See previous chapters for warnings and disclaimers.
Warning: Just a bit of naughty language in this one.
Harry's head hurt worse than it had ever hurt before. It hurt worse than that time the Dudley had beaned him with an empty soda bottle when he'd teased the fat boy about his newest set of Sunday clothes, fashioned after a naval Sea Captain's uniform which Aunt Petunia had thought so very cute. It hurt worse than the time Vincent Crabbe had finally gotten his aim right and nudged a Bludger in the proper direction. It hurt worse than when he'd tripped over the trailing edge of his robes when he'd been chasing after Neville's frog and landed in a heap with Neville at the base of a short flight of stairs, stars in his eyes.
In fact, this pounding felt worse than his scar did, in moments when Voldemort was throwing backlash from his evil deeds Harry's way, and that concerned him. He dragged himself out of bed and squinted at himself in the mirror in the bathroom just to the left of the boy's dormitory, and noted that he did, indeed, look 'washed out,' as Neville had claimed. His face was chalky white and his scar was an angry red in contrast, standing out vividly.
Hopefully, he'd not inadvertently missed dinner by falling asleep into his reading after he'd left Hermione to suffer alone in the library. Maybe that was the cause of his creepy dream? He'd been reading too much about the Malfoys and so they'd decided to worm their way into his subconscious mind and taunt him with silly riddles and cryptic messages.
His vision suddenly swam and he grabbed frantically at the edge of the sink.
"I want you to make things right," hissed a recognizable voice.
Nausea welled up within him and his face went whiter, if at all possible. The clink of his engagement ring against the scrubbed porcelain rang shrilly in his ear and he bit his lower lip to keep from losing the contents of his stomach into the basin.
He winced and then looked up into his own eyes in the water spotted mirror, only to see icy blue and sharp edges reflect back at him. The bloody bride from his dream stared out at him from the mirror, her eyes shifting to his hands, tight against the porcelain, and then back up to stare demandingly into his own.
He suddenly, desperately wanted to find Draco Malfoy and pound his face into the nearest flat surface for bringing this misery down upon him.
Cursing, he managed to fling himself back from the mirror and the sink and hold onto his lunch. The reflection of the Malfoy Bloody Bride stepped back as well, and disappeared with the added distance, a frustrated look upon her face.
He took a moment to gather himself and then huffed, annoyed and swept out of the bathroom, nearly knocking Dean flat on his way in.
"Are you all right, mate? You look a little-"
Harry grunted, "Later, Dean."
After a quick stop to pick up his wand off his bedside table, Harry straightened his wrinkled robes, rubbed his hand over his face, and made his way out of Gryffindor tower. He passed several students in the hallway, all on their way to the Great Hall for dinner. Several of them shot him concerned looks, and he could only imagine how he must have looked.
He ducked his head and slid his left hand into his pocket, and walked a little faster.
It should have been no surprise to him, then, when he knocked forcefully into somebody. There was a low curse from his victim, and then a familiar whiz past his ear. He angled to the right and both of his hands shot out of their own accord to clutch at the escaping Snitch.
"Bloody Hell, Potter. Is there some reason you keep slamming into me? And give that back."
Anger welled up in Harry, returning from whence he'd shoved it just moments ago in the Gryffindor bathroom. "Malfoy."
"Potter," Malfoy mimicked in a high voice, and Harry glared at him while patting absentmindedly at the settling Snitch. "Give it back, now."
"Hmm…" Harry seemed to consider, face growing thoughtful. "No. Why do you have a Snitch free in the school anyway?"
"That's none of your business, poofy-two-shoes. Hand it over."
Harry, already annoyed and angry with the arrogant blond, felt his scowl return. "I don't see your name on it," he snarked back.
"Then you're not looking, you myopic bastard. It's engraved under the right wing."
Harry had fallen for this trick once before from Draco, sometime in third year when a 'Your shoes are untied,' had landed him flat on his rear from a well aimed Expelliarmus, so he only rolled his eyes at the obvious attempt. "You think the whole world belongs to you."
Draco batted his lashes at Harry, "It's better than having absolutely nothing and being reduced to passing all my time with muggles."
"Oh, I'm sorry, Malfoy. I'd forgotten. The Ministry has all of your money." Harry smiled back sweetly.
Draco dropped his mocking expression and scowled. "I hate you."
"I hate you more," Harry replied.
Draco spluttered, the scoffed. "You do not."
"I do too."
"You can't possibly. I hated you before I ever met you."
"Oh, sure. That's why you wanted to be my bestest," Harry's voice rose girlishly to accentuate this word, "friend. Come on, you remember. 'I'll show you the right sort,' or something like that."
"It was 'You don't want to go making friends with the wrong sort, I can help you there'-" Draco cut himself and let out a frustrated growl. "Shut. Up. Potter. And give me back my Snitch before I stuff your wand up your nose!"
Harry once again rolled his eyes and tossed the Snitch up in the air. It took a few seconds to brush it's wings off and floated in a lazy circle above their heads, only to shoot off as Draco finally shook his head and reached up to grab it.
"Oh, for Merlin's sake," Draco cursed, then leveled a glare at Harry's departing form.
Harry bit the bullet a few moments later at supper and told a wide-eyed Hermione everything. He told her about the first dream all those weeks ago, and then explained about the dream that afternoon, and then told her about what had happened to him in the bathroom that night.
"Is it possible the ring is haunted? By the dead ghost of a past Malfoy bride?" Hermione asked him.
"I think that sounds like a reasonable explanation," Harry said as he picked at his food.
"She said she's guarding you against something?" Hermione continued to question. Ron was still a slight green from Harry's description of the bloodied woman, and had pushed his dinner away a moment ago. "And that she wants you to make things right? I don't understand. What's gone wrong?"
Harry shrugged and squirmed into his seat.
"I still can't believe it, though. Salazar Slytherin, a homosexual?"
"And queer for a Malfoy, too," Ron muttered. "Makes perfect sense to me. Evil meets evil, evil likes evil-"
"Loves," Hermione corrected. "She said they were in love, right Harry?"
Ron snorted, "Sure. They were evil, Herm. Evil doesn't love."
"Oh, I don't know," Hermione argued. "I think everyone's capable of love. And maybe he didn't start out evil, he was rather old when they finished Hogwarts, you know. Bitter. Remember that statue in the Basilisk's chamber? He was ages old when that was done, and it had to've been done before he ever left. Maybe he was nice when he was younger."
"Oh, I bet he was a real humanitarian. Loved puppies and kittens and never even thought about siccing giant monster snakes on helpless little girls."
Hermione sighed, rolling her eyes.
"Can we get back to the point?" Harry interrupted. "I can't get the ring off, and while it's on I'm being haunted and guarded against my will, and she wants me to do something for her."
"Well," Hermione bit into her roll and chewed for a moment, "perhaps the ring will come off when you do what the ghost haunting it wants done. Did she tell you her name? I don't feel right referring to her as the bloody bride."
"No, I didn't catch her name. I was busy trying to figure out what she wanted."
"Did she say something else about what she wants you to do?" Hermione persisted.
"Something about a happy end-" Harry was cut off by an outraged squeal from the Slytherin end of the common room, and turned just in time to see Greg Goyle shout threateningly at Draco Malfoy.
"Give it back, Draco!" Greg pleaded, and Draco rolled his eyes.
"I'd love to, if you could only manage to get. It. Off. Of. Me." Draco returned shortly.
Greg had gotten a box of chocolate frogs from his Mum for his birthday, and had been snacking on them all through dinner. Draco had been sitting at his usual spot in between Greg and Vin, pondering his long-lost childhood toys. His Snitch had been caught and was now struggling futilely in his pockets, drawing his thoughts. In fact, he'd been minding his own business when the frog had leapt from Greg's plate and attacked him viciously.
"What the devil is wrong with this thing- Oh… oh, no. Stop it. Get it off me now, Greg!" The frog had settled into his sleeve, holding onto it for dear life, clawing desperately with sticky, chocolate fingers. It's lower jaw began to bulge out and it shook forebodingly.
Greg reached for it, brows drawn together, and Draco swatted at it with a leg of lamb from Vin's plate. Draco stepped back, nearly tripping of the bench as he backed away from the table into the staring Ravenclaws behind him. "Get it off me!"
With one final, desperate swipe, Greg managed to dislodge the chocolate frog. It flew in a graceful arc from Draco's chocolate-smudged robes and landed with a sickening plop in Vin's tomato soup. There it floated precariously for a moment, before regaining its momentum and kicking uselessly against the slick side of the small bowl. Soup was splattering in nearly every direction, further ruining Draco's robes and drawing shocked screeches from both Pansy and Millicent.
"Vin!" Pansy shrieked.
"Oh, you'll pay for that," Millicent growled, grabbing up a napkin from the unfortunate Slytherin who'd been sitting beside her, also drawing a bit of damage.
"I didn't do nothing!" Vincent defended himself, and then pointed accusingly at Draco and Greg, "They started it."
"Sell-out," Draco grumbled, and then they all froze to watch in fascinated horror as the chocolate frog finally found enough leverage to kick itself out of the thick soup. It landed with another splat on the table and took a few last hops to land square in the middle of Draco's plate, where it immediately began croaking despondently and bulging.
With one last, feeble croak, it unloaded a small splat of its chocolate innards and fell head first into its own vomit. Within moments, it had melted into a puddle in the midst of his supper, and covered half of Draco's plate.
They all stared for a long moment with drawn breath.
Eventually, they shook themselves from their stupor, and Pansy was the first to break the silence, "What was that!"
All four of them began shouting at each other, and the rest of the student body began to snort and giggle behind Draco's back, but he watched the chocolate pool with interest. He reached out and dipped his fingers into it, and encountered a piece of paper that hadn't been on his plate before the frog had died its horrible death. Ignoring his classmates, he grabbed his napkin and wiped at the paper, revealing the menacing face of the Evil Lord Grindelwald.
"Excuse me," he mumbled at them. "I've got to go clean up."
With that, Draco swept from his surprised counterparts and exited the hall.
"Well, that was interesting," Hermione deadpanned as Ron chortled into his drink. Harry had regained his appetite after the Slytherin display, and was working his way through dinner finally.
"Bet he went off to get clean robes, snobby git. Wouldn't want to hang about in public all dirty," Ron snorted. Harry smirked and filled his spoon with soup. "I'd really like to mess that snotty prat up-Harry!"
Harry dipped his spoon back into his soup and looked innocently up at Ron. "What?"
"Did you just…" Ron spluttered, and then they both grinned at each other, and Ron crowed. "Food fight!"
"No!" Hermione shouted and the two stopped mid motion. "No, absolutely not. Especially not as I'm sitting right beside you, you infantile reprobates! Honestly," she sighed as they slowly lowered their weapons, "it's as if you're still in first year."
"I don't remember food fights from first year," Ron turned a confused look to Neville, who sat beside him watching the scene raptly. "Do you, Neville?"
Neville shook his head, but stopped mid shake to watch, fascinated, as a lump of mashed potatoes landed with a splat on Ron's shoulder. Ron squinted past Neville at Seamus, who sat on Neville's other side.
"Did someone say 'Food Fight'?"
With an anguished howl of, "Honestly, boys," Hermione scrambled back from the table, leaving her supper and her best friends to their fates at the hands of a very peeved looking McGonagall.
A few hours later, after they'd all been properly chastised and punished, Ron changed out of his trashed robes and began to look for Hermione. He found her in the same position he normally found her in; in the library, bent over a book and reading deeply. She was beautiful like this, he often thought, all soft and relaxed yet intense and focused.
She'd often wondered why he had so much trouble keeping his mind on his texts when they studied together, but he knew exactly why it was. It was because he inevitably spent more time studying his best female friend than his History of Magic textbook. School couldn't even begin to compete with the way she ran her hand through her hair when she skimmed over a paragraph, as if she couldn't spare the energy for the movement in moments when she was more focused.
She did it now, reaching up to shove her fingers roughly into her bedraggled mane. She flipped a page in the book she was reading, and her fingers froze, pulling at her scalp. She must have found something particularly interesting. He could see the side of her face from where he stood between the library stacks, with only "Mating Habits of the Irish Quazzle" by Irvine Oxley, through "Utterly Horrific Things to Say at Tea" by Meredith Picady nearby to witness his fascination.
Her teeth pulled at her bottom lip in a tug-of-war that had his palms turning sweaty and his heart racing. Her fingers abandoned her hair to push at her wiry frames, and then he must have made a sound, because she was turning toward him with a look of concentrated blankness. She blinked and then smiled at him, and he found himself standing beside her chair before he knew he'd moved.
"Ron, I'm so glad you're here. Look at this-"
He dropped into the chair next to her and pulled close, and she angled the book towards him to show him a passage, and then his fingers were in her hair, awkwardly pulling her face to him.
His lips brushed against hers, and she froze, and his mind frantically rewound over every moment they'd ever shared and the faces of every boy he'd known she'd liked and he'd hated on mere principle. Every time she'd hugged him and he'd blushed, every time he'd watched her turn red with embarrassment. "'Mione-"
And then her lips were pressing back against his, and the book she'd been reading had fallen flat to the table they pressed uncomfortably against. His lips mashed against his teeth, so he opened his mouth, and then she opened hers and suddenly he could taste her and he never wanted to do anything else again.
"Oh, that's disgusting!"
Ron pulled abruptly back, and Hermione made an undignified squeak.
"Oh, yuck! My eyes shall have to be washed in formaldehyde before I can bear to look at either of you again."
Ron sat his chair back down on all fours and suppressed a growl. "Malfoy, what do you want?"
"An eviscerating charm, but I can find that on my own. Does your puppy know you're off studying each other's tonsils?"
Hermione choked, then scrambled to her feet and dropped her book on the table before her. "I… er… I've gotta go."
"'Mione?" Ron's stomach dropped, and a panicked look flashed across his face.
She mumbled something, looked over at Draco, grew bright red, and then grabbed up her satchel and rushed out of the library, dropping another book and stumbling around a pushed back chair.
"Cripes." Ron watched her go, and then turned a glare on Draco. "Later, Malfoy."
"Much, I hope." Draco shuddered delicately, "I also hope they burn that desk."
Ron growled and pushed himself up to follow Hermione out of the library.
Draco shook himself one last time, though no one was around to benefit from his scrunched up nose and disgusted air. He paused by the table and looked down at the open book there. Then he froze, picked up the book and looked confusingly down at the spell that Granger and Weasley had obviously been poring over before they'd gotten distracted.
After a few minutes of study, he smiled smugly at no one in particular.
Deep within the dungeons of Hogwarts, far from prying eyes and meddlesome old men, there was a rarely visited candle lit room. In its center was a desk piled with parchment and books, broken quills and spilled ink pots.
Shelves lined two of the dank, brick walls, and on them sat objects so horrible in nature that even stalwart men of the world quailed at the thought of touching them. The heart of some poor, molested creature floated in a jar of clear liquid, preserved for a day when some thoughtless child would slice pieces of it away for their own, perverse pleasure. A shrunken, severed head watched the perimeter of its domain, eyes sewn shut.
Behind it several vials and jugs perched, some upended and spilled into the wood. Books spotted these shelves, slumped over on their faces and supporting each other like fallen warriors.
The atmosphere was perfect for the man who preferred to spend most of his time there; foreboding and cold. At the desk this man hovered, hunched over a half filled parchment, fresh quill in hand. Occasionally, if someone were there and apt to remain silent long enough to listen to their surroundings, they might hear the scratching of the quill against that parchment, offset by and studious tapping of long fingers on the heavy, warped desk.
The dark head whipped up and eyes narrowed at the sound of heavy footsteps outside the door. There was a moment's pause, and then a light knocking, which caused Professor Severus Snape to sigh laboriously. "Enter."
The heavy door scraped the dungeon floor as it was pushed open, and within the entry way, framed by escaping candle light, stood Draco Malfoy.
"Professor Snape, I need to speak with you concerning a matter of great importance." Draco's words brought Severus' irritation to the forefront. He'd never wanted to be a teacher, you know. He'd had dreams. Goals. They did not include helping the youth of the Wizarding world learn to wipe their own bums, despite evidence to the contrary.
He'd wanted to be an adventurer, the kind of man Lockhart had reported himself to be. He'd thoroughly enjoyed his DADA classes in school, but much to his dismay had gotten far, far better marks in potions. Then there'd been that whole cock up with Voldemort and his crowd and the promises and his naive racial prejudices. In the end he'd changed his tune, but it had been too late and he'd given up any chance he'd ever had at becoming a respectable adventurer, so he'd turned to teaching. Then that meddling old fool had found him out and persuaded him to return to his darker ways, for the benefit of all that was good and kind and fluffy puppies and all that rot.
It was pure emotional blackmail, was what it was.
"Professor Snape, are you in attendance today?"
He glared at his favorite student, a term which really didn't mean much as for him it was an oxymoron. "If you have come to me seeking help, Mr. Malfoy, I suggest you scrounge up a bit more respect."
Draco lost his disapproving look at that pronouncement and instantly adopted an air of innocence Severus hadn't seen since Fred and George Weasley had turned his hair a bright orange during their fourth year Gryffindor OWLS.
Severus Snape was, most definitely, not a fall.
With a thunk, Draco seated himself in one of the stiff backed chairs in front of his Head of House's desk and held out a clenched fist. Between each finger, twitching at odd angles, were soft, downy white feathers. There was a shifting as the object struggled and Severus was allowed a brief flash of gold.
"Yes," replied Draco. "I found it out on the Quidditch Pitch earlier, only I lost it several years ago."
"How fortunate for you," Severus offered, confused.
"I was six, I think. I'd never been to Hogwarts before, and I hardly think it followed me from Malfoy Manor now, ten years later. I need to know what's going on."
Snape looked at him, nonplussed, and then silently held out his hand for the Snitch. Carefully, Draco unwrapped his fingers and Severus clutched at the flighty ball.
"It's got my initials and 'Property of' engraved on it."
Studying the fluttering ball, Snape spat, "I can see that. Will that be all, Mr. Malfoy?"
"What?" Draco spluttered, "Aren't you going to help me?"
"Help you what? A beloved childhood toy has returned to you after all these years and you've come to me for, what? It doesn't look dangerous, it looks like a Snitch. Congratulations. Get out."
"There's also this," Draco drew the Evil Lord Grindelwald card from his robes, beginning to dry from its chocolate bath. He held it up for the Professor to see.
"Wonderful. You're very fortunate. I'm told that particular card is quite rare," with that, Severus dropped Draco's snitch onto his desk and made as if to go back to his work.
Draco scowled and grabbed for the Snitch before it could take flight and perch elsewhere. "Look, it isn't easy to have to come here asking for help-"
Draco's scowl turned into a glare, "but here I am. Help me figure out why these things are returning?"
Severus swept an arm out as if to encompass his office, "I'm just a bit busy at the moment, Mr. Malfoy."
"Professor Snape, I'd appreciate at least some consideration-"
"Have you done any research at all, before you came running to me about this petty little problem?"
"Of course," Draco's fingers clenched around the Snitch as it made an attempt at escape, "I spent the last two hours in the library-"
"It's a little late for that, isn't it?"
Draco smiled charmingly, "I simply couldn't sleep after I found these things. Much too distressing."
"In any case, I found nothing. No charms that could be responsible, nothing in the history books that might account for it. You know, the ones I could get at…" Draco trailed off and gave his Head of House a speaking look.
"Will it get you to leave me alone?"
Draco looked innocent and nodded.
"Fine!" Severus scowled and opened up a drawer in his office desk, shifting through papers and ribbons and half-empty bottles of wax. Pulling out a blank card with only one ink splotch on it, he scrawled a quick note and handed it over. "Only to be used in the research of this particular subject, and-" he pulled the card back slightly as Draco reached for it with his empty hand, "I expect a paper of some sort submitted to the proper department when you've finished. If it's a charm, Professor Flitwick, a Potion, myself, etcetera."
"Of course, Professor. Thank you for you help."
Draco stood and shuffled from the room and Severus Snape once again was blessed with silence.
Not so long a wait this time around. The plot should actually start to pick up now, and I'll be tossing tidbits in willy nilly till our heroes figure stuff out at the end of the day. Also, I had to let everyone know just how wonderful all the response was last time. Not the volume, but the quality. You guys are great, and so helpful. A few of you made some guesses that were absolutely spot on and I'm so proud of you (and myself, because that means I'm doing well with the hints), but I won't tell you who made correct guesses. That would be telling. . This time around, I'm a bit worried this chapter was abrupt in some places, but I'm overall happy with it. Let me know what you think if you can!
Edited (11/10/04): Some cannon errors and a name mix-up. Thanks for pointing my mistakes out, guys. Keep the feedback coming.