"And then Snape showed up, Dumbledore must have called him," Hermione explained to a full library table. Harry sat next to her with his hands over his face and his elbows on the table as she retold the story to their usual group, with Draco, Blaise, Pansy, and even Luna crowded in on extra chairs. "He'd gone and found my Time Turner in Harry's things, we were right."
"Of course you were right," Pansy interjected, her gaze fixed raptly on Hermione as she spoke. "Was that the end of it?"
"Ha," Harry said, and everyone's heads swiveled toward him. "That was the end of the part where I was in danger of being expelled by Umbridge."
"Snape wouldn't let you be expelled," Blaise disagreed, though his wide eyes didn't match the confidence of his words. Around them, the library was packed nearly as full as their table, with students getting in one last day of study before the O.W.L's began in the morning. They kept their voices low so as to avoid being overheard or glared at.
"Well, in the end, no," Harry admitted, feeling relieved all over again even as he said it. He sat up and let his hands drop to the table. "He let me sit there and stew for long enough while he and the Headmaster discussed what my punishment would be, though."
"It was a bit of a tense wait," Hermione agreed. "And they were interrupted by Professor Dumbledore having to firecall the Ministry again, and when he was done with that, he looked even more unhappy. We were worried."
"I was ready to go pack my things," Harry grumbled. "Snape's a git."
"That's what we've been saying since first year," Ron interrupted, sounding unnecessarily pleased.
"Quiet, Weasley, we're listening to a story, here," Draco said, his expression just as intent as Pansy's. Ron rolled his eyes, but still seemed contented with having heard a Slytherin speak less than positively about Snape. Harry resolved to trap Ron in a long conversation about the wonder and austere wisdom of their Head of House when he was in the mood for it again, because he was a good Slytherin. All else aside, Ron looked too smug for his liking.
Draco continued, a note of impatience in his voice. "You clearly haven't been expelled, so what's your punishment?"
"Since it's O.W.L.'s they're putting it off till next year, but I have a month's worth of detentions," Harry explained, and grimaced. "Real detentions, and they said they're going to be with McGonagall, not Filch or Snape."
"Harsh," Blaise said, whistling. "But I guess you did leave a person trapped on the grounds and then blackmail her."
"The only way he could have helped her leave was by telling her secret for her to Dumbledore, and we all knew about that, too," Pansy said, though she must know as well as Harry did that Blaise hadn't meant it seriously. Harry kept silent, feeling obscurely that they were saying this for the Gryffindors' benefit, in case any of them had any doubts. "She made her own choice to stay here. The only thing Harry could be faulted for is the blackmail."
"Oh, that's all, is it," Dudley said, and Harry glanced at him and raised his eyebrows at the small grin he was sporting. "Just saying," he added, his grin growing. "You Slytherins and your priorities."
"She's right, though," Neville agreed. "Skeeter could have confessed to being an unregistered animagus and left at any time. She wasn't any more stuck than she wanted to be."
"Dumbledore knows now, right?" Draco asked, sliding a sly hand across the table toward an unmonitored stack of Hermione's personal revision notes.
"Draco Malfoy, don't think I'm not watching you," Hermione snapped, smacking her hand down over the endangered parchment and giving him a gimlet eye. Draco pulled his hand back, looking more disappointed than chastised.
"He does know," Harry said, shaking his head as Hermione continued to stare and Draco blinked innocently back. "So maybe he'll let her off campus or at least stop her from working with Umbridge."
"Hermione's going to cut your hand off if you keep trying," Neville warned Draco in an undertone. "I've seen that look before."
"I just wanted to glance at them," Draco told Neville and Dudley, his expression inviting sympathy. He looked back to Hermione, whose flat stare remained uncompromising.
"Dumbledore will fix it," Ron said to Harry, as confident in the headmaster as Harry and the other Slytherins ever had been in Snape and ignoring the little drama going on across the table. "You should have just told him from the start."
"Telling the Headmaster wouldn't have stopped her from writing those articles about Harry," Pansy pointed out, rolling her eyes and leaning around Draco to take part in the serious conversation. Ron shrugged, though he frowned as though working out a way he could have done better than they had. Harry welcomed him to try.
"You wanted to steal them," Luna was saying serenely to Draco, sitting on his other side as she was. "I heard you telling Blaise earlier." Blaise sputtered and laughed, lowering his volume when the next table over glanced in their direction.
"I won't be implicated," he told Hermione as she pulled out her wand, catching the attention of the entire table and giving Ron's squinty thoughtful face a break from Slytherin scrutiny. She waved the wand over all three stacks of parchment in front of her and smiled primly at Draco.
"You can 'glance' all you want, but any attempt to take them out of my sight will make them crumble to dust," she warned, pushing the parchments forward and tucking her wand back into her robes. "Also, I'll hex you. We'll see how the proctors for the Charms O.W.L. respect you when you show up tomorrow with Gryffindor red hair."
The four Gryffindors snickered at the identical expressions of outrage on all of the Slytherins' faces.
"You wouldn't!" Draco said, leaning forward and lowering his voice in horror. "You don't understand, I need to do well—"
"And to do that, you don't need to steal from me," Hermione said severely. "We can share, Draco."
"Draco doesn't know how to share," Blaise said, leaning back in his seat and picking up his Charms textbook. "We all had to learn warding spells in first year to stop him from 'borrowing' anything of ours he liked the look of."
"Half my jumpers went missing before I got the spells straight," Harry agreed, his eyes narrowing in a remembrance that wasn't precisely fond. "And if he did return them, they were never undamaged, either. I'd get clothing back ripped or covered in ink stains or scorch marks…"
"That's because your wardrobe was filled with atrocities in first year," Draco explained. "I was helping."
"They were not atrocities—" Harry began, but he was cut off by Dudley of all people.
"Wasn't most of your clothing hand-me-downs from me in first year?" he realized, and Pansy, Blaise and Draco all made similar crowing sounds.
"You wore what even Dudley Dursley wouldn't, and yet you still try to pass them off as anything but atrocities?" Pansy exclaimed, and Dudley sat up a little straighter.
"Hey, that's not—"
"It's not like I had a lot of other options," Harry grumbled, looking around the table for help. Neville took pity.
"I had hand-me-downs from my great uncles, until I convinced Gran to let me buy my own things," he offered. "At least your clothing wasn't a century out of fashion."
"Just three stone," Draco agreed. Dudley scowled.
O.W.L.'s were harrowing. No matter that Harry sat down to his first written exam and realized he knew most of the answers off the top of his head, or that nearly the entire year had been spent in an intense state of revision. No matter that during the tests themselves, Harry forgot to be nervous and just focused on completing the tasks put before him. O.W.L.'s were harrowing because every one of his friends had gone round the twist, and spending more than five minutes near any one of them was next to impossible when the insanity was catching.
"For the last time, Pansy," Draco said, his voice strained and higher pitched than usual. "I do not have your bloody ink bottle, get away from me. I have to finish reading this before three o'clock!"
"Draco," Pansy replied, in the most passive-aggressively library-polite tone Harry had ever heard her use, "If you don't give me back my bloody ink bottle, which I know you have because I saw you take it earlier because I told you it was lucky, I will tell Harry what you told me yesterday."
Draco sneered at her, but Pansy only smirked back, assured of her victory. Harry, already thoroughly sick of the pair of them, sat up in his seat and spoke.
Draco turned to meet his eyes directly and interrupted his question, saying, "If you ask before the Charms practical is over, I will cry, Harry." He handed over the ink bottle and buried his face in his book again, shoulders hunched.
Harry shut his own book with a snap and gathered his things from the table they were all sat at, finished with the pair of them. He'd lasted longer than Blaise, at least. He'd disappeared half an hour earlier after correcting Pansy's pronunciation on a spell and being told in return that he should do something vulgar with the cactus she was trying to charm.
Harry's stormy exit was mildly satisfying, his steps taking him automatically toward Hermione's library table. Before he came around the last shelf of books, he could hear them.
"If you ask Hermione one more question, Dudley—"
"Just because you want to monopolise her time—!"
"I am trying to study, Hermione can—"
"If you wanted to ask me all these questions, you should have come to the meeting on Sunday night, I'm not your private tutor!"
Without breaking stride, Harry turned off in a different direction. Maybe behind his warded bed curtains in his dormitory was a better place to try to finish studying for the Transfigurations exam.
He bumped into Padma as she rushed past with her arms full of books, and she came to an abrupt halt, blinking at him.
"Hi," he said, offering her a small smile. The pin holding her hair away from her face failed its duty as she shook her head rapidly, staring at him.
"Harry, hello, no, there's no time," she explained. Her dark eyes flickered down to his books and parchments, and lit on Hermione's study guide. She stilled. "Is that one of Granger's?"
Harry shifted it so she could see. "Yeah, she's been dead helpful, she made me a copy of her—"
"Harry, there's no time for light conversation," Padma said, her tone almost impatient. Harry blinked and leaned back a little.
"Sorry, I just—"
"No, I know," she said, closing her eyes for a second and shaking her head. "I just… I'm going to fail everything."
"Of course you're not," Harry said, baffled. "You're… you're a Ravenclaw."
"Being a Ravenclaw doesn't mean anything! I need to get all O's," Padma explained, and Harry was overwhelmed by a sense of déjà vu. The strain in her voice and on her face as she spoke was as familiar as her words. "I don't think I can. ...you don't understand, it's very important. Su Li told me boys make you stupid, but I didn't think! And in the last half of my O.W.L. year—!"
"She told you what?" Harry asked, more confused than ever. Padma sighed.
"Look, there's no time," she repeated, fidgeting now. "Did Granger give you a different copy than she gave the study group? It looks thicker."
"Yeah, it's more recently updated, er, annotated, she said." Harry offered it for her inspection, frowning. "Are you okay?"
"Stupid question— oh, sorry," she said, sounding frustrated now, even as she flipped through the study guide. "Look, I'm sorry, I'm not— talk to me again when O.W.L.'s are over, okay? I'm being horrid."
"Okay," Harry said, watching her start to walk away. "Er, actually, I… need that… er, right. Okay."
She had already disappeared around the corner, deeply engrossed in Harry's annotated study guide. Harry stared at the spot where she'd disappeared, all but wringing his hands. Should he go after her? She'd seemed… stressed. It had been alarming. It was possible that she needed the guide more than he did.
Maybe he was being a coward, but he thought he might fare better asking Hermione for another copy.
Two practical and three written tests left, and Harry had discovered an alcove on the third floor that someone had outfitted with a small table and a couple chairs. He very pointedly told no one about it, which naturally meant Draco had followed him there and was sitting across from him, engrossed in his Herbology textbook. He was unbearable to be around lately, panicky and unwilling to allow anyone any advantage on the tests unless he had it too. Harry had extracted a promise that he'd at least study quietly before he showed him where he was headed.
Currently, Draco's chair was tipped back in the small space so that he was balanced on two legs against the wall. Harry, who had come here for a break more than anything else, had gone through the motions of spreading his work out on the table before pulling out the Map instead. Then he stared between the Map and his textbooks and laid his head down on the table, his cheek resting somewhere over the third floor classrooms.
"The Charms practical is over," Harry mentioned. He knew Draco wasn't nearly so worried about Herbology, History of Magic, or Astronomy, which was all they had left.
"Venemous Tentacula can't cross pollinate with Bubotubers, right?" Draco asked, his nose wrinkling. "That would be horrific. Did you do this chapter already?"
Harry didn't bother to lift his head. "They technically could, but not without assistance because the way the Bubotubers pollinate would kill the Tentacula, and the Tentacula wouldn't tolerate the Bubotuber in close proximity. What did you tell Pansy?"
"Only that Sirius said I can stay with you for the summer holiday," Draco said with an air of forced carelessness. "So hypothetically, someone has probably bred a Bubotuber Tentacula? That's disgusting. Do you think it would capture you and cover you with pus?"
Harry jolted and sat up straight, blinking at Draco. "What?"
"You know, Tentacula vines crossed with Bubotuber pustules. It sounds like a nightmare."
"Draco, you know what I meant." Harry stared, but Draco was very pointedly not making eye contact. "When did he say that?"
"He said if you were okay with it," Draco admitted, lifting the deckled edges of his book and letting the pages slide over his thumb with a repetitive shushing sound. "Last week. Since his house is so well warded and, and we're friends, he said it makes sense."
"Oh." Harry let his eyes drop to the table, frowning. The shushing stopped, and Harry could tell that Draco was watching him. The silence stretched as Harry's eyes drifted over the Map. "Oh," he repeated, sitting up straighter. "It's— Draco, look…"
Draco tensed visibly. Harry had said it with the tone of someone ready to embark on a long speech, but Draco caught on once he saw the significant, pointed gaze Harry had directed at him. He tipped his chair back onto four legs and leaned over to look at where Harry's fingers had fallen on the Map.
"Harry," he said, and they looked up at each other, eyes locking.
Harry nodded. "I think we should take a walk and talk this over," he said slowly. Draco swallowed, a flash of worry tilting his eyebrows, but he nodded.
They packed their things and left the alcove in silence, though Harry kept the Map on top of his books, folded open to the area they were in. "Is it... I mean, do you not want me to—" Draco faltered, uncertain despite the subterfuge. Harry kept his head bent, watching the Map.
"It's not that," he said, stopping in the middle of the hallway and looking briefly at Draco, gesturing with his eyes toward the wall at Draco's back. "I mean, I… we've only just started being friends again, and…"
"I understand," Draco said, his shoulders sagging. He turned away, walked a few steps, and paused. "But, Harry, I don't—" Harry watched his wand slide out of his sleeve and into his hand. "Deprehendo," he snapped, pointing it at the spot on the wall where Harry'd spotted the beetle.
"Of course you can stay at Sirius's house over the summer," Harry said in a rush, rubbing the back of his neck as he stepped forward and peered at the insect Draco had captured. "It'd be… fine. I'm almost positive."
"I understand there're a couple other locations all connected up by private floo," Draco commented, still watching Harry narrowly. "If it doesn't end up being fine, I can always go to those."
"Of of those is the Burrow," Harry said, grinning in spite of himself as he bent his head to examine the beetle they'd captured. "As in, the Weasley's house."
Draco's nose wrinkled. "Oh. Well, never mind, then." He lifted his wand, bringing the beetle up to eye level. "I do hope this is her. Otherwise, we've rather given the game away."
"No, I think it's really her," Harry said, pushing his glasses up his nose and peering at the struggling beetle from two inches away. "Look at the markings."
Draco tilted his head and stared critically. He conjured a glass jar and put her inside, punching holes in the lid and sealing it tightly. "One way to find out. Let's go."
They set off down the hall, Harry watching the Map as they went. "It's her," he concluded, after they'd gone three floors and the tiny dot labeled 'Rita Skeeter' had remained with them. "Brilliant. What do we do with her, now?" Draco stopped in his tracks.
"We have another O.W.L. in a couple hours," he reminded Harry, shaking his head. "I'm glad we found her, but I don't have time to hold reporters hostage, not during the O.W.L.'s."
"And the Gryffindors think our priorities are skewed," Harry said, taking the jar and peering inside, one corner of his mouth curled up. "You're right, and I'm not making the same mistake twice. We'll bring her to Snape."
Draco looked relieved and turned his steps toward the dungeons. "Yes. Snape can deal with her."
Snape answered the door looking irritated, and his scowl remained as he ushered them inside and lifted an expectant eyebrow.
"If you've come here for something unrelated to O.W.L.'s, I will be severely disappointed," he informed them. "The Headmaster has taken leave of the castle for the week to deal with that Time Turner business—" Harry flushed and looked down. "—and I am quite busy as a result."
"It's about that, kind of," Draco said when Harry didn't immediately leap to explain. He offered the jar to Snape. "We've found Skeeter."
Snape stared at the jar in Draco's hand, and closed his eyes for a long, silent moment. "If the two of you manage to graduate without having seen the inside of a Ministry holding cell, you will count yourselves lucky, is that understood?"
"Yes sir," Harry said, but Draco persevered.
"What else were we supposed to do, let her roam the castle when we knew where she was? Can't you just obliviate her?"
"Mister Malfoy, you may no longer inherit the Malfoy fortune, but you were still raised better than that," Snape snapped. "Obliviation as an answer to all life's challenges is the recourse of the foolish and the wicked, of which you should be neither. It is a delicate and dangerous process and you will not attempt it without proper training, do you understand?"
"Yes sir," Draco said, lowering his eyes.
"You were right to bring her to me," Snape relented, examining the jar and casting several spells in succession. The beetle glowed blue. "I will handle the situation from here."
"What are you going to do with her?" Harry asked, watching the beetle scrabble frantically around inside the jar. Snape watched as well, his eyes narrowed in contemplation.
"That," he said as the beetle tried to climb the walls of the jar and slid back down to the bottom, "Is none of your concern, Mister Potter. Your O.W.L.'s await. Off with you both."
The very last O.W.L. was the Astronomy practical, at midnight. The night was clear and silent as they filled out their star charts. Harry could hear Draco muttering under his breath at the next telescope as he filled in names and coordinates with the elegant loops and whorls that constituted his handwriting and made the rest of them tease him that even his quill drawled. Blaise glanced away from his own telescope on Harry's other side and smirked when he spotted Harry looking around absently.
Harry gave him a small smile in return and went back to labeling Venus. The exam proctor passed behind him, pacing slowly around the tower.
The utter stillness and calm meant that Harry heard the knocking sound, and not two minutes later the distant sound of glass shattering made every single student look up, startled.
"Ahem - Twenty minutes to go," the proctor said, though when Harry glanced at him, he saw that even Professor Tofty was peering distractedly out over the grounds. People were at Hagrid's house, and as Harry watched, Hagrid came jogging out of the forest toward them, shouting.
They turned on him, and the shortest figure declared, "Rubeus Hagrid, you will come with us."
"Wha's this about?" Hagrid asked, his voice carrying loud and clear through the night. "I've not done anythin'!"
"I believe that will be for the Wizengamot to decide," Umbridge replied. Hooded robes or not, there was no question it was her.
Things degenerated quickly after that.
A/N: I got a promotion at work! Unfortunately that means 12 hour shifts and a complete change in my sleep schedule, so I've been exhausted. Sorry for the long wait! I'm settling in better now so expect me to get a little better about updating. Also, I don't know how many of you also read the Handbook, but I posted a small side story from Dobby's perspective, if you want to take a look!