It was still only November, but Harry was already looking forward to the winter holidays. He had every intention of getting as far away from Hogwarts as possible, and Sirius and Remus had accommodated his plans by inviting him to spend Christmas with them in Devon.
Until then, Harry did what he could to avoid the giant ball of stress that his friends and classes had become. He spent a lot of time finishing homework on his own, cleaning for Filch, and trying to find that storage room on the seventh floor again, where he'd at least been able to sit down and relax without the glares of half the school on him.
He'd long since finished cleaning up Peeves's mess in the hall that he'd found the room in, across from a tapestry of trolls attempting ballet, but he continued to loiter there sometimes, trying to work out the trick that would let him get in. The Maurader's Map was no help; either they hadn't discovered this room, or they just hadn't felt the need to provide any hints. Harry wasn't asking. He liked the idea of figuring it out on his own.
Though he wasn't a pacer by nature, Harry decided he had to do something to express his annoyance with the process. He'd examined every square inch of the wall in that hallway, and even parts of the floor. He'd asked the trolls, who were very put out when he interrupted their practice. Some of the threatening gestures they'd made would have alarmed Harry had they been actual, full sized trolls.
So Harry paced. He grumbled, too, while he was at it, and even left the corridor entirely, peering out a nearby window. He didn't think any of it would help, honestly, especially not the window. He was just frustrated.
When he came back and the door was there, he brightened and pulled it open. It was the same storage room as before, and Harry grinned stupidly at the piles and piles of stuff until it occurred to him that he still had no idea how he'd made it appear.
"Bugger," he muttered, and went inside anyway.
He poked around for a while, amusing himself by digging through boxes, smirking at old robes and, in the case of one cabinet, shielding his face as an avalanche of old quills showered him like a particularly pointy exploded down pillow.
Harry found a mountain of desks that was nearly as tall as the stacks and stacks of chairs near the door. This was more sturdy, though, and there was an interesting purple something about halfway up the pile, so Harry climbed.
It was a stuffed dragon, old and dusty, with some of the batting poking out. It stared up at him with a woeful expression and flapped its wings pitifully. Harry tried not to appear visibly amused since that seemed rude somehow, but he did cast a charm to fix the hole in its left wing. He'd never seen a wizarding stuffed animal before.
Back down on ground level, Harry wandered through the maze of old, abandoned stuff until he found the door again. He wanted to figure out how he'd managed to find the entrance so that he could come back.
It turned out that the window had nothing to do with getting inside the room, which was a pity, as that seemed like a particularly easy way to go about things. From what Harry could tell, it was actually the pacing that had done it. That and glaring at the space where the door was supposed to be.
The glaring probably wasn't necessary, but Harry didn't know that for sure as he hadn't yet managed to get the door to appear without it. He figured there was nothing wrong with playing it safe.
Now that he knew how to get the door to appear on command, Harry wanted to show someone else. It was a fascinating discovery, after all, and he knew several of his friends would be interested.
Except, he didn't know who to invite.
Hermione was out. She talked about that study group of hers enough that Harry wasn't predisposed to show her the room. She might want the group to meet there, and then Harry would never be able to use it. He'd found it, not them, and they weren't going to oust him.
Speaking with Dudley was either infuriating or depressing, depending on the day, and Harry didn't really want to deal with it right now. The same went for Neville and his intermittent Hermione-induced panic attacks over the O.W.L.'s.
His Slytherin friends were little better. Pansy and Blaise were less likely to garotte each other in the hallway recently, but things were still stilted and awkward there, and Harry didn't want to be seen as choosing sides if he showed one of them and not the other.
Anthony and Luna were still faithfully spending most of their time on homework, but they were at least bearable to be around during their breaks.
In fact, they could probably be convinced to take one soon, if Harry made a sufficiently tempting offer.
Harry set off for the library in a better mood than he'd been in for a few days. When he got there, he deftly avoided the Gryffindor table by taking a detour through the Divination section, which Hermione never bothered to use, and which led right to Anthony and Luna's usual table.
It was shockingly empty. Harry checked his watch, and tried in vain to remember what it was Anthony usually did on Wednesdays at four thirty. He knew it wasn't a study break, but it could very well be Potions or Defense, neither of which he worked on in the library.
"If you're looking for Anthony Goldstein, he's in the common room. I saw him on my way out."
Harry looked up at the voice, which turned out to belong to Padma Patil. He blushed and mentally groped around for something to say.
"T-that's unusual," he said finally, readjusting his bag.
Padma shrugged and stepped around the table, holding a pile of Charms books against her chest.
"He needed to use one of our reference books," she explained. "They're charmed so they can't leave the Tower."
"Oh," Harry said, nodding and mentally berating himself. What kind of response was 'oh'?
Padma didn't seem bothered. "Did you need him for anything in particular?"
"Oh, I, er..." Harry pulled himself together. "I just wanted to show him something interesting I'd found, that's all. Get him out of the library."
"A noble, if foolish pursuit," she said. Harry wasn't sure what to say to that, so he nodded again. He felt like he might be acting like an idiot. "We can go get him, if you like," she offered, and it took Harry a second to realize what she was suggesting.
"Up in Ravenclaw Tower?" he asked. "Yeah, that's- if you don't mind, sure. Thanks!"
Harry waited while Padma checked out her books out and packed up her satchel, and they left the library together. He tried to surreptitiously dry his hands, which were sweaty, and check that his hair wasn't too messy in a window as they passed. It was a lost cause, as usual.
They walked in silence for nearly two floors, until Padma gave Harry a small smile and took pity on him. "Have you started that translation for Babbling, yet?"
"I haven't finished it, if that's what you're asking," Harry said, rubbing the back of his neck. "But I got the first two pages done yesterday."
She waited with raised eyebrows, and Harry shook his head. "It was kind of gruesome, wasn't it?"
Padma gave him an actual smile for that. "It was. Wait until you get to page five. They order the infidels to the breaking wheel."
Harry made a face. "I'm almost afraid to ask."
"You should be." Padma shifted her bag on her shoulder. It was stuffed full of books.
"D'you... do you want me to carry that for you?" Harry asked, gesturing at her bag. Padma looked down at it, then back up at him.
"No, I've got it," she said, and she looked amused. "You're not as evil as everyone says you are, Potter."
"Er, t-thanks," he stuttered.
She watched him for a moment longer. "You're only a little bit evil, I think."
Harry had no idea what to say to that, or the smile that came with it. Fortunately, they reached the entrance to Ravenclaw Tower soon after, and she left him in the hall to go find Anthony.
Harry let out a long breath as he waited. Had that gone well? He hoped it had. What did she mean by 'only a little bit evil'? He'd have to ask someone. Pansy? Hermione? ...Anthony? He was in over his head.
"So what did you want to show me that was important enough to move my study break up to right now, Harry?"
"Quiet, Anthony, we're nearly there."
"Well, you have twelve more minutes."
Harry grabbed Anthony's wrist and picked up the pace. "We had better hurry, then, hadn't we?"
They reached the storage room in record time, and Harry managed to make the door appear with little fuss.
"Now come in here and tell me you're not impressed," Harry said, throwing the door open and standing aside so that Anthony could see.
Anthony tipped his head on one side and stepped inside, gazing around at all the junk that filled the room to the brim.
"Huh," he said, picking up a partially melted shield that looked like it belonged to one of the suits of armour. "Look what you found."
Harry grinned and followed him, pointing out a pile of broken sneakoscopes as they passed. "Isn't this brilliant?"
"Is everything broken in here, do you think?"
"I don't think so," Harry said. "A lot of it just looks like it hasn't been used in a long time."
Anthony frowned over a pile of unidentifiable bits of wood. "Fascinating."
They spent much longer than twelve minutes exploring the storage room, which Harry counted as a victory. Anything he could do to usurp time better spent studying was a success, in his opinion.
Anthony was examining a piece of jewelry with more interest than Harry thought was entirely necessary from a bloke who didn't have a girlfriend when Harry encountered another cabinet, contents of which cascaded down on him with a soft thump.
"Anthony! Come here!"
Anthony took his time in detouring around a statue of an elephant with a tusk missing, and snickered when he finally saw exactly what had come exploding out of the cabinet.
"Do you need help extricating yourself from those socks, Harry?" he asked courteously. Harry kicked through the knee deep pile to open ground and rolled his eyes, pulling one off his shoulder and tossing it in the pile.
"I'm fine, no thanks to you," he said. "How did that many socks fit in such a small cupboard, d'you think?"
"Magic," Anthony suggested. "And anyway, I found something much more interesting: look."
He held up the bit of jewelry he'd been examining earlier. It was old and delicate looking, and Harry didn't see what was so interesting about it.
"Very nice, I guess?" he said, perplexed.
"It looks like..." he paused. "I'd have to do some research. Do you think I can take this?"
"Who would care?" Harry asked, shrugging. "I don't think Filch is actually aware this room exists."
Anthony nodded, head still bent over the jewelry, turning it over and over in his hands. "Good, good. I should get back to the Tower, Harry. It's been over an hour. I'm well behind schedule."
They walked out together. After he'd dropped Anthony off, Harry figured he might as well go down to the library and talk to the Gryffindors if they were there. He had nothing else to do, apart from homework. He needed a break from it for today, though.
Harry snuck up on the Gryffindors, just to see if he could. Dudley and Neville were hard at work, scribbling away at parchment and referencing from the same book occasionally. Hermione's stack of parchment was thicker, as were her books, but she was tapping her quill on the table and looked about ready to pass out.
"A nap sounds good right about now, doesn't it?"
Harry dropped into a seat right next to hers and gave her a quick grin. She blinked at him.
"Who has time for a nap these days?" Dudley grumbled. Harry lifted an eyebrow at Hermione.
She went slightly pink and looked away.
"I have to finish this essay," she said instead, her quill making a steady tap-tap-tap noise on the desk. "And after that, the diagram for Care of Magical Creatures, and after that-"
"A nap to keep you from going insane," Harry said, plucking the quill neatly from her hands. "Or at least a break. Come on, Hermione. Even Anthony isn't as bad as all this. He took an entire hour to relax today."
"I like Harry's idea," Neville said, tossing his quill down and leaning back in his chair. "I can't read another word about Colour Changing Charms."
Dudley glanced up from his own work when Neville threw his quill, and grinned at Harry. "Hello. When did you show up?" he asked. Harry shrugged.
"Just now. I'm instituting a mandatory break."
"What I want to know," Hermione interjected, "Is how you'll get all your homework finished today if you're going around forcing everyone else to take breaks."
"I'm not forcing anyone," Harry said, tilting back in his chair. "Anthony has a schedule. He's very devoted to it. He certainly wouldn't let the likes of me come between them. Which reminds me." He let his chair fall forward and crossed his arms on the table. "What does it mean if a girl tells you you're 'only a little bit evil'?"
Hermione smirked at him and glanced over at Neville and Dudley, who looked intrigued.
"Explain yourself, Harry," Neville demanded. He and Dudley both leaned forward and waited with expectant expressions.
"Padma and I were talking earlier," Harry said, starting to blush as the three of them made various faces. Dudley's waggling eyebrows were what really did it. "Stop that! Like I said, we were talking, and she said I'm not as evil as everyone says I am, and then she said, 'you're only a little bit evil'."
He looked at Hermione, pointedly ignoring the suggestions from the two snickering boys on the other side of the table.
"It means she likes you," Hermione told him. "Good for you, Harry."
"I hoped so." Harry scrunched up his forehead. "But... how does that translate, again?"
Hermione rolled her eyes. "It's flirting. I've seen you do it before, you must know how it works."
Harry's mouth dropped open. "I don't flirt. When do I flirt?"
"I've seen you flirt with Luna," Hermione's expression was far too smug. "And you've flirted with Pansy loads of times."
"Harry Potter, you're a slag!" Dudley exclaimed gleefully. Harry flushed crimson.
"Dudley! Don't just say things like that in the library!" he hissed, looking around to see if anyone had heard.
"Dudley's just feeling a bit punchy because he didn't sleep at all last night, did you Dudley?" Hermione frowned over the table at him, radiating disapproval. "Neither did Neville or Ron."
"Neither did you," Dudley accused. "You were up all night working on tomorrow's meeting."
"I slept," Hermione said primly. "Just not as much as usual. The three of you were up all night for no reason at all."
"We were working on a Divination project," Neville said. Hermione snorted, and he ignored her with dignity. "We were reading the cards and doing our dream diaries."
"You were playing Exploding Snap," Hermione pointed out. "And I'm pretty sure you have to sleep before you can have dreams for your diaries."
While Neville and Hermione bickered good naturedly, Dudley leaned across the table. "I meant to ask, Harry," he said with cheer. "Are you planning to come back home for the winter holiday?"
Harry felt his good mood drain out of him like a plug had been pulled. "Oh," he said. "Well, I was going to visit Sirius and Remus," Dudley waited, eyebrows lifted very slightly and a hopeful expression on his face. "...but I could probably come for the last week or so, if you want."
The words came out of his mouth without his permission, and Harry forced a smile when Dudley grinned at him. "Great! I'll write to mum and dad this week and let them know."
Harry left the library not long after, cursing himself up and down. He couldn't go. But he couldn't not go. What if Aunt Petunia couldn't keep up the act? What if she left again, or worse, what if she let on how she really felt? He couldn't leave Dudley to deal with the fallout on his own. He had to go.
"Our Skiving Snackboxes are nearly ready for mass consumption," Fred declared, whipping a small sheet off a row of neatly organized sweets. Harry peered down at them, curious.
"These are the ones that make you vomit or faint?"
"No, those are the Puking Pastilles," George said, pointing from one sweet to another. "Those are the Fainting Fancies."
"And those are Nosebleed Nougats and Fever Fudge," Fred said, poking his own finger at the two multicoloured candies Harry had been examining. "We've almost got all the kinks worked out of those."
"The Weasley's Wild-Fire Whiz-Bangs and the Portable Swamps are finally finished, though," George said, revealing another row of products on the next desk over with a flourish.
"And our Canary Cremes and Ton Tongue Toffees have been on the market for ages, as well as the fake wands and the the Extendable Ears."
"We're already doing a reasonable amount of business by owl order," George added, handing Harry a stack of parchment filled with numbers and columns. Harry blinked and flipped through it. He didn't quite follow all the columns, but the numbers were fairly large and only one or two of them were in red, so that seemed good. "The only thing holding us back right now is product testing on the Snackboxes."
Harry frowned, leaning back against a desk. "Is it just a slow process, or...?"
The twins exchanged a dark glance. "You could say that," Fred said. "Or you could say your prefect friend is giving us a bit of difficulty."
Harry bit back a smile. "Hermione? I'm surprised I haven't heard about it already, if that's the case. She wasn't pleased when I decided to help the two of you."
"Well, that's your assignment for tonight, boss," George said, waving his hands at Harry. "You've backed our venture, now go do what you need to do to get your investment off the ground."
"She's not going to give in just because I ask her to," Harry pointed out reasonably. The twins rolled their eyes in tandem.
"Go be Slytherin at her or something," Fred said, making shooing motions. "Whatever that means. We won't ask."
Harry very carefully decided not to wonder what they might think that meant. "Look, if you want to convince Hermione to leave you alone, you want to make it seem like everything is by the book."
"We pay them," George pointed out.
"Real galleons and everything," Fred agreed. "How much more 'by the book' does it get?"
"I don't know," Harry said. "Write up some kind of paperwork for them to sign, something you can show her. She'd buy that."
"Maybe a consent form?"
The twins grinned at each other. "And it can have small print-"
"- and subsections-"
"And completely absolve us of any responsibility for any injuries or painful vomiting caused by our products!"
"Brilliant idea, boss!" Fred said with a grin. "We knew there was a reason we brought you on board."
"Aside from all the galleons I gave you?" Harry reminded them. They beamed and patted him on the shoulder, unconcerned.
"That too, of course."
AN: Thank you so much for all the reviews!