Title: The Lord of Time

Author: kimray

Translator: kannnichtfranz

Betas: err, none. Want to help? Please contact kannnichtfranz.

Pairing: Harry/Draco

Length: 300,000 words in german, translated at about 8,000 words/month.

Rating: PG-13

Summary: Near the beginning of Harry's fifth year, Voldemort takes over the Ministry of Magic and establishes dominion over Great Britain. Hogwarts succumbs to a time-freezing ward, but Harry and Draco rarely do what is expected of them. Harry decides that to combat the Dark Lord, he must become Voldemort's equal. With the occasionally unwilling assistance of a revived Severus Snape, Harry journeys to the very brink of darkness.

Disclaimer: We do not own the characters or anything recognizable. We make no money from this; it is for entertainment only.

thanks for the reviews to: emeraldz jewel and angel56 and sorry for the wait.

Part 1. The Calm Before the Storm

Chapter 2. Caught Between Hope and Fear

For a moment, there was deathly silence in the Great Hall.

Shocked silence gave way to panic as the magnitude of Dumbledore's announcement became clear. Everyone began talking at once. Many wanted to owl their parents immediately. Quite a few students began to cry, some more hysterically than others. Ginny succumbed to her tears, overtaken by fear for her family.

Harry felt as if he'd been paralyzed. He noted how the teachers attempted to comfort the students as if he were watching the proceedings from far away. He observed George taking Ginny in his arms, and watched Ron reassuring Hermione, who was staring straight ahead with wide eyes while her whole body trembled. He noticed that some students clung to each other desperately while others sat frozen and isolated, staring off into space.

Then he saw Malfoy, sitting calmly at his place at the Slytherin table. He looked detached, as if the news had no effect on him, but Harry had no doubt that he was pleased. He felt himself getting angry and looked away. This wasn't the time or place, but he couldn't stand that there was someone at Hogwarts who wasn't troubled by this news, who presumably approved of it completely.

To Harry, the notion of a monster like Voldemort sitting in the Ministry of Magic and ruling over scores of innocent witches and wizards was difficult to even imagine, and he knew Voldemort better than most. He was sure that anyone who looked into Voldemort's eyes would know that there were dark times ahead for Great Britain.

Memories of torture at Voldemort's hand threatened to overwhelm him. Harry felt the familiar mental walls fall into place around him. It was the only way to protect himself from those memories. Thus far the walls had held strong, but now he felt them threaten to buckle under the pressure.

Voldemort hadn't wasted any time. He hadn't given the wizarding community the opportunity to mount any resistance. Taking the Ministry of Magic was a good move, one that cut off any existing defense measures and made it nearly impossible to organize new ones. Working underground would be far more complicated. Fudge's tactics led to the very scenario Dumbledore had feared: England had fallen without straining Voldemort's resources in the slightest. Harry didn't want to consider the implications.

Voldemort's previous reign was something no one ever wanted to talk about, least of all with him. The adults he knew all wanted to forget about those dark times. The few details he'd discovered over the last few years, along with his personal encounters with the monster himself, left him no doubts about how horrible it must be now, outside of Hogwarts.

Professor Dumbledore caught Harry's attention as he attempted to bring the chaos in the Great Hall under control, using magic to dispel some of the fear and panic. The Headmaster looked decades older than the last time Harry had seen him. Harry knew that all kinds of protective measures had already been taken, but how long could Hogwarts really hold out? What more could Dumbledore possibly do? The school wouldn't be able to survive forever as an autonomous island of tranquility in a sea of darkness.

Harry's walls crumbled and he whirled away, needing to escape from the Great Hall. Voldemort's return was partially his fault, he knew. He couldn't bear to think about it, couldn't bear that his own ambition at the Triwizard Tournament had played right into Voldemort's hands. It was entirely possible that someone else's blood would have sufficed for that horror-inducing resurrection, but Harry couldn't help but think that maybe things would have been different if he hadn't let himself get caught. Unfortunately, his desire to win the tournament had led him directly into the trap. The fact that he wouldn't have been in a position to win at all without the aid of Bartemius Crouch's Death Eater son was still a thorn in his side, and it stung every time he thought about it.

Albus Dumbledore watched the doors close behind Harry and knew that he'd have to speak with the boy. Harry had been blaming himself for far too long and someone had to convince him that none of it was his fault. The Headmaster sighed and tried to convey to the students that panic and fear would achieve nothing. For the moment, the mass chaos in the Great Hall had to take precedence over Harry's plight.

"What's this, Potter? Alone again?"

Draco had also noticed Harry's hasty exit, and just like Dumbledore, he'd seen how deeply shaken Harry was. He had rather different ideas on what do to about it, though.

Harry spun around. He'd been pressing his fists against the wall so hard that it stung, trying to regain control of his emotions. "Malfoy!" he rasped.

Draco affected a nasty grin. "So, are we all better now? Panic under control? Look on the bright side – now you don't need to worry about the Mudblood. She's dead anyway, just as soon as the Dark Lord gets through to Hogwarts!"

In the blink of an eye, Harry lost control again, but this time with anger rather than guilt. He was already vulnerable, and Malfoy had a special talent for working him up. He wanted to deliver a scathing retort, but couldn't manage a single sound through his seething rage. Was this idiot really so naive? Didn't he see that he was in just as much trouble here as everyone else?

Draco carried on, oblivious to any potential danger. He had Potter right where he wanted him – finally – though he had the Dark Lord to thank for that, rather than his own cunning. "Mudbloods, Muggle-lovers, Mixed Bloods... they're all going to pay, when he – oof!"

Draco got no further. With a fierce shove, Harry smashed him into the wall and this time it was Harry's arm that pressed against Draco's windpipe. Only when Draco began to wheeze desperately did Harry let up just a little. For the first time all day, Draco felt threatened, and the expression in the green eyes of his adversary did not bode well.

"You don't get it, do you? You really are that naive!" Harry hissed.

Draco knew that Potter saw him as a snake slithering around the feet of his master, but that was really no excuse for Potter to speak to him in Parseltoungue. Draco didn't understand the words, but he heard the anger overflowing in the sibilant sounds.

Harry continued, a little more under control and a lot easier to understand, "You know what, you little ferret, if I could I'd throw you out of here myself! Straight to Voldemort and your demented father!"

It was a blatant lie and Harry knew it. He wouldn't send anyone out there, not even the ferret. He knew that even for Malfoy, it would mean certain death as soon as he was in Voldemort's hands. Malfoy's mother had seen to that. Harry didn't think Voldemort would tolerate anyone who'd returned to Hogwarts after his resurrection.

But Harry wasn't going to tell him that. He felt Malfoy struggle under his arm, and he pressed harder. "That's right, Malfoy, your father is demented, just as demented as Voldemort!" His hostage cringed, just like everyone else, at the Dark Lord's name. Harry's eyes glittered coldly. "Voldemort!" Harry exerted even more force on Draco's neck. "It's just a name. Are you scared of a name, Draco?"

Angry sparks in his eyes and a choked cough were all Draco could manage.

"Do you really think your father makes his own decisions under Voldemort? He's in deep shit just like everyone else. Do you think everyone here is acting scared just because they think it's a fun game? Do you have brains enough to remember Moody's first lesson last year? Those three spiders? Sure, the Imperius was oh, so amusing, but the fun ends with Cruciatus. The Avada Kedavra is a mercy after that! I know from personal experience."

Unbidden, the events Potter referred to flashed before Draco's inner eye. That particular class remained shockingly clear in his memory. At the time he'd thought it was funny, but now, it was pretty obvious that the spider had suffered horribly during Moody's Cruciatus. Draco believed Potter's assertion that he was speaking out of firsthand experience, because he'd seen the boy after the tournament. He'd been exhausted and bloody, with Cedric Diggory dead in his arms, only the force of his will keeping him conscious. Draco couldn't argue the fact that he'd been affected by the image – horrified, even. No matter how much he loved to see Potter suffer.

Draco suppressed those memories and tugged his wand free of his cloak. "Pulsus!" he croaked.

Potter staggered backwards and fell, but before Draco could fire another curse, the Gryffindor's wand was aimed straight at him. Draco had to admire his speed. His heart raced as he realized how deadly serious it was this time. No one would be coming between them. The students were busy panicking, and the teachers were busy consoling them. Draco had been waiting years for this moment.

With an icy look, he took aim. "Do you think I care what the Dark Lord did to you, Potter?"

"Of course not, you're much too stupid to understand a word I'm saying!" Harry sidestepped defensively as a curse he'd never heard before flew past. "Missed!" he taunted, as another curse flew by harmlessly. "Do you really think you've got a chance in hell of beating me, Malfoy? Your father couldn't, and neither could your precious master. You think I'm going to be afraid of a weak little ferret like you?"

Draco shook with fury. He'd heard about what happened in Little Hangleton, but his father's version wasn't quite the same as Potter's. He blocked a Pulsus and a Stupefying Charm, but he didn't anticipate that Potter would resort to physical fighting. He was surprised when he found himself nailed to the wall again, Potter's arm back at his throat.

"Too slow!" Harry hissed, and landed a vicious punch in Draco's side. "Way too slow. You've really got a problem with that, don't you, Ferret-face? Otherwise you wouldn't be here at all right now, would you?" It was intoxicating to Harry to knock Malfoy about like this, though he could scarcely believe he was actually doing it. The Slytherin was obviously boiling with rage, and Harry was enjoying every minute of it.

Draco took a heaving breath and focused his strength. He was taller and heavier than Potter, and he shoved with all his might. Potter stumbled backwards and fell to the ground again. "Expelliarmus!" Draco wheezed, just as Potter was hitting the ground, and this time he didn't miss. Potter's wand flew out of his hand, landing out of reach.

Harry stared at Draco in alarm as he advanced slowly, wand trained on Harry's chest and vicious sneer firmly in place. Harry looked for an opening, but he wasn't sure how he was going to get out of this one.

"Look how quickly heros fall," Malfoy sneered. The tip of his wand thrust upwards into the tender skin under Harry's chin. "How does that feel? Does it hurt?" He pressed harder, unrelenting, and Harry jerked backwards. "It sure feels good from this end. Bet the Dark Lord would be proud of me!" Triumph danced in Malfoy's eyes, but he was overconfident, and not prepared for Harry's next reckless move. More quickly than Draco thought possible, the obnoxious bastard slashed the wand out of his fingers, leaving painful red welts on his hand. The wand clattered onto the stones, but Draco's gaze stayed locked on Harry. He glared into the green eyes, unable to think of any sight he hated more.

Harry slowly stood up, also not letting his eyes leave Malfoy for an instant. "Yeah, sure, he'd be proud of you all right," Harry deadpanned, though his eyes sparked with malicious glee, and seemed to taunt Draco intolerably. Suddenly Draco had had quite enough of this confrontation. He spun around to go, but a sharp voice made him pause.

"Do you know who I'm sorry for?" Harry called, though his tone of voice echoed anything but pity. "I'm sorry for your mother," continued Harry harshly.

Draco winced.

Harry pressed on relentlessly, "I feel sorry for that woman, truly I do, for her mistaken belief that you could love her, and for being stupid enough to love you."

Draco could clearly feel the moment he lost control. He spun around, hate sparking in his eyes. No one insulted his mother. No matter what she had or hadn't done.

But Harry wasn't finished yet. He walked forwards, not stopping until he couldn't get any closer. The hatred in the his eyes equaled Draco's, and Harry said the words calculated to hurt the worst. "But I don't think we'll have to worry about her much longer. If she's not dead already." This was going to work; Harry could see it in Malfoy's gray eyes. "I'm sure your father's already taken care of it. Bet he enjoyed every minute of it." And with that, he spun away, collected his wand and disappeared up the stairs.

Draco was frozen to the spot. He understood exactly what Potter had been implying, and everything in him strained against the mere notion of it. The idea that his father might kill his mother because of her insistence that he return to Hogwarts caused a burn in his chest so severe that it brought tears to his eyes. Abruptly he jolted into motion, making for the passageway to the dungeons. He headed for the Slytherin common room, hoping to take refuge in his dormitory. He couldn't stand to deal with anyone else right now and just wanted to be alone, hidden behind his bed curtains.

He had to work through Potter's accusations, to get rid of this irrational fear. His father would never kill his mother. Never. But his overwrought brain didn't want to let go of his worry.

A distraction was waiting for him in his dormitory, in the form of his eagle owl, Zeus, who sat on the back of the chair next to his bed. Draco wondered idly how he'd gotten in as he ripped open the letter. He hoped it was from his father, telling him how to get out of this godforsaken place. It wasn't, but Draco felt a slight relief to see that it was from his mother, dated yesterday. He let the letter fall onto the bed and rubbed his face, pushing the panic out of his thoughts. He was thankful that this coincidence had negated Potter's hateful allegations. His mother was alive, and no one would make him believe otherwise.

He picked up the letter hesitantly, and began to read.

Dearest Draco,

I assume that Professor Dumbledore has told you the news. I can only hope that Zeus still finds his way to you. I know that you do not understand why I insisted you return to Hogwarts, even when your father was against it. But now you are safe, and your father can no longer reach you. He can no longer hurt you.

"Oh, Mum, what were you thinking?" murmured Draco disparagingly. His father might be a harsh man, but he wouldn't hurt his own son. With a grim face, Draco read on.

Men who want to be followers of the Dark Lord must follow His rules. He requires one thing above all, but most men do not realize the severity of that requirement until it is much too late. He requires that his followers put Him above everything and everyone else: before family, before wealth, before power, and definitely before love! He will permit nothing less. He would never have accepted you, my child, not ever. I know that you will not believe me, but Draco, you could never submit your will to another so completely, no matter what the price or reward. You have honor.

Your father was not always such a cold, hard man. The man I fell in love with was capable of emotion. I loved him above all things, and then I had to watch him give up everything, even you! Over the last few years I have realized that he will never be the same again. He will never be able to love us again. The followers of the Dark Lord cannot know love.

I know it was selfish of me, but I could not stand to watch it happen all over again. To watch my only son become a soulless soldier in the army of darkness. I could not stand idly by and allow that to happen!

Draco, your father has not asked after you once since he rejoined the Dark Lord. He has only been back one time since you left the Manor, and even then, he did not speak a word to me, would not even look at me. I fear for my life, for I know that he will never forgive my actions on your behalf. I do not tell you this to make you worry, but so that you will take me seriously when I ask you not to trust him. When I forced you back to Hogwarts, you lost all value in his eyes. His Master will never accept anyone who was sheltered at Hogwarts, nor anyone who has been under Dumbledore's protection.

Draco let the hand holding the letter sink down to the bed. How could she do this to me...? And above all, why? He understood her points, but why couldn't she have let him choose for himself? He threw the letter across the bed and began to pace furiously. It was too much. He felt the familiar bitterness grow until it overwhelmed him. Damn it, he thought, will I never be able to choose my own path?

He wanted to go to the Dark Lord, but he didn't want to hurt his mother. Impossible, contradictory wishes. He hated himself for giving in to his mother, and he hated himself for loving her, but he could not do otherwise. That was the whole reason that he was stuck here. He idolized his mother, and that meant he'd go along with whatever she wanted. Resigned, he reached for the letter. After all, surely it couldn't get any worse.

I am pleased that you are safe at Hogwarts, no matter what it has cost me. You will be alive, and you will not become your father.

Soon I will leave our home and our name behind. I will hide among the Muggles, for I know that forgiveness from your father is impossible. I fear that the followers of the Dark Lord will hunt for me and look to punish me. Eleanor Goyle has been missing for three days, and I do not believe she went willingly.

Draco worked through this news with great reluctance. Could it really be true that his mother's fear of his father was so strong? Potter's words surfaced in his thoughts unbidden, and he shoved them away with all his might.

It wasn't true. It couldn't be – Draco refused to accept it. But he couldn't help wondering if Goyle knew about his mother's disappearance.

If you want to find me, send Zeus. He will be able to sense me anywhere, and I will find a way to contact you. Remember the card I gave you. If you, too, should find yourself in the Muggle world, you can use it as you would a pile of Galleons. Take care of yourself, Draco. Please forgive me, but I love you too much to sacrifice you to the Dark Lord, though you may well hate me for it.

Love always,

Mother

Draco wadded up the letter and let himself fall onto his bed. All the hope that he'd felt when he'd first seen Zeus had vanished. The discord boiling within him had only gotten worse. His gaze fell on Zeus, who was still sitting on the back of the chair, waiting patiently for a treat.

"You are no help at all, do you know that?"

A sharp snap of Zeus's beak was his only reply.

"Why does she get to decide about my life, anyway? What gives her the right?" grumbled Draco. Zeus gave a soft hoot. Draco stretched out his arm, and Zeus hopped onto it with one flap of powerful wings. "Do you know what the worst thing is? She only means well. I know she just wants to protect me. What can I do, Zeus? Father's bound to be angry at me now..."

Zeus plucked at a loose fold of Draco's cloak. The new information from his mother hadn't helped a bit, Draco realized. He still had no idea what to do next.

Harry sat on the windowsill of the dormitory, lost in thought, as Ron and the others finally came back from the Great Hall. After his encounter with Draco, he'd been completely worn out, but unable to relax. He'd tried to sleep, but the moment he closed his eyes, images of the Ministry flashed through his mind. They weren't real; it was only his imagination, but they probably weren't that far off from the truth.

Unconsciously his eyes followed Seamus, Dean, and Neville as they disappeared behind their bed curtains, and Ron, as he came to lean against the window and stare out into the night. It wasn't long before they heard Neville's snores. Harry wondered idly if Seamus and Dean were also sleeping. He couldn't hear their snores, but perhaps they'd put a Silentium around their beds.

Ron tore him away from his absurd line of thought. "Hermione can't get control of herself, you know? At first she just stood there, numb, and then she started talking, babbling really, and couldn't stop. She talked about her home, her parents, all kinds of things. Professor McGonagall said she was in shock. She put her under some kind of tranquility spell."

Harry took a close look at his friend. It was as if Ron were speaking about the weather. Harry thought it was likely that Hermione wasn't the only one in shock. He stood up and squeezed Ron's shoulder reassuringly. It would probably have been better to use a tranquility spell on everyone tonight.

"It's all right to be scared, Ron."

Ron kept talking though, as if he hadn't heard. "Ginny couldn't calm down at all. She wouldn't stop crying. Fred and George spent the whole night trying to talk to her, but she didn't acknowledge them at all. In the end, they were just hanging on to each other, not saying anything. I've never seen my brothers so serious. Never, Harry!"

Harry couldn't stop himself from pulling Ron to him and giving him a reassuring hug. It was a minor shock when his friend clung on fiercely, and a moment later he realized that Ron was having his own breakdown, here and now. Before, he'd been to busy caring for Hermione and worrying about his sister, but now, the reality of the situation had to be faced. The danger the rest of his family faced was horrifying.

"They're all right, Ron, I'm sure! Your Mum knows a thing or two about survival!"

"Dad works in the Ministry, Harry, and Percy too! Dad never could keep his mouth shut, and Percy, that idiot is even worse! How can this be happening, Harry? Why couldn't they just have listened to you? He's going to kill anyone in his way, he's going to kill all of them..."

Harry winced at Ron's words. The thought that he was responsible for this, no matter how slightly or unintentionally, tormented him. He thrust the guilt aside and tried to convince Ron to stop worrying. Molly Weasley was the cleverest woman he knew, and she would make sure that Arthur and Percy were out of danger. He said as much to Ron, and tried to avoid thinking about the possibility that Ron's brother and father might already be dead.

"Ron, your Mum knows what she's doing. She'll make sure nothing happens to them, and I'm sure she's glad not to have to worry about you and Ginny and the twins. Believe me, Ron, your Mum knows how to stay alive!"

Ron finally collected himself, but it was obviously a herculean effort. He looked lost, but he focused on Harry and asked, "How about you?"

"I'm fine. I don't have anyone out there to worry about, besides your family," he stated neutrally, avoiding Ron's gaze.

It didn't work though; Ron's scrutiny intensified. "Try again, mate! I can tell by looking at you that you feel rotten!"

Harry turned away and stared out the window again. It seemed like forever before he spoke, but eventually, he couldn't hold the words back any more. They'd wanted out since the moment he found out what happened.

"I'm partially responsible for this, Ron!" Harry turned away and dove behind his bed curtains, fully clothed.

Ron's chin dropped to the floor. He had never once thought that Harry might blame himself in any way. Suddenly he understood why Harry had fled so abruptly from the Great Hall. He'd felt guilty.

"That is not true, Harry, this is not your fault! None of it!"

Only one person was at fault here, one whose name no one dared speak.

In a fashion strangely reminiscent of Harry earlier, Albus Dumbledore was staring out his window into the darkness. Precisely the event he'd warned Cornelius about had come to pass. He wondered if the Minister had managed to outlive his mistake. The Headmaster was at a loss as to what the next move should be, for he knew that Hogwarts could not stand alone against Voldemort indefinitely.

There was no way out that Dumbledore could see. He couldn't bring all the students to safety, because all possible escape routes passed through English soil. If the latest reports from Remus and Mad Eye were to be believed, it was simply too dangerous to attempt it.

Voldemort had been thorough. The strike against the Ministry was perfectly orchestrated, and the meagre defense of Dumbledore's supporters had suffered heavy losses. The Dementors obeyed Voldemort's every command, and his spies were everywhere. His followers spread the terror throughout the countryside, killing indiscriminately. Nothing and no one had been capable of stopping them.

That information was from the last note he'd received before they'd sealed the protective wards so that nothing more could come through. Well, that and the owl from Narcissa Malfoy.

The mother of the young Malfoy was trying to keep her headstrong son from joining his father. The ramifications of that were simply astounding. In fact, that was the only reason the Headmaster had let the owl through. The unruly child needed to see what his mother wrote, even if Dumbledore had little hope for the boy. His father's influence was just too strong. No doubt he would take the first available opportunity to re-align himself with his father in this war.

The Headmaster asked himself how long it would be until Draco got his chance; how long it would be until Voldemort succeeded in overthrowing Hogwarts. At the moment there didn't seem to be any way for an attack against the school to succeed. One set of spies at the school had already been neutralized – they'd been caught attempting to get through the defensive wards. Dumbledore didn't think there were any more, but one could never be too careful. If the current situation were to last any length of time, it was impossible to predict how long the students could hold on psychologically. He had to find a solution to all this, the sooner the better. The first priority, though, was the students' peace of mind. It was urgently necessary to give the students a sense of security and normality. With a bit of complex magic, the Headmaster ensured that every student would find some calm tonight, and sleep dreamlessly.

As all the students and teachers assembled in the Great Hall the next morning, the sense of panic had faded, though the fear and worry were still apparent. Dumbledore attempted to clarify the details of the situation without causing more panic; there was no sense trying to disguise the facts. The situation was dire. There would not be any more news of the outside world. It was both an advantage and a disadvantage that they would not know how bad things might be out there.

The castle was completed sealed, even to air, both coming in and going out. The Headmaster wanted to leave the students no room for doubt that the protective wards were impenetrable.

Bolstering the students courage was another of Dumbledore's goals. He understood that they were frightened and concerned for their relatives and friends, but that would not alter the reality of the situation. It could only be a huge relief to their families to know that the children were safe and secure in Hogwarts. Hogwarts was secure. He pressed the point again and again. The question he did not voice was, what good would that be if the rest of the world fell apart?

Harry knew that, even if Hogwarts could stand alone forever, it wouldn't help the men and women outside. For now though, the school would continue on as normal, and for Harry, that meant there would be a Quidditch match today.

Gryffindor against Slytherin: the ultimate contest.

As soon as it became clear that the game would indeed take place, Harry burned with the need to stomp Malfoy into the ground. It was hard for most students to accept Dumbledore's insistence on the match, but the purpose behind it was clear to Harry. The Headmaster wanted to distract the students as much as possible from the threat outside, and there was no better distraction than a good Quidditch match.

Harry stood up abruptly. "Okay, let's get ready, team! We've got to win this one!"

Stunned disbelief met his pronouncement, and not just from the team itself. It seemed to take Fred and George completely by surprise. Alicia and Angelina looked bewildered, while Seamus, their new Keeper, seemed appalled. Hermione and Ginny were staring uncomprehendingly at him, just like everyone else at the table who'd been close enough to hear his words – as if they couldn't believe he'd meant it seriously.

Only Ron, who was on the team as Chaser this year, stood at Harry's side. He'd understood what Harry was trying to achieve. There was nothing they could do for their friends except to give them something new and more positive to dwell on. It didn't hurt that he'd noticed the Slytherins already in motion, also preparing for the match. He had no desire to be behind Malfoy, not at anything.

"Okay, people, let's show those bloody Slytherins! Why did they all have to come back here, anyway?"

Fred and George exchanged a shocked glance, surprised that Ron of all people was the first to join Harry in this. But George was the next to recover his poise. "Exactly!" he exclaimed, grabbing Alicia by the arm. "We'll show the snakes a thing or two!" Fred followed his example and tugged Angelina to her feet.

Only Seamus still looked wary. "Who'll take me by the hand?" he queried, his flirty gaze locked on Harry.

"Do I have to?" Harry complained, disgruntled. Everyone knew about Seamus's romantic interests, and Harry was aware that he was rather at the top of Seamus's list of candidates. The obnoxious boy was just using this opportunity for his own ends.

"Well, I'd really rather you take me in your arms and comfort me," he flirted shamelessly, forgetting everything and everyone else around him.

"Shut it, Finnegan!" Ron came between them, saving Harry from further embarrassment. Seamus didn't seem overly insulted, and they all made for the doors.

They were held up by the Headmaster. "Hello there, Harry, I see you've understood my point exactly! Could I have a word, please? I won't keep you long."

"Sure, Professor!" Harry nodded at Ron and Seamus to go ahead, and followed Dumbledore into a small chamber off to one side.

The Headmaster observed him closely for a moment before he spoke. "Are you coping all right, Harry?"

Harry would have tried to shrug him off, but he knew it wouldn't work, that Dumbledore would see right through it. "No, not really, and you know it, I'm sure."

"You are correct, Harry, I do indeed – you're blaming yourself, aren't you?"

Harry studied the pattern in the floor tiles intently.

"There's absolutely no reason for that, my boy! Can't you see that, Harry?" He kept his eyes trained on Harry, who still refused to look at him.

"But if I hadn't..."

"If he hadn't caught you, he would have used another! You assume that just because he wanted your blood, you have to share the blame, but that is simply not true. Voldemort had enough enemies that it would have been no trouble at all to find one for his purposes; any one of them would have done just as well. You were only chosen because he wanted to break through your defenses, Harry, otherwise you wouldn't have had anything to do with this mess! He sees it as a personal victory, to have had you in his power."

Harry still avoided his gaze. Dumbledore's words might very well be the truth, but that didn't make him feel any better. He felt the Headmaster's hand on his shoulder.

"Harry, let me be clear about this – if Voldemort hadn't been so set on using you, then he would have been back much sooner! You are not to blame. Do not forget that you are the reason that the magical community had fourteen years to take care of this problem, and that we all failed! No one wanted to see it, no one wanted to admit that his return was even a possibility. That was the problem, Harry, not you, never you. You've done your part, much more than your fair share, and you've paid a high price every time."

Harry's head only sunk lower still, and Dumbledore pressed his chin upwards, forcing Harry to look at him. He smiled resignedly.

"I mean every word I say, my boy. You may rely on it! Now go out there and play your game, Harry, your team is waiting for you. Just do me one favor – don't knock Malfoy from his broom, all right? I have no idea how I would explain that to his mother!" It was troubling but amusing to Dumbledore, that Harry's face closed even more at these words. "Do you understand me, Harry?"

Again, Harry found something enormously interesting to look at on the floor.

"Of course, Professor."

"Good luck then, Harry, good luck to you all! I hope you give us a clean, fair game!" With that he turned away.

Harry watched him go with very little enthusiasm. He doubted very much that today's match was going to be either clean or fair.

A short time later, he sat impatiently with his team in the Gryffindor changing room, waiting for the beginning of the match. It was unusually quiet in the stands; the gloomy atmosphere had followed the students outside.

Harry looked into the faces of his teammates and found them all studying him expectantly. He suddenly remembered Oliver Wood's fiery pep talks before matches, and for a moment his mouth went dry with nerves. He'd never been one for persuasive speaking, but he was obviously going to have to say something. He could tell the whole team was waiting for it.

"Okay... Mates, I think you all know what's at stake here today! This isn't about points or winning – no matter how much I would love to knock every single damn Slytherin from his broom on our way to victory!"

"Yeah!" came Fred and George's voices in tandem, and they pounded on the wooden benches in the locker room with their Beater's bats. Harry threw them a grateful look.

"No, today it's about pulling everyone out of this funk, getting them to forget about things they can't control," he pressed on, "and for that, we've got to play the game of our lives!"

The bats pounded against the benches again. Harry felt the excitement take him over, and everyone else heard it in his voice as he continued.

"Those snakes won't stand a chance today, is that clear?"

"Yeah!" came from Seamus this time, who Harry'd focused on in order to draw out his enthusiasm, which always seemed contagious. Seamus's excitement fired up the whole team, and determination shone in the eyes of the two girls.

Harry decided it was time to get down to business. "Okay, so for you two, Fred and George, keep an eye on Malfoy! He doesn't have a chance at the snitch anyway, but you can never be too careful. You know, it wouldn't disturb me in the least if one of your bats accidently separated him from his broom," he added with a nasty smirk. Malfoy's well-being did not interest him in the slightest.

The grins on the twins' faces broadened. They'd understood Harry's meaning exactly. Dumbledore's words didn't bother him; Harry felt that Malfoy deserved to develop a close relationship with the wet earth of the Quidditch pitch today. The deeper he sank into the mud, the better.

"Alicia, Angelina, you know what you've got to do, and Ron, you stick close to them! They'll lead the way, just like we did in practice! And everybody, don't forget: tempo, tempo, tempo! Their Chasers may be good, but they're slow." Gregory Goyle and Dyson Carmichel were plenty big and powerful, but they were sluggish. Ever since the Gryffindors had noticed that, they'd focused heavily on speed and agility.

"And you, Seamus, do me a favor – don't get knocked off your broom! I'm not so much worried about the Chasers, but McKinley throws hard. Let one through if you have to – that would be better than letting yourself get hit."

"Sure, Harry!" Seamus was still gazing at him adoringly. Harry averted his eyes. Seamus never bothered to hide the fact that he was interested in boys, and it could get uncomfortable. If he wasn't such a great Keeper, he would surely have been thrown off the team by now. Not that Harry had a problem with it or anything – everyone had to make their own choices, after all. Harry's problem was just that Seamus was so blatant about the fact that he wanted Harry, and chased after him just as often as he did Dean. Dean was always trying to avoid Seamus, which meant Harry got even more of Seamus's attention. He handled it stoically; what else could he do, if he wanted to keep his Keeper?

"All right, team... let's go! Let's do it!"

"Yeah!" was the loud response.

Harry felt a rush of adrenaline that was very familiar to him by now. "We'll give 'em a show like they've never seen before!"

"Yeah!" came the immediate response.

"If we give it all we've got, we'll smash those snakes to bits!"

Fists shot into the air, and a confident roar rose up from the team. Harry kept it up for a few more minutes, until doubt, worry, and insecurity were impossible, and he saw the same fire in the eyes of his teammates that had been burning in his own eyes for a long while. Malfoy had better watch out. Gryffindor was ready for a victory, and Harry knew they had a good chance.

"Wow, Harry, that was great!" George congratulated him, thundering his bat on the bench one more time on the way out. They ignored the similar clamor coming from the Slytherin changing rooms a few doors down. The Gryffindors weren't going to let the Slytherins have this game, no matter what. They stormed the field with raised fists, where Madam Hooch was looking impatient.

"Let me just say a quick hello to the Ferret, then," Harry murmured to Ron, as he steered his Firebolt downwards. Malfoy was already waiting there with Madame Hooch. Harry prepared himself mentally for the obligatory handshake with the captain of the opposing team. Since yesterday, he hated Malfoy more than ever.

Draco smirked at him coldly. He could tell that Potter would much prefer to curse him than to shake hands with him. Draco found that he took a good deal of satisfaction from that.

Harry forced himself to take Malfoy's hand. The handshake was so tight it was almost violent. "You're going down this time, Scarface!" Malfoy hissed, so quietly that Harry could barely hear. Harry had no chance to reply, as Madam Hooch was only a few feet away.

"Okay, boys, let's see what you can do! Give us a great game – goodness knows we all need it!"

The two captains kicked off the ground as the whistle blew and the balls whizzed up into the air. Immediately, the Gryffindor Chasers took off, flying so quickly that it was hard to tell them apart. That speed was one of the key points of Harry's training regimen, and it appeared that Malfoy had found out about it somehow. His players did not look surprised, though they were still unable to keep pace with the Gryffindor Chasers. Alicia and Angelina were always just a little faster. Harry grinned. Of course they were faster, they were girls: smaller, lighter, more flexible.

Ron had some trouble keeping up, but the team had planned for that. He simply formed up behind the girls. They scored three goals before Slytherin had any scoring opportunities whatsoever. Malfoy had no qualms about chewing his team out in front of the whole school, and his tirade seemed to have the desired effect. After that, the Slytherins weren't so easy to fool anymore. The game became more difficult and intense, as all of Malfoy's players targeted the two girls. The Beaters weren't really a problem, but the Chasers weren't to be trifled with.

Whenever they got a chance, McKinley and Montague attacked the Gryffindor Chasers mercilessly. Madam Hooch blew her whistle on one foul after another, but it didn't seem to help at all. Harry shot an angry glare at Malfoy and sped across the field to Fred.

"You've got to cover Alicia and Angelina!" Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that Malfoy was right behind him. The stupid ferret had been tailing him the whole match, and Harry decided it was high time to do something about it. "Listen, Fred, let me take care of Malfoy – keep an eye on Seamus. He's holding up well so far, but I think he's getting a little reckless!"

Fred grinned. Seamus had just nearly unseated Maureen Dunn from her broom with a Quaffle, and he didn't look at all remorseful when Madam Hooch gave him a warning for it. It caused the Slytherin Beaters to take notice of him, though, so Seamus now had his hands full.

After a violent shove from Malfoy, Harry had to struggle with his own broom for a moment. Fred took off, but didn't miss the opportunity to return the favor and shove Malfoy on his way past. The Slytherin was forced to back off, but Harry followed, tracking him relentlessly around the pitch. Harry was grateful that the Snitch was keeping out of sight for the moment. He caught sight of Fred and George, successfully holding McKinley and Montague in check – that move was paying off.

Malfoy changed tactics again; he signaled his Beaters to protect the rings alongside his Keeper. That slowed Angelina and Alicia's attack considerably. The crowd seemed to realize that the game was hanging in the balance, as the stands came alive with sound and movement. The cheers got louder and louder, egged on by Lee Jordan's fiery commentary. The game was stuck in a standoff; as fast as the Gryffindor Chasers were, the Beaters protecting the rings were too dangerous.

Harry looked left and right. His fingers itched and he felt an urgent but foolhardy need for action. He planned to win this game, but he sensed that his only chance was to put Malfoy out of commission, to take away his control somehow. The bastard was countering Harry's every move, and he was in perfect control of his team. Harry was intent on changing that.

With no warning, he dove, leaning far over his Firebolt and taking no leave of what might be transpiring at the other end of the field. He angled even more steeply downwards without slowing in the slightest. It wasn't necessary to look and see if Malfoy was following; Harry could hear him close behind.

He could vaguely make out Lee's voice. ...must have seen the Snitch... He didn't seem too sure. So much the better.

Abruptly he righted his broom and shot upwards, without letting Malfoy see past him. He couldn't let the Slytherin captain realize there was no Snitch, not until he had Malfoy right where he wanted him.

Which was in the mud.

Harry took his next dive even faster; Malfoy stayed right on his tail. The risk was high, Harry knew, for he'd have to dive awfully close to the ground to accomplish his goal. Adrenalin raced through his veins and made him forget the danger. The need to make a fool of Malfoy overwhelmed all other considerations.

The Quidditch pitch looked blissfully muddy; it had been saturated with rain over the last couple of days. Harry sped directly towards it. His adversary didn't realize it was a trick until Harry broke off at the last second, turning to one side and doing a full roll with his broom, because he'd been going too fast to stop himself any other way.

Draco wrenched his broom upwards, and promptly lost control of it. His Nimbus nicked the ground, and then there was nothing more he could do. He was catapulted violently from the broom and landed face-first in the mud. Had rational thought been possible, Draco would have been forced to admit he was lucky the ground was so soft.

Even before he came to a complete stop, he twisted and jumped to his feet like a tiger on the hunt, his eyes already turned upwards, searching the sky for his nemesis. He could hear the blood pounding in his ears, he was so incensed. One look was enough for Harry to see that he'd better not let his guard down.

The stands roared with cheers, drowning out the raging Slytherins. Malfoy was the center of attention, and even the players had completely forgotten their jobs. The Slytherin captain collected his broom and prepared to launch himself back into the game. He shook off Madam Hooch's anxious interrogation and mounted his broom.

Harry didn't let him out of his sight. "George!" Harry beckoned Ron's brother to him, since he was the closest to hand.

George rushed over. "Tidy little stunt, there," was the redhead's appreciative remark, delivered with a wide grin.

"You all just keep playing, okay, no matter what happens!" instructed Harry hurriedly.

"Why wouldn't we?" George gave Harry a blank stare.

"Just do it! No matter what happens, just keep playing!" With that, Harry sped off, not waiting for a reply. As George caught a glimpse of Malfoy, Harry's meaning became obvious – the Slytherin captain was airborne again, and he only had eyes for Harry, who had shown him up so shamefully.

From that point on, the game seemed to develop into a dime-store melodrama. Malfoy was raging with anger and had forgotten everything else entirely. His sole intent was to separate Harry from his broom, and a despairing Madam Hooch couldn't seem to do a thing about it. Their private combat launched the crowd from their seats and the goading uproar from three entire houses made it utterly impossible to make out a word Lee Jordan was presumably saying.

Harry noticed none of it. After three attempts from Malfoy to unseat him from his broom, he decided not to run from the Slytherin Seeker any more. Instead, he'd go on the offensive. The game itself was becoming more and more irrelevant for both of them. By the time a vicious elbow poked painfully between Harry's ribs, his fury was as potent as Malfoy's.

Twenty yards lower, a game the likes of which Hogwarts had never seen raged on. The Slytherins were without their leader and went into desperate defensive moves, but the Gryffindors had found their tempo again. They attacked whenever and wherever possible, not pausing even when McKinley threw Seamus from his broom with a murderous shove.

Meanwhile, Harry waged a private war with his rival.

The masses of students in the stands screamed themselves hoarse, trying to fire up the Gryffindor team and drown out the howls from the Slytherins, whose Chasers attempted to mount some offense with no success. Their captain had always been there to command them; without him they could do nothing but defend. After Seamus' return to the game, the Gryffindors went back on the attack. The angry bruises he wore seemed to make the team even more reckless. It was clear to everyone that they wouldn't be able to keep up this tempo much longer.

The score was 210 to 200 in favor of Gryffindor when Harry found a chance to check in on the game. He brought his Firebolt to a complete stop midair and noticed that it had started to drizzle. Far below, the game raged on. Though both sides appeared winded, the crowd had not lost any of its energy and the stands roared with cheers spurring the Gryffindors on.

Malfoy was still a few yards behind him, but even from this distance Harry could see anger in every line of him. He was only waiting for his next opportunity.

And then Harry saw the snitch.

Harry panicked. It was déjà vu – the snitch was dangling in the air just a couple of yards off the Slytherin Seeker's shoulder, as if daring him to catch it. And just as before, Malfoy's focus was so completely on Harry that he missed it entirely.

Harry knew he would only get one chance. Without sparing a moment to think it over, he let himself fall into a nosedive, hoping that Malfoy would assume he was mounting another personal attack. No such luck.

It wasn't the first nosedive Potter had tried, but there was something different about this one. Draco didn't know what made him do it, but he turned his head and narrowed his eyes, and realized he hadn't been wrong about this particular move of Potter's. The Gryffindor Seeker caught up to him just as he was accelerating his broom to top speed towards the snitch. His advantage was small, and the Firebolt was faster, but Draco didn't let himself think about that for long. His only thought was now or never, and he shoved out blindly with his elbows. He got in a few good jabs, but Potter never went off course. He stretched out his right hand and reached determinedly towards the snitch.

Harry ignored Malfoy, focusing solely on the snitch. He knew his broom was faster, and though it was an unfair advantage, he planned to capitalize now. There was only a hair's breadth of separation between them. Harry could feel Malfoy's fingers brush his own, and knew that no match between the two of them had ever been this close. He could even hear the soft gasp of horror from his opponent as he realized that he was going to lose.

Harry didn't feel sorry for him in the slightest. Instead, he found deep satisfaction in being able to provide Malfoy with further evidence that he would never have a chance in any battle between them. Malfoy'd gotten just what he deserved – he'd forgotten about the game, about his own team far below, just to pursue their little duel in the skies.

Briefly Harry asked himself whether he would have done the same thing himself, but he suppressed that thought quickly. It was meaningless now. Gryffindor had won.

The stadium literally exploded around them. It appeared that way to Harry, at any rate, as the cheers, screams, and applause erupted around him, drowning out everything else. Escorted by his teammates, Harry let himself sink slowly to the ground on the wave of sound.

Madam Hooch watched his descent and snapped, "Classic game, Potter. You really earned your reputation with that one. No one will ever want to challenge you on a broomstick with play like that. Indeed!"

But the look Harry gave the beaten-down Slytherin team said, "Yeah! Especially not any prissy little Death Eater-wannabe's!" He wasn't planning to let anything or anyone get him down.

The rest of the day passed in a blur. Hogwarts hadn't seen a game like that in a long time, and everyone wanted to pay their respects to the Gryffindor team.

The party that evening in Gryffindor Tower was just as unparalleled as the game had been. The Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws couldn't resist joining in, and the common room was so full of students that it was nearly bursting at the seams. Harry had never shaken so many hands as he did that night. Everyone wanted to clap him on the shoulder, and he always seemed to be surrounded by a ring of ardent admirers. Even Cho Chang, the Ravenclaw Seeker, showed up with a few friends to congratulate Harry on his victory.

After that, he had walked around with a goofy grin on his face and didn't even notice when people tried to ask him questions. Ron couldn't resist pointing out Harry's condition to the crowd.

Eventually the party ended, and it was after midnight when he finally got to bed. He lay staring at the dark red velvet canopy and reflecting on his win happily.

Just for a while, Hogwarts had indeed forgotten what was happening outside of the protective wards. At least for the time being, the excitement had pulled the students out of the state of shock that had gripped them since they heard the news of Voldemort's rise to power.

In addition, Harry carried a personal victory from the day's events. Gryffindor had beaten Slytherin, and Potter had defeated Malfoy. For Harry, it was a very symbolic win. He had no sympathy for his nemesis, none at all. Even if Malfoy had snapped his broom in half, or gotten injured in his fall, Harry felt that he would have no sympathy for him. His hatred for the pointy git knew no limits. Any means of cutting him down to size was fine with Harry.

Just before he closed his eyes and gave in to sleep, he asked himself what all he was really capable of, when his anger had control of him. Yesterday, his anger had driven him to torture Malfoy with insults and accusations until the hurt had been clearly visible on his face. Then he'd mercilessly implied that Narcissa Malfoy was not likely to still be alive. And today, he couldn't even bring himself to care whether or not his adversary broke his neck.

Harry's last thought before succumbing to sleep was that he'd rather not know what horrors he might be capable of. When his anger had the upper hand, he no longer knew which way was up, and he knew that he would be capable of just about anything, even unimaginable atrocities.

The realization troubled him, and his sleep that night was restless.

Life at Hogwarts slowly returned to normal, or as normal as it could get, under the circumstances. It was hard to accept that there would be no more communication from outside the school. The students were more careworn and apprehensive than usual, as worry for their families plagued them.

The match was the favored topic of conversation for a good long while in the halls and at meals. Harry realized how important a role it played in easing the tension amongst the students.

The tension hadn't abated for the Slytherins, who were made to feel as unwelcome as possible by all three other houses. Harry had to admit that he did not approve, especially when the younger students were harassed. One evening, he found himself intervening when a couple of fourth years terrorized two Slytherin second years until they'd begun to cry.

That very same night, he found a letter lying on his bed, which proclaimed him to be the second Gryffindor Prefect. Attached to it, the new badge shimmered. Harry wished he could just sink into the ground and hide, or at least pretend the letter never existed, but Ron caught him at it.

"Well, it's about time!" Ron announced dryly, but without any jealousy. "You've risked your neck enough, I'd say, trying to keep everyone here alive. If anyone understands what it means to be fair and loyal, then it's you. Congrats, mate!"

Harry was completely taken aback by Ron's opinion on the matter, but as word got out, he discovered most students agreed with Ron. Hermione was ecstatic that he'd been named; she felt more authoritative with Harry at her side, she claimed.

Harry still found it embarrassing to walk the halls with his new badge, above all, because it had been awarded so belatedly. Harry couldn't help but wonder why; the question remained in the back of his mind all the time. Apparently it was a contested decision, and contemplating that didn't help his self-confidence any.

Potions and Defense Against the Dark Arts remained unpleasant and nerve-racking for him. Snape may have hated him before, but since the Quidditch match, he'd become absolutely unbearable. He claimed his payback for the Slytherin defeat in the only manner available to him. In retaliation, the Gryffindors established an unspoken agreement to allow Hermione to tutor them. It worked so well that Snape had trouble rattling even Neville, who was given a confidence-boosting charm before each class. Hermione had found it in an ancient monstrous tome buried in the depths of the library.

Snape only got more insufferable as the days wore on, and the Slytherins grew more and more malicious. Emboldened by their head of house's behavior, their taunts and schemes became more spiteful. They didn't hesitate to throw dangerous ingredients into the Gryffindor students' cauldrons whenever no one was looking.

When Neville's cauldron exploded as a direct consequence of this, covering the entire class with Pampering Potion, Harry lost his patience. He was Neville's partner, and he knew that the only thing they'd done wrong in brewing their potion was to not keep a closer eye on Malfoy and Goyle.

The sabotaged brew caused burning red welts to bloom wherever it came into contact. Snape occupied himself with delivering a vicious lecture, deducting points, and distributing an antidote to the Slytherins. It was the last straw for Harry, as everyone could plainly see that the Gryffindors had borne the brunt of the impact, and had a far greater need for the antidote.

"Professor Snape! Get over here and help Neville, right now! He's covered in burns – he's far worse off than Zabini and Parkinson!" he roared, ignoring the fact that his own hands were burning as if the flesh were singed straight through to the bone. It was Snape's overt favoritism of his own house that had him incensed.

The professor turned, slowly and threateningly, towards Harry.

"Do not dare to question my discretion in this matter, Mr. Potter!" Snape's dangerously quiet tone usually instilled fear in Harry, but he didn't even contemplate standing down, not this time. Neville's whimpers were too painful to hear.

"You don't want to know what I think of your discretion, Professor, just get over here and take care of Neville! He's not to blame for this!" His glare shifted momentarily to Malfoy and Goyle, who suddenly realized that he must have seen them and began to look very defensive.

Snape began to see the truth of the situation as well, it seemed. "Granger!" he barked, visibly reluctant, as he turned once again to this personal supply cabinet. Hermione rushed to follow. Snape glared at her venomously as he pressed a second flask of the antidote into her hand. "Administer this to your classmates, and don't think for a second that I don't know who is to be thanked for this farce!" he rasped. For once, Hermione felt nothing but satisfaction at her professor's discomfort. She hurried to Neville's desk and gave him the proper dose, and the painful red marks faded immediately. One after the other, Hermione treated the Gryffindors with drops of the antidote, until she finally came to Harry. She offered him the flask, but he merely gave her a surly look.

"What's wrong? Hurry up!" she whispered.

Just as quietly, he replied, "I can't!" Hermione looked down and saw that his hands were at least as red as Neville's face had been, moments earlier.

"Finished, then, Granger?" Snape's voice dripped with scorn. He had finished administering the antidote to the Slytherin students, so all attention was focused on the two Gryffindors. Hermione looked at Harry helplessly, for they both knew that the Slytherins would laugh themselves silly if Hermione spoon-fed Harry the antidote.

Harry gave her a resigned smile. "Do it. I can't stand to wait any longer, anyway." Resolutely, Hermione held the spoon up to Harry's mouth and unleashed the expected hoots of laugher from the Slytherins. The Gryffindors didn't even crack a smile at Harry's expense – for them, he had just proven himself yet again to be a shining hero.

Harry met Snape's glare and wondered what he should make of his professor's behavior. Snape never put a stop to the Slytherin laughter, even though they broke out in new bouts of it every five minutes for the rest of the class. But he also hadn't taken any points from Gryffindor for Harry's outburst. Luckily, the hour was almost over.

While Harry was packing his supplies into his cauldron after class, Snape called his name. A few Slytherin students noticed the exchange as they were headed out the door. They held back to see what Potter had coming to him, but Snape shooed them out. He merely scowled at Harry coldly for a long while, then stood and went to his cabinet to retrieve the potion bottle that Hermione had used.

"Miss Granger may be capable of tutoring you, but she doesn't know nearly as much as she thinks she does. Especially when she isn't aware of the true extent of the injuries for which she's administering a cure." Harry's head sunk. Snape had apparently realized that his hands weren't the only patch of skin that had been burned by the Pampering Potion. His forearms, hidden by his cloak, had also been severely burned. He was still hurting, but he'd determined not to say anything about it. Snape offered him the spoon, but Harry eyed him suspiciously.

"Quit looking so incredulous, boy, this is for Hadfield and McKinley! Imagine, our famous Harry Potter managed to see past his own glorious shadow long enough to help two young Slytherins, who don't even understand why they are being persecuted. Now take it!"

Harry took the spoon. He had no inclination to trust Snape, but since he knew the man's motivation, he let go of his doubts. Snape felt beholden to him, because he'd protected the girls from his house. Harry knew how that must chafe the man. Finally, the pain in his arms and hands subsided.

"Go now."

Harry returned to his seat to finish storing his supplies. Before he could get out the door, Snape added, "Oh, and Potter? Don't think that I will ever tolerate behavior like that from you again!" Harry glanced at him with a quick but imperturbable look, and both of them knew that Harry would do it again in a heartbeat if he felt it was necessary.

The Potions professor watched him go, and had to admit that the day's events had shown why the world saw something special in this boy. It wasn't just his name, it was the way he willingly risked his own neck when he felt it was the right thing to do. Today wasn't the first time he'd done such a thing, but it was the first time that Severus Snape gave any credibility to the act. Today, it had been abundantly clear that the boy had done it not because he was Harry Potter, but because he was a student of this class and felt a responsibility towards his fellow students.

Outside the door, the entire class was waiting for Harry. "What happened?" Ron looked at Harry with concern. "Zabini let slip that Snape called you back!"

"He gave me more of the antidote, because Hermione's dose wasn't enough, that's all."

"What?" "No way!" That explanation triggered widespread consternation among the students.

Harry just shook his head. "Look, he's the professor. He can't very well send me back to McGonagall with burns on my arms, can he? The other teachers would challenge him on that, so it's simpler if he just heals me himself."

Most of the students were pacified by this answer, but on the walk to Transfiguration, Hermione mused, "Are you sure it didn't have anything to do with those two Slytherin girls who treated you like a hero for a few days?"

Ron narrowed his eyes. Sometimes, he thought, Hermione can be awfully dense. "That wouldn't even register with Snape!" he stated confidently, but Harry shook his head.

"That's where you're wrong, mate! Hermione's right. He doesn't like owing something to Gryffindor, not for any reason. Do you really think he would have let me get by with yelling at him, otherwise? But let's keep this to ourselves, okay?"

Ron and Hermione froze at this news, and stared after Harry as he walked on. They exchanged a telling look, and Ron claimed, "Well, how do you like that? You know, Harry can be a pretty decent bloke sometimes."

It was Hermione's turn to narrow her eyes. "Did you ever doubt it?"

She'd known from the moment Harry and Ron first saved her life, fighting a troll for her in first year, that Harry Potter more than lived up to his famous name.

The incident in Potions made the rounds of the school gossip, and brought Harry to the center of attention yet again. This time, in contrast to his fame from the Quidditch match, he wasn't pleased about it at all. It was no good provoking Snape any further, and he tried to make that abundantly clear to his housemates. For Harry, the situation had been dealt with, and it was over.

For Professor McGonagall, who heard the whole story in spite of Harry's intervention, it was just more brownie points for her Prefect.

"Mr. Potter, a word please!" Harry had just stood up from the dinner table when his head of house called him back. He was one of the few remaining students in the Great Hall. Ron and Hermione had left quite a while ago, but Harry hadn't wanted to join them – their flirting had been a little too blatant for him to deal with.

"Mr. Potter, Professor Dumbledore has just informed me about the Halloween festivities this year. I'm sure you'll be happy to pass this news on to your classmates. After the traditional feast this year, we'll have a Halloween Ball." Harry found that just the thought of another ball made his cheeks turn red. He didn't have the best of experiences with dances.

Professor McGonagall overlooked his discomfort and continued, "All students may attend, and are more than welcome to come in costume. The feast will start at six o'clock and the last two hours of classes that day will be cancelled. Oh, and Mr. Potter, I'd appreciate it if you and the other Prefects could try to keep the excitement from getting out of hand," she added with a weak smile.

Harry would have no problem keeping his own enthusiasm in check, but he could see how others might feel differently. "Sure, Professor McGonagall!"

"Thank you. Good night, Mr. Potter."

Harry watched her make her way back to the head table and thought that her suspicions about the students' enthusiasm were probably justified. He turned away and made for the tower.

In the common room, the noise level was typically high, and it took him a while to get everyone's attention. Fred and George intervened, shoving him up onto the nearest table before Fred thundered with a magically amplified voice, "EVERYONE LISTEN UP! HARRY'S GOT SOMETHING TO SAY!" When he had everyone's attention, he added, "Probably that we're all supposed to be nice to the great greasy bat or something."

Harry threw him a scowl and decided to play along just a bit. "Er, yes, actually... You should all be nice to the great greasy bat, that's correct! Anything for house points!"

"POTTER!" roared Lee Jordan.

"Actually I do have news for you, but if no one wants to listen..." Harry stated nonchalantly.

"Get on with it before we turn that table over!" came a shout from the crowd. Harry was almost positive it was one of the Creevy brothers, and resolved to keep everyone in suspense a bit longer.

"Halloween is in three days!"

"Now there's some news!" That had definitely been Colin. Harry grinned at him.

"Just in case one or two of you had forgotten. So, the way things usually go, we have class as usual." The complaints from the audience got louder. "That means, four hours in the morning, and yes, four hours in the afternoon as well."

"Harry, get to the point right now, or we're really going to turn this table over!" That was Fred and George, and they really did look like they had reached the end of their patience.

He couldn't hold back his laughter anymore, but managed to speak anyway. He ticked off the points on his fingers, "The last two hours of class on Halloween has been cancelled, the Halloween Feast begins at six o'clock, and there'll be a Halloween Ball afterwards for everyone, even the first and second years! Costumes encouraged!"

For a moment there was silence, as even Fred, George and Lee needed a moment to process the news. Then loud jubilation rang out through the common room.

McGonagall had been fully correct. The walls seemed to quiver with the noise, even as all six Prefects worked in vain to quiet everyone down. As a last resort, Harry used the same charm George had previously used to amplify his voice. His bellows made the noise dissolve into shocked silence. At his normal volume, he advised, "Hey you guys, if you make that kind of noise, Dumbledore's likely to change his mind, or McGonagall will ban us from going or something. Celebrate a little more quietly, will you? It's about time to get to bed, anyway!"

Quiet grumbling was his only response. No one seemed notice his smile and wink. He thought they were probably too excited. He gave up any more attempts to talk to them and jumped off the table.

The noise level was mostly under control, but it took a long time for the excitement to die down. Harry sat in his favorite chair while the calm slowly returned. Still, he could hear excited conversations all around him. Apparently this party was something that the Hogwarts students needed. Harry didn't need to ask why.

Wearing a huge grin, Ron told Harry, "Bet you were the only one who had your house more or less under control tonight! Who would've thought you could be the boss like that? Bet Malfoy would've been shocked to the core!" Harry ignored that particular sentiment. "This is a great idea of Dumbledore's, innit?"

Harry had to exert some effort to prevent himself from rolling his eyes. Ron's views on dances had certainly changed over the years. Harry asked himself whether it had anything to do with the new dress robes Fred and George has procured for him.

"And I can finally wear my new dress robes!" Ron exclaimed to Hermione, echoing Harry's thoughts.

Harry couldn't hide the grin that always threatened whenever he watched his two best friends exchanging private glances. Ron shouldn't have any problems finding a dance partner this time around.

Harry felt a lump in his throat, but swallowed it down quickly. He jumped out of his chair, suddenly needing to get out of there. He still hadn't adjusted to how much time his best friends would want to spend together without him.

"I'm heading for bed," he declared flatly. With a snarky grin, he added, "And you two had better get a room if you want to keep your secret much longer!" He rushed up the steps with a smile.

The pair left behind turned bright red as they watched him go, and caught his mocking grin.

"How... how did he know?" stuttered Ron, who earned an incredulous glance from Hermione.

"Do you really think Harry's an idiot?"

"Of course not!" was his defensive answer.

"Well then! Harry's our best friend, Ron. Did you think he wouldn't notice?"

Ron had obviously not thought this out, and his blush wasn't fading. Apparently they could fool the others, but not Harry. When he thought about it, he could recall a lot of flimsy excuses from Harry that had given the two of them time alone. Harry'd probably known from the start.

He looked wide-eyed at Hermione. "Hermione, Harry needs a girlfriend!"

Hermione might have agreed, but she rolled her eyes and murmured, "I don't think he'd like it if we interfered. He'll have to take care of that himself."

Ron had to admit that she was right.

Next Chapter:

Part 1. The Calm Before the Storm

Chapter 3. One Last Breath