A/N: Thanks to the guests and hamlet that commented on the last chapter! (I was intending to post this weekend, hamlet and 'guest'. But your nudge ensured I didn't forget!)
Chapter 1: Tales Half Spun
Albus Dumbledore's office, 11:55 pm
" … alas, Lucius Malfoy's guests are decidedly influential and he cannot run the risk of offending them. He will be here as soon as decorum permits."
There was no twinkle in Albus Dumbledore's eyes as he reported back to Snape.
"Severus? I do hope you haven't miscalculated. Should word get out of what took place, it will seem very suspicious, no?"
"Not at all, headmaster. Should word get out, then we make it known an older student dressed as a Death Eater to play a cruel prank on Malfoy … Bletchley would be perfect to take the fall."
Snape silently cursed Lucius all the way to the hospital wing. Lucius Malfoy: the fly in the ointment. The rest of the plan had gone like clockwork. Armitage-Brown had found the parchment on which Malfoy had plotted for everyone bar himself to enter Snape's study and search for Potter's cloak. Typical Malfoy, the others took a risk while he sat pretty. The ludicrous plan had been abandoned, but Malfoy's less than honourable intention was recorded in black and white for all to see. The head prefect had dangled it as bait for Bulstrode to set a revenge plan in motion. She contrived to get the boy out and alone in the Slytherin corridor. He was to act as decoy when Potter replaced the stolen note by lurking around smoking a cigarette. Should another professor enter the dungeon, Malfoy would leg it and the outraged professor give chase, thus enabling Potter to safely exit his quarters. But Bulstrode's real hope had been for Licorus to spot Malfoy and tattle. So subtle had Armitage-Brown been, Millicent Bulstrode was convinced the plan was all her doing.
No other professors had come down to the dungeons, of course they hadn't. The only one who ever ventured there was Minerva and, unbeknownst to everyone but himself and Armitage-Brown, she was already installed in his rooms with Polly Pinkerton. Polly had awaited her moment and clearly pulled off her turn as vengeful Death Eater with aplomb; Malfoy's childhood terror was back. It was beyond Minerva's skill set to deal with him, and so he'd been taken to the hospital wing along with Potter. Potter had been unwilling but Snape knew the reason for that. It wasn't that he wanted to get back and play more Sardines, nor was it lack of concern; it was worry over replacing the damned note and the realisation that Malfoy needed Snape. With no time for niceties Snape had taken drastic measures to ensure Potter stayed literally right by Malfoy's side despite the boy pleading with him to help Malfoy.
"My, my … what a sterling attribute you are to Slytherin House, Mister Potter … annoyed that you have to help an upset housemate when you could be having fun with the others …"
"It's not that! He wants you!"
It was true, but Snape couldn't pour balm on Malfoy's fears before Lucius had seen him. His terror was the whole point of the charade; even Lucius Malfoy couldn't ignore such fear and pain in his own son. Surely? The icing on the cake would be for Lucius to see his son gaining comfort from 'the enemy': Harry Potter.
Snape had known Draco Malfoy's worst fear long before the boy gave voice to it. A Death Eater resurgence that would not only seek revenge on the cowardly Lucius, but look to ensnare Draco in the whole sorry mess. But were Albus' fears founded? Had Snape miscalculated? Any other father would have flown to his son's side on hearing he was so traumatized. Then again, not many fathers shared Malfoy Senior's pathological selfishness.
Snape nodded to Poppy, placed his finger on his lips to keep silent his presence, and eased himself onto the alcove bench to keep watch on Potter and Malfoy.
The hospital wing
Lavender talc, excessive face powder and lily of the valley scent. Harry could smell it before the head popped over his shoulder. Essence of fuss-pot old lady, caring and familiar. Not the kind of thing a teenaged boy admits to, but he secretly loved the smell of Madam Pomfrey and wished he could bottle it to sniff whenever the going got tough.
"How on earth did you get yourself into this pickle, Mister Malfoy? Scared stiff and too frightened to even whine about it; that's not like you at all."
Not a flutter from Malfoy. Not even a pucker of his thin lips on hearing Madam Pomfrey's not-so-veiled insult. Then again, Harry doubted he heard the old mediwitch - considering the amount of calming draught he'd had poured into him.
"I know!" Said Madam Pomfrey, "I'll move the other bed alongside Malfoy's. Make it into a double and you can both sleep. How about that?!"
Harry forced his drooping eyes to open wide and assured her he wasn't remotely tired. She looked unconvinced and came up with another idea,
"Well then, how about you hop up onto the side of this bed? You can spoon Malfoy and have a lovely little nap!"
Pomfrey was caring but nuts.
"No! No thanks, Madam Pomfrey. I'm fine; I really am."
"Silly boy! Oh well, if you change your mind, sing out. I shall only be in the store room sorting through my linens."
She bustled out of the ward, and Harry went back to doing the only thing he could: thinking, yawning and failing to find any rest. What were the others doing now, and why was he stuck here? Typical bloody Malfoy effing everything up. Sophie had planned for everyone to find the fourth Sardine before Snape did by trapping him in a long conversation about Murtlap tentacles, thus making him the next Sardine. Snape hidden away as Sardine was to be Harry's opportunity to sneak out and replace the note. Good plan. So good, in fact, that Harry had piggy-backed the idea and planned to have lush Tracey Davis as the next Sardine after Snape - with him the first to find her. Alone in a hiding spot with Tracey … even as the others barged in to spoil their solitude it would only serve to shove Harry up closer to her … what bliss. But no, The Platinum Pillock had stuffed it up royally. What could have happened to him? The only other person in the corridor had been McGonagall, and even she wasn't that scary.
He'd got the fright of his life when he saw Malfoy gibbering and bleating for Snape, but he was taking things a bit far now. Or maybe not … but Harry was way too tired to entertain those thoughts. So less demanding to be pissed off. And the note! What about replacing the bleeding note?! It had all turned to shit; not only was he condemned to cosset the drama queen, but Snape was bound to discover the missing note and give Harry the caning of his life. Bloody hell! Snape would cane the rest of them too - even Tracey. Maybe that was why Malfoy was pulling this scam. Maybe this was his back up plan for when things went tits up? Hole up in a hospital bed looking so pathetic and miserable that even Snape couldn't find it in his heart to cane him?
He knew his mind was racing. That's the trouble when you're given too much time to think; your mind takes itself off to bonkers locations. He also knew he had no right to be pissed off with Malfoy. Something had happened. Something bad. He remembered the Friday of his second week in Slytherin when Malfoy had thrown a monumental fit in the dorm. But that Friday had been so different; Snape had come racing to Malfoy's side then. Malfoy had sworn and fought and even kicked out at Snape. The Git had been stern enough to get his attention, and then treated him with hitherto unseen gentleness. Well where was he now? Had he grown tired of Malfoy's histrionics?
Malfoy rolled over in his sleep and Harry was yanked into an even more uncomfortable position. Now he was on his feet, bent over, stomach flat on the edge of the mattress, and his right arm curling around Malfoy's body. Sodding Snape and his sticking charm; The Git had stuck Harry's right hand to Malfoy's left forearm - and all so he could piss off and not bother dealing with Malfoy. Next thing he knew, Harry was on his toes as Malfoy pulled his knees up and placed his hands between his thighs. Okay … this looks well dodgy, thought Harry. Time to swallow his pride and ask Madam Pomfrey to move the other bed next to Malfoy's, but there was no way he was climbing up onto this one and spooning The Prat.
On the point of calling out, a footstep too heavy to be Madam Pomfrey's sounded. Snape? No. Despite his height, Snape was light on his feet, near silent. After the step came a dull thunk and a dragging noise and Harry instantly recognised it.
"Harry!" Came the harsh whisper.
"Professor Moody! Erm … hello … um how are you?"
Alastor Moody ignored the polite enquiry.
"What are you doing there, laddie?!"
Moody's eyeball swivelled in its brass housing and settled on the dubious location of Harry's right hand. Shit! I should've spooned Malfoy, thought Harry; this looks way worse.
"Had a bit of a fight … um … ended up getting stuck to Malfoy … should wear off in a bit …"
Why had he lied and let Snape off the hook? The Git had cast a sticking charm on him and Malfoy; surely it was against the rules for professors to do that? Harry was already miserable and exhausted and now that sodding sticking charm made it look like he was groping a defenceless Malfoy. It was most probably the lowest ebb of his Hogwarts' career. Then again, Moody was as inquisitive about the bizarre situation as Madam Pomfrey had been - that is, not at all. He might have only been teaching there a few months, but Moody was already continuing the proud Hogwarts' tradition of providing zero pastoral care; he simply grunted at Harry's explanation. Harry wasn't complaining, though. He took the opportunity to change the subject.
"How did you know I was here?"
Moody patted his pocket before pulling out the Marauders' Map.
"Your father's handiwork!"
"And the others."
"Sirius." Conceded Moody, "Lupin was probably disapproving, and Pettigrew … well … Never mind them, it's good to see you, laddie. Difficult to catch up now you're in Slytherin; Snape always seems to be lurking."
"Not always." Said Harry with feeling.
He wished Snape would start lurking right now. He couldn't put his finger on it but increasingly of late he'd been disquieted by Moody's presence.
"Do you need me for anything, sir?"
"Wanted to know you were alright. Bit of a shock to see you show up in the hospital." Moody again tapped the map, "Still one more task to go; need to keep your wits about you. Can't risk any accidents; do you hear me? I have great expectations of you in the next task, my boy!"
"I'll be careful." Said Harry, "By the way, can I have my map back?"
Harry wasn't sure. He didn't have any plans for it, just didn't want Moody to have it any longer.
"I can use it to see you after curfew; maybe talk to you about the next task?"
Then Harry took a punt on a feeling he had.
"Plus it helps me do stuff Professor Snape doesn't approve of!"
The punt paid off; Moody liked that answer.
"That's the spirit! Get one over on old Snape!"
The ex-auror handed over the map, prodded Malfoy and pronounced him useless, then stumped out of the ward. Harry felt uneasy at Moody's visit, though he didn't have time to analyse it; his attention was taken by the figure in black gliding rapidly out of the shadows and straight for him.
Snape came out swinging a counter-spell to the sticking charm. In a trice Harry was roughly pulled to standing and yanked over Snape's left hip as he snatched the Marauders' Map from his back pocket.
"Your foolishness is incomprehensible!" He hissed.
Harry recognised the look on his face. It was the same one that had greeted them at the quidditch pitch the day they'd all nicked off to Hogsmeade. Yeah well, Snape had been right to be furious that day, but now after everything he'd done to Harry? No effing way!
"Why are you pissed off, and where have you been?! He's been calling for you for hours. Some sodding housemaster you are; you couldn't give a shit!"
Dangerous ground, Harry knew it. But the switch from miserable exhaustion to anger felt so good. So satisfying. Was that why Snape chose to be almost permanently bloody irate? Had he fooled them all? Did being a snarky shitbag somehow make Snape the most satisfied person in Hogwarts? The rush of anger coursed through him, and the stiff back and neck he'd got from being draped over Malfoy's bed were gone instantly. Brilliant!
"You arrogant little wretch! How dare you …?"
The raised voices caused Malfoy to stir from his torpor. Harry looked down to him, but anger was a drug and he craved another hit.
"Are you going to keep him dosed up with happy juice? Pretend he's not suffering? Yeah, let's all ignore him; let's leave him here until he 'snaps out of it', shall we?!"
The next thing he knew, he'd been forced over the next bed. Harry cringed as he awaited Snape's iron hand to come thundering down. Only it didn't. The urgent tones of Madam Pomfrey caused Snape to pull Harry up and thrust him back on the visitor's chair, where Malfoy reached out and grasped his hand.
An altogether more exotic scent preceded the arrival of the next person to enter the ward. It was accompanied by rustling silk.
"Severus! We came as soon as I heard."
Snape noted the deliberate choice of subject pronoun, and then proceeded to twist the knife.
"Your dinner companions weren't too inconvenienced by your leaving, I hope?"
He almost wished he hadn't. Lucius shook his head mutely and looked with agonised eyes at his son. Slowly and quietly, he joined his wife at the bedside, and for the first time, noted Harry's presence with surprise. Harry felt himself dragged to standing.
"Leave, Potter. Go back to the dormitory and get to bed."
He couldn't wait to oblige. Snape was being a prick. As he turned, a smooth alabaster hand reached out and took his.
"We're so grateful you stayed with Severus to watch our son. Thank you." Said Narcissa.
Free of the hospital ward, Harry began to think about the night's events. Something really bad had happened to Malfoy. Snape didn't care but as soon as Malfoy's parents turned up, he snapped into action. Phoney tosser. And why did The Git have a go at him? What had Harry done? He wanted to go back and tell The Malfoys that Snape had done nothing to help their son but he wasn't sure he had the bottle. In lieu of that, he kicked out at a corridor settee sending it skidding to the other side.
"Get to bed, Potter. Your tiredness is making you pettish."
He was unaware that Snape had followed him out, but he didn't jump in alarm; instead he immediately bristled. He hated that word. 'Pettish' was a Snape word; he used it for the lower school and to humiliate his older students. Harry'd made a fool of himself when Snape first called him it. He'd assumed it meant docile, like a pet Spaniel and had gone on to inform Snape that he wasn't anyone's pet, flipping over the Monopoly board he'd been using to prove his point. Snape had given a theatrical sigh before grabbing his earlobe and parading him around the common room as he solicited definitions of 'pettish' simple enough for even Harry to understand. Unsurprisingly, it was Malfoy who'd supplied the definition Snape most approved of: peevish, behaving in the manner of a bad-tempered child. Harry had had to write out that definition fifty times before being sent to his dorm. He really hated that word.
"I'm not pettish! I'm pissed off and I've got every right to be! Tell you who else should be pissed off: Malfoy's parents. They think you stayed with him but you didn't. You buggered off and left him on his own; only came back when they arrived. Maybe I'll go in and tell them, eh?"
Snape grabbed him and shook him so hard he could've sworn his teeth rattled.
"You, Potter, have every right to be down in my study answering for your appalling disrespect, which is exactly where you will be when I have the time to deal with you."
He let go of Harry's arms, and waved him off.
"Get down to the dungeons and into bed. If anyone asks about Malfoy, you tell them you brought him up to Madam Pomfrey with a stomach upset. Do I make myself clear?"
Maturity doesn't make a person immune from indulging in angry tirades. However, it does grant the presence of mind to question why the other person is acting in that manner. Being just fourteen, Harry was unencumbered by any such meddlesome queries. He stomped down to the dungeons so loudly it was a miracle he didn't wake the entire castle, and then tossed and turned in bed certain of three things: he was beyond reproach, Snape was a shithead and being in Slytherin sucked big time.
The following day, Slytherin common room, 7:40 am
"But you know," Wheedled Pansy, "We didn't really do anything … Potter stole the exam paper and Weasley did the plotting."
"Pansy!" Chided Tracey.
Pansy threw up her palms in supplication,
"I'm just saying!"
"I know you're 'just saying', " Said Hermione, "but you also 'just said' the Slytherin Oath, so we're all in this together!"
Hermione and the rest of the girls all heard Pansy's whispered 'who does she think she is?!' to Daphne, but said nothing. Not knowing what was going on and the prospect of being in trouble with Snape had made them all tetchy.
"I can't just sit here!" Hermione declared, "I don't care if the boys' dorms are off-limits; I'm going up."
She lurched off the sofa but Millicent grabbed hold of her.
"Pretty certain Snape was joking last night about slippering you, but if he catches you up there, he'll do it."
That made her pause for a second, but she had to know what had gone on last night. Why hadn't Harry reappeared? Where did Draco go? Had the plan worked? Or did Snape know everything?
"Forget it, Mills; she's determined." Said Pansy, loosening Millicent's hold and leading Hermione to the boys' stairs, "Third door on the right." She whispered.
Hermione thanked Pansy and bolted up the stairs. A quick knock and she plunged through the third door - to be greeted by the sight of Michelangelo's David made flesh. In particular, David's deliciously rounded bottom and tautly muscled thighs. David's head quickly turned into profile as he looked over his shoulder.
"I'm so sorry AB! I'm so, so sorry! I thought … I umm …"
"Tell you what, Hermione; you leave, I'll get dressed, and we forget this happened." Offered AB graciously.
"Yes! Yes, let's do that. I'll just go. This didn't happen. I was never here. We won't say a word."
"Are you off, then?"
"I'm off … I'm going … be gone in a mo' …" She babbled.
Hermione backed out of the room. She ought to have felt annoyed at Pansy's mischief-making and foolish at her own clumsiness. She couldn't, however, summon either emotion. An unhindered view of Slytherin's head prefect was, Hermione decided, the perfect antidote to worrying about last night. Still mesmerized, she jumped as Malcolm Baddock tore around the corner slap bang into her.
"Hang on! You're a girl! You can't be in the boys' dorms! I'm telling Professor Snape!"
Hermione wasn't taking that from a first-year Snake, not after their head prefect had been so thoroughly accommodating of her presence.
"Go ahead if you like, but Professor Snape told me to come. I'm doing an inventory of laundry dropped onto dorm floors. He's furious that the elves have to search for lost clothing. I'm supposed to start with the fourth-years but I'm not sure where to go. Between you and me," Whispered Hermione, "he's going to make a real example of them at morning inspection …"
Malcolm's eyes went wide at that news, and Hermione almost chirruped with delight at how easily intimidating a first-year came to her. She felt like Pansy! Malcolm pointed her in the right direction before beetling off to check under his own bed for discarded socks and underpants. Irritating first-year dealt with and a blow struck for S.P.E.W. into the bargain; Hermione was beginning to feel like she belonged in Slytherin. She again knocked on a door and plunged in, though this time with her hand over her eyes.
"I'm not looking!"
"More fool you!" Shot back Blaise Zabini en route to the bathroom.
Harry groaned, then bolted from his bed. He calculated he'd had approximately seventeen minutes' sleep. The thought did occur to him to shove her out and slam the door, but then he knew his pal; that wouldn't keep her quiet at all. Almost weeping with tiredness, he turned Hermione to the wall and reluctantly got dressed, not bothering to put on socks and throwing his sweater on back to front. Bundling Hermione out of the dorm and down the boys' stairs, they both arrived in the common room and came face to face with a smirking Pansy. Hermione tutted a 'very childish, Pansy' but then couldn't help smirking along with the scheming Slytherin as she and Harry made for the games corner. "Naughty girl!" Said Pansy following them.
A shove to the shoulders saw Harry trip over a footstool and face plant onto an ancient leather sofa. It could only have been Millicent Bulstrode.
"Where the frigging hell did you get to last night, Potter?!"
"Don't ask." Mumbled Harry to the time-worn leather.
"I am asking! And where's Malfoy; is he up in the dorm?"
Harry didn't need this. He'd had a great night ruined courtesy of Messrs' Prat and Git and virtually no sleep; Hermione had gone mental, barging in and waking him from the one scrap of rest he'd managed to get, and now Millicent was starting in on him.
"I was with Malfoy almost all bloody night - in the hospital."
In his fog of weariness he wondered why Millicent was sounding so frantic; then remembered it was she who'd plotted to have Malfoy out alone in the corridor. It annoyed him to go along with Snape's alternative version of events, but the truth was he didn't know what had happened to Malfoy, and he knew they'd keep hounding him for information he didn't have. Reluctantly, he trotted out Snape's lie.
"Overdosed on birthday cake and felt sick. You know Malfoy; he's not going to take an upset stomach in his stride. He's making a right song and dance of it. And by the way, Millicent? If you were so worried, why didn't you come looking for Malfoy or me?"
"Don't you think we tried?" Countered Millicent, "AB was left in charge and he out-Snaped Snape, handing out notes left, right and centre at anyone trying to look for you. I got two!"
"Let's keep calm." Said Tracey, "We might be up to our necks in it soon enough; we can't fall out with each other. Snape'll be angry enough for all of us."
"Well said." Added Hermione before launching the next barrage of questions.
"Is that the reason you didn't come back to Sardines? Were you taking Malfoy to Madam Pomfrey?"
"Is the exam paper back on Snape's shelves? Did the plan work?"
"No and no."
That was Zabini. He'd showered and joined the group.
"Hear that, Greg?" Groaned Crabbe.
He and Goyle had also joined the group, along with Adrian Pucey.
"Hang on a moment; why didn't Snape take Malfoy there?" Demanded Adrian, "He left Sardines almost straight after you, Potter."
Exhaustion caused Harry's head to pound, his eyes to throb, and his mood to worsen. Sod Snape; he was going to tell the others exactly what had gone on.
"Yeah well, Snape just bloody well went and …"
"Professor Snape just went to deal with an urgent matter - a matter far more urgent than pettish students."
Bloody hell! How long had he been standing there? All eyes flew to Snape. How much did he hear?! But Snape passed no comment on the prior conversation, and immediately honed in on Hermione.
"Miss Granger … "
She shuffled in her chair and twiddled a strand of hair.
"Perhaps you can explain why I've been inundated with first-year boys attempting to explain why items of their underwear are missing? What exactly have you been up to?"
"I … I …"
Hermione stammered repeatedly, which kind of pleased Harry. It felt good not to be the person who was copping it, and he was still annoyed she'd woken him up. Then he felt mean. Hermione was only being Hermione: trying to help and being mental in the process. If Snape found out she'd been in the boys' dorms, he'd have a fit. The youngest professor in Hogwarts also had the most antiquated notions on the comportment of the sexes.
Saved! Alicia and the rest of the first-year girls came from nowhere to swarm Snape.
"Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU! Last night was the best! The best birthday party ever! Ever!"
Alicia gave a pointed look at Elsa and Astoria. Elsa fell into line.
"It was, Lissy. Yours was the best birthday party. Better than mine."
Alicia fist-pumped the air. Snape attempted to keep glowering at Hermione but his excited fan club meant he had to break eye contact as he shoved the first-years away, and the moment was lost. He roared at the house to line up for inspection.
Of course Snape couldn't give up the opportunity to ridicule Harry for his poor standard of dress. Crabbe was sent to retrieve socks for him, and Zabini was prevailed upon to explain the correct way to wear a sweater. Hermione was thanked for visiting, Snape remarking she appeared comfortable in the dungeons. She couldn't help but agree - and then wished she hadn't.
"So comfortable, in fact, you seem just like one of my merry band of Snakes. Break any more rules, Miss Granger, and I'll treat you exactly as I would them."
"Point taken, sir." Blushed Hermione.
"The news of the day is that Mister Malfoy indulged in far too much cake last night. Potter took him to Madam Pomfrey, and he'll stay there until his stomach settles."
His head did a rapid swivel to Alicia.
"A minor miracle you haven't been rushed to St Mungo's. Well done Mister Potter for volunteering to sit with him; you may visit him after breakfast. The rest of you will stay away. I won't have Madam Pomfrey bothered. Clear?"
They nodded and Snape despatched them to breakfast, but not before collaring Harry,
"My study. Directly after seeing Malfoy."
Ron was waiting for them at the top of the dungeon stairs. Hermione grabbed both his hand and Harry's, and pulled them under the southern stairs. Millicent kept watch for Snape and when she saw he wasn't coming, bolted there too.
"Guess what!" Exclaimed Ron.
"What?" Asked Hermione.
"Snape's not a total freak!"
"Yes he is and he's a twat." Snarled Harry.
"Harry!" Chided Hermione.
"Oh yeah well twattish he may be," Conceded Ron, "but he can't be a complete freak. He's got a girlfriend! And she's bloody lovely!"
"No way!" Then Harry thought some more, "Probably some poor cow he's put under an Imperius."
"Has he?" Hermione asked Millicent.
"Dunno. But he is young and single." Said Millicent.
"Yeah … but Snape?!" Ron screwed up his face at the prospect, "I mean, would you?"
"You're asking the wrong person, Weasley." Replied Millicent.
"Hang on! How do you know?" Demanded Hermione.
"Saw her last night. She helped me when I was in his rooms. You know, you're right Harry; he is still a twat. Only had his floo booby-trapped, didn't he? Sneaky git!"
"What?! You floo'd into his rooms? Why?!" Millicent asked before Harry and Hermione could.
"The plan, remember?" Ron looked at them and rolled his eyes, "You know; putting back the exam paper?!"
"I thought I was doing that!" Said Harry.
"You were. Then Malfoy changed it - in case you couldn't get away from Snape."
Harry slumped back on the stone bench.
"Why? Malfoy's never that thoughtful. Something about this is off."
"Is the paper back on the shelf?" Asked Hermione.
"Yup." Said Ron.
"Then Malfoy's saved your bacon, Harry. It was quick thinking of him. But you're right … things aren't as they seem …"
"What do you mean?" Asked Millicent.
"I'm not sure yet." Murmured Hermione, "I need to think."
Ron slapped his forehead in disbelief.
"We're missing breakfast!"
Hermione wanted time alone to contemplate. When she'd worked through her thoughts, they'd meet.
"Where?" Asked Harry.
"How about the old bell tower?" She suggested.
"I'm coming, too." Said Millicent, "This is a joint Slytherin-Gryffindor mission; we work together on this."
Then Ron caught a waft of bacon from the main hall and started edging away.
"See you in there, yeah?" He said to Harry as he turned and skedaddled with Millicent.
As soon as she said the words 'bell tower', Harry remembered that odd afternoon he'd spent with AB. Warm and dependable AB … yet the head prefect hadn't seemed so that afternoon. He'd been cagey and enigmatic, and Harry hadn't been able to pin down his motives. But the rare treat of AB's recounting of how he'd fallen foul of Snape and received such a walloping had masked all that. On reflection, tales had been half spun and left to dangle; Harry hated that. But he'd had no time to dwell on it, for the second it was over, it was full steam ahead with plotting to get that bloody note back on Snape's shelf.
And now the note was back. Relief - but also a bit of a let down. Adrenalin was no longer front and centre in Harry's brain; he had time to think on other matters. The bell tower. The bell tower and AB. The memory of it suddenly filled Harry with anger. What had the head prefect kept from him that afternoon, and why? Why had AB stopped Millicent from looking for him last night? His anger grew to encompass more people. Why had Snape abandoned Malfoy? What the hell happened last night? Why was Malfoy being such a bloody drama queen, and why had his parents turned up? Harry couldn't recall any other parents clogging the hallways when a son or daughter went into the hospital wing. Sod breakfast, thought Harry. I'm going up there. Malfoy can stop dicking around and give me some answers.
Such a bloody effort to drag himself up even one flight of stairs, his legs felt like lead. And for what? To talk to Draco sodding Malfoy. The scent of Madam Pomfrey did nothing to lighten his spirits. They sank even lower as she prodded him onto the ward. Look at him, thought Harry … Lord Muck … propped up on a mountain of pillows … but he looks way better than last night … come to think of it, he looks way better than I've ever seen him … are his cheeks actually pink? He looks like a normal person for once, and not an albino vampire.
"I heard you wanted to see me."
"Too bad, you prat. I wanna know what was going on last night."
Harry pushed Malfoy's blanketed feet over and heaved himself up onto the end of the bed. As he leant back, the iron footboard dug uncomfortably into his lower back. The discomfort must have shown in his face.
"My apologies, Princess Potter," sneered Malfoy, sparing one of his many pillows, "you'd better take this."
Harry knew then that Malfoy really did want to see him. Even so, the tit made a great performance of shrugging and evading Harry's repeated enquiries as to what had gone on. Just as Harry gave up and started picking lint off the woollen blanket, Malfoy spoke.
"Ezra Vickery. Remember him?"
Harry did. The bogeyman of Malfoy's childhood, or bogeymen. Faceless Death Eater ghouls that had visited Malfoy Manor. Harry had an inkling they'd come to taunt or threaten his father. Malfoy might not have admitted as much, but he'd dropped plenty of clues. Lucius Malfoy, the great pretender … the pathetic wannabe so zealous about Pure Blood supremacy, he was almost certain to be anything but. Lucius the weak-willed coward, who visited the scorn he received on his only son. At that moment, a glimmer of light shone in Harry's mind. All of this was Lucius. Harry didn't know how or why, but whatever had happened last night had Lucius fucking Malfoy at its epicentre.
"Yeah. Yeah, I do." He eventually answered Malfoy.
"He came calling last night - only it was a she."
"You think my father's bad … you have no idea."
Harry did think Lucius Malfoy was bad but the more he thought about it, there was something a bit 'off' about his badness. It sounded mental to say it but Malfoy's dad seemed more spiteful than threatening. Does a truly evil adult spend his time mocking the Weasley children's hand me downs? The man was beginning to seem like a desperate fucker. Christ! Don't say that to Malfoy; he'll get all defensive and narky.
"I met your mum last night. She seemed nice."
"My father is too!"
Bollocks, thought Harry; I've blown it. But Malfoy's stroppiness soon burned itself out.
"Something changed last night. I don't know what it was but something about my father changed."
Malfoy gave a wary nod. Harry wanted to ask him about Snape but he couldn't think of what to say without slagging him off. Couldn't ask him why The Git had left him whimpering and traumatized for hours. Maybe Malfoy had been so out of it that he didn't realise Snape had abandoned him. No. Keep shtum, Harry ordered himself.
"Shit almighty, Malfoy … I knew something serious happened. You were so upset."
Really, Malfoy? We're really doing this?
"Come off it, Malfoy."
"I was injured alright; she bloody crucio'd me! But the rest of it I could handle."
"Yep." Said a patently unconvinced Harry.
"It was play-acting! I was on patrol; McGonagall was about to catch me with fags in my pocket!"
"Yes. Patrol. Remember the plan Millicent and I came up with? I was the last line of defence in case one of you lot cocked up replacing the exam paper. I was pretending I'd sneaked out for a fag in case a professor came down to the dungeons. That way, I'd take the fall and the berk replacing the paper would be able to get away. And McGonagall did come down; she was about to make me empty my pockets and drag me off to Snape. That's why I made such a fuss; I had to make it look convincing, you tosser."
Harry recognised the Slytherin half-truths. Malfoy was out in the corridor but no way had he chosen to do it; Millicent had forced him into it. The Prat didn't break rules - unless he was having one of his epic tantrums. But he didn't bother telling Malfoy he was talking shit. Snape's disappearing act was still bugging him, and he couldn't make sense of the McGonagall time line. Something was wrong there. Again his brain was too crowded and too achingly tired to work it out. Faced with such frustrating uncertainties, Harry snatched at the one thing he did know to be true.
"You're the tosser! Why didn't you tell me Ron was replacing the paper?!"
"You mean he did it?! Ha! Well done, Weasley … You should have seen his face when I told him to do it!"
"You changed the plan just 'cos you knew Ron would be scared?! You know, Malfoy? You always have been and always will be a wanker."
"That's not why I did it! It was just an added bonus. Look, imagine Snape had been watching you when you went to sneak out? You'd never have got his note back and we'd have all been bending over around now for the sodding cane. Last minute change, Potter; I didn't have time to tell you."
"We were stood next to each other for fifteen minutes when Arno was the Sardine; how long would it have taken?!"
"Stop whining. It all worked out, and in any case, you should be worrying about other things!"
Malfoy's eyes glinted.
"Why?" Asked Harry, so tired that even the iron bedstead was beginning to feel comfortable.
"I heard you yelling and swearing at Snape - been given an 'appointment' in his study yet?!"
Malfoy didn't need an answer, Harry's face was a dead giveaway.
"Good luck with that!" Laughed Malfoy.