Despite the bright spots in his days that were Padma smiling at him from across a classroom or as they passed in the hallways, the stress of the year was still getting to Harry.
That was the explanation he gave, anyway, when Pansy and Blaise cornered him separately to express their disappointment when he received an entire week's worth of detentions from Umbridge in November. In truth, he found that he just couldn't stand the awful woman, and he couldn't always let her comments slide off his back.
By the end of the week, the back of Harry's hand had stopped healing entirely, and by Friday when Umbridge pronounced the detentions at an end with a satisfied smile, the blood dripped steadily down his fingers. He waited until he'd left her office to stem the flow with a handkerchief, choosing instead to deliberately drip blood onto her rug. It was the little things that got him by this year.
There wasn't going to be any hiding this from his friends anymore, Harry realised as he held his hand under the cold tap in the boy's bathroom and waited for the bleeding to abate. Lines, indeed.
Sure enough, Pansy was less than pleased when Harry came upon her in the Slytherin common room, where she'd been talking with one of the older Slytherin boys. She quickly dismissed him and pulled Harry down onto the couch when she spotted his bloodstained handkerchief.
"She had you carve your own hand open?" she asked, outraged. "How archaic! You have to tell Snape."
"I thought you said I should keep my head down until we know how to handle her," Harry said sullenly as she turned his hand over in hers, examining it from every angle to be certain there wasn't any other damage.
"Yes well, that plan failed." She gave his hand back and frowned at him. "So now we'll have to do damage control, and Professor Snape will know better than we would how we should go about it."
"If he tries anything, she'll just sack him," Harry argued, more out of irritation than anything else. "Head Inquisitor, remember?"
Pansy rolled her eyes. "Snape is cleverer than that, Harry. He's not going to get himself fired."
Up in the dormitory, Harry found that Blaise had the same advice. The two of them huddled behind the curtains in Harry's bed, Blaise examining him with as much concern as Pansy had not twenty minutes ago.
"We have to tell Snape," Blaise said as he let go of Harry's hand. Harry nodded, leaning back against one of the posts at the foot of his bed. "He'll fix things so that Umbridge doesn't have a leg to stand on, you'll see," he continued. "And he'll have advice for you, too. He's good with things like this, you know that."
"Yeah," Harry muttered. Snape would probably end up finding out anyway. Harry might as well tell him and save himself a lecture on coming to Snape when he had problems. "So... If you don't mind my asking..." Harry paused. Blaise and Pansy hadn't been quite so intolerant of each other recently. Now was a prime opportunity, if ever. "What happened with you and Pansy, anyway?"
Blaise lifted his eyebrows in a parody of shock. "You actually want to know?"
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means, Harry," Blaise drawled, settling back on Harry's pillows and stretching out his legs, "That you never showed an interest in our relationship at all. Even when it was a relationship. Pansy and I wondered if you were trying to pretend it wasn't happening for a while, until we remembered you really are just that oblivious."
"I knew you were dating!" Harry said, ignoring the heat in his cheeks and hoping Blaise couldn't see it. The skeptical lift of his eyebrow suggested otherwise, however, and Harry rushed to defend himself. "You'd been dating since at least the Christmas holidays."
"Late November, actually," Blaise said, though he lowered his eyebrow. "Do you know how we started dating?"
Harry faltered. He had thought they'd gotten together at the Yule Ball.
"Didn't think so." Blaise paused, and folded his hands together. "It was an epic story, Harry. It started in the middle and everything."
Harry blinked. Blaise rolled his eyes. Thus prompted, Harry asked, "How did it happen?"
"Bagman called her an ugly cow in my hearing." Blaise grinned a little. "Not in hers, though, else she'd have ripped him to pieces, naturally."
Harry grinned back. "Naturally."
"I don't know why he said it, actually," he paused. "Probably she was being Pansy, you know. It didn't matter at the time. Anyway, I went up to him and made a bet-"
"That's what that was all about?" Harry interrupted, sitting forward. "I remember you did that. Then Pansy made sure he was doomed by making her bet, and-"
"It was our first shared hobby as a couple," Blaise said with a touch of nostalgia in his voice. "We didn't ruin him, you know. He did it to himself, even without our bets. He got in too deep with the goblins."
Harry shook his head, wanting to be shocked but not quite able to muster it. "So what happened?"
Blaise sobered. "Oh, well, the stress of the summer, you know. We had a pretty big argument, and after that, we started owling each other instead of flooing or visiting. It sort of went downhill from there."
Harry nodded, watching Blaise look down at his hands with an unhappy twist to his mouth.
"You're bleeding on your sheets," Blaise said eventually. Harry glanced down and rewrapped his handkerchief more securely around his hand.
"Sorry," Harry said. Blaise shrugged and clapped him on the shoulder.
"They're your sheets," he said, and disappeared through Harry's curtains to his own bed.
It turned out that Harry got his lecture from Snape anyway.
"Skeeter has been rather restrained in the past few months." Snape noted as he and Harry circled each other in the open space at the front of the professor's desk.
Harry fixed his eyes below the level of Snape's chin, Occluding fiercely. He had to jump quickly in the next second to throw up a shield before Snape's curse hit.
"As it is unlikely she is simply on vacation, or refraining from commenting on the most recent round of speculation about yourself and the headmaster out of the goodness of her heart, I must wonder what has silenced her."
"Well..." Harry said, buying time by cursing the stone under Snape's feet to crumble and scatter in the air in front of his face while he stumbled. He followed that up with a disarming spell, which Snape deflected back at him.
Harry managed to block it in time, and continued. "Maybe she just realized it would be bad for her career."
Snape's eyes narrowed and spelled the chair behind Harry to attack him. "And who in this hypothetical situation of yours helped her to realize that?"
Harry hesitated, and found himself suddenly dangling upside down in the air as Snape advanced on him.
"Blaise and Pansy and I," he admitted, knowing that Snape wouldn't tolerate misdirection just now. Snape blinked at him slowly. "We found out she's an unregistered animagus. She's not going to publish anything for another year."
"Mr. Potter," Snape hissed, watching as Harry struggled to get himself down. It was like Snape was holding the spell in place, so that Harry's attempts at the countercurse had no effect. "When I told you to bring problems to me, what had we just finished speaking about?"
Harry looked up at his feet. It was a strange angle. "We were talking about Skeeter."
"And now you have 'dealt' with her alone once more, against my express wishes. I do not wish to take points from Slytherin, Mr. Potter, but if you continue to make foolish decisions, I will have no choice."
"I'm sorry, sir. It won't happen again." He cast around for something to lessen the heavy feeling in his chest. Snape was shockingly good at making him feel guilty about things he hadn't thought twice about doing at the time. "I do have a problem I wanted to talk to you about, actually." He held out his hand where the blood quill had left a raw tracing of his lines. "I don't know what to do about this."
As he explained, Harry felt Snape's hold on the spell ease, and he managed to right himself and sit down in the chair that had been attacking him not ten minutes ago. The duel was over now.
Snape examined Harry's hand with expressionless eyes, and once Harry finished his tale, stood and selected a small bottle from the many that sat on shelves behind his desk.
"That isn't murtlap essence, is it?" Harry asked hopefully. The student stores had been out for the past week, and Harry had really been wanting to try out Filch's suggestion.
"It is," Snape said, looking almost surprised. "Finally doing the extra readings in Potions, Mr. Potter?"
"I've just heard it helps," Harry said hastily. If he said yes, Snape would want to discuss the reading, which was not on Harry's agenda for tonight or any other night when all the professors, Snape included, were assigning so much O.W.L. work already.
Snape handed Harry the bottle and a small cloth to soak in the essence. Harry draped the cloth over his hand and felt the irritation wane immediately. He had nearly stopped noticing it until it was gone.
"Unfortunately, as High Inquisitor, Professor Umbridge has unprecedented power here at Hogwarts," Snape said, turning the conversation back to Harry's initial concern. "The wisest course of action at the moment is to avoid angering her entirely." Snape's dark eyes glittered. "Consider it good practice in self restraint and maneuvering."
"At the moment, you said," Harry pointed out hopefully. He didn't think he could handle an entire year of Umbridge calling him a liar without snapping. A single class period was difficult enough. Snape paused.
"At the moment," he agreed. "There will undoubtedly come a time when more outward action should be taken, and we'll be prepared precisely because we did not waste our efforts where they would not be of use. And Mr. Potter?"
Harry looked up at the sardonic lilt to Snape's voice.
"I can promise you that when that time comes, I will let you know. If you do not heed my advice, it will be on your own head."
Harry nodded. He'd begun to understand the difference between times when Snape reading his mind and when he was just being uncanny. This was one of the latter situations.
The Gryffindor/Slytherin match was always the most competitive of the quidditch season. Harry never quite knew how to deal with the rivalry, since he had friends not only in Gryffindor, but on the Gryffindor Quidditch team as well. Usually, when the Slytherins went down to heckle the Gryffindors at practice, he joined them but kept fairly quiet.
But when they were playing, it didn't matter who they were playing against. Harry played his best every time. In the past, that had been good enough for Flint.
Now that Pucey was captain, of course, he had something to say about it.
"Potter, we're going to win this match today," Pucey said, towering over Harry and glaring down at him.
"Of course we are," Harry said promptly. Pucey's eyes narrowed.
"I don't care if you're a traitor to the House," he said. "You won't be a traitor to this team, or you'll be off it faster than you can say 'accidental' foul."
Harry straightened up and glared right back. "I am not a traitor to the House or the team! I've been flying for Slytherin since my second year, and we haven't once lost to Gryffindor!"
Pucey sneered. "All I'm saying is, make sure that doesn't change, and you and I won't have a problem. And another thing." He leaned forward and lowered his voice. "Keep your fucking head down, Potter. We don't need our chances ruined because you're in detention with Umbridge during a match."
Pucey turned on his heel and left Harry seething at his locker where he had been strapping on his gear not two minutes prior. The other members of the team ignored Harry as he finished dressing and left the locker room.
It was a good thing being Seeker was a solitary role, Harry thought as he rose above the other players at the whistle. If he'd been a Beater, or, Merlin forbid, a Chaser, they would have lost for sure, because the only person on the team willing to look at Harry without suspicion or irritation was Draco.
At least Fred and George over on the Gryffindor team were willing to give him a grin whenever he happened to cross their paths. Ginny, their little sister, was playing Seeker for their side.
She wasn't half bad, Harry decided as he swooped down on the Snitch with her hot on his heels and snatched it up. She'd probably win against the Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw Seekers, seeing as how the old ones had been seventh years last year and needed replacing.
His victory was fairly anticlimatic, as he wasn't exactly in the mood for celebrating what with Pucey's anti-pep-talk before the game. Harry landed his broom amidst cheers from the Slytherin stands and dropped the Snitch into Hooch's hands with a brief nod as he passed, headed for the showers and a good sulk.
Hermione's study group had become a big success. She'd come up with these clever little galleons that gave both the time of the next meeting and the room number of whichever abandoned classroom they were using, which allowed the group to be fairly secretive about their movements and keep under Umbridge's radar.
Harry, of course, wasn't going. He heard about what they'd been practicing when Hermione and the others thought he might be in a good enough mood to hear it, but otherwise he stayed out of it. He was sick of hearing Hermione apologising every other sentence, frankly.
Anthony and Luna had actually refused to join the group in protest. Harry thought they might be his heroes for it, and told them so.
"As long as we have your lesson plans, Harry, we don't really need the group," Anthony explained. "It'd be nice, you understand, but not necessary. We can practice together."
"We can," Luna agreed. "Though we should be careful to meet irregularly, or Professor Umbridge might find out and set the Ministry heliopaths on us."
Harry nodded and watched absently as Anthony jotted down her words on a bit of parchment, which he stuck in his pocket.
They were actually outside. Harry had discovered a written version of Anthony's personal O.W.L. schedule in the back of one of his books, and was delighted to find that it accounted for a twenty minute study break right before dinner every Tuesday and Thursday. He took shameless advantage and suggested a walk around the lake. Once Anthony had been roped into going, it took very little to convince Luna to join them. On Thursday, he planned to take them to the Quidditch pitch.
"Oh look, the thestrals are out. Has anyone got any raw meat?"
Harry looked where Luna was pointing and saw several of the skeletal horses grazing near the edge of the forest.
It was good to know he wasn't the only one who could see them. Several of his other friends had given him funny looks for mentioning them already.
"Yes, Luna, Harry and I carry raw meat with us at all times," Anthony said with a small smile. "We are prepared for any and every eventuality."
"Speak for yourself," Harry said. "I'm not the one who has a minute to minute daily schedule. I can go to the bathroom at any time, day or night. I don't have to wait until six forty five like some people I know."
"Harry, I told you, it's a shifting schedule," Anthony said patiently. "That's why things move, you see? It just helps to ensure that I use my time efficiently."
He reached into his pocket and pulled out the heavily marked sheet of parchment that comprised his weekly schedule, and the three of them paused near a copse of trees as Anthony demonstrated the malleability of his routine.
"You see, if I find that I need more time to work on Potions on Wednesday, then I can just move some of my Potions time from Thursday, and on Thursday, I'll be sure to complete the unused Transfiguration minutes."
He used his wand to move the little blocks of minutes around on the parchment to demonstrate just that.
"Okay," Harry said, fascinated. He pulled out his wand. "I had actually wondered about that. So, if I take this free time from Monday morning and replace it with... hmm... Wednesday's dinner, and then use that time for Charms, then you and I have enough time on Thursday to have a pickup match!"
Anthony stared at his newly organised schedule. "Harry, I can't eat Wednesday's dinner at seven am on Monday morning."
Harry glanced at Luna, who was examining the schedule as well. "Of course you can't, Anthony," she said, lifting her own wand. "Instead, you move Wednesday's dinner to Tuesday night, and eat both dinners then. You can make inquiries with the house elves. From there, you can use your Monday morning for multiple bathroom breaks, and look! That's another twenty minutes for Harry's quidditch."
Harry and Luna beamed at each other, then at Anthony. He did not share in their amusement. "I deplore you both," he said, poking at his ruined schedule. "You're lucky I have another copy of this."
"About that," Harry said, and pulled from his pocket the copy he had discovered in the back of Anthony's schoolbook. Anthony's eyes went wide, and he reached for it. Harry backed away and grinned at him.
"You don't get enough exercise, Anthony!" Harry said, and began to jog backward away from him and Luna. Anthony followed unwillingly.
"If I run in a few circles, will you give it back?" he asked. Harry feigned a moment of serious thought, and while he wasn't paying attention, Anthony tackled him.
"Hey!" Harry shouted as Anthony plucked the schedule neatly from his hands and settled down comfortably on Harry's upper back to put it away. Luna appeared and sat down in front of Harry's head as he tried unsuccessfully to find the leverage needed to push Anthony off.
"Since when does Anthony tackle people?" Harry asked Luna. He still hadn't quite processed the fact that Anthony was sitting on him. She shrugged.
"We read Machiavelli a few weeks ago," she said, as though that explained everything.
"It was a preemptive strike, Harry," Anthony agreed from where he sat. "One you were woefully underprepared for."
"I'll get you next time," Harry grumbled, settling his chin on his arms and wondering if he could catch Anthony off guard right now. Probably not, since they'd just been talking about being unprepared.
"I'm sure you will, Harry," Luna said. She even patted him on the head.
Harry didn't know how Draco had been doing since they'd last spoken, aside from the little updates that Pansy insisted on dropping into conversation, like 'Draco's been writing to his parents more often than usual', and 'Draco has been looking ill recently.'
So one morning, when Harry finished knotting his tie and turned away from his wardrobe to find Draco standing awkwardly by the door, the first thought he had was that Pansy had been right. Draco wasn't looking well at all. His second thought was less a thought and more of a sinking feeling.
"Can we talk?" Draco asked, shifting to put one shoulder in front of the door. Harry crossed his arms and raised an eyebrow.
"What do we have to talk about?" he asked. Draco cleared his throat.
"I've been thinking about what you said," he began, crossing his arms as well. "And I had an idea."
Harry waited in silence.
"I want you to tell me what I can do to make you less angry with me," Draco continued, looking anywhere but at Harry, which meant that he missed the way Harry frowned at him.
"I'm not angry at you." Draco glanced up and lifted a skeptical eyebrow. Harry rolled his eyes. "Well, yeah, I am. But that's not the problem. I just don't want to be friends anymore, that's all."
Draco's arms dropped to his sides, and his mouth fell open. "Why not? I'll fix it, I promise!"
"How are you supposed to fix it? Your father-"
"Stop bringing up my bloody father!"
"He's half the problem, Draco!" Harry yelled, letting his bag fall next to his feet with a thump. "No, he's the entire problem! I understand that he's your dad, but you can't do the things he wants you to do and still expect me to want to be your friend! He would have killed me if he had the chance!"
"I don't want to join the Dark Lord," Draco said firmly, looking Harry straight in the eye. "I told my father that. I've told him a dozen times already."
"And he keeps asking, doesn't he?"
"And I keep saying no!"
"Must not be a very clear 'no'," Harry pointed out. "If he keeps asking."
Draco opened his mouth, but no sound came out. Eventually he found something to say. "I can't choose between you and my parents. My mother has nothing to do with this."
The miserable expression Draco was wearing finally made Harry relent, just a little. "Then I'm not talking about her," he said. "I'm talking about you expecting us to still be okay when you're siding with people who tried to kill me, Draco."
Draco swallowed. "But I'm not."
"I'd say 'prove it', but I don't know how I'd ask you to," Harry said. He glanced at his watch. "Breakfast is nearly over."
He waited until Draco stepped out of the way to cross to the door and leave. Pansy and Blaise were waiting down in the common room, and when they saw his face, Blaise followed him out into the hall and let him have his silence for the entire walk to Transfiguration.
A/N: Enjoy! Thank you so much for all the reviews! You guys are wonderful people.