Disclaimer: Harry Potter and his world are the inestimable creation of J.K. Rowling. I am a trespasser, playing for my amusement (and hopefully yours).
WARNING: This story is moving!
Notes: I am continuing (& finishing) this story, but this is the last chapter I will post to this archive. New chapters continue to be posted at Schnoogle, off FictionAlley (at www.schnoogle.com in /authorLinks/GatewayGirl/.
Update notification on Schnoogle: I've created an update thread on Schnoogle, to which I will post when a new chapter is available. If you subscribe to this thread, you will be notified when I post. See my livejournal (at www.livejournal.com, search for user GatewayGirl) for details and an actual link. (If I include a full URL, or even a hostname with the path attached, ffnet strips it. Please adjust the website information accordingly).
FictionAlley is an okay site, with much more reasonable html handling than here, and they actually do nice things like notify writers of problems and reply to email. There are a few odd things about the interface, but if you list stories by author, you should find mine without any trouble. The one thing I really miss there (as a reader) is the dropdown list of chapters with titles. *shrug* If you want to read other people's reviews, or my notes in the review thread, the easiest way to get to the thread is to click on the "Review!" link, then read the thread from there. Silly, but it works. I will move this to skyehawke, eventually, which has a more intuitive interface, but I don't have time to do that right now. Skyehawke also has X-rated content, so if you want to avoid that, or it's not accessible from your browser, stick to the Schnoogle version.
Thank you all (er, well, almost all :-) for the reviews, comments, and speculations!
Severus Snape ignored the offer. He knew from experience that his answer was irrelevant. "Hermione Granger," he said, instead, "is too clever for her own good."
"Indeed?" Dumbledore asked placidly.
"But perhaps enough so for ours."
The unaccepted cup of tea was poured and placed before him. The headmaster, who knew that Severus varied his manner of altering it until the variation was, in itself, a habit, had left it plain. The table between them, its white linen colored by the sunlight streaming through the stained glass window beside it, held milk, sugar and lemon wedges. Severus ignored them all and put the tea aside to cool a little.
"Tell me, Severus -- what is this promising cleverness?"
"She has obtained for herself a ferret, and is learning to see and hear through its senses."
Dumbledore looked concerned. "Doesn't she realize the possible impact on --"
"No," Severus said harshly. "She is a Muggle-born witch consorting with a Muggle-raised wizard, and a typically careless Weasley boy --"
"Now, now, Severus." Dumbledore reproved mildly. "I happen to know you are rather fond of at least one of the three."
"Which makes him no less an ignorant fool!" Severus caught himself. "Though more reasonable than her, for that. She made the first attempt in solitude."
An anxiety tightened Dumbledore's pleasant features. Severus waved the matter off as if it were a fly. "She was unharmed; Harry found her. The matter of import is that she managed it on her first try, and she brought herself out of the second attempt, with the aid of an external prompt."
Dumbledore sighed. "I will speak to her."
"I've already told Harry what precautions she -- and he -- should take. It is her success that interests me. If she can duplicate this with native fauna, at a distance, we may have our spy device."
Dumbledore's worry faded into thought. Severus could almost see muttering chess pieces rearranging their ranks behind the clear blue eyes. Those eyes focused past him, perhaps on a brilliant phoenix in full plumage, perhaps on something further from their sun-drenched table.
"I will speak to her," the old man repeated.
Harry set his hand on the brass knob and pulled the door open. To his relief, the Room of Requirement looked much as it had last year. There were a few changes: the rows of bookcases on either side of the door were gone and that whole wall padded with thick mats, and the table of instruments seemed more crowded.
Hermione's face lit up. "I'm so glad to be back!"
Ron nodded happily. Harry's stomach twisted itself into knots.
"What's wrong, Harry?"
Harry shook his head. "It's just ... I'm not sure about this. Justin and Ernie kept looking at me in Defense Against he Dark Arts this morning. Not ... They just didn't seem friendly."
"They always look at you like that, mate." Ron's voice sounded as if he intended this to be reassuring. "You're just too busy sniggering over Malfoy's nasty little comments to notice."
"Malfoy wasn't --" Harry stopped. Draco had been quiet and remote, that morning, seemingly sitting with him out of habit, rather than intent, so he clearly hadn't been amused by anything Draco had said that day. And he may have, while bored, paid more attention to the other members of the class than usual. Still, he was sure Justin didn't usually look at him like that. He had sat with Justin, recently, and everything had been fine. "For your information," he said, feeling a reassuring flush of anger, "Draco can be quite funny, and not all his humor involves putting someone down."
If Ron had replied, they might have fought, but it was Hermione, her voice quiet, who voiced their doubt.
"But you always look embarrassed." She looked away. "As if you shouldn't be laughing."
Harry shrugged and started to move slowly around the room, inspecting it. "I shouldn't be. We're in lessons."
"Harry," Hermione warned.
Harry stopped in his tracks, distracted. The equipment table did include several new items ... including a Kerner Dark Detector.
"All right, some of it's insulting." He turned quickly away from the table and pretended to survey the walls of books. "More of it is just a bit dodgy. About Terminio, he was telling me that he'd transfigured a towel into robes for Pansy, once, when one of the other girls had taken her clothes while she was in the shower. 'Snape had called a meeting.'" Harry's imitation of Draco's cultured accent had become far more accurate than it had been before this term. He was pleased to see the others smile despite themselves. "'Imagine if I'd brought the spell to an end with all of Slytherin still in the common room.'"
Ron snorted. Hermione choked and tried to make it sound disapproving.
"Followed by increasingly ridiculous speculations as to Pansy's probable revenge...."
Hermione did laugh, then.
"So, he's not just being horrible." Harry's smile faded. "They don't really look at me like that often, do they? I've sat with Justin."
Ron shifted uncomfortably. "They look at you when you've got your head together with his. Ernie sort of glares, and Justin.... I don't know what it was this morning -- I didn't notice."
"Well, I hope some of the other Gryffindors arrive first."
Hermione rolled her eyes. "We are not the most prompt house in the school, Harry."
Harry had never thought about the relative promptness of houses, before. He was just considering what each house would show up to early, and wondering if it would make a good set of jokes, when the door opened. To his dismay, it admitted the Hufflepuff contingent: Justin Finch-Fletchley and Ernie Macmillan, who had looked so oddly at him that morning; Susan Bones, who had triggered the revival of the group; Hannah Abbot; and Zacharias Smith. At the sight of the pugnacious blond boy, Harry's strained smile became even more forced. After an unfair moment of speculating that the trait went with the hair, he forced himself to look at Hannah. The inarguably blond girl hadn't a hostile bone in her body, he was certain.
"Welcome back to the D.A.," he said.
Zacharias settled his arms across his chest. "We need to talk about new members. And officers."
"It's on the list," Harry said. He couldn't help but notice, however, that Hannah was unusually pink, Ernie was tense, and Justin was looking away -- at the bookshelves, the walls, anywhere but at him.
To his relief, Ginny, Dean, and Seamus came in next, then Padma and Parvati. The Ravenclaw boys -- Anthony Goldstein, Michael Corner, and Terry Boot -- arrived together.
Michael Corner drew Harry off to a wall almost as soon as they had arrived.
"Look," he said, "Cho didn't ... she wanted to know if she was welcome."
Harry shrugged. "Of course. Marietta wasn't her fault."
"No, I mean...." Michael windmilled his hands helplessly. Harry got what he meant.
"No," he said. "I don't really care, actually." He realized that could come across as insulting and added, "Last spring -- the whole thing just burnt it out of me. Someone very important to me died in the fight at the Ministry, and her choosing you -- it just didn't matter in comparison. It was never going to work between us anyway -- not after Cedric. So, yeah, having her here is fine by me, and we'll just need to get through any awkwardness without disrupting meetings, right?"
"Are you still ... interested?"
Michael nodded. "I don't know if she'll come or not, then."
"Oh -- she's not still with you?"
"No ... it sort of petered out over the summer."
"Oh." Harry shrugged. "Still not interested."
Michael looked suddenly much more friendly. "Okay. She'll be disappointed, but ... I think it's probably for the best." He grinned at Harry, and went back to his friends.
While they had been talking, the Creevey brothers had arrived. Harry was just counting heads when Luna Lovegood wandered in, her nose in a book titled, in shaky, chartreuse letters, Secret Monsters of the Adriatic! Neville was a step behind her.
"I guess that's everybody," Harry said, raising his voice to be heard over the low chatter. People gradually began to look at him. Then Zacharias stepped forward.
"We need to discuss who's in charge," he stated boldly.
Harry instinctively glanced around. Justin was staring at the floor. Susan looked angry. Harry nodded. "I suppose. If some of you feel it shouldn't be me, I don't blame you."
Ernie looked relieved. "I don't doubt you have your reasons, Potter, but we can't help finding this association with Malfoy --"
"Malfoy! This is about Malfoy?" Harry spat back in disgust. Justin finally looked up, surprise evident in the slight widening of his eyes.
"Well, we certainly have no quarrel with your excellent instruction --"
"Damn it! If you didn't want me because I damn near got some of you killed last summer, that I could understand! But socializing with Draco -- that's rather petty, don't you think?"
"Socializing with a Death Eater's son," Zacharias said loudly.
"Who's finally growing up enough to get a bit of independence from his parents --"
Hermione stepped forward. "How is this relevant, Smith?"
"Yes, relevant. Is it that you believe Harry is not sufficiently discreet? Is it that you doubt his allegiances? Is it that you fear Malfoy might deceive him in some way that causes us harm?"
"All of it."
"Discretion is not relevant," Harry said coolly.
"Oh it's not, is it?"
"No. We are an approved student organization, this year. I've cleared it with Dumbledore. Lupin knows what we are doing and why he is not supervising, and he agrees. The headmaster believes the prefects in this group are sufficient to oversee safety." Harry swept his gaze around the room, trying to quickly include everyone. "In fact, I think that we need to distribute responsibility a little more, this year. I'd like to continue as an instructor, but I don't want to be making all the decisions on what to teach. And there are some things I think everyone should vote on, like how we're going to recruit new members, and if a certain level of attendance is compulsory, and --" he took a deep breath -- "under what circumstances we should assist each other outside of meetings."
"You're just taking over control again!" Zacharias said angrily.
Michael shifted his quiet bulk significantly. "Pipe down, Smith. You've made your point." He looked at Harry. "A committee of three, you think?"
"Or four. Though during exercises, the immediate authority is the instructor for that exercise."
"That being, of course, you?" Ernie said pointedly.
"That being the only safe way to do it," Hermione burst out. She glanced, in quick succession, at Ron, Anthony Goldstein, and Padma Patil. All nodded. She looked at Hannah Abbot, who turned even pinker and squeaked out a "yes."
"That's five of the six prefects," she said smugly. Harry winced. Ernie swelled up in a manner Harry found rather reminiscent of a bullfrog, or perhaps Cornelius Fudge.
"Stop it!" Ginny snapped. "Before we waste all evening on this, let's have a quick show of hands -- so we at least know what we're arguing about? First, who doesn't trust Harry as an instructor?"
Smith and Macmillan raised their hands. Harry sighed.
"Okay. Who doesn't trust Harry as the only leader?"
Boot added his hand at that, as did Ginny herself. She answered Harry's annoyed look with a completely unapologetic grin, and Finch-Fletchley and Padma Patil slowly added their hands.
"Good -- now we're getting somewhere." Ginny took down her hand. "Who doesn't trust Harry as one of a group of three officers?"
There was considerable thought at this, and quick glances within the group. Smith's hand was the only one up quickly, though Boot joined him a few seconds later. Justin Finch-Fletchley rose up on his toes then sunk down again. "Depends who the other two are," he said. There was a general murmur of agreement, and Boot's hand sunk slowly down to shoulder level.
Harry glanced around. "I think it should be one per house."
Justin shot him a surprised look, then broke into a smile. "Seconded."
The Ravenclaws looked among each other. "Each house elects its own representative," Goldstein advanced.
"All right then," said Ginny. "Split up by house and choose a house leader. Then we'll come back and tackle the rest of it."
The Gryffindors walked over to the back wall. "Harry, of course," Ron said.
Harry shook his head. "No. I'll teach -- I like that -- but I think it should be someone else." He looked at the youngest Weasley. "Ginny."
"You're a very powerful symbol, Harry --"
"And I could have got you killed, last year." Harry swallowed. "Besides, they're already having trouble with me ... and it will get worse, you know."
"Why should it get worse?" Seamus asked.
Harry shook his head. "It just will."
Ginny flashed him a knowing look. Ron looked flustered.
"How about Hermione?" he said.
"Hermione already has prefect responsibilities," Harry pointed out. She's tactless, too, but I better not say that. "And she's associated with me. I think the two of you should stay out of it, for both reasons -- it will make people feel better." And not electing a prefect will give us more people with authority. "But any prefect should have the right -- and responsibility -- to call a halt if they feel the situation is unsafe."
Hermione sniffed. "And won't that be a mess, if we all do!"
"Well, work a rota out among yourselves, then. I don't care. Who's in favor of Ginny?"
With the group leaders set at Ginny, Ernie, and Michael (the Ravenclaws, Harry was amused to notice, had also seen the advantages of a non-prefect as their representative), discussion of new members began. To Harry's relief, a restriction that members only bring prospective members of the same house was quickly rejected. He knew bringing up the matter of Slytherins would only have caused another row.
Ginny suggested they move on to some actual practice, and with that, the time sped by. Harry was never more comfortable or confident than when he was dueling. By the time Hermione called the session to an end, the initial unpleasantness seemed safely passed, and the group well on its way back to being a cohesive unit. Harry was happily helping Hannah explain Terminio to Susan when Anthony stopped short in the doorway in front of them.
"Malfoy!" Michael Corner exclaimed. Harry lurched forward and pressed between Michael and Anthony. He saw Terry Boot's wand raised, and shoved the Ravenclaw's extended arm down towards the floor.
Draco was directly across from the door, leaning back against the rather gory tapestry of Barnabas the Barmy and his reluctant, inhuman ballet students. A club swung behind him from one side, with only Barnabas's knee, raised in passé, showing on the other.
"Ah, there you are, Harry." His lazy drawl gave no sign that he noticed the hostile looks on the faces of the students spilling into the hallway, or indeed, that he noticed the students themselves. Harry might as well have been standing there alone.
"What are you doing here?" Harry stepped in front of the other members of the D.A., as if he could shield Draco from all of them. Draco didn't even have the grace to look grateful.
"I have decided we need to talk." Draco pushed himself free of the wall. His grey eyes bored into Harry. "Privately."
Harry tried to ignore the movements and whispers behind him. He nodded. "I'd noticed --" A roar of protest from Zacharias brought him up short.
"You see!" Zacharias screamed, "He's in with that Slytherin sneak!"
Harry whirled on the Hufflepuff and glared. "What business is it of yours who I talk to?"
"He shouldn't be here! It's endangering --"
"NOTHING! It's endangering nothing."
"Just because the headmaster approves doesn't mean security is --" Ernie's attempt to make a point was drowned out by Zacharias. The blond Hufflepuff was advancing on Harry, one finger extended as if it could hex him.
"You're a traitor, Potter! It's only your damn name that keeps people --"
"Smith!" Ron bellowed.
Ernie stumbled backwards as his mouth snapped shut. Zacharias pivoted round to direct his anger at Ron. The Hufflepuff's sneer served only to heighten Ron's ire. He stalked forward, his face was crimson with rage, until his nose was scant inches from Smith's. "Do you know how much I hate Malfoy?"
Zacharias looked momentarily taken aback. "Pretty legendary, yeah."
"And you understand how important Harry is to me?"
Ron's fists tightened, but he pressed on. "I am not making a fuss. If I'm not --" he leaned forward, making Zacharias involuntarily shrink back --"you have no bloody right to; is that clear?"
Harry restrained a smile. "Come on," he said quietly to Draco. "In here."
Michael was arguing that Ron had a point, and Justin was restraining Zacharias from punching Ron, and Hermione was insisting they stop this immediately, and Ernie was holding forth on the necessity for security, when, in a sudden moment of realization, the entire group noticed Harry and Draco passing through the still-open door of the Room of Requirement.
"Harry!" Hermione exclaimed in reproach. "You can't take him in there!" Everyone else seemed shocked into silence, but Harry didn't think that would last long.
"Don't see why not; you're all done with it." Quickly, Harry closed the door and turned the key in the lock. The following thumps from outside were surprisingly muffled. He decided to ignore them.
Draco sighed. "I never will see the appeal of your friends, Potter."
"I don't know. I thought Ron was impressive, anyway." Harry stepped back a pace. "So. Do we actually need to talk, or did you just want to cause a scene?"
Draco sighed. "We need to talk, and if I'd known you were with that many people, I would have waited."
"How on earth did you find me, if you didn't know?"
"Hm.... Do you recall how you lent me your quill, in Defense, last week?"
Harry wondered why he would remember such a thing. "Not really, but --"
"I kept it, and gave you a similar one in its place. I thought it might be handy to have something of yours for a tracing spell."
Harry blinked. He couldn't decide if this upset him or not; he couldn't get beyond how weird it was. "You..." he flailed. "You bloody Slytherin."
Draco's laugh was unusually soft and low. "You better get used to it. Anyway, I've been thinking about last weekend, and our talk on Monday...."
Harry forced a grin and a shrug. "Thought I'd got off too lightly."
"Only a short reprieve. I have some questions."
"Ask away, then."
"Some very private questions." Draco looked warningly at Harry. "I suggest you put up wards." He slid his wand from his pocket. "Or I will."
With a curt nod, Harry turned and warded the door, then, for completeness, the windows. He chose a complete block, but one that was easy to break, in case Draco threatened him. He wondered what Draco knew or suspected. What do I do if he's right? Draco watched him. Harry thought he frowned slightly at Harry's choice of incantation. As soon as Harry pocketed his wand, Draco took a visible breath and stepped towards him.
"I have had enough of this. I want to know who you are, and what has happened to Harry Potter."
"Don't get me wrong." Draco's wand was still out, and he pointed it briefly at Harry's face, then at the ceiling, then at Harry, again. He did not seem aware of it; he was using it to emphasize his point, as Uncle Vernon used his index finger. "I like you. I consider you a friend. But you are clearly not Potter."
"I am too!" Harry wondered if he should cast a disarming spell, or if that would just initiate combat. He was fairly sure he could handle any immediate attack; he was much more afraid of what Draco might do to him later, if they left the room on bad terms.
Draco smirked. "Let's look at this logically." The blond leaned back against the padded wall beside the door. To Harry's relief, he also stopped waving the wand around, though he continued to fidget with it. "First, you look quite different."
"I've grown a bit." Harry tried desperately to think. He needed Draco to not betray him -- or his father. Despite the latter's performance on Sunday, it was clear Draco didn't think they were on the same side, so even if Draco preferred both of them to Voldemort -- and Harry was not at all certain of that -- he would still be weighing them against each other.
"That's what I thought at first. Then I saw you in Quidditch robes, and for a moment, I wondered who the new player was. I finally dug out some old news clippings -- yes, I keep clippings of all the nastiest stories about you -- pathetic, isn't it? But it's more than maturing -- you're different." Draco held up a hand to block Harry's protest. "Hear me out.
"Second, you're behaving differently. That might just be maturity, but I'm not convinced. You're friendly to me, you're slyer, you're more confident occasionally, and you seem more than a little interested in Dark Arts. I couldn't imagine Potter touching that book you were holding in Snape's rooms, this weekend."
That was it, Harry realized. He needed to make it clear he was more knowledgeable than Severus had implied. That, at least would simplify --
"Third, everything I said about finding you with Professor Snape still holds." Draco had been turning his wand, end over end, in his hands, as he spoke, and Harry his mind on the conceptual battle, had forgotten it. Suddenly he flipped it towards Harry and snapped, "Detegerio!"
The spell skimmed across Harry's skin like a minor electrical shock. He gasped. He was a bit surprised to find he had drawn his own wand, somehow, and had it pointed at Draco.
"What did you do?" he screamed.
Draco looked disappointed. "Nothing. For a glamour, it must be well-anchored."
Harry bit back a disarming spell. I won that round. I have an advantage, now. We're on to words. "What was it?"
"The Unmask Spell. It removes most magical disguises."
"I am not disguised."
"Oh, yes you are." Draco smiled in fierce triumph. "Fourth, you are worried about transfigurative magic. I knew that meant something, and I finally found it, this evening. I've spent hours in the library, this week." He raised his head. "You are afraid of revealing your true form." Grey eyes darkened as they narrowed to mere slits. "Now, who are you, and what have you done with Potter? No -- skip what you've done; I don't care. I never liked the prat, anyway. What's your game? Who are you working for?"
Harry worked at controlling his breathing, his face. He let his expression go hard. That, he decided, was better than showing panic. Draco waited, apparently expecting to stare him down, and Harry thought frantically. "What's your game?" Draco had asked. "Who are you working for?" But what, he thought, if others are working for me? Perhaps even Severus Snape?
Harry made himself straighten to his unaccustomed full height. His new face could display arrogance quite well, and he did his best to use that. "Draco," he said firmly, "I am not going to tell you --"
"I'll find out."
"Listen, will you?" Harry hissed. "I'm not going to tell you what side I'm on, but I will tell you this: my side will win. You're my friend now, and -- trust me -- you want to stay that way."
This obviously had not been a response Draco had expected. His face displayed surprise, briefly, though it quickly turned to amusement. "Definitely not Potter," he murmured. His look sharpened. "And what is it," he asked, "that you expect of your friends?"
"No prying," Harry said promptly. Not taking the Dark Lord's Mark, he added silently. "If I say drop it, drop it. It's taken me a month to get that into Hermione's head; I trust you'll be a quicker study."
"Is that all? You will not demand my support for your side?" Draco turned his head in a polite imitation of respect that reminded Harry of the elder Malfoy. "Whatever that side may be?" he added delicately.
"That would require telling you too much." Harry exhaled and smiled slightly to mitigate the ferocity of his answer. "Not at this stage. For now, I want you to stay neutral. Don't do anything of substance for any side. I'll tell you when I want you to know."
"So what do I get?"
Draco's lip curled in a sneer. "From what?"
Harry ignored the contempt in Draco's reply. "Many things -- most importantly, my allies."
"Do I need protection from your allies?"
Harry's mouth wanted to work into a threatening scowl; his body wanted to advance. He forced a faint smile and flicked his eyes from Draco's belligerent stance to the window on the world outside, and hoped he was managing to project an air of cool evaluation. "Neutrals always do."
Draco scowled. "You can't boss me around, Potter!"
Harry's unaccustomed control finally broke. He advanced angrily on Draco. "I'm not! I've demanded one thing outside of what you want -- let me keep my secrets! The rest is what you're doing anyway -- stay out of it!"
"And what if I get a better deal?" Draco asked coldly.
Harry looked down. That was how they were playing it -- how he had chosen to play it. He had no right to feel hurt. He composed himself and met Draco's icy stare again. "Then take it. But I'll remember."
It was Draco's turn to look down now. It was just a brief flicker, grey ice hidden behind a gold as pale as the winter sun, but Harry appreciated it.
"What if I want to help you?"
Harry had not expected that plaintive response. He smiled spontaneously now, and honestly. "You can, once I tell you."
The look was teasing now. "And then what will you give me?"
Harry shrugged. "I don't know. Perhaps nothing." He looked steadily at Draco. "But if you ever end up in prison for something I asked you to do, I will get you out."
Draco recoiled. "I am not your servant!" he screamed.
"No. You're not." Harry tried to let a faint hint of compassion ride the coolness of his voice, as Remus could do so well. He thought he managed. "People don't do that for servants."
Draco glared at him. The Slytherin's eyes were wild and his cheeks pink. It was a full minute before Harry was certain Draco was not about to attack him. Slowly, Draco slumped.
"This is still too unilateral for my tastes, Potter." His voice was as distant as his words, now.
"I've told you what I want and what I offer. Make your own demands, if you like." Harry stepped back. "It's not a lot, but it's large. Let's both sleep on it, and then sort it out. We can meet tomorrow...."
"Fine. Here, then. After my team practice."
Harry nodded. "All right."
"It may run late, with our match coming up, this weekend."
Harry shrugged. "I'll bring a book."
Draco gave him an odd look. "One you can read in public?"
Harry shrugged. "I don't know. Whatever I feel like at the time."
Chapter 66: ...will NOT be posted here. See note at the beginning of this chapter for details.