Chapter Twenty-Four


Dudley Dursley's piggish eyes gleamed greedily as piles of food were set on the table in front of him. His mouth began watering immediately, and before he was even invited to join anyone for the meal, Severus Snape found the large boy sitting beside him in seconds, shoveling heaping amounts of anything within his reach onto the previously empty plate at his now occupied spot at the table.

Severus sneered distastefully at the rather large boy, and wondered why he was not the least bit suspicious about the magical people surrounding him. He seemed rather curious, in fact, which was quite odd, since his parents despised everything out of the ordinary, and had brought him up to be the same.

At the end of the rather uncomfortable meal, Dudley leaned back in his seat and let loose a loud belch. Snape glared nastily at the large boy, his crooked nose wrinkled in disgust as he attempted to scoot away.

"Where's Harry?" Dudley demanded loudly, piggish eyes going suspiciously from Snape to Dumbledore to Tonks and Mrs. Weasley, and back again.

Draco had yet to return from the task the young Granger girl had given him, and though it probably was not safe for him to be away from Number 12, he would be at Hogwarts, which was the safest place the boy could be.

Snape glared at Dumbledore, eyebrow cocked condescendingly.

"That lady," Dudley said, pointing accusingly at Tonks, whose eyes widened in surprise. "Said that Harry would be here. Where is he?"

Tonks sighed and slapped herself over the head with an open palm. Dumbledore watched her over his half moon spectacles, eyes twinkling merrily and a smile playing with the corners of his mouth. Snape turned his condescending smirk towards Tonks, and Mrs. Weasley watched the four other occupants of the room curiously.

"He's at school," Tonks said after an awkward silence, in which Dudley continued to glare accusingly at her, his piggish eyes mere slits on his large, puffy face.

"Where's that?" Dudley demanded, slamming his large, fleshy fists on the table to punctuate his sentence.

Tonks looked at the other occupants of the room pleadingly, swiping her blonde hair out of her face in annoyance.

Dumbledore cleared his throat meaningfully, and Dudley's attention focused on him quickly, blanching slightly in realization that this was the wizard who had visited his home only a year before.

"I believe," Dumbledore began, eyes sparkling merrily. "That you should be the one answering a few questions, first."

Dudley swallowed visibly, hunching down in his chair as if hoping that it would swallow him up.

Ron glanced up from his Quidditch magazine at Ginny curiously, as she shot out of the Gryffindor common room, wondering where she was off to in such a rush. They had just returned from Hogsmead, alone, as Hermione had begged off, on the pretext of being sick, and Harry was off somewhere doing Merlin-knows-what.

"Oi, Ginny!" He called after. Her footsteps barely faltered as she turned around and rushed back into the room, hair flying in all directions and freckled cheeks flushed.

"Yes?" she asked, panting. She looked as though she was itching to get somewhere, and Ron was curious as to what she was doing.

"Where are you off to in such a rush?" he asked, eyebrows rising accusingly.

Ginny sighed in a huff, and glared heatedly at her brother. "Hermione wasn't in the girls' rooms. You haven't seen her, have you?" she asked, eyes sparkling with hope. "I have a question about my, er…Transfigurations homework. I was wondering if, er…she could go over it for me." Ginny beamed proudly at her excuse, and hoped that her brother would take it at face value.

"I can look it over," Ron said, eyes gleaming suspiciously.

Ginny blanched. "Er, no, that's okay. Hermione's got a…uh, better eye for these types of things, you know that. I'd much rather she does it, Ron. No offence,"

"It's not that important, is it?" Ron asked, eyebrows furrowed in confusion. "Today's Saturday, Ginny. Homework isn't due for at least another day and a half."

Ginny huffed once more. "Unlike you, Ronald, some of us like to have our things done correctly, on time." With that, she turned on her heel and rushed out of the room.

"Hey!" Ron called, cheeks flushed and ear tips red as he craned his neck to angle his shout out of the portrait hole after her. "My homework gets done on time!"

He was met by the sound of Ginny's footsteps as she rushed down the corridor, ignoring him completely. With a huff, he looked back down at the magazine, although his interest in the latest brooms was no longer there.

Hermione was busily searching through all the books she could find on a spell that would perhaps undo the mistake that she had made. She was on the fifth one with no luck, when Ginny burst into the room.

"Hermione!" she shouted, and blushed sheepishly when the hawk-like Madam Pince shot a deathly glower in her direction. With her voice lowered to a mere whisper, Ginny seated herself across from Hermione, cheeks flushed and her breath coming in uneven pants. "Hermione, I need your help,"

Hermione's eyebrows furrowed, and she shot a narrow-eyed gaze at Ginny.

"What do you need my help with?" Hermione hissed back, carefully closing the book in front of her and adding it to the ever-increasing stack of books that held no hope.

Ginny, cheeks already red as could be, could feel her face burning, and hoped that Hermione couldn't tell that she was actually blushing. "What are you looking for?" she asked, (1)feigning interest so that she could collect her thoughts.

Hermione's eyes widened, and her cheeks turned pink. "Nothing!" she hissed, flinging her book-bag onto the stack of books to cover the title of the first volume, and causing the tower of tomes to teeter dangerously.

Ginny blinked, but pretended not to notice the protectively pained look on Hermione's face.

Hermione cleared her throat after a short bout of awkward silence. "You needed my help?" she reminded Ginny attentively, her stance stiff and her fists clenched.

Ginny's eyes flashed momentarily, then she shook her head. "Oh, never mind. It wasn't important."

Hermione blinked, and Ginny stood. "Never mind. I'll, er, ask you later, when you're not so busy." With that, Ginny turned and left the library slowly, directing an apologetic look towards the disgruntled librarian before she left, the heavy wooden door shutting silently behind her.

Twenty minutes later, Hermione was still at it. With a final sigh, she slammed yet another book down on the table and cradled her head in her hands. It was useless - there was no way around the spell that had damned Lady Elizabeth to non-existence, and she was beginning to tire. Draco had to be getting weary of spending time with Harry, as well, and it was only a matter of time until Harry decided he was bored with Draco's games. Hermione could only hope that Draco had kept Harry distracted enough for Lady Elizabeth to figure out a way to avoid him…

Harry groaned as he pulled away from Draco. His eyes searing, he searched Draco's eyes for some hint of laughter or mocking, his shields already rising to defend himself. Draco's eyes showed only openness. Hissing, Harry yanked back, quickly disentangling himself from Draco, and crab crawling away from him as quickly as he could.

Draco watched Harry curiously. "Wha…what's wrong?" he asked after a moment of confusion. He was still panting from the earlier attack on his lips.

Harry shook his head and quickly climbed to his feet. "Don't you yank me along, Malfoy! I'm not some toy for you to parade about! This isn't right, and I'm stopping it right now, before it becomes something that it shouldn't."

With that, Harry turned hastily on his heel, only to stop dead in his tracks, eyes wide, as he turned slowly back around. "Lady…Elizabeth?"

Draco's eyes widened, and he, too, turned to face the fireplace. Looking above the hearth, he caught sight of the painted woman in question, and couldn't stifle the gasp that came upon seeing the letters stamped across her forehead.

Harry stood in a transfixed shock, staring blindly at the painting as his eyes welled with tears. "Who did you tell?" he demanded. Then, he glared at Draco. "It was you, wasn't it?" he spat, eyes glinting hatefully.

Draco shook his head, eyes wide and vulnerable. "No!" he denied. "It wasn't, I swear! I was here with you the whole time! How could I have gotten…whatever it was that she told…how could I have gotten it out of her!"

Harry glanced up at Lady Elizabeth, and he blinked at the ashamed look on her face. "Harry," she called softly…so softly, in fact, that Harry nearly didn't hear her. "It wasn't Draco. It…it was not anyone you know. I just…I could not carry around your load any more, Harry. It was too much for me - I needed someone to help me with it. Someone to help me help you." Harry watched in astonishment as painted tears rolled down her cheeks, making them shine in the false light the painting offered for her.

Harry stared at her stiffly, eyes burning, and pain visible completely. "I…I'm sorry." Harry whispered softly.

Lady Elizabeth sighed and looked down in resignation. "Harry-"

"I shouldn't have burdened you with my problems, and I'm sorry!" Harry cried, startling both Draco and Lady Elizabeth as tears began welling in his eyes and he tried to contain himself.

"Harry, it wasn't-" Lady Elizabeth tried once again to say something, but Harry was not listening. He had turned on his heel and was rushing from the room as quickly as he could. "Harry, wait!"

Harry ignored her, opening the door and shutting it with a soft click behind him.

Draco looked between the portrait of a very distressed looking Lady Elizabeth, and the heavy door that had just shut. Eyebrow furrowed, he sighed heavily. "Lady Elizabeth…" he began, but trailed off and shook his head, knowing that what he was going to say would not be taken very well. "I…I'm going to go get him." With that, he, too, turned on his heel and rushed from the room.

Lady Elizabeth looked mournfully after him, but was silent…until the full blow of his words registered. Fright lodging itself in her mind, she rushed from her portrait, and managed to frighten a bunch of monks in the portrait in the corridor as she rushed after his retreating back. "Draco, come back!" she cried. She knew it was useless and that he was determined, but she had to try to stop him. It was already dangerous enough. Why did the boy want to die an early death?

She rushed through portraits, most of whose inhabitants she had known for quite some time. She pushed past people blocking her way, and rudely shouted at them if they refused to budge. Frantically, she cried after Draco, but he did not seem to notice. However, everyone else within hearing distance did.

It all started with a young Hufflepuff girl - presumably a third year. At hearing the name "Draco", she had spun around just in time to see said boy's platinum head disappearing around a corner. She screamed as loud as she could, proceeded to drop her books, and tripped over one as she tried to run away, resulting in her very unfortunate connection with the wall, where she hit her head and was knocked unconscious.

Several of her fellow classmates stopped to see what the commotion was, but were quickly disturbed from their fussing over the young girl as yet another scream ripped through the halls. A commotion at the other end of the corridor drew everyone's attention, as a swarm of students stampeded away from something that had quite literally scared the pee out of quite a few of them.

Pandemonium soon followed, and the girl who had fallen was forgotten as people struggled to get away from whatever had frightened them so badly. The poor girl's unconscious body ended up being trampled by quite a few feet, and although she turned out to be okay in the future, she suffered from three cracked ribs, a broken nose, and a fractured arm, not to mention many cuts and bruises.

It was later said by many people that Draco had thrown "Crucio" at her before running in fright, after she had bravely, although unsuccessfully tried to stop him from destroying everyone in the school.

(1)Feigning - Pretending, a false act, etc.