his pocket and rustling them gently. They both woke up, and Hedwig turned her amber eyes onto him, giving a soft noise of greeting. He smiled and reached out to pet her. "Hiya girl..." She nuzzled against his hand, giving him an affectionate nip. Cupid trilled pleasantly through his little beak, shuffling expectantly as Harry took a handful of treats out of the bag and held them out. They both tucked in, as the door opened behind Harry.

Professor Alrister came in, pulling his gloves into place. "Ah, hello there, Harry."

"Hi Sir," said Harry. Cupid looked up from a mouthful of owl treats, cooed in greeting and then flapped over to land obediently on his master's shoulder.

Alrister smiled, stroking his hawk's feathery chest gently. "How were your lessons today?"

"Alright," said Harry. Hedwig nipped him for more owl treats, which he gave her with a slight smile. He couldn't help thinking of that portrait on Alrister's wall. To My Romeo...

"Something wrong?" said Alrister, picking up on his worries, crossing over with Cupid still perched delicately on his shoulder, pulling stray feathers out of his wings.

Harry shook his head, forcing a smile. "No, I'm fine, Professor. Just had a tiring day, that's all."

Alrister smiled. "Good. And how is Malfoy?"

"Ah... still yawning in technicolour," said Harry.

The Pure Arts professor chuckled. Cupid trilled his beak impatiently, and Harry handed him an owl treat gently as Alrister started to tie a ribbon with a bell on it gently around the hawk's leg. "I daresay he'll be fine in a few days... it's not likely to be anything fatal at all."

Harry smiled, and said, "good", but inside, his mind was wondering something. He just had to say, he couldn't stay quiet like this. "Sir...?"

"Mmm, Harry?"

"Who... who was Sarah, sir?" he asked, tentatively.

Alrister's eyes flickered onto him suddenly, and every trace of a smile was gone from his face. He looked so silent and empty all of a sudden. "How do you know about Sarah?"

"I saw the portrait on your wall... sorry..."

"No, no, it's okay," said Alrister. He sighed softly, looking at his feet. "Sarah was... Sarah was a marvellous lady who didn't deserve what happened to her in the slightest, Harry..." Cupid closed his little eyes, leaning his head against Alrister's temple and nuzzling comfortingly. The Pure Arts master managed a smile and reached up to stroke his hawk in a grateful way. "She died. About nine years ago now... by no fault of her own."

Harry could tell this was an incredibly sensitive subject. He'd never seen Alrister look so unhappy. He said, "I'm sorry..."

"It's okay, Harry." He took Cupid off his shoulder, sitting him on a shelf to slip a little leather helmet gently onto his head. "It was all a long time ago... I... keep her portrait for... for memories." He tickled Cupid fondly under the chin. "The candle has gone out but the smoke still lingers, Harry."

He took a deep breath, and as though clearing his mind of the whole thing, he said in a much brighter, calmer tone,

"Now, I believe you have quite some time until Professor Dumbledore tries to convince you the house elves aren't trying to kill you. How about you come hawking with Cupid and I? Your owl is invited, of course."

Harry smiled. "Yeah, that sounds great. Thanks." He took Hedwig gently onto his arm, and he and Alrister left the owlery. Harry didn't say another thing about the candle that had gone out long ago, and soon, it was out of his mind completely, though when they got back into school sometime later, cold and tired from their long walk, and he watched Alrister head up towards his office, he somehow knew that the Pure Arts master wasn't going to sleep easily tonight.

 

Chapter Eighteen: Quidditch Quabbling

Harry had completely forgotten about something that was rather important, all until one Tuesday morning when he left Potions with Hermione, and they came across quite a commotion in the entrance hall.

"What's going on?" Hermione said, catching a third year running past.

"It's the Quidditch League! The team registration book's just gone out, you've got to get your team all registered by Friday or you're not in the league!" the excited boy said, before rushing off up the marble staircase.

Harry's heart skipped. Quidditch! How could he have forgotten? His greatest love, brushed aside in the light of all the darkness going on around him. He'd completely forgotten all about making a team, and there wasn't long until Christmas came. Even as he started pushing through to the front of the crowd, as more and more people went away with forms for teams, he began to plan out members. Ron would be Keeper, there was no way they could leave him out. Then he would be Seeker, and Ginny could be a Chaser... Draco was a bit of a problem, but he could probably be talked into playing a Chaser too. So that left one more Chaser and two Beaters...

He took one of the forms eagerly, and then hurried back out of the crowd to Hermione, waving it in her face like an infant with a lolly. "I got one!"

"Good for you," she said, vaguely. "Come on, we've got to get to the Hospital Wing, Draco needs his Runes homework. You can sort out the team with him them."

She dragged him across the entrance hall, having to stop twice for Harry to grin and show off his form to a few more people, before she finally got him inside and shut the door. Draco was in the far bed, curled on his side, looking rather sulky as he toyed disinterestedly with a grape in the bowl on his bedside cabinet. Harry walked over, sitting in the chair and blocking Draco's view with his Quidditch form.

"Chaser?"

Draco snorted. "Seeker, Potter."

"Oh, can't you both just shut up about Quidditch for one minute?" said Hermione, impatiently, sitting on Draco's other side. "It's not the only thing in the world."

Draco sat up in bed, and to Harry's alarm, he saw that Draco's right arm was bound in a sling. "What happened - "

Draco's eyes narrowed. "Zabini 'accidentally' tripped me up yesterday on my way to the bathroom." He shot a dark glare at Blaise across the ward, who was asleep. "But anyway. Runes homework. It's not translating some dirty great roll of - oh, great." Hermione had just taken a three foot long scroll of parchment and handed it to Draco.

"It's got a few symbols we haven't learn yet," she said, promptly. "I've included them on a piece of paper on the back. Professor Maxell wants you to copy them into your notebook. For Friday."

"Lucky me," said Draco, sarcastically, shifting the whole lot a drawer on his bedside cabinet. "Now, to more important business. Potter, I'm the Seeker."

"I don't think so."

"I'm better than you."

"No you're not."

"I am."

"Not."

"Am."

"Not."

"Oh come on," said Hermione. "Don't be so childish! Why don't you just share the job?"

They both gave her very patronising looks, and said at the same time, "There's only one Seeker."

"I know that," she said, impatiently. "But you could have like a rota! Swap, one week Harry's the Seeker, then Draco, then Harry."

"What, so we only play every other week?" said Draco.

"No, you swap between Seeker and Chaser, or Seeker and Beater, or whatever," said Hermione. "Isn't it obvious to work it out? You're both good Seekers."

"But who's the best?" said Harry.

She looked between them, torn. "I don't know! You're both good, stop trying to decide who's the best. Harry's accurate, Draco's fast - "

"I'M fast!" Harry protested.

"And I'M accurate!" said Draco.

"I know!" she said, exasperatedly. "But you can't BOTH be the Seeker! Just learn to compromise!"

Both of them scowled darkly, arms folded very put out.

"Oh, don't be so pathetically macho," she said, tutting. "Why don't we just make Ron the Seeker, just to stop you fighting!"

"No!" they both said, desperately.

"Then compromise!" she said.

"Fine," Draco sighed.

Harry scribbled in "H Potter/D Malfoy" in the Seeker slot, repeating it in the first Chaser slot, and then he paused. "I'm the captain."

"Oh no, Potter, you are not. I'm the captain."

"I got the sheet!"

"I'm the best Seeker!"

"You are not!"

"I am!"

Hermione groaned and rubbed her forehead as they continued to squabble like toddlers in a nursery school. Eventually, she snatched it off them, and wrote, "Seeker" in the box. "There! You swap with that as well!" She sighed, sitting back. "I don't believe how childish you both are."

Harry sniffed, taking the sheet back and mulling over the second Chaser position. After a moment, he said, "He started it."

"Oh, shut up, Potter. You insufferable jerk."

"Prat."

"Both of you are prats! Be quiet!" She swiped the paper off Harry again, took the quill and scribbled "R Weasley" in the Keeper box. "Now who else? And no, you can't have it back, you'll just fight!" she said, as Harry gave her a look that was like a baby that had had its candy stolen.

"Chasers," said Draco. "Weasley's little sister is... fairly skilled."

Harry nodded. "Give Ginny the second Chaser job. So we need Beaters, and another Chaser. And a team name."

Hermione folded the sheet up, and tucked it neatly into her bag. "I've watched all the matches, while you two have been too busy playing to notice other people. I'll get some names of people who would join our team."

"But I'm the captain, I should - " Harry started, but at the glare from Hermione, he fell silent. Draco snickered and took a grape from the bowl on his bedside table.

"You do keep him in line, don't you, Granger?"


Harry and Ron were sitting in the Gryffindor common room playing Wizard Chess when Hermione walked in through the portrait hole.

"Have you got some names?" said Harry, looking up, as Ron's bishop grabbed one of his pawns and flung it violently off the board.

Hermione smiled sweetly, sitting in the armchair next to Ron and handing Harry two sheets of paper. His eyes widened. "All these people?"

"All I had to say was that we had Potter, Weasley and Malfoy," she said. "And they just flocked to me."

Harry started glancing down the list. Hermione had even got what house and year they were in, and if they'd played Quidditch on the team before. He found a sixth year, that had played Quidditch, and said, "Hey, I didn't know Ernie Macmillan was a Beater."

"Neither did I," said Hermione. "He was one of the Hufflepuff Beaters last year, along with a guy whose left. But look there..." She scanned the list as Harry circled Ernie's name, and then pointed. "Slytherin, been a Beater for three years, seventh year... looks good Harry."

Harry checked the name, and choked. "Zabini! Kainda Zabini! Are you crazy? Blaise Zabini's older brother, on our team? No way!"

Hermione smiled. "It's not his brother, it's his sister, and they don't get on. She's really nice Harry, honestly. I've seen her play before, she's incredible with a Beater's bat. Just give her a chance."

Harry frowned, unconvinced, but put a ring around Kainda's name anyway, and continued scanning down the list. "So we've got our possible Beaters... we just need a good Chaser."

"A seventh year," said Ron. "We need some older students, Zabini will have got as many heavy-hitters as he can."

Harry spotted one, a seventh year Ravenclaw, been on the team for ages. He followed the name along and choked for the second time in as many minutes. "Cho!"

Hermione smiled. "She came over and asked what I was doing, I asked her if she wanted to. She said sure, her friends don't like playing Quidditch so she doesn't have a team yet. What do you think?"

"Yeah... okay," he said. He hadn't really had a chance to talk to Cho apart from in DA club, and even then, he had his hands full with Kibbles. He circled her name carefully. "So we can set up a meeting tomorrow after school and test them out. Does anybody have some parchment so I can write to them?"

Hermione, well prepared for everything as always, took a few scrolls of parchment from her bag and handed them to Harry. "Where's Hedwig, Harry?"

"She's over there," he said, gesturing to the owl post in the corner, starting on a letter to Cho and making sure he kept his handwriting neat.

As Hermione went off to get Hedwig, Ron leaned over to Harry and muttered, "I'm not sure about that Kainda..."

Harry shrugged. "We'll have a look, she might be good."

"No, I mean... Blaise's older sister?" Ron snorted. "Yeah, she's not a spy at all trying to get info on who's on your team," he said, sarcastically.

"I know," said Harry. "We might as well just give her a chance. If she looks even slightly suspicious, we'll get rid of her, okay?"

Ron nodded, and sat back, still looking unconvinced. Harry finished his letter to Cho with a slight flourish on his signature, and when Ron wasn't looking, he added three hasty 'x's to the bottom and rolled it up, blushing slightly.


At half past three the next day, Harry, Ron, Hermione and Ginny were to be found outside on the Quidditch pitch, trying to stay warm despite the biting cold winds. Neville was sitting in the stands watching, huddled around a jam jar full of bluebell flames, and Luna was sitting next to him in a rather odd feathery coat, looking like a huge owl reading The Quibbler. Hermione wasn't on the team, after insisting she didn't like moving fast at great heights, but had added her name at the bottom of the sheet as "Spokesperson / Manager". Draco, of course, was still ill with Slytherin Risotta, but Harry had visited him at lunch break.

"Oh, Kainda?" Draco had said, eyeing the list of auditionees. "She is a good player, Potter. Very good. Flint wouldn't let her in the team at first, but Snape put his foot down after seeing her play. That's how impressive she is."

Harry couldn't help that think she should be very impressive indeed to make up for having them all outside on such a cold day waiting for her. Of course, he didn't think like this about Cho - but that was different. At least it was to Harry.

Ron shivered, making an impatient 'brrr'ing noise, stamping his feet against the ground to try and warm his feet. "Come on, where are they? You did write half past three on the letter, didn't you Harry?"

"Yes," said Harry. "They'll be here soon, don't worry."

Ron huffed and leant against one of the goalposts, yelping as his cloak stuck to it. They were so busy trying to pull him off it without ripping his cloak in two that they didn't notice the troop of Hufflepuffs sneaking in. Ernie was accompanied by Hannah Abbott, Justin Finch-Fletchley, and a few others that had apparently come along to watch, and they certainly did watch with amazement as Hermione tried to detach Ron from the post with a melting charm, which only singed the back of his cloak.

"Didn't your mother ever tell you not to stare?" he snapped. Ernie's friends all scuttled off to sit with Neville and Luna, as Hermione was heard to mutter, "Hmm, I think it's stuck..."

Ernie came over. "What's happened?"

"I'm stuck to the pole," Ron said, darkly. He folded his arms and huffed, annoyed, as Hermione started to blow on it to try and melt the ice.

Ernie tried not to smile too much as he leant down to help Hermione. Harry was rather occupied to join in, as Cho had just strolled onto the pitch through two of the stands, looking beautiful in a shimmering pink coat with a rather cute white fur trim. Harry tried his best not to stare as she came over, flashing him a dazzling smile. "Hi."

"Hi," he managed, feeling as though his tongue had frozen to the roof of his mouth. "You... look pretty..."

She smiled shyly, blushing the same soft shade as her coat. "Thankyou."

"Oi! Loverboy! Help!" Ron yelled from behind Harry. Ernie had apparently got his tongue stuck to the pole, according to the shouting of, "Ow, ow, dow puw ow it, dow puw ow it!"

Harry felt himself blushing furiously as he grinned sheepishly to Cho. She grinned back, and then both of them went to go and detach Ernie and Ron from the pole.

Hermione was saying, "Just stay calm, just keep blowing out through your nose and it'll melt, Ernie." Ernie started to snort against the pole, very much like Kibbles had started to do when he was annoyed.

"Want a hand?" said a voice from above.

Everybody looked up, as a figure flew overhead on a broom, sitting sideways quite casually, as though it was a garden bench. She was pretty tall, well-built compared to Cho's slim curves, with a handsome, tomboyish sort of face, her light brown hair scooped back into a long, wavy ponytail.

"Are you - " Harry began.

"Kainda?" She descended slowly on the broom, controlling it perfectly. "Yeah, that's me. Nice to meet you." She offered him a hand, which he shook, returning the warm smile she gave him. She then turned to the dilemma with the pole, taking her wand from her belt. "Hold still," she said to Ernie, and then murmuring, "Dalitua."

A gentle trickle of warm water flowed from the end of her wand, running careful down the pole, all over Ernie's tongue and the patch of Ron's cloak that was stuck. Ron gave a great tug, and went flying forward, having to grab Harry to stop himself falling face down into the snow, and with a horrible noise like velcro being eased apart, Ernie pulled his tongue back. Kainda wrinkled her nose. "You might have a bit of problem with taste for a while, but that should clear up nicely. Still talking?"

"Yeth, thankth," said Ernie.

She chuckled. "Good. So, who's the captain?"

"I am," said Harry, stoutly.

Hermione tutted, coming over with her clipboard. "No, he's not, Kainda. He's sharing the position with Draco Malfoy, you know him... I'm the Manager and Spokesperson."

Kainda grinned. "Who's doing marketing and promotions?"

"Well, me, I suppose, but - " Hermione saw the look on Kainda's face and smiled sheepishly, blushing, then gesturing at all the people around. "Ron's the Keeper, Harry and Draco are also sharing Chaser and Seeker positions, then Cho is our second Chaser, and Ginny's third. Oh, and this is Ernie, he's our other Beater."

Ernie smiled weakly, too busy prodding his tongue with his fingers to pay much attention.

Kainda smiled. "Nice to meet you all."

"This isn't the definite team yet," Hermione went on. "Though it could be, we're just... checking skills today, making sure we've made the right decisions..."

"Sure," said Kainda. "Thanks for inviting me. I know girl Beaters are kinda rare, but hey, I'll try my best."

Harry found he was quite starting to like her attitude, though didn't have too much time to think into the matter, as Cho took his hand and smiled shyly. He tried not to blush too much, weaving his fingers with her gently.

Hermione flicked through a few pages of notes. "Okay, we're just going to have a practice game... Ron's going to be in goal, the Chasers will try to score past him while the Beaters stop the Bludgers, but you know all this... Harry's just going to watch because he's in charge of the decision over all. We need some good strong Beaters because apparently Blaise has got the biggest Slytherins in seventh year that he could find." Harry saw her glance at Kainda for a moment. "So let's hope you can play well."

Kainda, it turned out, could play well. Once they were all up in the air and warming up, practicing their throwing skills, Harry sat down by Hermione. She was already making notes on her clipboard, apparently concentrating on the Chasers, but Harry was more interested in Kainda. She had brought a bag of apples out with her, and was crouched on the ground, her bat in one hand, searching through them with the other. He watched, intrigued, as she found a good apple and threw it gently up the air. It arced right up, almost as high as the goalposts, curving over her head, and Harry thought it was a pretty terrible throw until she jumped onto her broom, speeding along the ground after it, raising her club. There was a crack like a gunshot as she belted the apple with all her might and it blew into pieces, showering the nearby ground. Harry couldn't hide the impressed look on his face.

"Put her down," he said to Hermione. "She's our Beater. Just watch her, I've never seen anybody hit like that."

Hermione vaguely looked up as Kainda obliterated another apple. "Oh, interesting... yeah... we don't know what she's like with the actual Bludgers yet though. Should I let one out?"

He nodded, and she opened up the trunk with a few snaps of the locks, then called that she was releasing a Bludger. Ernie and Kainda both got ready, and then with a bang, Hermione flung the straps off and the Bludger shot into the air, straight into action, speeding at Ron. Ernie was after it in a heartbeat and sent it reeling off in the other direction. Harry felt a surge of panic as he saw it go on Kainda, her back turned, and he opened his mouth to warn her, but she was way ahead of him. She flung her arm back, hitting the Bludger away backwards. His eyes widened. That, if he remembered correctly from Oliver Wood's wriggling diagrams, was a Bludger Backbeat. Even the Weasley twins hadn't been able to do that without spraining their arms or dropping their clubs.

Ron seemed to be doing fairly well guarding the hoops, as Cho and Ginny did their best to get past him. Harry wondered for a moment where their third Chaser was, before he realised it was him, and felt rather stupid.

Cho was once the Ravenclaw Seeker, but she was quite a good Chaser as well. She somehow managed to be graceful and elegant on a broom, like a swan in flight, and yet be fast and accurate as well. Ginny was doing fine too and was really making Ron work. Several times he had to leap to the side to beat the Quaffle away from the goal, and then Cho had the Quaffle at the other side. Kainda and Ernie were doing fine keeping the Bludger at bay, and Kainda demonstrated her Bludger Backbeat quite a few more times, putting on quite a show really. Harry found himself grinning as he looked around at them all. He didn't like to sound too hopeful, but from what he could see, they had a decent chance of doing well in the league.


"I told you so, didn't I?" Draco was sitting up in bed in the hospital wing, looking a little better than the previous day, healthy enough to pick vaguely at the salad Madam Pomfrey had given him for his evening meal.

Harry nodded. "Okay, so you did. Maybe I was a bit... reluctant. But she is good, I'll admit it."

"Didn't you ever wonder how we did so well at injuring other teams?" said Draco, tearing a tiny shred of a piece of lettuce and nibbling at it, rabbit style. "She didn't play in all matches... Flint had something against her. We reckoned they dated for a while and split up, so Flint didn't like having her in the team, especially for important matches. But she worked marvellously with both the other Beaters. Did you see her Dopplebeater Defence?"

Harry shook his head. The Dopplebeater Defence was one of the hardest Beater moves imaginable, where both Beaters hit the Bludger at the same time. "She did quite a few backhanded club swings though."

"Mmm," said Draco. "Wait until you see what she's like in matches. I've never seen a more aggressive Beater in my life. Were you there at the Ravenclaw-Slytherin game where she pretended she was going to punch their Keeper on the nose? The Transylvanian Tackle?" Draco chuckled at the memory. "No contact was made, it was a perfectly legal move. That guy's scared stiff of her though. He's say she's deranged."

"What's Blaise like as a player?" Harry asked.

Draco wrinkled his nose. "Huh. He says he can play any position, and admittedly, he can. His problem is that he doesn't concentrate on being good at one thing, he just lets himself be average on everything. He won't be the biggest problem in the team he's got." He lowered his voice. "They all came in here this afternoon. All male, all sixth and seventh year Slytherins, all big enough to crush anybody that gets in their way. Even worse than when Flint was in charge. They'll be a hard team to beat, Potter."

"So we will," said Harry. "Come on... so they've got trolls on broomsticks. We've got four ex-Seekers, a Keeper that decided the outcome of the Quidditch Cup last year, two Beaters who could probably knock down the goalposts if they hit them hard enough..."

Draco sighed. "I suppose you're right." He paused for a moment, and then said, "You do realise support for me is not going to be good. Most of the teams we play against will be after me."

"So we'll have Ernie looking out for you. No big deal."

Draco didn't look convinced, but said nothing more about it. He sat back, shuffling his pillows and placing one hand on his stomach, looking pained again. "You don't know how lucky you are, Potter."

"Oh? Why?"

"Don't ask," said Draco, simply, still massaging his side. "Have you thought of a name yet, by the way?"

"For the team?" Harry shrugged. "Not really. I was thinking Hogwarts United, but - "

"Don't be stupid, Potter, there are going to be about twenty teams wanting to call themselves Hogwarts United," said Draco, frowning at him. "We need something more original. Something people will remember. Preferably with three syllables, or something that can be given a shortened version of three syllables."

Harry stared at him. "Why?"

"Chanting, Potter? Have you ever wondered why the Tutshill Tornados only started winning recently?" He clapped three times, while saying, "Tor - nay - doughs, it just doesn't work. The emphasis is in the wrong place. And they people start chanting 'Tutshill, Tutshill' and suddenly they win the league. It's all in the name."

Harry shook his head. "You're just incredibly picky, you know."

"Not so," said Draco. "Think about it. A name is the first thing people will know about us, and so obviously it gives the biggest impression. Look at me. My first name means Dragon in Latin, and my second comes from centuries and centuries ago. It means 'bad faith' in French. Now, think about it. If that had been 'good faith', I would be Draco Bonfoy."

Harry couldn't help but let out a snort of laughter. "That sounds like a bakery company."

Draco smirked. "You see? It's the difference between aristocrat and bun maker. Now, a name for the team."

Harry started to take this a little more seriously, thinking hard. "Alright... we need something that makes us friendly and easy to support."

"Oh, on the contrary," said Draco. "Something to strike fear into the hearts of our opponents."

Harry stared at him again. "We're not naming a pirate ship, it's a Quidditch team, Draco."

"Fine, fine, we'll take your happy little name. How about We Love House Elves, or Kibbles United. Ooh, here's a good one, how about the Happy Smiley Rainbow Team?" Draco suggested, the sarcasm dripping from his voice.

"I don't know, Hermione wouldn't mind We Love House Elves."

"You just can't be serious for one second, can you?"

"Oh, you were being serious about the Happy Smiley Rainbow Team? I had no idea."

"Idiot."

"Prat." Draco fluffed his pillow again, and then laid back, looking up at the ceiling. "Something energetic and sparky. To do with magic would be good, this is after all a school for magic."

"Sparky..." said Harry, getting an idea. "How about... The Sparks?"

"No, that makes us sound like some cheesy 1960s rock and roll quartet." Draco thought, idly toying with a grape before eating it absent-mindedly. "Though it's a good basis."

A flash of inspiration suddenly came to Harry, and he said, "The Bright Sparks."

Draco looked at him, distractedly chewing his grape. "Not bad, Potter. Not bad at all. The Bright Sparks... I like it."

"We'll have that then," said Harry. He scribbled it down at the top of the sheet. "Oh... we need a logo to be charmed onto our Quidditch robes. I can't draw."

Draco took the sheet of him and his quill, thinking for a moment before carefully inking something into the box. Harry craned his neck, trying to see. When Draco was done, he drew back with a flourish, showing Harry a carefully drawn picture of a wand releasing a shower of sparks and stars. 'The Bright Sparks' was added carefully to the bottom, in graffiti style lettering. Harry smiled. "Yeah, good."

Draco smiled smugly. "Yes, I thought so. Is there anything else we need to add on this?"

Harry scanned it quickly, and then said, "No, I don't think so."

"Well?" Draco smirked. "What are you waiting for? Go get us registered, Potter."

Harry didn't need telling twice. With a hurried goodbye, he grabbed his back from the floor and hurried out of the hospital wing. The entrance hall was empty for once, and so he stepped carefully up to the Quidditch Registration Book, holding the form tight in his hand. It flicked open before him, offering a blank page to him. Carefully as he could, he pressed the piece of parchment onto the paper, and stood back to watch.

The book held it like glue, and then gradually, the two pieces of paper began to merge together, so they were just one. All his lettering and writing rearranged itself, the logo expanded gradually, and within a few moments, everything sealed itself down. Harry grinned proudly.

He was about to turn and go, when there was a noise like a microwave done cooking, and a piece of paper printed out of a slot in the table. He knelt down, tearing it off and reading it.

Dear SEEKER - Thankyou for registering your Quidditch team, THE BRIGHT SPARKS. Your first match is against THE RESERVES on 17TH DECEMBER, starting at 3:30 PM. Please be punctual and have your team ready for the starting time. Best of luck in the Quidditch League.

 

Chapter Nineteen: The Absence of Alrister

By the end of Transfiguration on the next Monday, Harry's brain felt like a wrung sponge. They had been trying to turn coconuts into rabbits for some reason, and hardly anybody had anything that resembled a rabbit except Hermione, and even then, Professor McGonagall had given her a disappointed look and commented if she had wanted a hare, she would have asked for a hare. All in all, it was quite a relief to Harry when break came, and they all managed to head off to lunch.

As always, nobody really ate much. There had been no further outbreaks of Gryffindor or Slytherin Risotta, but most of Slytherin house was still in the hospital wing for food poisoning, and everybody was still very wary of the food. Anything that tasted even remotely odd was treated with the greatest suspicion, and if anybody got even a flicker of pain anywhere in their body after eating, a huge fuss was in order. Colin Creevey broke out in a rash after eating the fruit salad on Saturday night, and the whole of Gryffindor house was scared stiff until Colin came back from the hospital wing an hour later to announce he was just allergic to kiwi fruit.

After half a plate of pasta and a few breadsticks, Harry couldn't eat anymore, and neither could Ron. They both left the hall, pulling on their thick cloaks for warmth, heading out into the grounds for a walk. There was still quite a thick layer of snow under their feet, which crunched as they moved along, giving a nice rhythm for them to talk to.

"I don't believe I have to have Magical Creatures in this," said Ron, bitterly. "And Hagrid said we'd be doing something 'interestin' today, so it's probably going to be big, hairy and dangerous." He dug his hands into the pockets of his cloak, shivering. "I can't wait to get home for Christmas."

"Lucky you," said Harry.

"What's up with you?" said Ron.

"I was thinking about Christmas," Harry admitted. "And what I'm going to do. I mean... I've got Grimmauld Place now. I could go... well, home."

"You could come and stay with us," Ron offered.

Harry shook his head. "Nah. It's not that I really want to go home, as in, just sit in the dark at Grimmauld Place and be happy. I want to know what's going on. I don't know whether it's fallen into desrepair again, or whether the Order still use it or anything." He sighed. "I can't help but think that things have been too... safe. It's as though all the sinister stuff has just... I don't know, been shut out."

"What, you're worried about being safe and happy? Geez, Harry. I never thought you'd get You-Know-Who withdrawal symptoms."

Harry rubbed his head. "Neither did I. It's not that though. I can't help but think I'm being lulled into a false sense of security somehow. Last year, I was having pains in my scar all the time, nightmares, everything. All the time, I was worried about something. And now... it's like I'm in this little bubble of calm and everything's happy." He turned his face towards the ground. "The fact that Voldemort's not doing anything makes me more nervous than if he was."

Ron shrugged. "Go see Dumbledore or Lupin or somebody if you're worried. They might be able to give you some information on what's happening." He smiled slightly. "Or you could just be happy and accept that things are fine, like the rest of us. I know I'd prefer how things are now to having headaches all time."

Harry nodded slightly, though deep down, he couldn't help but feel still worried. His scar felt completely normal. So normal, in fact, that it was not normal - even though that didn't make sense. He decided he would take Ron's advice though, and go and see Professor Dumbledore or Lupin after school, just to calm his worries.

Ron said he had to get across the grounds to Magical Creatures then, so Harry said goodbye, and they parted company. Ron went off across the snowy grounds, his red hair making it look as though the snow was glowing orange, and Harry made his way back up to the school courtyard for his Pure Arts lesson to start. Today, they were doing more work on slightly less controlled raw magic. Last lesson, Alrister had set up huge piles of old papers and garbage for them to practice on at various distances, and at the end of the class, everybody had been absolutely delighted to see Alrister blow the lot up at once. Harry quite hoped he'd do it again, just for some excitement to his deadly dull day so far.

The courtyard was empty when Harry got there. Usually, Blaise Zabini would be lounging across one of the stone benches with Pansy hanging onto his arm and his bodyguards all clustered behind him, but he was still in the hospital wing with Draco and the rest of the Slytherin Risotta victims. Harry sat down to wait, feeling rather alone. Something was just wrong with today. He had an odd feeling somewhere in the pit of his stomach. For a while, he'd wondered whether the Risotta had got him, but it wasn't a feeling of pain or sickness. It was a strange feeling of paranoia, not that he was being watched, but somebody else near him was, and he'd had it all day. Snape had shot him a few suspicious looks during breakfast, but Harry didn't think that Snape was really the person to go to when he was a weird feeling. Who did he have to confide in? He'd always written to Sirius, but now, there was nobody he could tell without worrying them sick.

Gradually, more people drifted into the courtyard, and dead on time, when the bell rung for afternoon lessons to start, Alrister swept out into the courtyard in a fur-lined black cloak. "Afternoon everyone. Are we all here? Minus the Slytherins of course." Everybody nodded. "Excellent. Follow me then."

The class trooped out of the courtyard after their professor. Alrister lead them across the grounds, passed the lake, and a few minutes later they stopped just at the edge of the forest.

"Right then - can you all hear me? All see me? Good." He gestured into the darkness of the trees. "If you look through the trees, quite some way in, I've set up several targets. Can everybody see that?"

Harry squinted through the blackness, and after a moment or so, his eyes adjusted enough to be able to see large white spots charmed onto the trees, glowing a silvery grey in the dark.

"Those trees have recently died, and I thought that to help with our work and to also do a favour for the headmaster, we would destroy them. However, and I want to make this absolutely and utterly clear. NOBODY is to go a step into the forest, not even one, not even leaning just a teensy little bit past the first tree, nothing. Are we quite clear?"

Everybody nodded solmenly.

"Good," said Alrister. "Now, behind you is another pile of old papers and tests, you can practice on that if you need to. Once you feel ready, start aiming for the targets. Any problems? No? Off you go then!"

Harry wriggled his fingers a little, getting them ready, and unlike most of the class, he decided to go straight for the trees. It was so dark within the forest, he could hardly make out the targets. For a moment, he wished he'd already done his Charms homework ("Research and write an essay about Sense-Heightening Charms"), but seeing as though it wouldn't help him now, he stretched out his fingers, concentrating hard on the target and the feeling of excitement he got at the thought of the approaching Quidditch match...

But nothing happened.

He screwed up his eyes, his fingers stretched to the absolute limit, but there was nothing, not even a spark.

"Come on... oh, come on..." he muttered, his arms shaking from trying so hard. "Please..."

Still, nothing happened. Alrister seemed to have noticed he wasn't getting on very well, and so left Justin Finch-Fletchley with the paper pile and hurried over. "Something wrong, Harry?"

"It won't work," Harry said, dejectedly, staring down at his fingers. "I can't do it."

Alrister took his arm, pulling up the sleeve of his robes and studying his wrist for a moment. He laid his fingers there and thought, then said, "Harry, Harry. Another block."

"Sorry," said Harry, looking down at his feet.

"Nothing to be sorry about... you just need to calm down a little. All this frustration isn't good for you, you know." Alrister gave him a rather paternal smile. "What's bothering you today?"

"Just... everything," said Harry, quietly, still looking at his feet. "It's kinda hard to explain..."

"I've got time," said Alrister. "And you have too. Tell me what's the matter." He snapped his fingers, conjuring two chairs. Harry sunk gratefully into one of them, his wrist still extended as Alrister studied it.

"It's... I'm safe."

Alrister looked up at him. "And you're not pleased?"

"I'm too safe," said Harry, quietly. "I've... I've had a weird feeling all day. Like things are getting too good for me. I haven't had any pain in my scar at all, and I got it all the time last year. It's like... I'm being tricked into a false sense of security." He shook his head. "I can't explain it."

Alrister patted his shoulder consolingly. "I can understand that, Harry. No matter, we'll just shift this block and get you blowing things up again in no time, hmm?"

Harry tried a weak smile, which came out as more of a grimace.

"So you're worried that you've had no news of what Voldemort's up to," said Alrister. Harry nodded - that was basically what was worrying. "Well... I can't really give you much information on that, Harry. I'm not exactly an active Voldemort Enthusiast. However, if I'm not mistaken, Professors Lupin and Snape are part of that... Order that Dumbledore has. Order of the Falcon."

"Order of the Phoenix," Harry corrected.

Alrister smiled. "Yes, yes, I was thinking that. I'm not a member and I try not to have anything to do with it. But Lupin and Snape do, as far as I know. You should talk to them. If I might make a suggestion, Lupin could well be a... friendlier person to talk to." He smirked slightly as he lightly ran his fingers in a circle over Harry's wrist.

Harry watched him for a moment, and then said in a quiet voice that was still slightly confused, "Why aren't you in the Order?"

"I distance myself from anything and everything to do with the Dark Lord, Harry," said Alrister, sagely. "Before you deem me a coward, I would like you to know that... events in my past have given me a far greater fear of Voldemort than a lot of people. I prefer to have nothing to do with him at all. Sometimes facing our fears for no reason other than to prove we can proves nothing but that we are fools."

The lesson didn't improve after that. Even though Harry tried his hardest to be calm and let go of his worries, he just couldn't, and he didn't produce even a spark throughout the entire class. The more he failed, the more frustrated he got, and by the time the end bell went, he was in a foul mood. Ron wasn't helping either by bragging over and over about how little effort it took to set fire to one of the targets. All Harry wanted to do now was go up to Gryffindor Tower and beat his head against a wall, but as the class filed out, Alrister called his name from the other side of the class.

"Harry! Come and see me for a second please."

He wandered over idly, standing with his hands in his pockets. Alrister was distractedly sending fireballs through the trees, finishing off the class's work, not even paying attention to what he was doing.

"Still no luck, Harry?" he said.

Harry shook his head. "No, Sir..."

"Hmm... I think we're going to have to shift that block somehow. Don't want it to get any worse." There was a whoosh of flames as another fireball melted out of his hand and went shooting off through the trees. "Come down to my office right after dinner, and - "

"I can't," said Harry. "I've got occ- remedial potions."

"Ah, shame... how long will that last for?"

"Quite a while... it depends... sometimes three or four hours..." He idly pressed his footprint into the smooth clean snow. "I could come to your office afterwards though."

Alrister nodded. "Yes, I think that would be best. We'll get rid of that blockage then. Off you go up to school, it's getting cold and your friends will be waiting for you."

"Alright," said Harry. "See you tonight, Sir."

"See you, Harry. Enjoy your remedial potions."

Harry snorted.

"What was that, Harry?"

"Nothing, Sir, I sneezed."

He glanced over his shoulder and saw that Alrister was beaming from ear to ear. "I'm sure you did, Harry. I'm sure you did."


"Something wrong with you today, hmm, Potter?"

Harry glanced up wearily, his head still lying on Snape's desk. For some reason, he just couldn't summon the energy to stop the professor getting right into his mind. So far, Snape had forced him to relieve four of Aunt Marge's visits, being told by the sorting hat that he would be good in Slytherin, and then nearly drowning in the second task last year.

"No," he said, glumly.

Snape gave a disdainful snort. "You really are the most terrible liar."

Harry was dying to say that Snape was the most terrible nosy git, but thought better of it, averting his eyes to the desk again. "I can't concentrate."

"I could have guessed that myself." Snape sat down in the chair before his desk, idly setting down his wand. "Well?"

"Well what?" said Harry, quickly adding, "Sir," as the Potions master's eyes flashed.

"Well why can't you concentrate, precisely?"

"I got a block in Pure Arts," said Harry, vaguely. "And I'm worried about Quidditch. And Grimmauld Place. And the Order. And Voldemort. And I have a Potions exam tomorrow that I'm going to fail, so you might as well just give me a T anyway."

"Let's start at the beginning," said Snape, lazily. "A block in Pure Arts. Potter, you have a wand, you do not need to know how to set things on fire that badly. Secondly, I do not care for Quidditch, if I were you, I'd forget all about it and just not play it. Grimmauld Place. Why on earth anybody in the right mind would worry about that ramshackle old house is beyond me."

"I don't know what's going on there though," said Harry. "It's my house. Is the Order still using it? And what's happening with the Order? What's Voldemort doing? What was the point in all the castle defences? Nothing's happening. And what was all the fuss about the Heliopaths?"

"Potter, stop. One question at a time. You're talking faster than I can think." Harry fell silent, and Snape said, "Thankyou. Yes, the Order is still using Grimmauld Place but only for meetings that are too well-attended to fit in the headmaster's office. I believe that Molly Weasley and Nymphadora Tonks go in to clean every few weeks. At the moment, the Order, to my knowledge, is simply gathering information and preparing the wizarding world for any possible attacks from the Dark Lord."

"What's Voldemort doing then?" said Harry, limiting himself to one question this time.

Snape considered him for a moment. "That, Potter, is classified information."

"Oh, come on," said Harry. "So I'm not allowed to know what the guy who cannot survive as long as I'm living is up to? I deserve to know, don't I?"

"It is not a question of whether you deserve to know," said Snape, silkily. "It is a question of how much you would stay quiet about. Believe it or not I was sixteen once myself and I know very well that everything I tell you is more than likely splashed about the Gryffindor common room that night."

Harry shook his head vigorously. "No, it isn't. I haven't told anybody about the guardian thing, I haven't told anybody about the Gryffindor Risotta stuff, I haven't told them about the butterfingers hex, or anything I've seen in your pensieve or anything."

Snape scanned his eyes for a moment. Harry looked back, defiantly, letting Snape see that he most definitely was not lying. The Potions master thought, then said, "My inability to catch is nothing compared to the activies of the Dark Lord."

"Maybe so," said Harry. "But I know that Ron would rather hear about you being humiliated than what Voldemort's doing. If I wanted something to tell my friends, I've already got it. I'm not asking for gossip. I'm asking because I'm worried."

Snape looked directly at Harry, considering him and his arguments. Harry didn't know whether it was because of the guardian bond or because of other things, but he could tell what Snape was asking inside his head. "You can trust me," he said.

Snape drummed his fingers idly on the desk for a moment or so, then said, "Planning."

"Planning what?"

"Planning his conquer of the world around us as we know it. He has no short term goals anymore. He only knows his long term outcome and vague ideas of how to get there."

It was very odd to hear Snape talk about Voldemort as though he was a person rather than an evil force. Most people spoke about him as though he was something far darker and more terrible than anything human.

"What does he want?" said Harry, with wide-eyes. "What's his long term goal? To... to take over the world?"

Snape snorted softly. "Nothing quite so cliched... power, Potter. Total and never ceasing power. He wants to break out of the label of human and rise to something far greater."

"Like... a God..."

"More than that." Snape searched Harry's face for a moment. "To the Dark Lord, power makes us who we are. There are muggles - the lowest form of life in his eyes. They have to do everything themselves, they work for everything they need and desire. He sees them as little more than insects. Beings driven to acquire what they need, but never able to get it without pain and suffering. Then there are wizards. Though even we can only do so much. Magic has its boundaries. He has a fascination with the Pure Arts and how much more powerful the masters of the subject are than the common wizard. His powers rival Dumbledore's, and I have seen this for myself. For a while, when he was still more or less human, he tried to form a new brand of magic. God-like powers. He imagined a race of pureblooded creatures, the perfect race, stronger than any human had ever been before, with him at the head, the greatest of them all. Though he knew to accomplice this would take him beyond the lifespan of even wizards. He would need thousands of years. And so he started on immortality. That's where he is now, Potter, and he's looking for the next step to becoming the most powerful creature ever to walk this earth."

Harry took a few moments to let all this sink in, and when it more or less had, he said, quietly, "So... he's not going to attack... because he's busy. Like a research period."

"Indeed," said Snape. "Nobody is quite sure when he will decide to take action once more. He sees no reason to attack the wizardin world except to cause fear. Deaths to him are pointless."

"So... what's he researching now?" said Harry, quietly, as though Voldemort could hear them talking.

Snape toyed with the information for a moment, then replied in just as quiet a voice. "There are various beings in the magical world aside from wizards. Mermaid, centaur, werewolf, ghost... his current fascination is in two of the most feared beings. Vampires and necromancers. True vampires with no human influence in their blood lines are immortal, and necromancers have the natural ability to revive a corpse to some extent. The person revived is never anything like their living self. They have no memories, no thoughts, no emotions - just a body, running by its own accord. The Dark Lord's current project is to create a half-vampire, half-necromancer he can teach the Pure Arts too. As close to perfection as he can get at this stage. I believe that is what is keeping him... occupied."

Snape looked up into Harry's face, directly, as though looking not at him but right inside him, down to the mind. "Though it is only so long before he gets bored, Potter. Imagine a muggle dog with a chewtoy. Sooner or later, the chewtoy loses its novelty and the dog has nothing to do but... destroy the furniture." His black eyes were lit by a shower of dark sparks for a moment.

Harry looked down at the floor for a moment, and then Snape said, lazily, "We shall continue tomorrow night, Potter. I expect you to try harder."

Feeling rather numb, Harry nodded, getting to his feet and picking up his bag. "Thanks, Professor."

"Try not to dwell on the information too much, Potter." Snape's eyes flashed again. "You wouldn't want that block to become permanent."

Harry opened the door and slipped out into the dark corridor. His mind was buzzing with all this information, though strangely, it was an odd comfort to him to know what was happening and that they weren't under immediate danger. At least he knew now... even though he got a horrible thrill of fear when he realised it was only so long before Voldemort's distraction ran out and he needed entertainment again. He remembered what Snape said - "To the Dark Lord, power makes us who we are". And then he remembered from his first year, when he had faced Lord Voldemort, and the words he had spoken were all too clear in Harry's mind - "there is only power, and those too weak to seek it".

He was still deep in thought when he knocked on the door to Alrister's office, only awoken from his memories by Alrister's call of, "Come in, Harry".

He pushed open the door carefully. The whole room was rather murky, lit only by a single candle on Alrister's desk, flickering gently in the darkness. The Pure Arts master was sitting between his desk, eyes closed, his tunic rolled up to his elbows to expose his wrists.

"Take a seat," he said, without opening his eyes.

Harry put his bag down carefully by the door, and slipped into one of the chairs in front of Alrister's desk, trying to be as quiet as he could. He could see the candlelight swimming lazily across the gold chain around the professor's neck, somehow fascinating him.

"How was your remedial potions?" Alrister asked. His voice was oddly calm and quiet.

"Good," said Harry. "Professor Snape talked to me about the Order."

"Marvellous," Alrister replied, his voice still soft and calm. Harry had no idea how he managed to stay awake with his eyes closed, looking so serenely relaxed. "I consulted Professor Dumbledore about your predicament."

"What did he say?" said Harry.

"He recommended that I transfer a little of my own magic to you." Alrister took a deep breath, inhaling the glittering amber coloured smoke from the candle before him. "This should help give your body the boost to remove the blockage naturally."

Harry took a tentative breath in. The smoke wafted dreamily into his face, down into his lungs, giving him a sudden great feeling of peace and tranquility. A hint of a smile curled Alrister's lips.

"Try not to take in too much of that," he said, quietly. "It's powerful stuff."

"What is it?" Harry asked, leaning back away from the worst of the smoke.

"A serenity flame," Alrister replied, dreamily. "I have to spend some time with them quite often to prevent my magic getting out of hand. However... to business, Harry." He opened his eyes, and Harry saw that instead of their usual deep brown, they had changed colour to a bright, liquid bronze, glimmering in the candlelight. He suddenly looked a great deal like Cupid. "Transferring magic from one wizard to another is a relatively harm-free process, though it takes a lot of well controlled raw magic... far more than most wizards could ever conjure... however, without meaning to sound big-headed, I think with a little extra effort we should be able to do this fairly easily..."

Harry nodded, leaning back a little more as a whisp of smoke tickled gently at his nose, beckoning to him to come closer. Alrister smiled again, moving the candle gently across the desk, away from them. In the corner, Cupid the hawk fluttered gently on his perch, sending great black shadows flapping across the walls.

"Hold your wrist towards the far wall, Harry," said Alrister. "Once enough magic has gotten to your body to remove the blockage, we're likely to get some... explosive effects."

Harry did as he was told, making sure to angle his fingers away from anything that looked expensive or flammable. Alrister laid his fingers calmly over the pulse point, closing his eyes again, biting his lip. Harry could almost see his mind working, as his breathing started to increase in pace, his chest rising and falling. A single amber spark jumped from Alrister's fingers into Harry's wrist, and he couldn't help but jump slightly as it zipped inside him.

"Relax, Harry..." said Alrister, calmly, swallowing. His face fell into a frown, his breath shallowing, fingers shaking ever so slightly on Harry's wrist. Another spark jumped out with a crackle, then another, followed by a third and then a gentle shower of bronze sparkles. Harry's hand shuddered, feeling as though a shiver had shot all the way from his wrist up his arm and down his spine.

Alrister's face tightened, and almost all of him was shaking by this point, sprinkle after sprinkle of sparks and stars fluttering into Harry's wrist. Harry's skin was prickling and buzzing, his wrist starting to shudder violently of its own accord, and then he felt something seemingly inside his arm just give way. There was a huge bang and fire rushed from his fingertips, blooming into a huge sphere of fire the size of a cannonball that went speeding towards the wall. There was another bang, a roar and the flames sunk into the wall, spreading outwards to create a huge burn that nearly covered the whole surface from ceiling to floor.

Harry felt a surge of horror. "I'm sorry! Professor, really, I didn't mean to - "

"That's alright, Harry," said Professor Alrister's voice.

There was an odd note in his voice that made Harry stop in his gabbled apologies, turning around to look at the professor - and to Harry's surprise, he saw tears trickling slowly down Alrister's face.

"Professor...?" he said, uncertainly.

"It's okay, Harry, I'm okay," said Alrister, getting to his feet and turning away to grip the window ledge. He was still shaking slightly.

Harry stood up, worriedly, and said, "Did something go wrong...?"

"No," said Alrister. "No, it went fine... I expected this... damn it all..." He wiped his eyes hastily with the back of his hand. "Memories for the raw magic. Don't ask me, Harry. Just don't."

Harry sat down again, feeling incredibly guilty now, frightened there was something wrong. He took out his wand, muttered a charm Hermione had taught him and watched the burn vanish slowly, leaving the wall just as it was.

"Thankyou," said Alrister, softly. Harry could still hear the tears in his voice.

"Look, Professor, I - "

He never finished his sentence, for at that precise moment, the door opened behind him. He turned around, and came face-to-face with Albus Dumbledore. Harry opened his mouth to greet the headmaster, but he hadn't even started to speak when -


Harry bolted up in bed with a gasp of panic. There was sweat on his face again. He looked around the darkened room - he was in his dormitory, fully-clothed under the covers, his wand still in his hand... but he couldn't remember what had happened at all.

He put his hands over his face, thinking desperately. He remembered getting the magic from Alrister, creating the fireball, saw tears on Alrister's face, fixed the burn and then... Dumbledore came in. And after that, he couldn't remember a single thing. He didn't know how he'd left Alrister's office, how he'd gotten back to Gryffindor Tower... nothing.

"Ron?" he said, uncertainly. "Dean? Neville? Seamus?"

They were all asleep in their beds. He could hear Neville snorting softly. Harry found he was shaking with fright by this point. He looked at Ron's sleeping face for a moment, wondering whether he dared wake his cousin up...

He had to know.

He got out of bed, crept over and touched Ron tentatively on the shoulder, shaking him gently. "Ron," he hissed. "Ron."

"Gerroff," came the sleepy reply. "Don't... g'way..."

"Ron, wake up," Harry repeated, firmly, shaking him again.

"G'way 'arry... gerroff me..."

Harry gave him another good shake, and Ron groaned, trying to swat him away.

"Wassamatter?" he said, vaguely, rubbing his eyes.

"What happened after I got back from seeing Alrister?"

Ron frowned sleepily. "Dunno... you got back really late... just walked in and said you were tired and went to bed... why... what's up?"

"I don't remember anything," said Harry.

Ron rolled over, squinting up at him in a very suspicious way. "What?"

"I went to my remedial potions class, then to see Alrister. And he fixed my block, then Dumbledore came in... and I can't remember anything." Harry could feel his fingers shaking, still gripping Ron's shoulder. "Did I say anything else when I walked in? Anything at all?"

Ron shook his head, rubbing his eyes. "No... go and see Dumbledore, I guess... ask what happened..." His weary gaze flickered onto something over Harry's shoulder, and he frowned, rubbing his eyes. "What's that?"

Harry glanced around. Cupid the hawk was holding onto one of the poles of his bed, and tied around his neck was a letter. He gave a soft 'fweeeeeee' of greeting, then fluttered over, landing on Harry's shoulder and nuzzling his temple affectionately.

Harry sat down on Ron's bed, taking the letter from the ribbon around Cupid's neck and easing it open, reaching over to turn on the bedside lamp next to Ron. They both leant in to read the delicate inked handwriting.

Dear Harry - look after Cupid for me. I'm sorry. Professor R D Alrister.

Ron frowned, rubbing his forehead. "What's he sorry for?"

Harry shook his head. "I don't know... I don't like this. I don't like this at all. Why can't I remember what happened? It's just... blank, it's just nothing. Anything could have happened at all."

Cupd trilled softly and nuzzled against his temple again, his claws squeezing gently for a moment. Harry reached up, stroking the little bird's feathery chest gently, trying to calm the rising feeling of panic within him.

"Do you think he's alright?" said Harry, nervously, biting his lip. There was no answer from Ron. He glanced down, and saw that his cousin was fast asleep again. Harry didn't want to wake him up. There would be time for this in the morning.

He changed quickly, slid into bed, and sat back, holding Alrister's letter in his hands. Cupid was still perched gently on his shoulder. Wishing he understood, wishing he knew what had happened in the hours he lost, he placed Cupid gently on the perch he usually left for Hedwig, then laid down, closed his eyes, and tried to sleep. It took him hours to finally drift off, and when he did, his slumber was troubled and full of nightmares that when he woke in the morning, he couldn't remember.


When Harry walked in through the doors of the Great Hall at breakfast the next day, there weren't many people around. He'd woken in a cold sweat again, tried to sleep, and found he couldn't. He'd dressed and then, accompanied by Cupid, made his way down to breakfast without waking Ron. Every person turned around to look at him as he walked in, with the little hawk perched on his shoulder, though he tried to ignore them as he went to the Gryffindor Table and sat down. Cupid hopped off and sat on the rim of the pumpkin juice jug, dipping his head to drink noisily from the bright orange liquid.

Harry watched him silently, wondering what Cupid knew. He must have seen everything that happened.

"If only you could talk..." he murmured, reaching out to pet the hawk's neck gently. Cupid sat up from the jug, gave a small burp and settled back on his shoulder like a parrot.

Gradually, more people came into the hall. Harry kept a close eye on the staff table, and everytime the door opened, his heart jumped, hoping it was Alrister who would come over and explain everything. But it never was. Eventually, everybody was in the hall apart from the Pure Arts professor. Dumbledore didn't seem to wait for Alrister. He clapped his hands, and the tables filled with the usual breakfast cuisine. Everybody tucked in, except Harry. He didn't feel like eating.

Alrister didn't appear at all through breakfast, and Harry took the long way round to Potions so that he passed his office. The door was locked. Nobody answered when he knocked.

When he finally slumped down to Potions, knocked on the door and entered, his new hawk still perched pleasantly on his shoulder, Snape looked up suddenly. Harry could have sworn he looked relieved, though the Potions master's tone didn't show it.

"Potter! Where in the name of Salazar Slytherin have you been? This class started ten minutes ago!"

"Sorry," he said. "Got caught up in the traffic."

"Five points from Gryffindor. Sit down, get out your ingredients and hurry up. Do not be late again." He sat back in his chair again, picking up the next essay on his To Mark pile, and then added as an afterthought, "In fact, Potter, see me after the lesson."

Harry glanced up. Snape looked back at him for a moment, nodded ever so slightly and started to mark again.

Harry's potion did not go well. He was so preoccupied with thoughts about Alrister that he just couldn't concentrate, no matter what he did, and when he was finally finished, he took a sample jar from the side and put it on Snape's desk, blissfully oblivious to the fact that everybody else's was green, and his was a cheerful shade of red. Snape frowned. "Potter, is that what you call bright green?"

Harry looked at his feet. "Sorry, Professor."

Snape glanced around at the rest of the group, called, "Class dismissed!", and then turned his attention back to Harry as they all filed out. "What the devil is wrong with you today?"

"I... couldn't sleep last night," Harry said. He knew this was a pretty lame excuse, but didn't feel like revealing he had lost a chunk of his day. "Professor?"

"Mmm, Potter?" Snape said, vaguely, as he emptied Harry's potion into the drain.

"Do you know where Professor Alrister is?" Harry asked.

Snape looked up at the hopeful note in his voice. "Nobody does, Potter."

"But... what's happened to him? Where is he?"

Snape continued to sort through the jars absent-mindedly, jotting down grades in his notebook, speaking in a very casual tone. "Alrister has been linked with prominent members of the Dark Lord's forces. He hasn't been seen since yesterday evening."

Harry's eyes widened. "He's been linked with the Death Eaters?"

Snape nodded. "He disappeared at some time yesterday between the hours of eight o' clock and midnight. His office was found practically empty - it appears he had time to pack." He glanced up disapprovingly at the little hawk warbling merrily on Harry's shoulder. "His hawk wasn't found, though I suppose it has been now. Where did you get that, Potter?"

Harry searched in his pockets for a moment, then handed the letter to Snape. "He came to my dormitory last night with this on a ribbon round his neck."

Snape took the letter disdainfully, reading through it, then droning, "Hmm... well, Potter, I daresay somebody will have more news for you in a few days. Whether it is me, the headmaster or the Daily Prophet remains to be seen. Now hurry up, you'll be late for your next class as well."

"Okay. Thanks, Professor." Cupid copied him with a cheery 'fwee' of goodbye for Snape, then together, they left the cold dungeon classroom into the hustle and bustle of the school. Even though Harry knew there was no chance of seeing anything, he couldn't help but scan the corridors for any sign of a tall man in pirate-style clothes. If he'd been looking properly, he would have noticed that the hawk on his shoulder was too.

 

Chapter Twenty: The Simple Things

It was nearly a fortnight before Malfoy was discharged from the hospital wing and could return to his lessons. The next few days after he was out were probably the busiest of his life. Harry saw him doing homework outside in the courtyard at break, finishing classwork at lunch, then the moment the end bell went, the Bright Sparks were all outside practicing Quidditch for two hours until the bell for dinner rang. Then they were inside, eating their evening meal, generally with Draco translating some huge book of ancient runes at the Slytherin table, they went to their common rooms and Harry was willing to be that Draco would be somewhere as far away from Zabini as possible, doing yet more work.

Professor Alrister still wasn't back. Pure Arts became not even half as much fun without him. They had Dumbledore for one lesson, but apart from that, it was usually a substitute teacher who gave them notes to copy out of a textbook. Everyday on the way back to Gryffindor common room at night, Harry always took the long route, just to peer through the glass in the door of Alrister's office, just hoping that maybe he would be there, sitting behind the desk with a serenity candle, in all his smuggler-style splendour - but he never was.

But on December 17th, there was no time for Harry to take his usual trip to the Pure Arts master's office, because at 3:30 PM sharp, his first Quidditch match of sixth year was due to start. He'd been feeling nervous all day, as had the rest of the team, and so when the end bell rung out through the corridors at three o' clock, Harry felt like his intestines were attempting to wriggle their way out of his stomach.

His last class of the day was double Potions, and the only person in his group that was also a Bright Spark was Draco. The moment the bell went, both of them leapt out of their seats and practically sprinted to the Quidditch pitch.

"Potter! Potter, where are my Quidditch gloves?"

"I don't know, you've got them!"

"I can't find them anywhere!" Draco ran the other way down the changing rooms, checking under the bench, in every shower, looking frantic. "We'll have to forfeit the match!"

Harry reached into Draco's bag and pulled out his gloves, frowning.

"Ah," said Draco.

The door opened, and Ron and Ernie walked in, talking happily about History Of Magic. Harry and Draco both jumped oin them, gabbling at them to get changed and find their brooms, the match starts in about twenty minutes now and if you're not ready we'll forfeit the league and it will be all your fault, we'll never forgive you, come on, hurry up.

Harry's firebolt was tucked neatly under his arm. Ernie was riding a broom hand-crafted by his grandfather, who did high quality broomsticks for a living. Ron had his faithful broom from last year. Draco, however, had raided the school broom stores the day before and had found the best he could. In truth, it wasn't the best broom imaginable. Draco had done the best job he could at clipping away the stray twigs, but it still looked a little scruffy.

Harry and Draco proceeded to chase Ron and Ernie around as they got dressed, badgering them about all the moves they were supposed to have learnt and if they remembered the strategies. Being pestered so much, it didn't take them long to get ready, and soon all four of them were ready in their Bright Sparks robes. Draco's logo had been coloured and charmed onto the back of their black robes, and then Hermione had performed one of her special spells to make the sparks flash all the different colours of the rainbow.

"Oh come on, where are the girls?" said Harry, worriedly, pattering down the length of the changing rooms and peering out onto the pitch.

Ron went to join him and gasped, his mouth falling open. "People, there are people here! Look! The stands are nearly full!" He choked. "Loads of the staff are here! Hey, look! Lupin's wearing a Bright Sparks badge!"

Ernie and Draco both wandered over, peering interestedly over Ron and Harry's shoulders. "Oh good, our fan club consists of a werewolf," said Draco. He wasn't entirely right about that. As Harry let his eyes drift over the crowd, he spotted more and more brightly coloured rainbow badges flashing in the light of the setting sun.

"Nobody naked in here, is there?" said a voice. They all turned around as Kainda came into the room, her hands over her eyes.

"No, we're decent," said Harry. "How are Cho and Ginny doing?"

"Oh, they're messing about with their hair and worrying if the logo is a bit too bright," said Kainda. Her Quidditch gloves were different to everybody else's, black to match her robes, fingerless and strapped up tightly around her fists.

"Where did you get those gloves?" said Harry.

"Quality Quidditch Supplies," she said, promptly. "Cost me a packet but well spent. See, look, there's a pocket you can put your keys or money or whatever in so they don't fly out and kill somebody. Did somebody say something about Lupin wearing a Bright Sparks badge?"

"Yeah," said Ron. "Go and have a look. He's on the front row of that stand over there... see?"

"Oh yeah," she said, peering out and grinning. "Good. Nice to see he knows which team to support. By the way, have we got any information on who or what the Reserves are?"

Ernie nodded. "It's last year's Hufflepuff reserve team," he said.

Kainda couldn't hold back a snort. "Hey, Harry, I'd take that personally if I were you. Putting your team against such a pack of nellies."

"Excuse me," said Draco, coldly. "But it is NOT Potter's team. It is OUR team."

"Yeah yeah," said Kainda. "Good for you. Hey, what's at that stall over there? Look, there's a couple of first years selling something."

They all leaned out of the changing room doors to look. There was indeed a brightly coloured stall erected just at the entrance to the Quidditch pitch, and a pack of students stood behind it with Madam Hooch. They appeared to be giving something out to everybody who came.

"I want one," said Ernie. "I don't know what they are, but I want one."

Kainda tilted her head, trying to see better. "It's like... shiny pieces of card. Little flat packets. Aeroplane peanuts? At a Quidditch match?" She took her broom from under her arm, climbed onto it and sped off down the tunnel onto the pitch. "I'm going to see what they are!" she called, as she sped out of sight.

When she returned a few minutes later, her pockets were full of bright foil wrappers that gleamed in the sun. She hopped gently off her broom, grinning from ear to ear, and took out one of the wrappers. Leaning closer, Harry saw that there was a picture of a broomstick on the front and the words, "Hogwarts Quidditch Champions Trading Card Game". At the bottom, in lurid yellow lettering was, "Sponsored by Weasley's Wizard Wheezes".

"Trading card game?" said Ernie, frowning, as Kainda handed the packs out. "What's this about?"

"Open your packet and see," she said, eagerly.

Harry frowned curiously, nipped the foil between his fingers and pulled it open. Inside, he found seven pieces of what he first thought were yellow card, until he turned it over and to his great surprise, realised it was like a top trumps card. There was a moving picture of one of the old Ravenclaw Beaters playing Quidditch, and all sorts of statistics - name, year, house, team, speed, strength, endurance, accuracy. The last four were given marks out of a hundred.

"It's like... pokemon cards," said Ernie, who was quickly flicking through his own pack.

"What cards?" said Ron.

"Um... long story."

Harry shuffled eagerly through the rest of his cards. Apart from the Ravenclaw Beater, he found he had three people from the Hufflepuff team last year, two of a Slytherin called Andrew McArthur, and Colin Creevey.

"This is so cool!" said Ron, eagerly, leaning over Harry's shoulder to look at his cards. "Has anybody got me?"

"I've got your sister," said Draco, raising an eyebrow, showing Ron the card. "Care to trade?"

They were so enthralled with the Quidditch cards that they seemed to completely forget about the upcoming match, and when there was a loud roar of applause from the crowd and a magical voice boomed out over the stands, they all jumped.

"Good afternoon and welcome to the first game of the Hogwarts Quidditch league!" called a very familiar voice. "My name is Lee Jordan, returning to the school as a full-time Quidditch Commentator! The pay may be terrible, but I get to sit and shout all day! Today's match is the highly anticipated first of the season, between the Reserves (last year's Hufflepuff reserves, hence the name) and the eagerly awaited Potter-Malfoy alliance, the Bright Sparks!"

There was a roar from the crowd. Harry felt his heart leap inside him.

"We've got some good weather conditions today, so let's all hope for a nice, long match with some high standard Quidditch play," Lee continued over the megaphone. "Today also sees a first for something else, the new Hogwarts Quidditch Champions Trading Card Game, kindly supported by Weasley's Wizard Wheezes. Just as quick note, if anybody has a Cho Chang to trade, please see me after the match."

"Jordan!"

"Sorry, sorry, Professor... okay, let's bring on the teams!"

The crowd roared with applause, cheering and clapping for all they were worth. Harry grinned around at his team mates. "Ready to go win our first match?"

Kainda leapt onto her broom, "You betcha!" Nobody could hold her back at all. She sped the length of the tunnel and took flight into the open air like an eagle spreading its wings, as the stands erupted with applause. The rest of the team all rocketed out after her, and Harry felt a great surge inside him as he felt that familiar beautiful thrill of excitement that only Quidditch could ever bring him. Everybody was thundering their applause, and as he looked down into the stands from way up on high, he realised how truly happy he was.

The Reserves were trooping out onto the pitch, looking very nervous indeed. Harry didn't recognise any of them, and neither did a lot of the crowd. The Reserves didn't look all too confident really.

Madam Hooch approached Harry, and the captain of the other team stepped forward worriedly, watching Harry as though he'd suddenly leap forward and attack.

"Captains, shake hands!" said Madam Hooch. They shook hands, and Harry realised just why Oliver Wood always looked as though he was trying to break the other captain's fingers when he did this. It was just impossible to resist the temptation. The Reserve captain drew his hand back as though he'd been bitten, and Harry grinned. "Alright, are you ready?" said Madam Hooch. "On my whistle! Three... two... one!!"

Fourteen players on brooms zoomed up into the air as Madam Hooch threw the trunk open and the four balls shot into the air. Ginny seized the Quaffle under her arm and headed straight for goal with Cho and Draco at her tail, and Harry caught a split second's view of the golden Snitch before it flittered away in a shower of sparkles. He lifted his broom up into the air for a better view over the pitch, all the while listening to Lee's commentary.

"And we're off! Chang takes the Quaffle, Chang heading for goal, nobody appears to be stopping her - oh, Bludger! Chang drops the Quaffle, picked up by Carter of the Reserves... and intercepted by Malfoy, Malfoy going for goal -"

Harry turned around just as Draco flung the Quaffle easily into the hoop and the stands erupted in cheers. He could hear people chanting all different things, people yelling, clapping, and louder than anything, he could hear people calling, "Bright Sparks, Bright Sparks, Bright Sparks!"

Draco whooped, doing a backwards arc in mid air, practically dancing. The Reserves didn't look any more confident at this.

"Alright, it's ten-nil to the Bright Sparks! Play resumes, Jarrold throws the Quaffle to Carter, and Carter's going for goal there! Malfoy and Chang on his tail, and - yes, that was a Parkin's Pincer there! Weasley Junior has the Quaffle, Quaffle to Malfoy, Chang, Weasley again, back to Chang! Ohhh, Chang drops the Quaffle, intercepted by Harris for the Reserves, and then to Carter, Harris again, Carter's going for goal, and - it's a save! Weasley has saved it! And what a save, disappointing for the Reserves fans, wherever they are, but Bright Sparks still in the lead! Ahem, and now a quick message from our sponsors."

There was the sound of the microphone being manhandled, and then both voices of Fred and George Weasley came over the air.

"Hello, and what a game we've seen today, huh?"

"My money's on the Bright Sparks for sure."

"Oh yeah, Bright Sparks rule. That's our lil brother and sister, y'all."

"Weasleys! Get on with it!" said Professor McGonagall's voice.

"Alright, alright. Okay, while you're watching the Quidditch, you may be interested to know that at the end of the match, more Hogwarts Quidditch Champion Trading Cards will be on sale at the exit of the stadium at ten sickles each. 50% of all proceeds go to St Mungo's Hospital."

"Thankyou, enjoy the game!" There was a cough. "Ahem, go Bright Sparks. Whoo."

The microphone was grated across the table and Lee's voice came back on. "Lee Jordan again and Weasley has just scored. Ginny Weasley, not Ron or the two behind me. We're going to have to get code names or something. Anyway, twenty-nil to the Bright Sparks!"

The crowd all cheered. Harry found himself grinning as he glanced up into the commentator's box and saw Fred and George dancing in a circle.

"So, Bright Sparks in the lead and it's Jarrold throwing in the Quaffle again - Carter, Carter to Harris, Harris back to Carter, and intercepted by Malfoy but... no, Reserves still in possession of the Quaffle, Harris going for goal and - oooooh, Bludger! Harris attacked by a Bludger sent by Zabini, and Malfoy has the Quaffle, Zabini at his tail! Bludger sent by the Reserve beater McDonald, and sent back by Zabini, sent back by McDonald... this could get repetitive... oh, that was a Bludger Backbeat by Zabini and Carter nearly concused! Play continues, Malfoy going for goal, dodges a Bludger, and - yes! Yes! Malfoy scores! Thirty-nil to the Bright Sparks!"

Harry flew down from his lofty position to loop around the goal posts, speeding along the ground back up towards Ron's goal, skimming so low that he nearly touched the grass. Ron was cheering and bouncing up and down, and when Harry flew up to him, Ron yelled, "We RULE!" over the noise of the crowd.

Harry nodded eagerly, and looked up to see a Bludger shooting towards them. "DUCK!" he roared, but Kainda and Ernie both rocketed forwards from the sides. Harry saw them raise their clubs at once, swing forward and the Bludger went screaming down the pitch. Everybody screamed and jumped aside at the Bludger cleared the way completely. Cho saw her chance and snatched the Quaffle from Harris, flying after the Bludger and dropping the Quaffle gently through one of the hoops.

Fred and George were dancing again. Lee called, "Forty-nil to the Bright Sparks! Marvellous Bludger work by BOTH the Bright Sparks Beaters there and a wonderful goal by Chang! What a game! This is really a great start to the season, really brilliant! Okay, play resumes!"

Things for the Bright Sparks just got better and better. Cho and Ginny seemed to work as just one Chaser, scoring over and over, throwing to each other with such speed and accuracy that Harry found himself amazed. Draco was always shooting below them, ready to snatch the dropping Quaffle from the air and turn the game right around if things looked bad. Ernie and Kainda were sending Bludgers so fierociously towards the Reserves that the other team just ran away if they came near, and Ron didn't let a single goal in. Pretty soon, Lee was screaming, "And it's 130-nil to the Bright Sparks!", bouncing up and down and hugging Fred and George.

"And they're off again! Harris has the Quaffle, Porter close behind him, and McDonald's there to repel any Bludger attacks from the Bright Sparks Beaters, going for goal! Malfoy intercepts! Look at that! Just snatched right from under - oh, Malfoy makes a Reserve Pass to Weasley Junior, Weasley Junior going for goal again! And the Reserves Keeper is leaving the pitch in tears! It's a clear-run for Weasley Junior! YES! Bright Sparks SCORE!!"

Harry was searching the pitch again, looking everywhere he could for the Snitch. The Reserves Seeker seemed to be the only player on their team who cared anymore. The others were all in various states of defeat and distress, and the Keeper was now being consoled by Professor Sprout on the edge of the pitch. Though the Bright Sparks weren't okay to relax yet. If the Reserves Seeker caught the Snitch, they would lose the match they were so sure of winning.

"Okay, and play starts again with a throw-in from Jarrold, all the Bright Sparks Chasers are ready. Reserves Beaters are looking determined, let's keep things fair, boys. Oh, Weasley Senior Two has just passed me a note that says..." Harry heard him open it with a crinkling noise. "Tell them about Chang and Potter. Tell them what about Chang and Potter, Fred?"

Harry felt his blood run cold. He turned to the commentator's box and started waving wildly, shouting, "NO! NO!", but Fred and George weren't listening. They whispered something in Lee's ears, and Harry saw his face spread into a grin.

"Aw, how sweet. Apparently we have love blossoming here on the Quidditch pitch everybody, let's have a big hand for our lovebirds, Cho and Harry. How lovely."

Harry covered his hands with his eyes as the crowd all laughed and cheered. He turned to the box, grinning, scarlet in the face and was about to fly up, break in there and kill Fred -

When he saw it. The Snitch was flittering pleasantly just below the rim of the window. He put on a great surge of speed, rocketing towards the box, his hand outstretched, and the stands erupted in screams, urging him on. The Reserves Seeker had noticed too and was turning his broom, desperately trying to catch up, but Harry was too fast, he was speeding closer and closer until he felt his fingers curl around the Snitch. He jerked his broom up and soared skywards, his hand clasped around the fluttering Snitch, and the stands exploded with cheers. Everybody was on their feet, screaming and hugging each other. Harry flew back towards his team, and they all flew at him, grabbing him in a tight hug, cheering and yelling so loud he thought his ears would explode, but he didn't care.

"BRIGHT SPARKS WIN! A final score of 290-0 to the Bright Sparks, that's GOTTA be a record!" Lee was shouting, bouncing around in the commentator's box, "The Reserves are leaving the pitch, absolutely disgusted with their poor play, and the point goes to Bright Sparks in the league, our current leaders! Let's hear it for THE BRIGHT SPARKS!!"

Harry was grinning into Ron's shoulder as the crowd all roared their approval. He could see Hermione, Neville, Luna and Professor Lupin all cheering like maniacs in the front row. Cho was hugging him tight around the neck and he was hugging back. He grinned even wider as she planted a kiss on his cheek, saying, "You are SO great!" in his ear. Ron winked at him from over Cho's shoulder. Harry laughed and swatted his cousin away, and at that moment, Harry knew he couldn't care less what Voldemort was doing, why Snape was attracting bad luck, where Alrister had gone, what was causing Gryffindor Risotta. He suddenly had everything he wanted - a family, love, a Quidditch game.

Ron grinned, patting him on the shoulder. "It's the simple things in life you cherish, huh?"

Harry laughed. "So true."

 

Chapter Twenty-One: Nightmares

Kibbles was becoming quite a handful. He had grown to the size of a large Irish Wolfhound by now, far higher than Harry's waist, and only Hagrid could control him completely. The dragon seemed perfectly happy to trot around after Hagrid as though he was a puppy, and every night, Hagrid lead him happily into the old greenhouse they'd turned into his kennel. During DA Club, Harry had to teach everybody about dragons and other dark creatures and practices, and so for two or more hours every Friday, he was thoroughly aware of why people said 'never work with animals'.

After one particularly exhausting lesson, he dragged himself back up to Gryffindor Tower, tired, burnt, and very glad it was the weekend. Cupid was sitting daintily on his perch when he got into the dormitory.

"Fweeeeeeeeee..."

"Hiya, Cupid..." He pulled off his robes, hanging them over the end of his bed, tickling the hawk gently under the chin. Cupid cooed and wriggled around like a cat with tuna. Harry couldn't help but smile. Cupid always made him feel better after his exhausting lessons, or chasing a Common Welsh Green around a hall for two hours trying to stop it eating the first years.

"Fwee..." Cupid fluffed up his feathers, tucking his head back under his wing.

"I don't blame you," said Harry, quietly. "I could do with some rest as well."

Cupid made an impatient, irritated little noise from under the mass of feathers. Harry smiled, got changed without annoying the hawk anymore, then pulled back the hangings of his four-poster and got into bed. He was asleep before Ron, Neville, Dean or Seamus came up, lost deep within his dreams. Or rather, his nightmares.


Everything was spinning so fast. Round and round and round, so fast that Harry felt he was going to throw up, but then, quite suddenly, his feet hit solid ground again. He looked around, and saw a cottage in front of him, with a thatched roof, and roses climbing up around the door. It was late evening. And he didn't know how, but somehow, he knew he was home from work after a long day. Sarah would be waiting inside for him with something to eat. As he walked up the path, he wondered how her appointment at St Mungo's had gone, and whether their unborn child was a boy or a girl. He hoped a boy. He'd always wanted a son.

Idly, whistling a song he'd never learnt, he put the key in the door and stepped into his house. "Sarah! Sarah, sweetie, how are you?"

He smiled, taking off his hat and walking down the hall, removing his coat. She didn't answer. Probably having a bath or asleep, he thought, as he opened the door of the lounge and stepped through.

She was there, lying on the carpet, quite still. He frowned. "Sarah? What's wrong?" He threw his briefcase aside and hurried to her side, feeling his hands starting to shake. She wasn't moving. "Sarah... Sarah, talk to me... Sarah! Sarah!" He reached down to touch her shoulder, try to wake her up - and when he did, he felt something warm and wet. He lifted his fingers. Blood ran down them in crimson streaks. "SARAH!!" He pulled her beautiful blonde hair aside, that hair he loved so much. There was a knife in the back of her neck. She was dead.

Tears were starting to roll down his face. "Sarah!! Sarah, wake up... please don't be dead, Sarah... Sarah..." He gathered her into his arms, sobbing and shaking, clinging to her, feeling blood run in gory streams down over his hands. He knew it was too late. She was dead. More and more tears fell down his face, he was screaming, shaking, crying so hard he couldn't think or breathe anymore. He put one hand on her stomach, over their unborn child, still holding onto her as though if he let go it would all be real. But it was real. She was dead.

And then everything started to spin again, faster and faster, she was melting away in his arms and the room around him disappeared. He was whirling and whirling through blackness, until with another hard thump, his legs hit solid ground again.

Everything was darker now. Quieter. His office, at his desk, and he had his crystal ball in front of him. He knew he shouldn't look... but he had to. He reached out, idly, and said in his cold, silky voice, "Aralris." The pearlescent fog within the crystal ball's centre started to swirl, tumbling over and over, and then they parted, as though blown aside by a great storm. He leant closer to gaze deep within the crystal's heart.

There she was... and with him... the church. He had been invited along to witness it all in person, but he hadn't accepted. He knew it would have killed him to see it before his very eyes. But there they were. Oh, she was so beautiful, in a gown of the sleekest silver, with tiny butterflies fluttering around her waist. Her skin was flawless, her raven black hair was so beautifully styled, up in an elegant twist. She was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. And to know that the man she stood opposite was the one she had chosen to spend the rest of her life with...

Anger, hatred, betrayal, all of it started to bubble up inside him. He'd loved her first. Ever since he first saw her at that cafe when he was just sixteen, he'd known he'd spend the rest of his life loving her and only her. And then... she was stolen from his embrace. Torn away from his arms, and then lied to, over and over. Her new husband would never, ever love her like he had done.

He watched, with furious tears forming in his eyes, as she took the hand of the man before her and said, in that soft voice that always reduced him to nothing but her slave, "I do..."

"No..." he whispered. "No... no, no, NO!! I love you, I always have!! You can't... you can't..." He broke down. This was it. His last chance at the only thing he'd ever wanted, gone. Nobody would ever love him. He'd always thought he was safe with her, but not anymore. Snarling with rage, he lashed out, sending the crystal ball flying across the room. It shattered on the far wall, nothing more than a plume of smoke and shards of glass, and as he slumped to the floor, a broken man, he knew his life had no purpose any longer.

The room started to spin once more, colours and lights and sounds flashing past him in nothing but a blur. He was being lifted again, up, up into the air, and then he fell, twisting through time and space to land once more. He was in a hospital. St Mungo's. He was sitting on one of the horrible, plastic red chairs outside a room he wasn't allowed in, even though inside, she was there. She was dying. He knew nobody could save her, but his child... his last hope. His last chance.

"Mr Alrister?"

He looked up, desperately, seeing a medi-wizard come out of the room. There was blood all down the front of his robes.

"I... I'm sorry..." the wizard said, quietly. "Your wife... there was nothing we could do. The knife curse was too advanced to be reversed."

So she was dead. But... "My baby? What about the baby?" He stood up, going towards the medi-wizard, all his hope and his dreams resting on the man's answer. "Is it... is it still alive?"

The medi-wizard looked at the floor in silence. It was all the answer he needed. His world collapsed around him, right at that point. He'd lost everything. His wife and his unborn child... the only reasons he woke up in the morning. He felt himself break instantly, his heart shatter inside him into too many pieces to ever be counted. This was it. Game over.

Everything was spinning again, round and round, and faster this time. He was flung from St Mungo's, out of his body, across time and space until he landed hard again.

Darkness. It always had to be dark, as dark as possible. They didn't like the light, and if Voldemort's precious pets weren't happy, then somebody was going to end up dead.

He folded his hands neatly behind his back, staying silent. That was the rule. Never speak unless the Dark Lord speaks to you. Voldemort was looking into a room through a window in the wall, his hands resting against the glass, his serpentine face relaxed into fascination and awe at what he was looking at. Harry turned his head to look as well. The room through the window was dimly lit as always, with a red light, so that the keepers could see but their pet was not harmed. A young girl, perhaps not even eight, was crouched on the floor over her latest meal. The man she was feeding on had already been dead when he was flung in there, but freshly killed, so that she could drink his blood and not be ill.

"Isn't she beautiful, Severus?" Voldemort said in a whisper.

He nodded. "Very, my Lord..." he murmured, softly.

Voldemort tilted his head, tracing his fingers across the glass, his eyes full of wonder as the girl's throat worked to drain away the blood from her prey. "So young, so innocent... yet so powerful... so pure... so blood-thirsty. Look at how she holds him, Severus. Not even a live being could escape from such a powerful grip."

"They are fascinating, my Lord," he murmured, as quiet as he could. "A far superior form of life."

"Yes," said Voldemort, softly, a sly smile curling his lips as the girl wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, cleaning her fangs gently. "I knew that you would share my love of such creatures... the power this one girl has could rival ten of the strongest wizards. And she is not even fully-grown yet. Not even old enough to bear children... but when she is..."

Once again, he felt himself being pulled backwards and upwards, lifting straight out of the scene, twisting and turning until with a blaze of harsh, terrifying orange lift, he hit the floor again. He looked upwards, just in time to hear a crack like a gunshot, and the main pole holding up the canvas began to fall. The whole lot was descending, falling, coming closer and closer, flames licking back and forth across the bright colours all turned black from the light of the fire.

He was going to die. But his sisters, his brothers. They could live. There was a chance. The canvas continued to surge down towards them, building speed, the temperature elevating to more than he could stand, but all he knew was that he had to save his family. He leapt sideways, flinging his arms around all of them, shielding them from the flames and screaming at them to run and hide, as the first tongues of flames licked at his back and then the canvas was down, covering him, the burning material tearing into his skin, cooking him alive, his sisters and brothers were screaming, he could feel the heat reaching right inside him.

But then he was being lifted yet again, spinning and spinning, and then his feet hit solid ground. But now he was running. He couldn't stop to look around. All he knew was that it was dark, and cold, and he was being chased. It was going to catch him and kill him.

He screamed, tears pouring down his face, fighting with his legs to run faster, tearing at bushes and trees that got in his way. He was miles from home. He'd never make it. He couldn't run that fast.

"DAD!!! MUM!!! HELP!!!" he screamed, shrieking and crying, hearing it start to run faster and faster behind him, charging through the trees and snarling. "HELP ME!!!!"

He heard it jump, the rush as it soared through the air and then it hit him hard in the back and he fell forward, screaming, knowing he was done for. He was grasped hard by the shoulder, turned over and he shrieked as he looked up into the face of a half-man, half-beast, covered in fur and with rolling, livid red eyes. Claws grabbed his arm, pulled his soft flesh towards its jaw and then those teeth snapped down.

They seemed to melt instantly, and he was pulled up, spun around and then thrown back down to earth once again. He was in the circus tent again. Somebody had dragged him out, but he was burnt too badly to live. His arms and legs didn't feel like arms and legs anymore. They were black cinders, blood on fire. He could hear people screaming, children crying, the horses were screaming too as they were burnt alive, trapped under the big top. A pair of arms flung around his neck and held him tight, sobbing into his ear, and his little sister was shaking. She had been burnt nearly as much as him. She was going to die too. "I love you, Peter, I love you..."

He clung onto her, feeling life slipping from his body. "Don't cry, Jilly... r-remember your promise... I'll see you again..."

She choked, "I promise, Peter...", and then she died in his arms, as life itself was just washed away from her. He closed his eyes, and the last thought he had before he started to spin once more was - "I tried..."

Up, up again, and then being flung back down, faster this time, and he was at home, tucked up in his bed, his teddy clamped in his arms. His mum and dad sat with him. They were crying too.

"It's okay, Remus..." His mother held him tight, enveloping him in her arms. She smelt of freshly baked cakes, as soft as a pile of feathers, gentle and soothing. "It was just a little bite... you'll be okay... I promise..."

He knew she was lying. It was a big bite. The werewolf had nearly torn his arm off. And there was one thing a werewolf bite meant.

The doctor came back into the room, holding a jar full of his own blood that had been tested. The man looked solemnly at Mum and Dad, then said, quietly, "I'm afraid it's bad news..."

"You mean... he's..." his dad said.

The doctor nodded gravely. "He's been infected. He'll be a werewolf for the rest of his life."

As his mother dissolved in tears, and he clung onto her and his teddy, starting to cry, he felt himself being pulled back for the last time. He whirled through blackness, spinning and spinning, faster and faster until -

Harry sat bolt-upright in his bed, shaking from fear. He looked around the darkened Gryffindor boy's dormitory, and let out a sigh of relief, clutching his arms, feeling cold and shivery, as though recovering from a bad illness. It was a nightmare. That's all it was. It's not real. Be calm...

He took a few deep breaths, steadying his nerves, swallowing away the spit that had welled in his mouth. Alrister... and Sarah. Finding her dead. And then Snape, looking down through the crystal ball at the wedding of the one person he'd ever loved. Then Peeves... Peeves dying after trying to save his family. And Lupin, being bitten by the werewolf.

He reached out for his water jug and took a few long gulps. That was probably the worst nightmare he'd ever had. It was horrible, so horrible he couldn't think properly. The darkness just made him remember everything even more, and so he reached across to the lamp, twisting the bottom to turn it on.

He screamed. There was somebody standing at the bottom of his bed, a black figure that rose nearly to the ceiling, with mad, livid red eyes staring at him from underneath that hood. He choked with fear, clawing backwards in bed to get away, looking terrified around at the other boys - they were all dead. He could see the knife protruding from the back of Ron's neck. He screamed, "RON!!!! RON!!!!", but it was too late. Voldemort raised his wand again, pointing it at Harry's heart, whispering, "Avada kedavra..."

There was a flash of green light, Harry screamed again and -


His scream continued as he woke up properly, so scared he couldn't think properly. He was shaking, tears rolling down his face, screaming and screaming. There was a flurry of movement around him and Ron tore back the hangings of his bed, staring at him in horror. "WHAT?! WHAT IS IT?!"

Harry couldn't get rid of the image of Ron lying in bed, his eyes open, his mouth wide, the knife digging into his neck. He couldn't stop screaming. He just curled up in a ball, rocking back and forth, tears pouring down his face, shaking so violently that he couldn't feel his legs or arms anymore. He imagined them burnt, blackened and dying and screamed even more.

Seamus, Dean and Neville were awake by now, staring out from their beds. "What's wrong?" said Neville, going pale.

"We need a teacher," said Ron, his voice shaking, "you three stay with him, keep him talking, put some water on his forehead, I'm going to get McGonagall!" He rushed across the room, flung the door open and hurried down the stairs. There was people in the common room below.

"What's going on?" said one of the third years with wide eyes. "What's happened? Who's screaming?"

Ron pushed them roughly aside, heading for the door. "We need a teacher, there's something - " He yanked open the portrait hole, and was about to step out when he noticed the scene outside in the half-darkness. The light of Gryffindor common room crept slowly across the floor, revealing a figure lying on the floor in front of the portrait hole, a huge tapestry lying on top of them. Ron choked.

It was Professor Snape.

"What's going on here?" said a voice from outside, as footsteps approached. Professor McGonagall appeared at the end of the corridor, her hair in a bun, wrapped in a tartan dressing gown. "What's all the commotion about? I don't see why - "

Her eyes fell upon Snape, lying curled under the tapestry, his eyes closed, his hand laying limp across the floor. She put a hand to her mouth.

"Oh my goodness... Mr Weasley, hurry, get to the headmaster's office! The passwood is 'cookie dough' bring him here immediately!" She hurried down the corridor, kneeling down by Snape, clasping her fingers to his neck. "Oh, thank goodness... there's still a pulse..." She looked up. Hermione was hanging out of the portrait hole, her eyes wide with terror. "Miss Granger! Who's screaming?"

"It's Harry, Professor," she said, shaking. "He's just screaming, he won't stop, he won't tell us what's wrong... what happened to - "

McGonagall shook her head, looking down upon Snape's unconscious face. "I don't know, Miss Granger. I don't know."

All of Gryffindor house was awake by now, trying to see what was going on. All of them were pale and frightened. Professor McGonagall got Hermione and the other prefects out to stay with Professor Snape, whilst she hurried inside, rushing up the staircase.

Harry was still sobbing, breathing in only gulps of air, shaking violently. Seamus and Dean were trying to calm him down, while Neville was pinned against the far wall in fear, too scared to do anything.

"Finnigan, Thomas, what's wrong with him?" said McGonagall, crisply, coming over.

"Voldemort," Harry gasped. "Voldemort, he was h-here..."

"It was a nightmare, Potter," said McGonagall, soothingly. "That's all it was. Voldemort is most certainly not here."

Harry shook his head, still rocking back and forth. "Get Sn-snape, and Lupin, and P-Peeves, and I'll p-prove it wasn't just a n-n-nightmare..."

Professor McGonagall glanced at Dean. "Thomas, go to Professor Lupin's office and bring him here. Peeves, we cannot just bring, Potter, he - "

A sudden white mass glided through the far wall, and Peeves the poltergeist appeared, grinning from ear to ear at all the mayhem. "You rang, Madam?" he said, in an oily cackle.

"We will require you for... something, Peeves," she said. "Potter, calm down. It was a nightmare."

Harry opened his eyes, looking out at Peeves, and in a voice racked with tears, he sobbed, "She was c-called Jilly... she was the only one that g-got out alive apart f-from you, the other's all d-died when the c-canvas fell... and you t-told her to r-r-remember the promise..."

Peeves's face fell instantly. He had never looked so shocked in his life as he stared in absolutely and utter abject horror at Harry. "How - how do you know - "

"I was there," Harry sobbed, rocking back and forth, still holding his shoulders as though to keep himself alive. "I s-saw it all... and Lupin, and Snape, and A-Alrister... I saw it... I n-need to t-talk to Professor Sn-snape..."

McGonagall shook her head. "Not now, Potter... come on, let's get you out of here. That's it, careful, we're going to see the headmaster and get you sorted out." She eased him off the bed, though he could hardly walk because of the shaking in his legs. Everytime he glanced at the end of his bed, for a moment, he could almost see that black figure towering to the ceiling, and then Ron lying in bed, with the knife digging into the back of his neck. He shuddered, feeling as though he was about to be sick, as McGonagall, Seamus and Neville brought him down the stairs.

Everybody in the common room surged forward, asking questions. McGonagall waved them away, moved Harry over to an armchair by the fire and sat him down. "Just breathe, Potter. Relax."

Peeves swooped down after them, and several people screamed, moving away from him, but for once, he didn't seem interested in scaring them. He glided over, hovering behind McGonagall, still staring suspiciously at Harry with narrowed eyes. "What does he mean, he saw it?" he said to McGonagall.

"He had a nightmare, Peeves," she said briskly.

"It wasn't a nightmare!!" Harry shouted. "It was real, it all happened!! I need Professor Snape!!"

Ron clambered through the portrait hole, followed by Seamus, Professor Dumbledore and Lupin. The headmaster looked very serious, but Lupin just appeared confused.

"What's happened, Minerva?" he said.

Ron rushed over to his cousin, grabbing his wrists, "Harry? Mate? You okay? What happened, what was it?" The rest of the house all moved forward, wanting to know, but Peeves lashed at them and they all shrunk back to let Dumbledore and Lupin through.

Harry was about to start telling them what happened, when he saw out of the corner of his eye, Hermione and the other prefects levitating an unconscious Snape into the common room. Harry's eyes widened in terror. "What happened?"

"He is alive, Harry," said Dumbledore. "A tapestry seems to have fallen on him at the most inopportune moment. He shall be fine within a few hours." He crouched down, staring seriously into Harry's eyes. "I need you to tell me what happened, Harry, and no detail is insignificant."

Harry heard his lips starting to talk as McGonagall shooed the curious Gryffindors away, though he didn't remember wanting to say the words. He told Dumbledore about falling asleep, being Alrister coming home from work and finding his pregnant wife dead on the floor, then Snape looking down at a woman getting married and knowing his life had no purpose, then Alrister being told his child was dead and Voldemort with the little vampire girl. He looked up at Peeves, and the story of the poltergeist's death came bubbling past his lips, and then to Lupin, and how he was bitten and told he would always be a werewolf. Then the worst part came. He told Dumbledore about thinking he'd woken up, and seeing Voldemort at the foot of his bed when he turned the light on, and Ron dead with the knife blade sunk into his neck. When he was finished, they all looked as scared as him. Lupin moved forward, and put his arms around Harry. Harry just wept into his shoulder.

"Lord Voldemort appears to have given you this nightmare, Harry," said Dumbledore, quietly. "A collection of the worst memories of people around you. I presume Harry's details were correct?" he added, looking around at Peeves and Lupin. They both nodded. "Though do not worry, Harry. It was all a nightmare. All in the past."

"What about the end part?" said Harry, shaking, still clinging onto Lupin.

"It was a nightmare," said Dumbledore again.

Hermione and Ron both moved forward and hugged Harry as well. He just sat still, weeping, as all three of the people embracing him tried to calm his nerves. But everytime he was calm, that image of Voldemort standing at the foot of his bed came back into his head, and he shivered again.

Dumbledore stood back silently and watched for a few moments, before he said, "I will kindly ask everybody except Harry to leave the room. I must talk with him in private." McGonagall nodded, and went to levitate Snape out, but Dumbledore added, "I'm sure that Severus is not in a state to eavesdrop, Minerva. Leave him, if you would."

Hermione kissed Harry on the cheek, and Ron gave him a last supportive hug before they left after McGonagall. Lupin murmured, "You'll be alright", then left too. Peeves was already gone. Dumbledore shut the portrait hole and the doors to the dormitories, then stood by Snape on the floor and raised his wand. After a few precise words, Harry saw Snape's eyes flutter, he groaned softly and then woke up with a shiver. "Potter!"

"Calm down, Severus. Harry is here." Dumbledore beckoned to Harry, and he got up shakily, crossing the room to Snape's side. Dumbledore looked down on his Potions master. "What happened?"

"I..." Snape looked around vaguely at the Gryffindor common room, frowning, trying to remember. "A cold flush woke me up from my sleep. I thought nothing of it - they're not unusual. Potter has a lot of nightmares." He furrowed his brow thoughtfully, frowning at the ceiling. "But it continued, repeatedly. I decided that I might as well check on him just to make sure he wasn't being murdered in his sleep. I found the portrait to Gryffindor Tower, and was just arguing with the painting to give me entrance when..." He shook his head.

"A tapestry fell on you," said Dumbledore, quietly. "I believe Mr Ronald Weasley found you lying underneath it outside the portrait hole."

Snape turned his eyes to Harry. "What was the cause for alarm, Potter?"

"I... it was..." said Harry. It was hard to explain. "I fell asleep and Voldemort got into my mind... he... he made me relive the worst memories of the people around me... I... I saw you. And the little vampire girl. And that woman getting married."

Snape's eyes flashed softly. He turned his head away for a moment, and moved to sit up, but then gave a cry of pain. Seething, he gripped his right arm, face tight with agony. "My arm..."

"Broken?" said Dumbledore.

Snape nodded vaguely. "Most likely."

"Harry, I would like you and Professor Snape to both go to the hospital wing," said Dumbledore. "Madam Pomfrey will be able to fix you both up."

Harry got up, and helped Snape to his feet. He reached out to take Snape's uninjured arm and steady him, but Snape said vaguely, "Get off, Potter,", and Harry let it drop. They left Gryffindor Tower, and Ron looked as though he wanted to stay with Harry, but Dumbledore called them all in and sent them to bed. Harry murmured, "Night," to Ron and Hermione as they passed, but that was about it.

Snape and Harry proceeded to the hospital wing. Harry was numb with shock and emotional exhaustion from everything he'd seen, and so Snape had to explain to Madam Pomfrey what had happened. She gave them both beds, sent them to lay down and went to find the equipment needed to repair Snape's broken arm.

Harry didn't know what to say. He just laid in his bed, staring at the ceiling. He quite wished that Ron, Hermione and Professor Lupin were still with him. He needed somebody to talk to, though Snape didn't seem to be in a good mood at all. Harry knew he couldn't fall asleep now. He didn't think he'd ever fall asleep in the dark again. He felt like a child who had had a bad dream, and wanted nothing more than to run to their parents' room and sleep cuddled up to them.

He wrapped his arms around his shoulders, gazing down the ward, at all the empty beds. Maybe Voldemort was sending him nightmares as a sign. A warning that he wouldn't be dormant forever. Even the memories of Quidditch weren't enough to soothe his fright, and all he could do was lay still, watching Madam Pomfrey fixing Snape's arm, telling him to have some rest, then bustling off.

Snape glanced across at him as she disappeared into her office. "Potter."

Harry looked back at him. "What? Sir?"

"You look troubled."

"I am troubled." He sighed softly, pulling the covers up around his neck. "I don't want to go to sleep. It... it was just that..."

Snape nodded. "I... I understand, Potter. Try not to dwell on it."

"That's your answer to everything," said Harry, glumly.

"It's worked for me for thirty-six years," said Snape, vaguely, rolling over in his bed. "Some things are better not thought about."

Harry looked down into the sheets, thinking. "Professor?"

"What, Potter?" Snape yawned.

"How long ago was that memory about the vampire girl?" said Harry.

Snape didn't answer for a moment, then said, "Two years."

"So... she's about ten now."

"Eleven. Why, Potter?"

"I was just... trying to work out how long we've got left," said Harry, quietly.

"As I said, Potter. Try not to dwell on it."

Harry wasn't very comforted by this. He watched Snape for a moment, thinking of something, and then he said, "Why was it those four people? Why you, Lupin, Alrister and Peeves?"

Snape answered, in a calm way, "Those people have a great effect on your life, I expect."

"Peeves?" said Harry, raising his eyebrows.

Snape smirked slightly. "Tell me, Potter, the next time somebody offers you a trip to the circus, what is your initial reaction going to be? Or the next time you see a clown?"

Harry fell silent for a moment, then murmured, "Yeah... but... you can't go back to Voldemort now. He knows you have a great effect on my life. He knows you're loyal to Dumbledore."

Snape shook his head. "No. I know the curse he must have used to send you those nightmares. It's a fairly simple one, but marvellous effective. He won't have seen what you were dreaming about."

"How do you know?" said Harry. "How can you be so sure? What if he can?"

"I just know, Potter," said Snape. "I've seen that curse work so many times. I can recognise it in an instant."

"Where have you seen it at work?" Harry asked, desperate to know how reliable Snape's reassurance was.

Snape looked up at the ceiling, his eyes narrowed ever so slightly. "It works best when performed by a wizard skilled in legilimency. The Dark Lord does not involve himself in such trivial things, and so asks another Death Eater to take the matter into their hands."

"You," said Harry, quietly.

Snape turned away. "Go to sleep, Potter."

 

Chapter Twenty-Two: The Last Drop of Blood

Harry spent the whole of the next two days in the hospital wing recovering in the quiet and the peace. Madam Pomfrey set up a serenity candle at the foot of Harry's bed and gave him a dreamless sleep draught, so for the most of the days, he napped quietly, getting some well needed rest. Nobody came to see him on the Saturday, but when he woke up after his morning nap on the Sunday, he found Ron, Hermione, Neville, Luna, Ginny, Ernie, Kainda, Cho and Draco all sitting next to his bed, watching him fearfully.

"Harry?" said Cho, quietly.

Harry blinked up at her, wishing his hair wasn't so messy. "Hi."

"How you doing, mate?" said Ron, pretty much barging Cho out of the way.

"Fine," said Harry. He rubbed his forehead, and Ron frowned.

"What's up with your eyes?"

Harry glanced into the mirror next to his bed and saw that they had gone the same swirling liquid shade of bronze that Alrister's had. "The serenity candle turns them a funny colour. Don't worry about it." He looked around at the many faces watching him, and said, "What are you all doing here?"

"We came to see if you were okay," said Neville. He still looked a little worried.

Harry sat up in bed, fluffing his pillows to have something comfy to lean against. "Thanks, guys..."

"How are you feeling?" said Hermione, kindly.

He nodded a little. "Better. Sorry about worrying you all..."

There was a general murmur of that it was nothing. They stayed for an hour or so, all talking to him, complaining that their days had all been really boring without him. Luna gave him a copy of her Quibbler with a shy smile, Draco gave him a piece of paper with the details of their next Quidditch match, Hermione had kindly brought all his homework so he didn't have an excuse to not to do it, Cho gave him a comforting hug. When Madam Pomfrey finally came over and said that Harry seemed to be much better, and could probably leave, he couldn't have been happier about it. He got dressed behind the screen and then they all left for dinner, which was chinese food and cherry pie to follow. Harry was feeling quite good all evening, playing chess with Ron in the common room and badgering Hermione to help him with his homework, but when ten o' clock came, the happy feeling inside him died.

Seeing the look on his face, Hermione said, "What's wrong, Harry?"

He was silent for a moment, then said, "I have to go to bed... I... I don't want to. It feels wrong up there. Like he's still there. Waiting for me."

Ron patted him consolingly on the shoulder. "Come on Harry... it was a nasty nightmare, but it wasn't real."

Harry shook his head. "I don't want to go up there."

Hermione and Ron both swapped worried looks, then sat down on the sofa on either side of him. Hermione put an arm around him and gave him a sisterly hug, while Ron patted his shoulder gently. Harry found himself wishing he could just stay up with them all night and never go to sleep again. It was a terrifying thought to think of sleeping. Madam Pomfrey had given him a whole bottle full of dreamless sleep draught, but he knew it wouldn't help him.

"Poor Harry..." said Hermione. "It was really bad, wasn't it?"

He nodded sadly. Ron looked thoughtful, as though he'd had a sudden spark of inspiration. Harry stared at him. "What?"

"I'll be right back," said Ron, and he hurried away up the stairs to the dormitories.

Hermione patted Harry gently on the back. "Come on Harry... leave a light on, and the door open. Read a book and make sure you're really calm, and you'll drift right off."

Harry shook his head again. "You didn't see it... you didn't see Alrister's wife, or the vampire, or the werewolf or the burning circus tent. You weren't there." He sighed. "Sorry Hermione... I know you're just trying to help."

She smiled kindly. "It's okay, Harry... I - " But she was interrupted by a loud huffing and puffing from the stairs, as sets of bedding came rolling down the stairs, flopping out of the doorway like great marshmallows. Ron came fighting his way past it, grinning.

"We'll sleep down here!" he said, brightly. "Make a nest on the sofa and stay with the fire. Like a permanent slumber party."

Hermione frowned. "I don't think I approve of this."

Ron dragged several pillows over to the sofa and set about making a nest, stealing all the cushions from the armchairs. "Fine, you go to bed then. I'm staying with Harry. You might not care, but I do."

"Oh Ron, of course I care, it's just - "

"Fair enough," said Ron, heaving the duvets over. "Off you go. Sleep well."

She paused, summing up her potions, and then with a sigh she said, "Fine, I'll go and get my quilt. But if we get in trouble - "

" - then we'll tell McGonagall why we're doing it, and if she sends us back to bed, she's evil," said Ron.

Harry couldn't help but smile gratefully. "Thanks Ron."

"Hey, what are third cousins for?" said Ron, grinning.

"Once removed!" Hermione called, before hurrying up the stairs.

Ron rolled his eyes, and they both grinned, flopping down onto either end of the sofa and wriggling under the duvet. Ron searched about in his bag for a moment, then took out a large packet of Bertie Botts. "Fred and George sent me them today. I think they should do us nicely, huh?" He opened the bag, and offered it to Harry. "Bean, cousin?"

Harry grinned again and took a bean gratefully. Hermione joined them soon after, and the three of them sat together in front of the fire in their pajamas (Ron and Harry took turns getting changed in the bathroom), talking for ages, until they all drifted off.


When Harry woke up, the windows outside were still painted with an inky-blackness, dotted with crystal stars. At first, he wondered why he had woken up, fearfully glancing around the room for any hint of dark figures standing over him, but there was nothing. He gave himself a hard pinch on the arm, and it hurt. Not dreaming.

Ron was snoring loudly next to him under the nest, his mouth open, blowing bubbles everytime he breathed out. Hermione was curled up in the sheets opposite, murmuring in her sleep, something about the fascinating differences between Transfiguration and Transmogrification. Harry smiled. He wasn't really surprised that Hermione was just as much a know-it-all in her sleep as she was when awake.

"Fweeeeeeeeeeeeee!"

He looked up to see Cupid flutter over from his perch, sitting on the back of the sofa, staring at him.

"Fweeee, fweeee!"

"What? What is it?"

Cupid flapped his wings agitatedly. "Fwwwwweeeeeeeeeeeeeee!"

"Alright, alright, stop fweeing. What's wrong? Do you want feeding or something?"

He could have sworn that Cupid shook his head, flapping vigorously again, beating his shiny wings back and forth.

Harry groaned, getting up out of the nest and walking over to the sofa. Cupid hopped onto his arm, still fluttering about and singing at the top of his voice. His claws were nipping at the sleeve of Harry's pajamas, pulling him towards the door.

"What? There's not a crushed teacher out there, is there?"

"Fweeeeeeeeeeeee!" Cupid trilled impatiently.

Harry walked slowly towards the door. Cupid chattered at him, pulling him along, nipping at his hand. Harry reached out and pushed it open. "There. What now?"

Cupid flapped off his hand, and fluttered out, resting on top of a stone bust. The hawk stared down at him pointedly. Harry sighed.

"I can't follow you. I'll get in trouble."

Cupid cocked his head to one side. Harry looked into those cute little eyes, wishing that the hawk wasn't quite so sweet.

"Come back in here and calm down. I'm not taking you out for a walk now. It's dark and cold."

"Fwee..."

"No, Cupid."

"Fwee... fweeeeeeeeee..."

Harry frowned. Cupid had never looked so insistantly at him before. He looked around the common room, then at the hawk watching him, head tilted to one side.

"Alright. But if you end up taking me on a walk to see a dead mouse or a painting you don't like, I'm not going to be pleased." He reached out, taking his bag from the floor and rooting around in the bottom for his invisibility cloak. He kept it with him at all times now, just in case, and he was glad he did. He pulled it on, stuffed his wand in the pocket and then stepped out into the corridor, shutting the portrait.

Cupid gave an approving chirrup. Hary frowned. "Yeah, yeah. What now? Where are we going?"

The hawk hopped gently off the bust's head, flapped his wings a few times as though warming himself up, then with a clatter of claws, he took off, gliding down the corridor like a huge copper bat. Harry jogged after him hurriedly, trying to keep the sound of his footsteps quiet, just in case there was a prefect or a teacher lurking in some dark corner.

"Cupid!" he hissed. "Cupid, come back!"

The hawk wasn't listening, just flying on through the darkness ahead. Harry picked up his pace, starting to pant, wondering what Cupid was playing at - but when he turned the next corner, he realised. Cupid gave a soft call, fluttering down to rest on the shoulder of a figure huddled on the floor.

Harry moved forward, wondering who it was, and it was a few seconds until he realised.

"Draco?"

Draco looked up, and Harry saw that there were tears trickling down his pale face. "Harry?" he said, his voice strangled, unable to see the other boy in the corridor. His pale eyes wandering vaguely across everything.

"What's wrong?" said Harry, stepping closer, kneeling down next to Draco. Draco drew away, frightened. "It's me. I'm just invisible." He pulled the cloak of his face, and Draco's eyes widened.

"What are you doing here?"

"Cupid brought me. Now your turn... what's up with you?"

Draco shook his head, trying to hide his eyes. "It's... it's nothing... honestly..." Harry noticed that there was a letter tight in his hand. "I was just... going to see Professor Snape... or Professor Dumbledore... or... anybody... and I just..." He gestured vaguely. There were more and more tears leaking down his face. Harry glanced down, and saw there were bitemarks all over his ankle from sharp little teeth.

"What happened?" he asked, his eyes widening.

"A rat," said Draco, wiping his eyes frantically. "They're attracted to me because - " He fell silent, as though he'd said something wrong, and just concentrated on breathing.

"Why?" said Harry. "What is it? And why were you out looking for a teacher?"

Draco's spare hand went to his locket, gripping it tight, his other clenched down on the paper. Harry reached out for it, and Draco didn't stop him prizing apart his fingers apart and taking it out.

"This letter is for the eyes of Draco Ryu Salazar Malfoy only," he read. He paused and looked at Draco. "Your middle name is Salazar? That's just... snotty with a capital s."

"Oh, gee, thankyou so much Potter! Next time I'm being born, I'll request a different middle name, shall I?" Draco said, furiously.

"Alright, alright, point taken..." Harry turn back to the letter and carried on. "Dear Mr Malfoy. It is with our deepest regret that we inform you of the council's decision to declare you the sole heir and living member of the Malfoy family." Harry frowned. "What does it mean, the sole heir? What about your mother?"

Draco waved his hand vaguely, still wiping his eyes, indicating for Harry to carry on.

Harry started to read again. "This decision comes after two months of the absence of Narcissa Malfoy. You may or may not be aware that when a wizard or witch has been missing for two months with no word from them at all they are declared legally - " He fell silent at the next word. "...dead."

Draco wiped his eyes frantically again, but he was crying too hard to cover them up. "I just g-got the letter... and I n-needed to tell somebody... I'm... I'm an orphan. My mum's been declared dead." Draco looked up at Harry with desperation in his eyes. "I'm the last Malfoy ever. If they hadn't taken my house and all my things, I'd be the leader of the Malfoy family. And... and I'm alone. I'm so alone."

Harry put a comforting arm around him. "Come on, it's okay... somebody will take you in..."

Draco shook his head, desperately trying to wipe away his tears. "Nobody wants a Malfoy. I'm going to go to some rotten muggle orphanage." He put his hands over his eyes, shaking slightly. "It's bad enough here, I mean, nobody likes me apart from you, I have to put up with Zabini trying to make my life a living hell, every month I get animals trying to kill me... I hate my life. I hate it so much."

Harry looked him in the eye forcefully. "Why do you get animals trying to kill you?"

Draco tried to pull away. "It doesn't matter, Potter, nothing does."

"Tell me."

"Don't..."

"Tell me."

"I've told you, I don't want to - "

"Tell me or I'LL kill you."

Once again, Draco gripped his locket tight. "Potter, you wouldn't understand... my... my family heritage is... different to... to the view of the general public..."

"Then tell me! What does it matter?" Harry said. "I want to know what you meant when you had Slytherin Risotta and you got stomach pains, and you said it was 'normal now'. And why rats are attacking you. Tell me, I'm not like everybody else, I give people a chance!"

Draco looked at him from under his dirty blonde hair, summing him up, his eyes full of worry. His fingers tightened on his locket. "It's... Potter, you cannot tell a soul about this. Not even one person. Not Weasley, not Granger, nobody."

"I won't," said Harry. "Tell me..."

Draco bit his lip, his eyes drifting away to roam vaguely about the corridor. "I... just try to think about it... Zabini told you what's in my locket, I heard him. My... my dad's hair. Just one. And... why do you think I'm so good at the Pure Arts? Why do you think I can get my way so easily? Why have I taken astronomy?"

Harry stared at him, then shook his head. "I don't know... why?"

Draco paused for only a moment more, swaying a little, and then he said, "Potter... my... my father... he was..." He swallowed. "He was half veela."

Harry's jaw fell. "But that means that you - "

"Shhhh!" Draco hissed, desperately, looking left and right. "Do you have any idea what a scandal there would be if it got out? The Malfoy line is no longer pureblood at all, it's a load of rubbish. The woman that is down on the family tree as my grandmother is not my grandmother. Father's mother was a veela. My father was a half-veela... in my locket, it's a single hair from the head of a veela. It's a magical substance." He looked at his feet, ashamed. "I've been cheating. But I swear, I didn't know I was, I thought I was just good at the Pure Arts... then I tried it without my locket on, and I couldn't do it..."

"So what's with the rats? And the stomach pains?" said Harry.

"Veela and part-veela have an organ in the body that humans don't," replied Draco. "Somewhere in the stomach. It's tiny, but every month, it creates chemicals that cause the veela powers of attraction. Of course, veela have them all the time, but it's strongest when that organ is creating them freshly. Animals pick it up, they see me as a rival to their mates and they attack me."

"Buckbeak," said Harry, softly.

Draco shrugged. "I don't know whether it didn't like what I said, or if it was picking up the scent... but it's happening now and everything's attacking me. I can't go in the owlery. I'll be killed. And.. and now my father's dead, and my mother's dead, and I'm an orphan, and I'm producing and my stomach hurts, and my ankle's bleeding... and I'm sitting in the dark, and it's cold... I'm the last drop of blood and there's nowhere for me to spill..."

Harry patted Draco tentatively on the shoulder. "Look... you're sixteen, right? By wizard law, you're old enough to do magic and you're old enough to own your own home. You can get a flat or something."

"What am I going to pay for it with?" said Draco, staring at him in disbelief. "Maybe I can just go wait outside and hope a guy comes along and offers to trade me my shoes for three magic beans!"

"Then there's Grimmauld Place," said Harry. "It's a house I'm supposed to own, but loads of people use it. There's loads of rooms. You can stay there until you can earn some gold and get somewhere for yourself to live."

Draco covered his face with his hands. "I'm only sixteen... I'm not supposed to be taking over a pureblood dynasty and talking about finding somewhere to live. I was only trying the sorting hat on yesterday."

"Maybe it's time to grow up," said Harry. He put his hand on Draco's shoulder again. "You're welcome to stay in Grimmauld Place. You've got me to talk to about the veela thing. You'll get through this."

Draco closed his eyes, and paused for a moment. "Then... thankyou, Potter. Even though you'll most likely never hear me say this to you again. I'm grateful."

Harry couldn't help but smile. "Prat."

"Likewise," Draco said, laughing slightly through his tears.

"Come on, go back to bed. Monday tomorrow. Dark Arts and Transfiguration, you need to be awake." Harry helped Draco to his feet gently. Cupid fluttered up and landed on Harry's shoulder with his customary trill.

"Alright... and... tell nobody, Potter..."

Harry opened his mouth to reply, but his attention was caught as the door at the end of the passage opened and light spilled into the corridor.

Harry's yelp of surprise was muffled as Draco shoved him hard in the side, knocking him sideways behind a tapestry just as their visitor strolled in. Harry heard the click of high-heels on the polished floors, and he couldn't resist taking a peek to see who it was.

Snape's girlfriend was easily recognisable in the gloom from her smoky, sharp silver eyes and the way she walked. Her skin seemed to glow an ethereal blue in the darkness. Harry noticed she'd had her hair cut shorter, to around chin length.

Draco smiled ever so slightly, "Can I help you, Madam?"

"Yes... it is this way to the potions master's office, isn't it?" she said, quietly, nodding up the corridor.

"Yes, it is," said Draco. "Just down this corridor, then around the far corner. Anything else?"

"No," she said, smiling, her eyes flashing in the darkness. "That should be enough. Thankyou..."

"... Draco," he finished, returning the smile. "And it's my pleasure."

She strode away into the darkness, and once the click of her high-heels was far away enough, Harry peeled the tapestry away and clambered out next to Draco. "You do know she's taken, right, Draco?"

"What are you talking about Potter?"

Harry smirked. "As in, you can be as charming as you like, but Snape will kill you if you hit on his girlfriend."

Draco gave him another shove in the side. "Get out of it, I'm just being polite. Besides, you could at least thank me for saving your neck there. Do I have to remind you that you're not supposed to be out of your dormitory? I could cause a fuss right now and a teacher would come running. You'd be in detention faster than you knew what was happening."

"Alright, alright," said Harry. "I was joking." He sat back down next to Draco on the step, pushing his glasses back up his nose. "Have you ever seen her before?"

"What, that woman? Of course I have. She visits Professor Snape about twice a week." Draco yawned, not really interested in their conversation much. "She's attractive, yes, but not exactly the sort of woman I would match with Professor Snape. Too tomboyish, too light-hearted. I'd say he'd go for a Gothic goddess, really, long hair, black nails, elegant dresses..."

"She did have long hair once," said Harry. "Sort of feathered... and she is pretty elegant. She just looks a bit different with short hair."

"Don't be an idiot, Potter," Draco yawned. "She's always had short hair, ever since the end of fifth year."

Harry nodded vaguely. "I wouldn't know, I haven't been ogling her," he said, grinning at Draco.

Draco gave him another shove, but he was smirking too. "Now I remember just why I despised you, Potter. Don't tempt me, or I'll still jinx you."

"That's just a bit unfair," said Harry. "If you jinx me, fine, but if I jinx you back, you'll put me in detention."

Draco sniggered. "Precisely. As I said, don't tempt me."

They were so caught up in their small talk that neither of them was alert enough to notice the smoky shadow creeping up behind them down the corridor, holding a magical megaphone.

"So what do you think Snape's girlfriend keeps coming here for?" asked Harry, stretching his legs out on the stairs below.

Draco shrugged. "Probably the same reason I caught a Ravenclaw seventh year sneaking to the Hufflepuff dormitories last night. Late night rendezvous? Catch my drift?"

"Snape's not the type to sneak a girlfriend in though, is he?" Harry mused. "Me and Ron reckon it's something to do with Voldemort."

Draco twitched and went quite still.

"Oh - sorry," said Harry. "Forgot."

"Not that," Draco hissed. "Be quiet..."

They both fell silent, listening hard. There was a ticking sort of noise behind them, somebody tapping a fingernail on plastic. Dreading what they would see, they glanced over their shoulders at the same moment.

Peeves burst out onto them and roared, "STUDENTS OUT OF BED ON THE MAIN CORRIDOR!!!!" into the microphone, magnified so many times that Harry was sure his eardrums had ruptured on the spot. Draco leapt a foot in the air, screamed and staggered backwards. Harry only just stopped him falling down the staircase, grabbed his arm and gave him a sharp tug in the direction of the nearest cupboard.

"COME ON!" he shouted over the racket the poltergeist was making.

"Get lost, Potter, you're the one in trouble here, not me!"

"You knew I was up and awake and you didn't tell anybody, you're in for it too, get in the cupboard!" Harry bellowed, slinging the door open and half-flinging Draco inside. He jumped in, shut the door with a snap and let out a long breath.

"Shhh!" Draco hissed, listening hard at the door.

They were two sets of footsteps approaching the corridor, one swift, the other with lighter feet but the unmistakable click of heels.

Snape looked around the corridor, and cursed under his breath. "That Godforsaken poltergeist..."

"False alarm?" said the woman languishing near one of the stone pillars.

"Mmm," Snape droned, annoyed. "You didn't see any students here when you passed, by any chance?"

"Yes, just one. A smart blonde boy," she said. "With a badge on his chest, green and silver scarf."

"Malfoy," said Snape, vaguely. "A thousand fleas on that poltergeist's head, I'll never understand why Dumbledore lets him stay in this place. He's nothing but a nuisance. Even worse than Longbottom."

She frowned. "Neville Longbottom?"

"Merlin, his uselessness is now famous. Yes, that would be Neville Longbottom. Most clumsy student I have ever had the unfortune of teaching."

They moved away down the corridor, discussing Peeves, and Draco turned to face Harry in the cupboard, raising an eyebrow.

"Smart?" he murmured.

Harry chortled. "Don't get at her, she saved our skin."

Draco shrugged, adopting a casual expression, but then his face deepened into a frown. "Can you smell something?"

Taking a few tentative sniffs, Harry nodded. There was a soft, lavendar sort of aroma wafting from somewhere in the cupboard. It was a warm, very inviting scent that made Harry think of a soft, silk-sheeted bed in a nice room, somewhere he could just lie down and sleep... it was so late... he really should get to bed now, and just sleep for a few days... maybe a week... he could feel his eyes shutting slowly... this cupboard was quite nice though, nice boxes to sit on, warm, dark, comfortable... just a quick nap, he thought, as he slumped to the floor, his head curling up on something else nearby, covered in soft blonde hair... Draco, he vaguely remembered, Draco probably wanted to sleep too... oh well...

The two boys drifted away into the Land of Nod after just a few more seconds, the warm lavendar smell still breezing past their noses, ensuring sweet dreams and a comfortable slumber. Under a blanket, in a box, under a shelf in the corner of the room were several beakers full of a lilac-coloured solution, with white labels glued onto the glass. Written in scrawled black handwriting were the words - UNDILUTED SLEEPING DRAFT. KEEP LIDS ON.

One of the glass lids had cracked from the way they were transported, and purple fumes were dancing out from under the blanket, still tickling the sleeping boys' noses. Meanwhile, sweet imaginings of Quidditch and Cho Chang were filling Harry's tranquil mind, and Draco was already receiving his Order Of Merlin, First Class, for being the undisputed best wizard in the entire history of the world, and all the people who had ever called him a snob at school were queuing up onto the platform to kiss his shoes.


By nine o' clock the next morning, the disappearance of Harry Potter was all over the school. Ron and Hermione had woken up, found him gone and run to McGonagall's office, then she'd seen the headmaster, who organised a castle-wide search for the missing boy. According to one of the odd little silver instruments in Dumbledore's office, he was somewhere in the school or grounds. Hagrid, Fang and Kibbles were sent into the Forbidden Forest just to check he hadn't gone sneaking out for some reason, and they returned with no news. Hagrid's little brother Grawp hadn't seen them either, according to Hagrid, but nobody else could understand Grawp so this information wasn't much use.

All of Harry's friends were in complete shock. At first break, Ron, Hermione, Neville, Luna and Ginny were to be found outside in their usual courtyard, though all in silence. They all felt as though there was nothing to say anymore. Hermione blamed herself for giving in and letting them sleep in the common room. Ron said it was his fault, because he hadn't seen Harry leave when he was sleeping right next to him. Luna only looked over the top of her Quibbler to say something about Harry being a pilgrim sign and his need to roam was unfortunate but couldn't be helped, then she went back to her reading.

It was only when Ron had turned around and said, "Malfoy, get your Transfiguration homework out, I haven't done mine," that they realised something rather important. Ron looked around. "Malfoy?"

"Where is he?" said Hermione.

"I dunno... was he ever here?" said Ron, shrugging.

"He wasn't in Dark Arts," said Neville. "Or at breakfast."

Ron's eyes widened. "Malfoy's turned Harry over to You-Know-Who!"

Hermione scoffed. "Don't be silly, Ron. That's ridiculous."

"It is not," said Ron, stubbornly. "Where is he then? Don't you think it's a bit suspicious that on the day Harry goes missing, Malfoy has "mysteriously" vanished as well? There's something going on. I know it. I can just sense it, Malfoy's turned Harry in. You were all stupid to trust him."

"What about you?" said Hermione, frowning up at him over the top of her book. "Everytime you copy his homework you "mysteriously" get a D, and you still pester him every break for it."

"Teachers don't like me," Ron snapped. "That's not the point! Come on, we've got to go to Dumbledore and tell him that Malfoy's turned traitor! I bet it was all a scam, you know, Lucius Malfoy probably faked his own murder and then went to join You-Know-You permanently, and now Draco's gone with him, and he's got Harry as... as a sacrificial offering to the Dark Lord!"

Hermione raised an eyebrow. "Don't you think you're getting a tiny bit over-the-top?"

Ron shook his head vehemently. "What else do you think's happened to him? Only my theory makes sense!"

Hermione put down her book, held up her fingers and counted through them as she spoke. "Firstly, Dumbledore has determined that Harry is still somewhere in the castle. Secondly, for Draco Malfoy to kidnap Harry, he would have had to either get the password to Gryffindor Tower or find another way of getting past the Fat Lady. Then, he would have had to subdue Harry, who wouldn't be likely to just lie still and let him catch him. Then, he'd have to drag Harry out of Gryffindor Tower and get him out of the castle. All without waking us up, despite the fact that you were lying right next to him. Also, Draco was given veritaserum and there is no way that anybody can lie when under the influence of veritaserum, so his father is most definitely dead. And finally, Draco just isn't like that."

"Yes he is," said Ron, angrily. "I knew he'd betray us all along! He might have fooled you, but he didn't fool me!"

Hermione rolled her eyes, turning back to her book with a quiet mutter of, "Honestly..."

"Once a scumbag, always a scumbag," said Ron. "Look at Snape."

"Oh, how did I know that he'd turn up in this?" said Hermione, slamming her book down again. "You just won't let anything drop Ron, whether it's Draco or Snape or Viktor Krum. They're good people, no matter what you think."

"In memory of Harry," said Neville. "I'm going to tell you both to stop fighting. So stop it. Harry wouldn't want you to argue all the time."

Ron sighed. "Fine. Fine, you all stay here. I'm going to tell Dumbledore, and when I win a thousand points for Gryffindor, you'll all see!" And he stormed out of the courtyard, kicking a snowdrift as he walked past.

Hermione tutted, opening her book again. Luna gazed after Ron with wide, slowly-blinking eyes. "How odd. A protester sign... I must write to Father about this..."

 

Chapter Twenty-Three: Getting Lost and Being Free

It was Professor McGonagall's Transfiguration class, and Harry had been officially missing for about four hours now. The class had all filed in, sat down, got out their books and wands and Professor McGonagall was just going through the schedule for the lesson.

"I expect you all to have recreated most if not all of the pattern by twelve o' clock," she said, crisply. "Then work on extra details for the remainder of the lesson. Remember that bonus credit will be given for the decoration and effort gone into your vase. Yes, Longbottom?"

"Um... my vase still has fur, Professor, is that going to count against me?"

"Yes, it is," she said. "It is up to you to remove the fur, Longbottom, any way you see fit within reason. Do not forget what happened when you tried to trim the leaves of the rose which was once a pumpkin."

The class all glanced at a huge sticky stain that was still splattered over the ceiling, and then their attention was caught by something else as the door banged open and Ron came in, looking flustered.

"Sorry I'm late, Professor," he said, vaguely. "I was with the headmaster."

He headed off towards his seat, and McGonagall said promptly, "No, Weasley, stay where you are. Why were you with the headmaster?"

"About Harry, Professor," said Ron, and he moved again.

"Weasley, I believe I said to stay where you are. Wouldn't it have been wiser to come and see me to alert me to the fact you would be late for my class?"

"Well... I didn't think it would take that long."

"And it did?"

Ron paused for a moment, and then nodded. "Yes."

"Very well Weasley, sit down, do not be late again. We are continuing work with our vases and once the class is settled I shall come and see you about how to remove the ears from yours."

Ron slumped into his seat, throwing his things out of his bag haphazardly. Hermione smiled pleasantly for a moment and then said, "And what did the headmaster say?"

He scowled. "He said I was being a bit farfetched."

"Imagine that," said Hermione, sweetly. "Honestly, Ron, there's no need to worry about him, he'll turn up. He might have gone to the bathroom and been swallowed by a staircase or something."

"Yeah, like that would happen."

"Or, of course, he might have been... now, what was it that you said? Used by Draco Malfoy as a sacrifical offering to the Dark Lord." She studied the perfect blue ivy pattern winding its way around her vase, adding a few leaves here and there absent-mindedly.

Ron frowned. "It might have happened. So there's other stuff that could have happened to him. What if Peeves has tied him up and stuffed him in a cupboard somewhere?"

"And what about Malfoy?"

"Maybe Peeves has stuffed them both in a cupboard. And they just fell asleep or something."

Hermione snorted. "I don't think there's any chance of that happening."


Neither Harry nor Draco turned up for the rest of the day. Blaise Zabini was heard to be making loud, hopeful comments to his friends about both of them getting what was coming to them. Ron was eventually so worried about Harry that when Blaise mentioned something about fatherly protection whilst leaving the hall, Ron leapt at Blaise. He didn't manage to even touch a single hair on Blaise's head when Snape grasped him by the arm and hauled him away to the dungeons. Ron came back looking very white and said nothing more on the subject.

The Gryffindors were rather subdued all that evening. A trading club for Quidditch cards had been set up, and a ceremony was held to wish Harry's safe return. They all gathered around the fireplace, with Harry's Quidditch card proudly floating above the flames, and Ron said a few words. Hermione sat on the other side of the common room, and phrases such as, "Oh, honestly" and "drama queens" were heard in a steady steam throughout the evening.

The first class of Tuesday morning was Potions. Ron normally gloated every Potions lesson about not having to do the subject, but for once, he went off to Magical Creatures with his head bowed. Hermione usually waited for Harry to go to Potions, and they met Draco in the entrance hall, but today, neither of them were there, so she walked down on her own.

Snape was already chalking the ingredients of today's potion on the blackboard as the group walked in in silence, sat down, got out their things and waited patiently for their professor to finish. Snape was looking rather stressed today. Unknown to the students, he had been scouring the castle all night with Lupin, searching everywhere for Harry and Draco. Being Harry's magical guardian, it was his duty to look for him, and he wouldn't have been able to sleep anyway because of the constant cold flushes. Malfoy was also his favourite student, and for both of them to go missing on the same day, at most probably the same time, struck Snape as being something highly suspicious.

"Be quiet," Snape said, lazily, as one person dared to mutter something to their bench partner. "The potion we shall be attempting to brew today is a highly complex and dangerous one. If I have reason to doubt the reliability of any person in the class - "

Hermione's hand was in the air.

"What is it, Granger?" he said, turning his cold black glare onto her.

"You... you've put that we need sleeping draft for the potion, Professor," she said.

Snape glared at her. "Thankyou for pointing that out to everybody, Miss Granger. I would ask you to have some faith in your fellow students though, give them the benefit of the doubt and presume that they can read."

"No, Professor... but... where do we get the sleeping draft from?"

Snape's eyes flashed menacingly. "Seeing as you seem so eager to start, I shall skip the rest of the instructions for this potion and just leave you all to struggle on alone, most likely burn yourselves and end up in the hospital wing, thanks to Miss Granger. Begin. And, Miss Granger, you shall be fetching the sleeping draft pot-by-pot from the potions store cupboard on the third floor. You have an hour to bring every single jar and still brew today's potion to my standard. I suggest you hurry up."

Hermione got out of her seat calmly and headed to the door, her shoes clicking neatly on the floor. Hermione was perhaps the only person who no longer allowed Snape to intimidate her, and treated his vicious sarcasm and degrading comments with a very matter-of-fact way that everybody was rather proud of her for.

She walked the way to the potions store cupboard in silence. She fully intended on getting enough sleeping draft for the whole class on one trip using levitation, and if Snape complained, then he was impractical and putting personal issues before the education of his students. She twisted the handle of the cupboard neatly, pushing at it, though to her surprise, it wouldn't move. She frowned, pushing once more, and she managed to ease it open perhaps half an inch before it snapped shut.

"How odd..."

There was no point in persuing the matter further, when something was so clearly blocking the door. She made her way back down to the dungeons, opened the door of the Potions classroom and stepped inside.

Snape glared up at her from his desk. "Ah, Miss Granger, forgotten why you left the room? Dear me, I clearly over-estimated you. One moment, I'll write you a note so that if you forget again, you can read it and remember."

Hermione held her head high, brushing the sarcasm aside. "There's something blocking the door of the potions store, Professor," she said, prompt and polite as always.

Snape sighed, as though she was doing this on purpose. "Then push on the door, and move it aside, Miss Granger."

"It's too heavy. I think something big must have fallen over in there." She put her hands neatly behind her back. "Sir."

Snape got up from his desk with an exasperated sigh. "All of you stay here and concentrate on your potions. When I return, if there is a single hint that you have not been working properly, you shall all be in detention with me after school." With that, he left the room swiftly, Hermione hurrying at his heels.

When they reached the potions store cupboard, Snape, like Hermione, tested the handle and pushed. "For once, you may have been right, Granger," he said, his voice layered with icy sarcasm. He pressed his shoulder against the door, fingers curling the handle, pushing with all his weight. Hermione helped, pushing the door as hard as he could, feeling something inside being shunted along the floor, bottles clinking, something sliding down the door and then -

It gave way, and somebody came flying out of the cupboard, colliding with Snape and knocking him to the ground. Snape hastily turned his rather girly scream into a shout of, "Eee!!- eeexactly what do you think you're doing, Mr Malfoy?!"

Malfoy didn't say anything, still lying face down with his arms wrapped around Snape's neck. Snape pushed him off, getting up and dusting off his robes, scowling. He leant into the cupboard to take a tentative sniff, then recoiled backwards.

"Sleeping draft leak. Malfoy should be fine with bed rest and the antid-AARGH!"

Something else had just come flopping out of the cupboard like a skeleton jumping out on a cheesy ghost train, falling onto Snape with a loud snore. Snape jumped backwards, and Harry Potter sunk to the floor with a vague murmur of, "But Cho, I thought you wanted to dance...", landing face down and starting to snore again.


"You had us all quite worried, Harry," Dumbledore said, a few hours later, when Harry had been revived, checked by Madam Pomfrey and sent to see the headmaster. Dumbledore was pouring out tea for both of them as he spoke. "Mr Weasley and Miss Granger in particular were rather alarmed you had disappeared quite suddenly."

"Sorry, Professor," Harry said, quietly.

Dumbledore chuckled. "That's quite alright. Mistakes do happen, and it was noble of you to stay with Draco Malfoy in his time of need. I have of course already spoken to him. He says that you have offered him a room in Grimmauld Place for the summer?"

Harry blushed a little, gratefully taking the cup that Dumbledore handed him. "Just until he can find somewhere else he's welcome."

"I must admit, Harry, I never quite imagined yourself and Mr Malfoy as friends. And I am very glad to say that I was wrong." Dumbledore smiled, sitting down in the new bright purple chair behind his desk, sipping his tea for a moment, surveying Harry over the rim of his cup. "Overall, I am pleased you have been found alive and well... however... there are a few things we need to discuss. Shortcake biscuit?" He offered Harry the plate.

Harry took a biscuit and nibbled at it with a murmur of, "Thankyou", as Dumbledore continued again.

"Harry... I need not tell you just how worried we all were. These are dark times Harry. Lord Voldemort could possibly strike at any given time, and when any student of my school goes missing... let alone you." He sighed, setting down his cup. "Ronald Weasley came hurrying to my office very early yesterday morning, convinced that Draco Malfoy had handed you over as a sacrifice to Lord Voldemort."

Harry stared at him.

"Do not look so shocked," Dumbledore mused. "Professor Snape was thinking more or less the same things, though he didn't word it that way."

Harry's eyes widened even more. "Snape was worried? Are you serious?"

Dumbledore chuckled. "Professor Snape, Harry. And yes, he was, though I doubt he would admit it. And quite a funny story he had to tell, when he summoned me from my office down to the hospital wing. He says that both you and Mr Malfoy jumped out of a cupboard, hugged him, and then you said in a rather disappointed way that you thought he wanted to dance."

Harry blushed scarlet. Hermione had, of course, told him the whole story when she had stopped laughing long enough to get the words out. "I was dreaming. I didn't actually want to dance with him." He grinned as Dumbledore chuckled even more.

The headmaster sighed, wiping his eyes. "Yes, yes... now... I believe we have to get the serious issues out of the way first before the frivalties may begin. Professor Snape was worried about you, Harry, as was Professor Lupin, Ronald Weasley, Hermione Granger, myself... I must stress this to you, and I beg you to heed my warning. You must exercise far greater caution. Lord Voldemort can never be at the height of his full power as long as you are alive in this world. The one thing stopping the destruction of life as we know it is your safety."

Harry looked at his hands around his tea cup, quietly, unsure what to say.

Dumbledore patted him on the arm, just once, and then said, "Harry... there is... something else. Something I have only found out today from one of my spies."

Harry looked up at him in silence. Dumbledore looked back, and his light blue eyes twinkled sadly.

"Lord Voldemort has been... busy, for the last few years. Of course, he has had time to make various attempts on your life, but his main concentration has been his current... rather gruesome hobbies. We believe he is getting nearer and nearer to a decision to take action and stop prolonging the conquer of the wizarding world. Though he needs you dead before he can be truly successful... and he is attending to this matter."

Harry's eyes widened. "How? What's he doing?"

"Lord Voldemort has been in contact with the Heliopaths, Harry," said Dumbledore, quietly. "If my information is correct, there is a Heliopath somewhere in the wizarding world with the sole purpose and mission of finding and killing you."

Harry's blood ran cold. He felt as though every nerve in his body had suddenly frozen over, then melted in the same moment, sending cool and warm flushes up and down his spine. "He's... he's got a hired killer after me."

Dumbledore nodded solemnly. Harry just didn't know what to say. Everybody was so scared of the Heliopaths and there was one out there on the mission of killing him. After a moment, Dumbledore handed him another biscuit. "You are safe as long as you are aware that you need to be, Harry. Every professor in this school is on the side of the Order of the Phoenix, and all of them will look out for you."

"What about Professor Alri-" Harry fell silent again, and after a moment said, "He wasn't on the side of the Order... but he's not here anymore..." He looked down at his empty cup.

"I believe I owe you an explanation, Harry," said Dumbledore, quietly. "And I must apologise for accidentally forgetting something I should have given you. Alrister told me to give you these when he left, and in the light of some other things, they slipped my mind."

Harry looked up as Dumbledore reached down under his desk, pulling out a black, suede leather suitcase. He placed it in front of Harry, flicked open the catches and the case opened.

Alrister's hawking gloves. They were in pristine condition as always, a gentle sandy colour of gold, like the hair of a lion. Harry reached down tentatively, as if he touched them, they would vanish like their owner. He picked them up and studied them.

"He... he told me to look after Cupid," said Harry, quietly. "His little hawk."

Dumbledore nodded. "Alrister was always fond of his birds of prey. I believe he has an eagle being looked after at his manor."

Harry looked up, surprised. "His manor?"

"Alrister is a rich man, Harry. After the death of his wife, he moved back to his family manor and lived alone for quite some years. The rest of his family live elsewhere and the manor belongs wholly to him now."

Harry frowned, thinking of something, and then saying, "Professor? Why do you call him Alrister? You talk to all the other professors with their first names..."

Dumbledore smiled slightly. "Alrister despises his first name, ever after the death of his wife. He says it brings back memories he would rather not have." Seeing the next question coming, Dumbledore replied, "Romeo. Romeo David Alrister."

"I've heard that name before..." said Harry. He frowned, rubbing his forehead, trying to remember. "Romeo..." And then it hit him. His mouth fell open. "But then - " He turned the hawking gloves over to the family crest on the back of the palm, the one he'd only seen a fleeting glimpse of at the welcoming feast.

Two ravens stood before a curling wall of ivy, their beaks tilting downwards to the ground, embroidered in the finest gold thread, and the word neatly written at the bottom was - Rookwood.

"He's Rookwood's cousin," said Harry, softly. "That's why he's run, isn't it?"

Dumbledore nodded. "Alrister is loyally close to his cousin, even though he is far from a Death Eater, Harry. He believes that families are the strongest bond of all, more than anything, and he has always stood by his cousin. Now that Rookwood has been openly declared a Death Eater, he is wanted by the ministry for questioning. Unfortunately, Cornelius Fudge and Alrister are not on good terms, due to events in Alrister's past. He decided that it would be wiser to flee. I must apologise for the night when I came into Alrister's office to speak to him and had to modify your memory, but at the time, I did not think it wise for you to know these things."

"But... Ron saw me walk into Gryffindor Tower," said Harry, confused.

"Yes," said Dumbledore, heavily. "I admit, I also modified the memory of Mr Ronald Weasley. I thought that if you just thought you had been through a memory lapse it would be wise... I now see how cruel that was of me, Harry. You have my apologies."

"It's okay," said Harry. He took a bite of his shortcake biscuit, thinking. "Professor?"

"Yes, Harry?"

"When will Professor Alrister come back?"

"I'm afraid I don't know," said Dumbledore. "Alrister assured me that he will return once the major fuss about his cousin has died down, but I can't promise you how long that will be."

"But he will come back someday?"

Dumbledore nodded. "Yes, Harry. He will."

Harry put down his cup gratefully, and stood up to go, holding the precious gloves in his hands. "Thanks, Professor... tk-tk-tk-tk-tk, Cupid. Come on." Cupid looked up from Dumbledore's phoenix's perch, gave Fawkes a fond nudge goodbye and fluttered over, resting on his shoulder, jingling gently. As Harry descended out of sight on the moving staircase, he saw Dumbledore wave to him. He waved back, smiled, and then the doors swished into place and left Harry alone with his thoughts and his hawk.


"Oh, Cupid! Stop it!"

For some reason, Cupid had been agitated all through dinner. He'd spilt a goblet of pumpkin juice in Neville's lap, eaten half of a bread roll, dropped the other half in the water jug, knocked several plates to the floor, and was now nipping at Harry's knife while he tried to eat.

"What is WRONG with that bloody bird today?" said Ron, moving his dinner quickly out of the way as Cupid started looking around for a new target.

"He's probably bored," Hermione said, knowledgably, from behind a thick book on Advanced Transfiguration Theory. "You should take him for a walk, Harry."

"I can't," said Harry. "Not allowed to leave the castle."

"Ask somebody to go with you," she said, shrugging. "Me and Ron would."

Harry shook his head as Cupid set about Neville's dessert spoon with a loud squawk. "No, Dumbledore doesn't want me to leave this castle alone. I already managed to get everybody worried by sleeping in a cupboard with Draco."

"It was kinda funny though," Ron remarked, smirking, his mouth full of potato and chicken.

"Yeah, for you maybe," said Harry, but he couldn't help smiling back.

"I still can't believe you hugged Professor Snape," said Ginny, shaking her head.

Harry grinned. "I didn't mean to." The whole story was now pretty much all around the school, how Snape had barged open the door, and Draco Malfoy and Harry Potter had leapt out, hugged him and made him squeal like a six-year-old.

As everybody chuckled, Harry glanced momentarily up at the staff table. Snape had been given mashed potato, a few carrots, and his chicken had been already cut up for him so he wouldn't have to touch any knives. Clearly Dumbledore was taking extra precautions after the tapestry incident. Harry couldn't help but notice that Snape was eating with a spoon and looked incredibly sour. He didn't think Snape would appreciate being asked to come hawking, even if he was the best person for it - Snape was his magical guardian. What harm could come to him while Snape was around?

Of course, there was the second. Harry hadn't really thought about the other person somewhere in Hogwarts who was looking out for him, feeling the same cold flushes that Snape did whenever he was in danger. He had his suspicions. Occasionally, in boring lessons, he found himself watching the teacher and wondering whether it was them.

His current main suspect was Professor Lupin. It just made sense. Why else would Dumbledore bring Lupin back when Voldemort was becoming active again? And Lupin had been appointed when Sirius was at large and still considered a dangerous murderer. It made sort of sense. Besides, Harry's father and Lupin had been great friends. And when he thought about it, during the summer, when Harry had been out for a day, it was Lupin and Snape who organised for him to speak to Sirius. It was all Lupin and Snape. Professor Lupin and Professor Snape had been out looking for him at night when he was holidaying in the Land of Nod in a cupboard with Malfoy. It was obvious really.

Once dinner was done, Harry had made his mind up, and the moment that Dumbledore announced they could go to their common rooms, he jumped up and hurried up to the staff table.

"Professor Lupin?"

Lupin turned to him. "Yes, Harry?"

"You know I'm not allowed out of school on my own... it's just that... my hawk's kind of getting sick of being inside." He glanced at the Gryffindor Table. Cupid had stolen Neville's scarf and everybody was trying to get it back from the hawk. "And I wanted to take him out for a walk, so he can fly and spread his wings, but I'm not allowed out alone... I was wondering if you'd come with me."

Lupin smiled graciously. "Of course I will, Harry... oh... wait..." His smile vanished. "It's the full moon tonight. I can't."

"But... you take that potion, don't you? The one that keeps your mind normal? Couldn't... couldn't you come out? For a run?"

Lupin chuckled softly, and thought for a while. After a moment or so, he said, "Yes, Harry. I will come out for a walk with you. Come to my office tonight... perhaps at about nine o' clock, to make sure I'm properly transformed. I could do with a good run to stretch my legs."

Harry felt himself being shunted away through the crowd, and he had a few seconds to call, "Bye!" to Lupin, before he was pushed away down the river of people heading out in the entrance hall.


It was a rather odd feeling, Harry thought, quite some hours later as he walked across the grounds of the school. It was half past nine. Sitting on one shoulder was a highly excitable hawk, on the other was his snowy owl, and trotting faithfully at his heels was Lupin. When he had arrived at Lupin's office at nine o' clock, there was a note written by the professor on the desk, explaining that Hagrid, Kibbles and Fang would be coming along too for extra safety, so now they were heading down to Hagrid's hut to pick them up.

Cupid shifted on his shoulder with an impatient "trut" sort of a noise, and a jingle of the bell tied around his ankle. Harry raised one of his fists, enrobed proudly in Alrister's hawking gloves, and he knocked three times on the door of Hagrid's cabin.

From inside came several loud, booming barks from Fang, and the sound of Kibbles's high-pitched keening. A few seconds later, the door came open, and Hagrid beamed down at him. "Harry! How are yeh?"

"Fine, thanks," he said. Kibbles poked his great scaly green head out of the door, sniffing curiously at Lupin. "Are you ready?"

"Yeah, gimme a minute," said Hagrid. He had a thick leash in his hand. "Jus' purrin Kibbles's leash on 'him... don't want 'im roamin' off across the moors..." He knelt down, putting the collar carefully around the dragon's neck and fixing on his lead. "Good boy, Kibbles... now, where's Fang?" Fang wormed out from under Kibbles's legs, hurrying over to Lupin, his tail wagging, circling him and sniffing eagerly at him. Lupin gave a disgruntled snort and sat down, tail tucked neatly between his legs. "Fang! No! Don't sniff Professor Lupin!"

Harry smiled. "It's odd that we're going out for a walk, and the leash isn't on Fang but the dragon that was once the size of a kitten."

Hagrid chuckled richly, stepping out into the night air and shutting the door of his cabin. "Yeah, s'pose it is. Come on then - Fang! Gerroff Professor Lupin, I'll told yeh! Kibbles? Where's Kibbles? There yeh are... good boy..." He patted the dragon's emerald green head. Fang looked disgusted at this.

The whole crowd set off across the grounds, heading for the main entrance and the moors beyond. Harry had never been this way before, and he was quite looking forward to it. His long walk with Alrister had given him a taste for roaming freely across the countryside with his entourage of odd creatures. He looked around, and realised that not one of the people accompanying was completely human. Obviously, Fang, Kibbles, Cupid and Hedwig were all animals. Lupin was a werewolf, and Hagrid, half-giant. Thinking more about that, he realised why Voldemort had wanted to recruit the giants. Not many people could control dragons like Hagrid could.

They walked for hours and hours, right the way across all the moors and the hills. Cupid and Hedwig spread there wings and flew for miles into the sky, shrieking their joy to the heavens, Lupin and Fang both went chasing sticks that Harry threw for them, and Hagrid nearly collapsed in trances of delight when Kibbles set fire to a tree when he sneezed. By the time they got back, it was nearly midnight. Hagrid, Kibbles and Fang said goodnight at the castle steps, and when Harry had let Lupin into his office and left him to sleep under his desk, he made his way back to Gryffindor Tower. Ron and Hermione were lying on the sofas under blankets, already asleep. Not wanting to wake them, he got changed in the bathroom, stole one of Ron's sheets and curled up in an armchair, his dreams full of soaring free across the sky with no worries or troubles at all in the world.

 

Chapter Twenty-Four: Merry Christmas, Professor

The Christmas break that year for Harry was a fairly quiet affair. Most of the school had gone home to be with their parents, in warmer places than the freezing cold of Scotland, but Hermione was staying. Ron and Ginny were home with the rest of the Weasleys, Neville had gone to stay with an aunt, Luna and her father were going to France. Harry quite hoped that Cho was staying, but she told him she was going to the Lake District with a friend.

So Harry spent his Christmas break mostly outside in the snow with Hermione and Draco. As grateful as he was for Ron's friendship, it was nice to have no fighting for once, and it was also so much quieter than normal. Ron always wanted snowball fights or to go and play Quidditch, but Hermione was happy to sit and read a book, and Draco didn't mind either.

On Christmas morning, when Harry woke up, he found a pile of presents on his lap on the sofa. Hermione was already awake, her nose stuck in a new book her parents had sent, and Crookshanks was rolling about in the wrapping paper all over the floor. Hermione had pulled her hair back into a half-ponytail, secured with a glittery green and red bow to match the one around Crookshank's neck.

"Merry Christmas!" she said, brightly, seeing him waking up.

He rubbed his eyes. "Yeah, Merry Christmas..." He took a great long yawn, and sat up, turning to his presents. "Hey, there's more than I normally get."

"You've got more friends though, haven't you?" she said, cheerfully. "That's mine on the top, and I think the one on the bottom's from Draco, his screech owl came in just now. Oh, Cupid went out last night and he came back with a parcel for you, it's there."

Harry picked up the present she had indicated. It was wrapped in festive copper, and there was a card in a clean cream envelope attached to the top. "You don't think it's from Alrister, do you?" he said.

"Open it!" She sat next to him on the sofa, as he eased the paper gently back, revealing a book entitled, "So You've Got Potential? Polish Your Pure Arts Powers!", and a long, bronze whistle.

He picked it up curiously, studying it. "What's this?"

Hermione handed him the letter. He tore it open and read.

Dear Harry - Merry Christmas! How are you and Cupid? I hope everything's fine back at Hogwarts and that I'm missed. I thought it would be nice to send you a little something for looking after my hawk so well. I daresay that your substitute teachers for Pure Arts aren't exactly the most skilled people in the world, so the book is to make sure you don't lose your touch Harry - I'm sure Hermione, Draco and Ron would like to look at it too when you're done. About the whistle, Cupid has been trained to come to it when he hears it. I figured that you'd need it more than me now. I'll be back as soon as I can, Harry, keep trying. Professor Alrister

Hermione gave a little intake of breath as she read it. "Um... Harry, you know you've got all those presents to open..."

Harry grinned and handed her the book. "Yes, you can read it."

"Thankyou!" She took it off him eagerly, opening it up and scanning the contents page eagerly, settled down into the sofa, as content as Crookshanks with cream.

Harry turned his attention to the rest of his presents. There was a jumper and a box of caramel cookies from Mr and Mrs Weasley; a t-shirt from Ron and Ginny that read 'DO NOT ARGUE - I AM THE BOSS'; five new packs of Quidditch cards from Hermione ("Well, I know you wanted a Cho card so I stocked up at the last match"); a carved wooden dragon from Hagrid (with a scorch mark on the bottom, that Hagrid had written was "Kibbles sending his love"); from Draco there was a rather sinister looking silver ring that looked like a dragon curled asleep round the base of his finger; the Dursleys had sent him a match with the lightable end snipped off; a bag of magic tricks "to thrill and fascinate" from Fred and George; and even when Harry was done, there were still three presents left.

"Who are these from? Who else would send me a present?" he thought aloud.

"Open them and see," said Hermione, turning the page in his new book, gazing transfixed at the words before her.

He picked up the first - it was rather plain, wrapped in simple brown paper and held shut with a very neatly placed single strip of spellotape. Wondering what on earth it was, he opened it up carefully and found, to his great surprise, a set of inks in all different colours. He checked the wrapping and the box carefully for any sign of who had sent it, but couldn't see any label or anything.

Hermione glanced over from the book, and said, "Oh, wow! Who got you those?"

"I don't know," he admitted. "There's no card."

She checked the wrapping again curiously. "I can't see anything either. Weird. You've got a good friend, Harry, inks like that are expensive."

He nodded, putting the box gently aside and reaching for the next parcel. It was wrapped in green paper decorated with stars, and when he opened it, he found a picture frame. It was empty, and it was a fairly normal frame with no special decoration of anything, but when he turned it over, he found a note tucked into the back.

Happy Christmas, Harry! I wondered what I could get you that you would like, and I decided that the personal touch would be best. This frame is enchanted to show the viewer memory-images of the people close to them. For example, in it, I see my parents, whilst you might see Ron and Hermione, or any of your other friends. Just touch the glass and it shows you the memory. Have a merry Christmas - Remus

"That was nice of him," said Hermione.

Harry smiled. "Yeah, really nice." He placed his fingers gently on the glass, watching, wondering how it would work. At first, he thought it was broken, until he started to see colours fading from nowhere and making a photograph inside the frame. Gradually, everything came together, and Mr and Mrs Weasley beemed out at him, just as they were when he was leaving Grimmauld Place for Hogwarts.

He put the picture frame down by the inks and picked up the last parcel. It was fairly small, tightly wrapped in very brightly coloured paper, and when Harry gently tugged the paper off, he found what looked like a dog chew toy, a ball, decorated like a clown's face.

He frowned. "What's this?"

Hermione looked up, and she frowned curiously as well, taking it off him. "It's like a pet toy... why has somebody sent you this?"

"I don't know," said Harry. He checked the wrapping. "There's no label on this one either."

"Weird," said Hermione. "Maybe it's somebody playing a joke."

He took it back, frowning still. "Maybe. Do you think it's somebody like Zabini getting at me because I took Lupin out for a walk?"

"Probably," she said. "Just leave it Harry, or go right up to Zabini today and tell him he can have his stupid chew toy back, he probably won't be able to sleep at night without it."

Harry nodded vaguely as she returned to her book. He looked down into the clown's wide, grinning face and couldn't help but think how sinister it looked. It was a perfectly happy expression, and after all, it was just a dog toy... but there was something odd about it. Something about its eyes just wasn't right.


He spent the rest of the day with Hermione and Draco, enjoying the warmth of the Great Hall and the festive spirits. Christmas dinner was a lot of fun. Because so few people remained at Hogwarts, two of the house tables had been pushed together. Staff, students and all the different houses sat together. Hermione, Ron and Draco had fun with the crackers and for once, everybody ate as much as they wanted. It was all delicious, and even though Harry felt a bit bloated afterwards, nobody was ill or sick. Even Snape was allowed to just eat what he wanted, with a knife and fork, and he looked very smug when he managed to pass Madam Hooch the gravy without dropping it or burning himself.

It was only later, after a furious snowball fight all across the courtyard between Harry and Draco, when they had said goodnight for the day and Harry and Hermione headed back to Gryffindor Tower that Harry got a good chance to properly examine his presents.

Hermione was deeply engrossed in one of the books her parents had bought her for Christmas, curled up in the nest, absent-mindedly eating pinches of tiny black pepper imps out of a bowl. Harry had been amusing himself with Lupin's photo frame for a while, but was now getting a little bored with it. The mysteries of the inks and the dog toy were still fresh in his mind. He could see why somebody would send inks as a present. From the box, it looked like a nice set. But a dog toy?

He wasn't sure why the clown made him feel so strange, but he had thrown it neatly up the stairs into the boys' bedroom, and was pretty intent on leaving it there. At first, he'd worried about it being an evil artefact sent by a dark wizard, and had shown it to Professor Lupin at dinner, but Lupin said there was nothing wrong with it at all. It was just your regular, run-of-the-mill muggle dog toy.

Having taken care of the evil clown, Harry was free to study his other presents in more detail, and the first thing was probably those inks. As he pulled the box over gently and eased open the packaging, he wondered whether the sender had left a note inside.

And to his great surprise, they had. He pulled out a piece of parchment tied in a scroll with a green ribbon, and instead of inks, there was a black velvet pouch at the bottom of the box. Frowning in confusion, he pulled it out, looking inside, though he couldn't see anything within the darkness of the bag. He undid the ribbon around the parchment, unrolled it and read.

Potter. Do not open the contents of this box in front of every Gryffindor in the school. Nobody but you and I are to know about this anyway. The bag contains various supplies put together by your second magical guardian and I. These items are to be used in emergencies only. Four of the objects in here are not legal in this country, and two of those are not legal anywhere in the world. I hope this stresses to you just how important it is that you keep this a secret. Try to keep it away from any flames. There are flammable potions in here which will make a nasty mess of you and anything within fifty feet of you if they reach a certain temperature. THIS IS NOT AN EXCUSE FOR YOU TO GO LOOKING FOR TROUBLE. Come to my office tomorrow at nine o' clock PM sharp to discuss the various items and for your regular extra-curricular lesson.

There was then a gap, something was scribbled out, and added at the bottom in small handwriting, as though the writer was saying it quietly, "Seasons greetings. Your magical guardian".

Seasons greetings? Merlin, don't choke on that, Snape.

"What's that?" said Hermione, looking round.

Harry shook his head. "Nothing." He tucked the letter firmly inside his robes, and dropped the velvet pouch into his bag.


It had taken a while, but Harry had convinced Cupid to stay with Hermione for the evening. The little hawk was eating owl treats contentedly out of her hand as he left the common room that night with the velvet pouch concealed in the pocket of his robes and his wand up his sleeve.

The corridors were cold, dark and shadows danced all around him as he walked calmly from Gryffindor Tower to the entrace hall, and then down the corridor heading for the dungeons. Maybe Lupin would admit he was his magical guardian at last. Harry was also very curious as to what was in the velvet bag, especially the illegal items. Snape must know that something dangerous was coming, or he wouldn't be giving Harry things he could be sent to Azkaban for.

When he knocked on the door of Snape's office, he expected the usual drawl from inside, but to his great surprise, his knuckles had barely touched the door when it flew open and he was dragged in with a yelp.

"Shhhh!" Snape hissed. "Have you got it?"

"Yeah," said Harry, pulling away and brushing off his robes. "What did you have to drag me in? Worried I was going to run off?"

"Potter, you're carrying some of the most dangerous things known to wizard kind, and you expected me to just leave you loitering around outside my door? Need I remind you that this is the strictest confidence, even the headmaster does not - "

Harry's eyes widened. "You haven't told Dumbledore that you've given me a bagful of illegal stuff? You could get fired for that."

Snape glared at him as he crossed the room and sunk into an old armchair by the fire. "Try not to sound too hopeful there, Potter... and yes, I could. Do you now understand just how serious this all is?"

Harry had to admit that it was all getting to him eventually. He felt as though he and Snape were traitors in the goblin uprising, trading illegal objects at midnight in some grotty little muggle warehouse. "Yeah." He took the bag carefully from the inner pocket of his robes, making sure he held it with both hands just in case it would blow up or catch fire if he held it with one.

Snape took it off him, setting it on the floor between the two armchairs. Harry sat in the other tentatively, watching Snape undo the drawstring with his long pale fingers and ease it open. "Now... you repeat none of what you see tonight to another soul in the world. Not a passing mention. You don't even think about it when there are people around you. Legilimency may only work with eye contact, but there are other forms of psychic power in this world that can read your mind like a book."

Harry nodded seriously. "Okay... um... couldn't there just be somebody listening at the door?"

Snape scoffed, shaking his head, as though unable to believe Harry's lack of thought into the matter. "My chambers are guarded by the most effective silencing and privacy charms known to wizard kind, controlled by my own hand. We are safe here, Potter." He reached into the bag absent-mindedly, and Harry watched in amazement as nearly his whole arm disappeared inside it as he searched around for something. When he found it, he removed his arm from the tiny little bag. Harry saw he held a huge metal tin.

"What's in - "

"Four of the most powerful and useful potions you will ever encounter," said Snape. He beckoned Harry closer. Harry sunk down onto his knees beside the bag, watching Snape give a sharp twist to the lid and ease it off slowly.

Inside, the tin was split into four compartments, each packed with a sort of thick green jelly, and suspended in each compartment was a phial. The stoppers were labelled L, H, V and W.

"Larin, hamadras, vaxilis, waron brax," said Snape, coolly, gesturing to each in turn. "Larin is a mixture only recently discovered by the Dark Lord. Hamadras has been declared an illegal class A non-tradable item in every single country on the planet. Vaxilis is illegal in 80% of the world. Waron brax is illegal the world over."

"What do they do?" said Harry, his eyes wide.

"Larin... commonly known as a Light As Air Draft." Snape nipped the top of the phial and slit it out, showing Harry a soft, swirly-blue potion. "It reduces the body's weight so dramatically that flight is almost possible - it slows descent from falls, most usefully, and also softens the impact of hitting the ground. NOT to be taken in high winds or you will be blown away until something stops you."

Harry winced. "What else is there?"

"Hamadras. The most powerful healing draft known to man." This one was a bright, rich green, and every few moments, Harry saw a spark of yellow glitter deep within the potion's depths. "Class-A, non-tradable object. If you are caught carrying hamadras you will be treated with the greatest possible suspicion, no matter who you are or what you claim the purpose for it is. Just a few drops on any wound heals it completely, and faster than any spell or charm. Even severed limbs. When the death penalty was still in place, people sentenced to die would sometimes be used for experiments with this. The head would be removed, and a few drops of hamadras administrated before blood loss killed the victim. People who have had this procedure done to them have been known to live for about a week with no head."

"Seriously?" Harry choked, going cold at the thought of living without a head. "But... they wouldn't be able to think, or move..."

"But they're still alive," said Snape, silkily. "Electrical reactions with the body's chemicals and the hamadras have been able to create some very uncontrolled reactions in test subjects. Most of them end up killing themselves by thrashing about so much the limbs break and the body exhausts itself. Though with no brain to tell the body to stop its actions, the subject just carries on and eventually tears themself quite literally apart."

"I don't think I like that potion," said Harry, feeling his stomach churn. "I... want to keep my head, thanks..."

Snape smirked, toying lazily with the lethal phial of hamadras. "There are other uses though. It's a very powerful poison, noted as the one preferred by the notorious murderer Arsenius Malarice in the 1800s. He only ever killed muggles, by giving them a lethal dose of hamadras. It clogged their blood. The muggle doctors said it was natural, and nobody could prove Malarice had killed them."

"So you've given me a potion that will kill me," said Harry.

"Not if you use it wisely," said Snape, simply. "Five drops maximum, depending on the severity of the wound. Think of it as five being for pain to rival cruciatus, and one being a nosebleed... however, I do not want to see you using this without good reason to. It takes five years to make and if one single part of the brewing goes wrong, it must be started completely again."

Harry swallowed. "Okay... I think I'll stick with paracetomol... and what's the one with the V on?"

Snape's lips curled into a sinister smile. "Ah, vaxilis... when you want to persuade somebody to do something that in usual circumstances they would not want to, vaxilis is a highly useful potion to have." Snape replaced the hamadras, and withdrew the vaxilis tube from the container. It was a warm, passionate red, glittering slightly as it caught the light. "Vaxilis is illegal in eight out of ten countries, not because of its effects, but because of the methods used in making it."

Harry grimaced. "And how is it made?"

"Pheromones must be carefully extracted from the sweat glands and major organ of a veela," said Snape, lazily, giving the phial a little shake so that it shimmered within its tube. "If not done properly, this causes immense pain for the veela and can possibly render them infertile. But if done properly, the pheromones are the most important element of the draft. Vaxilis effectively tricks human senses into believing the drinker is a veela. The drinker gives off the pheromones from the potion and heightens powers of persuasion. With a few sips of this draft, I could convince anybody in the world to do anything I like. Kill themselves, kill somebody else, give me all their gold... the possibilites are endless..."

"And the last one?" said Harry, as Snape slid the vaxilis carefully back into place, withdrawing the last tube. It was a sinister shade of violet.

"Waron brax," said Snape. He shook the bottle, and it flashed black for a moment, then settled back into violet. "Being bitten by a werewolf is not the only way to turn another human being into a lycanthrope, Potter. Waron brax is one of those ways, which makes it another class-A non-tradable item. However, it has some uses as well. It has only been discovered recently. If a person has been bitten by a werewolf, drinking waron brax can actually prevent the drinker from being made a werewolf themselves - though if a bite is not present on the body when taken, the victim will become a werewolf."

Harry nodded, feeling rather green, but the contents of the bag didn't really get that much more light-hearted. Snape showed him all sorts of things cleverly concealing poisons, from inks to chocolates to packets of shampoo that looked as though they were from a muggle hotel. There was a flask of polyjuice potion and the hairs of several of his classmates, something Snape called a doubling coin which conjured money, the most realistic fake blood Harry had ever seen in his life, something that he first thought was a muggle ball-point pen until Snape opened it and produced a corkscrew blade, and last but certainly not least was a silver ring that the Potions master seemed exceptionally proud of.

"This is possibly the most undetectable of them all, Potter," he said, with a quiet smile, holding the ring in his palm. "You see the emerald jewel in the centre?"

Harry peered closer. "Yeah... don't tell me, it transforms into a particularly large Norwegian Ridgeback that's got lazers for eyes."

Snape snickered. "No, Potter, nothing quite so farfetched. It's a poison, not an emerald."

"Hamadras?" said Harry.

"No," said Snape. "Something of my own invention - molacella. It turns the blood itself to poison, which then boils inside the body. It is a fast death but painful."

"What, so if being poisoned isn't bad enough, they boil alive as well?" said Harry. "You're... you're a sadist, an absolute sadist. Haven't you got anything that's quick and easy and doesn't hurt at all?"

Snape smirked. "I'm a Potions master, Potter, not a human rights campaigner. When there's a Death Eater strangling the life out of you, you'll be a whole lot more grateful."

"Why do I get the feeling you know something I don't?" said Harry, suspiciously.

Snape chuckled again, and dropped the ring back into the bag. "Before I forget. To actually release poison from the ring, you need to use a specific key-phrase."

"What's the phrase?" said Harry.

"It was a pleasure knowing you," said Snape.

Harry blinked. "Yeah, likewise, what's the phrase?"

Snape smirked. "That was the phrase, Potter. Just never say it if the emerald isn't in contact with a part of another living creature's anatomy."

Harry nodded, rubbing his head. This was possibly the most sinister Christmas present he'd ever had. "You're reminding me of Mad-Eye Moody, giving me all this stuff as though I'm about to be jumped on by a gang of dark wizards right outside."

Snape redid the drawstring and handed it to Harry carefully. Harry put it firmly on the side where it couldn't kill him or worse.

"Potter, we are at war... the Dark Lord cannot reach his full power or survive properly as long as you are alive in this world. Every wizard who knows of the prophecy would do anything to keep you alive. You're too young to remember the reign of terror inflicted by the Dark Lord the last time he was active... and if you die, then that time will come again and will be far greater than ever before." Snape got up, walking over to his desk, shifting through papers, his eyes averted. "And there is... of course... a personal need for myself to take interest in this matter. Your safety is my responsibility."

"Can't it be mine?" said Harry.

Snape shook his head. "No, Potter. As a Death Eater, I have advanced warning of when the time has come to worry for your health." Still not looking up, he said, "I daresay you will need some rest. Mr Weasley returns tomorrow after all, and no doubt you'll be chasing each other around the grounds like toddlers on orange juice."

Harry smiled ever so slightly. "Probably, yeah."

He picked up the bag carefully, keeping it at arm's length, and heading for the door. Just as his fingers curled around the handle, Snape said from behind him, "And Potter?"

"Yes, Sir?" Harry said, over his shoulder, expecting something about homework or Occlumency practice.

"Merry Christmas."

Harry looked around, surprised, and for just one moment he caught the expression on Snape's face. It looked as though Snape had never wished anybody a merry Christmas in his entire life, nor received the wish back, but then he looked down into his papers again, as though he hadn't said it.

Harry smiled. "Merry Christmas, Professor," before he slipped out of the room silently and shut the door.

 

Chapter Twenty-Five: Brawling With Blaise

December the 27th was a Sunday, and normally on a Sunday, Harry would spend the day doing homework. Because of the festivities of Christmas, he didn't feel like bullying his brain into doing work, and so he decided to leave it. Besides, everybody was returning to Hogwarts today. The train was expected at ten o' clock, so Harry woke up late, had a lesiurely breakfast and a game of chess with Hermione that he won rather spectacularly, and then together, they went out to wait on the front steps for the returning students.

Hermione, hardly surprisingly, had her nose in a book. Harry was studying too, for some spells to teach in the next DA Club. He had his wand out, his book of curses from Lupin open on his lap, and he was jinxing a series of little snowmen he'd built. Hermione watched over the top of her brook.

"Caladium! Oh, come on, caladium!" Harry shouted, waving his wand vaguely. "CAL-A-DI-UM!"

Hermione tutted. "You'll never do any damage like that."

"You do it then," he snapped.

She drew her wand casually from her sleeve, gave it a little flick and said, "Caladium", in a rather absent-minded way. The snowman melted instantly with a splatting noise, little more than a puddle on the ground. Harry frowned. He turned the page in his book, and muttered, "Well, it's a stupid spell anyway, I'll teach something else."

She smiled sweetly, and then glanced up at the gates. "Hey, they're here! Ron's there!" She jumped up, cramming her book into her bag, and then running across the grounds towards the advancing crowd of students. Harry hurried after her, grinning, but he stopped as he realised just what Ron had done to his hair.

"Uh..."

Ron beamed. "D'you like it?"

Hermione eyed the white streak he had dyed right through the middle of his hair in a chunky stripe. "It's... certainly interesting."

"Fred and George did it for me," said Ron, grinning. "It glows in the dark, wait until you see it! So, what have you been up to? Has anything interesting happened?"

Harry shook his head. "No, not much. Somebody sent me a dog toy for Christmas."

Ron stared at him. "Seriously?"

"Seriously," he said, grinning at the look on Ron's face. "It's just like a squeaky rubber ball with a clown's face on it, I reckon that - "

"Harry?" He looked up as Cho came over, her hair up in two pretty bunches tied with silky blue ribbons. She looked rather nervous. "Can I talk to you for a second?" She glanced around all his friends gathering. "Somewhere private?" she added.

"Yeah," said Harry, wondering what was wrong with her. "I'll catch up with all of you, okay?"

Ron cast a jealous look at Cho, but nodded anyway. He glanced around at the rest of their friends, and the whole group headed away up to the steps of the castle as Cho took Harry by the hand and lead him away, out of sight behind a patch of trees.

"What's wrong?" he said, worriedly.

Cho looked very upset about something. She bit her lip, taking a few deep breaths, and then said in a rush, "Ithinkweshouldseeotherpeople."

"Sorry?" said Harry, frowning.

"It's... I don't think we should be together anymore, Harry..." She turned her eyes onto him, and he saw they were full of tears. "I think we should see other people. It's not you, it's me."

Harry looked back into those eyes, feeling something hot and heavy start to thrash around inside his stomach. "You... you're breaking up with me...?"

"I'm sorry, Harry," she said, tears trickling down her face. "There's somebody else... and... I can't play Quidditch for you anymore."

Harry's face fell. "But we've got a match coming up! You're our best chaser!"

She only cried harder at this. "I knew you'd say that! It's always about Quidditch, or your friends, or something else! You don't care about me, only how well I can catch!"

"I do care about you," he said, desperately. "Please don't cry... it's... why? Why do we have to split up?"

"Mark Erith," she whispered.

Harry felt the heat in his stomach starting to well up behind his eyes. He looked into her face, the tears running down her cheeks, and his voice seemed to choke up. He was too angry and too hurt to speak. All the time he'd wasted on her...

"Fine," he said. "Just fine. I don't need you."

He turned to go, and she grabbed him by the arm. "Harry, I'm sorry..."

"No." He shook his head, pulling his arm free, and storming away towards the castle. When he had the courage and the strength to do so, he turned, and called, "No, you're not," back down at her. Then he turned, and pretty much ran the rest of the way towards the castle.

Draco was languishing on the steps, arms folded over his chest. His pale eyes followed Harry as he ran towards the doors, then he spoke, calmly. "Granger told me to come and wait for you."

"Yeah, well, I don't want you to wait for me," he said, vaguely, moving to push past Draco.

Draco held out a hand, caught him by the shoulder and looked him in the eye. "Let's walk, Potter."


Deep down, Harry didn't want to talk to Draco about Cho. He didn't want to talk to anybody about Cho, except maybe Hermione, but he agreed, reluctantly. Draco made him wait outside the Slytherin common room for a few minutes while he fetched his cloak, and then they both left the castle, heading out into the now deserted snowy grounds. Their shoes crunched on the powdery crystals underfoot, though for a few minutes, that was all that was heard while they walked.

Draco spoke first, which was a relief to Harry. "So. Tell me what happened."

Vaguely, Harry recognised the sound of his own voice going over what Cho said to him. He couldn't really think properly. The shock of everything had sunk in now, and it was not a nice feeling. Most of him was confused, and he regretted not asking questions, not digging his heels in, demanding to know more. Now that he thought back, there were so many things he could have said to sound better. Now he just felt... wretched, in a word.

He told all of this to Draco, and when he was done, Draco merely nodded for a moment, staying quiet. "You might not believe it, Potter, but I understand."

Harry shook his head. "No, you don't... you don't understand a word..."

"Think about it... don't I?" Draco raised one slim eyebrow, quite a sad, hollow expression on his face. "Don't you see her everyday, walking around on his arm?"

Harry looked up, and said, "Oh... Pansy... but... that was Pansy, she's not Cho. Pansy's horrible."

Draco smiled ever so slightly, even though Harry could see he didn't feel quite so happy about that situation. "Love is blind, Potter... I think she's beautiful, and I can't see how any man can say she isn't. Then again, I'd rather gouge out my own liver than look twice at Cho Chang."

Harry frowned. "Don't talk about her like that."

Draco chuckled. "Oh, so you can call the love I lost horrible, and yet I'm not allowed an opinion on the girl who just left you for another boy?"

Harry fell silent, remembering something from a while ago, in Snape's house. He could hear Snape's voice in his head - "Oh, I see. Nobody can mention Perfect Potter's hurtful experiences at all, God Forbid anybody should upset poor, traumatised little Potter, but it's perfectly alright for him to attack others in an attempt to get some attention. Well, that seems perfectly reasonable."

He sighed, looking down at his feet. "Sorry..."

"Potter, you've said a great deal nastier things to me. I'm hardly offended." Draco looked up at something suddenly near the castle steps. "Ah, here comes the cavalry." Ron, Hermione, Neville, Ginny, Luna, Kainda, and Ernie and all his friends were coming down the steps in a big group. Draco sighed. "Well, Potter, you're hardly going to want relationship counselling with all your friends around. I'll just tell you that I understand and that I can be talked to, should you need it."

Harry nodded. "Thanks, Draco."

Draco smiled ever so slightly. "My pleasure, Harry."

"You called me Harry," he said, feeling a grin curl his features. Having somebody to talk to seemed to be numbing the pain of Cho. "You've never called me Harry before."

"Not many people have ever called me Draco," said the Slytherin, smirking. "And unless I'm very much mistaken, that point is about to be proved."

"Malfoy!" Ron bellowed. "What are you two doing out here?"

Draco smirked. Harry chuckled, and turned to his cousin, hurrying down the sloping snow towards him. "Just talking."

"What did Cho want?"

"She dumped me," said Harry, simply. He didn't feel like going into the matter much.

Ron, however, did. "Whoa, why?" he said, with wide eyes. "That's gonna be really bad for the Quidditch, Harry... you're staying friends, right?" But seeing the look on Harry's face, his jaw fell. "She quit the team, didn't she? Oh hell. And we've got a match against The Pride of Ravenclaw soon! Damn, what are we going to do? Have you got another Chaser? We are so screwed."

Draco rubbed his forehead. "You just find it impossible to ask one question and then wait for an answer, don't you, Weasley?"

Ron glared at him. "I wasn't talking to you," he sneered.

Draco rolled his eyes and look away. Ron opened his mouth to snap at him, but Hermione cut in angrily. "Ron! Stop it, just leave him alone, and Draco, you stop patronising Ron." She turned to Harry, with a kinder expression on her face. "What happened with Cho?"

"There's somebody else," he muttered, vaguely. "Mark, she said."

"She had another guy?" said Ron, his eyes widening. "Whoa, Harry... I'm sorry, I guess..."

Harry shook his head. "Don't worry about it... and no, we don't have another Chaser."

"Don't we have any reserves?" said Ernie, looking around at everybody nervously.

"No," said Harry. "We'll have to find somebody quickly, or just play with me and Ginny as Chasers... but I don't think I'm good enough. Ginny needs a really really good Chaser as her partner so that she can play well. But who could we ask?"

"Um..." said a small voice, from the edge of the group. Everybody turned around to look at the speaker. Neville gazed nervously at every face turned his way. "I-I'll do it... I mean... if nobody better turns up..."

"But - " said Draco.

"Sure!" said Harry.

Draco bit his tongue, clearly deciding it was a better idea to save it for an "I told you so" later.

"Can you fly?" Ernie asked Neville, eagerly.

Neville nodded. "My auntie was teaching me how all summer... I'm a lot better than I was. I'd play for you... I'm just not very good..."

"Neville, you'll do," said Harry. "You, me and Ginny get on okay, right? We can work something out."

"We'll be rooting for you," said Justin Finch-Fletchley. "Bright Sparks are easily the most popular team, you'll certainly have a lot of fans if you do well, Neville."

Neville blushed, and was stammering his thanks, as Harry noticed Draco take a subtle but quick sidestep behind him. He frowned, turning around to Draco. "What's - "

Draco nodded up at the steps. Blaise Zabini and his twenty-four-hour parade came swanning out down the steps. Harry could see Pansy latched onto Blaise's arm as always. He nodded understandingly, and said to everybody, "Come on, let's go to our courtyard or somewhere else. Zabini's looking for trouble."

Kainda turned around and saw her little brother. She rolled her eyes. "Eugh, stupid little brat. We can stay here, Harry, he can't do anything with me around. You know at home, he won't sleep with the light of? He's terrified of monsters under the bed."

Everybody laughed loudly. Harry saw Blaise turn to glare at the group, muttering something to his gang, and then Pansy's shrill, fake laugh was heard ringing out across the grounds, but they didn't come over.

Kainda grinned, turned and yelled over the lake, "HEY, BLAISE!!! MUM WROTE THIS MORNING, SHE WANTS TO MAKE SURE YOU'RE CHANGING YOUR PANTS REGULARLY!!!"

Harry and his friends all howled with laughter as Blaise flushed an angry shade of red, flicking Pansy off his arm and beckoning his gang to follow him. Kainda watched with a smug smirk as they approached, with Blaise in the lead, looking even shorter than normal while surrounded by his huge friends.

"The company you keep, Sister," he said, coldly, glaring around at them all. "I didn't think that even you were capable of it."

"At least I don't crick my neck everytime I look them in the eye," she said, grinning, which was greeted by more shouts of laughter.

Blaise blushed angrily again. "Look at you. Surrounded by this rabble of filth." His dark eyes washed over them all. "Potter and Malfoy, the fabulous fatherless freaks... then there's Weasleys. Surely, when the parents had their first child, didn't they realise that they'd made a mistake? Look at that hair, it's vile. Dye only costs a few Knuts, and if I had hair like that, I'd be happy to pay it. Of course, they probably don't have the money... then there's Longbottom. Another fatherless one, of course, he's alive though, isn't he? His mind's just a little... absent without leave." Blaise smirked, and the knot of Slytherins behind him all laughed angrily.

Neville blanched, shrinking away behind Hermione.

Blaise stepped forward, his arms crossed, looking them all up and down as though they were the last slaves in the marketplace. "And see, he hides behind a girl... pathetic... at least hide behind a member of the better sex, Longbottom..."

"How chilidish," Hermione said, waspishly. "Having to resort to being sexist."

Blaise smirked, eyeing her up and down, his gaze lingering a little too long on Hermione's chest for Harry's liking. "Shame you've got a mouth," he drawled. "It spoils the illusion."

Ron stepped from the group, in front of Hermione, and he was scarlet in the face from anger. "Leave her alone," he snarled.

Blaise just smiled at him, smiling and smiling, in a way that reminded Harry of the clown's sinister grin. "How cute."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Ron growled. His fists were clenching and unclenching with every one of his furious breaths.

"Ron, don't..." Hermione whispered, moving forward and gripping his arm. "Don't, he's not worth it..."

"Listen to her, Weasley," said Blaise, his eyes flaring. "Don't mess with the boys until you can handle the girls."

It happened in a whirl of fists. There was a cry from Zabini and a yell of anger from Ron, and next second, Blaise was down on the ground in the mud and Ron had him by the throat. Hermione screamed, "RON!" and ran forward to pull him off, but Blaise's friends were already there, grabbing at Ron. Harry and Draco leapt forward, trying to stop them killing Ron, Blaise was yelling, Pansy and Hermione started screaming at each other, Ron was shouting at Harry and Draco to get off him and soon everybody was fighting. Even Neville and Luna were in the fray, trying to stop Ginny killing one of the Slytherins who had Ron by the head. Kainda struggled through to Harry and Draco, who were taking care of Zabini and said, "NO! DON'T!"

Harry stared at her, and yelled, "Why?"

She grabbed her brother of him and hit him hard around the face. "You're too weak, you're not hitting him hard enough! Let me do it!" There was another smack as she gave him a back-handed slap with her hard leather Quidditch gloves. Ron yelped as one of the Slytherins dragged him backwards and set about him. Harry took a flying leap, latching himself around the Slytherin's back and thrashing around, yelling, "GET OFF HIM! GET OFF HIM!"

Hermione and Pansy were still screaming blow for blow, and then it turned nasty, as Pansy scratched Hermione around the face. Ginny broke free of Luna and Neville, leapt at Pansy and slapped her back. Quite a catfight was starting, while all the boys were still brawling, yelling and beating anything they could reach. Ron gave Malfoy a dead leg before he realised that Malfoy was supposed to be on their side, hurrying away to help Harry take on one of the larger Slytherins before Draco could realise who it was that had belted him in the ankle and run off. Zabini grabbed Harry by the throat and he choked, thrashing around. Kainda came running and grabbed her little brother around the waist, dragging him off and carrying him away as he screamed, "NO, GET OFF ME, PUT ME DOWN!"

There was a collosal splash as she flung him into the icy waters of the lake. He shrieked, flailing madly, and then he plunged down into the waters, showering everybody with the filth-ridden water. Next into the lake was Ron as two Slytherins hauled him in, but Ernie did a marvellous flying leap and elbowed both of them in as well, and soon, the fight was both in the water and on land as people were thrown in, climbed out and tried to drag somebody else in. Harry sacrificed his dryness to stop Zabini drowning Draco by holding his head under the water, and both of them plunged into the lake. He surfaced with a gulp, and then Zabini was onto him, grasping him by the hair and trying to force him under.

Harry kicked and thrashed, digging his knee into Zabini's stomach. With a groan, Zabini let go, giving Harry time to splash to the bank and rush to help Neville, who was being attacked by no less than three Slytherins. He was so absorbed in trying to choke one of the bruisers with his own scarf that at first he didn't notice there were five figures rushing down the lawns towards the brawl, but he certainly did notice when a cold hand grasped him roughly by the back of the neck.

He yelped, turning around, fully intending to beat the living daylights out of whoever it was, expecting to get thrown in the lake again, but when he saw who it was, his blood seemed to freeze in his veins. Snape glared at him and then hissed, "Potter, what are you doing?"

Harry looked down at the scarf he had wrapped around the neck of one of Blaise's boys to throttle him, trying to ignore the blood streaming down his face from his nosebleed. "Um... I am strangling - what's your name, please?"

"Mark," grunted the boy.

Harry's eyes narrowed. "Mark what? And what house are you in?"

"Mark Erith," he panted. "I'm a Ravenclaw."

Harry hesitated for a moment, then wriggled free of Snape and leapt on Mark again, landing another few good punches and yells of, "I'LL TEACH YOU TO STEAL MY GIRLFRIEND!", before Snape grabbed him and hauled him back again, pinning him firmly in place.

Professor McGonagall was hauling Hermione out of the lake. Professor Lupin and Professor Sprout were restraining Ron, who was still trying to get at Zabini, despite his black eyes and a sprained ankle. Professor Flitwick was trying to resuscitate Neville. Everybody looked incredibly beaten and battered. Apparently, somebody had thought of using a wand, because Justin Finch-Fletchley was covered in bright blue spots and was warbling merrily to himself, oblivious of the teachers. Draco and Blaise were the worst of, even though Harry knew he must look nearly as bad as them. Draco was covered in bruises, lying flat on the ground trying to regain his breath, his face blood and tear stained, clutching his leg. Zabini was shivering with the cold of being dunked in the lake so many times.

"Well?" said Professor McGonagall, glaring around at them all. Her nostrils had gone white, which looked very odd indeed compared to the bright red of her angry face. "Who started it?"

"Weathley," Blaise said, quickly, sounding very bunged up. He touched his nose tentatively. "Um... Profethor Thnabe? I dink my dose is browken."

"It was not me!" Ron said, furiously. "You came over here, leering at Hermione's chest and insulting us all! YOU started it Zabini!"

Lupin tightened his hold on Ron, muttering his ear, trying to calm him down. Ron's fingers were curled, as though in claws, and he was breathing so angrily that his chest heaved in and out with every breath. He turned to Professor McGonagall, swallowing, and then saying, "He's just a sexist, rascist... you didn't see how he was looking at her."

"It's dot my fowlt you're brodecdive of your cow of a dirlthriend," Blaise snarled.

"You see!" Ron howled, jabbing a finger at Zabini. "He's just an EVIl piece of - "

"Weasley!" snapped McGonagall. "Control yourself! I do not need to tell you all how DISGUSTED I am at such a display! Never in all my times at Hogwarts have I heard of such blatant disregard for rules or other's safety! Two hundred points from every house present, no matter how many members of it are here, and the headmaster will be saying something about this at dinner tonight. I am disgusted. Absolutely disgusted. Everybody who can walk get back up to school and report to the hospital wing, anybody who needs help stay here. NOW!"

Harry went to pull free of Snape, but he snarled, "Oh no, Potter, you're staying right here."

"I can walk," said Harry, trying to wriggle free.

"I'm aware of that," was the cold reply. "I think we need a little talk in my office. The headmaster might not be able to get through to you the severity of your actions, but believe you me, I can."

Hermione and Ron were dithering, watching Harry, wondering what was going wrong. He shook his head at them, looking away, still caught in Snape's tight grip. They headed away up the steps, both supporting Ginny, who was limping slightly as she walked. Luna breezed after them, apparently oblivious to the fact that there was blood and dirt all over the front of her robes. Neville and Draco laid on the ground still. Neville's arm was twisted at a very painful looking angle, and Draco's leg was most definitely broken, from what Harry could hear of the conversation between Lupin and Sprout.

Professor Lupin conjured stretchers, and walked with both boys up to the castle, followed by Professors Sprout and Flitwick. McGonagall turned to Snape and Harry. "Severus, Mr Potter will need medical attention that - "

"I can perform myself," Snape said, curtly.

McGonagall nodded, and turned, walking away after Lupin and Sprout. When she was out of earshot, Snape said, simply, "Explain yourself, Potter."

"They... they were hurting Ron," said Harry, looking down at his feet. "I tried to stop them, and it all - "

"Got out of hand," Snape finished, frowning. "Perhaps you should learn to control your temper, Potter. And perhaps it will have to be me who teaches you that lesson."

With that, he grasped Harry by the shoulder and swept back up the sweeping lawns to the castle with him, in through the main doors, across the entrace hall and down the familar corridor to the dungeons. It was dark and cold as always. Harry found himself limping on every other step as he walked, the pain in his nose and around his eyes starting to slowly increase as they walked. Snape seemed perfectly calm now. Perhaps, Harry thought, he's given up on trying to shout at me to make my learn. Maybe I've pushed him further than that.

But Snape didn't seem that angry at all. He opened the door to his office, lead Harry inside, instructed him (or rather, ordered him) to sit down in one of the armchairs, then performed a quick drying charm to remove most of the damp from Harry's robes. Harry sat, silently, trying to hold his robes out so as not to get blood all over the place as Snape removed his cloak, leaving him in a simple black shirt and trousers, heading through to his private rooms. When he came out, he had a medical kit with him, a few potions and -

A dog collar.

Harry stared at the collar worriedly, but Snape didn't act as though it was out of the ordinary at all. He crouched down in front of Harry, opening up the medical kit calmly and taking Harry's wrist, holding his arm out, working his robes up past his elbows. "Any injuries anywhere else, Potter?" he said.

"I... don't know... my face hurts. This arm. My right leg. I'm cold. I think there's a bruise on my back."

"Mmm," Snape droned, vaguely, taking his wand and performing a few precise cleaning charms to get all the dried-on dirt off Harry's skin. He then started on Harry's wounds in silence. There was a cut on his inner elbow, his right leg was quite badly bruised, though his face, neck and shoulders were the worst, according to the expression on Snape's face.

"You've got some bad injures, Potter."

Harry nodded vaguely. "Yeah, I know."

His magical guardian sighed heavily, conjuring a bowl of warm water and a cloth. He dipped the cloth in the bowl, and then dabbed it carefully at Harry's jaw. Harry glanced down and saw blood coming off on the material in streams.

"Sorry," he mumbled.

Snape shook his head with a quiet frown on his face. "Potter, I can't say I'm angry. There is no real reason for me to be angry any longer. I've tried losing my cool with you, on countless occasions, and it hasn't made the slightest bit of difference to your attitude."

Harry glanced up, surprised. Snape looked back into his eyes, reading his thoughts, and Harry found himself too tired and too weak to really care. He didn't even put up any sort of resistance, just let Snape get on with it.

Snape wrung out the cloth absent-mindedly while still watching Harry. Harry looked back into those black eyes, too exhausted for speech, wanting to explain himself somehow and to tell Snape he didn't mean to get into trouble so much. He desperately wanted to think of some words to describe how he just wanted to protect Ron. He remembered with a dull flush of fear how the Slytherins had all jumped forward and grabbed his cousin, going to beat him up, and how he'd experienced that momentary rush of indecision. How he knew it was the wrong thing to do but how scared he was.

And then he let his thoughts flitter off into a new path, quite by themselves, not even bothered that Snape could tell what he was thinking. He wondered why Snape wasn't angry, he wondered why Snape had brought him back to his chambers to heal him personally. He looked into those black eyes and found himself thinking that he was sorry, that he didn't mean to be so rebellious. Snape looked back, and after a few moments, he said, quietly, "I understand..."

Harry looked away, feeling heat in his eyes at his emotional and physical exhaustion. He felt so battered and weak. The first day of the year came to him in a flash, seeing Malfoy stroking the thestral, and the tired, hollow look in his eyes. He could identify with that now.

"And I brought you back here for several reasons," said Snape, quietly, lifting the cloth again and tracing it gently over a long cut on Harry's cheek. "For one, the hospital wing will be full... Madam Pomfrey will be too busy to administer to every single need of her patients. Your injuries are fairly serious, and as much as I don't doubt the matron is a skilled witch, sometimes her stress levels become a little too high for her to deal with. Secondly, once I'm done, we are going to talk and I need your full attention. I won't get that if Weasley is flitting about behind me asking if you're okay. Thirdly, I need to fit this on you," he said, gesturing vaguely to the collar. He wrung out the cloth again, murmured a charm to clean the water, and started to dab away the blood weeping from Harry's wounds once more. "Fourthly..." He fell quiet, shaking his head.

Harrry glanced at him. "What?"

Snape looked back. It was the first time Harry had ever seen concern in Snape's eyes. He was surprised for a moment at the expression on his magical guardian's face. He suddenly looked about ten years younger, all the lines ironed out in his pale skin, no hint of a sneer or a frown creasing his expression. Harry saw a flicker of something in his eyes that made him wonder, just for a moment as a passing thought, whether Snape was starting to care about him.

Snape paused for a moment, then gave a simple, single nod, breaking the eye contact and starting to tend to Harry's wounds again. Harry watched him as he wiped away the blood and dried-on mud from a slash on his neck, then crouch down to wring out his cloth again. He looked down at Snape, and just to entertain himself, he imagined that he wasn't looking down at the Potions master who had tormented him for six years, but an uncle, perhaps. Maybe even a father.

Snape looked up, glancing across Harry's face. "That's the best anybody could do. The black eyes are going to stay, I'm afraid."

Harry nodded numbly, breaking the eye contact subtly. "I guess I'm in detention now."

Snape raised an eyebrow. "If you are to have a detention, I'm sure that Professor McGonagall shall arrange that, Potter, it is none of my business what rebels from other houses do if it isn't in my classes." He cleaned his hands absent-mindedly, dried them on a towel he'd conjured, and then picked up the collar. "However, there are some things I have to take care of."

Harry stared at him in amazement, wondering what on earth Snape was going to do with a dog collar. "You're going to put me on a leash? Isn't that just a little bit against my human rights?"

"This isn't an ordinary collar. I've been working on it for some time." He put one hand on Harry's forehead to keep him still, and fitted the collar around his neck with the other. "If the buckle is done, it's invisible and shouldn't give you any discomfort you can't cope with. It's a fairly simple idea, really. I've charmed this mirror to show what the jewel on the front of the band can see. If I get cold flushes again, I simply find the mirror, check whether you really are in danger, and if you're not then I can... tell you to stop whatever it is you may be doing."

Harry glanced up at him at that, feeling very annoyed at being fitted with a collar, and no matter how comfortable Snape thought it was, it was not fun to wear. "How are you going to get that message to me? What if I'm outside getting strangled again?"

Snape smiled lazily. "Jacardia."

Harry jumped a foot in the air as the collar buzzed against his neck, making his skin crawl uncomfortably. A shiver shot down his spine, making him curl backwards. "Ahhh!"

"So simple, yet so effective," said Snape.

"I'm sure this is illegal," said Harry, shuddering again as an after shock hit him.

"You show me the law, Potter, you show me the law." Snape made him lean forward, checking the buckles on the back of the collar with his long fingers. "This is just a precaution, Potter. And surely you'd prefer a gentle warning from me than another two hundred points from Gryffindor when you're caught brawling by Professor McGonagall?"

"A gentle warning?" said Harry, amazed. "You call that gentle? I call this child abuse. I could run to Dumbledore right now and have you sent to Azkaban."

Snape crouched down in front of Harry, looking rather paternally into his face. "I think we both know there's no chance of that happening, Harry. I daresay Mr Weasley will be killing himself with worry about you now, perhaps you should go and check on him."

Harry nodded. "Okay... thanks, Professor." He stood up, scratching at his neck, wishing the collar didn't feel so visible, and he left the room.

He was halfway to the hospital wing, still tugging at his neck, when he realised something that in normal circumstances he would have noticed straight away. He stopped, staring straight forwards, and even though there was nobody around to hear it, he whispered, "He called me Harry."

 

Chapter Twenty-Six: Hufflepuff Risotta and Peeves' Reminder

Looking around the hospital wing that day, any visitors would have thought there had been a war at the very least. Everybody in there had black eyes, busted noses, bruised lips, and sprained or broken limbs. The Potter/Malfoy/Weasley team had probably come off the worst in the equation. All the Slytherins were a bit bruised and battered, and Zabini still smelt like fish no matter how many times they gave him cleaning charms, but Harry's gang were pretty badly injured. Draco was restricted to bed, and to Ron's disgust, Madam Pomfrey made him fetch anything the Slytherin wanted. Harry was opposite from them with Hermione on one side and Kainda on the other (Madam Pomfrey thought it wise to have Kainda as far from Blaise as possible). He and Draco had severely annoyed the matron by throwing fruit from their bedside cabinets back and forth across the room to practice Quidditch, but apart from that, they were all incredibly bored.

Gradually, the Slytherin side all were allowed to go, but even after a few days, Harry's gang were still bedridden. The end of the Christmas holidays were approaching, and Madam Pomfrey was full intent on getting them all back to school in time for their first lessons. She kept trying to give them odd potions that Harry found himself fairly suspicious off, as when Draco drunk one, he suddenly started saying that he wanted to go out for a run, despite having a broken leg in plaster.

It was about six o' clock, and the rest of the school were probably still finishing their evening meal. In the hospital wing, Harry, Ron, Draco and Hermione were all awake and talking, whilst the others slept.

"Potter," Draco said, throwing a quick look down the ward.

Harry said, "Yep, ready."

Draco pitched an orange across the ward quickly before Madam Pomfrey could come out and catch them. Harry caught it in one hand and threw it back. Draco got it, and put it back in the fruit bowl quickly as Madam Pomfrey came out of her office. She shot a suspicious look at them.

"What are you doing?"

"Nothing," said Harry, innocently.

"Hmm." She swept back into her office, shutting the door, and the orange made another two trips back and forth across the ward.

"So you two are on form, huh?" said Ron.

Draco nodded, leaning right to the side to grab the orange as Harry did a fast pitch to the left. He snatched it out of the air quickly, just in time to avoid it hitting the water jug. "We'll all be out of here by the time the Quidditch match comes, there's no worry about that. And the other team haven't got much of an advantage, three of their players were in the fight, including the captain. He's the one you tried to strangle, Potter."

"Mark Erith," Harry hissed, his face suddenly darkening into a frown that held a malicious glimmer not unlike the evil clown's. "We have to win this match. If it's the last thing I do. And Malfoy, if you don't catch that Snitch - "

"Okay, okay," said Malfoy, pitching the orange back to Harry. "I get it, Potter. I'm not the secondary Seeker, I'm just as good as you. I hope you can handle something bigger than a piece of fruit though. Quaffles are heavy."

"I know," said Harry. He snatched the orange out of the air, and flung it back. "All the Chasers on our team can handle a Quaffle."

Draco cast a worried look at the slumbering Neville, and was clearly still worried about their new Chaser's skills. Ron frowned and opened his mouth to snap at Malfoy, but Harry cut in quickly with, "Ernie sent me an owl this morning, he's got you as a Quidditch card, Ron."

Ron's face suddenly lifted in delight. "Honestly? What's my biggest skill? Did he tell you they gave me as ratings?"

Harry shook his head. "No, but he should be coming to visit today, so - "

The doors opened, and to Harry's great surprise, Ernie came to visit quite sooner that he'd expected, but he didn't look happy at all. He and Hannah Abbot were supporting Justin Finch-Fletchley, and Professor Sprout was hurrying in front of them with a bucket. Justin's lunch was apparently eager to re-meet the world again.

They were followed by a crowd of Hufflepuff first years, who didn't look very healthy either. Harry cast a look over their ale green and clammy faces, and he knew pretty much instantly that there looked to be a new form of Risotta in school.

"Chicken nuggets and chips," said Professor Sprout, as Madam Pomfrey came hurrying out of her office. "Albus is just trying to calm everybody down. Mr Finch-Fletchley only ate about three and then he was affected. It looks serious, Poppy."

Madam Pomfrey sighed. "Right, everybody who feels ill, please lie down in a bed and I'll be over in two ticks." She turned to the group at the end of the ward. "Potter, you look fine to me, go on. We need the beds. Weasley, Miss Granger, you all look in perfect health, pack up your bags and you can return to your common rooms. Malfoy! Oh, no, you have a broken leg... you'll have to stay. Wake up the others and if they feel alright, let's get them out of here. Any infected Hufflepuff students, get into beds. Come on, stop blocking the doors! Move along now!"

Harry, Ron and Hermione woke Neville, Ginny and Luna, and they all hurried out of the hospital wing with a hurried goodbye to Draco, as the Hufflepuffs continued to stream in. People were leaving the Great Hall talking worriedly, being lead by the prefects and teachers back to their house common rooms. Ron and Hermione hurried off to shepherd the first years back to Gryffindor Tower, while Harry, Neville and Ginny started fighting through the crowds to catch up.

With all the people in the corridor, it took about twenty minutes to get back to the common room. Twice, somebody stood on Neville's foot and Harry found himself terrifed that they would have to carry him all the way back to the hospital wing through all the crowds, but he was okay, and although he limped the last corridor to the portrait hole, he managed it.

Professor McGonagall stood in the middle of the common room, looking round at the assembled students with a very serious expression on her face. "Hurry up there, I need to speak to you all," she called. "Is everybody here? Good. Now, as you all know, the food poisoning epidemic in the school has just struck Hufflepuff house. This issue cannot be ignored any longer." She swept her hawk-like gaze over them all. "The headmaster and the rest of the staff are completely and utterly convinced that this is no accident. The house elves are not making a mistake and the food supplier for the school insists that his produce leaves his premises in perfect condition and none of his other customers have noticed any odd effects at all. This means that somebody within this school is purposely tampering with food."

A shiver ran down the spines of everybody in the room. They'd all known it for so long - but to hear Professor McGonagall, strict, logical Professor McGonagall confirm it... it hit home to every heart that they were in danger.

"I beg you all, that if anybody has any information," she continued, "to please come and see me in private. You will not be named and anything you tell me will be held in the closest confidence. I'm sure we would all like just to sit down and eat without worrying what our meal will do to us." She looked around at every face, her expression serious and yet concerned at the same time. "Please do not be scared of your food. You all need to eat, and it is highly unlikely that anybody will be foolish enough to eat a whole plate of something that contains poison. All the fatal poisons taste very strongly of unpleasant things. No doubt Professor Snape will be starting poisons will all of you because of this."

Nobody looked very comforted by this news.

"Good night - sleep well," she said, opening the door of the common room and stepping out. Everybody immediately burst into conversations, all of them whispering and muttering.

Harry picked his way through the crowd to Ron and Hermione. Ron raised his eyebrows. "Well. We're all going to be poisoned."

"There's no proof of that, Ron," she said, hurriedly. "Don't go around telling the first years things like that. It might just be somebody playing a prank, they'll stop now."

Harry paused, and then said, "Hermione... I don't think this is just a joke... whoever it was would have stopped about the Gryffindors. That wasn't fun to see at all. And it can't be a Slytherin, because they've had the Risotta, so it's not somebody with a grudge against Gryffindors and Hufflepuffs."

Ron bit his lip, and then said, in a very dramatic way, "Then there's only one house left... it must be a Ravenclaw. I woudn't have thought them capable of it. There all serious and clever though, aren't they? They're not evil, it's the Slytherins who are evil."

"No, Ron," said Hermione, frowning. "Hasn't being friends with Draco taught you anything?"

Ron snorted. "Who said I was friends with Malfoy?"

Hermione acted as though she hadn't heard him. "Slytherins aren't evil. If a person's evil, they aren't automatically put in Slytherin, and not all Slytherins are evil. Look at Kainda, she's lovely! It's ambition and cunning, not evil."

"I think it's evil," said Ron, sniffily.

"Hagrid told me when I was eleven that there wasn't a wizard who went bad that wasn't in Slytherin," said Harry, raising his eyebrows.

"Oh, what rubbish," Hermione scoffed. "That was before we knew Sirius was a good man, and he wasn't in Slytherin."

Ron shrugged. "I don't know what I think... it's a Ravenclaw or a Slytherin doing it. Probably a Ravenclaw. Maybe it's that Mark Erith, upset because Cho still loves Harry."

"She doesn't still love me," Harry said, darkly. "She never did."

"But - " Ron began.

"Don't," said Hermione.

"But - "

"Just don't."


The next morning, it wasn't surprising that nobody really had much of an appetite. The eggs and bacon looked delicious, but everybody didn't know just how safe they were. Nobody touched a morsel except Dumbledore, and even the bread rolls were treated with suspicion. The hall practically sat in silence, staring at their plates, everybody wishing it didn't look quite so good.

Harry pushed his plate away vaguely after ten minutes of sitting staring at it, feeling as though he was about to throw up. "I can't even look at this anymore."

"Me neither," said Ron. He stabbed vaguely at a sausage with his knife, swirling his fork in his egg and blending it all together in a pale lemony mess. "I don't want Risotta again."

"Was it really that bad?" said Hermione, concerned.

Ron nodded vaguely. "I hate food. I hate food so much. I never ever want to eat anything again."

"You don't feel sick, do you?" she said.

"No," said Ron. He sighed, tapping his fingers on the table absently. "Just hungry and tired. We're supposed to keep ourselves well-fed and fit and healthy for the match, we're going to be falling of our brooms half-starved at this rate." He picked up the pumpkin jug, splashing some into his goblet and drinking deeply for a moment. "I wonder how long the wizard body can survive without food."

"It varies on which human it is," said Hermione, promptly. "Around forty-five to fifty days for them to become ill. If they have plenty of body fat and are drinking plenty of water, they can live for far longer though."

Ron groaned. "Forty-five to fifty days. And I was eating a lot right up until people starting getting Risotta, so I've got some puppy fat. So I have about sixty days to live."

"Oh, Ron, don't be stupid," said Hermione. "It won't take that long to catch the culprit, and we can start eating again."

Ron stared mournfully into space. "We need some back-up plans. Firstly, I'll get Fred and George to send us more sweets, and send us food from home. Then, on every Hogsmeade trip, we buy as much fresh food as possible, and some preserving potion so it will last us longer. Lots of water for everybody. If the worst comes to the worst, we'll eat Errol and Pigwidgeon, then Malfoy's owl Sylus, then Crookshanks, Cupid, Hedwig, then Neville."

"And what," said Hermione, sarcastically, "are we going to do once we've all turned into cannibals and eaten Neville?"

"Maybe Luna," said Ron, with a faraway look on his face. "No, she's a bit... thin and bony. Maybe we'll hunt down one of the Slytherins and eat them... no, they're more muscle than fat." He eyed the table vaguely. "Is wood edible?"

"No," said Hermione, sniffily.

"I suppose we'll find out soon," Ron said, vaguely, taking another swig from his goblet. "What if somebody poisons the water supply?"

"Then we'll be very ill in a week," said Hermione. "Dead soon after."

"Oh good," said Ron, pleasantly. "Harry, if somebody poisons the water supply, I think we should just kill each other and make it quick."

Harry nodded. "Alright. I'm not drinking from toilets. I don't care how bad the water gets, no way am I drinking from toilets, or puddles, or the lake."

"I wonder what giant squid tastes like," Ron mused, smiling pleasantly, apparently caught up in his own little world.

"Get a stick," said Harry. "Let's go find out."

Hermione tutted. "Oh, honestly."

Ron slumped forward onto his hands, content to just moan and mutter into his elbows for a while. "I hate... whatever day it is now. And I hate food, and I hate Gryffindor Risotta. And I hate house elves."

Hermione slammed her book down angrily. "This is NOTHING to do with the house elves, Ron! They haven't done a thing!"

"Apart from try to kill us all," Ron muttered.

"I heard that!"

"I don't care."

Harry frowned, and said "Stop fighting. Ron, it's not the house elves. Hermione, you're obsessed with the house elves. Both of you shut up. I'm hungry and annoyed enough as it is."

They fell silent, just glaring at each other across the table. For a moment, everything was fairly quiet as the students murmured to each other, and the click of Dumbledore's knife and fork could be heard pleasantly clinking against his plate.

And then there was a swishing noise, and a great white mass burst into the hall through one of the walls. Several people jumped and cried out in surprise as Peeves emerged through a tapestry, grinning wickedly. Harry rolled his eyes and looked away. Peeves wasn't technically allowed in the Great Hall, and Filch had done everything he could in his power to stop Peeves getting in, but apparently the poltergeist had found a gap in the security at last.

"Out, Peeves," said Professor McGonagall's voice from the staff table.

Peeves cackled, spinning round in a circle and then swooping over the heads of all the students. A group of Ravenclaw first years recoiled in fright as he bobbed down in front of them, grinning from ear to ear. "How's breakfast, ickle firsties? Are we all still alive?"

"Peeves! OUT!" Professor McGonagall stood up, angrily. "You know very well that you're not allowed in the Great Hall! The students are trying to eat!"

Peeves turned to her, beaming widely. "Oooohoohoohooh, somebody got up on the wrong side of the bed today!"

"OUT!" she barked. "The Bloody Baron will be called, Peeves, if you don't - "

Peeves cackled again, swooping down to seize a plate of bacon and eggs from one of the first years. They all huddled together in fright as Peeves turned to McGonagall again. "Can't I stay? Just for a while? Everybody else is here. Why's Peevesy not allowed, hmm? Talking about Peevesy, are we?"

Professor McGonagall eyed the plate of eggs in his hand suspiciously, her eyes flashing. Absolutely everybody was watching now. "Out, Peeves, or you shall be taken out forcefully."

What Peeves did next made everybody gasp in horror, as he pulled back his arm and squashed the whole plate into Professor McGonagall's face. A hush went over the hall as the plate fell to the floor with a clatter, and a fried egg peeled slowly from McGonagall's face, hanging limply. Everybody just stared, absolutely amazed at what Peeves had done.

Next second, Peeves had cackled, swooped up into the air and flailing his arms, he brought the Ravenclaw table up into the air, revolving over and over, so that the whole hall was showered in breakfast, plates, cutlery and juice jugs. All the students leapt out of their seats and screaming, running away to avoid the barrage from above, but Peeves wasn't done. The table dropped with a clatter, and he shot along it, seizing eggs and toast and bacon, chasing after a group of students trying to run. They were all pelted with eggs and food, and everybody screamed even more.

It was pandemonium. The whole hall was up out of their seats and running to escape Peeves's rampage. The poltergeist grasped a third year Hufflepuff by the back of the neck, pouring porridge down the back of his robes, and then he was zooming towards the Gryffindors, scooping up plates as he flew. They all screamed and ran the other way, he cut them off and they ran back. Harry turned around just for a split second to see whether Peeves was still chasing, and a fried egg hit him in the face with a splatter.

Harry shook his head, pulling most of the slimy, cold egg off his face, feeling it dripping all down his cheeks. Peeves was harrassing the front of the Gryffindors now, cackling wildly and showering them all in eggs and beans, but Harry noticed that across the hall, the Slytherin table were under attack as well. Eggs were zooming out of nowhere, splattering down the wood like bullets from a machine gun in an aeroplane, over-turning plates and jugs, sending a stream of food all over.

"How did he do that?" Harry shouted over the mayhem to Ron, still wiping remains of the cold egg off his face.

"Do what?" yelled Ron.

"He made - " but Harry was cut silent as another egg splattered all over his face and Peeves shot over head, cackling delightly.

"Sunside up!" he quipped, and no less than four first years were pelted with eggs in fast succession. Harry noticed through the confusion and chaos that the Slytherins were under attack from flying sausages now, but surely Peeves couldn't throw that far and that fast?

One of the chandeliers gave way above the Hufflepuff table, and they all leapt up, running screaming for the door. Harry felt Peeves ripple past as the now invisible poltergeist shot after them to squash eggs in their hair.

"Ron, help me!" Hermione shouted, jumping up and drawing her wand to save the first years. Ron didn't hear her, too busy peeling the syrupy pancake off his face. Draco wasn't bothering with his wand either, and was just flinging eggs back at whatever it was bombarding him with plastic tubs of jam. Most of them were missing and hitting the Ravenclaws, who were retaliating by tossing whole plates of toast across the hall at Draco. A riot was going to break out soon.

Professor McGonagall had joined the fray, yelling at the battling tables to stop pelting each other with their breakfast, but nobody heard a word of what she said. Peeves's work was being done for him as the whole school got into the fight. Even Ron seized the opportunity to pour a whole bowl of porridge down Zacharias Smith's back before rushing off to help Hermione, still tugging pancake out of his eyebrows. Only Luna Lovegood seemed unaffected by the war around her, emersed deeply in a copy of The Quibbler and eating toast with a very placid look on her face.

Ginny ducked a low-flying plate of bacon and grabbed Harry's arm, yelling, "Let's get out of here!"

Harry had to admit it was the best course of action, and they both sprinted frantically for the door, hands over their head as the brunch continued to rain from above.

"Wait!!" Harry yelled, suddenly remembering something. "You go ahead, go!!"

Ginny didn't need telling twice. She ran for the door, leaving Harry to fight his way through the mass of people around the Slytherin table. Draco looked absolutely numb with shock, now painted with various toppings. Harry grabbed him by the scruff of the neck, bellowed, "You owe me!!" and dragged him from the hall, only stopping to skid on a pool of pumpkin juice and regain his balance.

Once they got out into the corridor, Harry let Draco go and they fell against the wall, panting. Harry glanced across, and Draco looked back, and they both tried not to laugh as they caught sight of each other. Draco had a patchwork face of marmelade, jam, butter and chocolate spread, whilst Harry was wearing a rather fetching wig of rice pudding and a fried egg as an eyepatch.

"Join the circus," Harry suggested, grinning.

"I'll see you there then," said Draco, coolly.

Ginny appeared next to them, her nose wrinkled as she untangled a spoon full of nectarine jam from her bright red hair. "What happened to you?" she said, eyeing Draco.

"Oh no, this wasn't the food fight," he said, wryly. "I actually decided to make myself look like this, I think it's going to be the next big trend to spread your face with what you normally leave to your toast."

Ginny ignored the comment, turning to Harry. "Peeves is a good shot to hit the Slytherins at that range. Did you see? He was hitting like eight people at once on different sides of the hall, at the same time."

"I don't think it's just Peeves in there," said Harry.

"Oh, how clever of you to notice," Draco mused.

There was a faint whistling noise as the sarcasm flew over Harry's head.

"So which of the ghosts has he roped in to help?" Ginny wondered aloud.

"No idea," said Harry, shrugging. "Somehow I don't think it's The Bloody Baron."

"That fat monk?" Draco suggested, innocently tapping a tentaculus jinx through the door at some of the Ravenclaws.

"No, he's not the type," said Harry. "Maybe Peeves is just working really hard... can poltergeists do two things at once?"

"Who cares?" Draco scoffed. "As long as we're out of there, Peeves can do what he likes as far as I care."

"Aren't you a prefect?" Ginny said, frowning.

Draco chose to ignore this particular fact.

Harry was about to suggest showers would be a good idea, when out of the corner of his eye he saw an egg heading rapidly in their direction and shouted, "DUCK!!"

It soared over their heads, missing them by inches, and splattered on the back wall.

"Close one," said Ginny.

"Yeah," agreed Harry.

There were two quick splats in succession, as the second egg and a pancake hit Draco in the back of the head.


Apparently, it took more than half an hour to put an end to the mayhem, and even then, it wasn't because of teacher control. There was simply no more food left to throw. The Bloody Baron was called to reprimand Peeves, a few people were lead away to the Hospital Wing with sausages bunged up their noses and everybody else was sent up to their common rooms to get changed.

Ron fell into the common room, quite literally. He lay sprawled in a sticky, jam-covered heap on the floor by the portrait hole, staring upside down at Harry, who smiled pleasantly down from his armchair. "Hi," said Harry.

"H'lo," Ron managed, as a trickle of semolina dripped down his nose.

"How did you manage to get out alive?" asked Harry. "You're not even that messy, and you were guarding the first years."

Ron staggered wearily to his feet with a groan, looking as though he was about to collapse, grasped the bottom of his jumper and held it out. Several bowls worth of porridge hit the floor with a satisfying slap. "Not that messy?" said Ron, incredulously, as a dollop of marmite fell from his fingers into the porride onto the floor.

Harry chuckled. "You didn't see Draco's jammy face-mask and pancake beret." Harry smiled as Ron staggered across the common room towards the bathroom, squelching pleasantly on every other step. "Don't use the first shower, the plug hole's still blocked with baked beans," Harry called after him.

"Thanks for the advice, Harry." Squishing to the door, Ron pulled it open and sniffed tentatively. "Ah, the sweet smell of steam and breakfast clogging up the plug holes. Just the thing you want. Oh, by the way, I can't come to Quidditch tonight, and neither can the rest of the team."

Harry's face fell in horror. "Why?"

"We were trying to herd the first years out of the hall," said Ron, bitterly. "And Snape caught us, he accused us of running away when the staff still needed assistance to stop Peeves. And I got angry, and he gave me a detention, so I squashed a piece of toast in his horrible greasy face and he gave me, Hermione, Ernie, Neville, Ginny and Draco detention. You're on your own, mate. By the way, where did you scuttle off to? Draco says you suddenly started scratching your neck and gabbled that you had to use the bathroom."

Harry frowned. "No reason, I did need the bathroom. Just because my col- my neck got itchy, that doesn't mean anything. So no Quidditch practice..."

"No, go on your own," said Ron. "My detention might finish before dark anyway, there could still be time. Don't lose faith, mate."

He smirked, stepping into the bathroom and shutting the door behind him, as Hermione clambered into the common room wearing a great deal of tomato sauce and a frown.

"Absolutely disgusting," she said, ripping pancakes covered in jam off her robes. "I don't know why Dumbledore keeps Peeves in the school, he's just a complete nuisance. And I have a detention just because Ron slapped Professor Snape with a piece of toast. Has he come back yet?"

"Yeah, he's just in the shower," said Harry, turning the page in his book. "I'm sure you can yell at him when he gets out. Hermione, did you notice anything weird about Peeves?"

Her eyes narrowed, very reminiscent of Professor McGonagall. "You mean apart from the fact that he was being brutally cruel and foolish, and attacking first years?"

"Yeah," said Harry. "When he was attacking us, the Slytherin table were getting hit too. But he can't throw that far and at the same time, can he? I don't know what the difference between poltergeists and ghosts is."

"There isn't much really," she said, vaguely. "It's just pick of the draw. Most people pass away and don't return as ghosts or poltergeists, but people who do could be either. Poltergeists are a little rarer though... some people think that it's in the blood lines whether people are going to be poltergeist or ghost. Generally, poltergeists exist to cause mayhem, they like bright colours that clash and chaos, lots of noise and fright. Ghosts are quieter, more sombre."

Harry shrugged. "Maybe Peeves can throw really well. I mean, he can levitate tables and move things without touching them, he can probably throw without really throwing too." He turned another page in his book, annoyed at having to go and practice Quidditch on his own. "I can't believe Snape gave you all detention. We've got to practice... I'm still worried about my throwing. I can't get it just right and it needs to be perfect..." He sighed. "Draco said he'd practice with me with the Quaffle."

Hermione tutted loudly. "Honestly. I'm standing here dripping in ketchup and oatmeal, and all you can worry about is Quidditch?" She turned to the door of the bathroom, hammering on it with her fist. "Ron! I'm coming in to get a shower, you'd better be in your own cubicle on the boy's side!"

There was a halt to the loud singing, rapid footsteps and the slam of a cubicle door. "Yeah I am, what do you think I'm doing, running around the bathroom? There's food everywhere and I could slip and kill myself, I'm not completely stupid you know."

Hermione sighed, opening the door and strolling in. Harry listening to them arguing for a while, apparently over why Ron's clothes were spread all over the floor, not really interested, until Ron said something that made him stop.

"Hey, Hermione! Did you bring a squeaky toy in here?"

"What?" she yelled back.

"There's like a rubber ball just rolled into my cubicle, it's got a jester or whatever on it. Is it yours?"

"Why would I have brought a squeaky toy in here, what do you think I am, six?"

Harry slammed his book down and rushed into the bathroom. There was a squeal from Ron as he shot back into his cubicle. "Most people KNOCK, Harry!"

"Where's the clown?" said Harry, very pale in the face.

Ron frowned, and handed him something over the top of his cubicle door. "There... is it yours? What have you got a clown toy for?"

"What did you see it do?" said Harry, his eyes wide and fixed on Ron.

"It just... rolled into my cubicle and looked at me... why? It's not a big deal." Ron smirked at the rubber ball still grinning at him. "Come on, it's like a dog ball or something. You're not attached to it or anything, are you?"

Harry shook his head vaguely, and turned the ball over to look at it. It smiled wickedly up at him. There was something just so sinister and sickening in that smile. Its eyes seemed to be glimmering.

Ron snorted. "What's the big deal? It's just some stupid toy." He snatched it off Harry. "Not bothered about it, are you? It's not precious or anything?"

Harry shook his head again.

"Great," said Ron. He wrapped a towel firmly around his waist, strolling out of his cubicle to a window. He pulled back his arm and pitched the clown right out of it. Harry saw it sail away, arcing right over the grounds and disappearing somewhere into the Forbidden Forest far below. "There," said Ron. "No more clown. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a shower to attend to."

Harry nodded, his eyes lingering on the spot where the clown vanished for just a moment more, before he turned and left. If he'd stayed just a couple more seconds, he would have seen a tiny puff of smoke come out of the trees, float up into the air, form the shape of a skull with a serpent twisting out of its mouth, and then vanish completely in the breeze.

 

Chapter Twenty-Seven: Why Ravenclaw Is Proud

Ron and Hermione slumped off to their detention that night just after dinner, leaving a dejected and bored Harry to put on his Quidditch robes, get his gloves and broom, and make way down to the pitch in silence.

It was a dark night, and the sky above looked just like an inky blue blanket, encrusted with tiny jewelled stars twinkling in the blackness above. There wasn't a breath of wind to speak of, and the ground was powdered, as always, with a light sheen of pearlescent white snow. It was a very beautiful night. Harry found himself wishing the rest of the team were here, or at least a little company. As breath-taking as it was to the eyes, it was bitterly cold, and Harry knew he'd have to do an awful lot of practicing to make up for this.

Realising he was out on his own in the dark of night, he paused, considering going back to the castle. He lifted a hand to his neck, making sure the collar was there, and just to test that Snape was watching, he wrapped his hands around his neck and pretended to throttle himself, choking, "Aargh, I'm being strangled!" Sure enough, next second, his collar buzzed angrily making him jump and a voice from nowhere said, "Potter, stop it. I'm only here to protect you from others, not yourself."

"Just checking," said Harry, pleasantly, tucking his broom under his arm. "Professor?"

"Potter, I'm marking essays and extremely busy at - "

"Yeah, yeah," said Harry, and his interruption probably made Snape take notice more than anything, "I'm out on the pitch on my own because you've got my team with you. Just so you know that I'm out here."

"I'd prefer you to get inside, Potter. If there's nobody out there looking out for your wellfare, you're open to attack. At least go to Madam Hooch's office so she can watch you train."

"It's alright, Professor," said a voice behind Harry. "I'm here with him."

Harry looked around, surprised, and saw Kainda grinning at him, her broom neatly resting on one shoulder.

"Uh... Professor. Kainda Zabini is here with me," he said, aware he was talking seemingly to himself. "I'll be okay."

"Very well, Potter. Do not interrupt my detentions again." The voice in his ear faded away.

Harry grinned sheepishly. "I... uh..."

"I won't ask what that was about," she said, smirking.

"Good," said Harry. "Because you probably won't believe me. What are you doing out here anyway? It's really dark and cold."

"Don't be a prat Harry," she said, grinning, getting onto her broom and sitting on it bench-style, just floating pleasantly in front of him. "You're out here as well. We've got our second match tomorrow, and you're expecting me not to practice? Flint would have shot me if I wasn't out here."

Harry chuckled, mounting his broom easily, kicking off into the air. Kainda flew up with him, and he had no idea how she could control her broom so well whilst sitting on it like that. She look as calm as though it was just a stool. Harry would have been terrified of falling of and cracking his head open on the ground. "By the way," he said, as they glided through the gentle night air across the pitch. "Did Blaise get that sausage out of his ear?"

"No, I wedged it in good and proper," she replied. They both laughed, as Harry flew gently across to one of the stands and jumped nimbly off his broom, sitting down. Kainda remained in the air but changed her position to sit on the broom properly. "So. You know how to conjure, right?"

Harry wondered whether this was a trick question for a minute. "Yeah, why...?"

"Conjure some stuff to throw at me," she said, smirking. "We are here to practice, after all, if you'd forgotten." She twirled her Beater's bat lazily, looking down at him, hanging in the sky as though she was supported by invisible hands. "Hey, Harry."

"What?" he said, as he drew his wand from up his sleeve, and started to conjure apples while still listening.

"What are you going to do when you leave school?" she asked, curiously, as she absent-mindedly rolled right the way around on her broom, hanging upside down so her hair stretched way out below her.

He finished the last few apples on his pile, just checking them over to make sure they all were apples and not something else. "I'm thinking on being an auror, like my dad. Mad-Eye Moody... well, the guy who I thought was Mad-Eye Moody said that I had the right makings." He picked up the apple, and asked as he threw it hard towards her, "What do you want to be?"

She belted the apple hard, shattering it into pieces that showered over everywhere, falling pleasant back to the ground far below. "I dunno really. I was thinking about going into Quidditch, but there are very rarely any female Beaters in professional stuff. Males are just physically stronger and they'll always get the position over a gal like me."

"I think you could do it," he said. He picked up another apple, pitching it towards her, there was a loud smack and it went zooming off behind her shoulder in pieces.

"Thanks," she said, grinning, steadying herself on her broom again. "You'd make a good auror too. Shame you're not a prefect, that always adds good marks to your entrance form. Ron got the position, didn't he?"

Harry nodded. "Yeah. Dumbledore said he didn't want to put anymore pressure on me." He shrugged vaguely. "You know, it's not like I wanted to do it. Ron and Hermione are always out patrolling and going to help teachers with everything. Are you a prefect?" he asked, suddenly realising he'd never asked before.

"Nah," she said. "Not me, no way. I'd love to be one of course, but I guessed I just missed out."

He picked up some more apples, and starting throwing them for her to hit. She didn't miss a single one, and Harry's mind ended up so absorbed in the throwing that he started to think about other things. Kainda finally got tired, and went for a quick fly around the stadium to wake herself up. He watched her as she flew, his thoughts wandering.

Kainda was... well, she was great. She was friendly and cheery, she was laidback. She didn't giggle and gossip like all the other girls Harry knew, and her greatest love was playing Quidditch. Cho was a good player, there was no doubt about that, but she didn't seem to enjoy the game as much as Kainda did. Kainda lived and breathed Quidditch. He'd seen her around school, and she never ever took off her precious Quidditch gloves, even in lessons. It gave her a really cool, carefree sort of image. "I can't wait to get out of here and go have fun" sort of thing.

Harry didn't even realise he was watching her as intently as he was, as she looped around the goalposts a few times. He was too busy trying to subconsciously work out whether she was pretty or not. This had been baffling him for a while now. The thing was that there wasn't anything really wrong with her. She had no visible flaws, but she wasn't the sort of person who was known for being physically attractive.

He watched her corkscrew carefully through one of the goal hoops, then curve right round and dart back along the pitch. She was pretty. Tomboy pretty. That was another thing that made him think about her. She just wasn't like other girls. She was the sort of person who would make the perfect cousin. Ron always complained about his cousin, saying they always had to go shopping when she came to visit, but Kainda was probably the sort of girl who only liked going into Zonkos, Honeydukes and Quality Quidditch Supplies.

"Harry! Stop staring, you're putting me off!"

He grinned. "Sorry! I'll just sit here and put my hands over my eyes, shall I?"

"If you would!" she called, grinning, corkscrewing down the pitch again, rolling over and over, somehow managing to keep her food down.

Harry found this whole thing rather odd. Around Cho, he couldn't talk without blushing or losing his voice, or falling over, tripping up, making a complete fool of himself. His brain always turned to mush around Cho. But he felt easy with Kainda.

"Are you actually going to do any flying today?" she asked, smirking, cruising gently over his head.

"No, I think I'm going to just sit here, stare at you and put you off," he called back.

She laughed, spiralling down around him, swapping position in mid-air to take the bench-seat on her broom, watching him, smiling. "Then I'll sit right here and stare back at you, shall I?"

"If you want," Harry shrugged. "Just don't take too long, we've got a Quidditch match tomorrow and I'd like to be able to play."

She laughed, a proper laugh, not like Cho's insolent little giggle. She actually found him funny, instead of pandering to his ego and pretending to think he was. He realised now that Cho was completely fake. Had he actually taken her apology seriously?

She flipped carefully backwards, easing herself slowly to hang completely upside down, with just her legs hooked over the broom. "I should warn you, I'm the master of staring competitions."

"I spent eleven years staring at a dead spider on the ceiling of a cupboard under the stairs," said Harry, grinning. "You might be handing that title over some time soon."

She chuckled, spreading her arms out and swishing gently at the surrounding air, almost as though swimming, managing to guide her broom forwards. "I wouldn't sound so confident, if I were you," she teased. "You see, I've got the Beater's bat. So you won't dare win anyway or I'll give you such a beating you won't be able to walk properly again."

Harry grinned, and went to jibe back, but the collar on his neck buzzed and he jumped, that familiar prickle shooting his spine, starting to scratch his neck. "I must have a permanent itch or something, I always - "

Kainda reached out, her face creased in a curious frown, and Harry felt an even greater prickle go jittering down his spine as she touched his neck. She toyed absent-mindedly with the invisible collar. "How interesting. Somebody's got you on a leash. Perhaps Cho's getting a teensy bit paranoid now." She smiled.

He chuckled. "No, it's something else... kinda not allowed to talk about it... I get a shock everytime I do something bad or I'm putting myself in danger."

She raised an eyebrow, still watching him upside down, fiddling with his collar absent-mindedly. "And the great master who has you attached to this thing seems to think that you're doing something dangerous now? Odd."

He smiled, trying hard to ignore suddenly how close she was to him. "Yeah, he's protective of me." The collar buzzed. Kainda laughed and withdrew her hand quickly.

"I guess he doesn't like being talked about either," she said, smirking, and then to the delight of the butterflies in Harry's stomach, she reached out again, touching his neck gently. Her fingers played along the collar to the back of his neck, and with a thrill, Harry felt her undo the buckle and slip it off. It flickered into visibility, hanging in her hand. "Oh, my rottweiler has one like this. It's not got such a pretty jewel in it though."

"You'd better put it back on," he said, worriedly. "I don't want to get a lecture from Sn- from him."

She smiled. "Fair enough." She leant forward, reaching around to the back of his neck, slipping it gently into place and fiddling with the buckle. Harry found his eyes fixed on her face, barely inches from his, and suddenly, he couldn't care less if a Heliopath was about to burst out of the trees and cook him. Kainda's diligent fingers got the catch done, and the collar flickered into invisibility again. Harry got a reprimanding buzz from Snape, and somehow, he knew that he was in for a telling off when he got back to the castle. But that suddenly didn't matter.

Kainda smiled at the enthralled look on his face, and idly let her eyes flicker away from him, roaming around the snowy treetops of the forest and the soft navy sky above. "Beautiful, tonight."

"Yes, you are," he murmured, moving forward.

It was an awkward angle, as she was still upside down, but Harry didn't care at all. He didn't care about anything. She smelt so sweet and she felt so soft. There was something lodged in Harry's throat, which considering the situation was most likely his heart. His eyes fluttered shut instinctively, and he realised with a thrill that he was kissing Kainda. Cho would hate him, Ron would envy him, Hermione would probably say something about it being too soon after Cho, Snape was going to massacre him for taking off the collar and he didn't even want to think about what Blaise would do... but did it matter?

After a few of the happiest moments of Harry's life, Kainda drew back, biting her lip and looking rather worried. Harry searched her eyes carefully. "What's wrong?"

"We shouldn't have done that," she said.

He raised an eyebrow. "Oh, you think?"

"Harry... we're on a Quidditch team together..." she said, sadly. "With... with Marcus..."

"You think I'm like Marcus Flint?" said Harry, feeling very hurt at this.

She shook her head slowly. "No, not at all... it's... I try not to link them. If I miss a Bludger and it hurts one of your friends, you'll hate me."

"I won't," he said. "I promise."

"It's not that simple..." She averted her eyes. "Blaise doesn't - "

"Blaise has no business in who I date," he said, simply. "And he doesn't have any with you either. Come on Kainda..."

"And what about Cho?" she said, searching his face sadly, her hazel-coloured eyes looking so soft and hopeful.

"I don't care about Cho," he replied, stoutly. "Not at all... I... I care about you..."

She smiled softly, reaching out, playing with his collar again. "We can't, Harry... there's things about me you just don't know... all sorts of things... you're The Boy Who Lived, you're famous, you're like the emblem of everything good and right."

"So? What difference does it make? You're a good person... I'm proud of you, you're the best Beater I've ever seen, you're funny, you're friendly..."

Kainda shook her head sadly, looking away. "My... my father is a Death Eater, Harry. The whole of the Zabini family are. Blaise wants to join up too."

"But you don't, do you?" said Harry, his eyes wide.

"Of course I don't," she said, shocked at the thought. "I'd never do anything like that. It's just that people won't accept it. A Death Eater's daughter and The Boy Who Lived? They'd twist your mind about me. You won't be able to trust me... how do you know I'm not working for Voldemort? How do you know that I'm not about to just pull out my wand and kill you?"

"Because you wouldn't do something like that," he said, quietly. "You're better than that. Please Kainda... you make me happy... I like you..."

She turned her eyes away for a second, and said, "I'm sorry, Harry... I wouldn't want to ruin you." She placed a last, gentle kiss on his lips, turned the right way up on her broom and murmured, "I'll see you tomorrow at the match... I'm really sorry..."

He watched her fly away over the pitch, little more than a black outline against the moon bathing in the silky sky above the castle. He sat in silence for quite a long time after she'd disappeared in through a window of one of the towers, and then picking up his broom and the pieces of his broken heart, he walked out of the stands, across the grounds, and into the entrance hall with his eyes turned to the ground.

"Well, well, well," said an icy voice from in front of him. "Finally, our hero decides to return back to the castle."

He looked up and saw Snape watching him from the mouth of the dungeon corridor. He could see the black-haired, pale woman behind him in the darkness, just watching silently.

"Sorry," he murmured. "Lost track of time."

Snape crossed over to him, not looking pleased, studying his collar closely and hissing in his ear, "I didn't give you this so you could let other students remove it. Nobody is to know about this Potter. Nobody at all."

"Sorry," Harry said sadly again. "I won't let anybody near me again." Snape didn't catch the double meaning there. He continued to fiddle with the collar for a while, making sure it was on properly, and then he looking into Harry's eyes, frowning. Harry shut them fiercely. "You're not seeing it."

"Potter," Snape growled.

"Severus..."

Harry opened his eyes, looking up at the soft voice. The woman was walking across the hall towards them, her hair short around her chin today, moving as though she was gliding rather than walking. She stood behind the Potions master and put a hand on his shoulder.

"He's safe... let him go back to bed," she said, softly.

Snape glanced up at her. "But - "

She laughed softly, a noise like wind chimes on a breezy day. "I know you enjoy punishment, Severus... isn't he tired? And you are too... just let him go, this once."

Harry looked up at her, blinking in amazement. Snape thought for a moment, then his expression softened a little, turning back to Harry. "Very well... to bed, Potter. And do not do it again. Five points from Gryffindor."

Harry nodded, "Alright... sorry again, Professor..."

The corner of Snape's mouth twitched as the woman gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze. "Just this once, Potter."

Harry shouldered his broom, and left the hall silently, his eyes turned towards the floor. As he disappeared up the marble staircase, he heard Snape say to the woman, "At times I wonder whether you have the Imperius curse over me, you know."

There was another soft, melodious laugh as they left, back down to the dungeons. "No, Severus, you just love me."

Harry looked down at the floor again in silence, suddenly wishing he didn't have a heart.


Harry woke very early the next morning, unable to sleep. He laid under the pile of duvets in the Gryffindor common room for quite some time, just staring at the ceiling, trying to sort out his thoughts, before he got up, dressed in his Quidditch robes, and sat on one of the sofas to wait. Ron and Hermione seemed perfectly content to keep sleeping. After half an hour of sitting and watching Ron blow bubbles, the clock on the mantelpiece read six o' clock, and so he left the common room, broom over his shoulder, heading down to the Great Hall for breakfast.

Hardly surprisingly, he was the first one there, and he'd gone through eight goblets of pumpkin juice and two bathroom trips before the doors opened again. Blaise Zabini and the rest of his Slytherin friends swept into the hall. Pansy was clinging to his arm. Harry had the sudden urge to kill something.

"Oh, good morning Potter..." said Blaise, silkily. "Where are your little chums? Starting more fights?"

"Yeah," said Harry, vaguely.

Blaise snickered. "And my sister?"

Harry glared up at him, at that vile face. Did he know? Maybe Kainda had told them all in the Slytherin common room. "How am I supposed to know? She's your sister."

"Unfortunately," said Blaise, silkily, sinking into a seat at the Slytherin table. His friends sat around him, laughing, egging him on. "How was your late night practice last night, huh, Potter?"

"Fine," Harry said, vaguely, finishing his ninth goblet. He didn't want to talk about it, least of all with Blaise.

The rest of the Bright Sparks came down over the next half an hour, all patting Harry's shoulder, telling him to cheer up and that it will all be okay. They all seemed to think he was just worried about the match. Maybe it was better that way. When everybody had had enough with picking vaguely at their breakfast, it was time for everybody to go out onto the Quidditch pitch, and so the Bright Sparks trooped out across the grounds.

"Hey, Harry," said Ron, hurrying to catch up with him. "You okay?"

"Fine," said Harry, vaguely again. "Just a bit tired."

"Was your practice okay last night?" asked Ron.

Harry nodded numbly, feeling another twitch in his stomach at the thought of Kainda hanging upside down in front of him, and her lips...

Ron frowned. "Maybe you've got Gryffindor Risotta."

"I hope so," said Harry, dully.

As the others all got changed into their Quidditch robes, Harry sat and tried to cheer himself up by trading Quidditch cards with Neville, who was hopping around, trying to get his socks on. That usual pre-match nervousness was starting to affect him, and he had no more time to think about Kainda.

"Has anybody got any information on The Pride of Ravenclaw?" said Draco, absent-mindedly belting his boots against a wall to get the mud out of them. He was captain for this match, and had been running around like a headless chicken for half an hour, only half-dressed himself.

"Mark Erith's the captain," said Harry. "Not sure about anybody else, but they're probably Ravenclaw."

"Clever of you to notice, Potter," said Draco, vaguely, heaving his boots on and doing up the straps with the air of somebody doing the locks on the cage of a tiger.

"Shall we go spying?" said Ron. He was already changed, and the image of cool.

"No, they might see you, Weasley." Draco went hurtling past, pulling his robes on over his head vaguely, looking for his gloves, but he skidded to a halt as he passed a mirror, wincing at his hair. "I need a haircut. Does anybody know any good severing charms?"

"Yeah, I do!" said Ron, eagerly, drawing out his wand.

Draco eyed him suspiciously. "On seconds thoughts, I'll pass for the moment, Weasley."

That moment, a voice boomed out over the stadium, "Goooooooooood morning everybody! Are you ready for some Quidditch today?"

Draco froze. "Oh Merlin's Auntie, where are my bloody gloves?!?!" Ron grabbed them and shoved them at him vaguely. Draco pulled them on, entoning, "Oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no," over and over again.

"Today's Quidditch match is between the Bright Sparks, captained today by Draco Malfoy, and The Pride of Ravenclaw, captained by Mark Erith! We've got news that both teams have new players with them today, so we're hoping to see some top quality Quidditch today! Let's bring on the players! Bright Sparks, are you ready?"

"No," Draco squeaked. Harry laughed, leaping onto his broom and speeding straight forward, taking flight into the crisp morning air instantly. The crowd roared with delight as he blossomed out into the air, whisking straight up into the air, letting the cool dew spatter his face, waking him up completely. The rest of the team came rocketing out of the tunnel mouth, and the crowd all cheered.

"And new player today is Chaser Neville Longbottom!" said Lee. "He's just there at the back trying to get on his broom. Ouch, that looked painful. Alright, let's get on The Pride of Ravenclaw!"

The other half of the crowd jumped out of their seats, cheering and clapping, as seven players in shimmering bronze robes whooshed out of their tunnel entrance. Harry wasn't overly interested in them, too busy glaring at Mark Erith, to notice something he should have done instantly.

"Alright, and here comes Madam Hooch to start the game! Places please!"

Harry flew forward to square up to Mark Erith, his jaw set, glaring at him spitefully. Mark stared back at him with just as much loathing.

"Ready?" said Madam Hooch. "One, two, three!!" She flipped the box open, and Harry darted forward, seizing the Quaffle and going rocketing off down the pitch, heading straight for goal, that vision of Mark Erith lodged firmly in his brain. He was getting closer, about to enter the scoring area, when a player streaked past him in bronze robes that made him drop the Quaffle instantly, just letting it fall.

It was Cho. The blue lettering across her back read "Seeker".

Harry's blood seemed to boil instantly. The treacherous - how could she? She'd betrayed him so many times now. This was it. All his anger over Cho, Mark Erith and Kainda just hit a peak, bursting out through a damn in his chest, as he roared with frustration, wheeling his broom around and going after Mark Erith, who was clutching the Quaffle and going for goal.

"And here's Harry Potter, streaking after Erith, he's gaining on him! Look at him go! And Potter seizes the Quaffle, Erith snatches it back, and - TRANSYLVANIAN TACKLE! A fake punch aimed at the nose by Potter, Erith is knocked back, Potter with the Quaffle, Potter going for goal!"

The Keeper locked eyes with Harry for one moment, and Harry saw the fear in his eyes. Harry was one angry Chaser, and a Chaser on a mission. He flung back his arm, and threw the Quaffle as hard as he could. It shot through one of the hoops under the Keeper's arm, and the stadium exploded in cheers.

"It's ten-nil to the Bright Sparks! One hell of a goal by Potter there, and we're off to a great start already!"

Twenty-nil. Thirty-nil. "Third goal by Potter this match, he's really going for it today!" Forty-nil. Fifty-nil. Fifty-ten. "Ooooh, disappointing leap by Weasley there, never mind, resume play!" Sixty-ten. Seventy-ten. Eighty-ten. "Where is Potter getting this from? Can somebody find out what that boy has been eating lately? Eight goals from Potter alone this match!"

Another thrown-in from the Ravenclaw Keeper, and this time Ginny got the Quaffle. She sped for the unguarded goals, and then a Bludger seemed to come from nowhere, swiftly followed by Kainda. She drew back her club and swung, missing Ginny by inches, belting the Bludger with all the strength she had. It went rocketing away down the pitch after Draco. Kainda whistled after it, and as she passed, Harry felt an odd prickle in his stomach, but he didn't have long to dwell on it as Lee was happily shouting that it was ninety-ten to the Bright Sparks.

Another throw-in, and Harry had it this time. The Keeper groaned, rushing to protect the hoops, but Harry was too determined now. Quidditch adrenaline and anger had got the best of him. He darted forwards, but one of the Ravenclaw Beaters jumped in his way, blocking him everyway he tried to turn.

"Get out of my way!!" he snarled, angrily.

"Make me," the Beater laughed.

Harry was about to go for another Transylvanian Tackle, but he heard somebody yelling at him from behind the Beater. "Harry! Harry!" He saw Neville gesturing wildly from behind the Beater's arm. "Pass it, pass it!"

Harry flung the Quaffle as hard as he could over the Beater's shoulder, darting past him, and as though in slow motion, he saw it descend through the air. Neville was reaching up, bouncing on his broom, ready to catch it, looking absolutely ecstatic at being able to do something -

There was a smack as it hit him in the face, and the crowd all "ooooooooooed" as one, but then a massive wave of laughing and clapping broke over as the Quaffle, inexplicably, bounced off Neville's face and shot through one of the hoops.

"LOOK AT THAT!!" Lee yelled, laughing so hard he could hardly breathe. "Longbottom scores from the face! And there he is, cheering through a nosebleed, what a goal! Ten points to the Bright Sparks from Neville Lonbottom, and it's one-hundred points to ten!"

Almost all the players were doubled over laughing, even Neville and the Ravenclaw Keeper, but then Cho streaked past on the hunt for the Snitch, and Harry stopped laughing. There would be time for fun later. Now was the time to make prove he was the better, and what a mistake Cho had made. He suddenly thought that maybe, if he proved he was a marvellous Chaser, Kainda would be more impressed and might change her mind.

"And Potter! Potter, Potter, that's his tenth goal of the match! Incredible! Where DOES he find the inspiration? It's a hundred and twenty to ten! Looks like we've got clear favourites for the Quidditch cup this year! Wait a moment - is that the Snitch?"

Harry whirled around, just in time to see Draco descend into a dive, streaming towards the ground like a bullet fired from a gun. Cho was after him, gaining on him, and Harry found himself screaming at Draco to hurry up, go faster. The two Seekers were neck and neck, hurtling after a tiny sparkle of gold as it fluttered desperately, trying to escape, narrowly avoiding the ground and rocketing right along the grass. Harry could see Draco's expression of complete and utter panic as they rushed underneath him, both of them equal, scrabbling at each other's hands to get at it. But then -

The goal post pole seemingly came out of nowhere. Both of them collided with it head on, and Harry could see the vibrations spreading right up it, making the hoop shiver.

"Oooooh, double collision with a goal post!! And the Snitch is gone, disappointing, but neither of them look hurt! Oh, by the way, Neville Longbottom had the Quaffle and has scored twice if I was counting properly, so that's an amazing three goals for Longbottom and the score is now a hundred and forty to ten! Resume play!"

Draco looked very cross-eyed as he floated upwards, rubbing his forehead vaguely. "You okay?" said Harry.

"Murrfh," was Draco's reply.

There was no more time for worrying about Draco however, as the match stopped for nothing, and Mark Erith had somehow got the Quaffle. Harry streaked after him, and he saw Mark's angry face as he saw Harry flying along at his elbow. "LEAVE ME ALONE!!" he roared.

"No!!" Harry shouted, snatching at the Quaffle. He saw Mark's elbow jerk backwards, and next second -

There was a roar of fury from the Bright Sparks supporters, as Harry keeled over on his broom, clutching his stomach, completely winded.

Lee Jordan bellowed, "FOUL! FOUL! COBBING, EXCESSIVE USE OF ELBOWS! And yes! Here comes Madam Hooch to sort out that filthy cheating scumbag Mark Erith! Oh, sorry, Professor... sorry... anyway, Erith being given a good shouting at, and it's a penalty for Potter. Potter making a funny gesturing - oh, he wants Weasley Junior to take it. She's got the Quaffle and flying forwards to take the shot..."

Harry groaned, rubbing his stomach, feeling his vision swimming. He felt as though he'd got a Bludger in there battering his insides, listening to Madam Hooch lining Ginny up for the penalty vaguely, wishing the world would stop spinning. A hand appeared on his shoulder, and a kind voice said, "Harry? You okay?"

"Oh, yeah, I'm fine," he groaned, absent-mindedly, as his insides twisted and writhed. He looked up, about to tell whoever it was to get flying again, and saw Kainda looking concernedly down at him. "Oh... you..."

"Me," she said, smiling. "Concerned. You sure you're okay?"

He nodded. "Yeah, I'll live... go on, get going, Malfoy'll shout at you."

She smiled softly, and then said, "Look, Harry... I've thought about what you said... maybe... just take it easy, keep it a secret, you know..."

Harry looked up, as the whistle blew to signal Ginny had scored, though he didn't really care about that. "You'll go out with me?"

She grinned. "We'll say that if you can score again, yeah, okay."

Barely thirty seconds passed between then and when Lee Jordan was yelling, "Potter scores! Potter scores! 160-10 to the Bright Sparks! It's a goal!"

Harry turned around on his broom, grinning from ear to ear, the image of cool. Kainda laughed, shaking her head, shooting off after another Bludger. Harry did a little dance in mid-air, then got going again, straight after the Quaffle again. He seized it off one of the Ravenclaw Chasers, thinking he might as well score twice just to make the job a good one, flying towards the hoops - and everybody in the stands suddenly started screaming. He frowned, wondering what all the noise was for. He'd scored plenty already. What was going on?

He flew straight forward anyway, and flung the Quaffle forwards. The Keeper jumped for it but missed, and it shot straight over his arm through the hoop. The whole stadium simply erupted in cheers and screaming, everybody was yelling, and Harry turned around, confused.

Cho had the Snitch.

His face fell completely. But... if she'd caught the Snitch first, it was 160 points all. And a Snitch-catching team won in the event of a draw.

But if he'd scored first, it would be 170-160...

Silence fell across the stands as everybody realised this at once, and Lee Jordan choked, "Well - we've got quite a problem here, folks... Harry Potter scores and Cho Chang catches the Snitch in I'm pretty much sure the same instant. Did anybody see who it was first? I think we're going to need a replay on this. Yes, Madam Hooch is calling the teams together..."

Harry flew down to the ground before Madam Hooch, wishing the crowd would make some sort of noise, but everybody was just breathless with excitement. He landed and hurried over. Madam Hooch was white in the face.

"Alright... very good game, very good, most exciting game I've ever seen... okay..." She drew her wand shakily from up her sleeve, and announced, "Cimicifuga!"

Two smoky images appeared in the air, one of Harry scoring, one of Cho snatching the Snith out of the air, just repeating over and over. Madam Hooch paused them with a flick of her wand, rewinded the scene so that they were in their start positions, and levitated them up into the air.

"If Potter scored," she said, and she didn't need a magical megaphone or sonorus charm for the whole school to hear her, they were listening so intently. "Then Bright Sparks won. If Chang caught the Snitch, the match is a draw and so goes to the Snitch-catching team - The Pride of Ravenclaw. Ready then..." She took a deep breath, and flicked her wand.

Everybody watched the replays in absolute silence, all praying. Harry pulled back his arm, Cho flung hers forward, the Quaffle was released, Cho scrabbled for the Snitch...

The Quaffle sunk through the hoop barely fractions of a second before Cho's fingers closed around the Snitch. Harry had scored first.

There was total silence for a few more moments, and then with a roar so loud Harry felt crushed by all the screaming, the entire stadium started to shriek and yell, applauding and jumping up and down and hugging each other. Harry disappeared under a pile of hysterically sobbing Bright Sparks members, and Lee Jordan was yelling, "BRIGHT SPARKS WIN!!!" over all the noise. Harry closed his eyes, grinning almost manically, and then more shouting, closer by, could be heard.

Cho and Mark Erith were nearby, and Harry could hear what they were saying.

"I'm sorry," said Cho. "I'm really sorry Mark... I really tried... I can do better, honestly I can."

"It's okay," said Mark. "I'm sure our next Seeker will catch the Snitch..."

"N-next Seeker?" said Cho, her voice strangled. "You mean.... you're dropping me from the team?"

Mark laughed. "I'm dropping you full-stop. You're useless. I only ever went out with you to get you on my team, and you're rubbish at that anyway. It's over." He walked away across the grounds towards the changing rooms, his Quidditch robes swirling behind him.

Cho choked. "But - but - " She burst into tears, and fled the pitch, fighting through the crowd. Harry watched her go, and wasn't sure whether he felt sorry for her or not. She'd betrayed him, so many times it was untrue. She left him for another boy, then ditched his team right before a match to swan off with her new boyfriend. He still had the feeling he should be sorry for her, but he wasn't. He had no duty to do that. He'd been hurt too much by her to let himself feel sorry anymore.

"Harry?" said Ron, staring at him.

"What?" said Harry, looking back at him.

"Lost you for a second there," said Ron.

"No, just thinking," said Harry. He grinned. "You know, I do believe we've got a good chance at this Quidditch league affair, dear cousin."

Ron started to laugh, and Harry laughed with him, grinning so widely that it hurt. Somebody was thumping him on the back, Draco was still in tears from their win, and Harry could hear the crowd all chanting, "POTTER! POTTER! POTTER!"

I rule, he thought, glowing with pride.

 

Chapter Twenty-Eight: The Guardian of Hogwarts

The weeks started to roll by again. Harry found himself whisked up in a whirlwind of Quidditch, homework, Kainda and his friends. His days became so busy that all the events seemed to blur together, and he was never short of something to do.

On Monday, he had Dark Arts and Transfiguration amongst his subjects, and as they were the ones he needed to become an auror, he concentrated in every single moment of those lessons, taking notes to help him get through the mountains of homework. The rest of his week was so busy that he was almost relieved that Pure Arts was all he did in the afternoon. Professor Alrister still wasn't back, but the substitute teachers in those lessons were so useless that Harry welcomed the lesson. He sat at the back of the class, hunched over Transfiguration essays or Quidditch strategy books. When he finished his lessons for the day, he always did some Pure Arts practice as Professor Alrister had told him to. He was getting better and better, bit by bit, learning from his book and practicing with Hermione sometimes.

His important lessons on Tuesday were Potions and Charms. Snape kept subtly pushing him to try harder and harder. His potions were gradually improving in quality, and he was soon second-to-top of the class, just being Hermione. Every lesson, he would march up to Snape's desk, put down another nearly perfect potion and Snape would give him one of those fleeting smiles. Charms was still going well of course, and Professor Flitwick wasn't giving him nearly as much homework as the other students, which was a relief to Harry. On Tuesday night, he nearly always had Occlumency, and things were going fine in those lessons as well. One lesson Snape, without thinking, murmured, "Impressive" after Harry completely blocked him from his mind.

On Wednesday, the most significant lesson was Magical Creatures. Kibbles was growing slowly larger and larger, until the walls of his shed burst, which resulted in a two-hour rampage for the excitable dragon across the grounds while Hagrid, Harry and Professor Lupin tried to catch him. After Wednesday, things calmed down somewhat, as Harry did a little more homework and then had the team out for practicing.

Of course, there were two other practices. One was on a Saturday, which last most of the morning, but the other was on Thursday night between just Harry and Kainda. They played Quidditch, or climbed trees in the Forbidden Forest, feeding Kibbles, and whenever Hagrid or Professor Lupin was free, they'd go hawking. These evenings were a welcome relief to the rest of Harry's exhausting Thursday - double Magical Creatures, Transfiguration, and then double Potions.

Friday was getting just as daunting though. DA Club continued as always, even though it now took eight people to hold Kibbles's leash without him getting free and destroying the Great Hall, and after DA Club was another exhausting Occlumency session. All in all, Harry was pretty busy.

There wasn't another hint of Gryffindor, Slytherin or Hufflepuff Risotta, and Harry couldn't help but think that maybe Professor McGonagall had managed to get to whoever it was. Maybe this time it was all over, properly. People were certainly settling down with the food again. Harry no longer got a sick feeling whenever he thought of eating, and luckily, it hadn't got to the stage of eating Neville yet.

So with every going on around him, before Harry knew it, winter had melted into spring. The frosty shimmer across the grounds flittered away, bringing dewy grass, cold mornings, and the customary spring showers.


It was a warm early April morning, a Tuesday, and Harry was just leaving Potions with Draco and Hermione. They'd been making photograph-processing potion, and Harry's fingers were still silvery and metallic at the end. Draco and Hermione had somehow remained spotless.

"Where are we going for break today?" said Draco.

Harry answered whilst picking vaguely at the ends of his fingers. "The next Quidditch match decides whether we get into the semi-finals or not, we should go and get some practice done."

"When it's all cold and the grass is wet?" Draco wrinkled his nose. "Anyway, we've got a proper practice tomorrow."

"There is such a thing as over-doing it," said Hermione, promptly.

"Well yeah," said Harry. "But it's my turn again at captaining the next one and I don't want to end our winning streak. We've beaten four teams now. That's four points. We must be first, or joint first in the league. And if we lose the next one then somebody could skip ahead of us. We know the Blaise's team have won all their games, and I'm not going to lose to Zabini."

"So don't blow yourself out, Harry," said Draco, coolly. "You need to relax sometimes. The only time you're not working is when you go for a walk on Thursday, and I'm willing to bet you actually take your homework along."

Harry snorted. "As if."

Hermione suddenly frowned, looking ahead up the dungeon corridor. "What's going on? There's an awful lot of people there..."

They hurried up the corridor, following the flow of people, finding themselves stuck on the edge of the crowd. "Can you see?" said Harry, standing on tip-toe, trying to look over the heads.

Draco frowned. "There's something everybody's looking at... I can't see what it is... excuse me, can we get through? Yes, prefects coming through! What's going on here?" The crowd parted, and Draco and Hermione swept through, followed by a curious Harry.

At first, Harry thought there wasn't anything there, until he realised with a thrill of horror that there was something there. He froze up. The clown ball just sat in the middle of all the people, grinning as always, its eyes looking very alive.

"Oh dear, it's a dog toy," Draco drawled. "Well, I can certainly see what the excuse for a big hold up is. Come on, stop blocking the corridors, just leave it!"

"It... it moved," said a girl behind Draco. "Honestly. We were just standing here, and it came bouncing in through the doors on its own and just sat there."

Draco scoffed. "So somebody threw it. It's just a toy. Everybody get going, stop blocking the staircase!"

The girl shook her head. She looked very white. "You didn't see it. There's something wrong with that toy."

Harry was listening to this, standing very still, just staring back at the clown's horrible, grinning face. It was looking right at him. He'd never been so sure of anything. Its painted eyes weren't just looking in his vague direction, they were fixed on him, and if Harry wasn't mistaken, they could see him all too well.

"I'm going to fetch a teacher," the girl behind Draco said.

He frowned, and caught her arm to stop her leaving. "Don't be so stupid, we don't need a teacher. Somebody just kick it outside."

Nobody seemed to want to go near it. Harry instinctively took a step closer to Draco. The clown's eyes followed him.

Draco sighed. "Are you telling me that we've got a whole school full of people who are too scared of a squeaky dog toy to touch it?" He scoffed again, shook his head, and then said, "Alright, I'll do it, and then you'll all see how stupid - "

But he stopped talking.

The clown toy on the floor had turned on the spot before everybody's eyes to stare right at him. A few people muttered nervously and backed away. Draco rolled his eyes. "How pathetic." He moved towards it, and bent down to pick it up, but instantly withdrew his hand with a cry of pain as there was an angry hissing noise. Draco staggered backwards, clutching his fingers.

Hermione hurried to him, grabbed his hand and held it out. Everybody gasped as they saw horrible burns spreading right down Draco's fingers onto his palm. He bit his lip, seething.

"Nobody touch it," he said. "Somebody go and get a teacher."

Nobody moved. They were all staring at the clown toy avidly. It was changing colour, from all the bright rainbow shades to an orangey colour. Everybody drew back, worriedly, as it started to shake on the floor, at first just a tremble, but soon, it looked as though an invisible hand was trying to pull it apart. Smoke and steam was gushing from it and it was throbbing a horrible, pulsing crimson colour. People started to turn and back off, a few people had broken into a run. Harry found he wanted to run. The ball was now thrashing around, bouncing and twisting, spinning, steam gushing from the cracks starting to tear in it and then -

There was a terrified scream from everybody present as the ball just burst into a hundred lumps of twisted plastic and something simply HUGE came spreading out of the remains. Harry felt the temperature go shrieking upwards, and next second, it looked as though the entire entrance hall had become hell on earth. Fire and flames rocketed from nowhere and there was a roar so loud Harry felt as though it was tremoring inside his very heart. His mouth opened in a stuck scream, and then Hermione grabbed his arm, pulling him away up the marble staircase. He didn't need telling twice.

They sprinted away as the screams behind got louder and louder along with the roar, and the heat seemed to be chasing them down the corridor as they ran. Hermione and Draco were going faster, just ahead of him, and he opened his mouth to scream for them to stop, but something shot out of a tapestry to his right, grabbed him and hauled him behind it.

He yelped, scrabbling away, trying to get out, but a cold hand clamped hard over his mouth and fingers curled around his wrist. He struggled against whoever it was that had gripped him, and managed to tear the hand off his face. "What's going on?" he demanded of the darkness before him. "What's happening?"

A very cold finger pressed against his lips. "Shhh," came the only reply.

Harry fumbled backwards for the catch to open the tapestry, but a hand shot forward and curled round his wrist.

"Don't. Just be still."

"Get off me," he snapped, pulling his hand away. "Tell me what's going on."

"Listen to me Harry. This is life and death. I am begging you on bended knee to PLEASE be quiet and I'll explain everything the moment this is over."

Harry just wished he could see who it was, because even though the voice was vaguely familiar, it didn't give him any clues. It was quite a well-spoken, though heavily characterful voice, to somebody who was evidently a late-teenager. He closed his eyes, just falling silent. He could hear people screaming outside as they ran up and down the corridor. Professor Flitwick's voice was shouting, "Into my office children, quickly!", and all the while there was that loud, horrible roar from the entrance hall. And then...

The siren's high, wailing scream pierced from nowhere, wavering high, sounding out danger. Harry felt himself going cold. He had to get to a teacher. He struggled again, but his captor said, "Harry, don't... just relax... we're safe here..."

He could feel tears of fear starting on his face and he had to grab his ears to stop the siren's screaming turning him insane. Doors up and down the corridor were slamming, people were still shouting, but the footsteps were drying out. People were being taken to safe places. And he was behind a tapestry with somebody he didn't know. There was now a loud crackling noise that Harry recognised as fire.

The siren died out, and the crackling grew louder. Harry could see amber lights fluttering around the edges of the tapestry. The material would catch fire. They'd be found or burnt alive. He struggled fretfully and whoever it was gathered him into their arms, rubbing his back in a brotherly way. "Come on Harry... trust me..."

"Who are you?" he said, shaking.

"It's odd," said the boy, quietly. "You seem me everyday of your life but you've never met me at all."

BANG!

The gates slid down, and Harry jumped, his nerves already stretched to breaking point. He felt movement behind her, and glanced around just in time to see thick metal doors grinding into place, covering up the tapestry, blocking the entrance completely. The moment they had clamped shut, the cold person holding him let him go, and started to move around in the darkness.

"Oh, light, light, give me a light..." There was something about the sing-song way that they uttered that last sentence which sent jolts of suspicion into Harry's chest, but he still couldn't fit a face to the voice at all.

It even took him a few seconds when the match flared on for him to realise who it was.

He stared back at a boy, about seventeen or eighteen years old, with dark eyes and hair of such a deep brown that it was practically black. He was wearing a Hogwarts uniform, but it certainly wasn't the uniform Harry wore, much older, as though it was from an era somewhere half a century ago. He frowned, trying to remember where he'd seen that face before, until he realised...

"It's you," he whispered.

"Shhhh," said the boy. "Look at me, Harry, please just shhhh..."

"But... what's happened to you?" he said, in such a low voice that the boy couldn't tell him to shhhh anymore. "Why are you...?"

"I've been out of the castle... doing something," came the reply. "Dumbledore knows of a spell to change a poltergeist to a ghost and remove the shimmer for a few hours. I'm less recognisable like this."

It was Peeves - but at the same time, how could it be Peeves? He was wearing plain colours, he didn't have a ghostly white shimmer floating around him, and there wasn't that ludicrous propeller hat perched on top of his hair that was usually greased to one side. His dark locks were now left short and neatly combed. He looked so young, so incredibly real, just as he had been in his seventh year at Hogwarts. And his voice, he sounded completely different. It was no longer a cackle but just a regular, seventeen-year-old boy's voice. Harry found himself staring in absolute amazement at how much unlike Peeves Peeves suddenly was.

"Why... why are we here?" Harry asked, and he couldn't help but feel scared now. Peeves never acted like this. He was never even serious, let alone as anxious and nervous as he was now.

"The Heliopath," he said, quietly. "It got into the school... it must have been possessing my ball..."

"Your ball?" said Harry, his eyes widening in amazement. "What do you mean, your ball?"

"Well... not technically mine. My little brother's, and I gave it to Dumbledore, but it was mine."

"But... that ball was mine," said Harry. He stared at Peeves before him in the light of the match. "Somebody sent it to me as a Christmas present."

Peeves blinked at him. "A Christmas present? Hang on, where did you first get it?"

"On Christmas day," said Harry. "Somebody sent it to me wrapped up. I thought it was somebody playing a joke."

Peeves looked absolutely baffled. "But... I gave it to Dumbledore, so he could control my state..."

"What? Peeves, what's going on?"

The boy before him smiled, almost sadly. "Not Peeves. I'm not Peeves when I'm like this. I died looking like this, Harry, and I died as Peter Peelish... call me Peter."

"But... what's going on? What's with the ball? And why are you saving me?" Harry stared at him, completely baffled by absolutely everything going on. "And why are you being so... so normal?"

Another solemn smile, as Peter took a candle from the inside of his robes, lit it with the match and set it between them on the floor. "I'm being normal because I'm not a poltergeist when I'm like this... when a person dies, various things decide whether they're poltergeist or ghost. Naturally, I'm a poltergeist. So all the malice and love for chaos and mischief I had was put into my new poltergeist personality. If I'd been a ghost, it would have been removed, leaving me like this. It's sort of like a split personality."

"And what's with the ball?" said Harry.

Peter sighed. "Long story, Harry. Very long story. Then again, I suppose we have time... the teachers should be going to tackle the Heliopath now... well. That clown belonged to my little brother. My family were rather poor, we didn't have any gold to spare at all. It was like... the only toy he had." He looked sad for a moment, and then continued, looking even more grave. "When he died, he gave it to me. He told me to... to keep it safe for him. So I did. I was holding it when I died myself. It passed on with me."

"So?" said Harry.

"There's a charm which can turn a poltergeist to a ghost and back," said Peter quietly, absent-mindedly running his fingers through the flame. "But after I died, I came to Hogwarts, and Dumbledore knew I'd have to have that charm performed on me on a regular basis. So he made the clown able to perform it. I could interchange between poltergeist or ghost at will. Whenever I didn't need it, I gave it to Dumbledore for safe keeping. He must have dropped it somewhere outside... then I presume the Heliopath got into it, somebody else picked it up, brought it into the castle... perhaps sent it to you as a joke?" He shrugged. "And now the Heliopath's out."

"What... what if it gets through those doors?" said Harry, worriedly glancing at the metal doors guarding the tapestry.

"It won't," said Peter. "Trust me."

Harry frowned, getting both scared and angry now. "Why are you doing this? How did you know that the Heliopath was coming now?"

Peter ran a hand through his dark hair. "It's complex, Harry. Stuff I don't think you'll either believe or want to hear from me."

"Try me, why don't you?" said Harry.

Peter fiddled with his fingers for a moment. "I thought that Dumbledore would be here to explain it all better to you... but... well, in basic terms, there's something known as a guardian bond, Harry, and - "

"Yeah, yeah," said Harry, vaguely. "I know about that."

Peter looked at him, surprised. "You do?"

"Yeah," said Harry. "I learnt about that ages ago, Lupin and Snape. What about them? What's this got to do with them?"

"Lupin?" said Peter, frowning. "I don't know, what has this got to do with him?"

"He's my second," said Harry. "Isn't he?"

Peter shook his head.

"But then who?" said Harry. Even though next second, he realised. His face fell into shock, and he just stared at the boy before him. Peter started back, with raised eyebrows. "It's not you," said Harry. "It can't be! You're... you're Peeves the poltergeist, you're... you're never anywhere near me, you only paid me any attention in my second year when you thought I was killing everybody!"

"I'm always near you," said Peter, searching his face solemnly. "I only leave you for about a week at a time every now and then. You never see me. Dumbledore thought it would be best if you had no idea about me. I'm invisible." He smiled sadly. "I've seen the best and the worst times of your life."

"But..." Harry just stared at him, too shocked to take it in. "I'd have known if you near me..."

Peter shook his head. "I'm careful that you don't." He smiled ever so slightly, fiddling with his fingers in almost a nervous way. "Snape didn't mind intruding in your privacy all the time... if you were up to something, he wouldn't hesitate to get out of bed and go racing through the corridors, pretending to be on night duty. I didn't like to though... I remember what it was like to be a teenager, I'd have hated being watched all the time..."

"I don't believe this," said Harry. He shook his head. "You made my life hell during second year with that stupid song."

Peter smiled sadly into his fingertips. "I have to apologise for that... at least you didn't suspect me, hmm? It's been hard... you don't know how hard it was, that night when you had the nightmare. I just had to make myself known. And that was just how I died, what you said... you're... you're a bit like one of my brothers. Robert. He was always curious, he loved his friends. He got into all sorts of bother but he managed to wriggle out of it."

Harry watched him silently. Peter looked so sad and reminiscent that Harry was starting to feel sorry for him. "So... you and Snape have been looking after me all along..."

Peter nodded. "I preferred to stay out of sight and distant, while Snape took the approach of hating you. I daresay he came as more of a shock than me."

"Not really," Harry admitted. He watched Peter for a moment, and then said, "How did you know the Heliopath was coming for me?"

Peter looked very nervous at that. He started fiddling with his fingers even more. "Ah, well... that's... not exactly... something that... just a hunch, Harry..."

Harry's eyes narrowed. "What do you know? It wasn't just a hunch. You knew something was going to happen or you wouldn't have been here waiting for me."

"It's a matter between Dumbledore and I," said Peter, quietly. "I have more uses than following you around and starting food fights."

Harry frowned. "What would those uses be?"

Peter shook his head, frightened. "Don't ask me, Harry. You don't want to know . Your view of me has probably already changed, seeing me in ghost form and then finding out that I'm your magical guardian..."

Harry was already putting two and two together in his mind. There were still gaps, but things were starting to slot into place. There was no other way that Peter could have known. And then something that Sirius's ghostly form had murmured to him from a cauldron many, many months ago, about Dumbledore having more spies, people that nobody would ever guess...

"You're a spy in Voldemort's force, aren't you?" said Harry.

Peter looked up at him, searching his face, considering him, and then after just a moment, he nodded, silently.

Harry watched Peter closely. So the poltergeist he had known for six years as just an annoying, airborne menace was actually his magical guardian, a Death Eater, and a spy. Somehow, none of this made sense or fit at all, and after a minute, he realised what was wrong. "You're always at Hogwarts. You can't be out of the castle."

Peter smiled. "Oh, you're wrong there."

"How am I?" said Harry. "Every single day, you're smashing trophies or breaking cabinets, starting fights, flushing first years' heads down the toilets."

"No, no," said Peter. "Even I couldn't make that amount of mayhem on my own. And even though it is indeed mostly me, there are some times when it most certainly is not. I have to leave to talk to the Dark Lord sometimes."

"So how come it still appears that you're here?" said Harry, frowning.

Peter smiled rather sagely, watching the candle for a few moments. "I have my own rather reliable methods of making sure that nobody walks the corridors and feels completely safe."

"And those are?" Harry prompted.

"Oh, that would be telling," said Peter, and for a moment, Harry could see that a little of Peeves had been left in him, as a twinkle appeared in his eye and he smiled, just showing the tips of his teeth. "I can't trust you to not to tell Ron, Hermione, Draco or Kainda. And I know it will be hard for you to resist the temptation."

"Please," said Harry, hopefully. "Honestly. Loads of people trust me with loads of stuff. I'm considering renting myself out as a secret keeper."

A pleasant, bright chuckle left Peter's lips, layered heavily with tinges from Peeves's own laugh, almost a diluted form of the poltergeist. "I know... but I also know things you would never dream of, Potter. I see pretty much everything that goes on in this castle, I know 90% of what goes on with the Dark Lord, I know almost every little detail of your life. Snape might be able to see your thoughts, but he sees hardly anything else - apart from your potions, perhaps. You might be the secret keeper, but I am the secrets, and I want to be kept."

"Prove it," said Harry, sitting back, surveying Peter over the flicker of the candle. "Tell me something about myself that nobody else in the whole world knows."

Peter smiled, tilting his head a little. "Everyday, you go past Alrister's office just to see if he's come back yet. I also know where Alrister is, why he's gone, and when he plans to return. I know what's stopping him coming back. I know that when you had that nightmare, and Hermione heard what had happened to Alrister, she cried. I know that right now, some of the teachers are on the roof, and some are down in the dungeons with the children. I know that there's a mouse two floors below us eating one of the tapestries."

"How?" said Harry, his face creasing in a frown. "How can you know so much?"

Another sagacious smile flittered across Peter's lips. "There's another reason that Dumbledore keeps me here, apart from to protect you and to get information from the Dark Lord. Nobody else in the whole wide world apart from Dumbledore and you know I'm a Death Eater, and only you, Snape, and Dumbledore know that I guard you. But only Dumbledore and I know why I stare here, in Hogwarts, and don't come with you during the summer."

"Tell me," said Harry, moving forward, grasping Peter by his icily cold arm. "I deserve to know, don't I? You're my guardian, I'm supposed to trust you. Tell me, please..."

"Ask me some direct questions," said Peter, tilting his head to the side. "I was never good with explaining everything."

"How can you leave to see Voldemort and yet still be here?" said Harry.

Peter smiled. "I'll show you once this is all over."

"How come you knew about the mouse?"

"I know every little detail within this castle."

"How?"

Another of those tiny, glimmering smiles. "I'm the guardian of Hogwarts. I protect everything here, and so I know everything here. Filch always thought he looked after this castle... so why did Dumbledore get rid of him? Because I'm far more effective." He looked thoughtful for a moment, gazing up above Harry's head, as though seeing something Harry couldn't. "Hmm, Hermione is worried about where you are. Flitwick is trying to calm her."

Harry was starting to accept all this, bit by bit, still watching Peter's face closely. "So... you know everything about everyone..."

"Oh no," said Peter, shaking his head. "I know everything about the castle. I can see what it sees. In a way, I'm the translator between castle and Dumbledore. That's how I tested all the defences. Of course, I let the poltergeist in me out sometimes for some random destruction. But then I just thought, and found the gaps. I assure you that I cannot get into people's thoughts. If the castle knows you're there, then I do."

"You always turned up at the worst times," said Harry, remembering his past years at the school. "Always. You used to just know wherever I was. And that night, when I was talking to Draco! You got me locked in a cupboard for two days!"

Peter chuckled. "Well, that was quite funny, you have to admit. And you were in no immediate danger. I never try to physically hurt you."

"You threw walking sticks at me in my first year," said Harry, with a pained expression.

"Just my way of saying hello," said Peter, turning his glittery eyes onto Harry and smiling like the older brother he'd never had. "I was particularly excitable that summer. Imagine meeting a brother your parents gave up for adoption long ago... or getting a new pet."

"You think of me as a pet?" said Harry, staring at him.

"Somewhat," said Peter. "Pet and a younger brother. I always loved children. My family was huge. It was natural that I come to live here when I died, and Dumbledore needed a spirit guardian for the castle. I jumped at the chance. By the way." His lips curled into another of his glimmering smiles. "Kainda has a photo of you under her pillow."

Harry's stomach gave a little twist. "Oh?"

"Mmm, from when you're playing Quidditch. I can't sense what's going on in the grounds, so I have to actually glide out after you to watch. You're a good player. I could never handle a broomstick properly, far too uncomfortable. Then again, I lived in the fifties, when the fashion was to have the tiniest little broom imaginable, but very thick, with a racing stripe down the side. Like a plank of wood."

"So you... know all about Kainda..." said Harry.

Peter smiled. "It's our secret, Harry." He surveyed Harry with interest, as though he'd never really looked at him properly before. "I've wanted to talk to you about all this for a long time. I very nearly did on that night with the dreams you had, but McGonagall shooed me away."

"You don't like Professor McGonagall, do you?" Harry said, grinning, remembering the whole food fight. "You squashed a plate of eggs in her face though, that was a little unkind. And you put a fried egg in my face as well."

"Well," Peter chuckled. "You're incredibly funny to antagonize. I love the way you have to keep telling Ron and Hermione off for fighting. You could be in your own soap opera, you know."

"Sometimes it feels like I already am," Harry said, rubbing his forehead with a weak smile.

 

Chapter Twenty-Nine: Jinx

The hours flittered past, as the candle burned lower, spreading dancing shadows higher and higher up the walls of the enclosed spaces behind the tapestry. Harry found himself sharing memories with Peter, and Peter with him, as though they'd been best friends for all their lives. Harry forgot that deep within Peter was a poltergeist that couldn't wait to get out and cause havoc again, and he knew it was probably the first time in many years that Peter had spoken to anybody and received a serious, sincere, polite answer.

Harry didn't know exactly how much time had gone past, but he felt himself getting gradually sleepier and sleepier. Peter noticed his eyelids drooping, told him to curl up and get some rest, that he would wake Harry if anything important happened. Harry nodded and gratefully laid down. The last thing he felt before he slipped into waves and waves of welcome sleep was a rather cold piece of material being laid over the top of him, and Peter saying, "Sleep well", in his ear.

He was woken sometime later by a loud grating noise, and sunlight flooding in, glaring in his eyes. He shifted and gave a sort snort of protest at all the light and sound.

"Shhhh, he's asleep!" said Peter's voice.

"You useless poltergeist," Snape hissed. "You've had him here all along? I told you to bring him to my office, not hide him behind a tapestry."

"The Heliopath was right behind them," said Peter, calmly. "He wouldn't have made it."

"Filius was just half a corridor away. He could have used floo powder to get from there to my office."

"Or he could have been caught and killed, releasing the Dark Lord on the world once more. I know which option I'm glad I took. And please keep your voice down, Professor, he took in a lot of information. He doesn't need you yelling in his ears."

"I don't know whether I despise you more as that brattish poltergeist or when you're playing Old Man Of The Woods ghost." Harry felt Snape's hand gripping his shoulder, giving a little shake. "Potter, wake up."

He curled up, his face creasing in annoyance. "Mnnn."

"Oh, leave him," said Peter, irritated, swatting out at Snape. "You don't always have to be so cruel to him. He's just a kid."

Snape ignored Peter, and muttered again, "Potter, up."

Harry opened his eyes blearily, glaring up at Snape, only half-awake. Everything behind the Potions master's silhouette was dark, lit only by the glow of the candle in Snape's hand. "What?" said Harry, sleepily.

"The Heliopath has been removed from the premises," said Snape. "You're free to go back to your common room. Food is going to be served in half an hour in the Great Hall."

"Did you kill it?" said Harry, hopefully, sitting up so Peter's school robes slid off him.

"Yes, Potter," said Snape. "We did. No thanks to some people." He swept an icy look at Peter, who glared right back, pulling his robes on.

"Don't thank me too much," he said, bitterly.

"I have no intentions of doing so," said Snape. He gripped Harry's elbow, and Harry managed to get groggily to his feet, wobbling a little.

Peter slipped out of the alcove too. He glanced nervously up and down the corridor, making sure there was nobody around. "Oh, Harry... I promised to show you - ... well. I promised to show you."

"Show him what?" said Snape, surveying Peter with narrowed eyes.

Peter smiled pleasantly up at his fellow magical guardian. "Show him something. You're welcome to come as well, but there's a danger it might be fun and I wouldn't want to make you uncomfortable."

Snape glared at him. Peter just smiled. If was amazing how even as mild-mannered Peter Peelish, Peeves could irritate Snape to within an inch of his life.

"I'm going to take Harry to see something," said Peter, smugly. "And I'll have him back in time to eat whatever poisoned muck the house elves are going to give them today."

Snape simply stepped back as Peter glided away down the corridor, and Harry hurried after him eagerly. They heard Snape's footsteps leaving the corridor in the direction of the dungeons, and then Harry asked, "Where are we going?"

Peter smiled secretively. "My nest."

"Your what?"

"My nest," Peter chuckled, turning left to pull back a tapestry pretending to be a door, simply peeling it off the wall and stepping through. They appeared in a dark, very cold tunnel, and Harry shivered. Peter was pointing vaguely down various passages. "There's a room full of portkeys to Hogsmeade there... I'm not sure what's down there, something tried to eat me the last time I checked, down that corridor is the back entrance to Dumbledore's office, that door doesn't open unless you ask really nicely, and that appears to be a dog door, I can't fit in there. Oh, there's a big coffin in that room which I think has Helga Hufflepuff in it, the room's full of stuffed badgers. Salazar Slytherin's private chambers were apparently in there." Harry nearly tripped over something that went scuttling past his feet. He jumped, and Peter said, coolly, "Oh, watch out for the rats, they're everywhere in this corridor."

"How come this passage didn't turn up on the Marauder's Map?" asked Harry, intrigued, hurrying after the silvery silhouette of Peter up ahead.

"Because they never found it," came the reply, echoing through the gloom. "Oh, they came close. It was Lupin who nearly discovered it. They were late for class and he wondered whether there was a shortcut through here, but he didn't get far. One of the rats got him, and the dark and the cold just got to him. He doesn't actually like being alone in the dark, did you know that?"

Harry shook his head. "No... I thought he just didn't like the moon."

"Ah, that as well. There are some incredibly brave people in the castle. Lupin, cursed by lycanthropy, and yet he endures it month after month. Snape, a Death Eater. And you wouldn't be that surprised at the number of children who have lost family members and keep a picture in their trunk or next to their bed. Draco is a fantastic artist, really marvellous, but he's worried that the only part of his drawings that people will see is the signature 'Malfoy' at the bottom."

Harry was about to ask how Peter knew this, when something large and heavy came out of nowhere and he ran into it. He fell over with a cry, and something that felt like a huge vase landed in his arms. Peter turned around.

"Ah, yeah, watch out for the vase. I think this place was used as a storeroom until the cold made it impossible to light torches. Even the castle doesn't know why it suddenly got cold in here. I think it's something to do with whatever it is down that passage back there, but it only comes out at night."

"It is night," said Harry, worriedly, as Peter hauled him to his feet.

"So it is," said Peter, in a pleasant voice, leading him on through the darkness. "Now, there's a rather marvellous painting on this wall here. In the days when the school was just made, all the founders had a particular favourite student. It was sort of like... a head student of each house. Eventually, that turned into prefects with an over-all head boy and girl chosen by the headmaster or headmistress. But you'll never guess what the last name of the boy Slytherin chose was."

"What?" said Harry, interestedly.

"Malfoy," said Peeves. "It looks like Slytherin, Malfoy and Snape were always a little trio together. Of course, the Slytherin line's only got the Dark Lord left, and Draco's the last Malfoy. It looks as though Severus is going to be the last Snape."

"But... his girlfriend," said Harry. "Aren't they going to have children?"

Peter sighed sadly. "It's complicated, Harry. Too complicated for me to explain. Snape's secretive as well, nearly as much as me. If there's anything important going on, he does it out of the castle."

"Then why does she always visit him?" Harry asked.

"It's... very confusing. Even to me. It's clear that she's a metamorphmagus of sorts - she probably learnt the technique rather than inherited it. She can vary the length of her hair. She comes every other night now, and it's a random time. They talk mostly. About the Dark Lord, the ministry, family. You've come up in the conversation once or twice."

"What does Snape say about me?" Harry asked, eagerly, hurrying to keep up. Peter had stopped and was fiddling with a lock, according to the various clicking noises.

"Oh, all sorts," said Peter, and he left it at that, as he opened up the door and light flooded the pitch-black corridor. He slipped inside the room beyond, and Harry followed him with a single glance back at the cold corridor.

Harry's first thought was of a smuggler's cavern. Every single available surface was covered in something, be it material or jewellery, sheets and sheets of paper were scattered vaguely over everything, and nearly everything was broken or burnt in someway. There was what appeared to a dummy hanging in one corner, suspended by a cord from the ceiling, and stuffing was pouring out of every slash in its fabric. The far corner was just a huge mountain of pillows, mostly torn or ripped in some way, and all over the walls was childlish scribbling in various colours. It all looked like the den of somebody who had an awful lot of anger to express.

"Why is everything...?" Harry begun, though he didn't know quite how to finish it.

Peter guessed his question. "Broken? We're poltergeists, Harry. Poltergeists have a physical need to express frustration. Sometimes, just a little anger needs to be expressed..." He gestured at the scribbles decorating the walls, and then glanced at what looked like a mattress that had been torn apart and nailed to the ceiling. "Of course, sometimes a more drastic result is desired."

"What do you mean, "we're poltergeists"?" said Harry, frowning.

"I mean that myself and one or more other people are poltergeists," said Peter, coolly. He strolled idly over to an upturned dresser, which was bitten and splintered in more than one place, and started pulling out the drawers, discarded the ones he had looked in onto the floor. "Oh come on... don't tell me I'm out..." He jerked open another drawer, and sighed, scooping out an ordinary packet of cigarettes. "Thank God..."

"You know that's dangerous to your health," said Harry, raising an eyebrow, as Peter shook one out of the packet, searching in the drawer for a lighter.

"Firstly, I'm already dead," said Peter. "And secondly, I know, but think about it, Potter... I died inhaling more smoke than most people have ever inhaled in their lives. I can't control myself as a poltergeist without it." He lit the cigarette vaguely, and tossed the lighter into a pile of old clothes nearby. "Sit down."

Harry looked around, wondering exactly where Peter expected him to sit down. Eventually, he sunk down onto the pile of cushions in the corner. Peter was rattling around in another drawer, and when he straightened up, he threw a carton of ordinary muggle juice to Harry. Harry caught it gratefully, with a murmur of, "Thanks..."

Peter blew out vaguely, unleashing a stream of smoke into the air. "You might as well have it. I stole it off some muggle picnickers a while ago... and always welcome."

Harry watched the cloud of smoke rise up into the air, and frowned. "Wait. How can you do that? Why doesn't the smoke just go straight through you?"

Peter smiled. "Always so curious. I thought I explained this? Oh well. Dumbledore puts two charms on me - one to make me a ghost, another to remove the ghost attributes and make me appear human. My body can do things that make me look human. So it expels the smoke in a human way. I just feel a little cold to the touch."

Harry nodded, thinking about this, and then asking, "So... what are you going to show me?", curiously, popping a hole in the top of his carton with the straw. "You said you would."

"You'll find out in a few minutes." Peter gazed mournfully at the cigarette held expertly between his fingers, and Harry saw that he was starting to turn a little greyer, a little smokier at the edges. Seeing the expression on Harry's face, Peter elaborated. "The charm to remove the spectral shimmer wears off after a day or so. Only Dumbledore can turn me back into a poltergeist though... thankfully. Peeves has no need to smoke though, so I suppose there are some benefits."

"Why don't you just quit?" Harry asked, sipping innocently on his juice. "Uncle Vernon used to have the most horrible cigars but he gave those up after Aunt Petunia said he was going to kill all Dudley's brain cells." He paused. "I think she probably mentioned that too late though."

Peter chuckled softly, flicking the end of his cigarette vaguely so ash just fell vaguely onto the carpet. "It keeps me calm when I'm a poltergeist." He thought for a moment, studying the plumes of smoke whisping gently in the air. "It's... the oddest thing to be a poltergeist. When I think that I'm like that sometimes, it's horrible. When I'm like this, I hate the idea of destroying things purposely. Being a poltergeist gives a person a hell of a lot of unused frustration that just has to go somewhere. But... it's odd... when I am Peeves, I don't care about how I look. It's like being free. Imagine it being almost like a drug that I have to take, even though I don't really want to at all."

"Why don't you just stay like you are?" Harry suggested, chewing idly at his straw. To him, Peter seemed to be the perfect older brother, though there was something rather forlorn about his posture as he languished vaguely against a desk that was shattered by his own alter ego.

Peter smiled slightly. "I can't. I can't resist the freedom and the power as Peeves. Think about it - who do you fear most? Who has the most control over you? Peeves, or Nearly Headless Nick? Peeves or Moaning Myrtle?"

"Peeves," Harry admitted.

"Precisely," said Peter. He took a long drag on his cigarette, screwing up his face as though in pain from its effects, blowing an acrid cloud of smoke from between his lips. "I was a Slytherin, Harry. I wanted power, but not power as in complete control and fear. I wanted the power to make people remember me. That could well be why I stayed on in this life as well."

"And every now and then you need to remind people that you're still around," said Harry, quietly, sipping still on his juice.

Peter nodded solemnly, and then smiled, as he crushed the vile cigarette in a stone ashtray on the sill of a grubby, smashed window. "That's just it. But there's also something incredibly fun about being able to be whatever I wish. I squashed an egg in McGonagall's face, nobody else in the entire world could ever claim that apart from me."

Harry chuckled, and he opened his mouth to ask something else, when the door opened. He looked around as a girl of about sixteen floated in, ripping a silvery jester's hat off her head and muttering, "God, you wouldn't believe the day I have had, it's - " She had spotted Harry, and frozen on the spot, staring at him in total horror. "A student!" she choked. "Peter, what have you brought - "

"It's okay," said Peter, shaking another cigarette free from the packet. "He knows."

The girl stared from Harry to Peter, her eyes still wide. She was very short, with the same rich, dark brown shade of hair as Peter. Even past the ghostly shimmer, Harry could see she was pale, and when he looked close enough, he realised that her left eye was a vivid, bright petrol blue, whilst the left was luminous green.

"But - " she gabbled. "He... he knows? You told him? Why? What have you told him, exactly?"

"Everything," Peter said, coolly. "The Death Eater, the guardian thing, both of them. Harry, this is my little sister. Jinx, this is Harry. The one I told you about."

"Jinx?" said Harry, raising his eyebrows. "Hey, wait... you're Jilly!"

Peter smiled. "How do you know about her?"

"She was in my dream," said Harry, smiling, turning to Peter again. "And I found your family tr-"

"Oh, you've been dreaming about me?" she said, horrified. "I see. I get home, and you're there and I've TOLD you not to smoke, Peter, put it out! And then there's a student here, it's the student you're not supposed to be nice to, and he's been dreaming about me! You know what? I'm going to go out of the room and come back in, and we'll just start this all again."

She stepped out of the door, closing it behind her. There was a few seconds of silence, and then she came in again, looking a great deal calmer.

"Oh, hello Peter. Put that out, please. Hello Potter. Why are you here?"

"He wanted to meet you," said Peter, coolly, heaving himself up on top of a scorched dresser, blowing the occasional cloud of smoke from his cigarette. "He learnt about me being a Death Eater, and obviously, wanted to know how it appeared I'm always in the castle."

"There are two poltergeists?" said Harry, with wide eyes. "Both of you? Oh, is that what was going on at the food fight?" He started to work more and more out, and then said, "You were throwing plastic pots of jam at Draco!"

Jinx blinked at him, and to his great surprise, her eyes swapped sides. The left glowed green, and the right was suddenly bright blue. "Oh? In the hall? I threw a lot of stuff at a lot of people."

Peter smiled. "Wow, so civil to the visitor, Jinx."

"We don't have visitors," said Jinx, staring at him. "Nobody's supposed to know about me. Dumbledore's going to be so mad at you. And put out that vile thing!"

Peter ignored her, flicking some ash in a bin that looked as though something with huge jaws had bitten it. He turned to Harry. "Jinx does my dirty work when I'm out doing the Dark Lord's. Got you well-trained, haven't I?"

Jinx frowned, stooping to pick her hat up off the floor and jam it on top of her hair. "I train myself. You... assist."

"Isn't she just precious, Harry?" said Peter, smiling.

Jinx scowled at her older brother. "I'm NOT precious."

Harry couldn't help but smile. "So some of the time, when we think it's Peeves, it's you?" he asked Jinx.

"Yep," she said. "Getting more and more frequent now. For... various reasons."

"He knows, Jinx," said Peter, coolly, stubbing out his cigarette at last. "You don't have to play all secretive."

Jinx smirked. "You do."

"That's different," said Peter, returning the smirk. "Well, Harry. We should be getting you down to the feast. Hermione and Ron are worried about you." He stood up, glancing longingly at the packet of cigarettes for a moment but leaving them, heading for the door. Jinx watched Harry go with a rather shrewd look in her mismatching eyes.

"See you again, I guess," she said.

"You too," he replied, with a polite smile. She looked at him as though he'd bitten her.

Peter lead him out of the room, shutting the door behind them, plunging them back into the freezing cold and pitch darkness. "Don't mind Jinx. She doesn't like people."

"I figured," said Harry. "Um... Peter...?"

"Yeah?"

"Am I going to see you again like this? Like... as my guardian? Not as a poltergeist?"

Peter smiled. "I guess you will, but don't expect me to start walking around school like this. If Snape ever has to talk to you about the guardian thing, I'll be there though."

"Thanks," said Harry, smiling, even though Peter probably couldn't see it in the darkness.

They continued in silence down the icy cold passage for a few minutes, and when they reached the end door, Peter stopped, and through the tiny slices of light peeping through the cracks around the door, Harry could see him turn to face him.

"Look after yourself, Harry," he said, seriously. "If you need me, just tell one of the walls, they'll get the message to me."

Harry chuckled. "Okay, I will."

"And of course, Snape will always be around for a friendly chat," said Peter, his tone very mused. "I'm sure he'll just love you hammering on his door in the middle of the night."

"Yeah, I'm sure he would," Harry grinned. He felt a sudden increase in coldness around him, as something only half-solid hugged him. He smiled, unsure whether to hug back or not, but Peter drew back pretty soon afterwards.

"Get going then," his guardian's voice said, playfully. "And don't get into mischief. I'll be watching."

Harry smiled, and with a last, "Bye", he peeled back the wall and stepped through. It flapped shut behind him, and he took a moment to remember where it was, just in case, then he headed towards the Great Hall. He felt quite hungry after the excitement of the day, and also wanted to make sure Ron and the rest of his friends were all okay.

He made his way quietly along the dark corridors, and then down the marble staircase into the entrance hall. The doors were shut. The feast must have already started. He pushed the doors hard, easing them open, and slipping in. Everybody in the hall turned to look at him, and there were a few murmurs of "Harry!" He looked up, and saw Hermione and Ron waving frantically at him from the Gryffindor table. He glanced at the staff table, and feeling as though he ought to apologise for the interruption, he said, "Sorry, Professor Dumbledore."

"That's quite alright Harry," said the headmaster. "At least you're here."

Aware that everybody was looking at him, speculating over where he had been all this time, he hurried over to sit between Ron and Hermione. Hermione said, "We were so worried about you!", as the school started to talk again.

"Sorry," he said. "Really, I didn't know I'd be dragged off."

"Where did you go?" asked Ron.

Harry said, "Uh, it's - hey, what sort of soup is this? Looks delicious."

Ron shrugged. "I don't know, it looks a bit weird to me. It's got all skin forming on the top. Eat it if you want, don't come crying to me when it congeals in your stomach."

Harry didn't really care about this, and ladelled some into his bowl. Everybody else seemed to be eating bread rolls, still scared of the Risotta striking again. Harry was too hungry to be overly worried.

Hermione was talking very quickly next to him, and he only managed to pick up what she was saying once he'd got used to the pace. "...and then you were just gone, and of course we didn't notice until we were in Flitcwick's office, and it was Draco who realised you were gone first and he told me, and I thought it had caught you and I know we should have gone looking for you but - "

"Give him a break, Hermione, he's probably been hidden away in some secret place to be guarded against the Heliopath," said Ron, grinning.

Harry smiled slightly, dipping his bread into the soup and going to take a chunk out of it. He paused, frowning, and sniffed at the soup tentatively. "Does this smell weird to you?" he said to Hermione.

She frowned too, and smelt it carefully, wrinkling her nose. "Eurgh, yes." She took another sniff and recoiled away. "Harry, that's horrible... don't eat it."

Harry had no intentions of doing that. He looked around at the other Gryffindors, and said, "Don't eat the soup," then picked up his own bowl full of the stuff, got up, and headed for the staff table. For a moment, he wondered who to take it to, and then decided on Dumbledore. Maybe he wasn't just being paranoid.

Dumbledore looked up from his conversation with Professor Sprout, and smiled. "Ah, Harry. What can I do for you?"

"I think there's something wrong with the Gryffindors' soup, Professor," he said, quietly. He placed the bowl down in front of Dumbledore. "It smells... odd."

Dumbledore smiled, his eyes twinkling. "Dear me... let's see then." He lifted the bowl carefully, and had a few tentative sniffs. He looked thoughtful for a moment, as he pondered the smell. Every single eye in the hall was now on him.

Dumbledore put the soup down, frowning in a pensive sort of way. He glanced behind him, and pulled something up to the table. Harry saw that it was a large potplant, with very bright, shiny green leaves. Dumbledore ladelled some of the soup onto one of the dessert spoons, and poured it gently into the soil of the plant.

Everybody watched on tenterhooks. The plant seemed fine, just as glossy and green, perfectly healthy. Harry was starting to think that maybe he had been paranoid - when there was a loud, horrible hissing sound. The plant seemed to cave in on itself, wilting instantly, its leaves shrivelling up to be blackened and crinkled, its tall, proud stem bending down in a crooked arch.

Dumbledore said, "Thankyou, Harry. I'll ask everybody to please not eat the soup, and to please return to their common rooms calmly. Anybody who has eaten the soup, please come here. The other professors and I will come round with food supplies within the hour." He looked very seriously around at them all. "If anybody knows who or what is responsible for this, please come and see me. If not, it may be something far more important than a plant which dies next."

 

Chapter Thirty: A Welcome Return

After that, Ron boycotted absolutely every scrap of food that had so much as been looked at by the house elves. He was convinced, to Hermione's annoyance, that one of them was trying to kill all the students. Everyday, one of Fred and George's "Weasley Wizard Wheezes" owls would arrive with a bagful of food and sweets. Ron hadn't yet turned against the water supply, but performed a boiling charm on any water he was planning to drink, and the pumpkin juice was treated with greatest suspicion.

Harry wasn't really surprised that a lot of the school had the same idea as well. Food was becoming nearly as prized as the Quidditch cards, and it wasn't rare to see fights breaking out over food that had been stolen from dormitories. Harry found it strangely like the students were part of an underground group, setting up a blackmarket of food. The people who were being sent the most from home were happy to sell it to others, and for once, sweets weren't the most expensive things. Anybody who had gold was buying things that would last, rather than things that tasted nice.

Luckily, Mrs Weasley came to the rescue, and sent Ron, Harry and Ginny packed lunches. Hermione's parents, Luna's father, and Neville's grandmother were also sending them food. Draco, however, had nobody. His weight fell drastically, and once again, he descended into the state he was in at the start of the year. Ron didn't like giving Draco food, muttering that his mother had made it for him and nobody else, but Harry and Hermione did their best to make Draco eat. He was reluctant at first, and mentioned charity, but eventually, they forced him into it.

One of the things that was worrying Harry about the lack of food was that their Quidditch skills were going to plummet. They needed their strength to fly and play well, especially Draco, who was the Seeker every other match. The team practically force-fed him in the few days up to each match, and two matches after the plant had been killed by the soup, they were on top of the league. Second was a team called The Dragons. Nobody was in any doubt who that was. Blaise Zabini was getting worse and worse everyday that went past. Every single week, at least three people reported that him and his gang had stolen food from them or beaten them up, but nobody could prove a thing. Zabini was untouchable.

Kainda, however, was quickly becoming the third most important thing in Harry's life, after Quidditch and his friends. He found himself just watching her during Quidditch practices, under the pretense of making sure her muscles weren't suffering from the lack of food, but he was only fooling himself. Ron kept making loud hints about people in the team growing closer, and Draco smirked everytime Kainda addressed Harry as 'Boss' or 'Master'.

Time started to fast-forward again, and soon, the middle of April had come, and the springtime showers were in full effect. Harry woke up on the morning of one such Wednesday, to the sound of rain hitting heavily against the windows. Ron was doing up the buttons of his school-shirt, coming out of the bathrooms, grumbling loudly about having to do Magical Creatures in the rain.

"Morning," Harry said, rubbing his eyes, sitting up.

"Morning," Ron said, distractedly, and then he went back to his dark mutterings. "Stupid rain... stupid timetable... have to chase that bloody dragon around the grounds again... in the rain... can't find my socks, where are my socks?"

"On your feet," said Harry, grinning.

Ron glanced down, and started muttering again, "On my feet, they're on my bloody feet. I'm going blind."

"You're also acting like Kreacher," said Harry, smiling, pulling his clothes over so he could get changed under the duvet. They were still sleeping in the common room, even though Hermione had moved back upstairs, and so it was just Ron, Harry, a pile of pillows and a duvet.

"I am not," Ron snapped. "Don't you dare suggest I'm like a house elf. They're all evil, every last one of them."

"What about Dobby?"

"Maybe there are one or two exceptions," said Ron, vaguely. He opened up his bag, sorting through it, pulling out a few digestive biscuits and munching through them absent-mindedly as he started cramming books and parchment inside. "Can't believe... Magical Creatures, in the rain... all muddy... going to get wet..."

"Good morning," said Hermione, pleasantly, coming down the girls' staircase. "Did you sleep well?"

"It's raining," Ron announced, turning to look at her, as though it was her fault.

She smiled. "So it is. I bet you wish you'd taken Astronomy with Draco now, mm?"

Ron paused, just watching her, and then said, "Actually, Magical Creatures in the rain might be fun, you know. Has anybody seen my socks?"


Magical Creatures wasn't actually as bad as they all thought it would be. Kibbles's shed, by now far too small for the rampant dragon, had been turned into a house for their latest project.

"Come on! Squash in at the back there! Are yeh all here? Good. Can yeh shut the door teh keep out the cold? They don' like it, yeh see. Thankyeh."

The class spread out in a circle around what looked like a miniature stable that had been placed in the middle of the room. It even had a tiny little garden, planted with neat flowers, with a very well-made pond and some hand-crafted garden furniture made out of twigs.

"Got a real treat fer yeh today," said Hagrid, beaming around at them all. "On'y found these recen'ly in the forest. Shy little things, they are. But ever s'friendly. There yeh are! There's one now!"

The class all murmured interestedly as a tiny little head peeped out of one of the windows of the stable. A huge pair of innocent, curious green eyes blinked at them all, and a shy, happy little smile curled its mouth.

"What is it?" asked Hermione, crouching down to get a better look at the little creature.

"Opsittops," said Hagrid, proudly. "They're on'y found in the Forbidden Forest. Yeh won' find 'em nowhere else in the whole world."

The opsittop clambered tentatively out through the window, and crouched down, peering at Hermione in the exact same way she was looking at it. Even Harry had to admit it was incredibly cute. It was very small, only coming up to the students' ankles, and was a muddy sort of brown colour, with big green eyes. It was wearing a neat little hat that seemed to be made from the cup of a very large acorn.

"Now, that one's a boy," said Hagrid. "Yeh can tell, because the boys have the little waistcoats, yeh see there? Made outta leaves. And the girls have got little dresses. They all wear those funny hats, we tried teh get 'em off 'em but they wouldn' let us."

The opsittop crept closer to Hermione, blinking its huge green eyes at her. She smiled, and it mimicked her smile perfectly.

"Now, here's summet special about 'em. They mimic anythin' they see or hear. Naturally, they make a sorta cooin' noise... there yeh go."

The opsittop had made a soft, bubbly purr at Hermione, bobbing up and down a bit.

"I think that means he wants yeh teh make a noise he can copy," said Hagrid, smiling. "S'like a game teh them. Yeh have teh try and make a sound he can copy, and he'll do the same fer you."

Hermione smiled shyly. "Should I...?"

Hagrid nodded. "Yeah, go on!"

She turned back to the opsittop, and smiled, thinking, then whistled the tune of jingle bells gently. The opsittop watched her, spellbound, as though it had never heard such a beautiful sound before, and when she was finished, it took a minute to process what it had heard. Then, with a look on its face that suggested it was enjoying itself so much it could burst, it whistled back, perfectly in tune, a little slow at first but when it got going it was nearly exactly like Hermione had done it.

Everybody clapped, and the opsittop smiled shyly, a light green blush appearing on its brown cheeks. It turned to Hermione, and after a moment, puffed out its cheeks and made a shrill, tinny whistling noise, like a kettle boiling. She smiled. "Oh, I don't think I can do that." The opsittop giggled, and so she smiled, puffing out her cheeks, and whistling back. The opsittop chuckled, smiling and showing its tiny teeth happily.

As more of the opsittops came sneaking out to see what all the whistling was about, the class all pressed forward to start making noises the opsittops couldn't. Harry was about to go and join in, but Hagrid caught him by the arm and said, "Harry, jus' want a word with yeh... over here..."

"What's wrong?" Harry asked, worriedly, as Hagrid lead him out of the crowd over into a corner.

"S'about Kibbles," said Hagrid. He looked around nervously, and then continued. "Got a letter from the ministry this mornin'. They're sendin' an inspector teh check Kibbles is bein' looked after prop'ly."

"But he is," said Harry. "Isn't he?"

"Well, yeah, but... he's not been lookin' too good lately. Yeh know, he's a normal dragon, he's gettin' growin' pains, bless 'im... like a dragon teenager. And I ain't sayin' nothin' about teenagers. S'jus' that dragons get a little... cranky."

"Well, the inspector will know that, won't he?" said Harry.

"Yeah, but... Kibbles ain't too friendly at the moment. He smelt the opsittops in his shed this mornin', even though he don't use it anymore... took me ages teh calm him down. I don't think he likes 'em."

"When's the inspector coming?"

"T'morreh," said Hagrid. "At about six o' clock, in the evenin'... listen, Harry... yeh're not busy, are yeh? I could really use a hand."

"Sure, I'll come and help," said Harry, smiling. "He's my dragon as well."

Hagrid beamed at him. "Thanks, Harry. I'll send yeh a letter if he arrives early."

Harry smiled, and went over to join Ron, who was trying to make one of the opsittops sing the Chudley Cannon's theme, hoping that they got a nice inspector and Kibbles wouldn't have one of his adolescent moods again.


"Potter! What are you doing?"

Harry jerked out of his half-doze at the back of his Transfiguration class, looking right up into the accusing eyes of Professor McGonagall. "Uh - "

She reached down, snatching the piece of parchment out from underneath his hands and studying it with a raised eyebrow. "Hmm, Potter. Quidditch strategies may be important, but not in my class, Potter. Get on with transfiguring your gerbils."

"I've done them," said Harry, gesturing to the cage at the front of the room on McGonagall's desk, which now held two magical black rats, plaiting their tails together.

McGonagall almost, almost looked surprised for a moment, before she regained her half-frown. "Well, very good, Potter. You should have told me that you were done, so I could set you more work, instead of leaving you to plan your next conquest."

Harry grinned sheepishly, and she rolled up his parchment, handing it back to him.

"Put it away in your bag, Potter, I don't want to see it again until you're in the air on a broomstick and yelling at your friends to put it into practice."

"Yes, Professor," he said, stuffing it into his bag. "Sorry."

"Quite alright, Potter," she said, walking away to go and examine his magical black rats, readjusting her hat.

Ron leant over to Harry. "How did you do that?"

"Do what?"

"First of all, you got your work done before Hermione, and then you didn't get in trouble for messing around in class," said Ron, amazed.

Harry grinned. "It must just be my day."

"I wish it was my day," said Ron, staring glumly at his half-gerbil half-rats, that were trying to eat each other's tails and dig through the bars.


After dinner was Pure Arts, for Ron, Hermione, Draco and Harry. Everybody still hated Pure Arts. It was quickly becoming the most boring lesson on the timetable, and even Hermione thought it was getting a little tedious. Every time they had the lesson, everybody arrived with extra supplies of parchment for paper aeroplanes and sending notes back and forth from table to table. Ron was becoming quite the trade merchant, and the Pure Arts classroom was becoming his main headquarters. Fred and George sent him sweets and Quidditch cards as treats, and so Ron was in great demand.

"Wonder if I'll get any interesting deals today," Ron mused, rifling through his card collection. "I still need quite a few... Harry Potter, for one, but hardly anybody has a Harry Potter card. They're really rare. The Bright Sparks cards are all rare now though. Fred and George say the chance of getting a Bright Sparks card in any pack is twenty-to-one."

Harry smiled. "Not bad, really. What's the chance of getting me?"

"It's got to be in the hundreds," said Ron. "There's only about three people in the school that have one, and the packs have got anti-scanning charms on them, so you can't tell what's inside." He absent-mindedly slipped a Fizzing Whizbee into his mouth, and then said, in a knowledgable way, "Only five people have got a Draco though."

Draco smirked. "Before you even ask, Weasley, no I don't want to trade."

"Oh, come on," said Ron. "Please? I've nearly got the full team, I just need you and Harry... come on, I'll give you all my food for a week."

"Not good enough," said Draco, still smirking. "I know you'd starve yourself for that card."

"Alright, give me the card, and I promise, I will starve myself."

Hermione frowned. "Don't you think this is an awful lot for just a card?"

"Just a card?" said Ron, in disbelief. "Hermione, those cards make a man who he is! They decide who is respected and who is not in modern society!"

Hermione rolled her eyes, as they reached the Pure Arts classroom and all lined up outside. Thinking that a change of subject was in order, Harry said, "I wonder who'll be teaching us today."

"It had better not be that Grubbly-Plank woman again," said Ron, frowning. "She was terrible last lesson. If I was Alrister, I'd take it as an insult that they'd chosen somebody that boring to cover my lesson. If it's her again, I swear, I'm going to just get up and walk out."

"I'll join you," said Harry. He glanced at Hermione and Draco. "You two didn't have Pure Arts on Monday, you don't know how boring it was. It was nearly as bad as Umbridge."

"I wouldn't go quite that far," said Ron, grinning.

"Yeah, on second thoughts, Grubbly-Plank wasn't that bad," said Harry, with a small laugh.

That moment, the door opened slowly. Mentally resigning himself to another two hours of sitting and doing nothing, Harry followed the rest of the class in, but for some reason, they'd all stopped in the door. He frowned and stretched up to see what it was that had made them stop - and his heart leapt.

Professor Alrister was at the front of the room, flicking hurriedly through an armful of papers, not noticing that the whole class was staring at him open-mouthed from the back of the class. "Right everybody, come in, wands and books and so forth away, we've got quite a bit to catch up on today. Window." He snapped his fingers, and the windows flew shut with loud bangs, the curtains streaming open to fill the room with light. With another click of his fingers, the chalk started to write today's lesson on the board.

Alrister looked up, and saw them all staring at him in disbelieving hope. He smiled bemusedly. "I haven't got my lunch down my front, have I?" he said, checking.

"You're back," said one of the Ravenclaw girls, in a voice that suggested all her dreams had come true at once.

He smirked. "How clever of you to notice. I presume by the horrified looks on your faces that this is not a good thing? The substitute teachers have been easy with you, hmm? Or has my lesson become chatting time? Either way, you've all got a lot to catch up on and I have no intentions of letting you stand around dawdling. Come on, chop chop."

They all filed in, sitting down at their old tables and talking eagerly, so a buzz of excitement filled the classroom. Alrister called, "Now, we can debate how wonderful it is to have me back later. We're doing something which could be a lot of fun, or could be very dangerous and risky today, so I expect you all on best behaviour. No gloves either, and for the second hour we're going down to the Great Hall to practice some of this vigorously, but until then, I'm afraid we're stuck in here." He stripped off his black gloves, and said, "Oh, register. Could anybody who is not here please raise their hand?" He glanced around the class. "Good, then we're all here."

Harry grinned. It was good to have Alrister back.

"Now, today, I am going to launch you all off something high to see if you can fly," said Alrister, in a tone that suggested this was regular practice. Everybody stared at him, horror-struck, and he chuckled. "After practice of course. We're doing just basic levitation today, maybe a little gliding, and there will be lots of running around and jumping, so I hope you're all in a destructive mood."

Ron's eyes lit up, as though somebody inside had flicked a lamp on.

"Everybody stand up, we need some floor space. By the way, how's the Quidditch league going?" asked Alrister, absent-mindedly, as everybody got up and hurried out of the way.

"We're winning," said Harry, grinning.

"Oh, are you?" said Alrister, with a smile. "Marvellous, marvellous. Who's in second place?"

"My team," said a cold voice from the other side of the room. Blaise stood with his arms crossed, glaring at Alrister, not looking pleased at his return.

"Ah, so we have some good healthy rivarly, mm?" Alrister smiled, as he flicked his arms and the tables all scraped themselves across the room to make a nice amount of space.

"Yep," said Ron, grinning.

Blaise said nothing, just staring at Alrister's turned back in hatred. This was the only lesson on his timetable where he didn't have Pansy with him, and apparently, he got very bored because of this. His sharp hazel-coloured eyes flickered to Harry's for a moment, and they both just glared at each other across the room, then looked away.

Alrister didn't notice any of this, too busy conjuring a huge, fluffy white blanket that he spread out across the floor with a sweep of his arms. "Perfect." To everybody's surprise, he turned his back to it, and just let himself fall backwards. Hermione made a squeaking noise, but Alrister bounced right back off it onto his feet. "And all my bones are intact. Marvellous. Now, this is here so that you don't kill yourselves. It is not a trampoline - if any senior members of staff come in. Until then, you're all allowed to do whatever you want on it. As long as it's legal and I won't end up before the Wizengamot for letting you do it."

Everybody grinned at each other. Alrister clapped his hands together.

"So, how to levitate. Quidditch players are going to find this easier than others, because we can only start to levitate when we know what we're aiming for. We are aiming to fly, just soar straight up into the air, spread our wings and escape to somewhere warm where there is no such thing as compulsory education. Flying also puts us in a good, calm, floaty sort of mood. You need to be one of two things to levitate - very skilled, or very calm. For example, I'm not particularly calm now, but levitation isn't hard for me. If I wanted to, I could."

"Show us!" a few people chimed.

"Yeah, please, Professor!"

"We want to see!"

Alrister smiled. "A demonstration? You're actually giving me the chance to show off?"

"Yeah!" they all said.

He chuckled, and took a few steps forward, just walking across the material carefully as he continued to talk. "Now, I expect none of you to get anywhere near this level," he said, idly, and everybody gasped as he just took a step upwards, onto nothing, just standing in mid air, continuing to climb upwards until he had his head tilted to one side, almost pressed against the ceiling. "Levitation takes concentration and skills. Firstly, you have to realise that air is not nothing. Air is actually full of what muggles call particles, they're just very far apart which is why we can move. To levitate, you have to force those particles together using raw magic, so you can walk on air. This is how broomsticks and the Wingardium Leviosa spell works. It just looks better when I do it." He smiled coolly.

"Can you fly like that?" said Harry, with wide eyes.

Alrister shook his head, as he gradually tilted his hips forward and laid back, floating on air, stretched out as though on a lilo. "Well... technically not. Though really, levitation can very easily be mistaken for flying. It depends what you count flying as. Levitation cannot get as high as a broomstick, and can't build up anything like the speeds that a broomstick can."

"But... could you... float out of the window and stay up? And glide around?" asked Hannah Abbot.

"I could," said Alrister, smiling still. "Though none of you will be leaping out of windows just yet, thankyou very much. This is Pure Arts, not How To Kill Yourself And Get Professor Alrister Fired In One Fell Swoop."

Everybody chuckled, as Alrister snapped his fingers, conjuring a glass of lemonade next to him in the air which he drank with a casual look on his face. "Right then," he said, putting down the glass on thin air. "I need somebody to be brave. Quidditch player would be good. Can anybody who plays Quidditch put their hand up?"

A few hands went up. Alrister scanned the room vaguely, and then said, "Ah, Mr Weasley, you'll do. Climb up on that table there, please. In a good mood today, Ron?"

Ron grinned, as he clambered up onto one of the desks. "Yep," he said, stoutly.

"Good," said Alrister. He floated easily out of the way, looking very much as though he was on a lilo in a swimming pool. "Alright, think of something emotional, you know the routine, and try to add the floating, free feeling that Quidditch gives you. Keep your thoughts nice and buoyant."

Ron got a very thoughtful look on his face, and a small smile, as he found a good memory. Harry noticed him stand a little on tiptoe as presumably, his thoughts became so buoyant the rest of him wanted to as well.

"Right then," said Alrister. "I want you to think about soaring easily through the air, staying on top of it, as though it's water, and I want you to just jump to that table there."

Ron stared in horror at the table. "It's on the other side of the room! I'll fall!"

"Now, that's exactly what I don't want you to think," said Alrister. "It might be on the other side of the room, but you will not fall. Imagine a path over to it, and think about flying that path. Don't ever, ever let the idea of falling enter your head, because you will. Remember - air is not nothing. It's just a bit sparse."

Ron still looked a bit worried about this, but he readied himself to jump anyway. Harry could see the fear of falling being pushed aside in his mind. Ron took a few steps back, bent his legs, and ran forwards, leaping as he reached the edge of the table.

Everybody gasped as he soared straight through the air, far far further than any person could normally jump, looking as though he was falling sideways instead of down. He landed with a hard thump on the otherside of the classroom, crumpled, and stood up as everybody started cheering. Ron grinned, his ears going pink.

Alrister chuckled, clapping too. "Very good." He descended gently from his lying position to stand on solid ground again, the lemonade still in his hand. "Marvellous work, Mr Weasley. First time as well. Ten points for Gryffindor. Now... anybody else?"

It was easily the most fun in a lesson that Harry had had for a long time. Professor Alrister was handing out house points like sweets at a birthday party, and by the end of the lesson, nearly everybody had made it from one table to another. Alrister was particularly pleased with Harry, who somehow managed to somersault on the way there, even though he couldn't remember wanting to do it. When the first hour bell went, they all trooped down to the entrance hall and practiced across wider spaces. Professor Alrister amazed them all by leaping the entire length of one house table and landing perfectly. Ron tried the same feat, but ended up falling half-way along, rolling the rest of the way and then tumbling off the end in a heap.

When the final bell went, everybody gave a groan of disappointment, picking up their bags and looking upset. Nearly everybody was expressing the desire that the lesson could have gone on longer. Some people even asked if they could just stay and practice a bit longer. Alrister chuckled at this. "No, no, I'm afraid not. Come now, our next lesson isn't long from now, is it? And I'm still going to be here. No more running off and leaving you to face the horrors of Professor Grubbly-Plank."

Everybody laughed, heading out of the hall, talking excitedly. Harry grabbed his bag and hurried after Ron, Hermione and Draco, but Alrister called him back.

"Oh, Harry? A word, please."

He doubled back, and crossed over to Alrister, who was moving the tables back into place. "Yes Sir?"

"I want to thank you for looking after Cupid," said Alrister, smiling. "He came down to my office just a few minutes after I got back, and he looks to be in marvellous health. You've really taken good care of him."

Harry smiled. "It's okay, Professor... he's been really good with me too."

"I also wanted to apologise... for the whole incident just before I left," said Alrister. He looked a little worried. "I truly didn't expect to leave you in such a very brief way. Something came up, you see."

"Professor Dumbledore told me about it," said Harry, quietly. "And... he gave me your hawking gloves."

"Yes, I asked him to," said Alrister, smiling, setting the Hufflepuff table down in place. "I'm glad of that."

"I... I never knew that Rookwood was your cousin," said Harry. "I mean... it's not a bad thing. I just didn't know. It was kind of a shock." He paused for a moment, and then asked, "Professor? Why did Fudge think you were in with the Death Eaters?"

"The bond of family is the strongest of all, Harry," said Alrister. "At least, it is to me. I'm very close to Augustus and my other cousins, and no matter what they've done, I always will be. They might relate with people I want nothing to do with, but when they're with me, we are a family, Harry. Unfortunately, Fudge knows how close I am to Augustus. He has never trusted me, so when the whole of the Rookwood family was declared loyal to He Who Must Not Be Named, it gave him an excuse to probe about in my life."

"Why doesn't he trust you?" asked Harry. "I mean... if you don't mind me being nosy."

Alrister chuckled. "It's okay, Harry... it's not a story many people know or ask, really. I haven't talked about it in years." He smiled slightly, looking at Harry with a very paternal look in his eyes. "I think I know you better than most of the other students here, Harry. Enough to probably consider you as a friend. I certainly trust you."

Harry smiled. "You're not like other teachers. You're... fun."

Alrister laughed at that, leaning against a table, grinning. "I'm flattered, Harry... so... my story... are you sure you want to hear it? It's rather long and would make a wonderful drama piece for muggle television, I'm sure."

"No, I want to hear it," said Harry, sitting down on one of the benches. "Can you tell me?"

Alrister nodded, looking thoughtful, as he started to speak. "It starts right from the moment I was born, I suppose... I had a normal mother, a normal father, normal family. Nobody's really sure why this happened, but I was born with an extraordinarily high level of raw magic inside me. I was a danger to myself and people close to me. As a baby, fires started around me, things exploded if left near me when I cried. My mother was terrified of me. Things just got worse. As a toddler, my family would never leave me on my own or terrible things would happen. I wasn't allowed near anything heavy or sharp. If I got upset or angry, my family would normally just run because of what I was capable of, even then. Of course, I became isolated. Everybody was frightened of me. That anger just made me even more dangerous. Something truly horrible was just going to happen. It was inevitable. I was five when things hit a peak."

"What happened?" Harry asked, in hushed tones.

"We had a dog," said Alrister, frowning slightly at a spot on the floor, as though he'd rather not remember some things. "A King Charles Spaniel. Beautiful creature, truly beautiful. I think it was called Timmy. I don't remember it much... well... in basic terms, I killed it by accident. I had no intentions of doing so. The dog just happened to be near me when I blew."

"What happened to it?" said Harry.

"I don't like to talk about that with anybody," said Alrister, heavily. "I don't like thinking about it at all. It wasn't pretty. I'll just leave it at that."

"So... what happened? Did you manage to control your powers?" asked Harry.

"I wish it was that easy," said Alrister. "When I was eleven, I was due to attend Hogwarts, but my parents knew with so much magic I could never have a normal magical education. I couldn't touch a wand without setting fire to it. They heard about the Pure Arts, and that it could held focus raw magic. My father knew a man who was very, very skilled in the Pure Arts, a friend of Cornelius Fudge, and they sent me to live with him and be taught how to control my magic. I was seven or eight when I went to live with him. He had a daughter of my age, by his wife, who was a veela. She was called Sarah - you saw her in the painting in my office. We grew up together, and at first, she wasn't allowed near me because people were frightened of what I might do to her by accident. But eventually, I learnt to control my raw magic. It was gradual at first, and I was still learning when I was twenty, but I had things to held me survive. Sarah and I fell in love when I was still a young teenager. Suddenly, I had something to aim for. I wanted to become safe, so that I could marry Sarah and be a father."

"Did you...?" Harry began.

Alrister bit his lip. "I did become safe, and I did marry Sarah, when I was nineteen. I could completely control myself. I was just as safe as the average wizard, though far more powerful. Sarah and I got married, and then when we were both twenty, we found out she was pregnant. It was all I really wanted - a family, a home. But things started to go wrong... two Death Eaters tracked me down through my cousin. They had heard I was a powerful Pure Arts master, and wanted my services."

Harry was completely enthralled by this point, listening with wide eyes, too interested to speak or spoil Alrister's concentration.

"Obviously, I told them no. But they were rather persistent. They kept visiting me, telling me to reconsider. They said that the Dark Lord would rise again someday and reward me greatly. But I made it clear to them I didn't want anything to do with them... they promised me that I'd regret it, and they didn't bother me for quite some months. I thought they were gone. But then... I got home from work one day. Sarah was about eight months pregnant by then."

There was no emotion except hollow, deep longing and wishing in Alrister's face.

"I found her dead in the lounge... and my baby too." He looked down at his feet, a single lock of sleek brown hair falling in front of his eyes and left there. "Her father was distraught, but he believed my story. He didn't think I'd done it. Fudge wasn't so believing though. He was certain that I'd kill her in another of my "little mishaps" as he put it, and to cover up what I'd done, invented some story about Death Eaters."

"I hate Fudge," Harry snarled. "He's just pompous and arrogant. He sees things the way he wants to, not the way he should."

Alrister nodded. "He couldn't prove it though. Nobody could prove I was right or wrong. It just went unsolved. Sarah and my unborn child were never given any justice. For the last ten years I've been living in the Rookwood family home alone with my birds of prey. Then Dumbledore contacted me and offered the job. He said the time of need was approaching and the children needed to be protected." He smiled sadly, a hint of a tear in his dark eyes. "The rest is history."

Harry paused for a moment, trying to think of something else to say, and after a few seconds, he said the only thing he was thinking. "You're very brave, Professor."

Alrister smiled sadly again. "Maybe, Harry. I'm not the only victim though. Yourself, the Diggorys... Mr Malfoy. I must admit, I have had some long, very vicious fights with my cousin over that. Normally I never let his activities with He Who Must Not Be Named intrude in our family, but... well..."

Harry nodded. "I understand. I think I'd probably stay loyal to Ron no matter what he did. I mean, he argues with Hermione and Draco a lot, but I'll forgive him for that."

Alrister chuckled softly. "You're a rare breed, Harry. I daresay you'll become a very powerful wizard when you're older."

"Thanks, Sir," said Harry, smiling.

"Always welcome," said Alrister. He smiled fatherly. "Go on now. Your friends won't want me hogging you."

Harry picked up his bag again, and was about to leave, when he thought of something and hesitated for a moment. "Professor?" he said, from the door.

Alrister looked up. "Mmm, Harry?"

"It's good to have you back, Sir."

Alrister smiled. "It's good to be back," he said, as Harry slipped out of the door.

 

Chapter Thirty-One: Kantankerous Kibbles

The next day was a Thursday, and the day of Kibbles's inspection. Harry, Ron and Hermione had agreed they would go down to help Hagrid and get Kibbles ready at about half past five, so at five o' clock, they went down to dinner, with half an hour to go.

"I wonder what we'll not be eating tonight," said Ron, pleasantly.

"I hope it's something nasty," said Harry. "It's always harder when it looks good."

They passed the entrance to the dungeons at the same time as a large group of Slytherins were coming up for dinner. Harry saw Kainda at the back, remembered that they were supposed to be "practicing Quidditch" tonight, and that he wouldn't be there because of the inspection. He said, "One second," to Ron and Hermione, and hurried through the crowd of Slytherins. Kainda gave him her typical in-public smile.

"Boss," she said, her eyes sparking.

"Our... ah... practice tonight," he said, trying hard not to smile. "I'm not going to be there, unfortunately. Kibbles has got an inspection and I'm helping Hagrid. So if you were planning to spontaneously go on any long walks, perhaps, I can't come."

Her lips curled into a smile and she stepped out of the crowd. He followed her, and she lounged against a pillar to talk. "You're completely not subtle, you know."

He chuckled. "I tried. Sorry about that... Hagrid really needs me. Kibbles is a bit of a handful and they'll take him away if he doesn't pass the inspection."

"It's okay," she said. "How about tomorrow?"

"I can't," he said, apologetically. "I've got DA Club and then my occlu- remedial potions."

She laughed. "Remedial potions. Yes, Harry, remedial potions. I fully believe that. As if Professor Snape would give up his time to teach you extra Potions."

He grinned. "It's a secret."

"And it's going to stay that way," said a cold, quiet voice just behind him. He glanced around, just in time to see Snape disappear into the hall, his long black cloak sweeping along the floor.

Kainda chuckled. "Hey, don't worry, I don't want to poke and pry about. It's your business. So how about Saturday? Hey, it's the Hogsmeade Weekend! I forgot about that. I was planning to go up to the Shrieking Shack, if you're interested. Everybody else can come too, if you like."

"Sure," he said. "Sounds great."

"By the way, any news on the Quidditch final?" she asked. "Are we in? We flattened Hogwarts United in the quarter-finals, we'll be fighting for first place in the league, right?"

"Probably," he said. "I hope we are anyway. Blaise has been going around saying that he's sure his team are in the finals, so you'll have to go against your little brother. Hope you don't mind."

She chuckled. "Sounds fine to me. I still haven't been able to find out what position he's playing though. Some people say Seeker, but I don't know. He might take Chaser for an important match. It all depends I guess."

Harry nodded, and said, "We'd better go in, don't want to miss out on sitting and staring at a plateful of poison."

She laughed, and they both headed into the hall. Kainda peeled off to sit with Draco at the Slytherin table, and Harry made his way to slide in beside Ron. When he did, Ron chuckled. "She's after you, you know."

"Oh?" said Harry, feigning disinterest. "I hadn't noticed. Pass the bread rolls."

"What were you talking about?" asked Ron, grinning, handing him the basket.

"The Shrieking Shack. She's going there on Saturday and wants to know if you all want to come and explore."

"Wouldn't you prefer some private time with dear Kainda?" said Ron. He grinned.

Harry shrugged. "Not really."

Perhaps luckily, Ron was distracted next second by the arrival of the evening meal. Hermione moaned sadly. "Oh, it's lasagne... I love lasagne..."

"Oh, stop whining," said Ron. "Have some bread and imagine it's lasagne."

Hermione took one of the rolls and sighed. "I think that's going to be rather hard, considering that they're practically opposites. I'm really sick of all this nonsense. How are we ever going to know if the food's okay if nobody eats it?"

Ron leaned forward, shovelling up a spoonful of the lasagne, and holding it in her face. "Go on then. If you die, maybe that'll prove to you that the food most certainly is not okay."

She gave him a very disdainful look over the top of the lasagne. "I don't need to be hand-fed, Ron, I'm not an infant." She jerked the spoon out of his hand, and was about to put it down, when she paused, frowning, sniffing at it. "Does something smell odd to you?"

Harry took the spoon and tentatively smelt it. "I don't know..." He took the lasagne away, and sniffed the air. "Yeah... but it's not the food. It smells a bit like... fire..."

They all swapped worried looks. More people in the hall were starting to look up, asking their neighbours what the smell of smoke was, and a few people looked a little scared. Lupin had smelt it too. He leant over to Dumbledore and muttered something. Dumbledore listened, nodding, and then took a few tentative sniffs himself. He looked puzzled for a moment. The rest of the staff had noticed it too.

"Look!!" one of the second years suddenly shouted, pointing out through one of the windows, looking horrified. Everybody jumped up, trying to see, and Harry realised with a surge of sick fear that there were plumes of thick black smoke billowing up from Hagrid's cabin.

"It's Hagrid!" he said, and before anybody could stop him, he had bolted for the door. Ron and Hermione both clattered up, rushing after him. The rest of the students were hurrying towards the entrance hall to see what was happening, and soon the doorway was completely blocked. The voices of Snape, Lupin and Alrister, all shouting at Harry to get back inside, were drowned in the noise from the students. Harry didn't hear a word of it, clattering through the entrance doors out into the grounds.

Snape snarled furiously, and started muttering constantly under his breath as he fought through the crowd, "Jacardia. Jacardia, Potter, jacardia you insufferable, arrogant little hero!"

Harry twitched with every buzz from his collar, eventually skidding to a halt halfway across the grounds to reach up, fumbling for the collar. Ron and Hermione appeared next to him, panting. Ron took a great gulp of air, and gasped, "What are you doing? Come on, we've got to get a teacher!"

Harry tore the collar roughly from his neck. Ron's eyes widened as Harry plunged it angrily into his pocket.

"What's - "

"Nothing," Harry snapped, "Come on, we've got to - "

Hermione suddenly let out a shrill, high-pitched cry. "Look! Look at the smoke!"

Harry looked up above the smoke pouring from behind the greenhouses, where Hagrid's cabin was, and his heart froze in his chest. It looked as though it was forming into a great skull - the dark mark.

"It couldn't be..." Ron choked.

Harry's legs kicked into action before his head had been given time to think. He was off running again, sprinting towards Hagrid's cabin, his heart thudding painfully hard in his chest. He didn't want to think of what he'd see when he rounded the greenhouses. The smoke was still furling above where he knew Hagrid's house was. What if there were Death Eaters? Heliopaths? Voldemort? He sprinted around the side of the greenhouses, ignoring Hermione and Ron's shouts at him to stop -

But what he saw was certainly not what he expected.

Hagrid was running back and forth, from his water barrel to the opsittops' shed, which was on fire, belching black smoke into the air, and Hagrid was holding a tea cup in one hand, and a wellington boot in the other, trying to scoop more water up to put out the flames. Harry stood frozen for a while, amazed at suddenly how funny this seemed, watching Hagrid rushing back across the grass and trying to douze the flames with a teacup full of water.

"Help!" he shouted at Harry, Ron and Hermione, gesturing wildly with the wellington boot and splashing water everywhere. "Get somethin' teh carry water!"

"Hagrid, it's only the shed!" said Hermione. "Kibbles doesn't use it anymore!"

"The opsittops're in there!" Hagrid yelled, trying to pick up the whole water barrel.

Harry, Ron and Hermione stared at each other, and then became aware of the sound of the little opsittops inside the shed, all making a noise like a fire alarm. They bolted into action, and rushed forward. Hermione ripped out her wand and started sweeping water charms over the shed, as Ron hurried to struggle with the water barrel with Hagrid. Charlie Weasley and Harry rushed forward, drawing their wands, and both cried, "Wingardium leviosa!" It lifted high up into the air, gliding forwards, and with a noise like an ocean being emptied, they flung the barrelful of water all over the shed.

The smoke rushed up into the air and there was a hiss of steam, a loud creak, and the shed promptly collapsed in a heap of charred wood. Hermione squealed, "The opsittops!", but they were all staggering out in a huddle. All of them were coughing, except for one, who was sneezing. Apparently he hadn't learnt the noise of coughing yet. Hermione rushed forward and dropped to her knees, checking they were all okay, as Hagrid, Charlie, Ron and Harry all sighed.

"Thankyeh," said Hagrid, wiping his brow. "I were washin' Kibbles and he got a bit upset. He doesn't like gettin' washed, an' he knew his inspection were comin' up, then he smelt the opsittops in his shed. Started roarin' flames all over the place."

"At least, they're okay," said Charlie, nodding. Everybody else seemed oblivious to the fact that he was there.

"Yeah," said Ron. "Phwew. That barrel's heavy, Hagrid, why don't you get a hose or a fountain or something?"

"Didn't think Kibbles'd ever do somethin' so bad," said Hagrid. "He's in fer such a yellin' when he gets back 'ere... he's grounded fer a month fer one thing. And jus' before his inspection an' all! Bloody glad the inspector's late, fer once. We got time teh find Kibbles now."

"The inspector's not late," said Charlie, frowning.

"What?" Hagrid looked around wildly. "Why? Where is he?"

"Hagrid, it's me," said Charlie, starting to laugh.

They all jumped, just noticing that he was there. Ron stared up at his older brother. "What are you doing here?"

Charlie grinned and ruffled his hair. "I've come for the inspection. Good thing I arrived in time, huh?"

Hagrid went scarlet behind his beard. "Oh, y'haven't, have yeh? I dunno where Kibbles is. He's not normally like this, hones'ly. He's a lovely dragon. Yeh've jus' caught him on a bad day."

Charlie laughed at that. "It's okay, Hagrid, I know what dragons are like. Are your opsittops alright?"

"They're fine," said Hermione, smiling, tickling them all under their little chins and making them giggle. One of them was still sneezing. "I think this one could do with some hayfever tablets," she said, watching it sneeze so hard it tumbled backwards, then sat up, looking stunned at the force of what it had just done.

"Yeah, he's bin sneezin' fer quite a while now," said Hagrid. "Probably got the flu or summet."

They were all suddenly distracted, as two shapes came swiftly towards them. Once was Kibbles, who was roaring at the sight of the opsittops, looking so angry he could burst, charging across the grounds like a huge green rhino. The other was Snape, who was shouting, "POTTER!!", looking so angry he could burst, gliding across the grounds like a huge black bat. Harry felt his stomach lurch, not sure which he was more afraid of.

Hagrid ran in front of the dragon, yelling, "NO, Kibbles, NO! Stop it! Yeh naughty dragon, yeh're a very VERY bad dragon! If yeh dare run Mummy down - "

Kibbles roared frustratedly, stamping his feet on the ground, tossing his head and flailing his great tail around. Everybody winced as the spiked end rushed into a tree and sent it toppling to the ground with an almighty crash. Hagrid and Charlie both ran forward to try and calm the dragon, and Harry was planning to as well, but Snape was sweeping down on him. The Potions master grabbed his arm and pulled him away from the crowd. His eyes were nearly bulging with fury.

Harry choked, "Sorry! I'm fine! Look, I'm not in danger!"

"Be quiet," Snape hissed, shooting a dark glance at Ron, who was watching suspiciously out of the corner of his eye. "Potter, put the collar back on this instant. I have a good mind to charm it on permanently. Do you have any idea what would have happened if this had been a Death Eater attack? You would have been torn to pieces, you foolish brat."

"But Hagrid might have - "

"No, Potter," Snape snarled. "Listen to me. You are not the almighty hero. You are a sixteen-year-old boy, you do not have any incredible magical powers of survival, and there are millions of wizards in this world far more capable of fighting the Dark Lord than you. You - will - be - killed."

"I'm not going to just let my friends be in danger," said Harry, quite angrily.

Snape's eyes narrowed. "Does anything penetrate your skull, Potter? If you have cause for concern, find an adult wizard you can alert to the trouble. Do not run mindlessly into the middle of danger. There is a fine line between bravery and foolishness; a fine line, which I hasten to add, you just crossed. If you had just been killed, you would have not been remembered as a hero but a complete moron who didn't stop to think once. Am I clear, Potter?" Harry muttered a vague 'yes', but Snape's grip tightened on his shoulder, and he said, firmly, "Look at me and tell me if I am clear, Potter."

Harry looked up, directly into his cold black eyes, and said, "Yes. You are clear. I won't run into danger anymore."

Snape scanned his face for a moment, making sure he wasn't lying, and Harry looked right back, almost defiantly. After a few seconds, Snape said, "Very well, Potter. And the collar?"

Harry sighed quietly, taking the vile collar out of his pocket and handing it to Snape. Snape shot another dark glare at Ron, and moved his position to block his view, as he took the collar and fitted it carefully around Harry's neck. Harry just stared straight ahead as Snape buckled it into place.

"Please, Potter," said Snape, in a very weary tone. "Do not take it off again. It's for your own good."

"It's also uncomfortable," said Harry, bitterly.

"In what way?"

"What?" said Harry, who had expected Snape to tell him to live with it.

Snape sighed. "In which way is it uncomfortable?"

"It's too tight," said Harry. "And the buckle rubs."

Snape's cold fingers undid the buckle, opening in a few more notches and redoing it, tucking the metal under a slip of fabric. "Better?"

Harry nodded. "Yeah. Thanks." After a moment, he said, "I won't take it off again. Sorry."

"So you should be," said Snape, simply.

"Leave him alone," said a sharp, rather high voice from somewhere at Harry's elbow. "Wasn't a Death Eater attack, was it? Don't take it out on him, just because you've got a cucumber lodged up your - "

"Peeves?" said Harry, staring around.

"The one and only," said the voice. "Don't spread it around, Potty. You've got an audience. And Snape, don't be so harsh to him, for the love of dungbombs. With him all the time, I am. We know you soil yourself over him on regular occasions, but not in public, please."

Snape's face worked in fury. "You brattish, insufferable - "

"Yeah yeah, heard it all before. Think of something else, and don't hog my Potter." For a moment, just over Snape's shoulder, Harry saw Peeves's wide, grinning face formed from the last whisps of smoke in the air, then it was gone. He grinned back.

"What are you smirking at?" Snape said, glancing over his shoulder.

"Um... Kibbles," said Harry. Kibbles was indeed giving a good reason for smirking, sitting on his haunches next to Hagrid's hut, his arms folded, eyes rolled up into his head, as Hagrid tried to wash his tail, which was swishing back and forth vaguely, purposely evading Hagrid's sponge.

"No, Kibbles! Keep yeh tail still, or I'm never gonna gerrit clean. Come on, be a good boy fer Mummy!" Kibbles's long, scaly tail swished the other way, knocking over a stray opsittop who fell forward with a noise like a squeaker being bounced against a wall.

"Hmm," Snape droned, unconvinced. "Keep your eyes and your brain open in future please, Potter. Remember just where following your heart has gotten you."

Harry looked away. "Yeah. I do. I don't need you to remind me."

"Remedial potions, Potter, tomorrow," said Snape, standing up. "Do not be late." He swished away across the grounds, heading back towards the school.

A soft cackle sounded somewhere near Harry's elbows. "Grouchy today, isn't he?"

Harry laughed, as Ron came over, frowning, studying Harry closely. "What was all that about?" he asked.

"Nothing," said Harry, vaguely. He moved to go round Ron and join Hermione with the opsittops, but Ron put out a hand and caught him in the chest.

"Harry," he said. He looked very suspicious. "Why has Snape given you a collar? And what was with all the muttering? Tell me what's going on. It's not a time-turner, is it? Because that got very tedious, you know, and if it is, just tell me now and I promise I won't beat you up."

"No, it's not," said Harry. "It's... a secret."

Ron looked hurt at this. "I'm your cousin, you can tell me, can't you?"

"No," said Harry. "Sorry, Ron, it's a really big thing and - ahh!" He clapped a hand to his neck as the collar buzzed. Seeing Ron's suspicious frown, he said, "Wasp."

Ron gave a hollow laugh. "Yeah, right. Come on Harry, what is it? You can trust me, can't you? Come on... I bet you've told Hermione and precious Draco."

"I haven't told anybody," said Harry, honestly. "But if I could, I promise, you'd be the first person I'd tell. Seriously, Ron."

Ron looked a little happier at this news, though still a little hurt and suspicious. He said, "You will tell me someday, right?"

"Of course I will," said Harry. "Just not now. And it might not be for a while."

"Alright," said Ron, sighing. "I wish you'd tell me things. You told Draco what you got in your Potions exam before you told me. And you told Hermione all that stuff about Karkaroff in fourth year."

"Yeah, because we hated each other then," said Harry. "Don't let it worry you Ron, it's not important." He surveyed the still-hurt expression on his cousin's face for a moment then said, "What if I tell you something that nobody else knows except me and one other person?"

Ron looked at him, his expression a little hopeful. "Okay."

Harry glanced around, making sure that everybody else was busy with the opsittops and telling Charlie how good Kibbles is normally, and then he said, quietly, "I'm dating Kainda." Seeing Ron's expression split into a triumphant grin, Harry added, quickly, "Don't tell anybody. And yes, you told me so. Just don't tell anybody Ron."

Ron was trying hard not to laugh. "I don't believe you. You total liar. I want to hear all details later and I'll be stealing some veritaserum from Snape's office first just to make sure you're not lying again. And if I find you are, I'll tell everybody about Kainda."

Harry's insides squirmed. "Alright, alright. Come on, we'd better help out with Kibbles."

Ron glanced across at Kibbles, and smirked. "Yeah, I think we should."

Kibbles was chasing the little herd of terrified opsittops round and round Hagrid's cabin, all of them making very odd noises from a clucking chicken to a grating noise that sounded like somebody sawing wood, Hagrid was chasing after the dragon shouting, "NO, KIBBLES!!" and Charlie was too busy laughing to do anything. Hermione was dancing by the pile of smouldering wood that was the shed, saying something that sounded like, "I knew I should have brought my book on dragons...", and both Harry and Ron started to laugh along with Charlie as Hagrid fell over, and the crowd of opsittops ran to hide under his beard.

Kibbles roared with fury as a deep, throaty sort of growl came from under Hagrid's beard. Only the opsittops' legs could be seen, their little knees shaking together as they chattered in the same throaty snarl.

Charlie stopped laughing, and looked curious at this, watching Kibbles toss his head back and forth, searching for the source of the noise. "Hang on... I think I've realised why he's so angry..."

"Bloody good job an' all," Hagrid muttered, trying to fish the opsittops out of his beard.

"The opsittops are making the sound a male dragon does when his territory has been invaded," said Charlie. He crouched down, scooped an opsittop out from under Hagrid's beard and studied it. It made a little 'rawr'ing noise, wriggling about in his fist. "You hear that? That's the noise." He poked the opsittop gently, and it roared at him again. It was amazing how something so cute could sound so fierce. "They probably picked it up from Kibbles, maybe smelling another animal in the forest."

"So... the opsittops are mimicking Kibbles," said Hermione. "And Kibbles thinks that they're another male dragon trying to get his territory?"

"Exactly," said Charlie.

"But how are we going to stop them roaring?" said Ron. "Maybe... we could get some spellotape, and make little gags for them all."

"We can't gag all of them," said Hermione. "There are about twenty-five here all ready, plus, it's very cruel. You wouldn't like it if somebody came along and put something horrible in your mouth to stop you talking."

Charlie grinned. "I wouldn't mind that."

Ron pushed his older brother, Charlie grabbed him and ruffled his hair again, blurring the edges of his white stripe. Ron screwed up his face. "Get off me! Why does everybody keep doing that? Don't - touch - the - do!"

Charlie laughed, gave him a last few flicks and then let him go. "Right, little-brother-teasing over. Gagging the opsittops won't work anyway. The dragon's roar doesn't come from the mouth, it's made in the throat. That's how they can breathe fire and snarl at the same time, at least, that's how Welsh Greens do it. What we need is to teach the opsittops how to make a pleasant dragon noise. Perhaps dragon song."

"Dragon song?" asked Ron, still trying to sort out his hair. "What's that?"

"It's the song that dragons make to show other dragons they like them. It's like... a friendship song. If we can get the opsittops to sing to Kibbles, he should be fine with them and calm down."

"But we need to find a dragon for that," said Harry. "One that knows the song already, so it can teach the opsittops. And how do we make the dragon sing anyway?"

"Dragons sing for various different reasons," Charlie explained. "There's mating, obviously, when young dragons are playing, if they come back to somewhere they were happy before. Whatever we do, we'll need another dragon, and a happy dragon at that."

They all thought for a moment, and then Hermione said, suddenly, "I've got it!"

"What?" everybody said.

"If they come back to somewhere they were happy before," said Hermione, excitedly. "What about - "

"You're not suggesting..." said Ron, looking horrified.

"Norbert?" said Harry.

Hagrid's face split into a wide, hopeful grin. "Oh, Norbert! What ever 'appened to him, Charlie? Could we get Norbert teh come back teh Hogwarts?"

"Oh, I don't know," said Charlie, looking a bit worried. "We've got him tagged, we know where he is, but... hang on... he's perfect! Why didn't I think of it before? He's got a mate, a Romanian Longhorn, we've called her Sly. She's expecting a child pretty soon, and she'll sing to the baby."

Hagrid's beetle-black eyes welled with tears, and he choked, "Norbert's gonna be a daddy? Then... then... I'm gonna be a Granny! Oh, my Norbert's all grown up now... he's got his own mate 'an everythin'... bless 'im..." He wiped his eyes. "I'm sorry... s'just so lovely... bless 'is little 'eart.."

"Then we'll bring Norbert and Sly over," said Charlie, smiling. "Oh, they'll need somewhere to live though. Somewhere nice and high up, with lots of space. Somewhere fairly cold, dragons don't like being that hot."

Ron and Harry shrugged, and Ron suggested, "A mountain somewhere?"

Hermione, however, smiled. "I think we've got somewhere that will do. And just the person who can ask to use it."

"Who? Where?" said Ron, frowning at her.


"Professor Sinistra might be a little reluctant at first, you realise," said Draco, as he led Harry, Ron and Hermione all up the cold stone staircase to the astronomy tower. "She's got a lot of sensitive equipment in the Astronomy Hall, and if she has to move all that out... I'll do my best, of course. And I daresay I have a better chance of getting her to agree, I am, after all, her favourite student." He smiled slyly, opening a trap door set into the wall of the staircase.

Ron and Harry swapped identical smiles. Draco raised an eyebrow at this.

"Yes?"

"You have too many hormones," said Ron, shaking his head, climbing after Hermione into the room through the trap door.

Draco's face darkened in a scowl, and he glared after Ron. "At least I do have them, Weasley, but don't worry, give it a few years and the freckles will turn into spots, I'm sure."

"Shut up, Malfoy," came Ron's voice, echoing from the other room. Harry clambered through the gap, and then Draco slid through, shutting the door carefully behind him.

Harry looked around. It was a fairly small room, very cold and plain, and there was no furniture at all, just stone tiles winding their way across the floor, up the walls and over the ceiling as well. "Where are we?" asked Harry, curiously.

Draco was counting tiles, and answered absent-mindedly over his shoulder. "Only students doing Astronomy at NEWT level ever get to come here. The equipment in all the NEWT rooms is highly sensitive, and Professor Sinistra, very wisely in my opinion, doesn't let the lower years near such delicate objects. I expect you all to be very careful. Especially you, Weasley."

"Especially me?" said Ron, shocked. "Why? What have I ever done?"

"Bigger people cause bigger accidents," said Draco, idly, reaching out and sliding his fingers across the gap between two tiles.

"Just because I'm taller than you," said Ron, waspishly.

"Such a childish reply," Draco mused, in a very superior tone, as he peeled the tiles down, taking out a whole section, and revealing a hidden door. Ron went for it, but Draco said, "Ah, Weasley. Ladies first," as he opened it for Hermione.

She smiled and stepped through. "Thankyou, Draco."

Ron shot a look of pure venom at Draco, who smiled pleasantly. "Weasley, you can go through now if you wish."

"I hate you," said Ron, his eyes narrowed.

"Likewise. Through the door, please, try not to fall over your own feet."

Ron shook his head disbelievingly and stepped through the door. As he did, he simpered, "Thankyou, Draco."

"It was my pleasure," said Draco, sweetly. Harry chuckled, shaking his head, and stepping through the doorway, followed by Draco.

This room was almost the complete opposite to the last one. It was simply huge, far bigger than the entrance hall, the roof was made of blackened glass, and the stone walls were lavishly decorated in long velvet drapes of royal purple. Delicate silver embroidery in the luxurious material glittered in the lights of the pearlescent white candles shlimmering everywhere. Magical telescopes were spread out around the hall, pointed out at the sky beyond, and in the very centre of the room was a huge glass ball, bigger than all of them, and inside was a fully moving, breath-takingly beautiful model of the galaxy.

"Gosh," said Hermione, excitedly. "The Astronomy Hall. I read about it in "Hogwarts : A History", but I never thought I'd actually be here. Of course, I didn't take Astronomy... I wish I had now. This is rather beautiful, isn't it? Oh, a lunarscope! I've always wanted to see one of these. I really wish I'd taken Astronomy now, but Professor McGonagall said I shouldn't - "

"Hermione, give it a rest," Ron groaned, massaging his head. "My ears can only take so much, you know."

They were distracted at that moment, as Professor Sinistra stepped out from behind the glass ball where she had apparently been standing all along, unnoticed by the four of them. She was a tall woman, very slim, tapered and elegant, with skin nearly as pale as Snape's, and dark purple and black hair, tousled around her thin shoulders, one half falling in front of her face. Her attire was usually black or purple, made of velvet, and today was no exception. Her cloak swept along the ground as she walked, and as she passed into the pool of light from a bundle of candles, the half-moon pendant around her neck gleamed with bright silver light.

"Good afternoon," she said, her black-inked lips curling into a smile. "May I help you?"

"Ah, Professor," said Draco. He smiled politely, his pale eyes glittering, and at times like this, it was easy to see the Malfoy blood in him. "I came to ask a favour."

Her amethyst-coloured eyes travelled onto the other three, one thin eyebrow arching ever so slightly. "And you brought back-up in case you somehow perished during the journey?"

"No, no," said Draco, smiling corteously. "The four of us are here to ask for a favour. In truth, Harry probably knows far more about the matter than I, but we thought it best if I came to show them the way."

"And what would this favour be?" she asked.

"In a few days, two fully grown dragons will be arriving from Romania," said Draco. "One is a female, expecting a child fairly soon, and this particular breed gives birth to live young. We need to find a suitable place for them to stay, and the only place that we can think of currently is the Astronomy Hall."

Her thin eyebrows rose a little. "Dragons? In the Astronomy Hall? That would disrupt the classes somewhat, don't you think?"

"We presumed that the equipment and classes would be moved elsewhere," said Draco. "There are a great deal of empty classrooms perfectly well-suited to astronomy and the objects used for its study."

"Hmm..." Sinistra looked rather thoughtful for a moment, her soft purple eyes lingering on Draco. "If there truly is no other place in school that they can be housed, then of course, I shall move."

"Thankyou, Professor," said Draco, with a gracious nod of his head. "I daresay that Hagrid and Professor Lupin will come up fairly soon to arrange the moving of all the equipment. Thankyou again."

"My pleasure," she replied, her eyes glittering as she smiled slowly, secretively, as though she knew things they didn't. She'd make a fair Divination teacher, Harry thought as they all turned away, and Draco lead them out of the hall, through the stone room, and back into the staircase.

"That was easy," said Draco, smiling.

"I didn't understand a word of what either of you said," Ron announced.

Draco chuckled. "It's called 'talking properly', Weasley."

"Yeah, and if you say one more thing against me I'm going to hit you so hard you won't be able to 'talk properly' for the rest of your life."

"Touche, Weasley, touche."

"What?"

"Never mind."

 

Chapter Thirty-Two: Women

Norbert and Sly arrived fit and well a few days later, and Harry spent quite some time in the Astronomy Hall with Hagrid helping them settle in. Hagrid had burst into tears when he was how huge Norbert had grown, about twice the size of an elephant, and Norbert, it seemed, recognised Hagrid as well. The dragon crooned softly and attempted to nuzzle Hagrid, which only resulted in Hagrid being knocked to the ground. Harry severely hoped that Norbert wouldn't try to give him a Hello Nudge, because if the dragon could push the half-giant Hagrid to the ground, he dreaded to think what it would do to him. Fortunately, Norbert didn't, and Harry's ribs stayed intact.

Sly was a magnificent creature, slightly smaller than Norbert, with dark-green emerald scales and long, glimmering golden horns. Charlie, who was staying at Hogwarts to check on their progress, told Harry that normally the Romanian Longhorn was a very quick, active species, but because Sly was so close to birth, she spent most of her time lazed out against the bottom of one of the walls on her back. Norbert was the perfect father, swooping in and out of the opening in the roof and bringing back cows and sheep for her. It wasn't nice to see two dragons tearing a dead sheep to bits, but, Harry reminded himself, at least it wasn't a first year.

The start of May came, accompanied by a term holiday for the exhausted students. Hermione and her parents were going to visit Wales for the holiday, so she made Harry swear to send her lots of letters about how the dragons were getting on, and whether Sly's child had been born yet.

Harry's life was becoming busier again. He was juggling Kainda, homework, dragons, DA Club, occlumency and Quidditch all at the same time, and they were all becoming more attention-needing. Kainda saw Harry in DA Club and Quidditch anyway, but he still liked to spend time with her when there wasn't Ron grinning and giving him the thumbs up from across the pitch. His homework was as demanding as always, and though his marks were picking up in occlumency, Snape would probably sooner marry him than let him have a break.

Quidditch, however, was the most important of them all. Harry got a letter a few days into the holiday that said the points of the league had been counted, and The Bright Sparks were going to be playing The Dragons a week after the end of the holiday. The Quidditch final was the first thing on Harry's mind at all times. He now realised why Wood had been so possessed about Quidditch. He was Captain and Seeker in the final, and he found himself sitting in lessons making up strategies and playing different scenarios across his head. He knew things were getting serious when he started dreaming about Quidditch, and woke up in a cold sweat after seeing Blaise's fingers clasp around the Snitch. He even woke Ron up just to check it had actually been a dream.

Though when Harry went down to see Hagrid one Saturday, he found himself suddenly grateful that he could sleep at all. The opsittops had apparently invaded Hagrid's hut and made themselves at home. They spent all their time mimicking the noises they heard, night and day.

"S'absolutely bloody mayhem," Hagrid told him, gruffly, pouring him some tea. "Can't do anythin' without them copyin' me." He put down the kettle, and instantly, there were about twenty echoes of the 'clink' from the little huddle of faces watching him in the corner. "Yeh see? Everytime anythin' makes a noise they 'aven't heard, they have teh make it. And Charlie snores, so all night long, I've got twen'y bloody opsittops snorin' away in the corner as well. Yeh should've seen the chaos yesterday. I got a letter from Professor Dumbledore, and the owl 'course hooted when I took the letter off it. They were all hootin' fer bloody hours, I swear, yeh've never heard anythin' like it."

Harry laughed, and raised the cup to his lips, taking a sip, about to say something else, but he was interrupted by twenty sipping noises from the corner. He smiled. "You're right, that probably does get annoying. Can't you just... put them outside?"

"Nah, can't, Harry," said Hagrid, gruffly. "They won'ts leave now. Got comfy. Besides, Kibbles still don't like 'em, and I think he'd probl'y eat 'em if he could." He snapped a biscuit in half, and there was instantly a series of answering snaps from the opsittop herd. "I'm thinkin' a lettin' him, actually."

So, with everything that was going on, Harry found his holiday flittering gently past. Before he knew it, it was the end of the first week and just two weeks to go until their Quidditch match.


When Harry woke on the bright Sunday morning, it was to the harsh ring of an alarm clock drilling into his ears. He groaned, rolling over and slapping the snooze button on the top of Ron's alarm clock. To his great surprise, the alarm clock shouted, "UP, you lazy scruff! UP! Come on, the early bird gets the worm!"

"And the second mouse gets the cheese from the trap," Harry groaned.

"UP!" the clock shouted, impatiently.

"No, leave me alone... you're not even my clock..." Harry rolled over, tucking the duvet over his head, and Ron gave a sleepy snort, pulling the blanket back.

"Come on, get up! Up, up now! Lots to do today, things to get on with! If you went to bed earlier, you wouldn't be tired, so come on, get up!" The clock started to ring again, clattering up and down until Ron got so annoyed with it he seized it and flung it across the room. It hit the wall and fell to the ground, leaving a ringing silence.

Ron yawned, tugging the blanket back. "Remind me to never take that clock anywhere near the opsittops... and stop stealing the covers."

"If you had your own duvet, I wouldn't have to steal the covers."

"Kibbles burnt my duvet."

"Yeah, and the dog ate my Transfiguration homework."

"Seriously. You can go and see it, it's there behind Hagrid's hut with the rest of the charred stuff he tried to make a nest with."

"You shouldn't have volunteered it then."

"I didn't know it was going to get cooked."

"What did you think Hagrid wanted it for?"

"I dunno, I thought he was going to smother the opsittops with it."

Harry yawned, stretching, then sitting up, tousle-haired and blurry-eyed. Ron groaned about putting the duvet back, but Harry ignored him. "Come on... we've got to feed the dragons..."

"Oh, just let them eat each other, it's cold..." Ron buried his face into his pillow. "Send Hedwig to Malfoy and tell him he can do their breakfast on his own for once, I'm sick of getting up early."

"It's ten o' clock," said Harry, chuckling a little, yawning again and stretching his arms. "Come on, I'm not going on my own." He reached out and put on his glasses, blinking as the common room gradually came into focus. Ron groaned, and with a lot of grumbling and dark muttering, he got up from under the mattress and started looking for his clothes.

"Are we going to go for breakfast today?" asked Harry, as he pulled on his jumper.

"No, there's no point. There's hardly anybody left at Hogwarts anyway, they won't notice if we're not there." Ron found his clothes, and dragged them off to the bathroom to change. When both of them were dressed, they found their dragon hide gloves, and headed off to the Astronomy Hall.

Draco was already there when they walked in, sitting cross-legged on the straw-strewn floor, sketching Sly. She was languishing stretched out on her side, eyes shut, looking rather peaceful in her sleep. Draco looked up as they came in. "Good morning."

"For you, maybe," Ron said, grumpily, still rubbing his sleep-ridden eyes.

Draco's eyes swept up and down Sly's scaly form, then back at his drawing, sketching something gently and then saying, "I've been here for hours. You both really need to get up earlier. It's much healthier."

"What, throwing myself out of bed and staggering around half-blind for hours? I don't think so." Ron held up his wand, and summoned an old bath tub they had set on rails. It came grinding towards him from across the hall, clanking against the wall, and he filled it with water, then banished it back along the rails. It squeaked to a halt in front of Sly, and she opened one yellow eye to stare scournfully at it for a moment, then went straight back to sleep.

There was a gentle fluttering noise from above, and Hedwig swooped in through the open ceiling, a letter tied neatly to her leg. Harry got a broom from the corner and started sweeping straw around as she glided down to him, perched on his shoulder, and nudged him with the letter. He took it off her gratefully. "Thanks girl."

She hooted fondly, nipped his ear, and then took off again, back through the ceiling, heading towards the owlery.

"Who's the letter from?" Ron asked, as he started hauling slabs of meat into a large container on wheels.

"I don't know," Harry said, shrugging. He propped his broom in the corner, opening up the letter, and recognising Hermione's neat, tidy handwriting at once.

Dear Harry - Hi! How are you? How are the dragons? I thought I'd write and tell you something interesting I found out a few days ago. Do you remember all that time ago before school started, and you wrote to me about the meeting at Grimmauld Place? You told me that Dumbledore was organising another wizarding publication to sell to people. It's out now! It's called The Truth. You won't believe the article I found in this week's edition. I've photocopied it at my local library and I'm bring as many copies back to Hogwarts as possible. Just wait until you see it! Love from Hermione.

Ron, who had been peering over Harry's shoulder and reading it himself, said with a raised eyebrow, "Don't you just love the way Hermione never leaves us in suspense?"

"Yeah," said Harry. He rolled the letter up. "I wonder what she's found out."

"Dunno. Maybe they're publishing "Hogwarts : A History" with a new cover or something." Ron shrugged. "Or something about how house elves should be set free. You know what Hermione's like."

Harry nodded, and with that, he pushed the letter to the back of his mind, starting to sweep the floor again, as Ron went to accuse Draco of being lazy and not helping.


The rest of the day passed by slowly. Harry spent the rest of his morning with the dragons, then went down to see Hagrid and Charlie after lunch. The opsittops were flourishing, and Hagrid had found the perfect solution to keep them quiet.

"Borr'red it off Professor Dumbledore," he said, opening the lid of a huge black cauldron. All the opsittops were inside, sitting around in a circle, blinking up with their wide green eyes. Harry could see what looked like a large marble floating in the middle of the opsittop ring.

"What is it?" asked Harry, curiously.

"S'charmed teh make random sounds," said Hagrid. "Every thir'y seconds, it makes a sound, and they all copy it. That's why I've put 'em in the cauldron. Keeps 'em lovely an' quiet."

The marble glowed a bright yellow, and quacked loudly. The opsittops all shivered with excitement, and repeated the quack perfectly, all together, making a noise like a gong being struck. Hagrid smiled, putting the lid back on the cauldron.

"I'm gonna 'ave my own little orchestra soon," he said, proudly. "One of 'em keeps whistlin' the Chudley Cannons theme tune. I'm thinkin' a sendin' him to their headquarters teh sing for 'em."

And so the day flittered past, and all too soon for Harry's liking, it was eight o' clock, and he found himself descending the marble staircase wearily, heading towards the dungeons for his occlumency lesson. Really, he wasn't sure why he kept having these classes. He was becoming pretty good in the subject, and even Snape admitted it. He hadn't had any more dreams about Voldemort or Death Eaters either. Of course, this was worrying him a little. Voldemort had been very quite for quiet some time now, and once again, he had the sensation he was being lulled into a false sense of safety.

He raised his fist, and knocked three times on the door of Snape's office, waiting to be let in. There was no answer. Glancing up and down the corridor, he knocked again, but once more, there was no reply. Harry frowned. Snape normally wrenched him inside before he'd even finished knocking. Tentatively, he curled his fingers around the handle of the door and eased it open, just a few inches. He peered around the door. Snape was nowhere to be seen.

Thinking that maybe Snape was in his classroom, he shut the door quickly, and crept down the corridor. He pushed the door of the Potions classroom open carefully, and looked around, spotting a figure sitting on one of the high stools at the back, legs swinging pleasant back and forth through the air. Dumbledore smiled at him. "Good evening, Harry."

Harry blinked. "Oh - hello, Sir. Where's - ?"

"Professor Snape has been called away on urgent business, and will most likely be back very soon," said Dumbledore, pleasantly. He produced a brown paper bag from the pocket of his long purple robes, and offered it to Harry. "Fizzing whizbee?"

"No thanks," said Harry.

Dumbledore popped one of the sherbet sweets in his mouth with a happy smile. "Madam Pomfrey says I shall rot away my teeth with all these highly tasty but unfortunately sugary sweets... alas, the price of sweetness?"

Harry sat down on one of the stools nearby, dropping his bag on the floor. "Headmaster? Where has Professor Snape gone? Is it something for the Order...?"

Dumbledore chuckled pleasant around his sweet, which was now beginning to foam in his mouth, and he was attempting to stop it running down his chin. "I'm afraid I cannot tell you, Harry, though rest assured if all goes well, Professor Snape will enter this classroom any moment now, bright as a daisy, with good news for all."

Dumbledore's timing couldn't have been any more spectacular, though his statement couldn't have been any more wrong. There was a tremendous bang behind Harry that very moment that made him jump, and Snape swept straight past him in, brimming over with fury. Harry could just sense the bad mood radiating from the Potions master.

"Women!" he spat, viciously, not spotting Harry or Dumbledore in his rage, proceeding to the front of the class and pulling open drawers in his desk. "Damn Albus! Damn it all, damn damn damn old man!"

"Good evening, Severus," said Dumbledore, pleasantly, from the back of the room.

Snape looked up in alarm, and his expression of fury melted instantly into a polite smile. "Ah, good evening, Headmaster." His eyes flicked to Harry, but before he could order him out of the room, Dumbledore cut in.

"Well, Severus, I came to wait for you to see if your task was a success or not. Judging by the way you walked in cursing my name, it was not?"

Snape glanced at Harry again. "Potter, out. Wait in my office."

"Can't I - "

"No," Snape hissed. "This is a private matter which I have absolutely no intentions of discussing anywhere near you. I'll call you back in when I deem it appropriate."

He said the last bit perfectly calmly, in the matter-of-fact tone that Harry normally assosciated with Hermione, though Snape's actiosn weren't in the least bit like Hermione. He found what he was looking for in his desk drawer, and Harry caught a split seconds view of the silver picture frame and the beautiful woman inside - before Snape hurled it against the far wall. It shattered into a thousand pieces instantly, showering the floor with glass.

Harry decided that perhaps it was best to leave after all and grabbed his bag, shooting out of the door before Snape could start hurling ornaments at him. He slammed the door behind him and proceeded to Snape's office quickly, slipping in and sitting down to wait. To his great surprise and delight however, he realised that the door from office to classroom was ever so slightly ajar. He bit his lip, wondering whether to listen in or not. After a few seconds of frantic thought, he slid his chair a few inches closer to the door, and leant in, listening very hard.

"Severus, calm yourself," Dumbledore was saying seriously. "Destroying treasured possessions will not help the situation in the slightest."

Harry jumped as there was a loud shattering noise, another photograph having hit the wall just beside the door. It fell with a clatter to the floor in jagged pieces, and Harry looked down into the face of the black-haired woman smiling up at him, her photograph torn slightly, showered in broken glass. Harry had never seen Snape resort to physical violence before, and he didn't like it. He couldn't think of anything that would get the Potions master angry enough to actually start hurling things around, though from the way Snape was behaving, Harry could tell this fury had been bottled up for a long time and needed to escape.

"Women!" Snape spat venomously again, and there was a swish as he apparently grabbed something else to throw. Harry was very surprised that Dumbledore wasn't running screaming from the room, but in fact, the headmaster was perfectly calm against Snape's rage.

"Severus," he said, firmly. "That will do. There is no need for such rash decisions - sit down. Tell me what happened."

There was a moment's silence, as Snape probably just glared at the headmaster, but then there was an exasperated sigh, the scrape of a chair and a creak as Snape sunk down into it. Harry chanced a glance through the door, just in time to see Dumbledore lower himself onto another school and give the Potions master a prompting sort of look.

"I met her in Hogsmeade, as we agreed," Snape muttered through his hair. "Things were... perfect. Just as always, and so I brought up the subject of her blasted husband. Rookwood. Obviously, I told her what we've found out, that she was in danger, that if she had any sense she would take shelter at Hogwarts. I tried my best to stress how much safer she would be in my - " He paused, changed his mind and said, "She would be in the Order's care."

"But?" said Dumbledore.

"But she won't." Snape brushed his hair wearily from his face, now perfectly calm, even though he reached out, picked up a fistful of worksheets and shredded them into several torn strips before continuing. "The stupid, foolish woman won't leave him, despite all the risks to her life, how he beats her, the threat from the Dark Lord, the perfectly safe sanctuary she has at Hogwarts just waiting for her to run to." There was a heavy thump as he banged a fist on his desk, and Harry sat back again, just in case, relying on hearing only. "Gods, Dumbledore, that woman will be the end of me! What possible excuse could she have? Is it me? I've offered her everything, and yet she prefers to wallow in some grime-stained filthy hole with... with Rookwood," he spat, and Harry was alarmed at the bitterness in Snape's voice. Was that jealousy he picked up layered under the Potion master's spiteful tones?

"What were her exact words?" asked Dumbledore, quietly.

Snape worked hard for a moment to control his breathing, and then said in a deceptively calm voice: "She said things were getting better with him, and she found the idea of her life being at risk ridiculous. Apparently, Rookwood is "away" at the minute... she wouldn't tell me what he may be doing..." Harry then distinctly heard Snape sigh, quietly, and his next words and the sadness in their tone made Harry's eyes widen in surprise. "She says she still loves him, Albus."

There was a moment's pause, and then Dumbledore murmured consolingly, "Severus, you must understand that marriage is - "

"A strong magical bond," Snape finished quietly. He stood up, and his footsteps came towards the door. Harry leaned back quickly but Snape didn't notice him there, as the professor bent down and scooped the smashed remains of the photograph from the floor. Harry glanced up, and saw that Snape was gazing at them with such a painful, broken expression that Harry found himself feeling sorry for the Potions master.

"I understand that this is hardly the thing you want to hear most of all," said Dumbledore, "but that bond may well be too strong to break, Severus. She agreed to spend the rest of her life with Rookwood, and if the bond is still active, and you intrude, you will pay even more greatly for your actions."

"I know," said Snape heavily, his eyes still lost in his smashed photograph. "I don't care, Albus. I don't care if it kills me."

Dumbledore appeared behind Snape in the doorway, laying a hand on his shoulder in a fatherly way. He said, wisely, "Love is the most wonderful, and yet most terrible occurance in this marvellously complex world we live in, Severus. It can make a man everything that he is, or rob him of his very soul."

"There is still that possibility..." said Snape, silkily and quietly, as though to himself. "If Rookwood was to..."

"Severus," said Dumbledore. His stern tone was nearly as surprising as Snape's. "Do not descend to the level of the man you're fighting. Someday the time may come, and if it does, I beg you to think with the logical mind you have displayed to me for fifteen years, and not the head of a jealous adolescent."

Snape frowned slightly. "I'll try to remember that, headmaster."

For a moment, Harry was too amazed in the look of longing on Snape's face as he fitted the pieces of the photograph back together to notice something. He tore his eyes away at last, and realised that Dumbledore was watching him closely, with a very serious expression. Harry looked back, apologetically, trying to read the expression on the headmaster's face. It wasn't angry in the slightest, more a gentle warning to not make himself seen.

"Perhaps a meeting with Mrs Rookwood in person would be in order," Dumbledore mused. "I shall talk to her Severus. Don't worry - I won't mention anything that might affect you," he added, seeing the swift glare Snape passed him. "In the meantime, I believe Harry Potter has a lesson with you now, and it would be dreadful to keep him languishing in your office all night."

Taking the hint, Harry put on his best casual face, just as the door opened and Snape leant out. "Potter? In here, at the front desk."

Harry headed up to the front of the room, his head too fogged with new information to consider arguing or grumbling. He heard Snape mutter, "And do not refer to her as Mrs Rookwood," to Dumbledore, before turning and sweeping up the room, back to normal again. Though really, was he back to normal? Was he back to not normal? Harry tidied the remains of a photograph into a neat pile, placed them on Snape's desk and realised that Snape actually had a life outside of the dungeons. Maybe the professor dreaded teaching as much as students dreaded being taught by him? He had a momentary vision of a Snape during the holidays, at a cafe with this woman, talking, sharing secrets, laughing and joking...

"Potter, get out of my memories."

"Sorry, Professor," Harry mumbled apologetically.

He glanced up, and saw Snape staring at him closely, frowning slightly, clearly dipping into his mind. Harry clapped his hands over his eyes quickly, a little like Dobby, and said, "I didn't hear anything!"

Snape pulled one of his hands away, fixing his gaze forcefully and scanning his eyes. Harry found he couldn't look away from the legilimens glare Snape swept over him. Harry was too full of information and wonder to block his mind properly, and Snape read him like a book. The Potions master's face contorted in anger. "Potter!"

"Sorry," Harry squeaked. "I couldn't help it. Honestly."

Snape ran a hand agitatedly through his hair, and said, vaguely, "You repeat none of this to your little friends. Are we clear?"

"Yessir," Harry mumbled, dipping his head. He placed the last shard of broken photograph on Snape's desk, next to the others, and whispered, "Maybe she just has bad taste, Sir..."

He chanced a look upwards, and Snape looked back down at him, considering the expression on his face. A second passed, and then Snape smiled ever so slightly. "Thankyou, Potter, but you don't need to bolster my moral. I shall do that myself, if you don't mind."

"Is it... is it Rookwood's wife?" Harry chanced.

Snape sunk into the black leather chair behind his desk, drumming his long fingers agitatedly on the polished pine. "Couldn't you have surmised that from the private conversation you listened in on?"

"That's a yes," said Harry. Snape continued to surprise him today, from flinging photographs around the dungeons to spilling his soul to Dumbledore, revealed as in love with Rookwood's wife, and now, the most startling thing of all, he wasn't tearing Harry to tiny pieces.

Snape sat back in his chair, fingers still drumming slowly, gazing heavily into the collection of shards of his precious photograph. "Don't try to understand this situation, Potter. It isn't just as simple as... Rookwood's wife and..." He fought to keep himself talking. "And myself. All other factors you will hopefully never have any knowledge of come into the equation. Think of it as a potion, and you only know one of the ingredients... even I myself don't have the full recipe."

Harry nodded, looking down at his desk, thinking of something to counter that exceptionally wise metaphor of Snape's. After a moment, he said, quietly, "There's always divorce..."

Snape laughed harshly. Harry heard a lot of the Snape he knew in that laugh. "Clearly you're not aware of wizard marriages, Potter, and until you are, you have no hope of even vaguely contemplating my situation. You're sixteen-years-old. You have no idea how lucky you - "

Quite suddenly, an empty bottle used for potions came tumbling down from the shelf above Snape's head, sailed downwards and there was a nasty crack as it clouted him hard on the skull. Snape hissed to cover the sound of his swearing, rubbing the back of his head furiously.

"Damn it all, she's not even here!" he snarled at the shelf above him.

Harry stared. "Um... Professor?"

"Don't tell me, Potter, I already have the headmaster on at my back about it every day," Snape snapped. His half-good mood seemed to have instantly vanished, but Harry found he wanted to know. He had to. This had been driving him crazy for months now.

"Why do...?"

Snape turned his black eyes onto Harry. "Isn't it obvious Potter?"

"They're not just accidents, are they?" said Harry. "Like at Grimmauld Place. Those glasses didn't just fall. And your magic didn't break for no reason."

Snape shook his head, and thought for a moment, considering Harry with an almost confused expression. "Surely you're not even that stupid? Haven't you worked out everything you need to piece it together?"

"I know... I know that you're in a relationship with a woman married to Augustus Rookwood," said Harry, tentatively, being very careful in how he worded this. "And that you've been getting bad luck for some reason, and it's got to be connected to her in some way."

"Any theories?" said Snape, with a raised eyebrow, almost amused by Harry's confusion.

"I... well, Ron and I thought that - " Seeing Snape's face darken, Harry said, quickly, "He's only seen what he would have seen anyway. I've told him nothing. All he knows is that you're getting bad luck and you're doing something to cause that. We... we heard you and Dumbledore talking at Grimmauld Place. And I'm sorry," he added, as Snape's eyes widened in disbelief at how nosy Harry was. "But that's it. That's all that Ron knows. I swear."

Snape sighed. "Very well. What is the theory of Weasley and Potter? And make sure you don't skip on the details, I need a good laugh."

"Well..." Harry tried to remember. "It's something to do with the Death Eaters. You're digging into some ancient black magic, and we don't know what it does, but it's reflecting bad luck on you. And before tonight, I'd have said that Rookwood's wife was helping you do it, but - "

He stopped talking, as Snape laughed, his head falling back. "Oh, Potter, so dramatic... always so dramatic... you never look for simple things, do you?"

"So we were wrong," said Harry, going a little red.

"Oh, you couldn't have been more wrong," said Snape, still sniggering, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "Something to do with the Death Eaters... how marvellously drastic..."

"So what is it?" asked Harry, with wide eyes. "Why are you getting all that bad luck? And I know that you're messing with some ancient magic, there's definitely ancient magic involved."

"Yes, there is..." said Snape, lazily, drumming his fingers slowly on the desk again. "But something a lot less sinister than Death Eaters. Voldemort has nothing to do with this. Tell me, Potter, is that all you see me as? A Death Eater? Is that the only side of me you can possibly comprehend?"

Harry looked up at Snape, and couldn't really think of anything to say. He knew Snape was partially right. Or, at least, Harry couldn't see Snape as a friend, or a husband, or an adulterer. He could picture Snape in the long, sweeping black robes of a Death Eater, the white mask, the Dark Mark tattooed on his arm. With a funny stab inside him, he remembered Snape cleaning his wounds after the brawl with Blaise Zabini, and imagining him as an uncle or a father for one instant. And as always, he could see Snape as the vile, spiteful Potions master he had always been.

 

Chapter Thirty-Three: Hagrid the Granny

Harry looked up at Snape, and couldn't really think of anything to say. He knew Snape was partially right. Or, at least, Harry couldn’t see Snape as a friend, or a husband, or an adulterer. He could picture Snape in the long, sweeping black robes of a Death Eater, the white mask, the Dark Mark tattooed on his arm. With a funny stab inside him, he remembered Snape cleaning his wounds after the brawl with Blaise Zabini, and imagining him as an uncle or a father for one instant. And as always, he could see Snape as the vile, spiteful Potions master he had always been.

Snape smirked lazily. "You do, don't you?"

"Partly," said Harry. "I... it's just that... well, Ron doesn't see you as a professor anymore, and Ron's the one I talk with most. He just sees you as a Death Eater. It's the only view of you I've got that somebody else shares."

Snape's dark eyes glittered, amused, as he sat back in his chair, watching Harry over steepled fingers. "My Potions mistress was an artist's model. She posed naked for a lot of muggle painters. According to the whispers I heard during lessons, the boys in the class could never look at her without seeing her naked. Black, I believe, was most badly affected by this. It was perhaps the reason he took Potions at NEWT level... but how odd. I never imagined myself being viewed in only one way."

"So it's nothing to do with Voldemort," said Harry, promptingly.

"No, it isn't, Potter." Snape surveyed him closely for a moment, languishing back in his black leather chair, shadows cast over half his face and candlelight washing across the other. "Clearly, I overestimated you. Have you never learnt about wizard marriage?"

Harry shook his head. "There was no need to... why? Is it different to muggle marriage?"

"At one point, it wasn't overly different," said Snape. "Of course, that time was several thousand years ago. At one point, wizards and muggles lived in relative harmony. I daresay Professor Binns has fruitlessly tried to teach you all this, and failed miserably... however... this time was when most magical folklore came out. I believe muggles refer to what wizards know as truth as fiction. Fairies, griffins, unicorns, phoenixes, magic... they all crop up in various muggle fairy tales at some point. Of course, muggles could not live peacefully with us for long. They have a distinct fear of things which are different - whether race, gender, sexuality, religion, or any number of things. And so wizards went into hiding."

Harry listened to him avidly, and realised that he was actually learning History of Magic and wanted to know more.

"For several centuries, the muggles kept some of our practices and some of our beliefs," said Snape. "Muggle tales of the time refer constantly to the magical community. The main belief they kept was of marriage, though in truth, it is not so much a belief but a practice. Muggles are simple creatures, even more simple than Hogwarts students. They copy what they see. For centuries, muggles witnessed wizarding marriages. A man and wife are bonded together in a ceremony, and that bond is sacred. Under no terms must it be broken. Once a wizard and witch agree to marry, they are together for the rest of their lives. Muggles saw this, and like the brainless creatures they are, they copied us. Up until the time of one of their kings, Henry VIII, divorce was forbidden in most of England, for the country was almost completely Catholic."

"And then he made his own church," said Harry, who remembered this part from his history classes at his old muggle school. "So he could divorce his wife without the pope's permission."

Snape nodded. "Indeed. The divorce rates worldwide were also incredibly low. Muggle marriages were admittedly very strong, almost as much as wizarding marriages. And then divorce was allowed, and the sanctity of muggle marriage slowly fell. It's still descending now. A quarter of all marriages end in divorce."

"But... why haven't wizard marriages fallen like that?" asked Harry.

Snape smiled grimly. "The bond involved in wizard marriages cannot be broken, Potter, by any means at all except one - death. As long as both partners are alive, the bond will work within their minds to keep them loving each other until their dying days. And, of course, this is where my situation enters the equation... adultery."

Harry thought for a moment, and then worded his question carefully, trying very hard not to say anything offensive. "Somebody who tries to intrude into the bond is given bad luck, aren't they? Is that why...?"

Snape nodded. "The bond between Rookwood and his wife is doing everything within its power to make me pay most dearly. You witnessed my magic break at Grimmauld Place? And yes, the terrible luck comes with it."

"Why don't... why don't you give up? The bond's going to do something really bad eventually, isn't it? It might..."

"Kill me," Snape finished. "And yes. Eventually, it will."

"Then why are you doing this? It's not worth your life," said Harry, desperately. "If the only way to break the bond is to kill Rookwood, you should kill Rookwood before you carry on, or wait for somebody else to kill Rookwood. You'll die if you keep going." He paused, and then went blindly onwards, saying, "Dumbledore won't want you to die. What about me? What am I going to do if you're dead? Who's going to give me an electric shock whenever I do anything dangerous?"

"Calm yourself, Potter," Snape said, quietly. "I have things under control... nothing incriminating has happened for a long time and it shall stay that way until Rookwood is dead."

"Were they already married when you met her?" Harry asked.

Snape shook his head. "No. I knew her for a very long time before he did. I met her in my sixth year... then he tore her from my side and made sure she could never be mine again. He married her."

Harry looked down, wondering what to say. After a moment or so, he managed, "I'm sorry..."

"What is there to be sorry about, Potter?" asked Snape, raising an eyebrow. "I'd have thought that you would be delighted by that story."

Harry shook his head, the vision of Mark Erith swimming across hid mind, of Cho, telling him there was somebody else. "No. I know you don't think I'm a very thoughtful person... I know what that's like though. Rookwood should die for that."

"Should he?" said Snape, his other eyebrow arching upwards. "Just for marrying somebody?"

Harry shook his head again, and this time, he saw Draco stroking the thestral gently on Hogsmeade station, and he remembered that it was Rookwood who killed Lucius Malfoy in front of his son. "Not just for that. For a lot of things." He paused, thinking of something, and looking up to meet Snape's dark gaze. "Professor?"

Snape had got out of his seat, and was strolling over to the corner sorting through various jars and bottles on a shelf. "Mm, Potter?"

"Why are you telling me all of this? Why do you trust me?" Harry got up, and followed him, resting against a cauldron. "No offence, but you're not the sort of person to spill all your secrets to somebody like me..."

Snape smiled slightly, selecting a bottle from the shelf, eyeing the label, and putting it back. "The guardian bond, Potter."

"What about it?"

"Admittedly, I never thought this would happen with our particular bond," said Snape, coolly. "It has more uses that just protecting you physically, or alerting me when you're in danger. Some bonds almost become a thing of trust... should the subject wish to confide in their guardian, the guardian will be unable to repeat the things they hear to anybody else. The bond inside you is aware of this, and so should I confide in you, you won't be able to repeat them either. It's a marvellous system."

"Then why were you always so worried about me telling Ron and Hermione about your secrets?" Harry asked, frowning.

"I didn't want to believe the trust factor had entered the bond," said Snape. He took down another bottle, and this time, it was the correct one. "Ah... open wide, Potter."

"What is it?" said Harry, worriedly, backing away a little when Snape advanced with the potion.

"Anti-food poisoning draft," said Snape. He uncorked the bottle, and handed it to Harry. "The Risotta is still a threat."

Harry drained the bottle slowly, closing his eyes again the horrible, sour taste. Once he was done, he wrinkled his noses, handing to back to Snape and wiping his mouth. "You couldn't make it a little sweeter, could you?"

Snape smirked. "Its need to work well far outstrips its need to taste nice. When you're lifting a spoonful of poison to your lips, Potter, you’ll - "

There was a knock on the door then, and Snape whipped around. Harry, caught by surprise and Snape's elbow, gave a startled cry and tumbled backward into one of the cauldrons with a loud thump. He cringed, only his legs sticking out of the top, knowing how stupid he must look.

"Professor?" he called, muffled because his chin was squashed against his chest. "A little help?"

"I got the right room then," said a soft, amused female voice. Harry instantly shut up and listened hard, trying to peer of the top of the cauldron.

"Mmm, you did," said Snape, vaguely, turning away and looking down at Harry in the cauldron. "I know you're a little spineless sometimes, Potter, but hiding whenever anybody knocks on the door is taking things a little far, don't you think?"

Harry squirmed slightly and opened his mouth to tell Snape to stop being such a jerk and talk to her, but he was slowly realising that there was some dried potion left in this cauldron, and it was burning a hole through the seat of his trousers. As a result of his wriggling, Snape's girlfriend noticed him.

"Boiling students again, Severus?" There was the sound of heels on the stone floor, and that woman appeared at Snape's side, looking down at Harry with a smile on her clever face. "Ah... Harry Potter. I wondered when I'd meet you."

"S'a pleasure," said Harry, sniffily, lifting his pelvis up as much as possible to stop his trousers dissolving completely.

"Aren't you going to introduce us, Sev?" she said, with a raised eyebrow and a cool smile.

Snape's right-eye twitched at being addressed with a pet name in public, and he muttered, "This is Potter. Potter, this is Andralyn."

Andralyn? Harry wondered for a moment where he'd heard that name before. "Hello," he said, breathlessly, aware his legs were still up in the air like television aerials.

"It's a pleasure," she said, in that soft purr. She leant down into the cauldron, offering him a pale, delicate hand with long, perfectly manicured nails. He took it, expecting a handshake, but with surprising strength for such a slim woman, she helped him out of the cauldron and set him back on his feet. He made sure his back stayed facing the wall, to hide the sizzling hole in his trousers.

"Thanks," he said.

She smiled slightly, a very cool, clever sort of smirk. Snape had good taste, Harry thought.

The Potions master cleared his throat. "Is there a reason you came here, or have you joined the Helping School Boys Out Of Cauldrons squad?"

"Oh no, they turned down my membership." She smiled sweetly. "Dumbledore wants me to bring you to his office so all of us can talk about the... ah... situation as adults."

"Is Rookwood there?" said Snape, his eyes narrowing dangerously.

She chuckled. "Why yes, Severus, we've managed to track down a Death Eater who's on the run, and he came willingly into a school and agreed not to kill any children or Dumbledore. He also doesn't know that his wife is having an affair, but he seems really cool with it."

Snape rolled his eyes. "Sarcasm. How predictable of you." He glanced at Harry, and said, "Potter, I shall be back in ten min-"

"In an hour," she corrected. "In fact, why don't you pack up your things and - "

"Stay right where you are, Potter," Snape growled. "I shall be half an hour at the very most." He drew his wand from up his sleeve, and conjured a thick book titled, 'How To Con Muggles With Legilimency And The Pure Arts'. "I expect you to be able to convince the average muggle you're psychic by the time I get back."

Without another word, he swept along the rows of desks and pulled the door open, bringing a quick draft into the room that ruffled Harry’s hair. Andralyn smiled to Harry, a very pretty smile that would have had Draco quivering, and then followed Snape. As she was passing out of the door, Harry saw her pinch his cheek teasingly, and the snarl curling Snape's lips at the gesture, then the door slammed. The very moment that silence dawned, Harry yelped with pain and started to frantically fan his rear end with his hand, swearing.


The expression on Ron's face when Harry stepped into the common room, ripped off his robes and revealed a gaping hole in the backside of his trousers was something that Harry would never forget.

"What on earth did - "

"I sat in a potion," said Harry, angrily. "I've been clamping my robes around my backside for the last two hours."

"You sat in a potion," said Ron, with a look that suggested he didn't believe a word of it.

"It hurt," Harry blustered. "A lot! Snape's girlfriend had to get me out of the cauldron!"

Ron raised an eyebrow. "You were in a cauldron, and Snape's girlfriend had to get you out because you were sitting in a potion."

"Yes!" Harry said, grabbing his pajamas. Ron covered his eyes with a book as Harry changed, his third cousin still talking angrily. "And I'd appreciate a little sensitivity about it, actually."

Ron grinned into his hands. "Don't be like that, Harry. Just get some new trousers on and save the old ones, Hermione probably knows some weird Hole In Trousers Caused By Potions Stain charm. Maybe that's what that article was about."

"And Hermione can see into the future now, can she?"

"Sure, she probably taught herself it over the Christmas holidays. I wouldn't be surprised."

Harry pulled his pajama top on, doing up the buttons. "There, you can look." He carried his trousers over to his trunk and stuffed them in, slamming the lid, standing up and jumping with surprise as he came face to face with a large brown owl sitting on the windowsill outside, rapping on the glass. He pulled the window open, the owl handed him a letter scribbled quickly on a torn scrap of parchment, and then it flew off into the night again.

Frowning, Harry read the letter, and when he was finished, his face split into an excited grin. "Ron! Sly's having her baby! Hagrid just sent me a note!"

"What?" Ron was up and out of bed instantly. "We've got to go down there!"

Harry stuffed the letter from Hagrid into his pocket, grabbing the invisibility cloak and putting on his slippers so quickly that he didn't notice that one was Ron's, and they were on the wrong feet. Ron tugged his Chudley Cannons dressing gown on over his pajamas, and they both hurried out into the dark corridor.

"Which way is it again?" said Ron, looking around. "I can't recognise this place in the dark."

"Shhh," said Harry. He threw the invisibility cloak over them both, making sure no body parts were sticking out, and then said, quietly, "It's this way. We head for the astronomy tower, then there's that door... it won't be hard..."

They set off down the darkened corridors, moving quietly and slowly, always checking there was nobody around. Technically, Ron was allowed out at night, but it would seem suspicious if he was in his pajamas and a bright orange dressing gown, heading up to the astronomy tower. There was only one place in the school that was better guarded that the astronomy tower, and that was Snape's dungeons. Any students found creeping around the dungeons at night would be sliced into little pieces and turned into a photograph-developing potion the next day by Snape's first class. Professor Sinistra was apparently just as protective of her chambers, and the astronomy tower was the cleverest place in school.

As they neared the entrance hall, both of them slowly became aware of an odd sound, like lots of small children doing farm animal impressions. When they passed the marble staircase, they saw Charlie Weasley chasing opsittops around the entrance hall, trying to put them back in a large cardboard box at the foot of the stairs. The sneezy opsittop was making a break for freedom up the marble steps, having to hop to grab the edge of each one and haul himself up, sneezing every few seconds. Ron made a funny noise as Sneezy disappeared under the invisibility cloak, hiding from Charlie, but luckily, Charlie didn't notice.

"Get it out," Ron whispered.

"Shhh," Harry hissed. "He'll go out soon on his own."

Ron yelped then, and Harry dug his elbow hard into Ron's side, exceptionally glad that Charlie was being harassed by the opsittops and didn't hear Ron's surprised yell. Ron choked, "It's going up my trouser leg, Harry."

"Shake it out," Harry said, "and be quiet! Charlie might hear you!"

Ron shifted next to him, and there was a thump, a sneeze, and Ron sighed. "It's out. Come on, quick, before it tries to turn my trousers into a ladder again."

They hurried off, darting quickly down a corridor. Harry had just stopped to try and work out which way it was to the astronomy tower when Ron gasped.

"It's following us!"

Sneezy was pattering down the corridor after them, arms outstretched, as though looking for a hug, making a high-pitched squeaking sound as he ran. "Can it see us?" Harry whispered, his eyes wide.

"Apparently not," said Ron, as Sneezy sprinted right past them, still squeaking. The little opsittop stopped, looking very confused and blinking around at the darkness. "Come on." Ron nudged Harry in the leg, and they started to walk very quietly along the corridor, desperate not to have Sneezy follow them all the way there trying to cuddle Ron's leg.

Sneezy still looked confused, his big green eyes welling with little tears, and then to their surprise, he said, in a voice that was perfectly like Ron's, "Harry?"

Harry stopped, staring at it. Ron froze next to him, and whispered, "It can talk!"

"No it can't, it just heard you," said Harry.

"Harry?" Sneezy croaked. He looked around the darkness with wide eyes, looking frightened. "Ron?"

"Oh, we can't leave it," Ron whispered. "Look at it. It's going to cry."

Harry sighed, and lifted up the corner of the invisibility cloak. "Sneezy! Get in here, and stay quiet!"

Sneezy's eyes widened, and his face split into delight as he pattered over, squeaking again. Ron jumped and hissed, "It's hugging my leg again, Harry!"

"He's not doing any harm," said Harry. "Don't kick him. Come on, Sly might have had her baby by now."

They set off again, Harry constantly telling Ron to stop complaining, Ron moaning about Sneezy, and Sneezy sitting comfortably on Ron's shoe, making a happy gurgling sort of noise in between his sneezing. After what seemed like hours, they found the door in the staircase, got through the other room with the stone tiled walls, and emerged in the dragon enclosure.

Hagrid and Draco were already there. With a great deal of bravery Harry thought, Draco was sitting by Sly's head, draping wet towels over her neck and face. Obviously, cooling charms wouldn't work. Dragon skin repelled most charms and hexes. Hagrid stood by her stomach, rubbing her gently and checking on the baby. Norbert was prowling around the place looking like most fathers did before their first child was born, and when Harry and Ron drew off the cloak, he came right over and gave them a good sniffing. Ron stood frozen-still, quivering in his bright orange dressing gown, as Norbert eyed him closely.

Sneezy wasn't quite as scared as Ron. He stared back at Norbert when it was his turn to be smelt, and gave a curious, "Oooooooooh," punctuated by a loud sneeze. Norbert drew back, revolted, and let them pass, clearly worried he would be covered in opsittop spit again.

Harry went over to sit with Draco. The Slytherin looked very agitated. His blonde hair was splayed all around his shoulders and he was still wearing a very ruffled school uniform, his tie half undone, shirt untucked, robes thrown vaguely over a stool nearby. "Pass me another towel," he said over his shoulder. Harry handed him one, and Draco draped it carefully over Sly's forehead. She made a high, weary keening sound in thanks.

"How long's she been like this?" Harry asked, rolling up the sleeves of his pajamas and conjuring more towels to dunk in the water.

"Few hours," said Draco. He sighed tiredly. "Dragon births can be as fast as an hour, or as long as a few days. Think Quidditch match lengths."

"Oh, great," said Harry, slightly sarcastically.

Everybody present winced as Sly gave a high, echoing keening cry, her powerful claws lashing out and knocking a mountain of bales of hay to the floor. Ron yelled, the straw cascading down on top of him and knocking him over. For the next fifteen minutes, Sneezy sat in a corner, mimicking Ron's cry perfectly, until Ron tried to dunk the little opsittop in Sly's water trough, and Sneezy shut up pretty quickly.

The hours slid past, the candles burning lower and lower until the ceiling was cast with spidery shadows and everything was gloomy and dark. Charlie Weasley appeared with the rest of the opsittops, and he and Ron spent the night keeping them entertained, while Harry, Draco and Hagrid attended to Sly. It was two in the morning before Harry even realised how late it was, and how low his eyelids were drooping.

"Draco," he said, sleepily. "Wake up."

Draco woke up with a soft snort of surprise, just stopping himself from falling face down into the warm water for the towels. "What?"

"There's a dragon in labour, if you forgot," said Harry. He rubbed his eyes tiredly, taking another towel out of the water and draping it vaguely across Sly's neck, though it did nothing really. The dragon keened again, her tail thrashing to one side and nearly decapitating Hagrid.

Draco groaned, running his hands wearily through his hair. "I'm tired. I smell of dragon dung. My hair is a mess. There's straw on my clothes. I shouldn't have to do this... I want to be an astronomer for Merlin's sake. I'm not going to be running around some horrid, straw-ridden, cold, dark - "

His words were cut out instantly as Sly gave a horrible, piercing, keening screech that Harry at first thought was the siren. Everybody clamped their hands over their ears, even the opsittops, as Sly continued to thrash around, knocking candles from the walls and upsetting several large barrels of water, sending it gushing everywhere. Draco yelled, "I don't BELIEVE it!!" as he was completely drenched from the waist down in the flood, and for the few seconds of quiet afterwards, he stamped his foot, looking as though he was going to cry. "That's it!! I quit!! Stuff your stupid dragon, I don't care!!"

But he fell quiet, and so did Harry, as a soft, almost silent sound met their ears. A tiny, gentle little whimpering sound. They turned around to look, as Hagrid came into view, a damp towel bundle in his huge arms. They all fell instantly silent, and the whimpering grew a little louder, as Hagrid brought the bundle over to them, and knelt down.

The baby dragon was tiny, barely the size of a rabbit, his bottle green scales damp and delicate-looking, his wings crumpled around himself, two tiny little stubby horns just visible on top of his head. He mewled softly. Harry felt a tug in his heart. Hagrid apparently did as well. There were tears of joy leaking into his beard. Charlie appeared at Hagrid's shoulder, followed by a crowd of curious opsittops, and Harry could almost see the lump in Charlie's throat.

"S'beautiful," Hagrid choked.

"Yep," said Charlie, in an oddly strangled voice.

Sly gave a shrill snort, tilting her head wearily towards them, sniffing gently for her baby. Hagrid and Charlie both walked over and sat by her head. Hagrid held out the tiny little baby dragon, and Harry watched, fascinated, as Sly nuzzled her little one gently. The baby coughed a little, almost a squeak, his little arms reaching out and pawing at her snout. Hagrid choked back a sob of what sounded like, "That's my grandson", and then they all shivered slightly, as Sly began to sing.

It was one of the most beautiful things Harry had ever heard. Soft and high, gentle, soothing, the complete opposite of what dragons were in the eyes of most wizards. Harry felt as though he was being wrapped up in a thick, snuggly blanket, getting smaller, rolling over to cuddle against somebody warm and soft, hearing a woman's voice singing softly, a song he couldn't remember and yet could never forget. He became very dimly aware of voices somewhere inside his mind, and above him, somebody came into view, and a hand smoothed around the back of his head.

"He's beautiful, isn't he, James?" said a soft, sweet voice that made something tug painfully inside him.

"Almost as much as his mother..." came the reply, gentle and calm. Harry felt something strong from that voice. Something that said he was safe. Something that told him he'd never be hungry, or never be cold, or never alone.

Very vaguely, his thoughts faded away, bringing back the hunger pains stabbing in his stomach, and the cold of the Astronomy Hall. He looked around. Everybody else seemed to have gone through the same thing. Harry and Charlie were smiling. But Hagrid and Draco looked just like Harry felt. Very alone indeed.

"What was that?" said Harry, as Sly continued to sing to her baby.

"A mother dragon's song," said Charlie. He smiled softly. "It brings back memories of being very small. Your own mother singing to you."

Draco's head tilted forward, his hair falling down over his eyes, perhaps to hide something. Hagrid shook his head and said, "Well. Where's the opsittops? We need teh teach 'em the song."

The opsittops, however, were already learning. They stood in a little crowd around Charlie's feet, staring up at the dragons with wide, desperately excited eyes, swaying from left to right in time to the song. Harry could practically see the recognition dawning in their little faces. One or two started to hum. Somebody was whistling along to the tune. A few more started murmuring, picking up a few definite notes, and then a couple of little voices got braver, singing softly. It took just a few seconds more, before the entire herd of opsittops started singing, warbling the beautiful song back to Sly and her baby, all perfectly in tune, a little choir of opsittops. Charlie started humming along, and then Hagrid did, and Harry found himself whistling the tune gently, and soon everybody in the dragon enclosure was singing together. The sound echoed around the stone walls, making the candles flicker in their flames, and even Draco was singing past his tears for the parents he lost. Harry could imagine the whole castle echoing the sound back, high and soft, lighting up the whole of Hogwarts for the little baby dragon.

 

Chapter Thirty-Four: A Rush of Arrivals

A week later, it was the last day of the holiday break before lessons were going to start again, and life would return to its normal, busy, hurried rush. More importantly, Harry thought, the Quidditch final was only a week away. Every single spare moment of the team's day was spent out on the pitch, come rain, shine, hell or high water, and at least three times, Professor McGonagall had to come out at midnight to tell them to get back inside. Ron had started a running commentary when they were walking down corridors, constantly announcing if he saw a Bright Sparks badge, or a badge of the rival team, The Dragons. Harry was pleased to see that a lot of the teachers were on the side of the Bright Sparks. Lupin and Alrister were right in the lead, and wore their badges with pride.

Of course, The Dragons had their fans. Most of Slytherin house, and to Harry's alarm, Ravenclaw as well. He supposed Mark Erith had something to do with that. Harry didn't know why he hated Mark Erith so much. Ron had a theory as to why.

"He dented your honour," Ron explained, coolly, as they made their way towards the entrance hall on the morning when Hermione and her copies of The Truth were due back at Hogwarts. "So what, it was Cho? It's because it was YOUR girlfriend. It doesn't matter if she was horrible to you, or you hate her now, or they split up or whatever. It's your honour he stole mostly."

"Cho was not my honour," said Harry, frowning.

"Yes, but it's the principle," said Ron. "It doesn't matter whether it's your girlfriend or your scarf or your quill. He stole something from you."

"You steal my quill in nearly every lesson we have," said Harry, raising his eyebrows.

Ron paused for a moment, then said, "Look. It's the principle."

Harry chuckled. "I've got some advice for you - don't give advice."

They met up with Draco in the entrance hall, and Ron started up a mini trading ring of Quidditch cards and food. Harry and Draco stood and debated Quidditch tactics, finally getting into a very heated discussion about the importance of the Keeper when compared with the Beaters, only interrupted when the doors of the entrance hall opened, and the students poured in. Harry looked up, scanning every face and watching for Hermione. "So, what do you think she's got to show us?"

Ron shrugged, absent-mindedly shuffling through his new treasures. "The ministry might be bringing out a new Transfiguration text book or something. You know what Hermione's like. It'll either be something really, really, really boring and only interesting to know-it-alls, or it'll be something really risky and farfetched. Remember the polyjuice potion?"

"Polyjuice potion?" said Draco, curiously.

"Uh, nothing," said Ron. "Hey look, there's Hermione!"

She was fighting her way through the sea of students, calling out to them, "Harry, Ron, Draco! Over here!" She pushed through a group of first years hurriedly, and ran across the entrance hall. Harry saw a white and gold magazine clutched tight in one of her hands, and she was carrying a bag in the other, which was full to the brim with more copies.

Ron's eyebrows rose up when he saw the bagful of magazines. "Oh, I see. You've read the entire library, so you're now onto the entire magazine collection of the earth."

Hermione ignored him, and instead unrolled the magazine, flicking through the pages quickly, passing articles about all sorts, all of which greatly intrigued Harry, until she came to the page she was looking for and pulled it open. "Look," she said.

Harry's eyes skimmed vaguely over the headline, "HYPOCRITE "HIGH INQUISITOR'S" HIDDEN HORRORS", before something far more noticable caught his widened eyes. There was a large photograph of Professor Umbridge in the middle of the page, next to a picture of a toad, proudly displaying the caption, "The Not-So-Subtle Similarities".

"What on earth...?" said Draco, frowning, who was a far faster reader than Ron and Harry, his eyes darting back and forth across the lines of text. His frown then lifted, as his jaw slackened and fell. "She's a WHAT?"

Hermione snapped the magazine shut, and looked at them all with the air of somebody revealing the meaning of life. "Yes," she said, dramatically. "It's so farfetched it can't possibly be fake."

Ron sighed. "We didn't even read what it was about, Hermione."

"Come on, we need to go somewhere quiet," she said, hurriedly, and with that, she hurried off out of one of the large doors leaving the entrance hall, out into the grounds. Draco followed after her, Ron and Harry swapped confused looks, then went out into the courtyard after them.

Hermione was already sitting on a bench and flipping through the magazine again. Harry sat on one side of her, and Ron and Draco had a brief fight over who got the other side, won by Ron, and Draco stood behind them all watching. Hermione was muttering as he scanned the pages. "It's about Umbridge... it's why she hates half-breeds so much... she is one..."

"What?" said Ron, amazed. "What's she a half-breed of?"

Hermione found her page, and pulled it open triumphantly, holding it up. "There are a people who live in the deep rivers of the Amazon rainforest - the toad people."

Harry's eyes widened, as he skimmed through the article, taking in snippets of information. "She's half-toad?"

"Her father isn't the senior ministry member she claims he is," said Hermione, in hushed tones. "It's one of the toad people. That's why she looks so much like one, and why she punishes half-breeds."

"Does it say what happened to her after the end of last year?" asked Ron, leaning over her shoulder.

She nodded. "Several people contacted the ministry about suspicious scars on the backs of their childrens' hands, and there was an inquiry. She lost her job. Nobody's really sure where she went after that, but nobody's really heard anything from her since then." She raised her eyebrows. "Pretty suspicious, if you ask me."

Harry snorted. "You don't think she's up to something, surely."

"She might be," said Hermione knowledgably. "You never really know who to trust right now, do you? Anybody could be a spy for Voldemort."

Harry understood perfectly what she was saying. His views of several people had been severely tested over the last months, and he had to admit, some of his opinions had greatly changed. "But still... Umbridge? She was probably just some ministry goodie-two-shoes following orders Fudge gave her."

"Carving stuff into the backs of students' hands?" said Ron, raising one eyebrow. "Yeah, very goodie-two-shoes, Harry."

Harry nodded slightly. "Well... I still don't think she was in with Voldemort. Come on, if she was, she could have done far worse things to us..."

"I think she did the worst she could whilst being subtle," said Hermione. "Think about it Harry. All those educational degrees to restrict us? She didn't just make our lives a misery, she put our future in danger. If it wasn't for you Harry, nobody would have any idea of fifth year Defence Against The Dark Arts. Our whole school life in the subject has been terrible... we're very behind. Huge chunks have been left out of the syllabus, and Umbridge did nothing to help that at all. If she was really on the side of the ministry, she'd have at least shown us some practical work, even if it wasn't how to fight off Voldemort. But by not teaching us any at all... it leaves us very vulnerable, don't you think?"

"I suppose..." said Harry.

Draco spoke up, quiet and thoughtful. "Being in the Inquisitorial Squad gave me a view of her that none of you ever saw... but don't think I'm standing up for her," he added, quickly, seeing the look Ron gave him. "Quite the opposite. She started to scare me by the end of the year. Before, she always told us that everything we were doing was "for the good of our future education". But she stopped doing that. She made us do completely irrelevant things... just odd things." He frowned a little, lost in thought. "Always to do with Professor Snape, or the ghosts. We had to keep a watch out for them, and keep diaries of everything they did, even if we just glimpsed a ghost heading towards the astronomy tower. She was really suspicious of them."

"How odd," said Hermione, pensively.

Draco nodded. and then continued, with a rather worried frown. "But it was odd. She wasn't interested what Snape was teaching us. Remember when we were doing poisons? She didn't care about that, she just waved it aside, asking us what he was wearing... and about his arms. She was scary."

"What about his arms?" said Hermione, frowning curiously.

Draco shook his head a little, then said, "She was always convincing us to try and see his arms. The bare skin of the forearm, she said. She was obsessed."

"Oh, well, we all know why that was," said Ron, rolling his eyes. "Come on Malfoy, even you can't be that thick. Dark Mark? It's always on the forearm, she wanted you to check whether he was a Death Eater or not. Probably so she could report him to the ministry."

"The ministry already know he was a Death Eater," said Harry.

"And the mark isn't always on the forearm," said Draco.

"And what good would that do?" said Hermione.

Ron flapped his hands, "Whoa whoa whoa. The ministry know? And they're still letting him teach us? And how do you know it's not always on the forearm, it has to be. And Hermione, that's a silly question, it would get him fired and Umbridge didn't like him. Simple answer."

"Yeah, the ministry know," said Harry. "But he's changed, he's not a Death Eater any more. He's on our side."

Ron shrugged. "Yeah, that's what they think."

"He is," said Draco. "And about the mark, I just know, Weasley. Trust me."

Ron snorted, casting a contemptuous eye onto Draco. "As if I'd ever do something like that."

Draco paused for a moment, then said, "Father's was between his shoulder blades."

Harry, Ron and Hermione all looked at him in surprise. Ron said, incredulously, "What, showed it off, did he?"

Draco shook his head. "No, he kept it covered at all times, but I just knew. He told me. You know when you're a very small child, and you get sat down and told the facts of life? Granger, you were probably told that to be successful, you have to learn until your head explodes. Weasley, you probably got the 'now, we don't have much money' talk. Potter - " He paused. "Potter, I don't know about your muggle family. I'll leave that. But I was sat down and told all about Voldemort."

"Seriously?" said Harry, with raised eyebrows.

Draco nodded. "Seriously. It wasn't a big thing in our family. We just got told that the Dark Lord is our ultimate loyalty and the Malfoy family have been treated better by Voldemort than the ministry. Scoff all you like Weasley, that's how it happened."

Ron scoffed anyway. "We're digressing from Umbridge. Stuff whatever she's up to, Hermione, we've got gold in paper form here! We've got to sell this. Or stick it up all around school. Or hand it out." His eyes glittered at an idea. "We could drop them all over the school! Or turn one into a Howler and have it screamed it out across the school at breakfast time!"

"A little vulgar, isn't it?" said Draco, raising one slim eyebrow.

"What do you suggest then?" snapped Ron.

"Give one to Lavendar Brown and Pansy Parkinson, it'll be round the school in hours," said Draco, smiling.

"We could have a DA Club all about the toad people," said Hermione, thoughtfully. "And casually mention it all. Just slide it into the meeting. It would be marvellous to see their faces."

Ron looked around at them all seriously. "Unless we tell them with accompanying explosions, the whole effect will be ruined. I'm telling you, people. Something has to blow up at the same time. A Howler. Or a huge exploding charm which showers the whole school in copies."

"Too theatrical," said Draco. "It has to be subtle, as though we just think they should be aware of this."

Ron opened his mouth to argue back, but they were all cut off, as suddenly, a great wave of noise rushed over out of the entrance hall. It sounded like shouting, a lot of frightened talking, and there was the sound of a young girl crying, "What happened to him? What happened?"

"What's going on?" said Ron, frowning, getting up and peering through the door. "I can't see anything."

Draco sighed, sliding his prefect badge out of his pocket and snapping it onto his robes. "Weasley, you have to learn how to exploit these things." He cleared his throat, and swept into the crowd, with a shout of, "Prefects coming through! Move aside there! What's going on?"

Hermione and Ron hurried after him, clicking their own badges in place, and Harry followed them interestedly. The crowd parted to let the prefects through, all of them talking in hushed, confused voices, and it seemed that Harry was the only one who understood what was going on.

A girl who was sixteen, but looked younger, was crouching over a boy of eighteen who was lying flat out on the floor, apparently exhausted. Harry recognised those 1950s Hogwarts robes. Peter Peelish. For a moment, Harry moved as though to run to Peter and Jinx, and see what was the matter, but he realised that nobody knew apart from him.

Draco was apparently taken aback by what he saw before him, and swept forward after a moment's contemplation, frowning. "You, what's going on?"

Jinx looked up at him, her eyes wide, looking scared. The crowd drew back at the eery contrast of peacock blue and lime green, and when she blinked, the colour swapped sides. "Please... get Dumbledore..."

"Who is it? What house is he in?" said Draco, brusquely, moving forward, and Harry took the opportunity to follow him. "What year?" He frowned. "And why isn't he wearing the correct uniform?"

"I... I..." Jinx looked terrified at all the questions, and then just shook her head, whispering, "Dumbledore... please... get Dumbledore..."

There was a loud squeak from the edge of the crowd, as Professor Flitwick popped out of the sea of legs. "My my, what's happening here? Is somebody hurt?"

Jinx turned around to look at him, her eyes full of fear, and Professor Flitwick stopped in his tracks, staring at her, completely shocked. For a moment or two, he seemed lost for words, and then he said, in a voice that suggested he thought he was seeing things, "Miss Peelish? What are... but you're..."

"I need Dumbledore," she said, desperately. "Get Dumbledore, please!"

Harry crouched down by Peter as Draco, Jinx and Flitwick all debated, watching his guardian carefully. There was a large burn plastered across the side of his face, and a nasty cut across his forehead, weeping silver and black blood, and he was very still and quiet. Harry placed his fingers to Peter's neck, checking for a pulse, but obviously, there was none.

Harry's cold fingers seemed to do something to Peter anyway. He stiffened up, and everybody drew back, as gradually, he woke up, blinking, his brow furrowed. "Where... what..."

"We don't know," said Harry. "We just found you in the entrance hall with Jinx lying over you."

Peter stared up at him, frowning, a shocked look in his eyes. He tried to hiss a 'shhh', but Ron (who was at Harry's side) had already heard Harry refer to the girl as Jinx. "Who?" said Ron. "Do you know her?"

Harry shook his head vaguely, and luckily, he was spared having to answer properly as Professor Flitwick scurried over, and he didn't have to crouch to talk to Peter. "Peelish? What happened?" he squeaked.

Peter put a hand to his head, dabbing his fingers in the blood, and it all seemed to come back. "Rookwood, Professor... his wife's gone missing... he was angry, very angry... I got in the way..."

Jinx was coming over now, and more and more curious people were strolling over for a look. Jinx crouched down by her brother, and as she did, they could see through her bright circus-clothes onto the floor. Everybody gasped, edging away, but Jinx just ignored them, as she reached down, taking her brother's hand. "Are you alright, Peter?"

"Peter Peelish," said Ron, quietly, frowning at the boy and the girl on the floor. Harry felt a surge of horror and turned to Ron, about to change the subject, but he was too late, as he saw the dawning realisation rush over Ron's face. His eyes widened, and he gasped, "It's you! It's Peev-!!"

Harry grasped him around the mouth, muffling the end of his sentence and quickly dragging him out of the crowd before Ron could say another word. Nobody was paying enough attention to them to notice, and thankfully, the noise of their conversation was lost in the murmuring of all the interested people, as Harry dragged Ron into the mouth of the dungeon corridor, and let go off his cousin.

"It's Peeves, isn't it?" said Ron, instantly.

"Yes," said Harry. "But - "

"And Jilly," said Ron.

"Yes, but - "

"But they're dead. And Peeves is a poltergeist. But that Peeves was real. And Jilly's dead, but that Jilly's a poltergeist."

"Alright, yes, but look - "

"And you know them," said Ron, his eyes widening. "What did you call her? Sphinx?"

"Jinx," said Harry.

Ron choked. "You knew!"

"Yes, I did, but - "

"How?"

"What?"

"How did you know?" Ron pressed him for answers.

"Um - "

Ron's eyes narrowed. "You're up to something."

"No," said Harry, lamely.

"Tell me."

"I can't."

"Why?"

"It's... a secret."

"I don't care. It's a secret I'll keep."

"It isn't."

"It is."

"Isn't."

"Is."

Their childish argument was interrupted by the sound of more noise from the entrance hall, a great tidal wave of talking and muttering, as the doors banged open, and hurried footsteps came in. Before Harry could even think about going and seeing what was happening, there was a crash as a door at the end of the dungeon corridor opened, and Snape swept out, looking furious as always.

"Potter! Weasley! What's going on up there?" he snarled, irritably.

"Peeves is lying on the floor," said Ron.

"And this requires a parade?" said Snape, incredulously, gliding up the corridor, his robes clouding around behind him.

"There's another poltergeist though," said Ron. He shot a glare at Harry. "What was the name? Jinx? I don't know anything about it though Sir, you'll have to ask Harry."

"Rubbish, Weasley," said Snape, vaguely. "There is one poltergeist in this castle. I don't think it would still be standing if there were two."

But their attention was torn away from Snape again, as to everybody's surprise, a figure in black robes came rushing out of the crowds and leapt at Snape, sobbing. Snape looked just as startled at this as Harry and Ron, his eyes widening, as whoever it was hugged him, weeping into his shoulder, "Severus... it's... I couldn't..."

"Andralyn?" said Harry, amazed.

"WHO?!" Ron thundered, rounding on him. "Exactly HOW many people do you know that I don't?!"

Andralyn just continued to sob into the Potions master's bony shoulder. Snape looked very worried about this, and hesitantly patted her on the back, as though she was a bomb he was testing to see whether it would explode or not. "What happened?" he said, trying to sound brusque, though not quite managing it.

"He killed her," Andralyn sobbed. "Oh Severus, it's Hestia's daughter... little Lucy Jones... she's dead, Severus, she's dead. And Augustus killed her, and I ran, and Peter Peelish helped me out..."

Ron was wearing the look of somebody who was convinced they'd been dropped into the middle of a very confusing dream. "But - am I missing something here?"

"Yes, the right to stick your nose into my matters," Snape bristled, and he moved to sweep Andralyn down the corridor, but yet again, somebody came tearing through the crowd - and Harry's jaw dropped.

It was Andralyn. Another Andralyn.

"What's happened to my sister?" Andralyn Number Two cried, running and flinging her arms around the both of them.

Snape rolled his eyes. "Andralyn, I'm not sure of that myself, get off me."

"Bissy? What's wrong?" said Andralyn, grasping the other woman in a tight hug. Now that Harry saw them together, he saw that one of them had short, chin-length sleek hair, and the other was the woman from the photo-frame, with tousled, long black locks. So there were two of them, rather than just one metamorphmagus. But - Snape loved both of them. He had a photograph of the tousle-haired woman that he clearly cherished, and then Harry had actually heard the short-haired one say, "it's because you love me, Severus."

'Bissy', the long-haired, just grabbed the other woman and sobbed into her shoulder. They were both crying now, and talking in very high, feminine voices and hugging and talking too fast for Harry to pick up a word. Snape apparently couldn't either. He just stared between the two of them, waiting patiently for their tearful chattering to stop. Catching Snape's eye, Harry opened his mouth to ask what on earth was going on.

With a dark look at Ron, Snape pointed out the short-haired woman. "Andralyn. My sister." He gestured to the long-haired, who was wiping away the other's tears, whilst her own streamed down her face. "Isabis. Her sister."

"But - so she's your sister?" said Harry, his face slackening in amazement. "Incest?"

"No, Potter," Snape snapped angrily. He sighed. "This is complex. Too complex. Go."

"But - "

"Go."

Harry opened his mouth again to argue, desperately wanting to know what was going on, but Ron shook his head, grabbing Harry's elbow and dragging him away. "Come on. You've got a lot of explaining to do."

"But - " Harry wondered when somebody would actually let him finish a single sentence starting with 'but', as Ron cut across him.

"No, Harry. You're going to tell me everything."

"But - "

"Harry!" Somebody else was calling him from across the hall, and he saw Professor Alrister descending the marble staircase, looking around at all the confusion. "Somebody said the Galvez sisters were here?"

"The WHO?!" Ron bellowed.

"Isabis and Andralyn?" said Harry. "Yeah, they're just cuddling Professor Snape."

"What about Augustus?" said Alrister, coming up to them.

"Who?" said Harry.

"Rookwood, Harry, my cousin," said Alrister.

Ron choked. "Rookwood's your - ?!!"

"I don't know Sir," said Harry. "But he's killed somebody... Lucy Jones, something about Hestia. Isabis has run from him, and Andralyn's here for some reason... but I don't understand it, Sir. What's going on?"

"Yeah, I'd like to know that as well," said Ron, who looked as though he'd been slapped repeatedly.

Alrister watched vaguely as Flitwick and Draco started despersing the crowd around Peter and Jinx, with Dumbledore talking quietly to the two of them in the centre, and then glancing back at Harry and Ron, he said, "It's complicated, boys..."

"Please," said Harry and Ron, together, giving Alrister very hopeful looks.

He smiled ever so slightly, and crouched down. "Well... if anybody asks, I told you none of this. But I daresay everybody would like to know what's going on, hmm?" He chuckled, and then beckoned them up the stairs, out of the way of the crowd, asking absent-mindedly as he lead them towards his office, "How much do you know?"

"Nothing," said Ron.

"Some," admitted Harry.

"Such as?" asked Alrister.

Harry thought about this. "Well... I know that your cousin, Rookwood, is married to the woman with the tously hair... Isabis? And she's having an affair with Snape. But I don't know how Andralyn comes into this."

"Ah, Professor Snape's very complex family tree," sighed Alrister, smiling. "Such a wonderfully complicated occurance. Andralyn is Snape's half-sister, and Isabis is her half-sister."

"But... then Snape is Isabis's half-brother. And that's incest. And horrible," said Harry.

"No, no," said Alrister. They had reached his office. He opened the door, and lead them inside, shutting it after them and offering them a plate of biscuits. Ron looked suspiciously at them for a moment, then took one carefully, nibbled it, and with a smile, tucked in. Alrister continued. "Now... let me get this right... Professor Snape shares his father with Andralyn. And Andralyn and Isabis share the same mother."

"But - that's adultery," said Harry, raising his eyebrows. "How could that happen?"

Ron started wearing a blank look. "Uh..."

Harry explained very briefly and quickly about Snape, Isabis, and the penalties of wizard adultery. Alrister smiled paternally as Harry went through all this, and when he was finished, the Pure Arts master said, "Well... I'm impressed. You have done your homework, haven't you?"

Harry smiled a little. "I was just curious."

Alrister chuckled. "Well... the Snape - ah... dynasty - is a very complex, sinister family tree indeed. They're not pureblood, though hardly muggleborn. I think it's about three-quarters wizard. But they're bad wizards... well... morally bad wizards. I think Snape's father beat his mother, and she ran away. They lived in a very large, crime-ridden muggle city though, mind you. She was killed by a muggle mugger. So that left Snape's father free to marry Andralyn's mother, they had Andralyn. Then Andralyn's mother did the traditional thing of the Snape family after having a child. She killed the father, married somebody else, had another child."

"So... Snape isn't related by blood to Isabis," said Harry, slowly.

"Correct," said Alrister. "Interestedly, Isabis married my cousin, Rookwood. And from what I've heard, Augustus has killed somebody... who did you say?"

"Lucy Jones," said Harry.

Alrister winced. "Gods... she's only four... the daughter of one of the members of the Order... I'm not surprised Isabis ran." He sighed, tracing his fingers across the desk, as he wandered to the window. "Love in wizard society is counting for less and less, everyday which goes by. No trust is strong enough to fight the Dark Lord anymore, and the love and care that is isn't accepted enough to help. Look at Dumbledore, and the fiasco last year. He was trying to bring the world closer together, and nobody wanted to accept that. It's only created more and more feelings of harshness."

"So... what's going to happen now?" asked Ron. "Rookwood's going to be mad about his wife, isn't he?"

Alrister nodded thoughtfully. "Yes, probably a lot. I have the horrible feeling that somebody's going to die for this. He's made quite a mess of that boy back there... it's odd, I've never seen him around before. What house is he in?"

"He was a Slytherin," said Harry.

"Was?"

"Yeah, he isn't anymore," said Harry vaguely.

Ron was looking at him suspiciously. "Yeah, I want to talk to you about that, Harry. Thanks for the information and the biscuits, Professor."

Alrister smiled. "My pleasure. Oh, boys - new topic, first lesson back." They both groaned, and the professor chuckled. "Now now, it won't be that bad, you're both bright pupils. If I might suggest something though, don't sit with Miss Granger during the lesson."

Ron frowned, curiously, and asked, "Why?"

"No reason," said Alrister, smiling slightly. "We're doing a very interesting topic indeed. I'm sure Miss Parkinson and Mr Zabini will enjoy it."

Harry and Ron swapped worried looks, but Alrister said nothing more, except a brief goodbye, as they let themselves out of his office. They discussed the new topic idly while walking back towards the entrance hall, where Hermione and Draco found them. All the crowds had been cleared, and apparently, Peter had been taken to Dumbledore's office, and he, Jinx, Snape and the Galvez sisters were all in there, 'discussing something'.

After that, they went out into the grounds. Hermione and Draco spent the afternoon debating Runes homework. Ron, however, dragged Harry off out of the courtyard "to go look at a really interesting tree", and once out of earshot his third cousin (once removed) rounded on him.

"So."

"So what?" said Harry.

"So? Tell me. What's with all the Peter stuff? I want to hear everything." Seeing the look on Harry's face, Ron went on stubbornly. "I deserve to know, Harry. It's not fair. Come on, you're supposed to be my best friend! Weasley protector, remember? You can tell me..."

"It's a long story, you know," said Harry, biting his lip.

"I've got a lot of time," said Ron, raising his eyebrows. "Come on... please...?"

Harry looked into Ron's hopeful face, and then with a slight smile, he said, "Okay... just... I can't tell you everything. Just some."

Ron nodded eagerly. "Yeah, I don't mind."

"Alright... come on then... let's go for a walk." Harry smiled a little. "And don't ever say I don't tell you things again."

 

Chapter Thirty-Five: Suspicions

Harry didn't exactly tell Ron everything, though he certainly didn't lie. He did tell Ron than Peeves was looking out for him - but he didn't mention the guardian bond, or Snape. And he told Ron pretty much everything about Peeves and Peter, poltergeist and ghost, the charm Dumbledore used, and the story about the clown ball. Though he conveniently left out Snape, and the fact that the Potions master and poltergeist could tell when he was in danger, as he didn't think Ron needed to know this. He also had the feeling that Ron would never trust him again, if Snape could read Harry's mind like a book.

On the subject of Snape, for the few days afterwards, the school was ripe with gossip about "Snape's women", where they were, and how Snape knew them. Eventually, and Harry didn't know how they'd found this out, but it became common knowledge that one of them was his lover, and the other was his sister. The stories, however, got ludicrously twisted, until a Ravenclaw third year could be heard in the Great Hall one morning telling everybody that Snape and Alrister were brothers, Alrister was married to one of "Snape's women", the other of "Snape's women" had children by both Snape and Alrister, and those were the mysterious people who turned up in the entrance hall on the same day. Snape had started handed out detentions to anybody and everybody who mentioned Alrister or children.

It was several days until the mystery of "Snape's women" was finally solved, at breakfast, where everybody was picking vaguely at their cold toast and sneakily placing boiling charms on the pumpkin juice to make sure it was safe. Most of the school was awake by this point and discussing the day ahead, and as usual, Snape wasn't at breakfast yet. He'd started appearing in the Great Hall less and less. Harry suspected this was because he was even less trusted with any sharp objects, and so there was no point in him sitting at breakfast anyway. There wasn't really any point for anybody. Only about four people ate more than bread, and even then, paranoia stopped them in the end.

Hermione had her nose buried in a very thick book as usual, Ron was counting his Quidditch cards, and Harry was feeding Hedwig bread crumbs from his plate, when the doors behind the staff table opened. A few people cast vague glances, and looked away, then looked back quickly. A couple of gasps punctuated the talking, and everybody looked up, as Snape swept into the hall, looking surprisingly smug. At his left shoulder was Isabis, radiant in silver and black robes to match her eyes and hair, and at his right was Andralyn, in a skirt and boots. Harry glanced across the hall at Draco to see what he thought of her knee-high leather boots, and laughed as he saw Draco's eyes nearly pop out of his head.

Muttering and whispering immediately broke out over the hall, everybody watching Snape take his place at the staff table, drawing out two chairs, one on either side, that the women took gratefully.

Dumbledore was standing up, smiling, and everybody instantly looked at him, as though expecting some kind of explanation for their guests. "Good morning, everyone," he said, pleasantly. "I ask you to abandon your delicious breakfast for just one moment-", somebody coughed pointedly, "-for me to introduce two new members of the staff."

"The staff?" several people whispered.

Hermione had looked up from her book, an eager expression on her face. "Oh, are we having new subjects?"

Dumbledore smiled at all the curious faces. "To Professor Snape's right is Andralyn Galvez - oh, wait, I am sorry, Andralyn is to Professor Snape's left. My sincere apologies, ladies."

"How can he tell?" somebody said in a piercing whisper.

"Andralyn is Professor Snape's half-sister, and once worked at the ministry of magic, but has joined the school to assist Professor Alrister in his Pure Arts classes," Dumbledore explained. "She is a highly capable teacher, and I daresay you will all enjoy very memorable lessons with her."

Andralyn smirked slightly, as she lightly buttered a bread roll, the image of cool.

Dumbledore continued with a pleasant, twinkling little smile. "And to Professor Snape's right is Isabis Galvez, our new Assistant Potions mistress. She has kindly agreed to help Professor Snape with his lessons, and I'm sure you'll all be very good to her, and show her the same respect that you regularly show our Potions master."

There was an outbreak of coughing at this. Isabis smiled, brushing her hair idly back from her face with her fingertips, and Harry saw that her nails were very long, painted silver to match her outfit. He glanced up to see both Professor Snape and Professor Alrister watching her. Snape was hastily turning his smile into a grimace. Alrister had been grimacing already. His eyes were narrowed, and for once, he wasn't smiling, but watching Isabis closely, apparently annoyed with her. When she smiled shyly, toying with the side of her neck, Alrister looked away with a disgusted expression.

Dumbledore sat down. Everybody started talking again, the topic now on Snape and his doings, and Ron instantly leant across the table to Harry. "Which one's Snape having an affair with?"

"Isabis," said Harry, idly. "The one on the right."

Ron glanced at Isabis, squinting, and then he shook his head. "I'd have taken the other one."

"That's his half-sister," said Harry, raising his eyebrows.

"Oh yeah," said Ron, vaguely.

Hermione tutted from behind her book. "Honestly."


There was also the matter of the copies of The Truth that Hermione had gotten hold of. She cut out several of the articles, and used a Copying Charm on them, then Ron and Harry were sent out to tack them to every noticeboard in the castle with a note scribbled on the bottom saying, "Now we think about it..."

By the next day, the school was buzzing with the gossip about Umbridge. Surprisingly, or perhaps not surprisingly, the notices had not been taken down. To everybody's delight Professor McGonagall had one of them in pride of place in her classroom. On the Wednesday, Harry, Ron, Hermione and Draco all had Transfiguration, and they'd entered the room with gleeful expressions seeing the note tacked to the front of McGonagall's desk.

"Such a shame Umbridge isn't here to witness this happy moment," Ron sighed, smiling, as McGonagall readjusted it carefully.

"We really should take a photo," mused Harry. "Stick it somewhere nice and big. Maybe in the entrance hall, so that everybody who comes into the school will know that this is an Umbridge Free Zone."

Ron chortled as Professor McGonagall stood up to start the lesson, and as she took them through the instructions of the class, Harry noticed her casting the occasional fond glance at the article. He couldn't help but grin at this.

After lunch, Harry, Ron, Hermione and Draco all had Pure Arts. Today would be the start of the big topic that Alrister had told Ron and Harry about, and also, their first class with Andralyn's help. Harry, Hermione and Draco had had Potions the day before, and Isabis had mostly hung around behind Snape, helping him mark, copying marks out of a log book onto sheets of paper. Twice, jars had come swooping down from above to attack Snape, but Isabis's sharp reflexes had sent them spinning away with a Deflecting Charm. Both times, Snape had glanced at her, and she had looked away with a tiny smile on her face.

Harry, Ron, Hermione and Draco lined up outside Pure Arts, and as usual, Ron's circle of traders was around him, jostling about, offering Quidditch cards for food, or food for The Truth. Ron hadn't yet sold or traded a copy of the magazine, but had been severely tempted the day before when ten Hufflepuffs had offered him two week's supply of bread for two copies.

"Alright, alright, sort yourselves out," said Ron. "Now, who was saying something about Ravenclaw Chasers for donuts?"

"I think I've worked out what Weasley wants to do as a career," said Draco, wryly.

"What?" asked Harry.

"He's going to be one of those muggle traders who stands in busy shopping centres and sells something ludicrous like scarves or lighters," said Draco, with a thoughtful expression. "Or perhaps visiting car boot sales professionally."

"What's a car boot sale?" asked Ron, frowning.

"And how do you know about car boot sales?" said Hermione, also frowning.

Draco raised an eyebrow. "Granger, tell him what a car boot sale is later. And if you haven't noticed, I'm wearing clothes and carrying a bag from a car boot sale."

"Where did you go in the holidays anyway?" asked Ron. "You were hiding somewhere, weren't you?"

"I was," said Draco, stiffly.

"Where?" Ron pestered.

"Somewhere," said Draco, as he turned his pale gaze onto Ron, eyes narrowed. It was such a withering look that Ron fell silent for few moments, a