Battles and Bake Sales
It was the Marauders who approached the Ministry with the new information about the Esinquma Nge Ithambo. They had, after all, been 'brought back from the dead to help with the war'. According to James, who stopped by to pass on the news to Harry, the discovery of the identity of the creatures had cemented the 'truth' of their return in even the most doubting of minds.
Specialists in South African mythology were shipped in and every spare hand was working towards a solution to defeating the Nge Ithambo.
"They sort of want us to help," James told Harry during a floo call a week into the summer term. "but at the same time they don't want people to think they're incompetent without us. Their solution was to offer us all a job."
Harry blinked. "As what? An Auror?"
"As anything we like, basically," James said wryly. "As long as we're under the Ministry's umbrella of control."
"I take it you said no?"
"Yes and no. It will be good to be working and getting paid for it, but we agreed to come on as freelancers. That way they have less control over us."
"So, what are you working on now?"
"Well, firstly we need to check that the snake-venom thing actually works. That means finding a Getambo to practice on."
"A what now?" Harry prodded the fire with a poker, wondering if the spluttering flames had distorted his father's voice.
"You know – the skeleton things. We're all rather struggling to pronounce the proper name so we're calling them Getambos, which is close enough. Stop doing that! That poker nearly went up my nostril."
"Sorry." Harry put the poker aside and picked a skewer onto which he jammed a marshmallow from a jar on the mantlepiece. "So when you know it works, then what? Marshmallow?"
"No. And stop using my face to roast your marshmallows - it's not polite. Anyway, at that point it's a case of sourcing enough of the right kind of snake venom to arm everyone, working out how much it's safe to dilute it before it becomes ineffective and then find a way to distribute it from a distance. Maybe some sort of altered aguammenti charm, maybe? But that's going to be very complicated to devise."
"Sounds like you've got weeks of fun ahead of you." Lifting the marshmallow away, Harry tested it, frowned and put it back in the fire. It bumped against James's cheek.
"Ergh! That's it – I'm going."
"Have fun with your snake venom." Harry gave his father a merry wave.
As the term wore on, Harry became more and more used to living alone in his head again. It was a strange feeling and one that, now he thought about it, he had never really experienced before. Almost as soon as Voldemort's piece of soul had been torn from him, it had been replaced by the Marauders. This was the first time since he was a year old that he had literally just been himself.
Spring wore on towards summer. Tender new leaf-buds on the trees surged into lush green foliage. The springtime daffodils, bluebells and crocuses were replaced by daisies, dandelions and buttercups which created splashes of colour in the lawns surrounding the castle. Heather and gorse sprang into bloom high on the distant mountains and new fruit grew fragrant and plump on the Dirigible plum tree that crawled up the side of Greenhouse Three.
Harry's family floo'd him regularly, but visited rarely, kept busy by the Ministry and Crouch's followers. The Aurors finally managed to capture a couple of Getambos and worked towards finding the most effective dilution of snake venom to defeat them. The captures had not been without losses, and a department of St Mungo's was working towards healing those who had been infected with the venom, but not completely changed. The horrific thought that the creatures they had captured and were now using to experiment on used to be human beings made the issue difficult, heart-breaking and thorny.
While the Auror department were working themselves ragged, Kingsley increased pressure on Wizengamot to release the Slytherins in Ministry holding cells, but had not experienced much luck so far. Until the Ministry had some more concrete tactic for working against Crouch and his following to present to the general population, the captured Slytherins were all they had. Harry was beginning to grow concerned about how much Polyjuice potion the Malfoy house elves had left to keep themselves disguised as Draco and Narcissa.
His own attention, however, was caught up trying to juggle his teaching and the impending bake sale. The event had grown out of all proportion. Students were being given half a day off to browse the Slytherins' stalls, take part in the raffles and tombolas and judge the cakes. Parents and other family members were being invited to admire their hard work. Harry had a number of meetings with the Muggle Studies teacher, Professor Ogborm, to work out the criteria for marking the Slytherins on their final projects.
The day of the bake sale arrived and Harry was buzzing with nerves. It was an overcast morning punctuated with showers of rain, but the air was warm and full of anticipation. Harry woke to the sight of Draco carefully styling his pale hair in front of the mirror.
"I don't know why you bother," he yawned, sitting up in bed and stretching. "You're going to be spending all day as a ferret anyway."
"The day I allow myself to leave my bedroom with my hair resembling the chaotic bird's nest that yours does every day, is the day I give up all sense of dignity and self," Draco said, rather unkindly. "Regardless of the form I am in at that time."
"It's so pleasant to share morning conversations with you," Harry rolled his eyes and he hefted himself out of bed and made his way through to the living room where he was pleased to see the house elves had set out a breakfast spread at his request. Students were also eating in their common rooms this morning so that the Great Hall could be set up for the bake sale, and it was nice to have a slower, student-free morning for a change.
As usual, the house elves had completely over-catered. Harry piled his plate high with sausages, bacon, toast, eggs and baked beans, then settled down to tuck in. Draco made a face when he wandered out of the bedroom and spotted Harry's breakfast.
"I don't know how you can eat so much stodge this early in the morning," he complained, serving himself a bit of porridge.
"I'll need my strength to get through this day," Harry said, his mouth full. "I have to make nice with loads of new people, including all the Slytherin parents and grandparents. I'm pretty sure some of them may have made spirited attempts to kill me in the past."
"Well, you nearly killed me once," Draco pointed out, "and now we're friends. Also, don't talk with your mouth full. It's gross."
For some reason, Draco calling them friends made a huge beaming smile form on Harry's face that he was completely unable to keep in check. "We are friends, aren't we?"
"Great Merlin, don't let it go to your head, Potter. It's not like you've won a particularly great prize."
"Well, I think I have."
Draco blinked and Harry could see him struggling to stop his mouth from quirking up at the corners. "Shut up and eat your stodge, you great, gormless Gryffindork."
By the time they got down to the Great Hall, it was already looking completely transformed. The House tables had been shunted to the edges of the hall leaving a vast space in the centre perfect for the mingling crowds. The tables had been covered in emerald green tablecloths and divided up into year groups. The first and second years shared the Gryffindor table, the third and fourth years the Hufflepuff table, the fifth years the Ravenclaw table and the sixth years the Slytherin table.
Slytherin students bustled around the tables, setting up their cakes, biscuits and pastries on silver platters and adding decoration and pricing. Price tags varied from discrete standing cards with elegant script reading 'rock cakes – 5 knuts each' to vast unwieldy posters in badly composed bubble writing proclaiming that you could 'BUY 3 CHOCOLATE BROWNIES GET 1 FREE'. Most students were chattering happily, although there were a few tears shed over smeared icing and burnt cherry bakewells.
The long staff table set up on the platform at the end of the hall had been covered in a shimmering silver tablecloth and displayed the raffle prizes – a vast array of impressive goods that had been donated by various sources ranging from hampers of Honeydukes' sweets and six-packs of butterbeer donated by the shop and pub in Hogsmeade, to beautiful colour-changing scarves ('a print to match any outfit!') and a tiny moving model of the solar system that Harry could remember coveting when Professor Trelawney has used one in her Divination lessons in his fourth year.
Streamers and banners in Slytherin colours draped the walls and ceiling of the Great Hall, bright and elegant against the iron grey sky reflected overhead. Harry felt a swelling of pride in his chest as he surveyed the scene. These Slytherins had worked very hard and he hoped this was the beginning of a change in how people viewed them.
Once everything had been set up, the Slytherins were encouraged to pose for photographs which would be sent to the Quibbler and Daily Prophet. There was no point going to all this effort if the world didn't hear about it.
And then – the time arrived. The great doors to the Hall were opened and people poured in. It started with students from other houses. Harry was aware that a fair few of them had planned to boycott the event 'out of principle', but there was only so much boycotting that a teenager can be persuaded to stick to before the lure of cakes, pies, pasties and fragrant buns won out.
A trickle of sickles and knuts changes hands at first – mostly between lower year Slytherins and Ravenclaws who generally had the least rivalry. Then it spread to the upper years and the Hufflepuffs started joining in. Eventually it became a stream. The noise level rose and green, blue, yellow and red mingled as students from all houses jostled at the tables, bargaining for the best deals and stuffing their faces. Teachers moved through the crowds, breaking up some of the more heated bargaining and generally aiming to keep a sense of order.
And then the families started arriving. Parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents…the families of the Hogwarts students had been invited to attend, but Harry had never imagined the sheer number of crowds that started to make their way through the doors. He couldn't wait for his own family to arrive, although he knew they weren't due for a few hours.
Thankfully, Harry had been of the opinion that over catering was better than under catering, and he had encouraged the Slytherin students to bake and bake way more than they thought they would need over the last few weeks. Finished products had been stored under stasis charms in a couple of the giant storerooms, off the Hogwarts kitchens and as plates cleared, they were magically replenished again from these stocks.
As Harry moved through the crowds, he couldn't help grinning. People were chattering to one another, trying each other's cakes, waving excitedly to acquaintances they had not seen for a long time. He glimpsed Professor Sprout neatly breaking up a brewing altercation between who older men, who were clearly long standing rivals from their Hogwarts years, by letting loose a basket full of flying fairy cakes in their vicinity. As Harry watched two men yelping in surprise and ducking, it struck him how stupid it was. It was impossible, now, to tell what Houses they had been in at school, and yet the rivalry had lasted through the years. Was this what he, Ron and his fellow Gryffindors looked like when they kept up their rivalry with their old classmates. It seemed so childish.
His eyes automatically scanned for Ron and he spotted his friend chatting to Hermione as she manned the entrance to the Hall. There was someone else standing with them and Harry felt his heart jump nervously when he realised it was Ginny.
Ron had informed him that he would be inviting his family, and Harry hadn't been quite sure what to feel about it. When Harry had informed Ginny, as gently as he could, that he couldn't get back together with her after the war, he couldn't exactly say she took it well. She didn't take it badly, really. The conversation had just made her look sunk inward and resigned and horrifyingly unsurprised. It was not a good look for Ginny, who was a person better designed to be sporting expressions of defiance or sharp wit or fiery anger.
No one in the Weasley family had seemed particularly angry, or even surprised. Just disappointed which was so much worse. So he had stopped going to the Burrow so often. Stopped seeing Ginny, or Mr and Mrs Weasley, or any of the others apart from Ron and sometimes George. He had spent more and more time with Hagrid, until the giant man had left for a couple of years to Beauxbatons Academy to help Madame Maxime set up a better communication system between the school and the growing community of giants who had been setting up colonies in the French Alps since the end of the war.
That was when he had just stopped really seeing people at all and holed up in Grimmauld Place with Kreacher. And then his family had started making themselves known in his head and the rest, as they say, was history. Now he had a houseful of Slytherins, a shiny new un-deceased family, and an entire Hogwarts House to keep him busy. A conversation with his ex-girlfriend shouldn't make him feel this level of awkwardness and guilt.
Harry made a decision. He straightened his shoulders, took a fortifying breath and marched across the floor to where his friends were standing.
"Harry!" Ginny smiled when she saw him. Her red hair had been cut shorter than he had seen it before and yanked back into a ponytail that stood out from the back of her head like the fiery tail of a rocket. She didn't look like the hunched, unhappy person he had last seen nearly two years ago and Harry felt a weight lifting from him that he hadn't been aware was still there. "Well, look at you being all professor-y. I wouldn't have believed it if I couldn't see it."
"Of course I am." She looked strong and healthy and radiant. "Guess what?"
"She's been offered Chaser with the Hollyhead Harpies!" Ron burst out.
"Ron!" Ginny slapped him.
"What? You were taking too long."
"That's amazing, Ginny!" Harry said, ignoring the tiny twinge deep in his belly when he considered what his own life would have been like if he had chosen to pursue professional Quidditch. "I knew you had it in you."
She eyed him up and down. "You look well. Positively glowing, in fact." She raised an eyebrow. "Whose the lucky lady?"
It should have been awful and awkward, but she winked in such a dreadful, lecherous way that for some reason Harry found himself bursting out laughing and suddenly he thought to himself, she's fine. I'm fine. I genuinely like her. Not like her, just like her. I think we could be friends.
"Oh, this is all down to hard work, fear, excessive amounts of stress, and a liberal sprinkling of what-the-hell-am-I-doing?" Harry informed her.
"Same old, same old, then eh?"
He laughed. "Pretty much routine for – " he broke off.
It was the chill that gave him the first hint that something was wrong. The tiny hairs on the back of his neck stood up on end and shiver ran through him that was part physical, part-psychological. He blinked, taken aback by it on this warm day. A white streak rocketed across the floor and Draco clawed his way up Harry's robes, chittering and hissing urgently into his ear.
"I don't speak ferret," he muttered. "What is it?"
Then the enchanted sky darkened and the chill washed over the hall again; a chill that was utterly unmistakable. Horrified, Harry swung round to look out the darkening windows and saw a swarming mass of black-robed figures silhouetted against the sky. He felt Draco cower into the curve of his neck.
"Dementors…" Ron gaped. "How…there are wards aren't there?"
"Dumbledore took them down in our third year," Hermione said grimly. "I wonder if anyone ever put them back up? They were under Ministry control at tha… Expecto Patronum!" She had aimed her wand over Ginny's shoulder and Harry spun to look out the main doors to the Great Hall. His breath was icy and visible in the air as he saw half a dozen dementors glide into the front entrance hall outside.
"The students! Quick! Expecto Patronum!" Prongs burst from Harry's wand and joined Hermione's otter in the entrance hall, charging down the dementors as they entered through the main doors. Other silvery creatures streamed through the entrance from the Great Hall to join them. For a moment it seemed there may be enough of them to ward the creatures off, but the sound of shattering glass behind them made Harry spin in the doorway to stare back into the Great Hall.
The huge stained glass window at the end of the Hall had shattered and a mass of Dementors poured through the hole.
"Can you hold these doors?" Harry asked the others. Ginny, Ron and Hermione nodded and kept their attention focussed on the outer hallway. Harry hurried back inside, casting the sonorous charm on himself as he went. The Hall was in chaos. A fair number of silvery Patroni were already trotting, flying and soaring through the crowd, but everyone was hindered by running feet, screaming, crying and panic-stricken shouting. Black figures soared above the crowd, only just kept at bay by the Patroni, but more were still entering the Hall through the shattered window.
"Sixth and seventh years!" he bellowed, his voice echoing over the din. "Turn the House tables on their sides, form a circle in the middle and get the kids behind them! Anyone who can't cast a Patronus, join the lower years behind the tables! Anyone who can – guard duty!"
He saw Professor McGonagall point her wand at the staff table, using a spell to heave the massive thing onto its side, scattering the raffle prizes into the trampling feet of the crowd. "Save the chocolate!" he heard her yell to a few older witches and wizards as she motioned the nearest children behind the table. It was a good point that he may not have thought of, but it was true that the shock of dementors could sometimes be so bad it caused heart failure. Chocolate was the best cure.
He had fought hard to have the Patronus charm included in the curriculum for both sixth and seventh year Defense against the Dark Arts. The education board had argued that it was too difficult for most students, but Harry had prevailed. He was unspeakably glad of his general stubbornness in this moment. It was true that not every student had mastered the charm, but enough of them had that they really made a difference here.
"Remember the wand movement!" he shouted, voice magically magnified. "Happy thoughts!"
And even in this moment – possibly one of the most awful moments he could possibly imagine – Harry saw it. What he had been fighting for all year. Students of all the Houses hurried to obey him. Three students – two fifth year Hufflepuffs and a sixth year Ravenclaw – managed to heave over the Ravenclaw table and ushered children and other vulnerable people behind it. A crash from the other side of the hall indicated another table going over, and he saw a seventh year Slytherin's hawk Patronus attack a Dementor headed for a Gryffindor boy who was distracted hauling an old lady behind it.
Gradually the Hall became more ordered, the vulnerable crouching in the protective circle of overturned tables in the middle of the hall, while those able to fight stood guard against them.
He saw McGonagall raise her hand and direct her Patronus out of the window, and was utterly bemused, until he realised she was probably sending for help from the Ministry. The Aurors would not be able to Apparate directly onto the grounds, though, so they would be some time coming.
A Dementor spotted that Professor McGonagall was unprotected and swooped towards her, but an aging wizard with one hand on his walking stick sent a silvery snake to wrap itself around the Dementor's shoulders causing it to writhe in agony.
Draco chittered in Harry's ear, but Harry's attention was directed away from him. How could they buy time until the Aurors got here?
A silver hare burst into his line of sight, followed by Luna who smiled at him. "Oh, hello Harry," she said, as though happening on him during a stroll in the park.
"I was thinking about portkeys," she said conversationally, as her hare ran down a couple of new Dementors who swooped in through the window.
Harry stared at her. Then realisation dawned.
"Sonorus," he muttered, pointing his wand at his own neck, then, "Anyone who can cast a portkey, head to the centre, make one, and start getting the vulnerable out of here!" His magnified voice echoed over the din. He knew it took some time and a great deal of training and skill to create a portkey so it would be important to buy time. He saw only a couple of people hurrying over the circle of upturned tables – Professor Sprout, a young woman who looked like she could only just have graduated from Hogwarts herself, and a dark-haired wizard that Harry recognised as the father of one of his third year students.
"Harry!" Harry swung towards the door and saw a wave of new Dementors beginning to overwhelm Ron, Hermione, Ginny, Luna and the few others at the main doors. He hurried over, Prongs in front of him. There were so many of them. He saw the silvery shapes flickering weakly against the sheer number. Everyone was getting tired and the Patronus charm took a lot of energy. Hermione's otter flickered out and he saw her eyes widen as a Dementor leaned over her. It was thrust aside by a rather transparent terrier, but that left Ron open until Ginny's horse ploughed into the approaching mass. The air in the hallway beyond them darkened and even the horse began to waver. The hare, pigeon, cat and squirrel who had been helping them also began to dissipate.
Prongs burst through and cantered up and down between the sagging witches and wizards and the wall of Dementors. The pressure was incredible. Harry could feel them beating against his magic and his will as he struggled to hold Prongs in place.
"Get back, get back!" he yelled and the others in the doorway scrambled back, trying to cast Patroni again, but only managing small wisps.
Prongs shook his huge head, as though trying to clear it. His form shimmered.
The Patronus steadied again, but another wave of cold pushed through. Harry shook, wand out, standing between his friends and the door. Another wave. Prongs shimmered and flickered out and the Dementors lurched forward.
There was a scrabble of claws on his shoulder and Draco leapt. In mid-air, his shape blurred from ferret to human and he landed in a tangle of limbs in front of Harry. He heard a shriek of shock from behind him, but he barely had time to register that Draco had finally managed the animagus transformation on his own, before his wand was snatched out of his hand and Draco had pointed it at the approaching mass.
It was a fairly good Patronus – bright and strong, although oddly blurred in form so that Harry couldn't quite make it out. but even as it was joined by a couple of others from people behind them in the hall, it struggled against the onslaught.
Harry would admit that, even though their relationship had changed so much, he would never have dreamed he'd see this. Draco Malfoy, of all people, poised in front of him, facing an onslaught of Dementors with a bravery that would have made a Gryffindor proud. And it was bravery. Harry could see how terrified he was. And he was still there – standing between Harry and certain soul-sucking. Harry felt his heart squeezing in his chest and bubbling over with affection.
The blurred creature flickered and went out, but it had given Harry just enough time for a bit of recovery and he lurched forward, grabbed the wand from Draco's hand and shoved the young man behind him. "Expecto Patronum!"
But it wasn't Prongs. The thing that burst from his wand started out as big and antlered, but then seemed to shrink and compress and brighten until a tiny, gleaming, iridescently silver ferret crouched and bared its teeth at the line of Dementors. Harry didn't think he had ever cast anything this bright. It was almost too bright to look at. And bizarrely, it made the line of Dementors hesitate.
It was Harry's own shock that was his undoing. His brain overloaded and he lost concentration on the spell. He was too close to avoid the lead Dementor who seized him and dragged him towards it. His brain was overtaken with cold. Image after image – of death and pain, of blood and horror, Fred, Dumbledore, Snape, Cedric, Tonks, Wormtail, The Battle of Hogwarts – poured through his mind. He couldn't tell if the screaming was from inside his head or outside it. The hooded head bent towards his gasping mouth and sucking, rotten lips locked in a circle around the edges of his own mouth.
An image of Draco, as a young teenager, crying in the bathroom. Harry's own spell slicing into him. The blood. So much blood. Draco. Damn Draco and his stupid new bravery. Someone needed to watch out for him. He couldn't even cast a clear Dementor. And Teddy – he couldn't let Teddy lose his godfather. He couldn't let that happen to another Marauder child. And his family. His shiny new family. He wasn't ready to go.
Even as the Dementor sucked in, Harry screamed the words directly into its mouth. He had dropped his wand, but it didn't matter. He actually felt his Patronus leave his mouth in a stream that tasted of heat and ice and liquid metal.
It wasn't his soul the Dementor sucked into itself, it was Harry's Patronus.
There were a few of the longest seconds of Harry's life, and then…
Suddenly he was staggering back and bits of greying Dementor flesh and robe rained down around him. The thing had exploded. And suddenly it became so clear – Crouch and how he was controlling the Dementors. How they had come to fear him. He knew. He knew. No one had every figured out how to kill the creatures before.
"Harry!" People were crowding around him and Harry grasped around blindly and snatched someone's wand from their hand. His eyes were still fuzzy, but he cast sonorus on his throat.
"Cast the Patronus charm directly into their mouths!" he yelled. "It kills them!" His voice echoed out over the Hall and everyone heard.
There was the tiniest of pauses in the battle. And then the tides turned.