Harry's owl returned from Remus and Sirius in early October with ruffled feathers and a generally disgruntled attitude.
"What happened, Loki?" Harry asked as he smoothed the feathers down and untied a thick scroll from his leg. It was unusual for his owl to deliver post after breakfast, but here he was, sitting on a windowsill and ruffling his feathers at Harry as he walked to Transfiguration.
The owl hooted and shifted irritably on his windowsill, favouring one wing. Harry cast him a concerned glance as he unrolled the parchment and skimmed through an incredibly tedious account of an argument Remus and Sirius had been having about the placement of tomatoes in their new vegetable garden.
Frowning, Harry rifled through the pages, noting that each one detailed another irrelevant story. Remus didn't mention anything Harry had written to him.
A code, then. By the amount of parchment, Remus must have sent the lesson plans. Harry rolled the parchment back up and stuck it in his pocket, turning his attention back to the bird.
"You alright?" he asked, reaching out to examine the wing. Loki hooted and flapped his wings at Harry, then shifted around to face the open window. Harry was stung until he realized that the position gave him a better view of the damage.
A few feathers were broken, but overall it seemed like the wing was alright. Loki seemed more angry than hurt, anyway.
"I'll take you to Grubbly-Plank and have her look at you," Harry decided, but Loki was too quick. With another sharp series of hoots, he took off out the open window, only compensating slightly on the one side.
Harry stared out the window after him, concern and suspicion twisting his insides. Nothing like this had ever happened to Loki before. He pulled himself away from the window and hurried to class, frowning and hoping his owl really was alright.
Later on that afternoon, Harry found Anthony and Luna at their usual spot, buried in a mountain of books and papers and looking entirely at home. He cleared off a chair and sat down, shifting a stack of books so that he wasn't sitting outside the mountain so much as in an adjacent foothill, with plenty of space of his own to expand.
"Hello, Harry. You're looking well today."
This from Luna, who Harry couldn't actually see. He finally spotted half her face through a gap in the books and grinned at her.
"You too, Luna," he said, leaning back in his seat and feeling his shoulders loosen a bit. "Have you both started the assignment for Charms?"
"I'm working on Potions right now," Anthony piped up from the other side of the table. "Charms is a lunchtime pursuit."
"I do Charms at sunset, myself," Luna acknowledged. "We can work on it together in half an hour or so if you like, Harry."
"Sounds good," Harry said, pulling his bag up from where he'd dropped it on the floor and sorting through it. He could finish his Care of Magical Creatures assignment in a half hour, easy.
The three of them fell into a companionable silence as they worked through the mountains of assigned (and optional) homework their professors had given them for the week.
Deep into an explanation of the sort of differences one could expect between a satyr and a porlock, and how to handle the latter, Harry almost didn't hear the polite cough behind him. He glanced toward the source of the sound and caught sight of blonde hair and a green and silver tie.
Harry repressed the urge to sink down in his seat and instead attempted to project an extraordinary focus on incredibly difficult homework by hunching over it and sticking his nose as far into his book as was still believable.
When the cough came again, Harry darted a glance to the left and saw that the source of the sound was still there. He looked back at his homework and gave up.
"Hi," he muttered, glancing briefly at his once-friend again. Draco looked more uncomfortable than Harry, but there was determination in the set of his shoulders that Harry's own defensive posture lacked.
"May I speak with you?" Draco asked, polite as a stranger. Harry bit his tongue and glared miserably down at his essay.
He didn't have to see the expression on Draco's face to know it was the one that meant he wasn't going to stop until he got his way. It was in his voice, and the brief snatch of body language Harry had caught when he looked over. It would be best to get this over with quickly.
That didn't mean he wanted to, though.
"I'm a bit busy," Harry said, still focusing on his work and ostensibly writing something about hooves. He'd probably have to erase it later. "O.W.L.'s, you know."
Draco hesitated. "It's been over a month since term started."
Harry tapped his quill in a staccato beat against his parchment, wondering what Anthony and Luna must think of this conversation. He could see Luna's forehead through the gap in the books, and she appeared for all intents and purposes to be ignoring them entirely. He couldn't see what Anthony was doing.
"Harry," Draco said, and Harry pushed his chair back abruptly.
"Fine," he said, striding past Draco toward the library doors, refusing to meet his eye. "Five minutes."
"I'm sorry," Draco said, once they were alone in an empty classroom. Harry paced through the empty desks and turned around in the middle of the room, crossing his arms. He hadn't panicked upon seeing Draco since that day on the train, but he was still a painful reminder of things Harry would rather not think about. As a result, he spent as little time in Draco's presence as possible.
"Okay," he said. Draco blinked.
"Sure." Harry glanced away. "Can I go now?"
Draco frowned. "Are we alright?"
Harry stared at Draco's tie for a long minute, debating with himself. The truth won out in the end, and he looked Draco in the eye to say it. "Of course we're not. You... why would you even ask that?"
"Because, Harry!" Draco paused and lowered his voice when Harry glared at him. "I spent all summer miserable! My parents don't want me to talk to you anymore, you wouldn't answer my letters, I didn't know if you were okay-"
"Well I wasn't," Harry snapped. "And maybe you should take a hint. Sounds like you're getting enough of them."
Draco clenched his fists at his sides. "What do you mean?"
"I mean you've got a choice, Draco," Harry said, glaring at him from behind four rows of desks. "You can be your father's son. You can join Voldemort, get a tattoo." His voice wavered. "Or you can be my friend. You can't do both."
"Of course I don't want to join the Dark Lord!" Draco said, raising his voice again. "I never wanted to!"
"How am I supposed to believe that?" Harry yelled back. "Your father helped kill the Headmaster of Durmstrang! He stood there and told everyone how little use you had for me once you realized I wasn't going to join up!"
"That's not true!"
"How do I know that?"
Draco snarled. "Because we've been friends for years!"
"We haven't been friends for a long time, Draco," Harry said coldly. "I have every reason to doubt anything you say to me after last year."
Draco swallowed and clutched at the strap of his bag, suddenly lost for words. Harry didn't give him a chance to find them.
"Your parents or me, Draco," he said, taking the long way around to the door. "You can't have it both ways."
Draco blinked, his eyes going wide and frantic. "I can't choose between you and my parents!"
"And I can't trust you," Harry said. He felt like his chest might explode if he didn't leave soon. "I don't see how it's a difficult choice."
Harry regretted the conversation with Draco almost as soon as he was able to think clearly again. He had said some cruel things, and the worst part was that he had no intention of taking any of it back. It was all true.
The weekend was a welcome distraction. Hermione had set up a meeting for people who might be interested in joining their study group, and Harry was hoping it would go well. He was looking forward to getting back to real Defense.
After a few ridiculous suggestions from the Gryffindors about where and when the meeting should be held, it was decided that they would meet on the grounds, on the far side of the lake.
He and Pansy were the only two Slytherins to make an appearance, which wasn't a particular surprise. They walked together, arm in arm, toward the tree under which a large group of students had gathered.
"Look at all those people," Harry muttered under his breath.
They approached the large, chattering group with mild caution. They looked a lot more natural out here on one of the last relatively warm days of the year than they would have in a seedy pub in Hogsmeade. They weren't the only students outside enjoying the weather, and the way that everyone had clumped together in smaller groups made it questionable that they were all even together. Pansy cast an approving eye over the lot of them.
"And she wanted to meet in the Hog's Head," she said scornfully. "We might as well have put up a notice in the Great Hall."
Some of the students had noticed their arrival, and a murmur travelled through the group. Harry tried not to make eye contact with anyone he didn't already know. It was difficult, because they were all looking at him. Pansy put her nose in the air and dragged Harry over to sit with his Gryffindor friends with only a faint sneer.
Dudley, Ron and Neville were all crowded around Hermione. The twins were nearby, and next to them sat a group of students in Gryffindor colours, some of whom Harry vaguely recognised from Quidditch. Johnson, at least, was the new Gryffindor captain.
A smattering of Hufflepuffs sat furthest from Harry and Pansy, none of them pleased to see him if their expressions were anything to go by. Anthony and Luna sat closest to the Gryffindors, and were joined by several other Ravenclaws that Harry didn't necessarily recognise, Quidditch or no. Few of them seemed particularly inviting, though Padma Patil, the pretty Ravenclaw in his year who was sitting with her twin from Gryffindor, gave him hope with her comparatively neutral expression.
Harry thought about smiling at her, but Hermione chose that moment to clear her throat and start the meeting.
"H-hi, everyone," she said, nervous. The chattering died down as everyone shifted around to look at her. "You all know why you're here." She glanced at Harry, whose heart sank very definitively at the look she was giving him. "We had the idea that, that it might be a good idea if people who want to study Defense Against the Dark Arts, I mean, really study it, you know, not that rubbish Umbridge is doing with us-"
Harry listened as Hermione outlined her idea, gaining confidence as her audience proved responsive. And then, she said it.
"Because Lord Voldemort's back."
The response was immediate. Shudders, yelps, even physical recoiling. Harry realized suddenly that every eye was on him, and he turned his head very slowly to find that, yes, Hermione was staring at him too, her expression pleading.
He was going to kill her.
"Well... that's the plan anyway," she continued, still staring earnestly at him despite the fierce glare he was currently subjecting her to. She hadn't mentioned that 'helping with the study group' would mean using him as bait for members. "If you want to join us, we need to decide-"
"Where's the proof You-Know-Who's back?" This from one of the Hufflepuff boys. Harry took a deep breath and raised an eyebrow at Hermione, maintaining a stubborn silence.
"Dumbledore believes it," Hermione began, only to be immediately interrupted.
"You mean Dumbledore believes that Slytherin over there," the Hufflepuff said, his voice ringing with skepticism. Harry, the Slytherin in question, stared stonily back at him. "I think we have a right to hear the story ourselves if we're being asked to believe it."
Hermione leaned forward. "Look-"
"I'm sorry," Pansy said pleasantly, leaning in front of Harry to get a better view of the Hufflepuff. "I might be mistaken, but I don't believe anyone asked your opinion, Macmillan."
The Hufflepuff, Macmillan apparently, glared at her. "I just think that we have a right-"
"No, you don't have a right," Pansy interrupted. "If Harry wants to tell you about what happened to him outside of the announcement Dumbledore made last year, then that's his privilege. And yours, if he was somehow potions-addled enough to decide to confide in a pompous, nouveau riche prick like yourself."
The expression on her face was one Harry hadn't seen in a long time. Most of his Pansy-instincts were telling him to apologise, back away, and avoid eye contact, but Macmillan wasn't quite that in tune with his self-preservation instincts.
"Dumbledore didn't tell us anything last year," Macmillan said, ignoring the insults. "Just that he got kidnapped and the Durmstrang headmaster got murdered and he fought You-Know-Who and escaped, which sounds like a load of rubbish to me."
"Right, where's the proof?" One of the Gryffindor boys Harry didn't know very well spoke up before Pansy or Harry could respond, ignoring twin glares from Dudley and Neville. "He told us what Potter told him. How do we know he didn't make it all up?"
"If he's not even willing to give us details, what else are we supposed to believe?" Macmillan's enthusiasm for the argument seemed to lift now that he had a vocal ally.
Pansy's eyes narrowed, but Harry was already too riled up to let that slide.
"He's right here, and I'm not lying," he sneered. "Excuse me for not wanting to go on and on about watching someone get murdered and someone else chop off their own hand and then nearly get killed myself! Anyone who does want to hear about things like that is a morbid git, in my opinion!"
Silence met these words, and Harry took a deep, calming breath. Everyone was staring at him with wide eyes. Macmillan opened his mouth again, but Hermione managed to beat him to it this time.
"Er... so, anyway," she said, trying to recapture the attention of the group. "like I was saying, if you want to learn some defense, then we need to work out how we're going to do it, how often we're going to meet, and where we're going to-"
"If there are going to be Slytherins in the group, then I'm not joining," the Hufflepuff announced, meeting Harry's glare with a foul one of his own. "If we're going to have to keep it a secret, we should be able to trust everyone involved."
There was a murmur of agreement from several other students, and Harry clenched his jaw.
"If you want to-"
"Of course Harry's trustworthy," Anthony said, unintentionally interrupting Pansy. It was probably for the best. She'd looked about ready to rip Macmillan's tongue right out of his mouth. "His House is irrelevant. He has never given any indication of Dark tendencies or even maladaptive social behaviours. Over the course of our friendship, his most pressing motivations have often centred around caring for his friends and family, and he is unusually academically inclined for a non-Ravenclaw." He glanced around at the group and delivered the final blow. "He visited my home over break in third year, and he didn't steal or curse a single thing."
Anthony nodded and leaned back in the grass as though the matter were settled. Harry could personally have done without that last bit, but he was appreciative of the vote of confidence all the same.
"...he's a Parselmouth, though, isn't he?"
"I don't see how that's relevant, considering-" Pansy began, but she was interrupted.
"Right, and isn't his godfather that convict, Sirius Black?" A different Gryffindor from the last time, though he at least quailed under the Weasley twins' disapproval.
"Sirius is innocent, Lee," Hermione said firmly, frowning. "The Wizengamot pardoned him."
More and more of them were muttering amongst themselves, even as those of the group that considered themselves friendly with Harry tried to defend him. Dudley looked ready to hit one of his dormmates. Pansy and Macmillan were sneering insults at each other.
Harry was starting to feel cornered.
"He's a Slytherin, that's proof enough right there-"
Finally, he gave in and stood up.
"You know what?" Harry stood up and brushed off his knees, scowling. Pansy jumped to her feet and glared daggers at the lot of them. "Fine. I won't be in your bloody group, since I'm clearly not welcome."
"Harry!" Hermione stood too. "Of course you're welcome! I have-"
Harry shook his head several times. "I'm not. And I don't want to work with people who are just going to spend all their time glaring at me and asking me questions I'm not going to answer."
He stormed away with what little dignity he had left. Pansy hurried to keep up with him, still spitting mad.
"I'm going to put something in Macmillan's drink at breakfast tomorrow," Pansy said darkly. "He'll think twice before calling me a shrew again."
Harry rubbed his face, miserable. "Just don't kill him. Or get caught, actually."
"Of course not," Pansy said, taking his arm. She glanced back at the sound of footsteps behind them.
"Thanks for the support," she said. Harry looked back as well, and tried to smile as Anthony and Luna caught up with them.
"Simply outrageous," Anthony declared. "Hermione has a lot on her plate with that group."
"We won't be involved, of course," Luna agreed. "The number of wrackspurts they would attract with their small-minded accusations is unthinkable."
"Thanks, Luna," Harry said, sinking down to sit under another tree, much closer to Hogwarts than the one where the other students still gathered. "Thanks, Anthony. I should have known, honestly. Hermione wouldn't have gotten that many people to show up without something more than extra homework to offer."
Pansy knelt down in the grass next to him and put a hand on his shoulder. "That cow will pay, Harry, don't worry."
Harry shook his head. "Leave her alone. I want to yell at her myself. It's the rest of them that were really awful, anyway."
"And they'll regret it," Pansy said with conviction. Her retributive form of comfort actually made Harry feel a bit better, against all odds.
The group of them sat together under the tree for another fifteen minutes while Harry tried to pretend he wasn't sulking. Anthony and Luna excused themselves after a little while, and Pansy and Harry stood up to go back inside, uninterested in the nice weather now that the day had been spoiled.
Harry nearly tripped over himself when they passed by the lake just in time to see Padma Patil and her twin sister leaving the meeting, engaged in what looked like intense conversation. Pansy let go of his arm with an amused smile, just in time for Padma to glance up and meet his eye. Her expression had been neutral all through the meeting, but now she gave him a very small, sympathetic smile.
Harry blinked at her and nodded, feeling like an idiot. She looked back at her sister a second later, and Pansy elbowed him gleefully.
"When did that happen, then?" she asked. Harry smiled a little bit, watching the sisters walk away.
"Just now, I guess." He felt a bit lighter, suddenly.
Snape paced back and forth behind his desk in his office after midnight later on that week. Harry perched in his usual chair and tried to keep his hands from shaking enough to swallow a calming draught.
"Describe this nightmare for me in detail," Snape demanded. Harry looked up and met Snape's eyes, and felt better for it.
"V-voldemort was furious," Harry began tentatively. Snape stopped his pacing and waited. "Quirrell was there. He was mad because Quirrell almost got caught trying to break in somewhere. He... he cursed him with something I didn't recognise."
Snape didn't pursue the foreign magic, to Harry's relief. The results had been gruesome. "Where were they?"
Harry frowned and swallowed. "They were, er, in a room with a fireplace. That huge snake of his was there too. You- why does it matter?"
"I have explained your connection to the Dark Lord in the past," Snape said, resuming his pacing. "My concern is that this is a further display of that connection."
"So... so you think my nightmare was real," Harry asked, horrified when Snape nodded.
"I do," Snape allowed. "We would like for you to avoid the experience in the future."
Harry nodded. He was on board with that plan. "What do I do?"
"We'll discuss it in more detail tomorrow, as it is quite late and you have classes tomorrow," Snape said. "We will build a space in your mind where the Dark Lord's connection can be safely contained, so that if the Dark Lord does attempt to breach your defences, he will find only what you wish to show him."
Harry took a large gulp of his water and tried not to think about Voldemort having what essentially amounted to a guest bedroom inside Harry's head. "Yes, sir."
"Get some sleep, Mr. Potter," Snape said finally, pausing to watch as Harry climbed to his feet. "We will meet tomorrow, at the usual time."
The next day proved daunting from the moment Harry rolled out of bed and saw that Draco was already headed for the showers. He ended up waiting around for a chance to use the bathroom without having to interact, and missed breakfast as a result.
Hermione was currently trying to figure out a way to work around the newest bit of news from Umbridge, the High Inquisitor. Apparently word had gotten out about the meeting over the weekend, because yesterday morning had brought with it an 'Educational Decree' disbanding all student groups pending the approval of the Inquisitor.
"I don't know who could have said anything," Hermione said for the fourth time as they walked to class together Tuesday morning. "I had everyone sign our paper, even you and Anthony and Pansy and Luna. The four of you were the only ones who got away without signing it at the actual meeting, and none of you would have said anything, of course."
"And the whole point of meeting in the open like that was to be sure you could see everyone who might be listening," Harry agreed. "It's a bit of a trick."
"We'll figure it out," Hermione said. "We just have to find a place to meet where she won't find us."
Harry personally couldn't care less about where a group of people who hated him decided to practice magic, and said so.
"Harry, they don't all hate you," Hermione insisted. "Quite a lot of the people in the group are friends of yours or ours. The rest will come around. You didn't hear what happened after you left."
They'd had this conversation already, the first time Harry yelled at her for what happened at that meeting. According to Hermione, the heated argument that had been going on while Harry sat and listened only got more heated after he left, on both sides.
"Half of them are hardly willing to be within ten feet of me without having their wands out, Hermione. It's nice that my friends haven't turned on me too, but that doesn't change the fact that I don't want any part in this group."
Hermione stopped in the middle of the hall and clutched her books to her chest. "Oh, but you promised you'd let us use those lesson plans, Harry!"
Harry thought about telling her to get her own lesson plans, but he could see how much stress the very idea of it was causing her. Hermione hadn't stopped looking harried since they stepped off the train at the beginning of term.
"Still getting in an hour here and there for those naps?" he asked instead. Hermione blinked at him and coloured.
"...not as often as I probably should," she admitted. The chain for her time turner glinted at her collar, and Harry raised his eyebrows. "I've been using them for studying instead."
They started walking again. "You know you shouldn't," Harry said, and relented. "Of course you can still use the lesson plans."
"Thank you so much, Harry!" Hermione said, giving him a quick hug. She let go and paused, looking over his shoulder. "Er, listen, I have to, ah... talk to Professor Babbling before class, okay?"
She smiled at him and dashed off, leaving him standing in the middle of the hallway staring after her.
"She looked like she was in an awful hurry." Harry glanced away from Hermione's retreating back and saw that Padma Patil was standing next to him, head tipped slightly to one side as she watched her go.
He nearly dropped his books.
"S-she, yes," he stuttered. "She was, yes."
"Ancient Runes?" she asked, giving him a small smile. Harry nodded, though he managed to make himself stop before he looked too foolish. "We'll be late if we don't get going."
"Right," Harry said, and, incredibly, they fell into step and walked together toward the staircase. Ancient Runes was on the next level, and Harry had never been more grateful for moving staircases than he was right now. The wait gave him a chance to pull himself together and find something to say.
"Do you like Ancient Runes?" he asked, glancing at her and quickly looking away when she noticed. She tucked a silky lock of hair behind her ear and answered.
"Well enough," she said. "I like Arithmancy better, though. Parvati thinks I'm insane, but there you go."
Harry nodded. "Your sister?"
"My twin sister, yes."
The staircase arrived, and they stepped onto it in tandem. Harry struggled to come up with another comment while ignoring the mental war going on in his head because he was talking to Padma Patil and he was going to screw it up and say something stupid, he needed to run away now, but she was looking at him and he had to stay for that.
"We both thought it was horrid, what Ernie said about you," Padma told him halfway up the stairs, which stopped his mental self-beration entirely.
"You did?" Harry's day was suddenly looking a lot better.
"We did," Padma confirmed. "Of course you don't want to talk about what happened. I wouldn't want to either. You looked like a wreck last term."
Harry scrubbed at the back of his neck and looked at her while she adjusted her bag busily. Her cheeks were slightly tinged with pink.
"What I meant," she said after a moment, "Is that I don't think you're a liar at all."
Harry found himself smiling more genuinely than he had in a few weeks. "Thanks," he said. "That's, that really... Thank you."
She nodded at him and gave him a small smile in return as they reached the classroom and parted ways at the door. Hermione was sitting in her usual spot, and gave him a look when he sat down next to her.
"Padma says she believes me," Harry said with a beatific smile. "She likes Arithmancy and she believes me."
"That's wonderful, Harry," Hermione said, and if she looked amused, Harry didn't care.