…shed through the scrub at a fantastic speed, branches whipping over the animals body as it snorted clouds like smoke from its nostrils. The scaled beast looked reptilian, was swifter than any horse, and moved like a cat, so silent it was as if it rode the wind even when it wasn’t flying. Its feet barely disturbed the underbrush, barely touched the ground, as it galloped through the trees.
The thestral slowed from a canter to a trot as it left the thick depths of the forest to enter a circular ring of towering trees and the small clearing within. The rider shivered like throwing snow off his cloak for the simple clean chill of the air in the circle. The dark aura that had been haunting him since entering the woods, filling his lungs like smog, did not permeate here, unable to pass through the ring.
He looked again at the trees forming the circle and identified them.
Golden Elder. Powerful protection.
Good boy, Draco, the rider thought with satisfaction, reining in the restless thestral as two large troll hounds came bounding into the clearing noisily, wet noses to the ground, whining softly in excitement.
The rider dismounted and opened the large leather saddlebag, rechecking the host of spells and wards he’d set in preparation for this journey and frowned in disgust when he saw that half of them had worn off completely, their power banked under the sheer force of the forest’s magic. He hissed in vexation at the setback and muttered caustically for the hundredth time since he’d been handed a map and a thestral and wished good luck, that this wasn’t the type of mission he excelled at.
He was not an outdoorsmen (the saddle-sore alone might kill him). He was not a field scout. He was a strategist and a spy. His talents lay in steady, clever hands and a cleverer mind. Delicate, subtle work that required concentration and quick thinking and dark rooms with warm fires and good books for company, not troll hounds, bowie knives, nauseating potions against blood-sucking butterflies, and certainly not cold, wet, miserable gray mornings in the sloppy mud pit of ‘nature.’
The troll hounds saw him fishing in the saddlebag and went crazy with excitement, thinking food was imminent. He was forced to quickly extract a couple of treats and throw them across the clearing before the dogs tackled him in their enthusiasm. The troll hounds tore after the treats, mud flipping up under their paws. He grimaced, annoyed at how happy the stupid, slobbery beasts were. They snapped up their treats with doggy smiles and wagged their tails, ecstatic, apparently having the time of their lives and conveniently forgetting that they had seen signs on the way up of predators so wicked that the two dogs had tucked their tails between their legs and whimpered. That was rather alarming considering troll hounds were known for bawling down dragons.
He wasn’t much of a dog person himself. He rather preferred the company of the stoic and intelligent thestral. Kormac, named for an evil king, was sleek, dark, unpredictable, dangerous, and misunderstood. He smirked and patted the animal’s shiny hide. Kormac snorted and tossed his black mane at the dog’s crude display. Oh yes, they were on their way to a beautiful friendship.
Dogs taken care of, the rider sought out his canteen of Brigineys, a carefully brewed cocktail of different types of disillusion and disenchantment potions. He took a long swallow, grimacing at the awful syrupy taste, and the feeling of the potion was like cold sugar water down to his toes. He instantly felt more clear-headed and more aware of his surroundings. He was glad he had not waited the prescribed half hour to take the potion.
If the potion wore off, he would be vulnerable and subject to any of the Probable-thousands of natural enchantments in the forest. If he crossed paths with the wrong creature, he ran the risk of losing himself completely.
He patted Kormac again, and left the beast with a handful of raw meat to snack on while he walked about the clearing slowly, examining every patch of grass, finding meaning in the position of every stone, identifying every plant, insect, and animal with sharp eyes, expert eyes.
A seeker’s eyes, but no skill with a broom. Pity.
The trail was stale, over a month old, and in his opinion, it was foolish to expect any sign of the two children to still be in tact.
But he was wrong.
Campfire remains. Nearly completely gone, but the ring of rocks and the slight pit were unmistakable. And when he scooped a handful of dirt there was ash underneath. It flaked under his fingernails, but they were dirty already. He rubbed his fingers together, letting the ash flitter away on the icy wind, examining the black smears left on his slender hands. He’d been fastidiously clean as a child, but it seemed he’d spent his entire adulthood wallowing in the muck.
He stood and pulled his robes tighter.
Cold. It was getting colder every day. When it began to snow the children’s chance of survival would slim dramatically.
And why did he insist on thinking of them as children? They were well on their way to adulthood, or at least well on their way to the age when they would stomp their feet and insist they were adults. They were no longer the tottering first years he could still picture in his mind.
Seventeen, eighteen, ninety. Twenty was the worst. Twenty, and they stand around thinking they knew so damn much. Thinking, hey, look at me, I’m going to show everyone I’m not a skinny, stringy haired loser by getting this black mark permanently etched into my flesh in an excruciatingly painful manner.
Oh yes, where had commonsense been that bright sunny day?
Perhaps it wouldn’t have galled him so much if it was just that one single, tiny, damning, life-altering mistake (it’s too late for me kids, save yourselves) but he watched it happen over and over again like lemmings, suiciding over the edge of a cliff, (except that doesn’t really happen. The lemmings aren’t committing suicide. They don’t realize the repercussions of their actions even after witnessing what happened to all the lemmings before them. They don’t know they’re going to die. It’s not suicide!) like the worst moment of his life forever on instant-replay, like watching himself in so many different guises making the same exact mistakes over and over and over. . . .
What was the psychology behind that? Human self-destructive behavior, when you see the outcome of a series of actions and then tell yourself, ‘that won’t happen to me,’ when somewhere in the back of your mind, you must know that’s how it will end up, and somewhere in the back of your mind, that’s how you want it.
And if there was something wrong with all of them psychologically then maybe they deserved the Dark Lord as their king. It was amazing how exactly Tom Riddle fit the profile of a psychopath. With a honeyed-tongue, grandiose plans, and a god-like sense of self worth--and a total and complete lack of empathy.
But only on his good days.
And on his bad days, one would need several degrees in psychobabble, and several years of experiencing dementia for oneself, to be able to come anywhere close to diagnosing just what was wrong with the man.
He kicked something in the rushes and stooped down, feeling a small thrill go through him at his next find. A pile of books. Now damp and moldy and even chewed on but unmistakably books from Diagon Alley.
He picked up one of the soggy notebooks gingerly and searched for a readable page. Making a ‘hmph’ sound when he recognized the tiny, perfectionist handwriting and the know-it-all tone that had somehow managed to convey itself, even on paper.
Hermione Granger’s books.
He shrank them down and enfolded them in a handkerchief, pocketing them into his robes. It wasn’t much, but it was at least a concrete sign that the children had been here. That they existed.
He searched the ring again with more focus and then cursed the silly children soundly for not leaving him any kind of signs scratched into the trees, or notes on paper, or even spelled out with rocks. Brainless dunderheads, the both of them.
Out in the woods one of the troll hounds bawled, long and ringing, the sound echoing over the mountains, crying that it had found something to chase. He paused, waiting to see if there would be a fight but when the bawl came again, it was further away and he knew that whatever had caught the dog’s attention was running.
Still, it would not be wise to linger.
He drew his wand and charmed the weeds to grow over the obvious flat place in the grasses where Miss Granger’s books had lain and then erased all marks of the campfire. When he was sure that there were no signs of the children left, he renewed his wards and mounted Kormac again to head southeast, whistling for the dogs as he snapped the reins.
Southeast. Why southeast?
He didn’t understand. They should have headed west, even north and they would have made it to the Muggle villages long ago. Hell, had they gone straight south they would have eventually reached the outer edge of the woods. If southeast was a direction they had chosen at random, then they had chosen the absolute worst one.
They were heading deeper into the forest.
They’ve crossed over.
They’ve crossed over and the path became clear. Anyone else who is tracking them will now see as we see.
The Black Forest. Schwarzwald in Germany.
Get to them first!
Severus Snape grimaced.
At first glance it hadn’t seemed like much. Two thousand square miles of Muggle forest. Forest that was a known year-round tourist attraction, dotted with farms, cities, logging communities, castle motels, hot spring resorts, crisscrossed with roads and train tracks and hiking trails.
Baden-Baden to the north. Tübingen to the east. A whole host of towns from Balingen down to Freiburg in the south and Offenburg and everything in between to the west. There was no way the two children were so incompetent that they hadn’t stumbled onto a road or into a small village during the month they had been missing. Surely their combined brainpower added up to something.
Or was that giving them too much credit?
He had known that at least part of the forest was under wizard management and would be concealed from the Muggles, but he was unprepared to discover that there was almost fifteen thousand square miles of Wizard forest hidden at the center of Schwarzwald. The Muggle cities and villages only lay on the very outer edge of the forest and the whole wide range, the real forest, was hidden from them within. The Muggles could walk straight from one end of the forest to the other and find that it was as narrow as fourteen miles in some places, some very old spells seeming to pinch the land together, allowing them to skip right past the real forest.
Worse, there were very few Wizard villages inside the forest and most of them were near the edges, usually parallel to the Muggle villages. It seemed none of the local wizards outside the specialists liked to travel very far into the forest and even the specialist took extreme precautions.
Schwarzwald was very old and incredibly magical. Even the local Muggles could feel it, were aware that the area had a rich magical heritage, even accepted it as fact. Severus had spoken to several who swore that the forest was inhabited by all manner of magical folk, and indeed the Black Forest did have one of the greatest densities and diversities of fairies, pixies, elves, and trolls.
That was the least of anyone’s problems. ‘Big’ and ‘diverse’ didn’t bother anyone and ‘powerful’ and ‘temperamental’ didn’t do it justice.
He had been warned that the forest was ‘powerful’ and ‘temperamental’. He had not been warned that being inside it was crushing. Those first few steps inside sending him reeling. The forest had an aura unlike anything he had ever felt. It was overwhelming, like being a thousand feet below water. So much force pressing in on him from all sides that it was hard breath. And it was cold. It was cold in a way that made him think of sitting in a meat locker in the basement of Azkaban.
It was wild magic. Untamed power. Inhuman power.
This was the power of the earth, raw and primal, and it made him wonder how ancient wizards had survived long enough to claw their way to civilization, made him wonder if modern wizards had forgotten just what they were dealing with, if maybe they no longer respected their magic like they should.
He could barely stand it, and he had his wand and a hundred charms. The children had nothing. It was a sobering thought.
He continued tracking them for most of the day, wondering at how remarkably straight their course kept and vaguely proud of how far they seemed to have gone alone, even as he cursed them for not veering to the right or left.
There were few detours on their trail, and he traveled every single one looking for signs of them. He found campfires, bits of robes, remains of animals, (one of them was hunting, he realized in surprise) a crude fishing pole, knife marks on trees and sticks. He erased all signs of them but felt a sense of satisfaction with every trace he found showing that they had made it at least that far, that they had lived another day.
He began to hold his breath until he found the next trace and the next.
It was late afternoon when he found Hermione Granger’s book bag. It was stuffed with supplies that had even him marveling at her ingenuity. But the find disturbed him, and he quickly stowed the bag away and pushed onwards.
Then the trail ended.
The forest opened up into an oppressively barren field and the trail just disappeared into the center of a huge, dusty, and dry lakebed.
That didn’t make sense. The trail couldn’t just end because the children had to be at the end of the trail, and there weren’t any children here.
There had to be a mistake. Perhaps the trail picked up further out.
He trotted Kormac around, noticing how agitated the thestral was growing, and patted the animal’s bony neck absently before dismounting. He didn’t move at first. He held still, feeling the flickering intuition that he should be noticing something.
Several somethings, it turned out.
One was the complete absence of the dark aura he had been feeling. The presence was gone. But that didn’t seem right either. He would have felt the lifting of such an oppressive force. Perhaps it wasn’t gone, perhaps he’d just gotten used to it.
As soon as he realized that, he noticed the silence. The two troll hounds were nowhere to be seen. They had been right at his side in the forest. He whistled for them, but nothing moved out in the trees. The hounds never came.
Somewhere close by, a frog chirped.
Frowning, he began scouting the lakebed. There were large, square stone markings on the lakebed floor. Foundations. Several of them. There had been homes here at one time. A town.
Maybe it had all washed away when the lake appeared.
Another frog answered the first. High trilling chirps.
The most disturbing thing he noticed was a strange flickering shimmer at the corners of his eyes. At first, he thought it was heat waves coming off the cracked earth, but it wasn’t nearly hot enough for that.
More frogs picking up the chorus. A few long, deep croaks.
The shimmer was green tinged. Trees.
There were trees there when he wasn’t looking, he realized in astonishment.
He turned away from the shimmer to tear open the saddlebag and grope for his bottle, taking a deep swig of Brigineys.
The green mirage didn’t go away.
Wasn’t it too cold for frogs? And there wasn’t any water around here.
Keeping his eyes straightforward, Severus walked sideways to where the shimmering was occurring. He stretched his arm out to the side but touched nothing. Frustrated, he turned to look again and all he saw was empty lakebed, desolate field.
The frogs went silent.
Severus whipped around, wand at ready, pointed . . . at Draco Malfoy.
He blinked, his vision blurring slightly at the edges, then coming sharply into focus. Gray focus. Everything was gray, colorless. And the lakebed was gone. He found himself standing at the edge of a writhing tangle tree forest, clear and bright as day.
Draco Malfoy was standing just inside the trees, wearing heavy wool robes, his hair neat and slicked back, on the whole, looking remarkably clean, healthy and undamaged for someone who’d spent the last month roughing it in the woods.
“Malfoy get out of there this instant!” he demanded hoarsely, inarticulate in his panic. “The trees!”
Draco smiled slightly, it was a soft, almost pitying expression, one he’d never seen on the hard-faced boy’s countenance before, certainly not directed at him. “I’m okay.” The boy said gently. And indeed the trees didn’t seem to be bothering him.
Snape waited another moment to see if he’d have to rescue the boy, then relaxed when nothing happened, feeling utter relief that this whole wretched affair was coming to so speedy a close. “Well, come on then,” He said irritably, wanting to hurry and spirit the two home. “Where’s Miss Granger?”
Draco’s soft smile tilted slightly, like the Mad Hatter about to tell him why a raven was like a writing desk. “I killed her,” he murmured with satisfaction.
Snape went still. A great quiet hush inside him. “You . . . what?”
Draco gave an almost coy laugh. “I didn’t plan it very well,” He chortled, voice thick with amusement, like the words were honey on his tongue and he was tasting them. “I ended up having to make it look like we both disappeared. But I guess now you can say that you found me, and poor, stupid Granger had an accident out in the woods.”
Severus Snape was not a man to be dumbstruck. And indeed it wasn’t as if he had nothing to say or didn’t know what to say. It was simply that he couldn’t speak. The funny thing was that he had thought he was ready for this, had half expected it. He’d come fully prepared to find that Malfoy and inflicted some kind of lasting damage on the Granger girl. He’d come prepared to deal with it.
He’d expected it. He realized quite suddenly. He just hadn’t believed it.
Not with Draco. Please, Merlin, not Draco.
The boy hesitated. “Professor? Aren’t you pleased? I did it for you. You’ve been more of a father to me then Lucius ever has. I want to be just like you.”
Oh Merlin, this wasn’t happening.
“Draco. . . .” he managed to utter, taking a heavy step towards the boy.
Why was he so surprised? It wasn’t like the boy had ever had a chance. None of them had a chance. They were all doomed. Predestined from birth to be Voldemort’s dogs of war. Draco especially. Draco Voldemort wanted with a terrible greed.
“Lord Voldemort told me all about how great you were when you were younger. He told me about everything you did.” The boy smiled at him slyly. “I bet Dumbledore doesn’t know the half of it, does he? He’d never have forgiven you if he knew it all.”
Stupid know-it-all twenty-year-olds making grand stupid gestures which no one noticed anyways and realizing at the end, the lonely bitter, hopeless end, that they’d only done it because they were too cowardly not to take the easy way out.
He walked towards the boy like a zombie. Slow, shuffling steps.
He could hide the boy. His brain assured him wildly. He could take him and hide him from Lucius and from Voldemort and from Dumbledore and from the Aurors. Hide him and then beat some sense into him, just smash that awful smile right off his young, innocent face and strangle him until he came to his senses. They would say that Hermione Granger (poor girl--poor wretched girl) went off on her own and didn’t come back. He would have Draco take him to her body so he could make sure no one ever found it.
Oh Merlin, Draco.
“I fucked her good and proper first. Stupid Mudblood whore loved it. They’re all whores, aren’t they, Professor?” A knowing leer that struck something inside of him and shattered it. “Then I slit her open from throat to navel and her insides came pouring out,” he continued casually. “It was amazing how long she lasted. You should have seen it. Oh wait, you have seen it.” Another laugh and then he raised his eyes, and they were gleaming and excited. “I want to do it again.”
He felt old, so horribly old.
He didn’t want this child to spend his wretched life in Azkaban or face the Dementor’s kiss. He didn’t want this boy to grow up to be a monster like him and like Lucius. Draco would be a powerful weapon in Voldemort’s so capable clutches and he could not, more than anything else, at the cost of Draco’s life and his own, he could not allow the Dark Lord to become more powerful.
Maybe he’d always known this was how it would end. He had waited anyway, put off the inevitable to see what would come, what the boy would make of himself. And this was bad, but it wasn’t the worst.
He wouldn’t let it get to the worst.
He would hug the boy. He decided. A hug because he knew Lucius had never given the child an ounce of affection. He would hug the child . . . and then kill him. It would be a mercy. He didn’t want anyone else, especially someone who loathed the child, or worse, was indifferent to him, to kill him. He’d do it. He’d take the responsibility. He half wished someone had taken this particular responsibility to him when he was younger.
He would kill the boy and love him while he did it.
“Draco, come here.”
“Professor?” Draco asked just as Snape reached the trees, reached for the child.
A hand clamped on his arm from behind and he was wrenched violently backwards.
“Avada Kedavra!” roared a voice and a deadly jet of green exploded past him, searing his skin, shooting towards the boy but sputtering out and vanishing before reaching the trees.
Green. He was seeing color. He’d forgotten that he couldn’t.
Snape grabbed the arm holding him and looked up in shock to find Lucius Malfoy standing next to him, teeth bared, with an expression of rage on his face. Snape’s gaze snapped back to Draco. The boy hadn’t even flinched at the spell, only looked at Lucius in mild irritation.
Severus swallowed hard and gripped the hand tightly, furious, “Lucius. . . have you gone mad?” he spat.
“Don’t listen to what he says,” Lucius interrupted harshly. “That’s not my son.” He pointed his wand at the boy and roared, “You are NOT my son!”
The boy’s lip curled up. “So mean to me, Daddy. What would Mommy say? You know, I know your dirty little secret. I know what you did to Mommy. And I’m gonna get you for it.”
“You don’t fool me! Your eyes are wrong. They’re all wrong!” Lucius seemed absolutely ballistic. He was breathing hard, voice cracking, face beat red with fury. Snape had never seen him like this. “Where is Draco?” he barked. “Where is he, you little fucker?”
The boy just looked at him blankly and Snape was about to ask Lucius at just what point he had lost his mind when the boy made a delighted noise and the two men snapped their attention over to see that Kormac had wandered over to investigate the ruckus.
Blood draws thestrals. The thought, a disquieting hush, shot through Snape’s mind.
The thestral eyed the boy curiously and stretched out his neck.
“Kormac--” Snape started, a tinge of unease sparking through him. He might even have taken a step forward, but Lucius gripped his shoulder.
Draco reached out and gently touched the thestral’s nose. Kormac went rigid instantly, making a low whinny sound, and then it was like his already gaunt body was sucked inward. His scaly black hide with its midnight blue and forest green highlights turned winter white, frost white, death white.
The threstral teetered for a moment then toppled stiffly to the ground looking like a pile of sticks. Lucius cursed loudly and backed away.
Snape stared in horror at the dead thestral, then to the boy who was examining his kill with that sad sort-of-smile again. “I’d like to keep you around,” Draco said matter-of-factly, flexing his hand. “But the God has already been generous enough to give me two pretty playmates my own age. I don’t get to keep you.”
Lucius was shouting something, tugging him backwards, away from the apparently mad Malfoy child. Severus tried to hold his ground, wrenched against Lucius’ insistent pull, staring at the boy, trying to speak and finding that no words would leave his dry tongue. What was happening? How had Draco . . . how had. . . ?
The child watched him narrowly with vicious pleasure. “Come see the God. He’s our God. He’ll be your God too.”
How . . . how had this happened?
“Damnit, Severus. MOVE!”
Snape stumbled back a few paces and found that the ground squelched beneath his feet. He glanced down stupidly in time to have a rush of icy black, filthy water spill over his feet. The dry bed was filling up.
“Draw your wand! Apparate! Let’s go!” Lucius shouted as the ground began to tremble and the air to roar with the fury of an oncoming flash flood.
Draco smiled angelically at Lucius. “Re’loiuth Eedai Mevnox. Uuni Kau Malfoy. Induai Malfoy. Bele Nafran Malfoy.”
Lucius let out a horrendous scream and doubled over. Snape grabbed him and Apparated the both of them out of there.
When Harry and Ron headed downstairs to breakfast, Seamus and Dean fell into step behind them and Lavender and Parvati, who were waiting in the Common room, immediately joined them. It wasn’t really planned, it was just something that had become natural after the last week spent confined to their House and nights spent gathered together in the girls’ dorm room, planning and plotting.
The Slytherins had spent their time similarly. In this, Dumbledore’s punishment hadn’t been such a great idea. If anything, it had been a bit nearsighted. It was a punishment that didn’t consider things like secret passageways, invisibility cloaks and that, locked in their dorms, no one was really keeping an eye on them.
Preparations for battle were in full swing.
If the Headmaster had really wanted to punish them, he should have made them spend time together.
As it was, everyone was behaving themselves to avoid just such a fate. An unspoken truce, an understanding that the adults needed to be lulled and pacified into complacency, stilling the anger of the Gryffindors and the battle lust of the Slytherins. There was a mutual sense that from now on neither side could act carelessly, all cards had to played with utmost care because neither side wanted to be detected.
The outcome as the dust cleared after the Slytherins’ defeat and the uproar it caused, was a loss of support from the student population on both sides. There were many students who withdrew completely and refused to support anyone. It was unexpected, and cause for some alarm as Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw did outnumber them and, sufficiently provoked, would turn on them. It was another reason for more surreptitious courses of actions.
So there had been no fights, physical or otherwise, but that didn’t mean that nothing was happening. That didn’t mean the war was over. The opposite was actually true. Both Houses had regrouped within themselves and were preparing in a flurry of activity for the inevitable clash, strengthening their numbers, their defenses, planning their attacks, while maintaining their neutral public faces--the Gryffindors cold and silent, the Slytherins amused and wickedly polite.
With their hands tied by the threat of expulsion if they fought, the war had become an arms race. It was happening on two fronts. One was outside help. Harry and the others had begun sending owl posts to graduated students, older siblings, and friends, asking for advice, spells, and news. It had seemed like a long shot when they first started the campaign but the response had been amazing. Unfortunately, the Slytherins had somehow caught on to what the Gryffindors were doing and had started doing the same.
It was one of the things that infuriated Harry. The Gryffindors wracked their brains and spent hours planning and the Slytherins inevitably watched what they were doing and copied it. Always adding a nasty spin of their own, of course.
It was the same with the second front of the arms race, where Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs were the weapons.
Ravenclaw brains were being viciously fought over. It had started out innocently, with Harry suggesting they get an opinion on a certain spell from a well-read Ravenclaw. But once they approached the Ravenclaw top student, Morag McDougal, with bribes and promises, the Slytherins immediately countered with threats and blackmailing.
Morag was not given a moment’s peace over the week until he nearly had a nervous breakdown and threatened to dropout of school if they didn’t leave him alone. The Gryffindors unwisely backed off to give him some space, and Idane saw his chance and snatched Morag up for a “private talk,” of which Morag came out of a staunch Slytherin supporter.
The Gryffindors were furious, but it worked out in the end anyway because Su Li, the fourth student from the top in Ravenclaw, turned out to be fourth from the top only because she was relaxed about her grades and disliked competition. She was at least Morag’s match, if not his better.
Su had a quick and clever mind, a proclivity towards studying and a gaggle of friends in both Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff who were quite willing to help. She was also Besian Moon’s ex-girlfriend and therefore knew quite a bit about Slytherin. Harry and the other Gryffindors wrote up a contract to make it official and ensure Su’s loyalty, and she quickly became one of their top aids.
While the Ravenclaws began reading up on spells and tactical potions, the Hufflepuffs were being inducted as spies. It was simple really--Hufflepuffs were at the center of Hogwarts’ information superhighway. They spread news through the school at something like warp speed.
The week of punishment was almost over but the Gryffindors planned to stay on the defensive for another week. The next weekend was a Hogsmeade weekend and that was when they’d bring out the big guns.
They were going to break into Malfoy Mansion.
The sound of giggling girls snapped Harry out of his reverie and drew his attention to the landing below them where a knot of fourth year Gryffindor and Hufflepuff girls huddled together around. . . .
Harry hissed and nudged Ron.
The red-head followed his gaze and stilled momentarily. “Son of a bitch!”
Lavender and the others looked at them in confusion.
“Come on,” Harry muttered.
The group hurried downstairs.
“So then the cat is trying to get the birds, and Snape is trying to get the birds and stop the cat from eating them, and finally he starts trying to get the cat instead and. . . .” the young Slytherin boy with short dark curls, the one who’d been with Parkinson down Knockturn Alley, was saying in a grating drawl that made Harry think of Draco. The girls were listening with rapt attention, giggling delightedly.
“Hey!” Ron barked, making the youngsters start.
“What do you think you’re doing up here?” Harry growled menacingly at the boy, glaring one by one at the girls, furious that they would just stand there talking to the enemy. They were fully aware of what was going on. This was treason!
The Slytherin boy gave him a look of perfect innocent confusion. “I was just talking with my friends.” He gestured to the girls.
“Lets grab him, Harry,” Ron said darkly. “See what he knows.” He looked back at Dean. “This little prick was there when Malfoy took Hermione.” Dean’s expression darkened with understanding, and he and Seamus immediately moved up behind Ron, prepared to pounce.
Ron’s suggestion was tempting. Grab the little bastard and see what they could find out. He didn’t quite dare, there were too many witnesses.
“Hey,” one of the girls said uncertainly. “Sky was just saying hi.”
“Yeah, he wasn’t doing anything,” another girl put in.
Harry ignored them, searching the boy’s face as if he could find some clue in it. “So where is she, huh?” he asked with deceptive gentleness, stepping closer with the others flanking him. “You know where she is?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the boy said weakly.
“The hell you don’t.” Ron growled and suddenly made a grab for him. The kid was quicker, darting out of range.
“I didn’t do anything!” he yelped backing away, and Harry should have known something was up right then because the kid was looking at them with huge terrified eyes, his voice cracking with fear. “Leave me alone!”
“Stop it!” a girl with long black hair whined. “If you hurt Sky, I’ll tell the Headmaster and you’ll be expelled!”
“Celia, don’t!” Sky gasped, his eyes slid nervously to Harry. It was a beautiful performance. “You don’t want to get him mad at you. I’ll . . . I’ll just go, okay? Bye Celia.” He scampered quickly away.
“Sky, wait!” Celia cried. “Skyler!” She stared after his retreating form and then whirled on Harry and screeched, “You asshole! Sky’s been my friend since we were babies! Stop spreading lies about him!”
“THEY’RE NOT LIES!” Harry roared. “We were there. Malfoy took Hermione, and that little shit helped him! He’s dangerous! Stay away from him!” Seamus and the others froze at his outburst, the girls huddled together in fear.
Harry calmed instantly, seeing the shocked expressions on everyone’s faces, a little surprised himself at how violently angry he was. He was so furious, he was shaking.
He’d lost his temper again.
Celia backed away, tears pricking her angry eyes, her lower lip trembling. “Don’t think just because you’re popular that you can tell people what to do!” She turned on her heels and ran downstairs. The other girls were glaring at him.
He let out his breath. “Oh hell. Hey, I didn’t mean to shout. But it’s the truth. . . .” The girls just sniffed disbelievingly and gave him their backs, the troupe of them stomping downstairs.
He stared after them, realizing that he’d just alienated half of the Gryffindor fourth years. And there was no telling what spiteful little girls would do to get back at someone.
“Oops,” Dean said in the silence that followed.
“You were too hard on them,” Parvati said, softly disapproving.
“Damn,” Harry muttered, rubbing his forehead tiredly, the beginnings of a headache growing like a knot at the base of his skull. He’d botched it. It would be all over school by lunch. Harry Potter was a horrible ogre who screamed at little girls and ganged up on little boys. He hadn’t meant to yell at them.
Ron cursed suddenly. “Look!”
The kid, Sky, on one of the lower levels was looking up at them. The little bastard grinned wildly and flipped them off. “Not real bright, are you Potter?” he shouted, laughing as he pelted away.
They’d been set up. Harry realized in horror. The kid had known exactly how he would react to finding him trespassing. He’d walked right into it.
Seamus slapped him on the shoulder. “Come on. Nothing we can do right now. We’ll get ‘em back later.”
Harry nodded, tightlipped, and they headed downstairs.
The Great Hall was already full and bustling when they entered, and Harry saw Pansy and her court at the head of their table. The Slytherins ignored him as a unit, which was fine by him. Sky was already there and sitting beside Pansy, telling her something with a sly look on his face. Pansy noticed Harry and winked at him then leaned over to giggle with Sky.
He ignored her, his foul mood getting worse, only to have attention caught on Neville who was sitting a little apart from everyone else at the far end of the breakfast table. Neville glanced at him, then quickly away.
Harry set his jaw against the surge of guilt.
To be perfectly honest, Harry had had little time to worry about Neville. Between school, suspicious teachers, evil Slytherins, and leading the troops, he hardly had time to sleep. He certainly didn’t have the time, strength or inclination to try and cheer the other boy up. When he did think of Neville, it didn’t accomplish much except to make him feel angry or guilty so he couldn’t see the point of dwelling on it at all. It was just one more thing to weigh heavily on his mind.
He did feel badly about practically cutting the other boy off from all contact with them, but hell, he wasn’t going to compromise secret information to salvage Neville’s hurt feelings. Hermione was more important than that, and Neville just needed to get over it. He had chosen not to get involved, so . . . fine, Harry could accept that but that meant Neville just needed to stay out of it.
Harry would have apologized for the things he had said. He hadn’t meant for it to go that far. He’d just been . . . shocked. He understood that some people just weren’t meant for war. But Neville had taken him completely by surprise. He’d counted on Neville to back him up. He’d counted on Neville to believe him. He’d taken it for granted that he had Neville’s support.
When had that changed?
He wondered on a wave of exhaustion, if maybe Neville was just tired of fighting.
“I knew it!” Seamus was leering at Dean who was trying to ignore him. “You want to beat my eggs! You want to whip my cream! Come on. Churn my butter. Smile. See! You’re smiling! The thought of churning my butter makes you smile!”
“Oh-mi-gosh, Seamus!” Parvati squalled, throwing her fork down. “Shut up!”
“I’ve lost my appetite,” Ron complained, burying his face in his hands.
Lavender leaned across the table and grabbed Seamus by the collar. “Stop hitting on my boyfriend!” she snarled.
“I can’t help it if he has dirty thoughts about me,” Seamus countered and made an all-encompassing gesture. “You all have dirty thoughts about me,” he said loudly and looked over at the fifth years. “I know you do.” He licked his lips at them, and all the little ones squealed in horror.
“You’re going to give them nightmares,” Ginny snapped, brandishing her banana at him, which only made him laugh harder.
“Potions has been canceled today.”
“What?” Harry looked over his shoulder to see Iona and two of her girlfriends hovering there.
The Gryffindors quieted, waiting.
“The word in Slytherin is that Snape left late last night and hasn’t been back since. Potions is cancelled.”
Harry and Ron exchanged glances, the same question in both their minds: Order business or Death Eater business? “You sure about this?” Harry asked.
She nodded, making a face as she handed Harry a note. “There’s a note on the classroom door. He left us a reading assignment. Are you going to ask Dumbledore about what’s going on?”
Harry frowned. “I’ll ask him but. . . .” He shrugged. Dumbledore had been aggravatingly close-lipped lately. All he would say, no matter what Harry asked, was to be patient and that Hermione was still alive. It was beginning to piss him off.
“They won’t tell Harry much,” Ginny said, buttering her toast. “They know if they give us any kind of a clue as to where she is, we’ll all be out there looking for her in a heartbeat. The only thing keeping us here is the promise of information.”
“Heads up,” A sixth year called, catching their attention.
Millicent Bulstrode was walking over to them and the Slytherin table had become oddly still. Harry knew they were watching Millicent, ready to leap to her defense, while pretending not to notice that she was going into enemy territory.
Iona looked nervous, probably afraid the Slytherins somehow knew they were being discussed. “I’ll see you later, Harry,” she whispered, and her and her friends hurried away.
The Gryffindors shifted in their seats, surreptitiously taking offensive positions.
“The Professors are watching,” Ginny said quietly, actually grabbing one of the Fifth Years by the wrist and twisting his arm until he yelped. “Hands on wands but don’t you dare draw.”
The Slytherin girl had nerve. She walked right up to him like she owned the place and put a hand on his shoulder. He started to tense to throw her off, but she hissed. “Make nice, Potter, everyone’s watching.”
He went still, fine tension thrumming through his body, jaw set, every nerve in his body aware of the hand on his shoulder. “What?” he snapped coldly.
“Pansy’s coming over to talk to you. She wants to discuss something. Make it look nice and friendly, okay?”
He thought about it for a second and finally nodded, not seeing much choice in the matter with the Professors watching. “Fine.”
“Good.” She straightened, releasing his shoulder, and moseyed off to parts unknown without so much as a backwards glance. Harry wondered why she wasn’t sticking around to defend her leader, or at least watch the show.
The Gryffindor table sat in tense silence, but Pansy took her time coming over. It seemed she wanted to at least pretend the two Slytherin visits were unrelated, which was ridiculous. No one was going to believe that random Slytherins were coming over to converse with him. On the other hand, she might just be relishing the opportunity to make him sit around and wait for her.
A group of Slytherins finally rose to leave, Pansy with them. The blond girl made a show of bidding them goodbye and practically skipped over to the Gryffindor table, coming to stand before him.
She gave him a dazzling smile. “Hi Harry,” she chirped sweetly, hands clasped together demurely in front of her. “How are you doing?”
“Fine,” he muttered while Parvati leaned forward with a pleasant smile and said, “You’re overdoing it, pug-face.”
“Arf-arf.” Lavender giggled.
Pansy shot her a freezing look but quickly relaxed. “I wanted to formally apologize for what happened in the . . . well, you know.” She fidgeted nervously. “This is awkward.” She took a breath, raising her eyes to smile at him again, a becoming pink tint to her cheeks. “I am really sorry about our misunderstanding. It was a terrible mix-up and it won’t happen again.”
“It won’t happen again?” he repeated incredulously.
A hint of something mischievous flashed through her eyes. “Well, that scenario as it happened, I can promise you won’t ever happen again.” She purred, waving a finely manicured hand dismissively.
“You mean me kicking your ass.” He stated coolly.
“Yeah that.” She agreed, perking up. “So. . . .” She clapped her hands together. “That’s it, apology accepted.” She stated as if they had forgiven her.
“What?” Seamus practically yelped in disbelief.
“You wish!” Lavender scoffed.
“Can I sit down?” she asked Harry, pointing to the bench.
“Er. . . .”
She glanced at Ron who was glaring murderously at her and whispered to Harry, “Can you get your boyfriend to skootch over?”
“Parkinson. . . .” Harry started, because the redhead looked like he was about to start yelling.
“That’s okay. I’ll sit in your lap.”
“NO!” Harry yelped and the Gryffindors--as one--jerked to their respective sides, making a clearing on the bench.
“Thank you,” she said primly and sat.
“Damnit, Parkinson, what do you want?” he snarled, face red and mentally berating himself for getting flustered. She wanted him off balance, it would make it easier for her to get whatever she was after.
“I heard what Sky did to you. Dirty little prank, but boys will be boys.” She sighed happily and selected a raspberry Danish. “You should really thank him though. The way you reacted to him this morning was just the type of thing that will get us all into more trouble. So next time you’ll know to hold your temper.”
“Is there a point in this somewhere?”
She smiled at him blindingly and propped her chin up on her palm, her voice lowering considerably. “Listen up, mother fucker, Monday our punishment is officially over but next weekend is a Hogsmeade weekend. That is, if you assholes don’t do something to ruin it. So I’m proposing a truce until after Hogsmeade weekend.”
Harry stared at her. Hogsmeade weekend. She wanted to make sure it was still on. “No deal,” he said immediately, tight and clipped, and turned back to his plate.
If she knew what they had planned. . . .
It was quickly apparently that she didn’t because shock flashed across her face. “B-but Harry,” she stuttered, forcing a smile. “Surely, you’re not planning on cheating all of us out of our Hogsmeade weekend. . . .”
“Is it important to you?” he asked.
Her eyes widened. “Uh. . . .”
“Then, hell yes, that’s exactly what I plan.” He stated, praying she didn’t call his bluff, praying that Parvati, who was looking surprised and disappointed, would keep her mouth shut.
Pansy didn’t say anything for a long moment, and he refused to look at her, but he suspected she was altering her plan of attack. “Harry,” she began cajolingly.
“You heard him, Parkinson,” Ron cut her off. “Get out of here.”
“Yeah, Fido, go eat scraps under your own table,” Lavender spat.
The girl clenched her jaw but continued to ignore the others. “Alright, you son of a bitch,” Pansy hissed, face now red, eyes no longer sparkling prettily. “You want to play hardball. We’ll cut a deal.”
“How’s this for a deal, you don’t piss me off, and I don’t cancel Hogsmeade weekend.”
“What?” she asked sharply. He felt a rush of triumph at the look on her face.
He turned and lowered his head till they were eye level. “No truce. There’s no way in hell I’m giving you carte blanche to go wherever you want in Gryffindor territory. If this is so important to you then be a good little girl and don’t piss me off and maybe, just maybe, I won’t cancel Hogsmeade weekend.”
She stared at him like she wasn’t sure if she’d heard right, her mouth working silently. “You think you can just. . . .”
“I know I can ‘just’,” He cut her off harshly. “I don’t care about Hogsmeade weekend so you’d better think before you act. If you or anyone else puts even a toe out of line, I’ll make sure every single Hogsmeade weekend we have this year is canceled.”
“And that’s it?” She sounded disbelieving.
“My final word,” he finished coolly.
Pansy made a sound of absolute disgust and stood up jerkily, but Harry caught her wrist tightly.
“Hey! Stop it!” she yelped, then lowered her voice. “The Professors are watching you idiot! Don’t get us in trouble!”
He pulled her down till they were face to face, her eyes suddenly wide. “Remember, Pansy, we have unfinished business,” he whispered.
She gasped and jerked out of his grasp, rubbing her wrist and staring at him as if he’d suddenly grown another head before she stormed away, casting a wary glance back at him. The Gryffindors glared after her.
“That was beautiful, Harry,” Dean chuckled.
“I can’t stand the way she acts.” Lavender sniffed. “Like she owns the place.”
Harry sat back, letting the tension slip away. Pansy had underestimated him. She had approached him thinking, and rightly so, that he had big plans for Hogsmeade weekend, the same as she obviously did. Her little attack had a two-fold purpose; one was to tie his hands for another week. The second was to find out just how important Hogsmeade weekend was to him. If she came to the conclusion that it would be worth it, she would screw him over and make sure the weekend got canceled.
Only it hadn’t worked. Now her hands were tied, and his weren’t. Now it was him who would decide whether or not to cancel the weekend.
The Gryffindors abandoned breakfast and headed upstairs to grab their backpacks and make a few last minute adjustments to their schedule.
Several changes had been made to the House defenses. The human sentinels inside the Gryffindor common room had been replaced by a couple of new paintings who had volunteered to check the secondary passwords each kid had as they came in.
Su Li had managed to copy the Maurader’s Map. There were now three, one for Harry, one for Ron, and one that stayed inside the girls’ dorm and could be enlarged and projected onto the wall during their meetings. Over the last week the Gryffindors had tracked most of the Slytherin upperclassmen and now knew Pansy and Idane’s schedules by heart, had even charted a few of Slytherin’s secret rooms.
Su was currently working on a way to give the Gryffindors a sort of personal alarm system that would alert the other Gryffindors if they were attacked. She had pretty much taken over working on the Gryffindor defenses.
Harry and the seventh years were focused completely on their plan of attack.
Harry grabbed his book bag and followed the other boys out of the room. He hesitated at the door, wondering briefly if he should leave the magic booby traps he’d set up open in case Neville came back. The other boy’s homework was still lying scattered haphazardly over his bed.
“Harry!” Ginny said, flying up the stairs. “We just checked the map. Neville is with Millicent Bulstrode.”
Harry whipped around, face bloodless. “She’ll kill him! Where are they? Ron and I will. . . .”
“No, Harry,” Ginny said gently, pausing to catch her breath, “Drew says Neville followed her out of the Great Hall. He’s meeting with her in secret of his own free will. He’s been with her for the past fifteen minutes.”
Harry stood silently in the doorway letting that sink in.
“Harry?” Ginny asked, reaching for him with one hand but stopping.
He pivoted, raised his wand and made a slashing motion, arming all the traps.
“Harry. . . .” Ginny said again sympathetically.
“Come on,” He said sharply and turned violently to head downstairs, Ginny following.
It had been a week of reassuring calm at Hogwarts. Nothing at all out of the ordinary happened. The students had their meals, attended their classes and went back to their Houses and that was it. It was a little cramped, a problem which was eventually solved by the older students kicking the younger ones out of their Common Rooms and making them stay in their dorms. Boredom quickly became a problem, but really, boredom was a nice change of pace.
Everyone was still smarting a bit under the punishment they had received, but it was almost over, and as morale picked up, there were grumbles from the older students that, if the other Houses kept getting them into trouble, something was going to be done about it.
Slytherin and Gryffindor though, were behaving themselves quite well and everyone agreed that the worst was over. The importance of the House rivalry declined. Interest in the happenings of the summer waned.
So a couple of kids disappeared. So what? Life goes on.
A cheery mood picked up in the halls.
Hogwarts was back to normal.
Only it wasn’t, and Neville envied those unobservant enough to think it was from his seat far down at the end of the breakfast table, exiled to sit with the younger years. He watched the other seventh year Gryffindors walk in the door.
They always came to breakfast as a unit, and that just seemed like rubbing it in. It wasn’t enough that he was a pariah in his own House, Neville had been banished to sit with the Third Years during meals because Harry didn’t want him to overhear anything that might be discussed, and the Fifth and Sixth years were pissed and wanted nothing to do with him.
“It’s nothing personal, Neville,” Harry had mumbled. “Its just. . . .”
Just that we can’t trust you, traitor.
It didn’t have to be said.
What. The. Hell.
Did Harry honestly think he was going to tell somebody what he had heard? Or maybe Harry thought he would try to stop them.
It was insulting.
Harry had been nice and chose the Seventh Year girl’s dorms as his main base of operations. Neville laid awake at night in the empty room and listened to the rest of them sneak in later and try to whisper about their plans low enough so the traitor wouldn’t overhear. Or maybe they wanted him to overhear. Maybe they were going to try and use him to spread rumors or test his loyalty by seeing if anything he overheard spread to the rest of the Hogwarts population.
Sometimes he came in, and they were all gathered together in the Common Room and they would stop talking and stare at him until he plodded up the stairs to his dorm, beet-red and knowing that they all thought he was a coward who didn’t care what happened to Hermione. He couldn’t even hide in the library like he wanted to because of Dumbledore’s punishment.
He hated it.
Most of the Seventh Years were still speaking to him. Dean, Seamus, Lavender, and Parvati were still kind to him and didn’t seem to be holding a grudge. But even they wouldn’t tell him what was going on.
Harry had been giving him looks the past couple of days that were half-angry and half-regretful. Neville was sure Harry wanted to at least apologize and try to mend things between them, (They were war-buddies! They’d fought alongside each other against Death Eaters! Couldn’t Harry just respect Neville’s opinion? Maybe even consider it?) but Harry kept stopping himself. He couldn’t accept Neville’s decision, and there was silence between them.
Ron, on the other hand, didn’t seem the least inclined towards forgiveness. There was a black fury in Ron’s eyes whenever he looked at Neville. And Neville knew Ron took his passive stance on the ‘battle of Hogwarts’ as unforgivable betrayal. He made sure to steer clear from the red-head.
Ginny was a little sharp and clipped with him, but she seemed to understand where he was coming from and kept the Sixth and Fifth Years off his back.
All in all, it was incredibly lonely and incredibly frustrating.
There was this restlessness inside him. He believed whole-heartedly in the stand he’d taken. He didn’t think war on the Slytherins was the answer, that hurting each other wasn’t going to get them anywhere. But so far, all he’d been doing was sitting the war-thing out.
When his righteous anger wore off, he realized he wasn’t exactly accomplishing anything. Sure, he wasn’t helping the war along but he certainly wasn’t doing anything to stop it either. He was just sitting on his ass watching the other students hurt each other. Wasn’t inaction just as bad as the action itself?
A ripple went through the Gryffindors and Neville looked up curiously to see Millicent Bulstrode approaching the head of the table. The Seventh Years had gone stiff and still, like hunting dogs. Neville watched Millicent lazily lean in and say something quietly to Harry.
Harry’s face darkened, but he nodded sharply, and Millicent looked satisfied and sauntered away. Neville caught her eyes as she passed, and she glared at him blackly.
“What are you looking at, you big dumb horse’s ass?” she spat.
Which, of course, was her bashful way of saying, “Hi Neville! How are you doing this beautiful morning?”
“What are you smiling at, fucktard?” Her voice rose slightly, promising pain and suffering if he didn’t at least pretend to be terrified. He looked down at his breakfast, pushing his eggs around on his plate. She moved on, muttering.
He flicked a glance to make sure she wasn’t looking, and, when he knew it was safe, rolled his eyes.
She was mad at him, and he wasn’t entirely sure why. She’d been extra caustic to him since that night she . . . er, helped him out, and then punched him in the gut.
But at least she noticed him. That was something considering she usually didn’t seem to know he existed.
That was his fault.
He’d been best friends with her, Terry Boot and Crabbe (when Crabbe wasn’t running with Goyle and Draco and picking on him) when they were younger. Best friends until that stupid Sorting Hat had put them in different Houses and effectively ended their friendship.
To be fair, the Hat had started it, but he, like the terminal screw-up he was, had helped it along. He’d been frightened and uncomfortable with Milly and Crabbe being Slytherins. He had started distancing himself from them immediately, something made easy by the fact that he hardly ever saw them, now that he was safe and secure in his new House.
To him, being Slytherin was equivalent to admitting to being a Death Eater in training. Like it was some sort of prerequisite to getting the mark. And he didn’t want to hang around with people like that. He was a Gryffindor after all, and Gryffindors fight Slytherins and Gryffindors fight Death Eaters and, well, if they were going to be Death Eaters then he’d fight them too.
What arrogance. What a stupid, arrogant coward.
It was one of the reasons he identified with, and recognized, Harry’s hatred of Slytherins. Neville hated the people who had hurt his parents, and they were Death Eaters and Slytherins. His family and general society had raised him with the belief that most Death Eaters were Slytherins, and most Slytherins were young Death Eaters. It was the same with Harry. Harry came to the Wizarding world from a Muggle life, and everything bad that had happened to him since then, happened because of Slytherins and Death Eaters. Snape, Draco, Lucius, Voldemort, the Lestranges. Slytherins and Death Eaters.
But Neville was wizard born, and it was easier for him, as he grew older, to separate Slytherins from Death Eaters, to realize that most of the Slytherins were defensive and angry because everyone looked at them like they were young Death Eaters just waiting to pounce. Some of them were even pushed into it, seeming to think that it was what was expected of them.
Separating Slytherins and Death Eaters was a concept that seemed harder for Harry to grasp, partly because he had little evidence to support such a divide and partly because he had grown up with Muggles and really had never been out in the real Wizarding world. He didn’t know that Paulo Geffen, who owned a bakery shop in Hogsmeade and who was a perfectly decent human being, had been a Slytherin. He didn’t know that Jill Orion, who was an amazing seamstress and who always sent Neville a birthday card and who hated the Death Eaters with every fiber of her being, had been a Slytherin.
Hogwarts was Harry’s whole world. He had yet to understand that House had very little to do with life after school. He was basically a foreigner, and there were certain underlying cultural nuances that he didn’t have, and would never have.
Cultural nuances or not, Harry needed to get over it.
You can’t just hate people and expect the wor… Продолжение »
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