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Harry Potter and the Psychic Serpent

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Chapter Thirty-One

Legacy

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"Do you have a verdict?"

Eustace Bean's voice rang out in the stone chamber. The witch standing and holding the sheaf of parchment swallowed and looked at Lucius Malfoy, who gazed at her with a malevolence that made her turn ashen and shake even more, though she managed to remain upright. Through her shaking and fear she was finally able to speak.

"We do."

A low rumble moved through the room, growing louder before dying out again, until there was silence once more. The witch cleared her throat and read:

"Charge one: Illegally training an underage wizard to Apparate. The defendant is found guilty and ordered to pay the Improper Use of Magic Office and the Department of Magical Transportation each a fine of one thousand Galleons.

"Charge two: Conspiring in the initiation of Draco Malfoy into the Death Eaters. The defendant is found guilty, sentenced to three years in Azkaban.

"Charge three: Conspiring in Draco Malfoy being place under Cruciatus: The defendant is found guilty, sentenced to three years in Azkaban.

"Charge four: Conspiring to conceal the murder of Igor Karkaroff. The defendant is found guilty, sentenced to three years in Azkaban.

"Charges five through nine and charges twenty-four and twenty-five, appended at the prisoner's request: Recruiting Penelope Clearwater, Marcus Flint, Percy Weasley, Roger Davies, Harry Potter, Ronald Weasley and Hermione Granger to be Death Eaters. The defendant is found guilty, sentenced to fourteen years in Azkaban.

"Charges ten through fifteen: conspiracy to murder Beryl Clearwater, Reginald Clearwater, Wilmer Clearwater, Jeremy Clearwater, Aurelia Flint and Letitia Carpenter. The defendant is found guilty and sentenced to eighteen years in Azkaban and required to liquidate all assets to be divided among the heirs of the deceased.

"Charge sixteen: Placing Cho Chang under Imperius. The defendant is found guilty and sentenced to life in Azkaban.

Charges seventeen and eighteen: Placing Kathryn Bell and Alicia Spinnet under Imperius. And charge nineteen: Administering a potion to Hermione Granger that acts like Imperius. The jury recommends that these three charges be suspended and reviewed at a later date pending the trials of Matthias Avery and Gunther Nott.

"Charges twenty through twenty-two: Kidnapping and detaining Ronald Weasley, Hermione Granger and Harry Potter. The defendant is found guilty and sentenced to nine years in Azkaban and ordered to pay Mr. Weasley, Miss Granger and Mr. Potter one thousand Galleons each.

"Charge twenty-three: Placing the Cruciatus Curse on Ronald Weasley. The defendant is found guilty and sentenced to life in Azkaban."

A low murmur moved through the chamber again as those assembled considered the consequences of Lucius Malfoy's actions. Hermione had been doing the calculations in her head. "That's fifty years plus two life sentences, as well as the fines and the liquidation of the assets," she whispered to Ron and Harry. "They didn't go easy on him." She was smiling, looking at the witch who had read out the verdicts and sentences. Harry also looked at the jury; he wanted to memorize every face on it, imprint them on his mind forever. We must choose between what is right and what is easy. He looked at Lucius Malfoy, who glared at Eustace Bean, not looking happy. Ha, Harry thought. His Ministry connections failed him. Even Cornelius Fudge can't help you now, Malfoy.

He heard a wail and Narcissa Malfoy ran from the chamber, a handkerchief held over her face in anguish. Lucius Malfoy did not look at her. Harry leaned forward and raised his eyebrows at Draco Malfoy, who whispered, "It's the liquidation of assets thing." He smiled. "She needn't have told me not to come back to Malfoy Manor. Looks like she won't be going back either—at least, not for long." Harry nodded. She would be destitute, no money or home. Harry wasn't sure Draco Malfoy should look so gleeful about this, but then his mother had just disowned him and recommended that he kill himself.

When the murmur died down again Cornelius Fudge stood. "As the Minister of Magic," he said, "I suspend Mr. Malfoy's life sentences, inasmuch as he has given us the names of Matthias Avery and Gunther Nott, who will be tried for murder. The fines will stand. I also suspend half of the other sentences."

Eustace Bean glared at Fudge and Harry looked sideways at Dumbledore, who seemed utterly unsurprised. That left Malfoy with twenty-five years in Azkaban. He would be sixty-seven upon leaving. Considering how long wizards live, Harry thought, looking at Dumbledore, that still left him more than half his life to live after that. The beauty of a life sentence being placed on a wizard, Harry thought, was that his life was very, very long. Could Fudge just do this?

There was not just a murmur in the chamber; there threatened to be a riot. But evidently, Fudge had the right to do this. Harry supposed it was a lucky thing that he hadn't pardoned Malfoy outright. Perhaps that was a gesture to appear to be fair and impartial. Harry was convinced that, come what may, Fudge had to be ousted from his post. This was a travesty of justice. Suspending the life sentences!

He turned to see Ron's face. Oddly, he was beaming. "What's wrong with you?" Harry whispered, unsure whether he'd be heard in the hubbub.

"A thousand Galleons," Ron said simply, grinning. "And I didn't have to be a Triwizard Champion," he laughed. "I just had to get myself kidnapped." Harry also laughed. Trust Ron to see it in those terms. He would finally have a little money. That was nice for him. Harry didn't care about the money. He cared about Fudge cutting Malfoy's years in prison down to a mere twenty-five. He cared about Fudge's motivations. Fudge gave Harry a cold look, which Harry returned. I will not look away. This cowardly little wizard will not make me take back what I said about Voldemort returning, as much as he wants to deny it.

Fudge looked away first. The door in the corner opened again and the dementors returned to take Lucius Malfoy to Azkaban. He still looked oddly cheerful, and Bean remarked on this.

"May I remind you that you are going to Azkaban?" he growled.

Malfoy smiled cockily. "Do you think Azkaban can hold me, when it is guarded by the natural allies of the Dark Lord? I may be there for a while, but only for a while…"

He was still smiling as they dragged him out. Harry's heart thudded painfully in his chest. He turned to Dumbledore, who nodded. "That," he said to Harry, "is why I do not like the idea of their running Azkaban. I never liked it. I fear that we may soon regret it."

The courtroom decorum was fast evaporating as the jury moved to leave and reporters jostled each other, trying to reach them. Then a reporter's face was mere inches from Harry's, asking him something about Hewhomustnotbenamed. The reporter said it very fast. Dumbledore looked at her and said firmly, "No comment."

He and Moody got them out of the room and down the corridor. Harry peered over his shoulder; the Weasleys were following. When they reached the circular room with the portals, Dumbledore led them into one labeled MMAO, which Harry realized meant Misuse of Muggle Artifacts Office. Mr. Weasley's office. And Percy's, since he worked for his dad. Mr. Weasley led them to his untidy office, walled off from the larger workspace. His door had frosted glass labeled simply, "A. Weasley."

Mrs. Weasley hugged Ron and Ginny once they were in the office, then Harry and Hermione, and finally, hesitating only a moment, Draco Malfoy, who actually got some color in his face, although it faded quickly. Her husband led her to his desk chair, where she sat wearily, his hand on her shoulder. Harry looked around; it was very similar to the office of the headmaster of the school he'd attended before Hogwarts. There was the large desk, the swiveling chair behind it, some hard wooden chairs before it for visitors, and rows of filing cabinets on each side of the room. Perhaps because of his love of all things Muggle, Mr. Weasley had consciously decided to mimic a typical Muggle office (albeit one from about forty years earlier).

Harry had unfortunately been sent to the headmaster's office multiple times for things that he did not understand, such as being on the roof of the school while being chased by Dudley and his gang. He'd had no control over these things and had no plausible explanation, so he would sit in the large, hard chair before the headmaster's desk and look back at him, wide eyed and innocent, but seeming, no doubt, like an incorrigible little troublemaker to the stern man before him.

Harry did not miss those days. As dangerous as it was to be him, he knew that, deep down, he was far happier being a wizard than a boy who did not know he was a wizard, oppressed by his family and teachers and headmaster, and miserably missing his parents every day as he lived in a cupboard under the stairs.

He continued to look around Mr. Weasley's office. A window on the wall behind the desk showed a view of the Burrow. "It's like another portal," Mr. Weasley explained when he saw Harry puzzling at it. "Except it's just a view. I can't go through and be in the garden at home. I could choose any view I like; I chose this one."

"Why didn't you ever bring us to work, Dad?" Ron asked. His father looked odd.

"I've brought you to work, surely? Of course I have."

"No, you haven't," Ginny agreed with Ron.

"Nor the twins," Ron added.

"Well, he brought me," Charlie said. "And Bill. I was ten and Bill was twelve. I met you," he said to Moody, nodding.

Moody eyed him shrewdly. "That's right. You were just a lad. And I also saw your—"

"Ah!" Mrs. Weasley screamed. Everyone stared at her. She leapt to her feet and looked terrified. "I mean, I mean—" she faltered before turning to the view of the Burrow. "Look at the weeds in the garden! And the gnomes just running about like they own the place!" She turned to Ron and Ginny. "I'll have plenty of work for you two and the twins when the term is over."

Harry looked at the view of the Burrow, thinking that her reaction to the garden was very strange. He didn't see any gnomes. He also thought it was a nice view for Mr. Weasley to have in his office. Mrs. Weasley had calmed down. He looked around the office some more, at some wizard photos on the walls that showed the Weasley family, the children at different stages in their lives. He smiled at a photo of Ron and Ginny playing in the garden with George and Fred. Ginny couldn't have been more than four, Ron five and the twins seven. They smiled and waved, the wind lifting their red hair slightly. Then Harry felt another presence beside him and turned to see Draco Malfoy looking at the same picture. Ginny and Ron and Hermione had been in earlier and seen everything; they were chatting excitedly with the older Weasley brothers and Mr. Weasley about the verdict.

"I wish," Harry said softly, "I'd grown up with them. The Weasleys. I wish Ron hadn't just become my best friend when I was eleven."

Malfoy nodded. "I've never had a real friend." He also spoke softly. The others were making a lot of noise, ignoring them.

"What? There's Crabbe and Goyle."

He grimaced. "They're just kids of my dad's friends. We all got thrown together all the time. Didn't have much choice. They were easy to boss around, not being too bright. I couldn't actually talk to them. I don't just—um—what I mean to say about Ginny is—"

"You talk. You're also friends. That's good."

"I feel like I can tell her almost anything."

"Almost?"

"Well, there are some things she doesn't need me to tell her."

"Such as when your hormones are completely out of control? Yeah, she can probably work that out when she's standing facing you with a chair in one hand and a whip in the other."

A lopsided smile and a faraway look crept across his face. "Ginny with a whip. There's an image…"

Harry laughed softly and shook his head. "I should expect it by now, but you always surprise me, Malfoy."

"Thank you, thank you very much."

Ginny joined them and put her arm through Malfoy's, putting her head on his shoulder. She nodded at the picture of her with Ron and the twins.

"Ron's fifth birthday. Mum always did parties in the garden. We'd play at throwing the garden gnomes over the wall and such. It's strange being at school for our birthdays since starting at Hogwarts. And the loneliest year of my life was when Ron went to school and I was the only one left at home." Harry had never thought of that before. Just Ginny and her mother and father. It did sound lonely.

Harry sighed. "I wish my birthday happened at school. Spending my birthday with the Dursleys is one of the most depressing things in the world."

Malfoy didn't speak. Ginny kissed his cheek lightly. "Your birthday is coming soon, Draco. What do you usually do?"

He swallowed. "I used to get to do whatever I wanted." Harry realized that Ginny had been unintentionally tactless to ask him about this when he no longer had a home or family to speak of. She covered her mouth.

"Oh, Draco, that was so stupid of me."

He shook his head. "I'll get used to it. Eventually. There are a lot of things I'll probably do automatically, before realizing that I can't, or shouldn't. It'll take a while."

She put her head back on his shoulder and Harry looked back and forth between Ginny and her younger self. He smiled. "You haven't changed much since the age of four, have you, Gin?"

She looked a bit miffed. "I hope I have."

"I mean your face. It's impossible not to know that that's you." He nodded at the photo. She still had the same snub childish nose covered in freckles, the same large brown eyes, the same thin, pale face under the mop of flaming hair. Hermione suddenly appeared at his elbow, and also put her arm through his, as Ginny had done with Malfoy.

"What are we talking about?"

"Whether we've changed since that photo was taken," Ginny said, nodding at it. Hermione looked.

"We saw that one earlier. Weren't they all so cute! The boys have changed a lot, don't you think?"

Harry looked at her for a moment, then at the waving Ron and George and Fred. At that age, the three boys looked far more similar than they did now. All three had the bright red hair and freckles. Ron's nose wasn't as long as it was when Harry met him; it was closer to being like Ginny's. Fred and George were laughing; they were each missing some teeth, but different ones.

"Fred and George didn't lose the same teeth at the same time?"

"Mum loved that. For a while she could actually tell them apart." Ginny smiled. Harry moved farther along the wall, taking Hermione with him. Ginny and Draco followed. Here was a photo of Percy without glasses and one of the twins, Harry didn't know which. The two of them were playing in the sand on a beach at about the ages of eight and ten.

Harry pointed at it. "Is that Fred or George? And where's everyone else?"

Ginny looked uncomfortable and swallowed. "That's Bill and Charlie. Probably about two years before Percy was born. Over twenty years ago." Harry frowned; why was she acting odd? And he'd never thought about the large age difference between Charlie and Percy. Charlie and Bill were ten and twelve when Percy was born. That meant…

"Ginny—Bill and Charlie—when they were in school—did they know my mum and dad?" Ginny nodded. She didn't look like she wanted to talk. Harry thought quickly; if Bill was in his first year at Hogwarts in 1975, his mum and dad would have been in their fifth year. Prefects. A year before he saw his mum and Snape in the Potions Dungeon. Though perhaps that was at the end of their fifth year. And in their seventh year, Bill would have been in his third and Charlie in first.

He looked at Bill and Charlie in the photo, wondering why they'd never said anything to him. But then he thought about how much interaction he had with students four years younger than him. He probably had more contact with Will Flitwick than any of the others, only because he felt Will was a friend now, after the way he'd stood up for him in the Great Hall. It seemed strange to be standing so close to people who'd gone to school with his parents who weren't people he thought of as adults. He knew that technically, they were adults—Bill was thirty-two and Charlie was thirty. They just didn't seem much like other adults. But then, they'd grown up during Voldemort's first reign of terror. Perhaps they felt that some of their childhood had been taken from them and they weren't ready to settle down yet.

Then he came upon a picture of two little red-haired girls who looked remarkably like Ginny, except that they had blue eyes. They sat beside a Christmas tree with Bill and Charlie, recognizable from the seaside photo. They were all laughing as they opened presents. Bill and Charlie seemed a little older than in the beach photo, maybe fourteen and twelve, while the girls seemed to be around six and eight.

"Who are they?"

"Cousins," Hermione told him. "Ron told me earlier. They were visiting for the holidays. That was the year the twins were born, before Ron and Ginny came along."

Harry nodded. "Well, you can tell they're Weasleys. What are they called?"

Ginny looked uncomfortable again and turned to Professor Dumbledore. "Professor—do you think it's safe yet? To get past the reporters? Don't we have to get a train back?"

Dumbledore looked down at Ginny kindly. "Quite right, Miss Weasley. The five of you will probably need to sleep on the train. The dining car will be in place, so you can have a nice dinner before that."

Harry wondered why Ginny was uncomfortable about the photo of her cousins. They weren't much younger than Bill and Charlie, so they'd be adults now. Had they gone bad? Were they the family shame? He looked at Malfoy, who seemed as uncomfortable about it as Ginny. Whatever it is, it looks like Ginny's told Malfoy about it. He definitely did not look ignorant.

They said goodbye to the Weasleys and followed Dumbledore back to the wall that Malfoy hadn't been able to penetrate. After that they returned to the place where they'd originally come through from the station, the wall with POTTER on the other side. Lucius Malfoy thought Azkaban couldn't hold him while it was run by dementors, and Voldemort had marked the entrance to the Ministry of Magic with an indelible kind of graffiti. Harry should have felt like a lot was resolved, but he didn't. Wormtail was still on the loose, and until he was caught, Sirius had to still be on the run too. The Death Eaters still had it out for Snape, and probably now Draco Malfoy as well. Many problems were solved, yet many remained.

As the train pulled out of the station Harry watched the POTTER on the wall until it disappeared from view.

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The following week, Harry felt like his head was going to explode from simultaneously preparing for the O.W.L.s and the final Quidditch match of the year. The match was Saturday; then he would have another week to stuff things into his brain before taking the O.W.L.s. He despaired of surviving it all. Suddenly taking on dark wizards seemed like the easiest thing he'd done all year. And after exams, there was the Dueling Club demonstration. He felt like curling up in a little ball in a cave and hibernating.

After spending what felt like a solid week on his broomstick (and being very thankful for broomstick cushioning charms), the day of the match dawned sunny and fair. Everyone was in good health, so Ginny would be able to sit in the stands and watch the rest of them play. Harry thought briefly of feigning illness himself so that she could play; somehow, he felt it would be much more of a sure thing with her playing Seeker. He also wasn't certain how ruthless he could be against Cho Chang; it was because of him that she'd been in an enchanted sleep for forty days. (Malfoy was really to blame, but it was indirectly because of Harry.) He tried to get over this thought and remind himself that the Ravenclaw captain was Roger Davies; beating Roger was something he could get behind. Roger probably wanted his last Quidditch match as captain to be one for the record books. Harry knew he'd be facing a very determined Head Boy.

The Slytherin/Ravenclaw match had been an intense one, with the combination of Liam Quirke and Evan Davies as Beaters wreaking havoc with the Slytherin Chasers (who still scored quite a lot), such that the Ravenclaw Chaser combination of Mandy Brocklehurst, Padma Patil and Niamh Quirke had racked up three-hundred fifty points to Slytherin's two-hundred and forty before Malfoy caught the Snitch, making the final Slytherin score a whopping three-hundred ninety. As a result, even though they only scored in two out of their three games, Slytherin was in the lead for the cup with seven-hundred points, and Ravenclaw was second with five-hundred sixty. That meant that all Ravenclaw had to do was get the Snitch and they would have ten points more than Slytherin and win the Quidditch cup. Gryffindor needed one-hundred ninety to win the cup.

The Gryffindor team rose early and went running together, as Harry had had them do before. Hermione came along but Ginny did not. Afterward, when they entered the Great Hall in their team robes, the other Gryffindors and the Hufflepuffs cheered for them, while the Slytherins reserved their support for Ravenclaw. Interesting, thought Harry. They'll do anything to not support Gryffindor, won't they?

After breakfast the entire population of the school flowed down to the Quidditch pitch. There were already some families there who had made a special trip to see the match. The Weasleys were much in evidence, waving to the twins and Ron, as well as Harry. He waved back, smiling, glad to be friendly with them again, hoping he wouldn't humiliate himself with Charlie Weasley watching.

Draco Malfoy sat near Snape on the other side of the stands, no one else within a stone's throw of them. Then that changed; the Scottish girl who'd asked him out nodded at the place on the other side of Malfoy. He raised his brows and nodded, letting her sit. She wasn't bad looking, with wiry black hair and dark eyes, rather pale but slightly freckled, and a bit on the thin side. Malfoy seemed surprised. Harry started to wonder whether the Sorting Hat could have made a mistake with her and Malfoy.

Harry and Roger Davies walked to the middle of the pitch with their teams and Madam Hooch. They shook hands, Harry looking into Roger's eyes, trying to tell what he was thinking. Roger looked back malevolently, making Harry shudder involuntarily. All right, he thought. That's how it is. No quarter.

Madam Hooch blew her whistle and fifteen broomsticks rose into the air. Lee Jordan's magically magnified voice announced, "And it's the last Quidditch match of the year! This will decide whether the Quidditch Cup will go to—" he paused meaningfully "—Gryffff-indor—" much cheering from the crowd as he drew out the house name. "Ravenclaw," he said derisively, as if it were ludicrous, "or those bounders in Slytherin," he sneered with feeling.

"Jordan!" Professor McGonagall admonished him. He straightened and continued his commentary, watching her out of the corner of his eye.

"And Gryffindor captain Harry Potter is in fine form on his Firebolt today, while much of the rest of the team is on excellent Nimbus 2001s. I see the Ravenclaw Seeker is still poking along on a Cleansweep—and Gryffindor Chaser Katie Bell passes to Johnson, Johnson swerves a Bludger hit by Ravenclaw thug Evan Davies—"

"Jordan—"

"I mean Ravenclaw Beater Evan Davies, while Chaser Alicia Spinnet takes the Quaffle and—YES! Gryffindor, ten, Ravenclaw, zero! As the Head Girl gives the Head Boy what-for!"

Roger Davies glowered at Alicia after she flung the Quaffle through the far right goal; he was about to move there when he realized she wasn't aiming for the far left, but he was too late. Alicia gave him a smug smile and raced off with Katie while Angelina took possession of the Quaffle, only to lose it to Niamh Quirke.

"Oi! And Chaser Quirke of Ravenclaw intercepts a pass Chaser Johnson meant for Katie Bell! Nice bit of cheating there."

"Jordan…"

"And—there! Stooging! The Ravenclaw Chasers are Stooging! Penalty to Gryffindor!"

Lee was right; Niamh and Mandy were in the scoring area in front of the Gryffindor goals at the same time, so it mattered not that Ron had easily prevented the Quaffle from entering the center goal. Madam Hooch blew her whistle and collected the Quaffle from Ron. Harry decided that Angelina should take the penalty; she was their best feinter when taking penalty shots, most likely to fool Roger Davies. Sure enough, she succeeded in making him zip toward the wrong goal.

"Gryffindor TWENTY, Ravenclaw ZERO!" Jordan called out gleefully. "That's where Stooging will get you!" Professor McGonagall also looked a bit smugly in Professor Flitwick's direction, not admonishing Lee this time.

Harry flew a little above the rest of the players, scanning the field for the Snitch at the same time he was keeping an eye on the Bludgers Liam and Evan were hitting. He saw that Cho Chang was marking him, as was her usual strategy, and he gave her a feeble smile before focusing grimly on the pitch once more. Fred and George were giving as good as they were getting, but it was starting to look like someone would end up in the hospital wing.

He had no idea how close to right he was until Liam Quirke did a Bludger Backbeat just as Alicia, Katie and Angelina were heading toward the Ravenclaw goals with the Quaffle again, sending the iron ball behind him, directly toward where the Gryffindor supporters were sitting. There was a hue and cry as spectators scrambled to get out of the way. Will Flitwick narrowly avoided being hit; splintered wood flew after the heavy ball hit the seat where he'd been moments before, and Madam Hooch blew her whistle hysterically while Jordan shouted expletives that would normally have resulted in a reprimand by McGonagall, except that she was now using quite surprising language directed at Liam Quirke and examining young Will for damage. Even Professor Flitwick was on his feet shouting at Liam.

"That's my great-nephew, you sodding yob!" he cried; which was strong language indeed for the little wizard.

"Right!" Jordan went on with the commentary once he'd got the bad language out of his system. "And because of Beater Quirke engaging in a dirty bit of Bumphing—which I also like to call cheating—another penalty to Gryffindor! Fat lot of good it did you to stop the game!" When Madam Hooch had blown her whistle, the Gryffindor Chasers had been forced to stop their drive to the Ravenclaw goalposts.

So Angelina took the Quaffle once more, but this time Roger Davies was ready and intercepted it before it could go through the center goal. He pulled back his arm and flung it in a long pass to Niamh Quirke so she could speed toward Ron, who was glaring at her as he hovered before the goals. She sent the ball flying toward the right goal and Ron handily picked it out of the air, his long arm reaching for it effortlessly. Not missing a beat, he reared back and passed it to Katie, who, with Angelina and Alicia formed an arrowhead pattern, flying toward the Ravenclaw goalposts.

"And the Gryffindor Chasers move into the classic Hawkshead Attacking Formation, scattering the Ravenclaw players. Careful to avoid Stooging, now, now now NOW! Yes! Katie Bell scores! Gryffindor THIRTY, Ravenclaw STILL ZERO! That's my girl!" Lee ducked his head as McGonagall turned to him in surprise, speechless about this last exclamation. Harry smiled as he scanned the field. He'd suspected as much, since that first match when Ginny had had to step in for Katie.

There. He saw it. The Snitch was half-way up the far left Gryffindor goalpost. He looked away, hoping Cho Chang hadn't seen it; he moved toward the center of the field, hoping she would follow. If she caught it, Ravenclaw would win the cup; if he caught it now, they would win the match, but not the cup. At least not technically; they would share the cup with Slytherin, tied with seven-hundred points each.

They would share the cup with Slytherin.

He pushed out of his head the horrible consequences of saying to Cedric, We'll take the cup together. Suddenly, Harry knew what he was going to do. With a glance at Cho to make certain she'd believed his feint away from the Gryffindor goalposts, he made a sudden about face and sped toward the Snitch, still hovering there. He turned his head for a split second, looking toward Malfoy. Malfoy was looking straight back, his mouth open in disbelief. Harry turned toward the Snitch once more, hoping that his usually fine Chasers were not scoring again as he came nearer and nearer.

"The Gryffindor Chasers are nearing their quarry again. But what's this? Seeker and Captain Harry Potter is closing in on the Snitch! Hurry up girls, score again before he touches it! Oh, no! No NO NO! He has the Snitch! Potter has the Snitch! Gryffindor wins the match—and Gryffindor and Slytherin will share the Quidditch Cup!"

Harry flew around the field, the Snitch over his head. Most of the Gryffindors looked shell-shocked and disappointed. Only Hermione and Ginny were standing and clapping on their side of the stands. On the other side, the Slytherins were equally surprised. Malfoy, Snape and the Scottish girl were standing and clapping. Snape glared at the other Slytherins, and slowly, they all stood as well and clapped, lackadaisically at first, then with a growing enthusiasm as they perhaps realized that this was the only way they would get anything. Ten more points for Gryffindor would be a clean win, and if Ravenclaw had won the match, there was no way Slytherin would have got anything either.

McGonagall looked toward Snape and Malfoy, and with an expression of understanding on her face, she smiled at Harry and also stood to clap. Her glare at the other Gryffindors brought them to their feet as well. Harry flew to the center of the pitch, smiling up at Ginny and Hermione, who clearly understood why he'd done it. When he landed he met Dumbledore's eye as well, twinkling at him. This time it won't go wrong, he thought. Not unless that damn cup is also a Portkey.

But it was definitely not a Portkey. Harry stood facing Roger, each with their team behind them, and they shook hands. Roger looked resentful, but he grasped Harry's hand with his chin up, every bit Head Boy. Then Dumbledore summoned Draco Malfoy and the Slytherin team to the field, and Harry and Malfoy each grasped a handle on the Quidditch Cup and held it aloft, as the students on both sides of the pitch now roared their approval. Malfoy grinned, no smiled at Harry, the first genuine smile from Malfoy that Harry had ever seen directed at him. He smiled back, feeling his smile grow broader as they lowered their hands and gave the cup back to Dumbledore's care (so he could magically etch the year and winning house names on the base). Hermione was pushing her way through the crowd, her eyes locked with Harry's, and he knew before she reached him what would happen, and he didn't care.

She threw her arms around him and he drew her to him for a deep kiss. A new roar of approval went up from the crowd and Hermione colored, burying her face in his neck, smiling happily. But the crowd really got a shock when Ginny threw her arms around Malfoy and did the same. Suddenly Harry didn't know where the ground was, and it was because he had been lifted bodily above the crowd, as was Malfoy. The Slytherins seemed to be beyond caring about anything else he'd done recently—they were co-winners of the cup!

As they were borne back to the castle for a joint celebration in the Great Hall—so the winning houses could celebrate together—Harry saw Viktor in the stands, his arm around Cho's shoulder. They both smiled and each raised a silent hand to him, reminding Harry of how he'd bidden Hermione goodbye on September first. He raised a hand to them as well, while the crowd carried him off the pitch and continued up the lawn. It's actually been a good year, he thought. There were a few bumps along the way (if you called being recruited to be a Death Eater a "bump") and he still had the O.W.L.s to take. But some things he'd set out to do had actually worked. Viktor and Cho. Lucius Malfoy in Azkaban. He was with Hermione, openly now. Ron was still their friend. Ginny and Draco Malfoy were happy together. And now he'd managed to do what he never thought he would want to do, and tied with Slytherin for the Quidditch Cup.

He grinned at Malfoy again. Maybe, Malfoy, you have a friend after all.

#/#/#

The celebration lasted much of the day. When Harry dragged himself up the marble steps in the middle of the afternoon, his arm comfortably settled around Hermione's shoulders, he felt like he could sleep until Monday morning. But he had one more thing to do this day, and he checked to see where the other Gryffindor team members were; Fred and Alicia were following behind, George and Angelina had already gone up, he remembered, and Katie and Lee were walking ahead of them. Ginny was behind Fred and Alicia; she and Malfoy walked with their arms around each other's waists. Every so often Fred peered over his shoulder at them, but he didn't look hostile, just big-brotherly.

When they reached the portrait hole, it had already been opened by George and Angelina, who held it for them. They all scrambled in, except for Ginny and Malfoy. He gave her a very chaste kiss on the cheek, clearly aware of her brothers' proximity. Harry called to him, "Come on in, Malfoy! There's something you'll want to know about." He looked up in surprise, but did not comment, following Ginny into the common room. Harry remembered the only other time (that he knew of) that Malfoy had been in their common room, when he'd caught him trying to meet with Ginny at midnight. It seemed a very long time ago.

Ron was sitting in a chair by the fire, quite exhausted, his small cat Argent curled contentedly on his lap, asleep. His eyes were closed as well. He had been first to come upstairs. The team surrounded him quietly, Angelina and Katie looking like it was a struggle not to giggle. Harry sprinted up to the dorm, retrieved a package from his trunk, and sped down to the common room again. He stood in front of Ron, who was still oblivious to the small crowd around him.

"Ron," Harry said, to wake him. He slept on. "Ron!" he tried again.

Grinning, Ginny reached out and shook him. "Ron!" she also said. "Time to wake up! Fleur Delacour is here for her date with you!" she laughed, and so did everyone else. Ron's eyes flew open in surprise, even more so when he saw all of them looking at him.

"Wha—?"

"Happy Birthday, Ron," Harry said, presenting Ron with the package from his trunk. Argent scrambled onto the arm of the chair, rubbing her head affectionately against Ron's arm. "What with one thing and another, I didn't have the chance to give this to you before. This seemed like an appropriate time."

Ron looked around at them all, then down at the package. He shrugged and pulled the paper off. It was the same book he had given Harry for Christmas: Great Quidditch Captains of Hogwarts, by Roderick Plumpton, III. He frowned and looked up at Harry. "You're giving me the book back?"

"No you—it's another copy. I bought it by owl post. That's just part of it. Check page 428."

He watched Ron turn to the table listing the greatest Quidditch captains of Hogwarts teams in the last century (in the author's humble opinion); he watched him scan down the column, past Charlie's name, then he saw the expression on Ron's face and knew he'd come to where Harry had written in by hand, "Ronald Weasley, Gryffindor."

"Blimey," he breathed softly. Ron swallowed and looked up at him, then round at all of them. "Captain?" he whispered. "But Harry—"

"But nothing. We've all agreed. You're the one who was really running the practices, coming up with the strategies. Which I of course scuttled, by catching the Snitch when I did." He smiled, glancing at Malfoy. "But I'm a lousy captain. It should be you, Ron. You know I'm right. You know we're all right."

Ron's mouth hung open as he looked at the book again, then back at Harry. "I don't know what to say."

"Just say you'll do it, Weasley," Malfoy drawled. "Else I'll never get out of here."

Everyone laughed, including Ron, and he nodded at Harry, looking quite choked up. He closed the book and put it on his lap again, picking up his cat and holding her close to him, smiling and petting her while multiple hands reached out to pat him on the back and say things like, "There's a good bloke…we'll come back to see you get the cup…once we're gone, you can have practices before sunrise…"

Later, Harry knew he should be revising for the O.W.L.s, but he pulled Hermione into a corner of the common room, sitting in a chair George and Angelina usually used that faced into the corner, creating a cozy refuge. He pulled her into his lap and she acquiesced, putting her arms around his shoulders, bringing her mouth to his. He felt a wave of happiness surge through him as they kissed more deeply, a contentment beyond anything he felt he deserved or ever thought he'd experience. He moved his hand up her leg, under her robes; now that it was June, she was wearing shorts and a T-shirt underneath, and he rested his hand comfortably on one of her thighs, feeling the warmth emanating from her skin.

She pulled her mouth gently from his, but it was only to move her lips to his neck. He opened his eyes, smiling, until he thought he saw a flash of red out of the corner of his eye.

"Ron?"

Silence. Ron walked slowly into the corner where they were sitting, looking abashed. "I, um, didn't mean to disturb you." His ears were quite pink. Harry realized that though the entire school had seen them kiss on the Quidditch pitch, Ron had never seen the two of them like this, touching and kissing privately. Harry bit his tongue, to avoid asking whether he'd been watching.

"You're not disturbing us. What is it?"

"I just wanted to—to thank you properly. You know, the captain thing."

Harry smiled. "You're welcome. Really. Quite welcome. It was driving me dotty."

Ron tried to smile back, but it looked difficult. Harry hoped he understood that he deserved it, that it wasn't charity. Ron could be so touchy sometimes. Harry had wondered whether he'd be able to convince him to take the position; he remembered Ron saying that in the Mirror of Erised, he was Head Boy and captain of the Quidditch Team…

"I'm going to make you work, you know." He smiled at Harry.

"You're the one who's going to have to work. You have two Chasers and two Beaters to replace."

"Correction: one Chaser and two Beaters. I'm not going to be Keeper anymore. Ginny's going to train for that. Not too far off from Seeker, after all. And Ginny says Zoey Russell is a good Chaser as well. So we could have her, perhaps, and I'll finally be a Chaser, like I wanted." Harry remembered his performance in the first match of the year; he was a fabulous Chaser. There'd be no stopping them with Ron in this position. He remembered seeing his dad playing…

"That just leaves the Beaters. What about Dean and Seamus?"

"Dean's hopeless. All he cares about is football. Seamus dragged him to the World Cup. And Seamus wants Lee's old job."

Harry laughed. "Think of the blarney he'll throw around."

"Too right! There's this fourth year I thought might be good for a Beater—I've seen him flying a bit. Ginny said he's called Anthony Perugia."

"Tony? Yeah, he's a good flyer. What about the other?"

"Well—what do you think about—Neville? Think he'd agree?"

Harry smiled. "Yeah. I really think he would."

"Hope so. Have you noticed how big he is now? Kind of snuck up on us all, didn't he?"

Harry agreed. Then Ron looked a bit embarrassed again. "Well, I'll leave you two alone again…"

"Oh, no, Ron!" Hermione said, standing. "Let's do something together, the three of us!" Ron and Harry looked at each other uncertainly. "Oh, you—" she sputtered. "I mean—let's go down to Hagrid's! Come on!" She headed for the portrait hole and they followed. Harry knew she didn't want to exclude Ron, but he realized that it would be a bit of a balancing act, having time together and with Ron as well. It will work itself out, he thought optimistically. They just had to get used to a new way of doing things. Everything would be all right.

#/#/#

Harry dragged himself into the dorm and threw himself onto the bed violently, but with relief.

"Ouch!" Sandy said suddenly.

"Sorry, Sandy. I'm just glad that that's over."

"What?"

"The O.W.L.s."

"Was it that bad?"

"Weren't you paying any attention?"

"I was asleep much of the time."

"Oh. Wish I could say the same. Wait—I was asleep for History of Magic and Astronomy…"

"Harry Potter?"

"What?"

"What are the O.W.L.s?"

"Very, very annoying examinations testing our magical knowledge and skills. Five years' worth, except for Care of Magical Creatures and Divination, which were three years' worth."

"Is it important?"

"Rather important. But I think I did well on most things."

Harry, Ron and Hermione had barely slept during the week after the Quidditch Cup. They didn't have to go to lessons. They were to spend the time preparing for the examinations, and Hermione made sure that's what they were doing every waking hour (which was far more hours than they should have been awake, in Harry's opinion). Most nights they dragged themselves upstairs at two or three in the morning, muscles moving toward the dorm on auto-pilot. One night they simply stayed where they were, Hermione sitting at one of the tables, her cheek on an Arithmancy text, snoring softly, while Harry sat beside her leaning on her shoulder. (He was rather appalled to discover that he'd drooled on her robes when he awoke in the morning.) Ron had slept spread-eagled on the hearthrug, his face on an Herbology text that was merely in close proximity to his brain, rather than part of the contents of it.

The following Monday morning, it began: they walked in the Potions dungeon and Snape started in on them. They spent the entire day brewing potions and writing essays and taking examinations about potions ingredients and counter-indications and poison antidotes. Potions took longer than any of their other examinations because of the need to wait for things to bubble and brew. At the end of the first day, Harry felt great relief that that was over, but reminded himself there were still more exams to get through.

On Tuesday, they would have Transfiguration and Charms. Harry transfigured McGonagall's desk into a pig, as he'd once seen her do; he changed other inanimate objects into animate ones, and animate ones into inanimate ones. He changed things that he'd already changed, taking a shoe through five transfigurations, from hedgehog to bowler hat to Yorkshire terrier to tea-cozy to rabbit, before he started to give out and produced a knife-box (with rather pronounced rabbit ears and a cotton tail) that barked.

Then McGonagall had cleared out the room, and instead of going down to lunch with the others, he demonstrated for her, formally and for the record, his ability to do the Animagus transfiguration. She used a stop-watch to time him, over and over, changing into a golden griffin and back, griffin and back, griffin and back, until he collapsed on the floor from the pain and mental effort. She smiled at him and nodded. He staggered from the room, meeting Ron and Hermione in the corridor, and they'd practically carried him down to the Great Hall.

Charms went well, Harry knew, because Professor Flitwick was so terrible at a poker face. There was no chance that a student taking the Charms O.W.L.s had to wait until they received their results to know how they did with him. Harry went through the basics, then the intermediate-level charms, and then Flitwick asked all students to stay past the usual time who wanted credit for advanced charms.

Harry, Ron and Hermione were the only Gryffindors who stayed. The exam was basically dueling with Flitwick, who'd been a champion in his youth. Ron went down very quickly; Hermione held her own for some time before he also disarmed her. After dueling for more than half an hour, Flitwick and Harry were still at it, and Harry had abandoned his robes and was dripping sweat, while the little wizard was still cool as a cucumber and pacing around humming to himself before aiming his wand at Harry nonchalantly and muttering charms.

After more than an hour, Flitwick stood still, faced an exhausted Harry and lowered his wand. "Bow, Harry," he told him gently. "The duel is over. It is a draw."

Harry lowered his wand and bowed. That's when he heard, "Expelliarmus!" and felt his wand slipping from his grip, felt himself hurtling backward, bracing himself before he struck the wall hard. Wincing, he slid down into a sitting position. Flitwick smiled and walked over to him, handing him his wand.

"Really, Harry. You should have known better." He smiled. Harry looked up at the professor, his eyes unfocussed.

"I do now." Flitwick helped him to stand and patted him on the back. But Harry had a feeling that he hadn't failed advanced Charms.

If he thought it was exhausting to revise for the O.W.L.s, it was nothing compared to taking them. Wednesday, they started with Herbology, an entire morning of wrestling with plants in the greenhouse before taking exhaustive examinations about the magical herbs and fungi they'd been learning about for five years. In the afternoon, they had History of Magic. Three hours of sitting in Binns' stuffy classroom writing about Goblin rebellions. He actually fell asleep, and when he awoke, Hermione was shaking him and telling him to hand in his parchment. He looked down at it. He'd written one sentence about someone he'd called Oscar the Offbeat, who Harry wasn't even sure had existed. He groaned; he would not be getting a History of Magic O.W.L. He looked at Ron, who was handing in several parchments of closely-written script. Even Ron had had quite a lot to write for History of Magic. When Hermione wasn't looking, he crumpled up the parchment and stuffed it in his pocket. He just wouldn't hand in anything at all. Better than the humiliation of handing this in, he thought. He'd blown it.

That night at midnight, they had astronomy. Harry again felt as if he were sleepwalking, and Professor Sinistra was short with him. Another flop, he thought. Ron was also the walking dead. Neither of them expected to get an Astronomy O.W.L.

The next morning they were permitted to sleep in because of the late Astronomy examination, and in the afternoon they were to report to Hagrid for Care of Magical Creatures. Hagrid had a virtual zoo for them to walk through, and his exam was multiple-choice. Harry thought he was being rather easy on them and wondered whether Dumbledore had approved this. It was the simplest one so far. Afterward, he heaved a sigh of relief. Just two to go: Divination and Defense against the Dark Arts.

On Friday morning, he and Ron and the other Gryffindors other than Hermione reported to Trelawney's tower, while Hermione went off to Professor Vector for the exam in Arithmancy. They went through tea leaves, palmistry, augury, star charts (not for nothing had he done terribly in astronomy), crystal balls, Tarot cards—every form of soothsaying they'd covered since their first day with her in their third year. Trelawney glared at him time after time; he was terrible at everything. Even Ron had something to say most of the time that was spot on or close enough. I have a snake who has the Sight and I'm not going to get an O.W.L. in Divination. Something was wrong somewhere, he felt. But he also knew he shouldn't cheat; he'd left Sandy by the fire in the common room.

After lunch they reported to Moody. He had them work on a written exam about werewolves, vampires and other dark creatures that they couldn't actually bring to lessons, then they handed in their papers and actually confronted some dark creatures they'd covered with Lupin. After the redcaps, Hinkypunks and Grindylows had been despatched, he opened a drawer and produced—a boggart.

The boggart took on a different form for some of them than it had when they were in third year. Not surprisingly, Hermione's looked like Professor McGonagall expelling her and telling her she'd failed every subject. Neville's was a flask of steaming potion. Parvati's turned into—Hermione. Harry saw it first, then turned her around and spoke to her rapidly, until Parvati had taken care of it and Seamus was stepping up. Finally, Harry faced the boggart, and, remembering the dementors who had brought Lucius Malfoy in and out of the courtroom, sure enough, it promptly turned into a dementor.

Harry grimly faced it down, focused intently on his happy thought (now that he'd been with Hermione that was easy) and cried, "Expecto Patronem!"

The silver-grey stag emerged from his wand and raced toward the boggart-dementor. Then Harry looked at it again, crying "Riddikulus!" and it disappeared with a pop!

Moody stared in disbelief at him. "Potter," he said, clearly in awe, which shook Harry somewhat. "You didn't tell me you could conjure a Patronus. And what a Patronus…"

Harry swallowed. "I'm sorry. We discovered in third year that when I'm confronted with a boggart, it turns into a dementor, so Lupin taught me how to conjure a Patronus."

"You're sorry?" Moody said, incredulous. "You're doing something so advanced most adult wizards can't, and you're sorry?" He shook his head. "You're the damnedest thing I've ever seen, Potter."

After they did various curses and counter-curses, he dismissed everyone except those who wanted to stay for advanced Dark Arts. "I've already seen you conjure your Patronus, so you've already got points for that, Potter. Now, let's see that pain blocking you've become so famous for."

And without any warning, Moody pointed his wand at him and cried, "Hara Kiri!"

Harry's eyes rolled back in his head; he felt himself floating up, up, and, looking down, he watched his body in fascination, watched Moody moving slowly, watched Hermione anxiously put her hand to her mouth in slow motion, then her other hand on Ron's arm as Ron stared at him, his jaw dropping in tiny increments.

When Harry saw Moody lift his wand, he allowed himself to slide back down into his body. He collapsed on the floor, panting, and struggled to stand. Moody nodded.

"Good job, Potter." That was all he said. Harry swallowed and nodded back at him. It was done. All they had to do now was wait for the results.

Harry closed his eyes, lying on the bed; he felt like he could sleep for a week. After dreading the O.W.L.s all year (with good reason, he now knew), they were over. He sleep straight through until the next morning, waking with the sun, when he rose to dress for running, feeling like a huge weight had been lifted from him. Ron was still asleep, sprawled across his bed diagonally (the only way he could fit). When Harry went to the common room, Hermione wasn't there, but he didn't bother waiting. If she had any sense, he thought, she'd sleep in. If I had any sense, perhaps I would, he thought. But he felt restless after sleeping for more than fourteen hours; he wanted to be active, doing something.

The Quidditch pitch was deserted, dewy and pristine-looking. Harry ran on the sandy path until he felt he'd exorcised something from his soul, a restless demon that had been possessing him, making it hurt when he took a breath. Now, even though his lungs were working at maximum capacity, he felt at peace. Everything was as it should be. He did some sit-ups and pull-ups and stretches afterward, then returned to the castle with a spring in his step.

In the prefects' bathroom, he encountered Malfoy, but that no longer had the power to ruin his day. He sauntered in, smiling at him as he soaked in the tub, saying cheerfully, "Good morning, Malfoy! Beautiful day, isn't it?"

Malfoy had had his eyes closed but opened them now. He leaned against one of the short sides of the tub, his arms on either side of him on the tub ledge. He no longer bothered to hide the Dark Mark. There was no need.

"You're damn cheerful for this time of the morning, Potter. Jump in the lake, will you?"

"Actually, I thought I'd take a shower. Maybe I'll do a swim in the lake later," he practically chirped as he headed for the showers. Malfoy shook his head.

"You, Potter, are too happy to be allowed..."

"But the O.W.L.s are over!" Harry crowed as he stood under the pounding water, making the noise echo off the tile and marble lining the room. He turned and saw Malfoy putting his head around the corner.

"I have two words for you, Potter. SHUT THE BLOODY HELL UP."

"That's five words."

"It would be two if you didn't make me swear."

"That wouldn't be any fun," Harry laughed, letting the water gush over his head. He flung his head back then and turned the water off, grinning at Malfoy. "Aren't you glad it's over?"

As Harry wrapped a towel around his waist Malfoy nodded, finally admitting this. "I can't believe Moody, or McGonagall. Or Flitwick. Or Sprout." He plunged his hands into the pockets of the deep green bathrobe he'd donned. Harry frowned. What was wrong with him? Yes, he'd been disowned, but this seemed to be about something else.

"Don't you think you did well, Malfoy?"

Malfoy jerked his head up. "I did bloody well, thank you very much. I fully expect to get more than ten O.W.L.s. In fact, I bet I'll get more than you."

Harry thought about the advanced credit he was going to be getting in Transfiguration, Dark Arts and Charms. "Bet you won't," he smiled. "But if you get more than ten—that'd be really impressive. I mean, I'd think you'd be happy. What's your problem? Why aren't you celebrating?"

Malfoy walked back toward the tub to drain it and collect his clothes. "And just who am I going to celebrate with? The only Slytherins who'll have anything to do with me are Snape and that fourth-year, what's-her-name. I'm starting to think she fancies me, so I don't want to hang about her too much and give her the wrong impression…"

"Or you could spend all of your spare time with her. Then she'd probably stop fancying you immediately." Harry laughed as Malfoy threw a damp towel at him, catching it while it was still in the air.

"You can laugh, Potter. Even if you only got two O.W.L.s, you'd have people to commiserate with you."

Harry sighed and bit the bullet; he should do it, he should. Malfoy was hinting about it broadly enough. "Malfoy," he finally said, as he took a red bathrobe from the wardrobe. "Dumbledore said he's going to let everyone third year and up go into Hogsmeade again next Saturday. We'll be getting our O.W.L. results on Friday. No matter what the outcome—why don't you celebrate with us? Ginny will want to be along anyway, and then you can spend some time with her. We'll all go down to the village after breakfast."

Malfoy looked at him and swallowed. He hadn't acknowledged what Harry had done in sharing the Quidditch Cup with Slytherin, but Harry knew it meant a lot to him. He was starting to understand how Ginny had had such a struggle at the beginning of their relationship to get Malfoy not to sabotage himself.

"If you like," Malfoy said noncommittally. Harry nodded.

"That's it, then," he said firmly. After Malfoy left, Harry collected Sandy and asked her, "Why do some people find it so hard to let other people be nice to them?" He wasn't just thinking of Malfoy; Ron was this way too. They had far more in common than either of them would ever have admitted.

"I do not understand people very well, Harry Potter," she answered, "but perhaps they feel that they do not deserve it?"

"It was a rhetorical question, Sandy. That means I wasn't really expecting an answer. But I think you understand people better than you think you do." He wrapped her around his arm and left.

#/#/#

The following week they didn't have to go to lessons again unless they wanted to. Harry, Hermione, Ron and Malfoy went to see Snape when they would have had Potions anyway, but they practiced for the Dueling Club exhibition instead of brewing potions. Harry was going to be demonstrating some moves against three attackers, and Snape nodded grimly as he aimed his curses and deflected the curses Ron, Hermione and Malfoy aimed at him. It wasn't true dueling but tightly choreographed, designed to put on a good show. The outcome was predetermined. Parts of the exhibition would consist of real dueling, with the outcome unknown, but much of it would be carefully rehearsed and planned. After the duel he'd lost to Neville (which had been a better show, Harry thought, than the things they were thus far planning for the exhibition), he wanted to be seen winning a duel before the entire school. Ron was paired with him for one of the non-rehearsed duels, and Roger Davies for another. They'd pulled names out of a wizard's hat to determine the pairings. Malfoy was matched with Niamh Quirke and Fred Weasley, and Hermione was taking on Alicia again, as well as George Weasley.

The following afternoon they went to Hagrid's to see the seventh-year Gryffindors go up against the sun bulls. After Angelina prepared George to harness the bulls and plow the ground, sowing the earth with dragon's teeth, they both fought against the Chthonians that sprang from the soil, but they hadn't done especially well in the Dueling Club and Moody put a stop to it so they could go to the hospital wing. (It was a combination exam for Care of Magical Creatures, Potions, Charms and Defense Against the Dark Arts.) Moody caused the Chthonians to disappear, and, waving his wand, Flitwick restored the plowed ground to its pristine state for Fred and his partner, Yarrow Swartz, a girl with a good reputation for brewing potions.

After drinking the potion Yarrow had made him and charming himself with a protective shield, Fred harnessed the bulls and proceeded to do the plowing, as George had. This time, when the Chthonians sprang from the earth sown with dragons' teeth, Fred and Yarrow beat them back, until the ground was littered with their white bones. Which was all the Chthonians were: fighting skeletons. Harry had at first been alarmed when they'd sprung from the earth to fight George and Angelina; the second time, he knew what to expect, and was gratified to see someone conquer them. He was very, very glad that his N.E.W.T.s were two years away.

Lee Jordan and Alicia Spinnet did better than George and Angelina, but not as well as Fred and Yarrow. Harry had his fist in his mouth when it seemed that one of the bulls was going to gore Lee, but Alicia hexed it before it could break skin. Harry pondered the fact that the twins performed so differently on the examination. They seemed to be growing apart, a bit, or at least exhibiting different skills and talents. Fred was a far better dueler, while George was the one with a girlfriend. (Fred and Susan Bones had opted to be "just friends" after the ceilidh.)

As Friday approached, Harry grew tenser and tenser. Dueling practice did little to alleviate this; what he really wanted to do was to sneak off with Hermione to Fluffy's old lair, but he was starting to suspect that she was being superstitious about their physical relationship. After the first time, he'd found Neville, and after the second, they'd wound up in the forest tied to trees, not knowing whether they'd survive another five minutes. He wondered whether she assumed it would be bad luck to be together again before they learned of their O.W.L. results. It seemed uncharacteristic of her, and yet she was definitely avoiding being alone with him. She went out of her way to make sure that Ron was with them at all times. She didn't refrain from touching him or even kissing him, but she also didn't suggest that they be alone, nor did she try to instigate it, as she had in the past. Harry was growing very frustrated.

Finally, at breakfast on Friday, even more owls than usual fluttered in the windows, most of them school owls. Every fifth-year student received a large creamy envelope with the Hogwarts seal. Seamus and Dean were pulling their envelopes down from the owls before they'd had time to alight on their shoulders, and Ron sat holding his, sweat breaking out on his brow as he hesitated to open it.

Harry finally had an envelope drop into his hands. Harry Potter, Gryffindor, it said simply in large, looping script. Harry was starting to open it when, beside him, Hermione began screaming, and he practically choked him when she threw her arms around his neck. Harry gasped and gently took her arm away from his windpipe, smiling at her.

"I reckon you're rather happy with your results?"

She nodded, speechless, and handed him the letter. She'd received two O.W.L.s for Potions, both basic and intermediate; she also received basic and intermediate O.W.L.s for Transfiguration, Defense Against the Dark Arts, Arithmancy and History of Magic. She received one each for Herbology, Astronomy and Care of Magical Creatures, and three for basic, intermediate and advanced Charms.

"Hermione," he breathed. "You have—"

"I know!"

"Sixteen O.W.L.s—"

"I know!"

He stared at her letter again. She had set a school record. No one, not even Percy Weasley, had received sixteen O.W.L.s. He was half afraid to open his letter. He thought of his nonexistent History of Magic exam. There was a lump in his throat that would not go away. Hermione's scream had been the first, but now fifth-years all over the Great Hall were chattering loudly about their marks, running from table to table to talk to friends in other houses. Pandemonium ensued.

Then suddenly, he was being attacked by Ron. "Aaaah!" he cried, having finally opened his letter. "Eleven! I got eleven! Only one off from Percy and Bill!" Harry stared in disbelief at Ron's letter, thrust under his nose. Snape had actually given him an O.W.L. for basic Potions; he also had both basic and intermediate Transfiguration, Charms and Defense against the Dark Arts, and one O.W.L. each for Care of Magical Creatures, Divination, History of Magic and Herbology. The only one he'd missed was Astronomy, which was hardly a surprise in that they'd slept through virtually every lesson. Harry smiled uncertainly at him.

"That's great, Ron." He tried to look happy, he really did, then went back to staring at the envelope with his name written on it. Ron frowned at him.

"Haven't you opened yours yet?"

Harry thrust it at him. "I can't. You do it. Give it to me gently."

Harry clenched his jaw and grimaced while he watched Ron open the envelope and take out the letter. "Well," he began, "you didn't get History of Magic."

"That's probably because I slept through the exam and didn't turn anything in."

"And you didn't get Astronomy. Ditto for Divination."

"Trelawney's hacked off at me for not revealing my 'Inner Eye' again. How bad is the rest of it?"

"Well, I hate to tell you this Harry, but you only got—thirteen."

Harry's jaw dropped. "What? Thirteen? How did I get thirteen?"

Ron laughed and handed him the letter. "Well, it probably helped that you got basic, intermediate and advanced for three subjects, Transfiguration, Charms and Defense Against the Dark Arts. That's nine right there. And then Hagrid gave you one, and Sprout, and Snape gave you two, for basic and intermediate Potions. Getting to be quite the Snape-pet, aren't you? Who'd have thought, five years ago?"

Harry hit his arm with the back of his hand. "I'm not. I worked hard."

Hermione took his letter and examined it. "Well, see? It paid off." She was smiling at him and his letter, looking proud of him, but she was also still glowing from being very, very pleased with herself. Harry had never seen her quite so happy.

"How'd you do, Nev?" Ron said to Neville, who was also smiling while looking at his letter.

"Nine," he said happily. "I missed Transfiguration and Charms. But I got one from everyone else, even Sinistra and Snape, and two from Professor Moody and Professor Sprout." He looked down at his letter again. "Gran will not believe this…"

Suddenly Harry's letter was plucked from his hands and he heard a familiar voice drawling, "All right, Potter, let's see how you've done."

Harry waited for Malfoy to finish reading, trying to suppress the smile curling at the edges of his mouth and looking at Hermione merrily. Harry wished he had a camera when Malfoy finished.

"How'd you do, Malfoy?" he asked, trying not to sound too smug. Malfoy grimaced, not speaking, thrusting his letter at Harry for inspection. He'd received basic and intermediate from Snape, McGonagall, Moody and Vector, and basic from Flitwick (who no doubt was taking points off for the burglar-alarm fiasco), Binns, Sprout and Sinistra. The only teacher who hadn't given him a single O.W.L. was Hagrid, and considering Malfoy's attitude in that subject, as well as his performance, it was a miracle Hagrid hadn't found a way to give him a negative number of O.W.L.s.

"Pity, Malfoy," Harry said casually. "You only got twelve. Thought you said you'd get more than me?"

Malfoy continued to look at Harry's letter in disbelief. "And I should have. What's this 'advanced Transfiguration, advanced Charms, advanced Defense against the Dark Arts?'"

"You know about the Transfiguration," Harry said under his breath. Malfoy nodded.

"Oh, right. But these others…it certainly pays to be the teachers' pet."

"It also pays to be able to duel with Flitwick for more than an hour and to conjure a Patronus and block the pain of the Hara Kiri curse," Hermione informed him archly, with a smile at Harry. Malfoy still grimaced, then nimbly plucked Hermione's letter from her hand. His astonishment was even greater than when he'd seen Harry's letter, but now he found a way to turn the information to his advantage.

"So, Potter. Couldn't outperform your girlfriend?"

Harry smiled and put his arm around her shoulder. "If we're talking about performance, Malfoy…"

"I'm out of here," he muttered, throwing the letter back at Hermione, who caught it in the air, laughing.

They were looking forward to going to Hogsmeade the next day, even with Malfoy, and spent much of Friday lounging by the lake and chattering about the O.W.L.s. Now that they were over, dissecting them in great detail seemed to be Hermione's favorite pastime. Harry had to quiet her more than once with a kiss. The third time this happened, they were relaxing by the lake with Ron, Ginny, Malfoy, the twins and Angelina, who were finished their N.E.W.T.s. Hermione held his head firmly, and Harry had the distinct impression that she'd been trying to get him to shut her up this time.

"Get a room!" Malfoy yelled irritably, throwing leaves at them as he sat beside Ginny, looking more than a bit cross. He wouldn't dare lay a lip on Ginny with her brothers around. Harry came up for air, smiling, then looked at Hermione searchingly.

"Sounds good to me. What do you think?" he said to her mischievously. She stood and immediately started walking toward the castle. He took that as a yes. As he turned to go he caught Ron's eye for a moment and almost considered not following her. But then he turned to watch her walk toward the castle; none of them wore robes on this hot almost-summer day. She had chosen a pair of white shorts and a rather tight sleeveless blue blouse. His mouth went dry, watching her, and he forgot about Ron, running to catch her up. George and Angelina sent them off with wolf-whistles.

As they were about to enter the castle, walking hand-in-hand and grinning at each other, Hedwig landed on his shoulder, a parchment tied to her leg with Dudley's handwriting. He thanked her, explaining that he didn't have any owl treats, and she flew off to the Owlery. He pocketed Dudley's letter; he could read it later. They dashed up to Fluffy's room, locking the door with multiple charms and putting a cushioning charm on the floor before attacking each other with abandon, the desires of the previous five weeks finally unleashed.

Afterward, she put her head on his chest, watching his face in the flickering light of the candles they'd conjured, scattered about the room like a sea of fairy lights. "Harry?" she whispered.

He opened his eyes and found her gazing at him. He smiled at how beautiful she was. "Yes?"

"Dumbledore gave me good news about my parents."

"What is it?"

"They can come out of hiding. We're going to be back in our house this summer. He's put the kind of protection charms on it that are on your house—you know, the Dursleys' house. But we can't go traveling like we normally do. We can leave the house, mind you. Or—" She smiled at him. "—I could come to visit you in Surrey. But we can't leave England."

"I'm sorry, Hermione..."

"No, Harry! I wasn't trying to make you feel guilty. I'll just be so glad to see my mum and dad again. Do you know it's been almost a year? When you're an only child, you're very close to your parents." Then she stopped. "Oh, I'm sorry, Harry. Sometimes I have a terrible case of foot-in-mouth disease…"

He smiled and kissed her on the forehead. "Hermione. You can't not mention your parents or being close to them or missing them just because I'm an orphan. Frankly, I forget that there's any other way to live, now. I've never really known my parents. Seeing my mum and dad in the Pensieve…it was interesting, but they don't seem any more real to me now than before that. It was like seeing actors on a stage. You love your parents and you're close to them and miss them. Don't be afraid to say those things to me, Hermione."

She smiled and snuggled up to him again. "You make me feel very lucky, do you know that Harry?"

He stroked her hair. "Feel like feeling even luckier—again?"

She lifted her head to smile at him, then moved to close the gap between their mouths as his hands caressed her back, then started moving further down…

#/#/#

They left after breakfast the next day to go to Hogsmeade. It was the first time since the ceilidh. When they reached the village they were surprised by being greeted by Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, Bill, Charlie, and Percy outside the newly-rebuilt Three Broomsticks. Ron, Ginny and the twins were hugged and kissed by their mother (even the twins didn't seem to mind) and O.W.L. results were discussed and praised, while N.E.W.T. results were speculated upon (they wouldn't know for five more days).

Harry didn't mind the Weasleys meeting them in Hogsmeade, but Ron seemed a bit discomfited by them suddenly turning up, as did Draco Malfoy. It seemed he couldn't be alone with Ginny ever, anymore; there were always other Weasleys somewhere in the vicinity. Mrs. Weasley was practically bouncing with excitement—Harry had never seen her like this—but Bill managed to explain what was going on a bit more coherently.

"We're here to celebrate too. Do you remember the jury saying that the Malfoy assets had to be liquidated and divided between the heirs of the six people he'd ordered killed? Of course, that's after paying the fines they levied on him as well. That meant two-thirds of what was left was to go to the heirs to the Clearwaters. Penelope and her little brother Jeremy didn't have wills, of course. And they were the chief beneficiaries named in their parents' will. But in the event that Penelope and Jeremy didn't survive their parents, last year, the Clearwaters added a codicil to their will naming an alternate heir."

Ron frowned. "Why are you telling us this?"

Bill nodded at Percy. "Percy's the heir. Apparently Penelope's parents were very keen on them getting married and assumed they would in a few years. They never thought anything would happen to them or their children, of course, but they put Percy's name in since they assumed he would soon be family anyway. So two-thirds of the proceeds from the liquidation will go to Percy. He's going to be bloody rich."

And yet, Harry couldn't help thinking that Percy didn't seem to feel like celebrating. All the gold in the world couldn't bring back the girl he might have married. Harry caught his eye. He tried to smile, but it looked extremely half-hearted. Harry looked at Malfoy then, who seemed utterly miserable. Harry gestured to Malfoy with his head, his eyes wide, as he looked back at Percy.

"Well, Bill," Percy said shakily. "I don't in particular want to be rich." Ron choked on his butterbeer, staring in disbelief at his brother. "I may put some of it away for the future, but I think a better use for it would be to set up a scholarship fund for Hogwarts students who might have trouble paying their school fees and buying supplies because their families have been killed or injured by Death Eaters. Or similar reasons."

Malfoy stared at Percy, whom Harry knew he'd never liked, especially when Percy was Head Boy. Percy gazed back at him benignly and Malfoy looked away. He's going to be even harder to help than Ron, Harry thought.

"Also," Bill continued, "Your thousand Galleons has been deposited in your vault at Gringotts, Harry, and you two," he said, nodding at Ron and Hermione, "now have Gringotts accounts, opened with your respective thousand Galleons. Don't spend it all at once!" he said with a grin. "Plus," he continued, "in honor of Perce becoming rich as Croesus, everything today is his treat."

George and Fred enthusiastically endorsed this idea while Harry noticed Ron leaning back and drinking his butterbeer, a look on his face that implied he was already envisioning what to do with his thousand Galleons.

They enjoyed themselves in the village all day, going to various shops, back to the pub for lunch, then having a leisurely walk back to the castle in the late afternoon, the sun still higher in the sky than it seemed it had any right to be. The day before had been midsummer, and Harry remembered that it was his parents' anniversary. He wondered whether he could convince Snape to put anything in the Pensieve from his parents' wedding—he'd been there, after all. Harry had seen him in the wedding photos. But then he thought about how his views about them and Sirius and Remus had changed after seeing them in the Pensieve, and he decided against it. He could look at the wedding pictures in the album Hagrid gave him and imagine them dancing on the wooden floor laid down on the lawn outside the country inn called the Willows. He didn't need to jump into the Pensieve. He had a very vivid imagination; he'd imagined being with Hermione countless times before it had actually happened…

He smiled at her as they walked back to the castle, remembering the previous afternoon. Lucius Malfoy was in prison; Percy had a windfall (though he'd rather have had Penelope), Ron had a bank account for the first time, and Draco Malfoy didn't have to worry about money thanks to the scholarship Percy wanted to set up. They'd done well on their O.W.L.s. He didn't even mind going back to the Dursleys, he thought. Maybe he could contact Dick when he returned home and ask for a real job for real pay, for the summer. He'd enjoy that, and he could continue to wear Sandy and chat with her when he liked. Despite the fact that Voldemort was still out there somewhere, as well as Wormtail, Harry had never felt quite so optimistic that everything would turn out all right.

As they neared the castle, though, Harry could see from a distance that Dumbledore was standing on the front steps with a large black dog. Harry got a very bad feeling upon seeing that, and he took his arm from around Hermione, sprinting toward the headmaster, his well-trained legs now moving smoothly under him. It was tempting to just transfigure into his griffin form and fly to them, but he restrained himself. When he reached them, he stopped abruptly, breathing hard.

"What is it?" he gasped, bracing himself for the worst. But it was something he could never have expected.

"Harry," Dumbledore said gently. "I have some bad news for you. Please come to my office."

Harry nodded dumbly, patting Sirius on the head. He trotted beside Harry, pressing comfortingly against his side. Harry looked over his shoulder at the others, still some distance away. Hermione looked like she wanted to run, too, but Ron put his hand on her arm and shook his head. He looked toward Harry as if he suspected what it was. Harry soon learned that they were both wrong.

He didn't remember how he reached Dumbledore's office. When he was in a chair before his desk, Sirius changed to his human form again. Then Harry saw a beetle land on the floor, and suddenly standing before him was someone he hadn't seen in a year: Rita Skeeter. Dumbledore nodded at her and sat.

"Harry—Rita here has been helping us keep tabs on your aunt and uncle and cousin, between running some other errands now and again." Harry remembered the samples that had had to be collected to determine Krum's paternity. "Unfortunately, I neglected to tell her something important—and she was checking in on your aunt and uncle—"

"If I'd only known that he was also an unregistered Animagus…" she whinged to Dumbledore. "I'd have known to say something."

Harry looked at Sirius. "She didn't know you were an unregistered Animagus? What does that have to do with anything?"

He frowned at Harry. "Not me, Harry. Wormtail. He turned up at Smeltings. One of the teachers started keeping him as a pet, or some such thing, and he was able to get at Dudley."

Harry's heart was in his throat. "What happened?"

Dumbledore looked at Harry levelly. "He jumped off the roof of his dormitory. This morning. It looked like a suicide. We think he was under Imperius. Wormtail may be the one who put the curse on him. He's dead, Harry."

Tears prickled against his eyelids. "What? But—but we'd just become friends! He—he was all right, it turned out. We were writing to each other regularly…"

"And he never mentioned a rat with a silver paw?" Dumbledore wanted to know. Harry shook his head.

"He mentioned rats, yeah. But he said they were white rats, they were using them in their biology lessons. Behavior projects, mazes with cheese in them and all that. He never—" But then Harry remembered the letter he'd received from Dudley the day before, the letter he hadn't read.

Without another word to any of them, he ran from the office, down the spiral stairs, up to Gryffindor Tower. He ransacked the wardrobe, his trunk, trying to find every scrap of clothing he owned. What had happened to the letter? He found the trousers he'd worn the previous day, when he and Hermione had gone up to Fluffy's room. The pockets were empty and there was a food stain on them from dinner the night before. The elves hadn't washed them yet. Harry went tearing out of the common room again and up to Fluffy's room. After yanking the door open, he lit his wand and stared around the dim chamber, then looked down and saw it, the rolled parchment with his own footprint on it, having trod on it before leaving, never noticing.

He picked it up, tears already flowing down his face as he unrolled it.

Dear Harry,

Thank god school's almost over! We can run together again, can't we, during the summer hols, right? I've lost a total of 120 pounds since September! You're not going to recognize me. Julia's going to come visit during the summer, and you can meet her. I never thought I'd have a girlfriend, and now I owe it all to you. Never thought I'd be saying that! Maybe I can convince mum and dad to treat you half-decent, or to actually do something for your birthday. I already have your gift. Hope you like it!

Even if I could make mum stop being so nasty to you, I suppose I could never convince her to let me have a pet rat though. Sounds unlikely, doesn't it? Remember how I said I thought my rat had got my roommate's rat preggers? They had some really cute little white rat babies. Not bloody likely for her to let me, I know. Mr. Frankel, our biology teacher, has made a pet of this rat he found with a silver paw. Calls it a prognosis or something—

Prosthesis, Harry thought, remembering Hermione using the term in reference to Moody's leg. He wiped his eyes and continued reading.

but I'm not sure what that means. Said he's never seen an animal that was apparently wild with anything like this. He didn't even keep it in a cage, but carried it around in the pocket of his lab coat. Frankel said it probably wasn't wild after all, probably someone's pet for a good long while. He still couldn't work out how the silver paw was attached, though.

Maybe I can convince mum and dad to take us to Brighton for my birthday, even if they neglect yours. I'll insist that you come! They won't be able to get me to shut up until they say you can! Hope your exams went ok. See you soon.

Dudley

Then Harry was crying freely as he leaned against the door and thought, If only I'd read it yesterday! If he had, he could have alerted Dumbledore and Sirius to the danger Dudley could be in, Sirius could have Apparated to Dudley's school, found Wormtail, kept him from putting Imperius on Dudley…

If he hadn't been in such a hurry to be with Hermione—if he'd only read it in time—

He curled up on the cold, stone floor, feeling like a murderer, crying until he could cry no more.

#/#/#

Harry skipped dinner. He staggered down to the common room later, a hollow ache in his chest. He kept throwing passwords at the Fat Lady, who kept refusing him entrance because none of them were the right one. He finally resorted to knocking, and Neville opened it for him, looking surprised. Harry didn't speak, walking toward the stairs to the dorm, not really seeing anything or anybody. He was vaguely aware of people looking at him strangely, but he didn't care. He was responsible. He could have stopped it. He couldn't have stopped the Westminster explosion, he knew that now. He couldn't have prevented the Clearwaters being killed, or Marcus Flint and his mother, or their houseguest. But he could have stopped this. He had as good as killed Dudley with his own two hands, Dudley who had become like a brother to him.

And then he stopped, remembering Trelawney's Tarot reading for the first time in months.

Another brother...And for him, at the hand of the traitor...

The Spectre of Death.

Had Trelawney actually made another accurate prediction? Harry was starting to wonder about her, about whether she just wanted them to think she was a sham most of the time. He remembered Snape telling his mum that a seeress had come up with the Prophecy. Could it have been Trelawney? He swallowed. At the hand of the traitor… Wormtail's silver hand.

"HARRY!" Ron yelled, Harry realized, for the fourth or fifth time. He'd been trudging up the stone steps listlessly, lost in his own thoughts. He turned to Ron, feeling like the world was moving in slow motion again, like when he'd left his body right before Ron had put the Cruciatus Curse on him.

"What?"

"This came for you. A strange owl brought it." He handed Harry a small package, labeled, H. Potter. He opened it and took out a cassette tape. He frowned at it. Written on a small label on the tape were the words For the Boy Who Lived.

Suddenly he was galvanized into action. He ran up to the dorm and he tore into his trunk, finding the tape player Dudley had given him. He checked the battery compartment; it still had the right sort, in the right position. He took the tape out that had been in the player and put in the tape he'd just received. He put on the earphones and hit play, but the same hissing, rushing noise met his ears that he'd heard before, when he'd tried to use it in the dormitory. He punched the STOP button angrily, then went down the stairs of the dorm again, his robes swirling behind him. As he strode through the common room, he was aware of multiple voices calling out to him; Hermione's, Ron's, Neville's…

He ignored them all, striding through the corridors up to the Astronomy Tower. He knew what he had to do. He looked down at the ground, so far below, wondering whether Dudley had felt any fear beneath the curse that compelled him to leap to his death. Had he stood on the roof, looking down, shaking with fear, and moving toward his doom anyway? Had he been able to form coherent thoughts of regret and apprehension as he fell toward the earth?

Harry swallowed and looked up at the sky instead. He put the tape player and headphones in his robe pockets, knowing that they would be there again when he changed back to human form. Then he closed his eyes and felt the change move through him in an instant, as quick as thought, and he opened his eyes to find the world just as sunny and summery-bright, albeit with colors a little more muted because of his Animagus form. He spread his wings and leapt onto the wind, moving toward the village, toward a place hopefully far enough from Hogwarts that he could listen to the tape. As he flew over the village, he looked down, not surprised to see people looking up and pointing, exclaiming in surprise. He probably should have used his broom, he realized, but he wanted the feeling of flying, really flying under his own power, and he pushed on, flying a little beyond the village, landing beside a copse of alders, running into the shelter of the trees a little way before changing back, turning and looking toward the village, hoping no one would try to find where the anomalous golden griffin had set down.

He sat against a tree, taking the tape player out of his pocket and putting on the earphones. It was awkward to wear them at the same time as his glasses. He pressed PLAY and watched the gears spinning, heard the familiar hissing, and finally, a familiar voice. A voice he hadn't heard since Ron's birthday.

"Hello, Harry. I'm glad you've found a way to listen to this. I thought there were a few things you should know, now that you have heard of the death of your cousin.

"Yes, I killed him. You knew that, of course. You worked it out, at any rate. You're not a stupid boy. Lily's and James's boy would not be stupid. But are you clever enough to outwit me? People have been underestimating me all my life, Harry. It is tiresome, frankly. I have the ear of the Dark Lord. I have more power than the Minister of Magic, though he has the power to do things like suspend sentences and cut years in prison in half, especially when he's being blackmailed. But I digress...

"I have been living at your cousin's school. It has been a very convenient place to avoid capture by the Ministry of Magic. You surprised me that night, Harry, when you changed into a lion and chased me through the forest. So, you followed in your father's footsteps and have become an illegal Animagus! I haven't told my Master yet. I think it is something I will save for just the right moment. Don't worry; he will be pleased. For such a young wizard to achieve such a feat in a short amount of time will merely show him again how powerful you are, and how powerful he can be when you are joined to him as his servant.

"One piece of information was not given to you on the night we were in the forest. Mr. Malfoy indicated that he had had his underlings put the Imperius Curse on those girls in the hopes that one of them might become your girlfriend. What we did not tell you was that a Congeniality Charm was also placed upon your cousin, such that he became a much more agreeable person. I understand you two became good friends, writing letters back and forth, running together when you were still at home. What a shame he's dead.

"You must understand that this WILL happen. You will become the servant of the Dark Lord and there is nothing you can do to stop it. Do not fight it any longer, Harry. I am sure you do not want anyone else close to you to die. A pity he was never really your friend. You just thought so."

It seemed that there might be more, but Harry didn't care. He ripped off the headphones, threw them on the ground with the player and aimed an angry blast at them both with his wand, blowing them to bits. He didn't want it anymore. It was tainted. Tainted, like his friendship with Dudley.

A pity he was never really your friend. You just thought so.

He swallowed, staring at the bits of metal and plastic littering the ground. He'd been manipulated, completely manipulated. He felt as if he couldn't trust anything or anyone. What was real? Was his relationship with Hermione real? With Ron? Even with Malfoy? Had he really received thirteen O.W.L.s, or had he just imagined it? Was he really a prefect, captain of the Dueling Club? Nothing seemed to be real, he had no feeling of stability in his life anymore.

He walked back through the village on foot, reaching the castle well after dark. Since the day before had been the longest day of the year, that was saying something, as the sun was up exceptionally late in the evening now. He tried to bring himself to climb the marble stairs but instead found that he was walking through the Great Hall, to the secret passage to Snape's office. Once in the dank passage at the foot of the stairs, he put his shoulder to the wall, finally feeling it give and pivot. Snape looked up from where he sat at his desk, a pile of marked parchments pushed to one side. He looked utterly unsurprised. Somehow Harry knew that Snape knew about Dudley.

Harry pushed the wall back into place and stood, staring at the bottle of Ogden's Old Fire Whiskey on the desk. A glass with a small amount of the amber liquid sat beside the bottle; Snape had been partaking after finishing his work for the evening. He took one look at Harry and opened a desk drawer, producing an identical glass and pouring until the glass was half-full. He was commiserating, in his way. Snape pushed it toward Harry. Harry nodded and picked up the glass, sitting in the wing chair by the empty fireplace. He stared at the glass for a minute before taking a sip. It burned his throat but he welcomed the pain. He deserved it. He took another sip, feeling more burning, then a numbness that started to creep into his brain. He wasn't sure how long it took him to finish, but when it was gone, he felt thoroughly drunk. He wasn't used to this; he had a very low tolerance. He wouldn't even be sixteen for over a month, and Snape probably shouldn't have given it to him, but it was too late now. Perhaps the Potions master had a patented hangover formula he could give him in the morning.

Harry closed his eyes, leaning back in the wing chair, feeling sleep creep over him, and blissful forgetfulness, though that would be strictly temporary. He was vaguely aware of Snape rising, taking his glass from his limp hand, and placing it on his desk with a solid-sounding thunk. He heard his professor leave the room, closing the door quietly, as he leaned back into the chair, letting himself sink down into a dreamless slumber.

#/#/#

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