"Hermione," Harry said, gazing earnestly at her. "Will you go to the Yule Ball with me?"
The Yule Ball was announced a week ago, and the entire school had been buzzing about it ever since. It put Harry in a very good mood, because when everyone was thinking about who they were going to ask, they weren't gossiping about him.
There was a pause during which Harry would have sworn he could hear insects chirping. Then Hermione smirked and threw her quill at him. "Shut up, Harry. And I'm not going to tell you who I'm going with either."
Neville, Dudley and Ron spent the last few days arguing over who got to ask her, much to Harry's amusement. Each of them had told Harry privately that they were going to ask her in secret, and Harry knew each of them had been rebuffed.
Harry grinned. "No need. I already know." He had a theory, at least. Hermione raised an eyebrow at him and he just looked at her knowingly. "It's simple. Who could possibly top Neville, Dudley and Ron?"
"Oh, and Ron, hmm?" Hermione picked up her quill and unconsciously put her nose in the air. "Well I'll admit, at least, he's simple."
Harry ignored her sarcasm. She was plainly still annoyed by Ron's initial outright refusal to believe she was telling the truth about being unavailable. Gryffindors were never known for their tact, after all, and Ron was the quintessential Gryffindor.
"The only reason you could possibly have for crushing their poor, naïve spirits," Harry explained, ignoring her scoff, "Is that you've got an older man. He's been coming to the library just to stare at you for weeks and weeks now, d'you honestly think I didn't notice?"
Hermione blushed. Harry grinned. Right in one. Being friends with observant people who spent a lot of time in the library like Anthony did paid off. He leaned back and let her change the subject.
"So who're you going with, Harry?"
Harry shrugged. "Apparently not you, Miss Heartbreaker." He was enjoying the whole situation thoroughly and Hermione knew it. She glared at him. "Honestly, though, I haven't got a clue. Pansy and Blaise are going together; so are Theo and Daphne. Tracy's got a date too, some Ravenclaw."
"What about Millicent Bulstrode?" Hermione teased. Harry grinned.
"We convinced Greg to ask her, so unfortunately, she's already taken."
Hermione laughed. "Pity. Why don't you ask Luna Lovegood? I'm sure she'd go with you."
Harry blinked. He hadn't even considered Luna. There were possibilities in Luna. He knew Draco always felt mildly uncomfortable around her, which could only be a plus. He'd tracked Harry down twice in the past couple weeks and tried to lecture him about his choice in friends, though Harry rebuffed him each time. Having Luna around might keep him at bay. Additionally, Luna was fun in her bizarre way, and probably wouldn't make him dance, which was infinite points in her favour, because Harry hated dancing.
"I'll do it," Harry declared, standing up and looking around at Anthony's table. It was unfortunately empty. "Later." He sat back down. "Hey, where is everyone anyway?"
Hermione shrugged. "Neville, Ron and Dudley are all angry with each other today," she said. "I'm not really sure what's going on; they're being shockingly close-mouthed about it. None of them has ever been able to keep secrets like this." She frowned. "Maybe you could find out."
"We figured she had to be going with one of us, because she said she had a date, but she wouldn't say who," Ron said, his ears red. "But Neville and Dudley both claim she turned them down, and I know she turned me down." Both Neville and Dudley voiced their agreement.
Harry nodded thoughtfully as they walked toward the library. "That is compelling," he said, rubbing his chin. "And you three are the only boys she knows, do I have that right?"
Dudley glared at him. "Are you going with her?"
Harry laughed. "No. I'm going with Luna, assuming she says yes."
"So-" Ron did a double take. "Wait. Luna Lovegood? Really?"
Harry grinned. "Yeah, she's great."
"Uh huh," Ron said, shaking his head. "But that's it then. If she's not going with any of us, and not you, who could she be going with?"
"Do you think she's going with Blaise or Draco?" Neville asked, leaning past Dudley and fixing Harry with a curious look. Harry shook his head. "Blaise and Pansy are going together," Harry said. "And I don't know who Draco is going with, but it's certainly not Hermione. I think you lot are worrying about this way too much."
"But what if she's going with some git?" Ron asked. Dudley nodded furiously along with him. Neville seemed less willing to assume Hermione's attraction to gits, generally speaking, but he looked worried as well.
"Look, do any of you have dates, or are you going to spend all your free time until the Yule Ball trying to solve this mystery?" Harry very kindly did not inform them that he knew exactly who Hermione was going with, and that Krum wasn't a bad guy, really, as far as Harry knew from eating meals near him every day. He knew they wouldn't be pleased at all.
Dudley and Ron stared at Harry, embarrassed. Neville raised his hand. "I have a date."
"Good for you, Neville!" Harry said, holding the door to the library open for him and grinning. "Who is she?"
Neville glanced sideways at Ron. "Can I keep mine a secret too?" he asked hopefully. All three of them stared at him, and Ron's ears slowly began to turn red. Harry backed away from Ron, displaying a caution that had apparently not occurred to Dudley, who was standing obliviously between Ron's increasing anger and Neville's increasing guilt.
"Dudley," Harry said out of the corner of his mouth. "Get out of the crossfire."
Dudley's forehead furrowed as he considered Harry's words.
"Are you going with my sister?" Ron hissed. Dudley's eyes bulged and he stumbled backward out of the way and through the doors, leaving Neville and Ron in the hall. Harry backed up as well, and made a beeline for Anthony's table, Dudley in his wake.
"Bye, sorry Neville!" he called over his shoulder, and caught one last glimpse of the bravest Gryffindor he knew as Neville turned tail and ran.
"Anthony, Luna, hello," Harry said, sitting down. Madame Pince glared from behind her desk, and Dudley quickly followed suit.
"Hello," Anthony said. "I see the Yule Ball has claimed another batch of victims."
Harry grinned. Dudley glared at the table.
"Hermione has a mysterious date," Harry explained. "What are you two doing for the Yule Ball?"
"I'll be taking advantage of the empty common room," Anthony said. "The seventh years always take all the best seats by the Arithmancy shelves, and I've been wanting to read up on dimensional transmutation."
Harry nodded. No surprise there. "How about you, Luna?" he asked, suddenly nervous despite his best intentions. If she said no, he had no idea what he'd do for a date, and there was no way Blaise and Pansy would let him skip it. Blaise had already told him point blank that Harry was not to abandon him. And any girls he might be interested in going with were long since paired up.
Luna blinked at him. "I'm only in third year, Harry. I can't go unless I'm invited by someone older."
"Oh." Harry paused. "Well then, in that case, d'you…do you want to go with me?"
She tilted her head and observed Harry silently for long enough that he started to fidget. Then, finally: "I suppose so."
Harry grinned at her, relieved. "Great!" Dudley rolled his eyes. Harry glanced at him from the corner of his eye. "Now we just have to find Dudley a date. Any suggestions, Luna?"
It took far less of Luna's concentrated attention to make Dudley start to shift uncomfortably.
"I-I can find myself a girl, thanks," Dudley said, leaning back in his seat and away from her unblinking gaze.
"If you're sure," Harry said. "I'm sure Luna and I could-"
"No," Dudley said decisively. "No, I've got this one, Harry. Thanks."
Witch Weekly had a featured article about Harry the day before the end of term, which Harry discovered while minding his own business in the corridor. A group of giggling Ravenclaw girls passed by, and one of them waved the cover at another. Harry did a double take when he saw his own face staring out of it, looking resigned.
He was not surprised to discover that the article was written by Rita Skeeter. He managed to obtain a copy of it through somewhat illicit means (he stole it from one of the second year Slytherin girls), and tossed it down on the table in front of Blaise and Pansy at lunch.
"I can't look," he announced. "Is it awful? Please tell me it isn't awful."
"Witch Weekly, Harry," Pansy commented, picking up the magazine and riffling through to the right page. "I do believe you're moving up in the world."
"Pansy, being in Witch Weekly is not an accomplishment," Blaise disagreed. "I've been in Witch Weekly."
"You were only in because they did a profile on your mum," Pansy muttered, scanning the article. "Oh. Oh dear."
Harry watched her, worry creasing his brow. She lifted the magazine closer to her face and began a more thorough reading. The expression on her face became strained.
"What is it?" Blaise asked, and leaned over her shoulder to read along. Harry stared at his own picture on the front cover and felt like he was looking in a mirror; he and the picture both had the same despondent expression.
"What does it say?" he asked finally. Blaise's face was now impassive, and it was alarming.
Pansy took a breath and began to read aloud. "Harry Potter breaks hearts where ever he goes. No doubt as a result of his Byronic -"
Here, Pansy broke down and began snickering helplessly. "His…his Byronic good looks and ch-charming personality!" she shrieked, putting her face down on her arms and giggling madly.
Blaise was only better off in that he had managed to keep most of his composure. With an ear splitting grin, he plucked the magazine neatly out of Pansy's outstretched hands and straightened it. Clearing his throat, he said, "Here's my favourite part: Mothers, hang on to your daughters, because Harry Potter is…"
Blaise paused and covered his mouth with his hand, taking a deep breath and staring down at the page, hanging onto his poise with all he had. "Harry Potter is on the prowl."
He closed the magazine and set it next to his plate. The he made he mistake of looking up at Harry's face and lost it. Blaise sagged against Pansy and the two of them cackled without restraint. Harry glared at them both, though they were far too busy to notice.
"Mothers, hang on to your daughters!" Pansy cried, and they both fell back into near hysterics. Various Slytherin and Durmstrang students near them glanced over at the noise, and each of them grinned at the sight of the magazine. Harry felt himself turning red. How was it that he was always the last one to find out about this kind of thing?
"It's good to know that in my time of need, I have the support of my friends," Harry sulked. Pansy reached a hand out to him, nearly dipping her sleeve in the gravy.
"Oh, darling, of course you have our support," she snickered. "It's just…it's just too…'Byronic good looks'? Really?"
"I'm really getting sick of this," Harry muttered. Pansy nodded vigorously.
"Oh, definitely," she said, still grinning. "It's dreadful."
"She's a monster," Blaise agreed, straight faced. "She must be stopped."
"I'm going to pretend you both mean that," Harry told them, determinedly grumpy. "Instead of acknowledging your awful, awful sarcasm."
Pansy patted him on the hand. "There you go, Harry! Optimism will see you through."
Harry scowled at her, optimistically.
The article put Harry in a foul mood for the rest of the day. He spent the time after dinner that night hiding in behind the closed curtains of his four poster, watching the Marauder's Map and grimacing at anyone whose movements caught his eye.
He was waiting for the coast to be clear before he left for his final Occlumency and Parseltongue lesson of the term. (They were focussing on the subtler aspects of Occlumency, and so Snape had decreed they would not be duelling for the next few lessons.) He and Snape had agreed to take a short break during the holidays so that Snape could devote his time to his potions and next term's lesson plans, neither of which he was willing to discuss with Harry.
Harry watched the Map as the halls cleared until only one or two students were left wandering the path between his room and Snape's office. He didn't recognise their names, so he assumed they were younger years. He decided to bring his Cloak, just in case. He really didn't want to talk to anyone right now.
Rita's article had been more obnoxious than Pansy and Blaise had been able to reveal with a straight face. Not only was Harry made out to be some kind of fourteen year old Cassanova, but he was apparently stealing the innocence of every female he'd had a conversation with since the First Task. The list was shamefully short, according to Blaise. It basically amounted to Hermione, Luna, Pansy, and Tracy Davis, whom Harry had spoken to on the way to Herbology two weeks ago. He still had to track her down later on to apologise for some of the allusions Skeeter had made. It was embarrassing.
He folded up the Map and, throwing the Cloak over his shoulders, set out for the Slytherin common room, and the dungeon corridor beyond it.
He hadn't made it more than halfway to Snape's office when he was blindsided by an unexpected voice.
"What kind of mischief are you up to, hiding under that Cloak, Potter?"
Harry's heart nearly leapt out of his chest. He spun around to see Professor Moody coming out of an adjacent corridor, eying him beadily.
"Professor!" He gasped. "I didn't see you…"
He pulled his Cloak off, as it was obviously not hindering Moody's piercing gaze in the slightest.
"Constant vigilance, Potter," Moody remarked in a gruff voice. "Always remember."
"Yes, sir," Harry said, still kicking himself for being caught off guard by Moody of all people. "I was just headed to Professor Snape's office. I'm supposed to be meeting with him in a few minutes."
"Must be an important meeting," Moody said. "If you've got to hide that you're going."
Harry glanced away as he stuffed the Cloak in his pocket. "I just didn't want to have talk to students I might pass on the way," he said. "The newspaper articles recently…"
"Ah, Skeeter's work," Moody agreed, the faintest trace of a smile on his scarred mouth. "Just remember you're a Slytherin, Potter. Slytherins manipulate. They are not manipulated."
Harry nodded slowly. "Thank you, Professor," he said. "I'll remember that."
"See that you do," Moody growled. "Now put that Cloak back on and get to your meeting."
"Yes, sir," Harry said, hurrying to obey. He'd be late soon. He swirled the Cloak around his shoulders and started off toward Snape's office again.
"Just a second, Potter, you dropped your parchment," Moody said, stooping to pick it up. Harry turned around and watched, his mind racing. Had he wiped the Map clean before putting it away?
"Thank you, Professor," he said, reaching his hand out from under the Cloak to take it back. Moody, true to his character, looked at the parchment suspiciously. Harry hated himself for looking nervous, and tried to clear his mind, tried to act naturally. He thought of the absent feeling he'd been able to summon while detangling Luna's necklace; he tried to place it behind his eyes. Inside his head, he thought about how normal and boring the parchment was. Everyone always told Harry that his every thought showed up on his face.
"Awfully old bit of parchment, Potter," Moody said, and looked as though he was about to hand it back. Harry fought back the hope that rushed through him and thought instead about how he was going to be late for his meeting with Snape.
"It's been in my pocket for a while, I think," he explained. "The house elves might have washed it since I last looked at it. I think it was a trick parchment. Insults whoever tries to write on it, or something."
That was the safeguard on the Map. Sirius had explained how it had a built in defence mechanism. Whoever tried to make it reveal its secrets without the proper password would find themselves insulted with faux-politeness and at length, in writing, by the makers of the Map themselves.
Call it a trick parchment, and anyone looking would find what he'd told them to expect.
Moody's darker eye glanced up at him, and Harry thought again about how late he was going to be. He thought he'd been getting better at lying lately.
Moody shook his head and, to Harry's immense relief (because he really had to be meeting with Snape, of course), handed back the parchment. "On your way, now," he said, and Harry stuffed the Map back in his pocket and took off at a speedy pace. He heard Moody's wooden leg clunking rhythmically in the other direction. Relief spilled through him like cool pumpkin juice.
"I think I'm doing better, sir."
Snape raised an eyebrow and glanced into Harry's eyes. Harry put the absent feeling behind them and thought about Bertie Botts instead of all the things he'd done to deserve a detention in the past few weeks, like Snape wanted him to. Snape grimaced as Harry imagined the taste of the grass bean.
"Better, yes," Snape said, tenting his fingers and regarding Harry over them. "Though you have not quite mastered it. Why do you wander around under your Cloak before curfew?"
Harry grimaced and shifted in his chair. "I thought I'd stopped you!"
"You stopped me from learning about whatever it is you did to cause all of Professor Sprout's Tentacula seedlings to lose their teeth."
"I didn't do that, that was-" Harry cut himself off abruptly. Snape nodded once, amused at his last minute save. "That wasn't me," he finished.
"You must be able to clear your mind all of the memories you wish to hide, not just most of them," Snape lectured. "Otherwise, while you are looking in one direction, I can spend time out of your view, finding a trail of information that will lead me to what I want to know. All of your thoughts are connected. If I can pick up on even one vulnerable idea, I can follow that train of thought to the rest of your memories. How do you think you are to stop me from doing that?"
Harry considered this. "Could I give you a thought without any connections?"
"Every thought is connected to another." Snape shook his head. "There is no escaping the interconnectedness of the mind, and you would waste your time trying."
Harry frowned, stumped. Then he thought about the way he'd thought of the Map as just a parchment when he was trying to lie to Moody. "Maybe I could build a chain of thought that looked normal, but was actually fabricated?"
Snape nodded slowly. Encouraged, Harry continued. "If I came up with a fake idea, and built a chain of fake thoughts from that idea, you'd follow the fake chain for as long as I made it before you'd find a real one that would lead you back into my actual memories."
"An interesting theory," Snape said, leaning back in his chair. "We will test it."
Harry braced himself.
He could feel Snape trying to sift through his mind, looking for his current opinion of Draco. Though nearly undone by Snape's underhanded use of an obviously touchy subject to throw Harry's focus, he managed to build a fiction in his head. He and Draco were having a fight right now (and he had all kinds of ill will toward Draco to prove it) because they both had certain ideas about the kind of people Harry should associate with. Draco wanted him to stop talking to Gryffindors and muggleborns, and in fact, Harry remembered the expression on Draco's face when he first discovered Harry was friends with Hermione Granger. As far as Harry was concerned, Draco could shove his bigotry up his-
"Very good, Mr. Potter," Snape told him, setting his wand down on the desk between them. "A believable story, proper memories to back it up, and a long enough chain of thoughts, each of them peppered with genuine emotion, that no one who didn't already know the truth would question it. And a certain amount of conviction behind it all as well."
Harry nodded. "It all felt more authentic to think of it all as true in the front of my mind, rather than as a lie I'm trying to convince you of." He paused. "And anyway, we really did have that argument. Just not this year."
"Indeed. Take caution when lying to yourself, Mr. Potter," Snape said. "This kind of misdirection will only benefit you if, in the deepest parts of your mind, you are not truly fooled."
The winter holidays usually meant a nice break from the hectic bustle of Hogwarts, but with the Yule Ball coming up, barely any of the students fourth year and above were going home. It was strange to see the halls so full when no one really had anywhere in particular to be.
On the other hand, the library was completely empty, but for Madam Pince and Harry.
He was waiting for his Gryffindor friends to show up, or barring that, his Ravenclaw friends. He didn't have plans to meet here with either of them, not really, but then again, the groups he was waiting for were led by Hermione Granger and Anthony Goldstein respectively. The two of them were like homing pigeons; no matter where they went, no matter what they did, after a while they were inexplicably drawn back to the library. He'd kind of expected them to be here already when he arrived. He leaned back in his chair and flipped through Quidditch Through the Ages, pausing to examine a diagram of a Chaser doing the Starfish and Stick maneuver.
"Harry Potter. I vould like to talk with you."
Harry glanced up in time to see Victor Krum of all people dropping into the seat across from him at his table and eyeing him suspiciously.
"Er," Harry said. "Um, sure, okay. How can I help you?"
"Vot is your…relationship with Herm-own-ninny?"
Harry stared at him. "With-"
"…we're friends," Harry said, starting to smile in spite of himself. Nevermind that Krum was obviously here because of Skeeter's articles. He was asking after Hermione and calling her Herm-own-ninny and Harry was never going to stop teasing her about this. "Just friends, honestly."
Krum regarded him narrowly. "The newspaper said-"
"You mean 'Rita Skeeter said'," Harry reminded him. "I know you've met her, I saw the interview she did with you."
Krum winced. "I haff a publicist for Quidditch," he said. "I do not usually talk to the press."
"Hermione," Harry enunciated clearly, "and I are just good friends. Skeeter likes to make things up. I'm going to the Yule Ball with Luna Lovegood, anyway."
Krum leaned back, satisfied. "Good," he said, glancing down at Harry's book. "Do you play Quidditch?"
Harry grinned. "I play for Slytherin, yeah," he said. "Or at least, I would if we were playing this year. The last time I was on a broom, it was with that guy, Poliakoff."
The expression that crossed Krum's face when Harry mentioned Poliakoff was an awkward one. "He is a strange boy," Krum said, in response to Harry's enquiring glance.
Harry remembered, grudgingly, the last conversation he'd had with Draco. He had said something similar. "Do you know him well?"
"Not really," Krum said. "Before we came to Hogwarts, we did not have same interests. We did not speak. But he is… odd." Harry nodded. He couldn't argue with that. Krum changed the subject back to something more important. "What position do you play?"